Friday, September 22, 2006

September 22

iran-iraq-warOn this date in 1980, the longest conventional war of the 20th century commenced as the Iraqi army poured across the southwestern border of Iran. The two nations, which severed diplomatic relations three months before, had long-nurtured territorial disputes that intensified when Islamic revolutionaries deposed the secular dictatorship of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in February 1979. Iran and Iraq were each determined to assert hegemony over the Persian Gulf, although the conflict was more immediately indebted to specific disputes over the Shatt al-Arab/Arvandrud waterway (which divides the two countries at the mouth of the Gulf); the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs (claimed by Iran); and the Iranian province of Khuzestan (an oil-saturated region that Iraq insisted had been unjustly ceded to Persia by the Ottoman Empire.) After the success of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of the Islamic republic, declared his intent to support similar revolutions elsewhere -- beginning, perhaps, with his loathed neighbor to the west.

Neither the Soviet Union (which supplied 60% of Iraq’s arms and was fighting an Islamist movement in Afghanistan) nor the United States (embittered by the loss of its regional deputy, the Shah, humiliated by the capture of its Tehran embassy, and concerned for the safety of its Saudi allies) saw any reason to discourage Iraq from taking advantage of the instability across its border in Iran. Five years before, Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had encouraged Iran to attack Iraq over the Shatt al-Arab; the 1975 Algiers Accords temporarily suspended the border dispute and averted war.

Now, however, with the Shah’s army disbanded, Iran’s economy languishing in a state of disrepair, and a Kurdish revolt brewing in northwestern Iran, the two superpowers offered their quiet assurances to Saddam Hussein that they would not look unkindly upon an acceleration of hostilities between the two countries. US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski urged Carter to adopt a policy of “destabilization” in Iran, much as he had urged the “destabilization” of Afghanistan a year before. In a remarkable prequel to its own buffoonery 23 years later, the United States provided Iraq with satellite intelligence suggesting that a war against Iran would be quick and relatively painless, and that the Arabs of Khuzestan would welcome Iraq as their liberators. Obliging the wishes of his new sponsors, Saddam Hussein launched his invasion on September 22, citing the pretext of an Iranian assassination plot against Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

Over the course of the next eight years, Iran and Iraq would collaborate in the squandering of at least a million lives (with millions more wounded and displaced), at a cost of trillions of dollars -- some of which Saddam Hussein would eventually seek to recover from a smallish emirate on its southern border. As the United States “tilted” toward Iraq from 1980-1985, it offered $5 billion in economic aid to the Ba’athist dictatorship while encouraging its allies in Britain, West Germany and France to supply the Iraqis with tanks, missiles, artillery shells, fighter jets, and a variety of precursors needed to manufacture chemical weapons. Private companies in the US, operating under export licenses provided by the Department of Commerce, contributed samples of anthrax, E. coli bacteria, and botulism to the cause of “destabilizing” Iran. The US Centers for Disease Control provided Iraq with fourteen biological agents, including West Nile virus. By 1985-1986, the Reagan administration began to fear an Iraqi victory and began covert operations to supply Iran with intelligence (some of which was deliberately distorted) and weapons, including the notorious shipments disclosed during the Iran-Contra investigations.

In a remarkable turn of events -- for which the United States deserves no small amount of credit -- relations between Iraq and Iran have improved substantially over the past several years.