The Iran-Iraq War: Serving American Interests
By: The Research Unit for Political Economy (R.U.P.E.), Mumbai (Bombay), India
In 1979, Saddam, already effectively the leader of Iraq, became president and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. The entire region stood at a critical juncture.
For one, the pillar of the US in West Asia, the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, was overthrown by a massive popular upsurge which the US was powerless to suppress. This made the US and its client states deeply anxious at the prospect of similar developments taking place throughout the region.
For another, in Iraq Saddam had drawn on the country’s oil wealth to carry out a major military build-up, with military expenditures swallowing 8.4 per cent of GNP in 1979. Starting in 1958 Iraq had become an increasingly important market for sophisticated Soviet weapons, and was considered a member of the Soviet camp. In 1972 Iraq signed a 15-year friendship, cooperation and military agreement with the USSR. The Iraqi regime was striving to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. Apart from Israel, the only army in the region to rival Iraq’s was Iran’s. But after 1979, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, much of the Iranian army’s American equipment became inoperable.
The Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 (on the pretext of resolving border disputes) thus solved two major problems for the US. Over the course of the following decade two of the region’s leading military powers, neither of them hitherto friendly to the US, were tied up in an exhausting conflict with each other. Such conflicts among third world countries create a host of opportunities for imperialist powers to seek new footholds, as happened also in this instance.
Despite its strong ties to the USSR, Iraq turned to the west for support in the war with Iran. This it received massively. As Saddam Hussein later revealed, the US and Iraq decided to re-establish diplomatic relations —broken off after the 1967 war with Israel—just before Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 (the actual implementation was delayed for a few more years in order not to make the linkage too explicit). Diplomatic relations between the US and Iraq were formally restored in 1984 —well after the US knew, and a UN team confirmed, that Iraq was using chemical weapons against the Iranian troops. (The emissary sent by US president Reagan to negotiate the arrangements was none other than the present US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.) In 1982, the US State Department removed Iraq from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, and fought off efforts by the US Congress to put it back on the list in 1985. Most crucially, the US blocked condemnation of Iraq’s chemical attacks in the UN Security Council. The US was the sole country to vote against a 1986 Security Council statement condemning Iraq’s use of mustard gas against Iranian troops — an atrocity in which it now emerges the US was directly implicated (as we shall see below).
Brisk trade was done in supplying Iraq. Britain joined France as a major source of weapons for it. Iraq imported uranium from Portugal, France and Italy, and began constructing centrifuge enrichment facilities with German assistance. The US arranged massive loans for Iraq’s burgeoning war expenditure from American client states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The US administration provided “crop-spraying” helicopters (to be used for chemical attacks in 1988), let Dow Chemicals ship it chemicals for use on humans, seconded its air force officers to work with their Iraqi counterparts (from 1986), approved technological exports to Iraq’s missile procurement agency to extend the missiles’ range (1988). In October 1987 and April 1988 US forces themselves attacked Iranian ships and oil platforms.
Militarily, the US not only provided to Iraq satellite data and information about Iranian military movements, but, as former US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) officers have recently revealed to the New York Times (18/8/02), prepared detailed battle planning for Iraqi forces in this period—even as Iraq drew worldwide public condemnation for its repeated use of chemical weapons against Iran. According to a senior DIA official, “if Iraq had gone down it would have had a catastrophic effect on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and the whole region might have gone down [ie, slipped from US control—Aspects] —that was the backdrop of the policy.”
One of the battles for which the US provided battle planning packages was the Iraqi capture of the strategic Fao peninsula in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Since Iraq eventually relied heavily on mustard gas in the battle, it is clear the US battle plan tacitly included the use of such weapons. DIA officers undertook a tour of inspection of the Fao peninsula after Iraqi forces successfully re-took it, and they reported to their superiors on Iraq’s extensive use of chemical weapons, but their superiors were not interested. Col. Walter P. Lang, senior DIA officer at the time, says that “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern”. The DIA, he claimed, “would have never accepted the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but the use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival.” (As we shall see below, chemical weapons were used extensively by the Iraqi army against Kurdish civilians, but DIA officers deny they were “involved in planning any of the military operations in which these assaults occurred”.) In the words of another DIA officer, “They (the Iraqis) had gotten better and better” and after a while chemical weapons “were integrated into their fire plan for any large operation”. A former participant in the program told the New York Times that senior Reagan administration officials did nothing to interfere with the continuation of the program. The Pentagon “wasn’t so horrified by Iraq’s use of gas,” said one veteran of the program. “It was just another way of killing people—whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make any difference,” he said. The re-capture of the Fao peninsula was a turning-point in the conflict, bringing Iran to the negotiating table.
A US Senate inquiry in 1995 accidentally revealed that during the Iran-Iraq war the US had sent Iraq samples of all the strains of germs used by the latter to make biological weapons. The strains were sent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [sic] and the American Type Culture Collection to the same sites in Iraq that UN weapons inspectors later determined were part of Iraq’s biological weapons programme (Times of India, 2/10/02).
It is ironic to hear the US today talk of Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds in 1988. These attacks had full support from the US:
“As part of the Anfal campaign against the Kurds (February to September 1988), the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons extensively against its own civilian population. Between 50,000 and 186,000 Kurds were killed in these attacks, over 1,200 Kurdish villages were destroyed, and 300,000 Kurds were displaced.... The Anfal campaign was carried out with the acquiescence of the West. Rather than condemn the massacres of Kurds, the US escalated its support for Iraq. It joined in Iraq’s attacks on Iranian facilities, blowing up two Iranian oil rigs and destroying an Iranian frigate a month after the Halabja attack. Within two months, senior US officials were encouraging corporate coordination through an Iraqi state-sponsored forum. The US administration opposed, and eventually blocked, a US Senate bill that cut off loans to Iraq. The US approved exports to Iraq of items with dual civilian and military use at double the rate in the aftermath of Halabja as it did before 1988. Iraqi written guarantees about civilian use were accepted by the US commerce department, which did not request licenses and reviews (as it did for many other countries). The Bush Administration approved $695,000 worth of advanced data transmission devices the day before Iraq invaded Kuwait.” (“The dishonest case for war on Iraq” by Alan Simpson, MP, and Dr Glen Rangwala, Labour Against the War Counter-Dossier, 17/9/02)
The full extent of US complicity in Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” programmes became clear in December 2002, when Iraq submitted an 11,800 page report on these programmes to the UN Security Council. The US insisted on examining the report before anyone else, even before the weapons inspectors, and promptly insisted on removing 8,000 pages from it before allowing the non-permanent members of the Security Council to look at it. Iraq apparently leaked the list of American companies whose names appear in the report to a German daily, Die Tageszeitung. Apart from American companies, German firms were heavily implicated. [ See footnote ] (Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons, like his suppression of internal opposition, has been continuously useful to US interests: condoned and abetted during periods of alliance between the two countries, it is routinely exploited for propaganda purposes during periods of tension and war.)
Given this history, we need to understand the strategic and economic aspects of the US’s seemingly inexplicable turnaround on Iraq since 1990.
The Pages Ripped out by the US
Leaked Report Says German and US Firms Supplied Arms to Saddam
- Tony Paterson, The Independent (UK), 19/12/02
Baghdad's uncensored report to UN names Western companies alleged to have developed its weapons of mass destruction. Iraq's 11,000-page report to the UN Security Council lists 150 foreign companies, including some from America, Britain, Germany and France, which supported Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programme, a German newspaper said yesterday. Berlin's left-wing Die Tageszeitung newspaper said it had seen a copy of the original Iraqi dossier which was vetted for sensitive information by US officials before being handed to the five permanent Security Council members two weeks ago. An edited version was passed to the remaining 10 members of the Security Council last night. British officials said the list of companies appeared to be accurate. Eighty German firms and 24 US companies are reported to have supplied Iraq with equipment and know-how for its weapons programmes from 1975 onwards and in some cases support for Baghdad's conventional arms programme had continued until last year.
It is not known who leaked the report, but it could have come from Iraq. Baghdad is keen to embarrass the US and its allies by showing the close involvement of US, German, British and French firms in helping Iraq develop its weapons of mass destruction when the country was a bulwark against the much feared spread of Iranian revolutionary fervour to the Arab world.
"From about 1975 onwards, these companies are shown to have supplied entire complexes, building elements, basic materials and technical know-how for Saddam Hussein's programme to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction," the newspaper said. "They also supplied rockets and complete conventional weapons systems," it added. The five permanent members of the Security Council-the United States, Britain, Russia, France and China-have repeatedly opposed revealing the extent of foreign companies' involvement, although a mass of relevant information was collected by UN weapons inspectors who visited the country between 1991 and 1998. The UN claims that publishing the extent of the companies' involvement in Iraq would jeopardise necessary co-operation with such firms.
List of American firms that assisted Iraq's WMD programme
[A - nuclear; K - chemical; B - biological; R - rockets (missiles)]