Protests in Iran have steadily intensified in the two months since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died of injuries inflicted by the morality police for wearing an ‘inappropriate’ headscarf. Now matters are reaching a critical stage with security forces deploying heavy weapons and helicopters. According to the UN, some 40 people have been killed in the last week alone. Now there are a rash of allegations that the security forces are using nerve gas against their own people.
The claims originated in social media and have been copied many times. They show videos of what looks like green smoke drifting towards protesters in the Kurdish region of Javanroud, or pictures of munitions. Viral posts describe these as crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, and call on the world for help.
Iranians have bad memories of nerve agents. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, Saddam Hussein’s regime forces attempted to offset their enemy’s superiority in manpower by using chemical weapons, publicly warning Iran that “for every harmful insect there is an insecticide capable of annihilating it whatever their number and Iraq possess[es] this annihilation insecticide.” When Iranian forces took the town of Halabja in 1988, the Iraqis bombed it with a mix of mustard gas and nerve agents, killing over 3,000 people.
However, this case is very different. Dan Kaszeta, chemical weapons expert and Associate Fellow at UK defence thinktank RUSI, has been bombarded with requests from Iran to help identify the mystery ‘nerve agents’ involved. To him it is quite obvious that there are none.
“The key thing is that there’s zero evidence of ‘nerve agents’ in these recent incidents,” Kaszeta told Forbes. “All the visuals are easily attributable to known smoke ordnance and riot control munitions.”
There is no green nerve gas (it is generally invisible). Kaszeta says the videos show green military signaling smoke. He also points to one tweet claiming to show a ‘banned chemical weapon’ with a cartridge which is clearly labelled as CS gas, a riot control agent internationally permitted for police use.
“It’s literally ‘look! It’s an elephant!’ when it’s clearly and obviously a cow sort of scenario,” says Kaszeta.
Kaszeta says that while the regime are using CS gas (technically a chemical weapon which is not permitted in war) and green smoke to disperse protests, but these have nothing to do with nerve agents.
“Green HC smoke grenades are smelly and unpleasant but are largely a theatrical ploy to cause panic,” says Kaszeta.
Some of the tweets discuss the chemical composition of the green smoke, which is produced by standard military colored smoke grenades, used for example to mark a helicopter landing spot so it can be seen from the air. Some green smoke grenades are even marketed for crowd control. The smoke contains hexachloroethane (HC), which can be toxic but cannot be described as a nerve agent.
“The medical attention for this green smoke is largely ‘move the person to clean air and they will get better on their own,’” Kaszeta notes in a tweet, adding “People in severe respiratory distress might benefit from oxygen.”
In fact, the medical side is one of the aspects about the misinformation that most concerns Kaszeta. Nerve agents are typically treated with atropine, which is itself highly toxic but can save the life of someone with nerve poisoning. Giving atropine to someone who has not been exposed to a nerve agent could be fatal.
“It’s going to get someone killed,” says Kaszeta.
This is not his only concern. Another is that exaggerations harm the cause; making demonstrably false claims about the regime’s actions is likely to cast doubt on other valid claims. In a situation where the security forces have already killed so many people, nobody should be giving the regime a let out.
Another problem is that the more false claims are circulated, the harder it is for analysts like Kaszeta to identify genuine incidents. This makes it harder to police nonproliferation and ensure that international agreements on chemical weapons are being adhered to.
This situation in Iran is serious and people are dying. But allegations about nerve agents are simply a distraction from more important issues and, as Kaszeta puts it, “fairly misguided.”