The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

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Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in theGulf War

by KennethR. Timmerman

Copyright©1986-1988, Kenneth R.Timmerman. All Rights Reserved

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Chapter 9: Iran's New Soviet Arsenal

Triangular relationships

As news of Irangate was breaking in Washington, arms dealers inEurope quietly pursued business in another direction. "Two thousandTOWS? That's nothing," one dealer said. "You ought to see what theSoviets are doing."

Turning to his safe, he extracted a thick folder and began leafingthrough shipping documents, pro forma invoices and insurance formsfor weapons purchased in the USSR and Poland by the InternationalTrade and Commerce Establishment. Contracts showed that the companywas registered in Beirut and run by a Palestinian, Hassan Zobaidi.After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Zobaidi picked up shopand moved to Damascus, where he controlled vast portions of the PLOwarchest. A year later, he threw in his lot with dissidents opposedto Yasser Arafat. "Today he is buying $1.2 billion in weapons forIran directly from the Soviet Union," the dealer said.

To finance Iran's arms purchases, the dealer explained, Zobaidiwas empowered to engage in a complex series of transactions. The cruxof the deal was a huge oil barter with Japan. In lieu of payment,Iran received promissary notes from Indonesia, Malasia and thePhilippines, which bank documents showed to be worth $2.8 billion atface value. Zobaidi sold the notes at deep discounts on the openmarket. With the $1.2 billion cash proceeds, he bought tanks,artillery pieces, air defense missiles, armored vehicles andmunitions from the USSR over a twelve month period starting inJanuary 1986. "For the sake of appearances, most of the weapons areofficially sold to Syria," the dealer said. "But the Soviets deliverthem directly to Bandar Abbas (1).

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has turned to Soviet blocksuppliers for an increasingly large share of its arms purchases. In1982, North Korean weapons accounted for 40% of all Iranian armspurchases. By late 1986, the Reagan Administration claimed that Chinahad become Iran's chief source of weapons. And the USSR wasdelivering weapons to Iran as well. As Iraqi Defense Minister,General Adnan Khairallah, would remark bitterly in 1985: "Eightypercent of the weapons we capture today (from Iran) are of Sovietorigin" (2).

And the arms deals began on the very first day of the war, whenthe USSR ordered an emergency airlift to Tehran of jet fuel fromSoviet bases, followed by 130 mm artillery pieces, tank engines andammunition from Syria. Favors of this kind proposed by SovietAmbassador Vladimir Vinogradev in the difficult opening days of thewar led to the signing of two military cooperation agreements in July1981 between Iran and the USSR (3).

The influx of Soviet equipment in Iran has complicated the task ofmilitary analysts, in the habit of drawing lessons from battlespitting Soviet weapons and tactics against their Westerncounterparts. As the war went on, such clear-cut distinctions becamemore obscure. Today, the extraordinary mix of Western andSoviet-block weaponry on both sides has forced analysts to speakabout specific battles, specific engagements, specific units. To drawany useful conclusions about the relative merits of Soviet andWestern equipment they must know which unit was using what equipmentat a given time.

The information documenting these arms deliveries is sketchy atbest, since neither the supplying countries nor the Islamic Republicof Iran are in the habit of publically announcing details on thesecret arms trade. U.S. Government sources have confirmed many ofthese deliveries, while in September 1984 Iraqi officials showeddocuments to the press proving that some of the Soviet weapons camefrom Syria (4). A compendium of all known reports of Soviet-blockweapons reaching Iran can be found in the Arms Trade Register (seeappendix), along with a comparison of sources and a probabilityreading. on actual deliveries.

Iran's new Soviet arsenal falls into four distinct categories:weapons supplied directly by the Soviet Union; those supplied bySoviet satellites, such as Poland, Bulgaria and Rumania, which oftenget buried in vague foreign trade statistics; arms forwarded byIran's Middle Eastern supporters, Libya and Syria; andSoviet-standard weapons supplied by the USSR's primary rival in thethird world, the People's Republic of China.

Published accounts vary widely on the real quantities or moneyvalues involved in these deals. By the most conservative estimate, Iran purchased $2.3-$2.5 billion dollars worth of Soviet equipmentbetween 1980-85, taking delivery of at least 600 tanks, 1000artillery pieces, 50-60 jet fighters, 1000 mortars, 600 anti-aircraftbatteries, 150 SA 7 launchers, 100 "Sagger" anti-tank launchers, andan unspecified number of SCUD B surface-to-surface missiles usedagainst Baghad starting in March 1985. If the recent Soviet deliveresare added, the total tops $3.5 billion.

The Iranians were careful not to purchase all this Sovietequipment from one source, and indeed they showed a good deal ofskill in pitting one supplier against another - a method, it washoped, that would foil the hopes of one and all to exert a decisiveinfluence on Iranian policy.

Still, such vast quantities of weapons can not be purchased in themiddle of a war without exacting a political price; furthermore, asthe Iraqis were discovering (but in the opposite direction), theshift from one standard of equipment to another involves a majorchange in the organization and use doctrine of the armed forces. Iransolved this problem by allocating Soviet weaponry to all-new units,mainly in the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Because of these arms purchases, Iranian officers (tankcommanders, artillery crews, even pilots) had to be trained byEastern block military advisors. Many were sent abroad. This in turnmeant that Eastern block countries were able to forge relationshipswith Iranian military personnel, if not infiltrate the militaryapparatus itself: and this has always been the basic aim behindSoviet arms sales throughout the world.


The Asian Screen


By 1982, Iran's major military supplier today was North Korea. TheNorth Koreans produce a certain amount of T-54/T-55 tanks and otherequipment under license from the Soviet Union. They also continue topurchase large quantities of weaponry from both the USSR and thePeople's Republic of China, some of which they re-export still packedin the original crates.

At the best of times North Korea and China were "as close as lipsand teeth," with North Korea used as "a natural conduit for Chinesearms to Iran" to disguise the sales. Furthermore, North Korea'sproximity to the armaments factories in China's industrial northeastmade trans-shipment easy (5).

But the North Koreans had periodic fallings-out with their Chineseneighbors, and were frequently used as a conduit for Soviet armsdeliveries as well. Such was the case with an $18 million shipment ofSAM-7 missiles, withdrawn in December 1986 from a Warsaw Pact arsenalin Poland "sold" to North Korea to disguise shipment to Iran (6). Sowhenever it purchased weaponry from North Korea, Iran could just aseasily be dealing with the Soviet Union or with its rival, the PRC -an ambiguity which must have pleased the Iranians and reassured themall at once.

The first Soviet delivery through North Korea occured in October1980, according to US Government sources, for an unspecified amountof artillery ammunition (7).

But the next major deal, for an estimated $1 billion, wasnegociated exclusively by North Korean middlemen, in exchange forcash and 2 million tons of Iranian crude oil. The equipment was ofChinese origin, and was most likely taken from existing Koreaninventory. Deliveries are said to have occured in stages over the1981-83 period, and included 150 T-62 main battle tanks, 400artillery pieces, 1000 mortars, 600 anti-aircraft cannons, and 12,000machine guns and rifles (8). U.S. officials said an additional 300T-54/T-55 Korean-built tanks should be added to the list. Weaponsdeliveries from North Korea were worth $800 million in 1982 alone,the officials said, and were mainly paid in oil. Since then, Iran issaid to have refused large quantities of locally-produced NorthKorean equipment, due to its poor quality.


Chinese fighters


Chinese arms sales to Iran became news in the U.S. in March 1987,when Secretary of State Schultz expressed concern over Iran'sdeployment of Chinese-built "Silkworm" missiles at bases overlookingthe Straights of Hormuz and on the newly-captured Faw Peninsula. Butalready in August 1986, the U.S. Government was publically (if morequietly) pointing to China as "Iran's chief source of weapons," andhad protested the sales through U.S. Ambassador to China, WinstonLord. In private, Chinese officials justified the sales "because Iranis using the weapons to aid anti-Soviet guerillas" in Afghanistan.But the U.S. retorted that surface-to-air missiles, tanks, aircraftand anti-ship missiles were not exactly the type of weapons aguerilla force was likely to need (9).

In fact, China began serious negociations with Iran at least asearly as 1981, and concluded its first important deal in August 1983,a $1.3 billion package that included 50-60 F-6 fighters (the Chinesecopy of the MiG 19), 250 T-59 and amphibious T-52 tanks, 2,500 towedartillery pieces (122mm, 130mm, and 152mm), 1,500 Frog missiles,helicopters, and ammunition. Two hundred Iranian pilots were sent toEast Germany for flight training on the MiG 19, with others going toPyongyang. The North Koreans sent 300 military advisors to Tehran aspart of the same package. To convince the Iranians to buy the F-6,the Chinese demostrated the plane in Tehran and may have asked NorthKorea to deliver six aircraft from its own inventory. The Chineseplanes would form the backbone of the newly formed RevolutionaryGuards Air Force (10).

By late 1985, analysts at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency(ACDA) estimated that Chinese equipment sales to Tehran over the1980-85 period had reached $2.5 billion - far more than they annoucedin the Agency's official publications. But the Chinese were verytouchy about these arms deals, and admitted to none of them inpublic. Their policy, they claimed, was one of "strict neutrality,"and they would not sell directly to either belligerent. However, asone Chinese official said, "we have no control over someone resellingarms we have delivered to them. We require a bona fide End UseCertificate for first sale, just like anyone else; but once thepurchaser has taken delivery, the weapons become his property." Inthe same breath, the official pointed out that North Korea had boughtmassive quanties of Chinese weapons up through 1983, when itsrelations with the USSR improved, and was eager to "get rid of oldChinese fighters as newer Soviet planes arrived" (11).

The Washington Post believed the Chinese had insisted "itsaircraft and tanks be restricted to defense of the Iranian capital"as a condition of sale. This in turn would "free more sophisticatedIranian weapons - mostly supplied by the United States before thelate shah was overthrown - for active combat against Iraq" (12). Butdefense analysts and arms brokers agreed there was another reason aswell: the Chinese MiGs were virtually useless against high-flyingaircraft and barely managed to get airborne before they ran out ofgas.

Repeated exchanges of high-level delegations between Peking andTehran in 1984 alerted Operation Staunch, and the US leaned hard onthe Chinese not to sell to Iran - but to no avail. Press reportsbegan to appear with increasing frequency detailing a $1.6 billiondeal under negociation in early 1985 said to include twelve more F-6fighters, 200 T-59 tanks, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guns,rocket launchers and hundreds of artillery pieces. A RevolutionaryGuards negociating team visited Peking again in June 1985. In July,they were followed by Iranian leader, Hashemi Rafsanjani, whoinitialed the agreement at that time (13).

A follow-on sale for fifty of the more modern F-7 (an upgradedversion of the MiG 21, with new engines and a British/Italianavionics package) was concluded in July 1986 and confirmed by Iraqiofficials later in the year. "We haven't yet seen the F-7 in theair," they said, "but we know they are there." The first twenty ofthese planes were delivered via Pakistan U.S. officials confirmedthese new contracts, which they estimated at $1 billion, and saidthey believed still more sales were currently under negotiation (14).

Chinese arms exports got a push from Deng Tiao Ping in the early1980s, when he set up China North Industries Corporation (Norinco) tomarket Chinese weapons in the Third World. Deng's ideas worked sowell that by 1984, the People's Republic of China exported a record$1.66 billion worth of armament. This influx of hard currency was inturn used by China to purchase Western technology needed to upgradeits newest weapons, which still lagged twenty years behind theSoviets.

Estimates vary on the price China actually charges for itsweapons, but they are believed to be extremely competitive. The F-7,for instance, was sold to Egypt in December 1982 for $3 million percopy, but by the time it was sold Iran in 1986, the price had droppedto $1 million (15).


Arab "traitors," Libya and Syria


One of the curious ironies of the Gulf War is the number of bitterrivals supplying Iran: Taiwan and the PRC, North and South Korea,India and Pakistan, Israel and Syria, and of course the U.S. and theUSSR.

Syria and Libya rallied behind the Islamic Revolution from thevery start. They shared a hard-line approach to the Israeli-Arabconflict, and a fanatical hatred of the U.S. They also sharedKhomeini's antagonism for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whoseambitions as a regional leader risked relegating Khaddafi and Assadto minor roles.

Both countries began supplying Iran with large quantities ofSoviet weaponry at the start of the war, acting "with a Soviet greenlight" (16). Syria showed the way in September 1980, by delivering130 mm artillery, ZSU23 anti-aircraft ammunition and engines for theSoviet tanks Iran had just captured from Iraq. A second delivery wasairlifted via Turkey that same month, and included 150 SAM-7launchers, with 600 missiles, and 100 Sagger light anti-tanklaunchers and 300 missiles. One report suggested that the Americanairlines, Flying Tigers, handled the transport (17).

The most crucial Syrian and Libyan arms deliveries to Iran tookplace at this time and, combined with the Soviet arms embargo onIraq, certainly helped convince Iran's leaders that the USSR intendedto favorize the new regime. Libya was accused by US Governmentofficials of having airlifted 190 Soviet tanks to Iran in August1981, along with Swatter anti-tank missiles and artillery munitions.An additional shipment of 62 Soviet tanks was transferred to Iran in1982-83 (18).

The Iraqis lamented the Syrian and Libyan deliveries on manyoccasions. In an interview with an Egyptian journalist, DefenseMinister Khairallah acknowledged that T-55 and T-62 tanks, armoredvehicles, rifles, and RPG-7s had been captured on the battlefield and"unfortunately bore Syrian Armed Forces insignia." As for Libya,Khairallah said it had supplied Iran with 200 tanks. "It is sad andunfortunate for Arab arms to be given to a foreign enemy in order tokill Arabs," he said (19). In 1985, Libyan-supplied SCUD B missileswere launched against Baghdad and other Iraqi cites.

Despite Iraqi protests to the USSR, Libya stepped up SCUDdeliveries in July 1985, and even agreed for the first time to supplyIran with anti-aircraft missiles. The missile batteries - SAM-6 orSAM-8 - were to be manned by teams of Syrian technicians alreadyoperating in the Kermanshah and Dezful regions, near the Iraqiborder, following an agreement reached in Tehran in January 1985between the foreign ministers of Iran, Syria and Libya to form a"strategic alliance" (20). The first foreign trip of President AliKhamene'i was to Libya. Mohsen Rafic Doust, in charge of procuringSoviet weapons for the Revolutionary Guards, was a frequent visitorto Damascus and Tripoli, where he negociated large arms deals.

What is curious is not that the Soviets would use Syria and Libyaas a back channel for funneling arms to Iran, but how slow the Iraqiswere to pick up on a trade which made the USSR into the biggestsupplier of the Iranian Army. Indeed, Iraq's reaction was limited toaccusations of "Arab traitors" and never degenerated into opencriticism of the USSR or of Soviet policy. In return, the USSRscolded Khaddafy in public, and pretended to block Assad's deals withIran (21), but never took action against Libya or Syria, or made anyattempt to limit arms sales from North Korea or Soviet satellites inEastern Europe.

Soviet listening bases

As time went on, the USSR became bolder. In 1985, the Tehrancorrespondant of Japan's Kyodo News Service said the Soviets had setup a new delivery route to Iran directly across Soviet territory, "tocounter Saudi Arabia's interference with the transport of arms to thecountry." Arms cargos bound for Iran had previously transitted viathe Suez Canal and the Red Sea, until the Egyptians and the Saudisbegan systematically to inspect them (22).

Soviet weapons now left Black Sea ports and, instead of crossingthe Mediterranean and the Red Sea, they took canals across SovietArmenia to the Caspian Sea for unloading at Iran's northern ports.The route was activated in March 1985, the report said, "two monthsafter Saudi Arabia started seizing weapons bound for Iran." Theshallow Soviet waterways could not handle vessels larger than 200-300tons, making the transport of tanks or heavy weapons a time-consumingaffair. However, if Iran could go to the effort and expense ofbringing in 30-ton tanks by air (as it had from Libya at the start ofthe war), it could certainly find a whole fleet of barges capable oftransporting heavy Soviet weapons.

Soviet willingness to supply military assistance, training, andweapons to Iran was codified by a pair of military agreements signedwith the Iranian government in July 1981. The Iranians claimed theagreements were defensive in nature, and were solely intended toprotect Iranian territory against a U.S. invasion force, such as theU.S. helicopters that crashed near Tabas in April 1980 in the failedhostage rescue attempt. These agreements resulted in the arrival ofsome 3000 Soviet advisors in Iran, the building of new ports andmilitary airfilds by Soviet and North Korean technicians, and theconstruction of the largest Soviet listening base outside the WarsawPact. They also covered the training of Iranian Revolutionary Guardsin Soviet military academies, direct arms sales, technical assistancefor Iran's secret police, the SAVAMA, and extensive economiccooperation. The geopolitical importance of these watershedagreements will be discussed in the final section of this book (23).

The text of the military agreement stipulated that Iran was to paythe expenses of their Soviet advisors in U.S. dollars, includingtransportation and the missiles used in training exercises, andprovide "a distinctive uniform" for the Soviets "with no insigniathat would identify their nationality." Each advisor was to behoused in a minimum of 12 square meters (10 x 12 feet), with hot andcold water, color tv, radio, telephone, heater, refrigerator, hotplate, and the "food equivalent of 5000 calories per week" - slimfare for the average Moscovite!

By mid-1983, 3000 Soviet advisors had arrived in Iran. By March1987, their numbers swelled with the dispatch of 1200 additionaltechnicians to the Iranian city of Isfahan, ostensibly to work on anabandoned steel mill that had been heavily damaged by Iraqi bombingraids. Sources inside Iran said the arrivals marked "an increasinglyvisible Soviet presence in Iran." The Russians were known as shoravis to the local population.

The Shoravis were also remarked in Balouchistan, where startingin late 1981 they began work on a network of ground surveillancestations that would be linked to an enormous listening base dug intothe side of Kuh-e-Malek-Siah mountain, which dominated theIranian-Afghan-Pakistani border.

This was one of the first indications that the USSR had begun toexploit the strategic importance of the Balouchi corridor. Located400 km from the Gulf of Oman and 700 km from Saudi Arabia, thepowerful radar at this base gave the Soviets the ability to monitorall maritime traffic passing through the Straights of Hormuz. Theycould also use the radar installation to guide their own aircraft onan eventual mission flown against the Gulf or against Pakistan, fromthe string of air bases they had built in southern Afghanistan. Inthe meantime, from the heights of Kuh-e-Malek-Siah the Soviets couldmonitor supply routes through Pakistan in their effort to interdictUS military aid from reaching the Afhan rebels.

A second Soviet listening station was set up in Gardaneh PirehZan, southwest of Shiraz and a mere 200 km from the Gulf. Thislocation permitted the Soviets to monitor Saudi air activitythroughout the entire northern third of the country (the Saudi oilport and refinery complex of Ras Tanura was only 400 km away). Bymid-1983, both Soviet listening bases were operational. Coupled toother Soviet bases in South Yemen, Ethiopia and Syria, Ethiopia, andon the island of Socotra off the South Yemen coast, they gave theUSSR the ability to monitor the air and maritime traffic of theentire Arabian peninsula for the first time.

Moscow's "ears" in Balouchistan were complemented by a wholenetwork of smaller intelligence-gathering stations and groundsurveillance radars, running in a line from the city of Zahedan, nearthe border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, all the way south to theGulf. Travellers in Iran identified Soviet-manned radar stations ofthis network near the towns of Khash, Paskouh, Faslabad,Kalateh-Shah-Taghi, with smaller outposts and receiving stationsthroughout the entire 40-mile long Birag valley. Local residents saidthe Soviets built most of these bases in 1983-84. Taken together, theSoviet electronic intelligence gathering network covered 50,000square kilometers of Iranian territory and was "directly linked tothe large Soviet listening station in Meana, in the south of (Soviet)Turkestan, only a few kilometers north of the Iranian border" (24).

Meanwhile, Soviet technicians were supervising the construction often military airports in Iran's southeastern provinces. Commercialairstrips at Zahedan, Iranshahr and Shahbahar have been lengthenedwith Soviet help from 2000 to 3200 meters, and local residents saythat Soviet cargo planes frequently use these airports to unloadSoviet army trucks and other military supplies. At Chahbahar on theGulf - and a scant 65 miles from the Pakistan border - 800 NorthKorean workers were busy dredging the port. When they complete thejob early in 1988, Iran will have its first deep water port outsidethe Straights of Hormuz. The Chahbahar facility will be large enoughto accomdate nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers. Work began in1985, after a high-ranking Soviet naval delegation visited Iran. "Youknow," one Balutchi tribesman said, "the Russians can leave here intwo years without losing a thing. They've built so many listeningstations, radars, and civilian technicians that they will always knowexactly what is going on. Even a frogman crossing the Straigts ofHormuz, or the smallest fishing scow, will be immediately detected.Their soldiers will have nothing to do" (24).


The growing Soviet influence in Iran would come to preoccupyAmerican strategists, and was a major element contributing toPresident Reagan's Iranian "initiative." And it would be mentionedagain and again by arms brokers as the primary justification fortheir activities, as we shall in the next chapter.

In our final section, we shall attempt to elucidate the complexstrategies and counter-strategies employed by outside powers in theGulf, and the relative weight of arms sales as a means of gainingpolitical leverage in Iraq and Iran.