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The Shah Builds an Army
Before his demise, the Shah had embarked upon upon the largest military build-up by a Third World nation in modern history. He bought tanks, missiles, aircraft, ships - everything and anything, provided it contained the latest in state-of-the-art technology. Had he remained in power but two years longer, his Air Force would have become the third most powerful in the world. Already, by 1979, Iran had more modern combat aircraft than most European powers.
As the Iranian revolution gathered speed in the final months of 1978, the possibility of all those weapons falling into unfriendly hands became a terrifying reality. The American intelligence community was seized with panic, for the fatal flaw of the Nixon Doctrine - the "special relationship" that had existed between Washington and Tehran - had finally surfaced, dashing a throne and a major alliance as inexorably as the furies of Greek tragedy.
In the dark hours that preceded the Shah's flight from Iran, the CIA station chief in Tehran hastily dismantled US listening posts stretched along Iran's 1200 mile-long border with the Soviet Union. Sensitive equipment was destroyed or shipped out. Grumman technicians left the country carrying top secret repair manuals for the F-14 fighter. Others pocketed computer chips powering the "brains" of the Phoenix missiles that armed them (1).
Still, the damage was far-reaching. The avionics suite on the US Navy F-14 and its Phoenix missile weapons system had to be redesigned, and despite the fact that the listening bases were quietly relocated to mainland China a year later, US arms negotiators were forced to admit they no longer had the same capability to monitor telemetry on Soviet missile tests - and thus, Soviet compliance with the SALT II accords.
But the United States had not always appeased the Shah's extravagant appetites, nor indulged his reveries as the defensor of the West. On numerous occasions, from the CIA-backed "restoration" of 1953 until the Johnson Presidency, American officials attempted to tone down the Shah's military requests and direct him instead toward mending the imbalances in Iran's social structure (2).
It was important, they argued, to preserve Iran's strategic position along NATO's right flank and to prevent Soviet expansion to the South. However, military aid should be kept within reason, since it served primarily "to cement Army loyalty to the Shah, and thus consolidate the present regime." In the event of a major Soviet move into Iran, the Shah would need immediate support from US forces anyway. An Iranian arms race with the Soviets was unwinnable and would ruin the Iranian economy, with the result of provoking widespread unrest that could jeopardize the regime from within (3).
As of 1965, however, the mood in Washington changed. With President Johnson obsessed by Vietnam, the Shah and his influential ally, Northrup President Tom Jones, were able to push through the first major arms sale to Iran, for the Northrup F-5. It was argued Iran needed the planes to counter recent Soviet deliveries of MiG 21 fighters to neighboring Syria and Iraq. Besides, if the Shah didn't get them, he was threatening to turn to Moscow instead (4).
The lobbying campaign was so successful not only did the Shah get all 106 of the Northrup planes: the sale was no longer linked to demands for reform inside Iran, the main condition set by all previous American administrations.
Still, the Shah's arms purchases in the late 60's were modest compared to what was to come (5). At least limited attention was paid to the ability of the Iranian Armed Forces to absorb the new equipment, which remained several years behind what was available to US forces.
All that was to change with the arrival of another of the Shah's influential friends to the inner circles of power in Washington.
As President Nixon's advisor on National Security, Henry Kissinger was instrumental in formulating what became known as the "Nixon Doctrine." This was a new strategy whereby US troops could be kept out of foreign wars, all the while US geopolitical interests would be protected in volatile regions around the globe. Announced in Guam in 1969, and initially intended for America's allies in Asia, it became the ideological justification for the increasingly extravagant arms relationship with the Shah. In this idyll of superpower domination, countries such as South Korea, Israel, Iran and South Africa would perform the tasks of wartime allies, paying cash for the weapons they were to use to carry out American designs.
The Guam speech followed on the heels of the announcement by Prime Minister Harold Wilson that Great Britain intended to evacuate all points "East of Suez" by 1971. The possibility of a power vacuum in his own backyard excited the latent megalomania of the Shah, who wasted little time in posing his candidature with the White House as sole defensor of Western interests in the Gulf. His first act was to seize three channel islands controlling the Straights of Hormuz (Big Tumb, Little Tumb, and Abu Moussa), where more than 60% of the free world's oil supplies transited every day.
The Nixon Doctrine ushered in what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee termed "a bonanza for US weapons manufacturers, the procurement branches of the three US services, and the Defense Security Assistance Agency" (6). The spending spree would reach phenomenal proportions, and would far outstrip the personnel and management capabilities of the Iranian military, since the Shah now had the green light to purchase the latest brainchildren of the American defence industry, including weapons not yet adopted by the Pentagon.
Iran soon became the largest foreign customer of US weaponry. It contributed funds to research & development programs, and received some items, such as the F-14, simultaneously as they were delivered to the US armed forces. From $524 million in FY 1972, arms sales to Iran leaped seven-fold by 1974, and totaled $10.4 billion for the 1972-1976 period. The Shah's total arms build-up from the mid-sixties up until the end of his reign can be estimated at $20 billion. In the last full year of his reign, military expenditures totalling $12 billion accounted for 35.5% of the national budget (7).
Besides helping to recirculate enormous amounts of petrodollars (8), the "special relationship" linking Washington and Tehran had other benefits. The US was allowed to build and maintain listening bases, and could call on Tehran to supply oil to allies such as Israel, South Africa, and white-ruled Rhodesia at a time when these countries risked oil embargos from Arab OPEC members.
But the Nixon Doctrine, in its effort to shift the defense burden onto America's allies, created a disturbing symbiosis between the US and Iranian military establishments - precisely the "kind of policy that will make countries... so dependent on us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam." (9). According to the Senate Committee Report,
"it is unlikely that Iran could go to war in the next five to ten years with its current and prospective inventory... without US support on a day-to-day basis... We are told that because of the priority given to "prestige" systems such as the F-14, already trained personnel assigned to other systems that are more relevant to near-term threats (F-5E and F-4), have been transferred to the new systems with a resultant unmeasurable degradation in overall force effectiveness."
Not only were the arms sales fueling the fires of future chaos through the economic imbalance they engendered, but the plethora of newer and more complex weaponry was not necessarily improving Iran's defence capabilities.
"It is not clear who really has influence over whom," the Committee Report warned. Once again, as the Soviets would find in Iraq, the arms relationship cut both ways. There are limits even to superpower influence once the stakes get so high.
When Jimmy Carter, along with Leslie Gelb (then the Director of the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and today a _N_e_w___Y_o_r_k___T_i_m_e_s correspondent), decided to "moralize" US arms sales abroad, he was thinking specifically of Iran. Arms transfers were henceforth to "be treated as an exceptional instrument of foreign policy," while the US pledged "not to be the first supplier to introduce into a region newly developed advanced weapon systems which could create a new or significantly higher combat capability (10)."
Nevertheless, Carter sent Gelb before Congress, to argue for the sale of seven E-3A AWACS aircraft to Iran on the grounds that they would cost less than installing a ground-based radar network and would implicate fewer American personnel. Like his predecessors, Carter would make the same fatal miscalcation in believing that the United States could secure sufficient political leverage through arms sales to change the domestic behavior of the recipient regime. And like his predecessors, he would repeat the mistake again and again.
Though finally approved, the AWACS were never delivered. Two other sales that would have drastically escalated American intelligence losses at the Revolution were flatly refused: the F-18L, a ground attack version of the Navy's newest fighter, and the Air Force "Wild Weasel," an upgraded F-4 jam-packed with the newest and most sophisticated electronic countermeasures the US defence industry had ever produced, an earlier version of which had been used successfully by the Israelis during the 1973 War (11).
The arms relationship with the Shah had clearly gotten out of hand, even in the eyes of such conservatives as Fred Ikle, who warned that the sale of still more advanced fighters to Iran would be "destabilizing." (12) Before the Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979 he had placed orders with US contractors for an additional $12.2 billion of military hardware, with deliveries to be spread over the following three years.
One of the last acts of the Provisional Government of Shahpour Bakhtiar was to cancel $9 billion worth of the impending orders. The following is only a partial list of the items now considered too expensive or superfluous to Iran's real defense needs, but it gives a glimpse of the enormity of the Shah's pretensions, and of the staggering amounts of equipment he _d_i_d purchase over the preceding ten years.
- 160 F-16s plus training and support at a total cost of $3.6 billion
- Seven E-3A AWACS, $1.2 billion
- Two of four Litton Industries DD-993 "Spruance class" guided missile destroyers, at an estimated $600 million
- 400 Phoenix missiles, estimated at $250-$300 million.
- 16 McDonnell Douglas RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft, $219 million
- 200 McDonnell Douglas Harpoon anti-ship missiles, $130 mill
- 500 Gould Mk.46 torpedoes, $79 million
- 1000 Raytheon Improved Hawk air defense missiles, $60 million
- 400 Gould Mk 46 torpedoes, $47 million
- Various armored personnel carriers and other vehicles.
As the Shah discovered when his soldiers discarded their magazines and began placing roses at the end of their gun barrels, the Imperial Military had been "organized for the wrong war (13)." Too small and ill-trained to forestall a Soviet invasion, too large and technology-oriented to crush a local rebellion, the Army would finally collapse into itself, like a dying star.
As late as December 12, 1978, during a White House press conference, President Carter still reaffirmed his belief in the Shah. "I fully expect the Shah to maintain power in Iran and for the present problems in Iran to be resolved. The predictions of doom and disaster that came from some sources have certainly not been realized at all (14)."
At the same time, the United States was timidly trying to lay the basis for future cooperation under an Islamic regime. Its primary hope lay in maintaining open lines of communication with the Iranian Army, since some 12,000 Iranian officers had been trained in the US since 1947. Most spoke fluent English, and many had children or other relatives studying in the United States. "The maintenance of an intact military as an institution could confer considerable bargaining advantages in managing both the post-revolutionary politics of Iran and the transition," argued Iranian scholar Shahram Chubin. Organizing their allegiance under Iran's new leaders was one of the primary reasons behind the ill-fated mission of General Huyser in December 1978 (15).
With the fall of the provisional government in February, an attempt was made by Khomeini to stabilize the army. A limited purge was ordered under the direction of Rear Admiral Ahmad Madani and General Taqi Riyahi, to skim the "corrupt" head off the Army and begin its reorganization along Islamic lines. 85 officers, including 26 Generals, were executed (out of an announced total of 404 executions during this period), all of whom had committed specific "counterrevolutionary" acts under the Shah. This was a far cry from the disaster many had feared. In fact, some of the "victims" would have been sacrificed anyway had Bakhtiar remained in power.
Khomeini and his allies had good reason for maintaining the officer corps intact throughout the early stages of the revolution. They needed the army to reinforce their standing against rival groups, such as the Tudeh Party, the Fedayeen-e Khalq and the Mujahidin. "The army, police and gendarmerie are now in the service of Islam and the nation," Khomeini declared. "The nation should support them, and do nothing that might discourage them or hurt their feelings (16)." Indeed, by this time the desertion rate had reached 60%.
Continued unrest and local uprisings also militated in favor of maintaining a national military apparatus, in the hands of well-trained professional officers. As early as April 1, 1979 troops were sent to the northern province of Mazandaran to put down a revolt. In July, the army was used to quell riots in Kurdistan, and again in September in Khuzestan. In all three military interventions, however, there was a new element: regular army units now operated under the watchful eyes of the Revolutionary Guards, to ensure their loyalty to the regime.
Carter's last attempt to woo
Carter's principal advisors on Iran - Henry Precht at State, American MAAG chief General Philip Gast, and the new charge d'affairs in Tehran, L. Bruce Laingen - closely monitored these events, and argued over the summer that relations with the revolutionary government were improving. They believed a significant opportunity for renewing US influence in Iran was at hand, via the "objective dependency" of the Islamic regime on American military training and support. Accordingly, the Pentagon was ordered to get the spare parts pipeline flowing again, starting with a $300 million back order for helicopter and F-14 spares. In August a few modest new contracts were signed (17).
Negociations on improving relations between the two countries continued to within days of the storming of the US embassy on November 4, 1979. Despite Iranian suspicion, and mounting warning signals that the Bazargan government was losing control, top US officials believed "common interests could provide a basis for future cooperation - not on the scale of before but sufficient to demonstrate that Iran has not been 'lost' to us and to the West." (18) It was felt that Khomeini's desire to smash the Kurds would force him to come to terms with the US.
In hindsight, the monumental misjudgment of the Pentagon and the ] State Department seems little more than ill-timed wishful thinking, based on the type of biased reporting that had failed to predict the revolution but ten months earlier. But one current within the American Administration - spearheaded by Ambassador William Sullivan (19) - truly believed Khomeini could provide an effective bulwark against a Soviet or communist inspired take-over in Iran, and that the arms relationship would create obligations stronger than the revolutionary rhetoric of the radical mullahs. What they failed to understand was that Khomeini was primarily concerned with consolidating his regime through revolutionary purity, convinced that a desire for martyrdom could vanquish the most powerful conventional arms. This same inability to understand the ideological underpinnings of the Islamic regime would lead to the ill-fated Irangate initiative of 1985-86.
In the early days of the hostage crisis President Carter "punished" the Iranians by cutting the arms relationship off cold. On November 9, he embargoed the $300 million parts shipment; on the 23rd, he terminated flight training for the 273 Iranian military personnel still in the United States. Khomeini responded by attacking the Iranian Army, now accused of secretly collaborating with the "Big Satan." This charge became more vociferous after the failed rescue attempt in April, which had required the complicity of certain senior officers. One of the heads to fall was General Bahman Bagheri, the Air Force Chief of Staff.
The regime's change of attitude toward the military had been in the works since September 1979, when Mostafa Chamran was appointed the first civilian Minister of Defence. A Khomeini insider and former deputy prime minister for revolutionary affairs, Chamran unleashed a general purge that would affect the military establishment to its very roots. Coupled to the creation of the "Army of Twenty Million" announced by Khomeini, the idea was to forge a new popular force purged of all ties to the Shah, that would build and then sustain revolutionary fervor, based on the trumped-up threat of an American invasion. "We believe that the entire Iranian nation should become the soldiers of the revolution... (whereas) the Army should be turned into a specialized and modern technical cadre," Chamran said (20).
Accordingly, the ranks of the professional armed forces were dimished by half. The purge wiped out the entire command structure of the Army, which alone accounted for 10,000 of the total 12,000 military personnel eliminated by the time of the Iraqi invasion. According to Brookings analyst William F. Hickman, "suspicion was aroused by previous association with Americans, training in the United States, relationships with those already purged, or other such factors." The purge would have "a devastating effect on the army's ability to conduct combat operations."
American officials became increasingly worried that the Soviet Union would take advantage of the chaos inside of Iran, especially after Afghanistan, and tried to convince newly-elected President Abolhassan Bani Sadr and other officials of the advantages of maintaining diplomatic relations with the U.S. Even after the failed mission at Tabas, which brought US humiliation to its peak, Defense Secretary Harold Brown reiterated the Administration's desire "to be friends with the revolutionary government... A strong, stable Iran, neutral and Islamic, would be good for the area and for the United States. Moreover, it would help to block Soviet expansionism."(21).
Again and again, Carter and Brown would offer to normalize relations and resume arms deliveries in exchange for release of the hostages. But their entreaties fell on impotent ears. Bani Sadr had been outmanoeuvred by the radical mullahs, whose primary goal throughout the crisis was to block any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. Buoyed up by the "victory" at Tabas, they became increasingly intransigent.
Although there is no evidence to date of direct Soviet involvement in the storming of the US Embassy, the USSR clearly benefitted from the attack on US prestige, and maintained open lines of communication with the radical "students" throughout the crisis. Their spokesman, 44-year old Sayed Mohammad Mohsen Mossavi Khoiniha, served as a bridge between the Soviet Embassy, the students, and Ayatollah Khomeini. The privileged relationship between Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Vinogradov and Khoiniha was discovered by visiting Egyptian journalist, Mohammad Heikal, who had known Vinogradov in the early 1970's when he was Soviet Ambassador to Egypt. Heikal used his friendship with Vinogradov to arrange a hasty meeting with the "students" - which to Heikal's surprise, took place in the Soviet Ambassador's official residence. (Vinogradov had a reputation for mingling in the internal affairs of the countries to which he was assigned) (22). Khoiniha was fired from his position as director of Iranian radio-television by incoming President Bani Sadr in January 1980. Later he was given control of Iran's secret police, SAVAMA, which he reorganized with Soviet help.
Although the Soviet Union had been unwilling to risk offending the Shah by premature support for the religious opposition (after all, the Shah _h_a_d survived crises before), it launched a serious effort to penetrate the Islamic movement early in 1978, training "false" mullahs in East Germany, Cuba, Syria and Lebanon, and putting the resources of the Soviet-funded Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine at Khomeini's disposal. For the USSR, the hostage crisis marked a switch from its relatively passive role as interested observer, to an active effort to eliminate US influence in Islamic Iran. This would culminate in a mutual defense pact, military deliveries, extensive economic cooperation, and the participation of its surrogate, the Tudeh Party, in successive revolutionary governments.
Suppose they gave a war...
When the Gulf war broke out the Iranian regime was on the ideological offensive, but its military machine was in a shambles. The deep purges had decimated the officer corps, while the US embargo on spare parts resulted in grounding the Iranian Air Force and helicopter fleet - at least, by all appearances. Indeed, it was the perception by Iraq's ruling Baath Party of a window of opportunity that tipped the scales in favor of what they felt was a preemptive attack. Saddam Hussein thought he could bring down the fundamentalist regime in a matter of days, becoming the first Arab leader to equal Israeli military exploits.
For the radicals in Iran, the war came as a relief. It offered a more effective means of consolidating the revolution than the hostage crisis, which had aroused the opposition of the moderates and the hostility of the bazariis, hard-hit by American sanctions. Still, in the eyes of Prime Minister Ali Radjai, US prestige and influence had fallen so low he felt he could refuse the final US offer of military supplies, which included parts for F-4s, F-5s, C-130s, ammunition for Iran's 155mm howitzers, and Dragon anti-tank and improved Hawk air defence missiles. The whole lot was ready for shipment, and had already been paid for by the Iranians, according to Administration leaks to the press just days before the US elections (23).
By January 1981 it became evident that Iran owned $1 billion of American weapons and related equipment in Pentagon stores, but these were never included in the final hostage agreement and may never have been discussed. "A decision to seek to reactivate the military supply relationship with the US would be an admission of defeat on several levels," Chubin notes (24). Instead, the Iranians purchased vital spares on the international arms market, working through brokers in Europe, Israel, Taiwan and... the United States.
The Soviet Union made two _o_b_e_c_t_i_v_e gains through the hostage crisis: it firmly installed anti-American hard-liners in power, and moved Iran irrevocably onto the path of conflict with Iraq. As US Middle East experts, such as William Quandt and Joseph Sisco would note in the early days of the war, the Soviet Union had everything to gain from the conflict (25). Iranian dependence on US spare parts would undoubtedly arouse suspicion among the mullahs that the war was an American plot, whereas Moscow could point to its "neutral" - even friendly - posture, once arms supplies to Iraq were cut off. At the same time the Soviets were given a prime occasion to teach the Baathists a lesson. Here, however, the Soviets miscalculated. Instead of reinforcing their influence through the arms relationship, they contributed in driving Iraq to the West.
Bani Sadr reorganizes the Air Force
When Bani Sadr was named Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, following his election as President on January 25, 1980, he was faced with the total disorganization of the military. Almost immediately, he set up a government commission to reevaluate the purges, which reported the extent of the disaster: the combat effectiveness of the Air Force was estimated at 20%, that of the Navy 10%, whereas that of the Army was believed to be virtually nil. Bani Sadr's account of how he attempted to remedy this situation, culled from a series of interviews over a three year period, adds a wealth of historical details previously unavailable in the West and sheds new light on why Iran simply didn't collapse when Iraq invaded in September 1980.
"Under the Shah, all decisions were made by one man. If he gave no orders, as happened the last year, the Army simply collapsed. In fact, the Shah was more afraid of the Army than he was of the revolution...
My effort was to democratize the Army, open the door to personal initiative which did not exist before. I tried to form an army of merit, based on competence. I wanted to turn the Army into a school. When you entered, you knew you could become an officer - even Field Marshall - depending on the level of your competence" (26).
But Bani Sadr admitted he never could have reorganized the Army if there hadn't been the increasing tensions of early 1980, and finally the war.
The sabre-rattling of early 1980 afforded the new President an excuse to rehabilitate many professional army officers, languishing in Khomeini's jails. It also gave him a chance to tour military installations around the country to show officers that the Revolution was not solely dedicated to their demise. While he was boosting morale, he said, he took the occasion to check on spare parts and logistics. And here, the situation he discovered was desperate, and heartening all at once.
Warehouse after warehouse was crammed to the ceiling with crates of American spare parts, for the F-4s, the F-5s, the F-14s. The only item glaringly absent were the gyroscopes used in the inertial nav/attack system on the Grumman F-14 - without which, these sophisticated aircraft would fly blind.
The problem was that no one knew where any _s_p_e_c_i_f_i_c part was located. The US company which had been contracted to computerize the logistics network had pulled out with the Shah, leaving behind a staff officer's nightmare on a national level, and $250 million in bills.
"We used three different Iranian teams to scour the country. It took them six months to complete a new spare parts listing, which we then fed into a central computer. When Saddam attacked, he thought our Air Force was grounded. Instead, it was 90% operational, and this was his biggest mistake. For it was the resistance of the Air Force, the constant waves of its attacks against Iraqi tanks, troops, and artillery for nearly one month, that gave us the time we needed to transfer ground forces from the north of the country and bring them down to the front. Without the Air Force, we were lost, because we had absolutely nothing on the ground."
After the month-long air war, the former President said, the Iranian Army was able to disengage enough troops from Kurdistan to set up a defensive line in the southern province of Khuzistan, where the Iraqi attack was the most fierce. When the line held, Bani Sadr ordered the Air Force home. The planes (already threatened by a lack of spare parts) were too precious to waste on ground support operations. Only attacks against strategic installations - such as the Air bases inside Iraq - were still allowed. "I was thinking of after the war," Bani Sadr said. "For once we had shown Saddam that Iran would not collapse, I believed the war would end. I never imagined it could go on this long."
Another key factor that increased Iranian preparedness for Iraq's invasion was the unmasking of a vast 5th column organization in July 1980. Sometimes called the "Noget Coup," the plotters belonged to groups still faithful to Shahpour Bakhtiar and the former head of the Shah's Army, General Gholam Ali Oveissi, who organized the coup attempt from their exile in Iraq. Six hundred pro-Bakhtiar officers were arrested at a meeting at the Noget Air base, outside the city of Hamadan, including 270 officers from the only regular Army division then stationed in Khuzistan. Twenty-five pilots were also involved in the conspiracy. Khomeini decreed they all be executed for their opposition to the Islamic regime, but Bani Sadr opposed his decision. Using procedural ruses in the Courts, he managed to delay the executions until the war broke out, at which point he freed most of the officers on condition they returned to active duty (27).
"Before the war broke out, we had unveiled eight major cells, all linked through a central organization. The largest was in the Air Force, but others were active at Army bases in Tehran itself, as well as in Kermanshah, Khuzistan, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan - all along the Iraqi border. Their mission was to paralyze the Army and the Air Force once Iraq launched its attack. It was not a coup d'etat, but an organized Iraqi attack."
The former President claims that the first clue to the conspiracy was discovered by the alert Captain of the Presidential Guard, who received a manuscript letter threatening the regime. Comparing the handwriting to Army files, he traced the letter to a non-commissioned officer named Heydari of the Airmobile helicopter commandos, and gradually unearthed Heydari's co-conspirators.
"The problem was that we didn't know when they intended to act. But we did know that their plan was to give the appearance of a coup d'etat to restore the Shah, while the real aim was to provide a pretext to cover the Iraqi invasion. According to the information we received, the conspirators had set up a military camp in Sulimanieh and planned to ignite a Kurdish revolt and organize demonstrations throughout Iran. Their strategy was simple: internal disorders would first disperse Iranian military forces, so that on the very first day of the Iraqi attack Saddam could occupy the whole Western part of the country."
As Bani Sadr launched his discreet investigation, the details began to check out. A rebel training camp was soon identified near the Iraqi city of Sulimanieh (and destroyed by the Iranian Air Force on the first day of the war), while the Kurdish revolt that was to spearhead the campaign of nationwide unrest erupted in July. As for the Iranian Army division in Khuzistan - the first province the Iraqis attacked - Bani Sadr discovered to his dismay that only 28 tanks (out of a total of 159) were in working order. Only 7 field guns remained. All the rest had been sabotaged.
"Once we had verified our information we took measures to keep the Iraqi plan from coming off. We hit the Kurds hard in July and in September and arrested the plotters. We reorganized the Air Force. By the time of the invasion, all but our ground forces were ready. Still, if Saddam had concentrated his forces in Khuzistan, where we were weakest, there is nothing we could have done to stop him. His big mistake was opening hostilities along the entire border" (28).
But the handwritten letter that eventually led the way to the conspirators was not all. Bani Sadr says he received detailed information on the Iraqi invasion plans from his Foreign Minister, Sadegh Ghotsadegh, who in turn said he had bought the information for $200,000 from someone in Latin America.
"Latin America? It simply didn't make sense. Shortly after receiving this information from Ghotsadegh, our Ambassador to Moscow, Dr Mokri, returned to Tehran to give me the same information. I asked him the source. He said it came from friends in the CNRS in France (a State-sponsored social sciences think tank). I said that was ridiculous. Then a few weeks later, the Soviet Ambassador, Vinogradov, came to see me and I asked him if he wasn't the one behind the whole story. He gave a little laugh, but wouldn't say. "Well instead of making us pay $200,000," I said, "you could have simply given us this information for free."
Bani Sadr's account confirms the Iraqis' worst suspicions: not only did the USSR betray Iraq by not living up to existing weapons contracts, it made active contributions to Iranian military intelligence.
The result was that at the beginning of the war, the Iranian Air force flew a sortie rate that astonished most observers, and certainly took the Iraqis by surprise. In a series of lighting air attacks which Iraqi planning had simply failed to predict, Iran totally destroyed Iraq's oil terminals at Khor al-Amaya and Mina al-Bakr, dealing a blow to Iraq's oil export capacity that would take years to repair. Meanwhile, major naval battles during the first ten days of the war sank a large number of Iraqi vessels and blocked Iraq's access to the Gulf. The Iraqi intelligence failure was devastating. Iran had crushed the Noget coup in July, and yet Saddam decided to pursue his invasion plan all the same (29).
One of the most haunting ironies of the Noget coup would only become apparent many years later. Shahpour Bakhtiar's liason agent with the conspirators in Iran, a private businessman who had thrown his fortune and organization talents into the fray, would enter the international spotlight under different circumstances in November 1986. His name was Manucher Ghorbanifar.
When Bani Sadr left Tehran for the front at the beginning of the war, the commander of the Ahwaz air base told him they were evacuating Khuzistan, so the Iranian President called in the pilots and gave them an impromptu speech. "I told them if we lost Khuzistan, all Iran was lost and they would be forced to flee their homeland, just the like the Palestinians." For an entire week, the Iranian flyers pounded the invading armies without let up, eventually checking the Iraqi advance.
"We had 800 helicopters, and they were working perfectly, contrary to what Saddam believed. But the Air Force hesitated to use them in Khouzistan because the terrain is totally flat, making them easy targets to ground fire. So I found our best helicopter pilot, Sarang Iran-Doust, and freed him from prison. I asked him to devise new attack tactics. On his first combat mission he destroyed one hundred Iraqi vehicles using the TOW missile.
"Not long afterwards, I followed behind him on a combat mission in a second Cobra to see how he did it. By now, it has become a standard procedure taught in war colleges around the war. But then, Iran-Doust's tactic was new. He approached from high up, spotting his target, then swooped down like a Kingfisher to make the kill. With these tactics, one of our Cobras was worth thirty enemy tanks. It was a victory of men, not weapons."
The Air Force, the unsuspected surge of Iranian nationalism and Islamic fervor, combined to check the Iraqi invasion. After seven weeks of fierce fighting, Iraq went on the defensive. The Iraqi posture would have been even more uncomfortable had Iran not been in he throes of an all-out power struggle, pitting the radical mullahs against Bani Sadr in Tehran. At the front, this translated into a total lack of coordination between the Revolutionary Guards and the professional Army, the military wings of the rival factions.
Iran's second major weakness as the war wound on was the lack of spare parts. Despite the mountains of equipment discovered before the war began, certain items were consumed more quickly than others in combat. This was especially true of tires for Iran's F-4 and F-5 fighters. It became urgent to find a source of resupply.
On July 18, 1981, a Canadair CL-44 cargo plane belonging to an Argentine company crashed in Soviet Armenia, not far from the Iranian border. It had just completed the third of twelve scheduled flights from Tel Aviv to Tehran via Larnaca, Cyprus, carrying the aircraft tires and other spares bought from Israeli arms dealers.
The crash was reported widely in the international press (30). On July 26 the _S_u_n_d_a_y___T_i_m_e_s published an interview with Andreas Gini, the Swiss partner of the dead pilot, who said the plane was shot down after "the Soviets were tipped off by someone at the Palestine Liberation Organization bureau in Larnaca." With the crash of the Argentine plane, the lid was off. The Iraqis seized the occasion to leak additional details to the press on Israeli arms sales to Iran gathered by their intelligence network, and submitted a documented report on the subject to the 36th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 18, 1981.
In Iran, the race was on to see who would take the blame. The most available scapegoat was Bani Sadr, who was deposed as President by Khomeini and the radical mullahs in June. On August 19, the Iranian Charge d'affairs in Beirut, Mohsen Al-Moussaoui, admitted that Iran was purchasing arms on the international market, and that they were being "transported by the Argentine plane before it was shot down. On August 23, Iran's Foreign Minister, Hussein Moussavi, said that Israeli-Iran arms deals "had to have been negotiated on Bani Sadr's orders, because as President at the time he was also Commander-in-Chief of Iran's Armed Forces." From his newly-found exile in Paris, Bani Sadr denied the charge: "If we have to buy arms from Israel to continue the war against Saddam," he told the ABC _N_i_g_h_t_l_i_n_e_, "we would do better to make peace" (31).
Whether or not the USSR intended it, the shooting down of the Argentine plane added to Bani Sadr's growing discredit inside Iran, while it reinforced the position of his radical enemies. According to the New York Times , it also temporarily blocked attempts by the United States and Israel to pursue secret contacts with Iranian moderates, who were willing to renew diplomatic relations with the U.S. in exchange for U.S. arms (32). ==================== NOTES=====================
1. Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 20, 1980.
2. For an account of the Mossadegh period, and the CIA-backed coup, see "Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran," by Barry Rubin, Penguin, 1980, pp 54-90. Kermit Roosevelt, who engineered the coup for the CIA, offers his own version in "Countercoup: the struggle for control of Iran," McGraw, 1977.
3. United States Policy toward Iran: A Report to the National Security Council by the NSC Planning Board," December 21, 1955, as quoted in "The United States and Iran, a Documentary History," Yonah Alexander and Allan Nanes, editors, Aletheia Books, 1980, p 268.
Despite the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the United States and Iran, which included a mutual defence clause and the military assistance program (MAP), State and Defence Department officials remained leery of all-out support of the Shah. Pressure on the Shah to reform intensified during the Kennedy Administration, as documents in the same collection clearly reveal. The last "voice of reason" before the build-up of the late 60s and 70s was Robert McNamara's: "Although the Iranian military forces, with our aid, have improved significantly during the last decade, they are still not and never can be a match for even those Soviet forces presently deployed along the Iranian borders, even though the terrain favors the defense... In Iran, as elsewhere in the world, the best defense against the spread of communism is a steady improvement in economic and social conditions." (Testimony of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara before a Defense Department Subcommittee of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, February 3, 1964, ibid, p 348.
The Shah first requested substantial amounts of US military aid in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan in 1946. Truman repeatedly turned him down. His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, was not impressed by the Shah's sense of reality nor his leadership capabilities. Coming out from a 1949 meeting with the Shah, Acheson (as quoted by Rubin, p 42, ibid) warned that increased military expenditures could in fact have the opposite effect of bringing down the government by internal discontent. "The best way to prevent war, which was after all our real objective, was not by military preparations but by so developing our free economic and social structures that the Russians would be deterred from attacking," Acheson argued. For the next twenty years, American policy-makers would continue in their belief that the real purpose of the Iranian armed forces was to meet an internal, not external, threat. The shift in this belief during the Nixon-Kissinger era led to the destabilization of the Iranian economy, and a top-heavy military machine incapable of meeting the real threat it would eventually face.
4. For a colorful account of Northrup's marketing efforts see Anthony Sampson, "The Arms Bazaar," pp 234-252, especially p 240-1.
A flamboyant character, Jones first invited the Shah to visit him in California in 1962, where he offered him a subscription to _A_v_i_a_t_i_o_n___W_e_e_k_. To ensure the F-5 "Tiger" would get the very best hearing in Tehran and beat out its prime competitor, the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, he appointed Kermit Roosevelt as Northrup's "Ambassador to Iran." Roosevelt - who had engineered the 1953 CIA coup to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh - was instructed by Jones to gear discussions with the Shah "on the basis of fundamental national objectives, rather than allow it to take the appearance of a sales plan."
5. When the US AID mission to Tehran was closed in 1967, it had chanelled a total of $1 billion in US military _a_n_d economic aid to Iran since its creation in 1954. The last military sales to Iran funded by Pentagon grants or MAP funds were delivered in 1969.
6. Staff Report to the Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance of the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate: United States Military Sales to Iran. July 1976, as quoted in Alexander and Nanes, opcit p 408. On the Iranian-US arms relationship see also, "Debacle: The American Failure in Iran," by Michael Ledeen & William Lewis," Vintage, 1982, pp 39-43 and 51-62. The head of th DSAA Air Force branch in Tehran in 1976 was a certain General Richard V. Secord.
7. Ibid. The DMS 1984 Market Overview suggests the figure of $17 billion for the 1970-79 period. See the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency publication, "World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, 1985" for defense budgetary figures.
8. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger was blunt about the cost of US arms to Iran. "We're going to make them pay through the nose, just as they are making us pay through the nose for oil." Cf The New York Times, February 4, 1976.
9. On Nixon's Guam speech, cf "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House," by Seymour M. Hirsch, Summit Books, 1983, p 121.
10. "The President's Arms Transfer Policy," July 29, 1977, in Alexander and Nanes, p447.
11. Rubin, p 175, suggests that Northrup President Tom Jones may have personally persuaded the Shah and Defense Minister Toufanian to order 250 F-18Ls plus equipment and services for $2.5 billion, as a means of pressuring the Navy into buying the plane. However, "the Defense Department," Rubin writes, "was not going to finance its development merely because Iran wanted it."
12. Ibid, p 176
13. William F. Hickman
, "Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army, 1982," from The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 1982, p 9.
14. Alexander and Nanes, p 464. One could argue, of course, that Carter's renewed support of the Shah was intended for public consumption - and in particular, to convince the revolutionaries the US did not intend to throw in the towel without a fight. More reveal, in a sense, is Carter's reply to a journalist's question over breakfast the week before as to whether he thought the Shah could survive. "I don't know. I hope so," he said bluntly. "This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran."
15. "Security in the Persian Gulf: The role of the outside powers," by Shahram Chubin, IISS, London, 1982, p 16.
On the mission to Iran of Air Force General Robert Huyser, Deputy to the Commander of US Forces, Europe), see Ledeen & Lewis, pp174-87, inter alia: "Expected at once to organize and prevent a coup d'etat, encourage and restrain the Iranian generals, support Bakhtiar and a military organization that had pledged its loyalty to the shah, and the master the subtleties of the Iranian whirlwind, Huyser was out of his element." (p 180).
Years later, in an interview with the author, Bakhtiar would still accuse Huyser of trying to undermine his rule.
As this book goes to press, Huyser is expected to publish his own account of this crucial period.
16. Hickman, opcit, p 9, quoting Khomeini's speech of February 28, 1978.
17. Ledeen & Lewis, p 225. Some sources claim the spare parts contracts under discussion following the State Department's August 23 announcement of resumed deliveries reached $4-$5 billion. Cf "Iran: Anatomie d'une Revolution," Houchang Nahavandi, Numero Special de la revue universelle, Paris, 1983, p 146.
18. Ibid, p 227, quoting comments attributed to Assistant Secretary of State David Newsome after an October 6 meeting with Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Ibrahim Yazdi. "Just as Carter and his advisors had deceived themselves in January, when they maintained that Bakhtiar had an excellent chance to survive, so they deceived themselves again the summer and fall, when they believed that things were going well with the government of Iran," Ledeen & Lewis concluded.
19. William H. Sullivan, "My Mission to Iran," , 1981.
20. Hickman, p 13, quoting a radio broadcast of October 9, 1979. The Army's ongoing relationship with the US became obvious during the aborted hostage rescue mission in April 1980, when the Air Force destroyed the physical evidence of the raid. The regime took its revenge following a garison mutiny in Azerbaijan in June 1980, and the discovery of an extensive plot among senior officers in July. Hickman estimates the purge elimated one-half of the 14,000 field grade officers (ie, majors and colonels) and another 2000 lower grade officers and NCOs.
21.International Herald Tribune, April 28, 1980.
22. On this incident, cf Mohammed Heikal, "Khomeini and His revolution," p 18; also "Le Grand Mensonge: Dossier Noir de l'Integrisme Islamique," Houchang Nahavandi, Editions Debresse, Paris, 1985, p 88-102. Heikal comments on Vinogradov's activities in Egypt, and in particular his support of certain enemies of President Sadat, in "Sphinx and Commisar," op cit.
For the Palestinian involvement see Ledeen & Lewis, op cit, p 110-111, which also describes Khomeini's personal debt to Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, and p 117; Rubin, op cit p 281. Other sources include: Rene Cagnat, "L'URSS en Iran: vers la percee," Defense Nationale, November 1982, pp 69-83; P. Naghibi, "La longue marche du KGB en Iran," Le Monde, 11-12 mars 1984.
23. See International Herald Tribune, October 31, 1980. However, then Presidnt Bani Sadr, in a 5-hour conversation with the author on December 14, 1985, offers a different version. He claims Khomeini contacted US officials in April to discuss the Carter-Brown offer via his close advisor and in-law, Sadegh Tabatabai, and later, through Ayatollah Behesti. He also claims Carter pledged to deliver the aircraft spares and missiles as an unwritten part of the hostage "package" - unwritten so as to limit US embarrassment in the Arab world - and that this was why Ali Radjai had agreed to the US texts which made no explicit references to a renewal of arms deliveries. Carter went back on his promise, Bani Sadr contends; whereas Ali Radjai "betrayed" the true cause of the revolution.
The head of the European and North America section of Iran's Foreign Ministry, Ali Ahani, told journalists in Paris in January 1987 that some of this equipment - "already paid for by Iran" - had been delivered in 1986 from warehouses in New Jersey and elsewhere as part of the Irangate affair. The New Jersey warehouse is said to have contained 80,000 lbs of Cobra helicopter spare parts.
24. Op cit, p 24.
25. See "Washington pris à contre-pied," Nouvel Observateur, 29 septembre 1980.
26. Based on extensive interviews with Bani Sadr on December 11 and 13, 1984, and December 14, 1985, and throughout 1986 and early 1987.
27. The coup plot is mentioned by Hickman (p15, p 18), quoting an interview with Bani Sadr by Eric Rouleau which appeared in Le Monde on January 6, 1981. In that account, Bani Sadr emphasizes the power struggle in Tehran, in particular the intense rivalry pitting him against his Prime Minister, Ali Radjai, that inhibited serious military planning for the war. The following account offers significant new details of the plot itself, and the secret measures taken by Bani Sadr to prevent an Iraqi victory.
Former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, in an interview with the author on January 7, 1985, alleged that 300 pilots had been arrested or executed by the time the war began, but did not comment on the Noget coup or his crucial role in convincing Saddam Hussein to invade Iran.
28. Hickman comments, p 19: "Despite Bani-Sadr's foreknowledge of the Iraqi attack, at the outbreak of the war the army was not positioned in strength along the Iraqi border: at the direction of (Defence Minister Mustafa) Chamran, most of it was engaged in operations against Kurdish dissidents and deployed along the northern border... For the most part, the initial defense (of Khuzistan) was to be the responsibility of the Revolutionary Guards and the local militias."
29. Ibid, p 20. For additional details on the role of the Iranian Air Force in the revolution and the early days of the war, cf Joseph Vernoux, "L'Iran des Mollah," Paris, Editions Anthropos, 1981, pp 159-162. A French businessman working in Iran at the time, Vernoux provides a wealth of economic data and perspicuous observation in a first-hand account.
30. Some examples of Western press accounts: Sunday Times, July 26, 1981; Le Figaro, July 27,1981; ABC News, July 15, and August 20-21-22, 1981; La Tribune de Lausanne, July 29, 1981, etc.
31. "Arms Collaboration between Israel and the Iranian Regime," UN document A/36/518 of September 18, 1981.
32.The New York Times, June 23, 1981.