The roots of Iran's nuclear ambitions wind through this mountaintop town of pine trees and streams along the Iraqi border. Here, on a crystal-clear...

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The roots of Iran’s nuclear ambitions wind through this mountaintop town of pine trees and streams along the Iraqi border. Here, on a crystal-clear afternoon 20 years ago, Saddam Hussein’s warplanes unleashed a poisonous rain of chemical weapons, killing as many as 113 civilians and injuring thousands.

The victims gasped and vomited on rusting buses as they were rushed to hospitals. They dropped dead on the cobbled streets of the town center. They cried out as their eyes burned and skin bubbled.

At the United Nations, Iran protested vehemently, to little avail, about the use of the weapons, which were banned under international treaties. The world’s superpowers had little patience for complaints from the Islamic Republic, which supported attacks on U.S. Marines in Lebanon as well as on Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Once the war ended, Iran stockpiled chemical weapons and embarked on a crash nuclear program that is now at the center of a global dispute.

“We should at least think about [weapons of mass destruction] for our own defense,” Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of Iran’s parliament, said two months after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. “Even if the use of such weapons is inhumane and illegal, the war has taught us that such laws are just drops of ink on paper.”

For the West, Sardasht is a forgotten footnote in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. But to many Iranians, the stricken town looms large in the debate about the country’s defenses.

Throughout the war, the United States contended that each country was using chemical weapons against the other. But a wartime U.S. government assessment details only examples of Iraqi use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds that are now the subject of a genocide trial in that country.

“Iraq appears to have become more competent in its capability to integrate chemicals into its conventional battle strategy,” says the undated and heavily redacted document, which was declassified in 1996 and is posted on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists. “As chemical weapons have become more available, military leaders appear to have accepted them as a tactically useful and effective weapon.”

Saddam invaded Iran on Sept. 22, 1980, lured by the prospects of seizing long-disputed oil-rich regions of Iran and beating back a new Shiite government in Tehran that vowed to spread its recent revolution across the region.

The Iraqi leader, whose Sunni-dominated regime suppressed Iraq’s Shiite majority, expected a quick victory. Instead, Iraq became bogged down as Iranians rallied behind Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Fighting a country nearly three times more populous than his and facing the prospect of losing the war, Saddam began using chemical weapons as a way to fend off the swarms of fighters on the southern front around 1983. Although banned under international law since 1925, the weapons killed an estimated 6,500 Iranians.

“Nothing could have stopped us,” said Shahriar Khateri, a Tehran physician and war veteran recognized as his country’s foremost authority on the effects of chemical weapons. “The only thing that broke our spirits were the chemical attacks.”

Sardasht, a town of 40,000 people, has changed little over the past 20 years. A single mountain pass along a cliff road leads up and into the town, 10 miles from the Iraqi border. Some homes are carved into the surrounding mountain walls. Evergreens and grassy fields coat the hilltops. Faded government propaganda along brick walls exhorts residents to pray. Men in traditional Kurdish baggy pants and cummerbunds walk through busy downtown Sarchawe Square.

It was about 4 p.m. June 28, 1987, when Iraqi warplanes began circling the town and dropping bombs. Iraqis frequently strafed the town, which housed Iranian troops and was suspected as a stronghold of Iraqi Kurdish insurgents. Eight bombs struck the city.

Residents thought little of the bombing. Then the odors came.

“It smelled of garlic and had the color of dried cement powder,” said Mohsen Panahi, who devotes most of his time to bringing attention to Sardasht’s victims. “Afterward it smelled of apple.”

Experts believe the shells were loaded with mustard- and possibly nerve-gas agents.

Symptoms began within minutes — nausea and irritated eyes. “I wanted to vomit,” Panahi said. “My eyes burned. They were very red.”

The few doctors in town had no idea how to treat the patients’ bizarre burns, bubbling skin and blindness. They scraped the crumpled skin off patients with razors. They tried to calm panicked patients with dwindling supplies of morphine.

Word of the attack rippled across the country. Mostafa Asadzadeh, performing his military service in Tehran, was heading back to Sardasht for a visit when he received a call from the city of Tabriz. One of the shells had struck near his house, the caller said. His mother and father, the caller said, were recovering at a hospital.

At least 700 crying patients crowded the hospital and its courtyard. By the time he got there, his parents had died. He found his 14-year-old brother, Hadi, wheezing and coughing with a tube in his throat.

“He couldn’t speak,” said Asadzadeh, recalling his tale over tea and sweets at his family’s two-story home in Sardasht. “I didn’t know where my other siblings were.”

He began visiting area hospitals. At one, he was directed to a morgue, where he saw the body of his 19-year-old brother, Ali. He scoured the hospitals of northwestern Iran, eventually finding his grandmother and other brothers and sisters, all dead.

Asadzadeh married, had children and moved back into the same house near the bomb site. Last year, he and workers began scraping the plaster off to repaint. Their eyes became red. They began to cough.

“You see, even 20 years later,” he said, “they remain, the traces.”

By the mid-1990s, Iran acknowledged it had developed a sizable chemical-weapons stockpile. It also began aggressively pursuing nuclear energy technology. By 2002, it had become clear that the ostensibly civilian program was part of an effort to develop more advanced technologies that potentially could be used to make weapons-grade nuclear materials.

Although Iran insists it is developing nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes, some say the 1980s war experience convinced the country’s leaders that they needed a deterrent against another Sardasht.

“Iran drew the conclusion that the only way to protect itself,” Hiltermann said, “was to develop its own weapons of mass destruction.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Kim Murphy in Tehran contributed to this report.