The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Without question the Iran-Iraq War was one of the most violent regional conflicts of the late 20th century. It cost thousands of lives, toppled one government and put many others in jeopardy, menaced the global economy, and set the stage for the subsequent Persian Gulf War between the United States and Iraq. When it first erupted in 1980 some military experts predicted it would be over within a matter of months, while others felt it could stretch out as long as ten years. As is the case with most other things in this world, the truth would turn out to fall somewhere in the middle; it was just under three and a half years between the time the first Iraqi troops crossed Iran’s border and the day the Iranian government collapsed.
Neither of the heads of state of the two combatant nations cut an especially sympathetic figure in the court of world opinion. Iran’s president at the time, Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been a key partner of radical Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during Khomeini’s 1979 overthrow of the secular Iranian government; Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein, who’d come to power in Baghdad shortly after the Shah of Iran went into exile, was already establishing a reputation as one of the world’s most bloodthirsty tyrants. But the prevailing sentiment in the Arab world was that Saddam was the lesser of two evils; as much of a thug as he might be, he wasn’t plotting to impose theocratic regimes on the rest of the Middle East the way the mullahs in Tehran were doing. So many Arab governments held their noses, so to speak, and made common cause with Baghdad to defeat Iran. The first of these was Syria, which had been an ally of Iraq in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but whose relations with Baghdad had been steadily deteriorating over the past decade; Hafez el-Assad hated the Islamic regime in Tehran as much as Saddam did, if not more-- Syrian intelligence officials had found evidence that the Iranians were secretly fomenting unrest among Syrian Muslims in hopes of sparking a revolution that would topple the socialist government in Damascus.
Then there was Egypt, where the government of then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat suspected the Iranians of not only fomenting turmoil within Egypt’s own borders but also trying to undermine the fragile diplomatic ties Cairo had established with Israel as part of the 1979 Camp David accords. Sadat’s top military advisor and eventual successor, Hosni Mubarak, was concerned that if Iran were victorious in its conflict with Iraq it might threaten the stability of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which in turn would endanger Egypt’s own national security. And in any event, both Sadat and Mubarak were hoping that coming to the defense of Iraq’s Arab Baathist government against the chiefly Persian theocracy in Iran might restore Egypt to the Arab world’s good graces after the uproar which had been generated by the Cairo government’s decision to recognize Israel.
Jordan’s King Hussein had his own reasons for co-operating(albeit reluctantly) with Baghdad-- Jordan and Iraq are in geographical terms back-fence neighbors. Hussein and his son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Abdullah, both worried that if they didn’t back Saddam in his fight with the Islamic fundamentalists in Tehran a victorious Iraq might next turn its guns on the Hashemite Kingdom. Having narrowly survived one war with Israel and another with Palestinian radicals,1 the Jordanian monarchy was in no rush to get drawn into armed conflict with Baghdad.
Last but not least there was the fact that Saudi Arabia’s economic prosperity depended to a significant degree on Saudi exports of crude oil to customers around the world; tankers passing through the Persian Gulf faced the threat of Iranian missile attack, which by extension gave Iran a monetary knife to point at Riyadh’s throat. To King Fahd that was intolerable, and he also took exception to what he saw as Tehran’s constant efforts to undercut his country’s influence in the Middle East. He denounced the fundamentalist regime in Iran in very harsh terms indeed, and he had a highly effective American-equipped air force with which to back up his words.
Israel, meanwhile, opted largely to sit on the sidelines. Their southern border was secure thanks to the Camp David accord with Egypt, and the Israeli counterintelligence service MOSSAD estimated that no matter which side won the war Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq would be too exhausted when it was over to pose much of a threat to Israel’s national security; as for Iran, neither the missiles nor the aircraft in its combat inventory at the time had the necessary range to hit Israeli targets, and its counterintelligence service-- at least for the short run --seemed more interested in meddling with American peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon than mounting any kind of armed covert operations against Israel.
Next to Iraq itself, the nations that committed the most troops to the initial Iraqi-led Arab invasion of Iran in September of 1980 were Syria and Egypt, who each contributed more than 50,000 soldiers to the assault. The Syrian and Egyptian forces were in turn aided by 30,000 Saudi ground troops and 5,000 Jordanian soldiers; ten Saudi fighter squadrons assisted the Iraqi air force in bombing Iranian air, ground, and naval installations. In the Straits of Hormuz, Saudi and Egyptian missile boats joined the Iraqi navy(such as it was) in engaging Iran’s own warships. There was even a volunteer militia of Iranian exiles involved in the opening thrust into Iran; for these exiles, the war was first and foremost a struggle for the liberation of their homeland from the Khomeini dictatorship.
The invasion of Iran was the biggest major multi-national Arab military campaign since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and also the first such campaign in years to be directed against an adversary other than Israel. The invasion forces, exploiting the element of surprise that had been achieved by the Iraqi army’s opening attacks, managed to push at least fifty miles into Iranian territory before Iran started its counterattack against Arab coalition forces two weeks after the Iran- Iraq war broke out. The Iranian foreign ministry blasted the invasion as "a grave betrayal of the will of Allah"2 and issued dire warnings that any other nation which co-operated with Iraq or its allies would suffer harsh consequences.
Complicating the Iranian armed forces’ task in organizing their retaliation against the Arab expeditionary troops was the fact that the Iraqi general staff had kept them guessing for days by mounting the initial offensive push into Iran along two separate axes of attack. The first axis brought Iraqi, Saudi, and Egyptian ground units down the Persian Gulf coastline into Abadan and Bushehr, while the second axis had Iraqi, Syrian, and Jordanian troops driving northward towards Hamadan; as if that weren’t enough to give the mullahs in Tehran a headache, the Iraqis responded to the Iranian counterattack by detaching some of their troops from the Abadan-Bushehr campaign to threaten the city of Shiraz.
By December of 1980 the Iranian army had managed to regain some of the territory it had lost in the Arab invasion, but without US aid to replace or repair the American-made equipment that had been lost in the Iran-Iraq war’s first battles-- or restock the Iranian military’s vital supplies --it was open to question just how long Iran could hold out against the Iraqi-led coalition.
Israel’s chief foreign ally, the United States, might have sat out the Iran-Iraq war too had it not been for Iran’s November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. The hostage standoff that ensued as a result of the embassy takeover greatly embittered US-Iranian relations and marked the beginnings of a rapprochement between Baghdad and Washington, who had broken off diplomatic ties during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In October of 1980 low-level Iraqi and US diplomats met in Cairo for a secret closed-door conference aimed at laying the foundations for a resumption of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iraq; that same month, the Defense Department and the CIA began sharing intelligence with the Saudi Arabian defense ministry on Iranian ground and air deployments, and in turn the Saudis passed this data on to the Iraqi general staff via the Saudi embassy in Baghdad.
When Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter as president in January of 1981, the talks with Baghdad accelerated and became more overt; despite his moral reservations about forming an alliance with a leftist and openly anti-Israeli totalitarian regime, the pragmatist in Reagan told him that Washington needed Saddam’s help to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf against Iran’s expansionist behavior. On the other side of the coin, Saddam saw in America not only a bulwark against the Iranians but also a welcome possible new market for Iraqi oil exports.
In June of 1981 the United States formally resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq. Now Washington could directly supply the Iraqis with the intel on Iranian ground and air movements it had previously had to channel to Baghdad through Saudi Arabia; this made it easier for the Iraqis and the Saudis to co-ordinate their own air and ground operations against Iran. One tidbit that would prove to be especially useful to Iraq came in August of 1981 when CIA listening posts in the Middle East picked up chatter indicating the Iranian air force was on the verge of starting missile attacks against tankers headed into or out of Basra, Iraq’s sole major port.
Armed with this data, the Iraqi air force mounted a new bombing campaign against Iranian airfields, crippling or destroying most of the aircraft with which Iran had hoped to carry out the tanker raids. To add insult to injury for the Iranian military, this blow fell just as Iraqi and Saudi ground troops were repulsing Iranian attempts to retake Bushehr from the Arab coalition. The Tehran mullahs’ political position was becoming more fragile with each passing week and with every defeat the Arab forces inflicted on the Iranian army; although Ayatollah Khomeini continued to boast that Iran would prevail and the Islamic Revolution would soon be spread throughout all corners of the world, underneath his bluster there now lay a genuine and deep fear that everything he’d worked for in his long quest to bring Iran under Islamic rule might soon be lost....
His fears intensified when, on the one-year anniversary of the Arab invasion of Iran, Iraqi and Egyptian divisions started a three- pronged offensive to capture the ancient city of Isfahan. Three weeks earlier, Shiraz had finally fallen to the Iraqi army; after months of trying and failing to break through the city’s defenses, Iraqi troops had finally succeeded in breaching the Iranian front north of the city with some help from American-made weapons and fighting vehicles sent to Iraq under a military aid treaty between Washington and Baghdad signed shortly after the United States re-established diplomatic ties with Iraq.
Once the northern front outside Shiraz was breached, it was only a matter of time before the western front collapsed too beneath the weight of Iraqi tanks and infantry; attack helicopters also played a major part, ruthlessly strafing and rocketing Iranian defensive posts at every opportunity. Egyptian air force MiGs bombed the main Iranian command post in the city until it was nothing but a smoking crater and Egyptian armored battalions thwarted a suicide charge by Iranian Revolutionary Guards aimed at regaining the initiative for Iran on the northern front. In the end, the city’s remaining defenders had no choice but to surrender to the Arab forces.
With Shiraz secured, Iraqi and Egyptian units began lining up to attack Isfahan; the anti-Khomeini Iranian exile militia would accompany them in their offensive, not only for military purposes but also to provide critical information on the terrain and to spread propaganda urging the Iranian people to rebel against the theocracy in Tehran. The exiles’ propaganda campaign was supported by Iraqi army helicopters air-dropping leaflets onto civilians and broadcasting anti-Khomeini recordings.
Saddam announced the start of the Isfahan offensive in a live televised address from his presidential palace at 8:00 AM Baghdad time on September 29th, 1981. Proclaiming it "the mother of all battles", the Iraqi dictator boldly predicted the three-column assault would triumph in a matter of days if not hours. Later that day Anwar Sadat also spoke to his nation on television, but in considerably more somber tones; Sadat, who remembered the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars all too well, was reluctant to make any kind of extravagant rhetorical flourishes lest they came back to haunt him. As for Hafez el-Assad, he only made a brief statement exhorting his troops in Iran to fight relentlessly until the battle for Isfahan was won-- most of his attention on the battle’s first day was focused on an inspection tour he’d made that morning of Syrian defenses along his border with Lebanon.3
The struggle for Isfahan marked the coming of age of Iraq’s Republican Guard, a group which had originally been formed to act as Saddam Hussein’s personal security force but evolved during the Iran- Iraq war into a de facto fourth branch of the Iraqi armed forces. At first they were deployed to the Iranian front to enforce operational security and ideological loyalty among the Iraqi troops fighting in Iran, but at Isfahan they became a tactical mobile reserve force that struck with devastating effect against the Iranian forces defending the city’s southern perimeter. They fought with a fanaticism that astonished the Iranians-- and sometimes even Saddam himself.
By October 2nd Arab coalition forces held all the roads leading out of Isfahan and Iraqi regular army advance platoons were fighting the Iranians in the city’s outer western districts; in the south Iraqi Republican Guard units and Egyptian army battalions were slowly but surely wearing down the Iranian troops that had been deployed to try and push them out. Not even a surprise assault on the Egyptian right flank by volunteer suicide squads on October 4th seemed to have much effect on the Arab forces’ progress. If anything, it provoked them to drive that much harder and deeper into the city.
At sunset on October 5th the Iraqi-Egyptian forces held most of the southern and western sections of Isfahan and the anti-Khomeini Iranian exile militia was steadily working its way through the city’s eastern neighborhoods. But the next day, the world’s focus would be shifted from the Isfahan battlefront in dramatic and violent fashion: Iranian sleeper agents, working with members of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood organization, assassinated Anwar Sadat at a review of Egyptian army recruits in Cairo. The assassination shook the morale of the Arab coalition armies and made Egypt and her Arab allies wary about the possibility of similar attacks on their home soil as the war in Iran intensified.
To Be Continued
1In the early 1970s the Jordanian army fought a bitter guerrilla conflict with the PLO, which was trying to get King Hussein to back their efforts to return to Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza that were under Israeli occupation.
2From an Islamic Republic News Agency(IRNA) bulletin dated September 30th, 1980.
3At the time of the Isfahan offensive, Lebanon was in the sixth year of a civil war that had been raging since 1975 and would continue until 1991. Many of the Islamic militias fighting against the predominantly Druze Christian Lebanese government of that era were sponsored by Iran, and Assad was worried Iran might use them to wage hit-and-run attacks against military bases in western Syria. Thus his chief defense priority other than the Arab war with Iran was maintaining security along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier.