The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

An investigative tool for business executives, government, and the media.

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

by Kenneth R. 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 in Europe quietly pursued business in another direction. "Two thousand TOWS? That's nothing," one dealer said. "You ought to see what the Soviets are doing."

Turning to his safe, he extracted a thick folder and began leafing through shipping documents, pro forma invoices and insurance forms for weapons purchased in the USSR and Poland by the International Trade and Commerce Establishment. Contracts showed that the company was registered in Beirut and run by a Palestinian, Hassan Zobaidi. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Zobaidi picked up shop and moved to Damascus, where he controlled vast portions of the PLO warchest. A year later, he threw in his lot with dissidents opposed to Yasser Arafat. "Today he is buying $1.2 billion in weapons for Iran directly from the Soviet Union," the dealer said.

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

Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has turned to Soviet block suppliers for an increasingly large share of its arms purchases. In 1982, North Korean weapons accounted for 40% of all Iranian arms purchases. By late 1986, the Reagan Administration claimed that China had become Iran's chief source of weapons. And the USSR was delivering weapons to Iran as well. As Iraqi Defense Minister, General Adnan Khairallah, would remark bitterly in 1985: "Eighty percent of the weapons we capture today (from Iran) are of Soviet origin" (2).

And the arms deals began on the very first day of the war, when the USSR ordered an emergency airlift to Tehran of jet fuel from Soviet bases, followed by 130 mm artillery pieces, tank engines and ammunition from Syria. Favors of this kind proposed by Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Vinogradev in the difficult opening days of the war led to the signing of two military cooperation agreements in July 1981 between Iran and the USSR (3).

The influx of Soviet equipment in Iran has complicated the task of military analysts, in the habit of drawing lessons from battles pitting Soviet weapons and tactics against their Western counterparts. As the war went on, such clear-cut distinctions became more obscure. Today, the extraordinary mix of Western and Soviet-block weaponry on both sides has forced analysts to speak about specific battles, specific engagements, specific units. To draw any useful conclusions about the relative merits of Soviet and Western equipment they must know which unit was using what equipment at a given time.

The information documenting these arms deliveries is sketchy at best, since neither the supplying countries nor the Islamic Republic of Iran are in the habit of publically announcing details on the secret arms trade. U.S. Government sources have confirmed many of these deliveries, while in September 1984 Iraqi officials showed documents to the press proving that some of the Soviet weapons came from Syria (4). A compendium of all known reports of Soviet-block weapons reaching Iran can be found in the Arms Trade Register (see appendix), along with a comparison of sources and a probability reading. on actual deliveries.

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

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

The Iranians were careful not to purchase all this Soviet equipment from one source, and indeed they showed a good deal of skill in pitting one supplier against another - a method, it was hoped, that would foil the hopes of one and all to exert a decisive influence on Iranian policy.

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

Because of these arms purchases, Iranian officers (tank commanders, artillery crews, even pilots) had to be trained by Eastern block military advisors. Many were sent abroad. This in turn meant that Eastern block countries were able to forge relationships with Iranian military personnel, if not infiltrate the military apparatus itself: and this has always been the basic aim behind Soviet arms sales throughout the world.


The Asian Screen


By 1982, Iran's major military supplier today was North Korea. The North Koreans produce a certain amount of T-54/T-55 tanks and other equipment under license from the Soviet Union. They also continue to purchase large quantities of weaponry from both the USSR and the People's Republic of China, some of which they re-export still packed in the original crates.

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

But the North Koreans had periodic fallings-out with their Chinese neighbors, and were frequently used as a conduit for Soviet arms deliveries as well. Such was the case with an $18 million shipment of SAM-7 missiles, withdrawn in December 1986 from a Warsaw Pact arsenal in Poland "sold" to North Korea to disguise shipment to Iran (6). So whenever it purchased weaponry from North Korea, Iran could just as easily be dealing with the Soviet Union or with its rival, the PRC - an ambiguity which must have pleased the Iranians and reassured them all at once.

The first Soviet delivery through North Korea occured in October 1980, according to US Government sources, for an unspecified amount of artillery ammunition (7).

But the next major deal, for an estimated $1 billion, was negociated exclusively by North Korean middlemen, in exchange for cash and 2 million tons of Iranian crude oil. The equipment was of Chinese origin, and was most likely taken from existing Korean inventory. Deliveries are said to have occured in stages over the 1981-83 period, and included 150 T-62 main battle tanks, 400 artillery pieces, 1000 mortars, 600 anti-aircraft cannons, and 12,000 machine guns and rifles (8). U.S. officials said an additional 300 T-54/T-55 Korean-built tanks should be added to the list. Weapons deliveries from North Korea were worth $800 million in 1982 alone, the officials said, and were mainly paid in oil. Since then, Iran is said to have refused large quantities of locally-produced North Korean 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's deployment of Chinese-built "Silkworm" missiles at bases overlooking the Straights of Hormuz and on the newly-captured Faw Peninsula. But already in August 1986, the U.S. Government was publically (if more quietly) pointing to China as "Iran's chief source of weapons," and had protested the sales through U.S. Ambassador to China, Winston Lord. In private, Chinese officials justified the sales "because Iran is using the weapons to aid anti-Soviet guerillas" in Afghanistan. But the U.S. retorted that surface-to-air missiles, tanks, aircraft and anti-ship missiles were not exactly the type of weapons a guerilla force was likely to need (9).

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

By late 1985, analysts at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) estimated that Chinese equipment sales to Tehran over the 1980-85 period had reached $2.5 billion - far more than they annouced in the Agency's official publications. But the Chinese were very touchy about these arms deals, and admitted to none of them in public. Their policy, they claimed, was one of "strict neutrality," and they would not sell directly to either belligerent. However, as one Chinese official said, "we have no control over someone reselling arms we have delivered to them. We require a bona fide End Use Certificate for first sale, just like anyone else; but once the purchaser has taken delivery, the weapons become his property." In the same breath, the official pointed out that North Korea had bought massive quanties of Chinese weapons up through 1983, when its relations with the USSR improved, and was eager to "get rid of old Chinese fighters as newer Soviet planes arrived" (11).

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

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

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

Chinese arms exports got a push from Deng Tiao Ping in the early 1980s, when he set up China North Industries Corporation (Norinco) to market Chinese weapons in the Third World. Deng's ideas worked so well that by 1984, the People's Republic of China exported a record $1.66 billion worth of armament. This influx of hard currency was in turn used by China to purchase Western technology needed to upgrade its newest weapons, which still lagged twenty years behind the Soviets.

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


Arab "traitors," Libya and Syria


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

Syria and Libya rallied behind the Islamic Revolution from the very start. They shared a hard-line approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and a fanatical hatred of the U.S. They also shared Khomeini's antagonism for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose ambitions as a regional leader risked relegating Khaddafi and Assad to minor roles.

Both countries began supplying Iran with large quantities of Soviet weaponry at the start of the war, acting "with a Soviet green light" (16). Syria showed the way in September 1980, by delivering 130 mm artillery, ZSU23 anti-aircraft ammunition and engines for the Soviet tanks Iran had just captured from Iraq. A second delivery was airlifted via Turkey that same month, and included 150 SAM-7 launchers, with 600 missiles, and 100 Sagger light anti-tank launchers and 300 missiles. One report suggested that the American airlines, Flying Tigers, handled the transport (17).

The most crucial Syrian and Libyan arms deliveries to Iran took place at this time and, combined with the Soviet arms embargo on Iraq, certainly helped convince Iran's leaders that the USSR intended to favorize the new regime. Libya was accused by US Government officials of having airlifted 190 Soviet tanks to Iran in August 1981, along with Swatter anti-tank missiles and artillery munitions. An additional shipment of 62 Soviet tanks was transferred to Iran in 1982-83 (18).

The Iraqis lamented the Syrian and Libyan deliveries on many occasions. In an interview with an Egyptian journalist, Defense Minister Khairallah acknowledged that T-55 and T-62 tanks, armored vehicles, 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 and unfortunate for Arab arms to be given to a foreign enemy in order to kill Arabs," he said (19). In 1985, Libyan-supplied SCUD B missiles were launched against Baghdad and other Iraqi cites.

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

What is curious is not that the Soviets would use Syria and Libya as a back channel for funneling arms to Iran, but how slow the Iraqis were to pick up on a trade which made the USSR into the biggest supplier of the Iranian Army. Indeed, Iraq's reaction was limited to accusations of "Arab traitors" and never degenerated into open criticism of the USSR or of Soviet policy. In return, the USSR scolded Khaddafy in public, and pretended to block Assad's deals with Iran (21), but never took action against Libya or Syria, or made any attempt to limit arms sales from North Korea or Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.

Soviet listening bases

As time went on, the USSR became bolder. In 1985, the Tehran correspondant of Japan's Kyodo News Service said the Soviets had set up a new delivery route to Iran directly across Soviet territory, "to counter Saudi Arabia's interference with the transport of arms to the country." Arms cargos bound for Iran had previously transitted via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, until the Egyptians and the Saudis began systematically to inspect them (22).

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

Soviet willingness to supply military assistance, training, and weapons to Iran was codified by a pair of military agreements signed with the Iranian government in July 1981. The Iranians claimed the agreements were defensive in nature, and were solely intended to protect Iranian territory against a U.S. invasion force, such as the U.S. helicopters that crashed near Tabas in April 1980 in the failed hostage rescue attempt. These agreements resulted in the arrival of some 3000 Soviet advisors in Iran, the building of new ports and military airfilds by Soviet and North Korean technicians, and the construction of the largest Soviet listening base outside the Warsaw Pact. They also covered the training of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Soviet military academies, direct arms sales, technical assistance for Iran's secret police, the SAVAMA, and extensive economic cooperation. The geopolitical importance of these watershed agreements will be discussed in the final section of this book (23).

The text of the military agreement stipulated that Iran was to pay the expenses of their Soviet advisors in U.S. dollars, including transportation and the missiles used in training exercises, and provide "a distinctive uniform" for the Soviets "with no insignia that would identify their nationality." Each advisor was to be housed in a minimum of 12 square meters (10 x 12 feet), with hot and cold water, color tv, radio, telephone, heater, refrigerator, hot plate, and the "food equivalent of 5000 calories per week" - slim fare for the average Moscovite!

By mid-1983, 3000 Soviet advisors had arrived in Iran. By March 1987, their numbers swelled with the dispatch of 1200 additional technicians to the Iranian city of Isfahan, ostensibly to work on an abandoned steel mill that had been heavily damaged by Iraqi bombing raids. Sources inside Iran said the arrivals marked "an increasingly visible Soviet presence in Iran." The Russians were known as shoravis to the local population.

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

This was one of the first indications that the USSR had begun to exploit the strategic importance of the Balouchi corridor. Located 400 km from the Gulf of Oman and 700 km from Saudi Arabia, the powerful radar at this base gave the Soviets the ability to monitor all maritime traffic passing through the Straights of Hormuz. They could also use the radar installation to guide their own aircraft on an eventual mission flown against the Gulf or against Pakistan, from the string of air bases they had built in southern Afghanistan. In the meantime, from the heights of Kuh-e-Malek-Siah the Soviets could monitor supply routes through Pakistan in their effort to interdict US military aid from reaching the Afhan rebels.

A second Soviet listening station was set up in Gardaneh Pireh Zan, southwest of Shiraz and a mere 200 km from the Gulf. This location permitted the Soviets to monitor Saudi air activity throughout the entire northern third of the country (the Saudi oil port and refinery complex of Ras Tanura was only 400 km away). By mid-1983, both Soviet listening bases were operational. Coupled to other Soviet bases in South Yemen, Ethiopia and Syria, Ethiopia, and on the island of Socotra off the South Yemen coast, they gave the USSR the ability to monitor the air and maritime traffic of the entire Arabian peninsula for the first time.

Moscow's "ears" in Balouchistan were complemented by a whole network of smaller intelligence-gathering stations and ground surveillance radars, running in a line from the city of Zahedan, near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, all the way south to the Gulf. Travellers in Iran identified Soviet-manned radar stations of this network near the towns of Khash, Paskouh, Faslabad, Kalateh-Shah-Taghi, with smaller outposts and receiving stations throughout the entire 40-mile long Birag valley. Local residents said the Soviets built most of these bases in 1983-84. Taken together, the Soviet electronic intelligence gathering network covered 50,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory and was "directly linked to the 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 of ten military airports in Iran's southeastern provinces. Commercial airstrips at Zahedan, Iranshahr and Shahbahar have been lengthened with Soviet help from 2000 to 3200 meters, and local residents say that Soviet cargo planes frequently use these airports to unload Soviet army trucks and other military supplies. At Chahbahar on the Gulf - and a scant 65 miles from the Pakistan border - 800 North Korean workers were busy dredging the port. When they complete the job early in 1988, Iran will have its first deep water port outside the Straights of Hormuz. The Chahbahar facility will be large enough to accomdate nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers. Work began in 1985, after a high-ranking Soviet naval delegation visited Iran. "You know," one Balutchi tribesman said, "the Russians can leave here in two years without losing a thing. They've built so many listening stations, radars, and civilian technicians that they will always know exactly what is going on. Even a frogman crossing the Straigts of Hormuz, 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 preoccupy American strategists, and was a major element contributing to President Reagan's Iranian "initiative." And it would be mentioned again and again by arms brokers as the primary justification for their activities, as we shall in the next chapter.

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