Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Taking War To Iraq
By Stephen R. Shalom
WASHINGTON - The war between Iran and Iraq
was one of the great human tragedies of recent Middle Eastern history.
Perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded,
and millions were made refugees. The resources wasted on the war
exceeded what the entire Third World spent on public health in a
The war began on September 22, 1980, when Iraqi troops launched
a full-scale invasion of Iran. Prior to this date there had been
subversion by each country inside the other and also major border
clashes. Iraq hoped for a lightning victory against an internationally
isolated neighbor in the throes of revolutionary upheaval. But despite
Iraq's initial successes, the Iranians rallied and, using their
much larger population, were able by mid-1982 to push the invaders
out. In June 1982, the Iranians went over to the offensive, but
Iraq, with a significant advantage in heavy weaponry, was able to
prevent a decisive Iranian breakthrough. The guns finally fell silent
on August 20, 1988.
Primary responsibility for the eight long years of bloodletting
must rest with the governments of the two countries -- the ruthless
military regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the ruthless clerical
regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Khomeini was said by some
to have a "martyr complex," though, as U.S. Secretary
of State Cyrus Vance wryly observed, people with martyr complexes
rarely live to be as old as Khomeini. Whatever his complexes, Khomeini
had no qualms about sending his followers, including young boys,
off to their deaths for his greater glory. This callous disregard
for human life was no less characteristic of Saddam Hussein. And,
for that matter, it was also no less characteristic of much of the
world community, which not only couldn't be bothered by a few hundred
thousand Third World corpses, but tried to profit from the conflict.
France became the major source of Iraq's high-tech weaponry, in
no small part to protect its financial stake in that country. The
Soviet Union was Iraq's largest weapon's supplier, while jockeying
for influence in both capitals. Israel provided arms to Iran, hoping
to bleed the combatants by prolonging the war. And at least ten
nations sold arms to both of the warring sides.
The list of countries engaging in despicable behavior, however,
would be incomplete without the United States. The U.S. objective
was not profits from the arms trade, but the much more significant
aim of controlling to the greatest extent possible the region's
oil resources. Before turning to U.S. policy during the Iran-Iraq
war, it will be useful to recall some of the history of the U.S.
SOME CRUDE HISTORY
Much of the world's proven oil reserves are located in the limited
area of the Persian Gulf (called by Arab nations the "Arabian
Gulf," and by those who try to keep their gazetteers politically
neutral, simply "the Gulf").
Less than four percent of U.S. oil consumption comes from the Gulf,
but, according to the official argument, Western Europe and Japan
are extremely dependent on Gulf oil and hence if the region fell
into the hands of a hostile power, U.S. allies could be brought
to their knees, and U.S. security would be fundamentally and irreparably
compromised. If one examines the history of U.S. policy in the Gulf,
however, protecting the oil interests of Western Europe and Japan
never seemed to be one of Washington's foremost goals.
As far back as the 1920s, the State Department sought to force
Great Britain to give U.S. companies a share of the lucrative Middle
Eastern oil concessions. The U.S. Ambassador in London -- who happened
to be Andrew Mellon, the head of the Gulf Oil Corporation (named
for the Mexican, not the Persian/Arabian, Gulf) -- was instructed
to press the British to give Gulf Oil a stake in the Middle East.
At the end of World War II, when the immense petroleum deposits
in Saudi Arabia became known, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal
told Secretary of State Byrnes, "I don't care which American
company or companies develop the Arabian reserves, but I think most
emphatically that it should be _American_." And it wasn't the
Russians that Forrestal was worried about. The main competition
was between the United States and Britain for control of the area's
In 1928, Standard Oil of New Jersey and Mobil had joined British
and French oil interests in signing the "Red Line Agreement,"
under which each pledged not to develop Middle Eastern oil without
the participation of the others. Nevertheless, after World War II
these two U.S. firms (together with Texaco and Standard Oil of California)
grabbed the Saudi concessions for themselves, freezing out the British
and French. When the latter sued on the grounds that the Red Line
Agreement had been violated, Mobil and Jersey told the court that
the agreement was null and void because it was monopolistic.
In the early 1950s, oil was used as a political weapon for the
first time -- _by_ the United States and Britain and _against_ Iran.
Iran had nationalized its British-owned oil company which had refused
to share its astronomical profits with the host government. In response,
Washington and London organized a boycott of Iranian oil which brought
Iran's economy to the brink of collapse. The CIA then instigated
a coup, entrenching the Shah in power and effectively un-nationalizing
the oil company, with U.S. firms getting 40 percent of the formerly
100 percent British-owned company. This was, in the view of the
_New York Times, an "object lesson in the heavy cost that must
be paid" when an oil-rich Third World nation "goes berserk
with fanatical nationalism."
In 1956 the oil weapon was used again, this time by the United
States against Britain and France. After the latter two nations
along with Israel invaded Egypt, Washington made clear that U.S.
oil would not be sent to Western Europe until Britain and France
agreed to a rapid withdrawal schedule. The U.S. was not adverse
to overthrowing Nasser -- "Had they done it quickly, we would
have accepted it," Eisenhower said later -- but the clumsy
Anglo-French military operation threatened U.S. interests in the
In October 1969 the Shah of Iran asked the U.S. to purchase more
Iranian oil as a way to boost his revenues. But the Shah's request
was rejected because, as an assistant to then President Nixon explained,
"a substantial portion of the profits from these purchases
would go to non-American companies if Iranian oil were sought,"
while if Saudi oil were purchased, the U.S. share would be larger.
By the end of the sixties the international oil market was far
different from what it had been two decades earlier. Oil supplies
were tight, the number of oil firms had grown, and the producing
countries, joined together in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting
Countries, were seeking to improve their financial position.
Crucial talks on oil prices began in 1970 between U.S. companies
and the government of Libya. Significantly, Washington did not weigh
in on the side of the companies, and in fact, the companies themselves
did not put up much resistance to the price increases. For the oil
companies, higher prices would be beneficial, making profitable
their growing investments in the developed nations (for example,
in Alaska and the North Sea). Any higher prices could be passed
on to consumers -- and, indeed, in 1972-73 the companies raised
their prices to a greater extent than crude costs alone warranted.
In 1972, the Nixon administration was advocating higher oil prices.
According to a study by V. H. Oppenheim, based on interviews with
U.S. officials, "The weight of the evidence suggests that the
principal consideration behind the indulgent U.S. government attitude
toward higher oil prices was the belief that higher prices would
produce economic benefits for the United States vis-a-vis its industrial
competitors, Western Europe and Japan, and the key Middle Eastern
states, Saudi Arabia and Iran." And Henry Kissinger has confirmed
that this was U.S. Government thinking: "The rise in the price
of energy would affect primarily Europe and Japan and probably improve
America's competitive position."
Amid growing warnings about a possible oil embargo, the industrialized
Western countries held meetings to decide their response. Showing
its concern for its allies, the United States proposed that resources
be shared, but on the basis of each country's sea-borne imports,
rather than on the basis of total energy requirements. Since the
U.S. was much less dependent on imports than other countries, this
formula meant that in the event of an embargo U.S. energy supplies
would be cut far less than those of its "allies."
After the October 1973 Middle East war broke out, but before the
Arab embargo, U.S. oil company officials wrote to Nixon, warning
that the "whole position of the United States in the Middle
East is on the way to being seriously impaired, with Japanese, European,
and perhaps Russian interests largely supplanting United States
presence in the area, to the detriment of both our economy and our
security." Note that the Russian threat was considered only
a possibility, the allied threat a certainty.
In late 1973 and on into 1974, the Arab oil producers cut their
production and imposed an embargo against the United States and
the Netherlands for their pro-Israeli position. The public has memories
of long lines at the gas pump, rationing, and a crisis atmosphere.
In fact, however, in Kissinger's words, "the Arab embargo was
a symbolic gesture of limited practical impact." The international
oil companies, which totally monopolized petroleum distribution
and marketing, pooled their oil, so the shortfall of Saudi supplies
to the U.S. was made up from other sources. Overall, the oil companies
spread out the production cutbacks so as to minimize suffering,
and the country most supportive of Israel -- the U.S. -- suffered
among the least. From January 1974 to March, oil consumption in
the U.S. was only off by 5 percent, compared to 15 percent in France
and West Germany.
Even these figures, however, overstate the hardship, because in
fact, "_there was at no time a real shortage of petroleum on
the European market._ Consumption simply responded to the increase
in prices....Between October, 1973, and April, 1974, the reserves
of oil products in the countries of the European Community never
descended below the 80-day equivalent of consumption; and in Italy
the reserves in fact increased by 23 per cent." In Japan, there
were about two million barrels of oil more than the government admitted,
as the bureaucracy, the oil industry, and industrial oil users sought
to exploit the crisis for their own advantage.
In the aftermath of the embargo, U.S. allies tried to negotiate
their own bilateral petroleum purchase deals with the producing
nations without going through the major international oil companies.
Washington opposed these efforts. In short, the well-being of U.S.
allies has never been the key consideration for U.S. policymakers.
Nor for that matter has the crucial concern been the well-being
of the average American. One former Defense Department official
has estimated that it cost U.S. taxpayers about $47 billion in 1985
alone for military expenditures related to the Gulf; former Secretary
of the Navy John Lehman put the annual figure at $40 billion. What
could be worth these staggering sums?
These expenditures have not been necessary for the survival of
the West. In extremis, according to former CIA analyst Maj. Gen.
Edward B. Atkeson, if all Gulf oil were cut off, the elimination
of recreational driving (which in the U.S. accounts for 10% of total
oil consumption) would reduce Western petroleum needs to a level
easily replaceable from non-Gulf sources. Even in wartime, Atkeson
concluded, Gulf oil is not essential to Western needs. And in a
protracted global conflict, one can be sure that oil fields would
not last very long in the face of missile attacks.
The billions of dollars, however, are a good investment for the
oil companies, given that they are not the ones who pay the tab.
To be sure, the multinationals no longer directly own the vast majority
of Gulf crude production. But they have special buy-back deals with
the producers, whereby they purchase at bargain prices oil from
the fields they formerly owned. For example, according to former
Senator Frank Church, U.S. firms "have a 'sweetheart' arrangement
with Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding the nominal nationalization of
their properties...." Radical regimes want to sell oil as much
as conservative ones do, but a change of government in any Gulf
state might eliminate the privileged position of the oil companies.
The internal security of regimes like Saudi Arabia depends heavily
on outside, particularly U.S., support. Many Saudis believe that
in return their country has been overproducing oil to please the
United States, to the detriment of their nation's long-term interests.
Selling oil beyond the point at which the proceeds can be productively
invested is economically irrational, particularly given the fact
that oil in the ground appreciates in value.<28> More democratic
or nationalistic governments in the Gulf may not be so willing to
sacrifice their own interests. And such governments will also be
less willing to accommodate a U.S. military presence or to serve
as U.S. proxies for maintaining the regional status quo.
And thus for more than forty years, through many changed circumstances,
there has been one constant of U.S. policy in the Gulf: support
for the most conservative available local forces in order to keep
radical and popular movements from coming to power, no matter what
the human cost, no matter how great the necessary manipulation or
intervention. The U.S. has not been invariably successful in achieving
its objective: in 1979, it lost one of its major props with the
overthrow of the Shah of Iran, who had policed the Gulf on Washington's
behalf. But the basic pattern of U.S. policy has not changed, as
is well illustrated by its policy toward the war between Iran and
THE GULF WAR
The United States did not have diplomatic relations with either
belligerent in 1980 and announced its neutrality in the conflict.
One typically humanitarian State Department official explained in
1983: "we don't give a damn as long as the Iran-Iraq carnage
does not affect our allies in the region or alter the balance of
power." In fact, however, the United States was not indifferent
to the war, but saw a number of positive opportunities opened up
by its prolongation.
The need for arms and money would make Baghdad more dependent on
the conservative Gulf states and Egypt, thereby moderating Iraq's
policies and helping to repair ties between Cairo and the other
Arab states. The war would make Iran -- whose weapons had all been
U.S.-supplied in the past -- desperate to obtain U.S. equipment
and spare parts. The exigencies of war might make both nations more
willing to restore their relations with Washington. Alternatively,
the dislocations of war might give the U.S. greater ability to carry
out covert operations in Iran or Iraq. And turmoil in the Gulf might
make other states in the area more susceptible to U.S. pressure
for military cooperation.
When the war first broke out, the Soviet Union turned back its
arms ships en route to Iraq, and for the next year and a half, while
Iraq was on the offensive, Moscow did not provide weapons to Baghdad.
In March 1981, the Iraqi Communist Party, repressed by Saddam Hussein,
beamed broadcasts from the Soviet Union calling for an end to the
war and the withdrawal of Iraqi troops. That same month U.S. Secretary
of State Alexander Haig told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
that he saw the possibility of improved ties with Baghdad and approvingly
noted that Iraq was concerned by "the behavior of Soviet imperialism
in the Middle Eastern area." The U.S. then approved the sale
to Iraq of five Boeing jetliners, and sent a deputy assistant secretary
of state to Baghdad for talks. The U.S. removed Iraq from its notoriously
selective list of nations supporting international terrorism (despite
the fact that terrorist Abu Nidal was based in the country) and
Washington extended a $400 million credit guarantee for U.S. exports
to Iraq.In November 1984, the U.S. and Iraq restored diplomatic
relations, which had been ruptured in 1967.
THE SOVIET THREAT AND THE RAPID DEPLOYMENT FORCE
At the same time that the war was furthering the U.S. position
in Iraq, it was also extending U.S. military relations with the
other Arab Gulf states.
Washington typically justified its desire for military ties in
the Gulf and the development of forces for use there by warning
of the Soviet threat. In January 1980, President Carter proclaimed
the "Carter Doctrine," declaring that the U.S. was willing
to use military force if necessary to prevent "an outside power"
from conquering the Gulf. As Michael Klare has noted, however, the
real U.S. concern was revealed five days later when Secretary of
Defense Harold Brown released his military posture statement. Brown
indicated that the greatest threat was not Soviet expansionism but
uncontrolled turbulence in the third world. "In a world of
disputes and violence, we cannot afford to go abroad unarmed,"
he warned. "The particular manner in which our economy has
expanded means that we have come to depend to no small degree on
imports, exports and the earnings from overseas investments for
our material well-being." Specifically, Brown identified the
"protection of the oil flow from the Middle East" as "clearly
part of our vital interest," in defense of which "we'll
take any action that's appropriate, including the use of military
Brown did not explicitly state that the United States would intervene
militarily in response to internal threats, like revolution, but
after he left office he explained what could be said openly and
what could not: "One sensitive issue is whether the United
States should plan to protect the oil fields against internal or
regional threats. Any explicit commitment of this sort is more likely
to upset and anger the oil suppliers than to reassure them."
Gulf touchiness on explicit U.S. commitments to "defend"
the oil fields had two sources. First, the sheikdoms do not like
to be seen as dependent on U.S. force against their own populations.
And, second, the Gulf states were made nervous by the frequent talk
in the United States about taking over the oil fields in the event
of another embargo. There was even a Congressional study of the
feasibility of seizing the oil fields; and though the study concluded
that such an operation would be unlikely to succeed militarily,
the mere fact that this was considered a fit subject for analysis
did not instill confidence in Gulf capitals.
Given this sensitivity, Brown advised that the United States should
prepare plans and capabilities for intervention -- against coups
and other threats -- but should avoid an explicitly declared policy
to this effect.
The Carter administration began the formation of a Rapid Deployment
Force (RDF) to project U.S. military power into the Gulf region.
Originally proposed in 1977, the planning did not make much progress
until after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The fundamental
purpose of the RDF was always, in the words of Carter's National
Security Adviser, "helping a friendly government under a subversive
attack"; nevertheless, to justify the RDF the Soviet threat
had to be magnified. Accordingly, Carter spoke in apocalyptic terms
about the strategic significance of the invasion of Afghanistan,
even though U.S. military experts were aware that a "thrust
through Afghanistan would be of marginal advantage to any Soviet
movement through Iran or the Gulf."
In 1980, the Army conducted a gaming exercise called "Gallant
Knight" which assumed an all-out Soviet invasion of Iran. The
Army concluded that they would need 325,000 troops to hold back
the Soviet colossus. According to a former military affairs aide
to Senator Sam Nunn, the Army deliberately chose this scenario to
guarantee that immense forces would be required. And though an RDF
of this size might seem unnecessarily large for combating Third
World troublemakers, the Pentagon noted that in the mid-1980s Third
World armies were no longer "barbarians with knives."
The U.S. could no longer expect to "stabilize an area just
by showing the flag."
When Reagan became president, he added what became known as the
"Reagan Codicil" to the "Carter Doctrine," declaring
at a press conference that "we will not permit" Saudi
Arabia "to be an Iran." The codicil did not represent
new policy, but merely made explicit what had always been policy.
Under Reagan, the CIA secretly concluded that the possibility of
a Soviet invasion of Iran was "remote" -- not surprisingly,
given that the Red Army was hardly having an easy time with the
Afghanis, who had half the population and were much less well equipped.
The remoteness of the Soviet threat, however, did not slow down
the build up of the RDF.
In 1982 the Pentagon's secret _Defense Guidance_ document stated
that the Soviet Union might extend its forces into the Gulf area
"by means other than outright invasion." It continued:
"Whatever the circumstances, we should be prepared to introduce
American forces directly into the region should it appear that the
security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened...." In
the Senate, many argued that there was too much emphasis on countering
the USSR, whereas the focus should be on "deterring and, if
necessary, fighting regional wars or leftist or nationalist insurgencies
that threatened U.S. and allied access to the region's oil supplies."
The official line was that the RDF would be deployed when a government
invited it in to repel a Soviet attack. But, as a Library of Congress
study noted, this view was belied by "guidance documents which
say that the forces must be capable of coercive entry without waiting
for an invitation." Senators Tower and Cohen stated that they
favored greater emphasis on marines who could shoot their way ashore
against military opposition. The administration pointed out that
RDF plans all along had included a "forcible entry" option,
relying on Marines. "We must be able to open our own doors,"
the Marine Commandant testified in March 1982. In short, these folks
are not just "barbarians with knives."
To support the RDF, the Pentagon needed a network of bases, and
not just in the Middle East, but worldwide. "To all intents
and purposes," a former senior Defense Department official
observed, "'Gulf waters' now extend from the Straits of Malacca
to the South Atlantic." Nevertheless, bases nearer the Gulf
had a special importance, and Pentagon planners urged "as substantial
a land presence in the as can be managed." The Gulf states
were reluctant to have too overt a relationship with the United
States, but the Iran-Iraq war served to overcome some of this reluctance.
In 1985, as Iranian advances seemed ominous, the _New York Times_
reported that Oman "has become a base for Western intelligence
operations, military maneuvers and logistical preparations for any
defense of the oil-producing Persian Gulf." A few months later,
a secret U.S. report was leaked indicating that Saudi Arabia had
agreed to allow the United States to use bases in its territory
in a crisis. The doors to U.S. influence were opening wider.
TWO TRACKS TO TEHERAN
U.S. policy with respect to Iran was more complicated, because
it followed two tracks at once. On the one hand, U.S. officials
saw "a great potential" for a covert program to undermine
the government in Teheran; on the other hand, Washington tried to
build ties to that same government.
U.S. actions in pursuit of the first track showed quite clearly
that Washington's opposition to the Khomeini regime had nothing
to do with its lack of democracy, for the groups that the U.S. backed
against Khomeini were often supporters of the previous dictator,
Starting in 1982 the CIA provided $100,000 a month to a group in
Paris called the Front for the Liberation of Iran, headed by Ali
Amini, who had presided over the reversion of Iranian oil to foreign
control after the CIA-backed coup in 1953.<59> The U.S. also
provided support to two Iranian paramilitary groups based in Turkey,
one of them headed by General Bahram Aryana, the Shah's army chief,
who had close ties to Shahpur Bakhtiar, the Shah's last prime minister.
In 1980, under the Carter administration, the United States began
clandestine radio broadcasts into Iran from Egypt, at a cost of
some $20-30,000 per month. The broadcasts called for Khomeini's
overthrow and urged support for Bakhtiar. Other broadcasts contained
anti-Soviet material. In 1986, the CIA pirated Iran's national television
network frequency to transmit an eleven minute address by the Shah's
son over Iranian TV. "I will return," Reza Pahlavi vowed.
Simultaneous with these activities, the U.S. pursued its second
track: trying to establish ties with the Iranian mullahs based on
the interest they shared with Washington in combating the left.
The U.S. purpose, Reagan announced in November 1986, after the Iran-Contra
scandal blew open, was "to find an avenue to get Iran back
where it once was and that is in the family of democratic nations"
-- a good trick, as Mansour Farhang has commented, since pre-1979
Iran was hardly democratic.
According to the Tower Commission, "In 1983, the United States
helped bring to the attention of Teheran the threat inherent in
the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh
Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this
information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass
executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure
in Iran." These massacres elicited the expected level of concern
from U.S. officials. "The leftists there seem to be getting
their heads cut off," remarked an undersecretary of state from
the Carter administration. The U.S. also passed to the Iranians
"real and deceptive intelligence" about the Soviet threat
on Iran's borders.
Reagan administration officials claimed that their efforts in Iran
were designed to build ties to moderates. In fact, however, they
were aware that they were dealing with the clerical fanatics. Oliver
North told Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter in December 1985
that the anti-tank weapons the U.S. was secretly providing to Iran
would probably go to the Revolutionary Guards, the shock troops
of the mullahs. In August 1986, the special assistant to the Israeli
prime minister briefed George "Out-of-the-Loop" Bush,
telling him, "we are dealing with the most radical elements....This
is good because we've learned that they can deliver and the moderates
The idea of building a strategic connection to Iran had wide support
in the U.S. government, though the policy of using arms transfers
to achieve it did not. The Tower Commission, for example, stated
that while it disagrees with the arms transfers, "a strategic
opening to Iran may have been in the national interest." And
it should be made clear that a strategic opening does not simply
mean beginning a dialogue with or acting civilly toward an former
adversary; rather, it was part of a policy to prevent any comparable
access for the Soviet Union. Thus, a CIA position paper in 1985
noted that whichever superpower got to Iran first would be "in
a strong position to work towards the exclusion of the other."
Another CIA official wanted to achieve "a securing of Iran"
so that it would again "have a relationship with the U.S."
and be "denied to the Soviets." And McFarlane cabled to
Poindexter after a secret meeting in Teheran in May 1986: "we
are on the way to something that can become a truly strategic gain
for us at the expense of the Soviets."
ARMS TO THE AYATOLLAH
The main tool by which U.S. policy makers sought to secure their
position in Iran in 1985 and 1986 was secretly providing arms and
intelligence information. As a proclaimed neutral in the Iran-Iraq
war, the United States was not supposed to supply weapons to either
side. Nevertheless, U.S. allies kept the combatants well-stocked.
Israel transferred vast quantities of U.S.-origin weapons to Iran;
to what extent U.S. permission for these shipments was obtained
(as required by U.S. law) is not known, but surely the U.S. had
enough leverage to prevent the transfers if it had wanted to.
In 1984, because of Iranian battlefield victories and the growing
U.S.-Iraqi ties, Washington launched "Operation Staunch,"
an effort to dry up Iran's sources of arms by pressuring U.S. allies
to stop supplying Teheran. U.S. secret arms sales to Iran in 1985
and 1986 thus not only violated U.S. neutrality, but undercut as
well what the U.S. was trying to get everyone else to do. The cynical
would note that Operation Staunch made the U.S. arms transfers to
Iran that much more valuable.
When this arms dealing became known, the Reagan administration
was faced with a major scandal on several counts. Proceeds from
the arms sales had been diverted to the Nicaraguan contras in violation
of the Boland Amendment. And though the administration's professed
uncompromising stand on terrorism was always hypocritical, given
its sponsorship of terrorism in Nicaragua and elsewhere, being caught
trading "arms-for-hostages" was particularly embarrassing.
Now, in fact, this would not have been the first time the U.S.
offered Teheran arms for hostages. In October 1980 the Carter administration
had declared that spare parts for U.S. military equipment could
be sold to Iran if the U.S. embassy hostages were released promptly.
There was even talk among U.S. officials about pre-positioning some
spare parts in Germany, Pakistan, and Algeria so that the Iranians
could get the equipment as soon as possible. Republicans charged
that Carter was trying to buy the hostages out in time for the election;
there is some evidence that the Republicans in the meantime were
engaged in an election maneuver of their own: negotiating with Iran
to keep the hostages until after the election to ensure a Reagan
In any event, political influence not hostages was the Reagan administration's
objective. Regardless of what was in the President's mind (as it
were), the National Security Council was clear that the political
agenda was key.
Whatever the arguments for purchasing the freedom of hostages,
trading weapons to obtain their release is another matter entirely,
since one is exchanging for the lives of some hostages the lives
of those who will be fired on by the weapons. And trading weapons
for "a strategic opening" is more reprehensible still,
particularly so when the weapons are going to the country whose
army is on the offensive. Reagan claimed that the weapons were all
defensive in nature, but this is nonsense. Anti-tank missiles in
the hands of an advancing army are offensive. And U.S. officials
knew exactly what Iran wanted the weapons for: for example, as the
Tower Commission noted, North and CIA officials discussed with their
Iranian contacts "Iran's urgent need" for "both intelligence
and weapons to be used in offensive operations against Iraq."
The intelligence that the United States passed to the Iranians
was a mixture of factual and bogus information. The CIA claimed
that the false information was meant to discourage Iran's final
offensive, by for example exaggerating Soviet troop movements on
the northern border. But if the U.S. simply wanted to discourage
an Iranian attack, it could have done this more easily by telling
Iran of Washington's contingency plans to use U.S. air power in
the event of an Iranian breakthrough against Iraq. The misinformation
about the Soviet Union, however, had the added advantage of inciting
Iranian hostility to Moscow and to the local communists.
U.S. intelligence did not deal only with the Soviet Union, but
covered the Iraqi front as well. CIA deputy director John McMahon
claimed that he warned Poindexter that such intelligence would give
the Iranians "a definite edge," with potentially "cataclysmic
results," and that he was able to persuade North to provide
Iran with only a segment of the intelligence. North, however, apparently
gave critical data to Iran just before its crucial victory in the
Fao Peninsula in February 1986. It is unclear to what extent North
was acting on his own here, but it is significant that despite McMahon's
warnings, neither Poindexter nor CIA Director Casey reversed the
plans to provide the Iranians with the full intelligence information.
At the same time that the U.S. was giving Teheran weapons that
one CIA analyst believed could affect the military balance and passing
on intelligence that the Tower Commission deemed of "potentially
major significance," it was also providing Iraq with intelligence
information, some misleading or incomplete. In 1986, the CIA established
a direct Washington-to-Baghdad link to provide the Iraqis with faster
intelligence from U.S. satellites. Simultaneously, Casey was urging
Iraqi officials to carry out more attacks on Iran, especially on
economic targets. Asked what the logic was of aiding both sides
in a bloody war, a former official replied, "You had to have
Washington's effort to enhance its position with both sides came
apart at the end of 1986 when one faction in the Iranian government
leaked the story of the U.S. arms dealing. Now the Reagan administration
was in the unenviable position of having alienated the Iranians
and panicked all the Arabs who concluded that the U.S. valued Iran's
friendship over theirs. To salvage the U.S. position with at least
one side, Washington now had to tilt -- and tilt heavily -- toward
THE AMERICAN ARMADA
The opportunity to demonstrate the tilt came soon. Kuwait had watched
with growing nervousness Iran's battlefield successes, perhaps made
possible by U.S. arms sales and intelligence information. Iran was
now also attacking ships calling at Kuwaiti ports, and to protect
itself Kuwait decided to try to draw in the United States. In September
1986 (before the scandal broke), it approached both Washington and
Moscow and asked if they would be interested in reflagging some
Kuwaiti vessels, that is, flying their own flags on Kuwaiti ships
and then protecting these new additions to their merchant marine.
The initial U.S. reaction was lackadaisical. But when the U.S. learned
in March 1987 that the Soviet Union offered to reflag eleven tankers,
it promptly offered to reflag the same eleven ships -- which would
both keep Soviet influence out of the Gulf and give the United States
the opportunity to demonstrate its support for Iraq.
The Kuwaitis accepted the U.S. offer, declining Moscow's, though
chartering three Soviet vessels as a way to provide some balance
between the U.S. and the USSR, the Kuwaitis being less afraid of
Soviet contamination than their American saviors were. Undersecretary
of Political Affairs Michael H. Armacost explained in June 1987
that if the USSR were permitted a larger role in protecting Gulf
oil, the Gulf states would be under great pressure to make additional
facilities available to Moscow. The U.S. view was that only one
superpower was allowed to have facilities in the region, and that
was the United States. Thus, when in December 1980 the Soviet Union
proposed the neutralization of the Gulf, with no alliances, no bases,
no intervention in the region, and no obstacles to free trade and
the sea lanes,Washington showed no interest. By August 1987, the
U.S. had an aircraft carrier, a battleship, six cruisers, three
destroyers, seven frigates, and numerous supporting naval vessels
in or near the Gulf,ployed since the height of the Vietnam war."
The Reagan administration claimed that the reflagging was merely
intended to protect the flow of oil. It warned that "any significant
disruption in gulf oil supply would cause world oil prices for all
to skyrocket," grimly recalling how events in 1973-74 and 1978-79
demonstrated that "a small disruption -- of less than 5% --
can trigger a sharp escalation in oil prices."
In fact, however, oil -- and oil prices for that matter -- were
never threatened. There has been a worldwide oil glut since the
early 1980s, with much underused production capacity in non-Gulf
nations. Despite the horrendous human costs of the Iran-Iraq war,
oil prices had actually fallen by 50 percent during the course of
the conflict. By the end of 1987, two thirds of all the oil produced
in the Gulf was carried by pipeline. The Congressional study noted
that even in the unlikely event of an actual shutdown of the Gulf,
the impact on oil supplies and prices would be minimal. In no sense
then could the Strait of Hormuz be viewed as the "jugular"
of the Western economies.
Fewer than two percent of the ships that did transit the Strait
came under attack, and even this figure is misleading because many
of the attacks inflicted relatively minor damage. Only one Iranian
attack in ten caused serious damage.
Significantly, Iran became more aggressive in attacking shipping
_because_ of the U.S. naval presence. Between 1981 and April 1987,
when the U.S. reflagging was announced, Iran struck 90 ships; in
the little over a year thereafter, Iran struck 126 ships. As the
Congressional study noted, "shipping in the Gulf now appears
less safe than before the U.S. naval build-up began."
If the U.S. were concerned with free navigation, it might have
given some consideration to a Soviet proposal that the U.S. Navy
and all national navies withdraw from the Gulf, to be replaced by
a United Nations force. But Washington wasn't interested. Indeed,
some, like the _New York Times_, noted that it was the United States
that could close the Gulf -- to Iranian exports -- though the _Times_
added that "such action would of course be unthinkable unless
requested by the Arab states of the region." So much for freedom
It was Iraq that started the tanker war in the Gulf proper in 1981,
and that continued these attacks into 1984 without a parallel Iranian
response at sea. Two months after Iraq stepped up the pace and scope
of its attacks in March 1984, Iran finally began responding. Iraqi
attacks, however, outnumbered those by Iran until after the United
States announced its reflagging. The U.S. Navy protected the reflagged
vessels, and in April 1988 extended its protection to any neutral
vessels coming under Iranian attack. In practice, this meant that
Iraq could strike at Iranian vessels with impunity, with the U.S.
Navy preventing retaliation by Teheran.
Washington justified its policy by noting that Iraq only attacked
Iranian ships, while Iran targeted the ships of neutrals: Kuwait,
in particular. This was a dubious legal argument on two counts.
First, Kuwait was a neutral engaged in rather unneutral behavior.
Among other things, it opened its ports to deliveries of war material
that were then transported over land to Iraq. Second, Iraq too hit
neutral ships, even Saudi Arabian ships -- when they called on Iran.<115>
Iraq declared certain Iranian waters a "war exclusion zone,"
but as an international law expert has noted, Iraq's "method
of enforcement has closely resembled German methods" in World
War II, and "under any analysis the Iraqi exclusion zone cannot
be justified." The "attacks on neutral merchant vessels
by both sides must be condemned as violations of international law."
There was thus no legal justification for the U.S. to take Iraq's
side in the tanker war.
Still less was there any sense in which the U.S. Navy could be
referred to as a "peacekeeping" force. Gary Sick, a former
National Security Council officer in charge of Iran, asserted that
American naval units "have been deployed aggressively and provocatively
in the hottest parts of the Persian Gulf." "Our aggressive
patrolling strategy," he observed, "tends to start fights,
not to end them. We behave at times as if our objective was to goad
Iran into a war with us." According to a Congressional report,
officials in every Gulf country were critical of "the highly
provocative way in which U.S. forces are being deployed."When
in April 1988 the U.S. turned a mining attack on a U.S. ship into
the biggest U.S. Navy sea battle since World War II, Al Ittihad,
a newspaper often reflective of government thinking in the United
Arab Emirates, criticized the U.S. attacks, noting that they added
"fuel to the gulf tension."
The aggressive U.S. posture was in marked contrast to the posture
of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union too was escorting ships in
the Gulf, particularly vessels carrying weapons to Kuwait for Iraq.
On May 6, 1987, Iranian gunboats attacked a Soviet merchant vessel,
and two weeks later one of the Soviet ships chartered by Kuwait
was the first victim of a mine attack since 1984.These facts are
not widely known, because the Soviet response was extremely mild.
Soviet policy in the Gulf was the subject of a study commissioned
by the U.S. Army and written by reputed intellectual heavyweight
Francis Fukuyama of the Rand Corporation. Fukuyama concluded that
Gorbachev's "new thinking" in foreign policy was only
rhetoric as far as the Persian Gulf was concerned because Moscow
continued to pursue "zero-sum" (that is, totally competitive)
policies vis-a-vis the United States. But the facts presented in
the study suggest a rather different conclusion. Fukuyama notes
that the "Soviets, it is true, were facing a U.S. administration
that was itself playing very much a zero-sum game in the Gulf....What
the Soviets would have done if faced with a more collaborative United
States is untestable and consequently unknowable." Nevertheless,
for Fukuyama the USSR is to blame since Gorbachev had been accommodative
in other areas of policy in the face of U.S. intransigence and thus
might have been so in the Gulf as well.
Fukuyama acknowledges that the Soviet Union refrained from following
other, more aggressive policies in the Gulf, such as trying to outbid
Washington for influence with Kuwait. He observes that Soviet naval
units in the Gulf were not offensively deployed, in contradistinction
to those of the United States. (Indeed, Fukuyama points out that
since the early 1970s Moscow had slowed the development of its power
projection capability, unlike the United States.) The USSR sought
to use economic and political instruments of policy in the Gulf,
rather than predominantly military ones as the U.S. did. And when
Moscow did seek its own advantage in relations with Iran, it did
so in response to the secret dealings in Teheran by the White House.
In short, if Soviet policy in the Gulf can be criticized for insufficient
"new thinking," by comparison U.S. policy reflected a
Stone Age approach.
The provocative U.S. naval deployments in the Gulf took a heavy
toll on innocent civilians. In November 1987, a U.S. ship fired
its machine guns at night at a boat believed to be an Iranian speedboat
with hostile intent; it was in fact a fishing boat from the United
Arab Emirates. One person was killed and three were wounded. The
most serious incident was the shooting down by the U.S. cruiser
Vicennes of an Iranian civil airliner, killing all 290 people aboard.
The commander of another U.S. ship in the Gulf noted that while
"the conduct of Iranian military forces in the month preceding
the incident was pointedly non-threatening," the actions of
the _Vicennes_ "appeared to be consistently aggressive,"
leading some Navy hands to refer to the ship as "Robo Cruiser."
These tensions in the Gulf continued to promote one important U.S.
goal: they encouraged the Gulf states to enhance their military
cooperation with the United States. As noted above, the United States
had used the Iran-Iraq war as a lever for obtaining additional basing
rights in the Gulf region. The reflagging operation further enhanced
the U.S. position. According to an Associated Press report, the
U.S. general in charge of the RDF claimed that the "United
States gained unprecedented credibility with Arab leaders as a result
of its large-scale naval commitment in the Persian Gulf." This
commitment, he said, enabled the U.S. to establish better diplomatic
and military ties with Gulf states.
INDIFFERENCE AND DIPLOMACY
Aggressive U.S. naval deployments in the Gulf elicited no dissent
from the _New York Times._ The editors acknowledged that Washington's
"profession of neutrality is the thinnest of diplomatic fig
leaves," that in reality "America tilts toward Iraq."
But the tilt was "for good reason," for it was a strategy
designed to achieve peace. The administration had been confused,
the _Times_ admitted, but now Washington had developed "a coherent
policy to contain Iran. It has thereby earned the right to take
risks in the gulf." And when the risks resulted in the destruction
of the Iranian airliner, the editors declared that the blame might
lie with the Iranian pilot, but if not, then it was certainly Teheran's
fault for refusing to end the war.
This is the common view of the war, widely promoted by Washington
-- that Iran was the sole obstacle to peace. A review of the diplomacy
of the war, however, shows that while Khomeini certainly bears tremendous
blame for the bloodshed, the blame does not stop with him.
When Iraq attacked Iran on September 22, 1980, the United Nations
Security Council waited four days before holding a meeting. On September
28, it passed Resolution 479 calling for an end to the fighting.
Significantly, however, the resolution did not condemn (nor even
mention) the Iraqi aggression and did not call for a return to internationally
recognized boundaries. As Ralph King, who has studied the UN response
in detail, concluded, "the Council more or less deliberately
ignored Iraq's actions in September 1980." It did so because
the Council as a whole had a negative view of Iran and was not concerned
enough about Iran's predicament to come to its aid. The U.S. delegate
noted that Iran, which had itself violated Security Council resolutions
on the U.S. embassy hostages, could hardly complain about the Council's
Iran rejected Resolution 479 as one-sided -- which it was. When
Norway called for an internationally supervised withdrawal of forces,
Iraq replied -- accurately -- that this violated 479. Iran refused
to engage in any discussions as long as Iraqi forces remained on
its soil. In the meantime, State Department officials proposed "a
joint U.S.-Soviet effort to promote a settlement," but Brzezinski
argued that this "would legitimate the Soviet position in the
Gulf and thus objectively undercut our vital interests." No
U.S. initiative was forthcoming. A few more unfruitful Security
Council meetings were held into October, and then there were no
further formal meetings on the subject of the war, despite the immense
carnage, until July 1982.
There were a number of third party mediation efforts. The first
was undertaken by Olof Palme, representing the UN Secretary General.
Palme proposed that as an initial step the two sides agree to have
the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway cleared. Iraq, however, would
only agree if it could pay the full costs (thus legitimating its
claim to the entire river), and no agreement could be reached. Then,
the Nonaligned Ministerial Committee proposed a cease-fire simultaneous
with withdrawal, with demilitarized zones on both sides. Iran accepted
and, for a while, Iraq did as well. But Baghdad soon changed its
mind, hoping to win on the battlefield. In neither of these instances
was any significant outside pressure put on Iraq to settle.
In early 1982 another mediation effort was begun by the government
of Algeria, which had helped Iran and Iraq reach a border agreement
in 1975 and had also served as a go-between for the release of the
U.S. embassy hostages. On May 3, 1982, however, an aircraft carrying
the Algerian foreign minister and his team of experts was shot down
in Iranian airspace by an _Iraqi_ fighter plane. Five years later
a captured Iraqi pilot was said to have admitted that the attack
was intentional, with the objective of having Iran be blamed for
the action. Whether this is true or not, the shootdown eliminated
from the scene the most experienced mediators.
By the end of May, 1982, Iran had recaptured nearly all its territory
and Iraq was looking for a way out of the war. The Islamic Conference
Organization and the Gulf Cooperation Council tried to mediate a
settlement. On June 3, three men led by an Iraqi intelligence officer
attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to Britain, according
to one report with the hope of provoking an Israeli invasion of
Lebanon that would create the conditions for the Gulf combatants
to end their fighting so they might face their common enemy, Israel.
Israel needed no encouragement to march into Lebanon; it knew the
provocation had nothing to do with the PLO or Lebanon, but invaded
anyway. But the Lebanon war did not dissuade Iran from continuing
the Gulf war, and may even have derailed the mediation efforts.
Iraq offered to withdraw its remaining forces from Iran and to
cease fire. In Teheran a vigorous debate ensued as to whether to
accept the offer or to continue on. The militant mullahs had seen
their power grow during the war; though the Shah had originally
been ousted by a wide range of political forces, the crusade against
Iraq had enabled the right-wing clerics to mobilize the population
and to prevail over their domestic opponents. In addition, just
as Iraq had erroneously assumed that Iran was on the verge of collapse
in September 1980, so now it looked to Iran as though Saddam Hussein
was about to fall. Khomeini decided to go on with the war, declaring
that Iran would not stop fighting until Saddam Hussein was overthrown,
Iraqi war-guilt assigned, and reparations paid.
The government of Iran thus bears major responsibility for the
death and destruction that followed. But, significantly, no industrial
country gave strong support to a peace settlement at this time.
Within the United States government, Secretary of State Alexander
Haig proposed some sort of international peace conference (though
without U.S. participation, and of course with no Soviet participation).
The proposal, Haig recalls, "failed to win the attention of
the White House." Haig notes that the "war was then at
a critical stage, an Iranian offensive having recovered nearly all
of Iran's lost territory, and it is possible that a properly designed
initiative could have succeeded in ending the hostilities."
On July 12, 1982, the Security Council met on the issue of the
war for the first time since 1980 and called for a withdrawal to
the pre-war boundaries. Iran considered this further proof of the
bias of the United Nations, since the call for withdrawal came at
the first moment in the war when Iranian forces held any Iraqi territory.
Iraq responded to Iranian victories on the ground by making use
of its advantage in technology: it escalated the tanker war, employed
chemical weapons, and launched attacks on civilian targets. Iran
retaliated by striking Gulf shipping starting in 1984 and launching
its own attacks on civilians, though on a lesser scale than Iraq.
Iran charged that the Security Council's handling of each of these
issues reflected animus against Iran.
In 1984 the Security Council passed a resolution on the tanker
war that was directed primarily against Iran's actions and made
no reference to Iraqi conduct except to call for all states to respect
the right of free navigation.
On chemical weapons, the Security Council passed no resolution.
The United States condemned the use of chemical weapons, but declined
to support any Council action against Iraq. The Council did issue
a much less significant "statement" in 1985 condemning
the use of chemical weapons, but without mentioning Iraq by name;
then, in March 1986, for the first time a Council statement explicitly
denounced Iraq. This, however, was two years after Iraq's use of
chemical warfare had been confirmed by a UN team.
In 1983 a UN team found that both sides had attacked civilian areas,
but that Iran had suffered more extensive damage than Iraq. Teheran
wanted the Security Council to pass a resolution that indicated
Iraq's greater responsibility, but the Council refused to do so,
and no statement was issued. In June 1984 the Secretary General
was able to get the two sides to agree to cease their attacks on
civilians. Both sides soon charged violations, but UN inspection
teams found that while Iraq was indeed in violation, Iran was not.
By March 1985, the moratorium was over.
At this time, jockeying for position with Moscow was still a crucial
consideration for the United States. In a section of a draft National
Security document that elicited no dissent, U.S. long term goals
were said to include "an early end to the Iran-Iraq war without
Iran remained committed to its maximum war aims, a commitment not
lessened by the fact that Oliver North, apparently without authorization,
told Iranian officials that Reagan wanted the war ended on terms
favorable to Iran, and that Saddam Hussein had to go. But it was
not just North's unauthorized conversation that encouraged Iranian
intransigence; the authorized clandestine dealings between Washington
and Teheran no doubt had the same effect.
In late 1986 the Iran-Contra scandal broke, forcing the U.S. to
go all-out in its support for Iraq in order to preserve some influence
among the Arab states jolted by the evidence of Washington's double-dealing.
In May 1987, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy met
with Saddam Hussein and promised him that the U.S. would lead an
effort at the UN for a mandatory arms embargo of Iran; a resolution
would be drawn up calling on both sides to cease fire and withdraw,
and imposing an embargo on whoever didn't comply, presumably Iran.
The U.S. drafted such a resolution, but the non-permanent members
of the Security Council altered it to include the formation of an
impartial commission to investigate the origins of the war, as Iran
had been insisting, and to eliminate the mandatory sanctions. On
July 20, 1987 the revised document was passed unanimously as Security
Council Resolution 598.
Iraq promptly accepted 598, while Iran said it would accept the
cease-fire and withdrawal of forces if the impartial commission
were set up first. The U.S. and Iraq both rejected Iran's position,
asserting that Iran had no right to select one provision out of
many in the resolution and impose that as a first step.
The Secretary General then travelled to Teheran and Baghdad to
try to work out a compromise and he made some progress. According
to the leaked text of his private report to the Security Council,
Iran agreed to accept an "undeclared cessation of hostilities"
while an independent commission was investigating the responsibility
for the conflict; the cessation would become a formal cease-fire
on the date that the commission issued its findings. This was not
an acceptance of 598, but an informal cease-fire might have meant
an end to the killing as surely as a formal one. Iraq, however,
insisted that "under no circumstances" would it accept
an undeclared cease-fire. Instead of seizing the Iranian position
as a first step toward a compromise, the United States, in the words
of Gary Sick, "pressed single-mindedly for an embargo on Iran,
while resisting efforts by Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar
to fashion a compromise cease-fire."
"Could the war have been ended by a compromise in early 1988?"
Sick has asked. "The answer will never be known, primarily
because the United States was unwilling to explore Iran's offer.
The U.S. position -- and sensitivities about even the perception
of any sympathy toward Iran -- were a direct legacy of the Iran-contra
fiasco. They may have contributed to prolonging the war for six
Finally, in July 1988, with Iranian anti-war sentiment growing
widespread, Ayatollah Khomeini decided to end the fighting. On July
18, Iran declared its full acceptance of Resolution 598. But by
this time Iraq had turned the tide of the land battle, having regained
virtually all of its own territory, and Saddam Hussein refused to
accept the cease-fire. Baghdad continued offensive operations, using
chemical weapons both against Iran and its own Kurdish population.
It was not until August 6 that international pressure got Iraq to
agree to a cease-fire, and it went into effect two weeks later.
Both regimes continued to kill their own citizens -- Kurds in Iraq
and dissidents, especially leftists, in Iran -- but the Gulf war
The Iran-Iraq war was not a conflict between good and evil. But
though both regimes were repugnant, it was the people of the two
countries who served as the cannon fodder, and thus ending the war
as soon as possible was a humane imperative. Instead of lending
its good offices to mediation efforts and diplomacy, however, Washington
maneuvered for advantage, trying to gain vis-a-vis the Soviet Union
and to undercut the left. The United States provided intelligence
information, bogus and real, to both sides, provided arms to one
side, funded paramilitary exile groups, sought military bases, and
sent in the U.S. Navy -- and all the while Iranians and Iraqis died.
Three months after the end of the war, U.S. Deputy Undersecretary
of the Navy Seth Cropsy expressed his hope that the outcome of U.S.
operations in the Gulf would dispel the "national reluctance
to interpose American military forces in third world conflicts when
important issues are at stake."
Those opposed to U.S. interventionism will not share this hope.
Not that there weren't important issues at stake; there were. But
they were not the danger of Soviet invasion or the threat that the
Western economies might be deprived of oil. For Washington the important
issue was whether it would be able to maintain the status quo in
a region of great strategic value to the Pentagon and economic value
to the oil companies. But for those outside the corridors of power,
the real issues have been, and will continue to be, how to promote
peace, justice, and self-determination in the Gulf and elsewhere
-- and these issues do not lend themselves to gunboat diplomacy.
[Editor's Note: A footnoted
paper is available at
The United States and the Gulf War.]
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