In an interview with Muslim Press, Nick Alexandrov discusses the Iran-Iraq war and US role in it. He says "Washington’s sickening record in the Middle East reveals which values really drive its foreign policy".
In what follows, the full transcription of the interview has been given.
Muslim Press: What's your take on U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq war and its consequences for Iranian and Iraqi people?
Nick Alexandrov: There’s little awareness in the West of the devastating Iran-Iraq War, which began with Iraq’s invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980, and then ended on August 8, 1988, when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire. A 2012 critical oral history of the war, Becoming Enemies, describes it as “one of the largest and longest conventional interstate wars since the Korean conflict ended in 1953.” It killed half a million people, wounded another million, and was “the only war in modern times in which chemical weapons were used on a massive scale.” It can also be considered the precursor to other horrors: “It led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the liberation of Kuwait a year later, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
And the U.S. played a crucial role in it by backing Saddam Hussein. Political scientist Bruce Jentleson, in his 1994 study With Friends Like These, explains that while “the Reagan administration maintained neutrality” in the immediate aftermath of the war’s outbreak, by 1982 Washington was firmly behind Iraq. One could argue that this shift was not a dramatic departure from previous policy—that it can, in fact, be traced to decisions made under President Carter, that human rights champion. Jentleson points out that the Carter administration “made some very preliminary overtures to Saddam,” with National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski remarking during a television interview that he found “no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq,” for example.
Supporting Saddam’s invasion was made easier by the fact that the Iranian government was a major U.S. nemesis by 1980. “Not only had the fall of the Shah [in 1979] cost the United States one of its key allies, but the Ayatollah Khomeini had cast the United States as ‘the Great Satan’” after rising to power, Jentleson observes. “From the moment of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran on February 1, 1979, relations between the United States and Iran began to deteriorate,” add James G. Blight and the other editors of Becoming Enemies. They cite “a two-week period in the fall of 1979” as especially pivotal. Starting “October 22, when the Carter administration permitted the deposed Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment,” then continuing with “Khomeini’s endorsement of the November 4 student takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the taking of the American hostages by the students,” this stretch ensured “the two governments [would] become, incrementally but inexorably, the bitterest of enemies.”
We can note in passing here that deteriorating U.S.-Iran relations in the late ’70s and early ’80s followed decades of, as Alfred McCoy terms it, “U.S. tolerance of an ally’s”—namely the Shah’s—“torture and human rights abuse.” He reminds us that it was the CIA’s “coup in 1953 that restored the shah to direct rule,” after which the Agency, “in the decades that followed, helped consolidate his control. By 1959, American and Israeli advisers were involved in the reorganization of the ‘Iranian secret police,’” and the CIA “helped establish the most lethal of the shah’s secret police units, the Savak, and even trained its interrogators.”
Anyway, as Washington-Tehran enmity intensified, the U.S. government stepped up its support for Iraq in, again, 1982, “when Iran ousted the invading force,” A. Reza Sheikholeslami writes in The Iran-Iraq War, a multi-author work edited by Farhang Rajaee. Sheikholeslami notes that Washington’s support efforts included “‘Operation Staunch,’ an active U.S. diplomatic effort to identify and halt arms shipments to Iran.” And Alan Friedman, in his book Spider’s Web, cites Reagan’s February 26, 1982 decision to drop “Iraq from the list of nations that supported acts of international terrorism” as another pro-Saddam move. This decision, Blight explains, “facilitated the Iraqi reentry into international arms markets,” though the U.S. had already begun supplying equipment of potential military value to Saddam. “In March 1981 the US State Department lifted a freeze of five Boeing planes to Iraq that could easily be fitted to carry troops,” writes Amazia Baram.
Elaborating on the materials Washington provided to Iraq, Friedman observes that, in 1982 and 1983, “U.S. military equipment was being sent to Iraq on the order of the White House, including ammunition, spare parts, defense electronics, and computers.” And Blight writes that “the United States at least failed to curb Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and may, according to some, have given Saddam Hussein a ‘green light’ for their use against Iranian troops.”
Blight and his co-editors further mention that “fear and loathing of Saddam was rarely expressed directly even in the paper trail within the U.S. government.” Apparently U.S. officials saw no moral arguments against helping a man “thought by Americans at all levels to be a monster.”
What were the war’s effects? The death toll, again, was roughly half a million, and there were other costs. “The Iranians turned inward after the war and spent the next decade trying to recover,” Bruce Riedel, who spent nearly three decades with the CIA, concludes. “The Iraqi economy had been devastated,” he adds. Laith Kubba writes that, post-conflict, “Iraq was left heavily in debt (an estimated $100 billion), and its reconstruction program required an estimated $100 billion spread over ten years.” Riedel adds that this devastation failed to weaken Iraq’s military industries, which—instead of being demobilized—“were expanded. Iraq’s appetite for building weapons became insatiable. They began to see themselves as the new Germany under the Third Reich.”
But the conflict did benefit some participants. Efraim Karsh noted that “it is clear that the United States was one of the major beneficiaries,” since the war “enabled Washington to rebuild relations with Iraq, obtain a potential strategic opening to Iran, and reinforce its partnership with the conservative Gulf states.” Thus “a decade after its humiliating expulsion from the Gulf following the Iranian Revolution, the United States is back in the region,” he wrote in 1989.
MP: Why did the Reagan/Bush administrations permit the flow of chemical weapons to Iraq?
Nick Alexandrov: As just mentioned, the recent critical oral history of the Iran-Iraq War, Becoming Enemies, reveals Washington officials expressed no qualms about aiding Saddam, even as he was recognized as “a monster.” This fact should come as no surprise. Simply consider, for example, how the Reagan administration behaved in a part of the world where it enjoyed unparalleled influence, namely Central America. Its accomplishments there included backing Contra terrorism against the popular Sandinista government (which overthrew the brutal, and of course U.S.-backed, Somoza regime) in Nicaragua; we can recall that, to this end, Washington funded the Contras with money it had earned selling arms to Iran, part of an effort to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Reagan also defended the genocidal Ríos Montt regime in Guatemala. Again, that’s how Washington acted in a region where it could do pretty much what it wished, so it would be naïve to expect moral considerations to suddenly factor into U.S. foreign policy decision-making farther away, say in the Middle East.
Regarding Saddam’s chemical weapons specifically, Jentleson notes that early “reports of Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iranian military forces, according to Secretary of State George Shultz, ‘drifted in’ in late 1983.” The UN subsequently determined “that Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian troops” on four separate occasions: in March 1984, April 1985, February-March 1986, and April-May 1987.
Even the first of these UN reports found that “Saddam was blatantly violating the 1925 Geneva Protocol Banning the Use of Chemical Weapons in War.” And a U.S. State Department Bulletin issued the same month—on March 5, 1984—“concluded that the available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical weapons.” Just over four years later, a top secret U.S. governmental report revealed Saddam had continued the brutal practice: “Recent fighting in northeastern Iraq has underscored the regular, recurring use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war and suggests that such activity will continue to increase.”
And again, as anyone with even the most basic understanding of Reagan-era U.S. foreign policy would expect, there was no moral opposition in Washington to Saddam’s chemical warfare. Blight and his co-editors write “that at key moments—for instance, during Donald Rumsfeld’s first meeting with Saddam Hussein in late 1983—U.S. officials were hesitant about raising the issue with senior Iraqi officials at all.” Thomas Pickering, a career U.S. Foreign Service officer, admitted “there was no serious debate in policy circles about American culpability at the time—not even in the aftermath of the attacks on Kurdish civilians in the Iraqi town of Halabja in March 1988,” for example. “Asked whether Iraqi chemical attacks on defenseless civilians sparked debate,” Richard Murphy, another long-term U.S. Foreign Service officer, “responded, ‘Not in the State Department.’”
Still other officials play-acted at protest. David Newton “said that he personally brought up the issue ‘repeatedly’ while he was the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad in the mid-1980s,” but conceded “that he was in effect speaking to the willfully deaf, and that he never expected his protests to be taken seriously.” Such was the U.S. “opposition” to Saddam’s viciousness.
Washington simply had greater priorities than curbing Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, as Joost R. Hiltermann explains. The Reagan administration felt these weapons had “value in countering Iranian human-wave attacks,” and moreover was so concerned “by Iranian expansionism” that it “closed its eyes to Iraq’s continued gas use, especially because it offered hope of persuading Iran to accept a ceasefire.”
MP: What role did U.S. intelligence play in the war?
Nick Alexandrov: U.S. intelligence played a crucial, perhaps essential, role. “In June 1982,” writes Friedman, “a White House meeting was called to discuss the Iran-Iraq War. The prevailing view was that if Washington wanted to prevent an Iranian victory, it would have to share some of its more sensitive intelligence photography with Saddam.”
This intelligence allowed the Iraqis to better understand “vulnerabilities in their own defensive lines,” Jentleson explains. “When the Iranians attacked a few weeks later, ‘Iraqi defenses had been significantly fortified and the Iranians were repulsed with heavy casualties.’” Reagan proceeded to formalize this “limited intelligence-sharing program”—for which CIA deputy director Robert Gates, later Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was responsible—with his 1984 National Security Decision Directive.
In 2012, Thomas Twetten, who helmed the CIA’s Near East Operations Division in the 1980s, revealed just how effective Washington’s intelligence had been. In his view, the information “made an enormous difference” in the Iraqi war effort. And he added that, years after the conflict, “an Iraqi military intelligence officer told him that it ‘made all the difference. It prevented an Iraqi collapse.’” W. Patrick Lang Jr., a former military intelligence officer, concurred: he “described the intelligence as ‘crucial’ and ‘decisive’ in preventing the Iraqis from collapsing, and eventually getting them back on the offensive.”
Lastly we can note with Friedman that, what started “with intelligence-sharing expanded rapidly and surreptitiously” during the conflict, to the point where—as one White House official put it—“by 1987, our people were actually providing tactical military advice to the Iraqis in the battlefield, and sometimes they would find themselves over the Iranian border, alongside Iraqi troops.” This deep U.S. involvement, Friedman explains, violated the U.S. War Powers Act, which “requires that Congress be notified whenever American soldiers are deployed in a military conflict, or even involved in imminent hostilities, whether they number in the dozens or the thousands.”
MP: Reagan did not stop aiding Iraq after receiving reports affirming the use of poison gas on Kurdish civilians. What could you say about this?
Nick Alexandrov: Reagan’s policy here was in keeping both with his cold-blooded approach to world affairs, and with the cynicism governing Washington’s conduct towards the Kurds.
Jentleson notes that August 25, 1988, marked Saddam’s “‘final offensive’ against the Iraqi Kurds. His planes and helicopters rained chemical warfare on more than thirty Kurdish villages, while his troops blocked all escape routes except those leading up into the rugged Taurus Mountains along the Turkish border.” After the chemical assault, Saddam sent troops in “to raze the villages and finish off any stragglers. In one small village named Baze, ‘Iraqi forces opened fire with machine-guns on everyone in the village and then used bulldozers to push the bodies into mass graves.’”
The Reagan administration saw no need to alter its approach after this atrocity. For example, one of Secretary of State George Shultz’s deputies argued it would be “premature” to impose sanctions, while another stressed the need to maintain “solid, businesslike relations” with Iraq—never mind that “several American-made helicopters, supposedly imported for crop dusting,” had been used in the attack, according to Jentleson.
And again, Reagan’s refusal to condemn these brutal attacks was right in line with earlier policy: Washington supported Saddam throughout his drawn-out crackdown on the Kurds. The unification of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in 1985-1986, coupled with Kurdish-Iranian cooperation at the time, for example, had prompted Saddam “to unleash…brutal repression against the ‘traitorous’ Kurds.” He then followed up with his “al-Anfal” campaign in February 1988, which aimed “to break the Kurdish-Iranian alliance by effectively depopulating large areas of Iraqi Kurdistan” via “wanton destruction and massive killing.” Then on March 16, 1988, “the Iraqi air force strafed Halabja, a major Kurdish agricultural city and trading center about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad, with mustard gas and nerve toxins,” killing “as many as five thousand people,” according to Jentleson.
Or consider Washington’s policy in the 1970s: “the CIA provided $16 million in aid to the Kurds” from 1972-1975, when the Shah also backed them. The aim then was “to tie the Iraqis up, drain their resources,” and more broadly—as the CIA explained on March 23, 1974—to create “a stalemate situation…in which Iraq is intrinsically weakened by the Kurds’ refusal to relinquish their semi-autonomy.” Washington had no intention to promote Kurdish interests, in other words.
After “the Shah negotiated his own separate peace with Saddam Hussein” a year later, however, he “agreed to end his support for the Kurds”—after which KDP head Mullah Mustafa Barzani “pleaded for assistance from the United States,” and even “wrote Kissinger directly.” But “there was no response from Kissinger” or anyone else; the begged-for help never came. When Barzani was on his deathbed “in March 1979, stricken with cancer and in exile in a suburb of Washington, D.C.,” someone asked him about the worst mistake he had ever made. He paused, then “responded, ‘my judgment about the American government that betrayed us.’”
MP: How do you compare Washington's policies in the Middle East at that time and today?
Nick Alexandrov: First of all, let’s remind ourselves why the U.S. government is even mucking around in the Middle East to begin with. “The importance of the [Persian] Gulf resides largely in its oil,” as Henry S. Rowen, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, explained in a July 20, 1982 memorandum to Geoffrey Kemp, a member of the National Security Council. “It contains about 35% of known world oil reserves, 35% of the non-communist world’s production capacity and 25% of current output. The power to interrupt the supply of this flow entails the power to wreak havoc on the economies of the West,” Rowen emphasized.
He highlighted these issues to clarify the specific threat Iran posed at the time, with “consolidation of power in Tehran by the Islamic Republican Party and its apparent intent to spread the Islamic Revolution to its Arab neighbors”—an effort that “could inflict grave damage on American interests and those of its allies.” As Blight and his co-editors ask of the Iran-Iraq War more generally: “Is it a coincidence that Iran and Iraq, the twin ‘savages’ of a neo-American Middle East ‘wilderness,’ happened to be two of the world’s largest oil producers in the world [sic]? Probably not.”
And as Greg Muttitt explains in his excellent book Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, oil-related concerns also helped shape recent U.S. policy in the Middle East—though this point isn’t widely acknowledged. “Mainstream media accounts have located the Iraq problem in a string of mistakes: government misread the intelligence; neoconservatives launched a war without preparation and found themselves out of their depth; the invasion force was too small;” and so on. “It would be wrong to say that the war and occupation were shaped only by oil; the reality is messier,” he clarifies. “But it would be at least as naïve to accept the opposite view: that the war had ‘literally nothing to do with oil,’ as U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted in November 2002.”
Consider next the issue of weapons proliferation, something Washington backed firmly in the 1980s and continues to promote today. In their book The Sixth Crisis, Dana Allin and Steven Simon write that “Iranians certainly remember that the rest of the world effectively shrugged when Iraq used a so-called weapon of mass destruction [chemical weapons] against them,” which Saddam, again, obtained with plenty of help from Washington. “U.S. companies sold Iraq precursors useable for chemical weapons, while Washington helped Baghdad locate third-country sources for purchase of weapons, such as cluster bombs, that the United States was unable to provide,” they explain.
Meanwhile Obama, who you’ll recall won a Nobel Peace Prize, “has approved more arms sales than any U.S. administration since World War II,” according to William D. Hartung. “The majority of the Obama administration’s arms sales—over 60 percent—have gone to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia topping the list at $46 billion in new agreements.” And much “of the $25 billion in arms and training supplied to Iraqi security forces—most of it on Bush’s watch—was abandoned to ISIS forces when they swept through northern Iraq in summer 2014, and IS also captured weapons that the CIA supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian factions,” Hartung adds.
One last point of comparison I’ll mention is the U.S. government’s consistent indifference to the human costs of its Middle East policies. As mentioned above, U.S. officials had no qualms backing Saddam—more specifically, with helping him acquire a type of weapon world leaders had tried to ban in 1925, with the Geneva Protocol—in a war that ultimately killed half a million people and wounded another million. And anyone shocked by Washington’s aid to Saddam would have had to have been ignorant of U.S. support for the Shah following the 1953 CIA coup.
Then Washington’s 1990s sanctions on Iraq proceeded apace, even as warnings emerged that the policy would likely kill half a million Iraqi children. Two successive UN Humanitarian Coordinators in Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, resigned to protest the sanctions, with Halliday concluding they were “criminally flawed and genocidal.” All of this was the precursor to George W. Bush’s Iraq War, which killed a million Iraqis and displaced a million and a half.
I could go on, of course, but what more can one say after a certain point? Washington’s sickening record in the Middle East reveals which values really drive its foreign policy. We’d do well to bear this fact in mind—both now, amid all the election-related commentary on “U.S. values,” and in the future.
Nick Alexandrov writes regularly for CounterPunch and has contributed to the Asia Times. Most of his work focuses on U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America during the Cold War. He has received his PhD from George Washington University.