Iran Complicit in Syrian Chemical Attacks, War Crimes

With the Syrian civil war–a conflict in which nearly 500,000 people have been killed and over 12 million have been displaced—entering its eighth year, the Assad regime’s Iranian-backed brutality shows no signs of abating. The Islamic State has been largely uprooted in Syria, and Assad and his allies have resumed focus on reconquering and consolidating their control over lost territory. Priority one has been Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb which is the last rebel-held enclave in the capital region.    

Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Assad regime since 2013, and in the last month especially, Syrian forces backed by Russian air power have intensified their campaign against the district. The relentless onslaught has precipitated a humanitarian crisis trapping roughly 400,000 civilians, nearly one third of whom are under age 18. The Syrian government claims to be doing everything in its power to protect civilians, a claim which was derided as “frankly ridiculous” by U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, who went on to characterize the Syrian assault as “indiscriminate, brutal attacks.”

International efforts to pacify the situation have proven fruitless due in part to Iranian intransigence. The U.N. Security Council passed a nationwide ceasefire resolution on February 24, but Iranian general Mohammed Baqeri declared that “parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up (operations) will continue there.” The Assad regime and its allies euphemistically refer to any opposition groups to Assad as “terrorists,” providing a flimsy pretext for carrying on the Eastern Ghouta assault. Fighting has thus continued in defiance of the international community, with 100 killed on March 5th alone. Around 800 civilians have been killed since the Syrian offensive began on February 18.

The Trump administration has rightly cast blame on Assad’s Russian and Iranian benefactors for their role in the ongoing carnage in Eastern Ghouta, issuing a statement that “The United States condemns the ongoing military offensive that the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is perpetrating against the people of Eastern Ghouta.” The ongoing carnage highlights the need to hold the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other Iranian entities facilitating Syrian war crimes accountable.

One such mechanism is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Economic Exclusion Act (H.R. 5132), newly introduced legislation by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY). This bill strengthens sanctions against the IRGC by giving the executive branch authority to designate entities that are less than 50% owned by the IRGC. It also increases reporting requirements, mandating the administration to report on any Iranian entities of which there is a reasonable basis to determine the IRGC owns at least 33 percent and requiring the president to determine if key Iranian companies and financial institutions are owned or controlled by the IRGC or facilitate transactions on its behalf. Given the IRGC’s pervasive and opaque involvement in the Iranian economy, passage of this bill would significantly raise the stakes for businesses seeking to enter the Iranian market.

Companies seeking opportunities for trade or investment in Iran face numerous legal, reputational, and political risks. The recent experience of a German manufacturer, the Krempel Group, which saw technology it sold to Iranian partners used in Syrian chemical attacks, provides a clear illustration of the nightmare scenario companies are potentially setting themselves up for by conducting business in Iran. Krempel sold its “Pressspan PSP-3040,” a material usually installed for insulation in electric motors to two Iranian business partners, Reza Moghaddam Panah and Mahmood Hasan Darvish Commerce. The pressboard material was misappropriated for military purposes and built into IRGC rockets, which were subsequently transferred to the Assad regime and used in chlorine attacks in Eastern Ghouta on January 22 and February 1. The Krempel company logo and “Made in Germany” product signature were discovered among the remnants of the rocket attacks, which poisoned dozens including children.

While the Krempel Group acted lawfully and obtained proper export licenses to supply its pressboards to Iran, its technology was ultimately used in the commission of Syrian war crimes, delivering a reputational black eye to the company and exposing it to legal risk and potential liability. Iran’s role in Syrian war crimes should give all businesses—especially those whose products may have dual military uses—pause before entering the Iranian market.

The Trump administration should move to designate Reza Moghaddam Panah and Mahmood Hasan Darvish Commerce immediately, as well as any other Iranian entities found to have involvement in the supply chain of the rockets to the Assad regime, for their role in the January 22 and February 1 chlorine attacks. Congress should move to swiftly pass the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Economic Exclusion Act in order to dry up the IRGC’s sources of outside funding, disrupting their ability to facilitate war crimes in Syria and throughout the greater Middle East.

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).