In an interview with Muslim Press, Brian Downing, a political-military analyst, discusses the Iran-Iraq war and the role that the United States played it it.
The following is the full transcription of the interview:
Muslim Press: How do you analyze Washington's role in Iran-Iraq war?
Brian Downing: The US was in the awkward position of opposing both countries: Iran for the embassy hostage situation and its calls for revolution; Iraq for its brutal government, alignment with the Soviet Union, and hostility to Israel. The US did not approve of Saddam’s invasion. Bani-Sadr claimed it did, but there’s no evidence of it.
Nonetheless, the US, at least in the first few years of the war, supported Iraq. This was because a victorious Iran might destabilize the Gulf monarchies. The US claimed at the time that it was not providing lethal equipment to Iraq but this isn’t true. The US provided aerial bombs, which are very lethal. Other support took the form of transport aircraft, training Iraqi helicopter pilots (who came to the US on Jordanian passports), supplying parts for Soviet military hardware, and fighting Iranian forces during the “tanker war”.
Later in the war, the US provided weapons to Iran – specifically TOW antitank missiles and Hawk antiaircraft missiles. There were several reasons for this: the US was worried that Iran might draw closer to the Soviet Union; and Israel was urging the US to arm Iran. It’s important to recall that Israel was supplying arms to Iran during the war and maintaining American military equipment such as the F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat. Israel and Iran were allies then. Supporting both sides, as one might suspect, led to no advantages for the US.
When interviewed on Press TV I have pointed out, probably more than once, that if Iran had been on better terms with the US, Iraq never would have invaded. If Saddam somehow had invaded, the US would have destroyed his air force and cut off his army’s supply lines in a week. Look what the US did to the Iraqi military in 1991 and 2003.
MP: Why did the West support Saddam?
Brian Downing: The West supported Iraq for the same main reason the US did: fear that an Iranian victory would destabilize the region. Also, western businesses made a lot of revenue from selling arms to Iraq. The US made only a small amount relative to its economy. And of course the Sunni monarchies helped pay the bills. The situation continues today: the Gulf monarchies buy huge amounts of military equipment from the West – not so much to build effective militaries; more to win political support.
MP: Do you think the United States should be paying damages to Iran?
Brian Downing: No, I don’t think the US should be paying damages to Iran. American support was far less than that of the Soviet Union or France. As noted, the US provided arms to Iran as well as to Iraq. The only case for reparations would be for Iran Air Flight 655, which a US ship accidentally destroyed. I repeat, accidentally. The US did in fact pay reparations in 1996.
MP: Did the countries that supported Iraq know about Saddam's use of chemical weapons? If so, why did they support him?
Brian Downing: The Soviet Union undoubtedly knew what it was doing when it provided Iraq with a substance similar to mustard gas. The UK helped build a chemical plant that was known to help make mustard gas. Spain and Egypt probably also knew what the canisters they provided would be used for. And Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Lebanon knew they were providing ingredients that could be used for chemical weapons.
Some US companies were also providing ingredients but the US government stopped it once poison gas was used against the Kurds and Iranian troops. Israel pressured the US to stop deliveries.
It’s interesting that despite sustaining many casualties from chemical weapons, Iran never retaliated in kind.
MP: What's your take on UK's role in the war?
Brian Downing: Interesting question. At the outset of the war, the Iranian army had quite a number of British Chieftain tanks. The UK supplied parts for Chieftains that were captured by Iraq then used against Iran. Other equipment to Iraq included radar devices. This was all done through third-country brokers so that the UK could continue to claim it was not taking sides. All in all, however, I think France supplied more arms to Saddam than the UK did.
Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic.