The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first installment of this series we charted the formation of the Arab multi-national coalition that would back Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war; the commencement of the war itself; the initial Iraqi invasion of Iran and the subsequent Iranian counterattack; the capture of key cities like Shiraz and Abadan; the early phases of the battle for Isfahan; and the death of Anwar Sadat at the hands of Iranian-backed assassins. In this chapter weíll remember Hosni Mubarakís accession to the Egyptian presidency, the fall of Isfahan, and the Iraniansí reintroduction of volunteer suicide squads in a desperate effort to regain the battlefield initiative for Iran.
Within hours after Sadatís death, his top military aide, Hosni Mubarak, had been officially confirmed as his successor and assured his fellow Arab heads of state that Egypt would continue to support the Arab coalitionís war effort against Iran. Mubarak, who before serving as Sadatís defense minister had been chief of staff for the Egyptian air force, had been thoroughly debriefed on the state of the Iranian armed forces both before and after Sadatís assassination; he understood as few others did the importance of airpower in defeating Iran. Thus, in one of his first official acts as president of Egypt, he issued a directive calling for the already substantial Egyptian air force to be expanded even further and the training of its aircrews to be accelerated. He was determined to avenge Sadatís assassination by crushing the Iranians.
The Egyptian ground forces in Iran needed no directive to tell them to fight harder against the Iranians; even as Sadatís funeral cortege made its way through the streets of Cairo, the Egyptian army was already coming out of the pall of shock and grief which had fallen on it in the early hours after his murder. The Iranian regular forces and Revolutionary Guards units defending those districts of Isfahan still under Iranís control were stunned by the renewed ferocity with which Egyptian troops pressed home their attacks. Even Saddam Hussein, no shrinking violet himself, was astonished at the increased level of rage his Egyptian allies were displaying on the battlefield since the murder of Sadat.
By October 14th, eight days after Sadatís assassination, all but a few blocks of Isfahan were under Arab control and the only Iranian forces left in the city were two pockets of Revolutionary Guards who were so short on weapons that they had to retrieve guns and bullets from the bodies of their dead comrades in order to defend themselves. "It was like Stalingrad." one Iranian POW would later tell the BBC.1 There were other similarities between Isfahan and Stalingrad as well: like the famous World War II siege, the final phases of the struggle for control of Isfahan were marked by ferocious street fighting and a stubborn refusal by one sideís government to acknowledge the reality of its troopsí situation. On the contrary, Iranís state-run television and radio channels insisted that all was going well even though it was clear to the impartial observer the Iranians were going to lose the fight for the ancient city.
On October 17th Tehran lost radio contact with one of the two Revolutionary Guard pockets inside Isfahan; the next day Iraqi and Egyptian infantry battalions launched a three-pronged attack on the remaining pocket. The Iranian troops inside the pocket fought as long and hard as their limited resources would permit, but with the Iraqi-Egyptian forces possessing numerical superiority as well as a higher quality of weapons the outcome was never in doubt. On October 20th, the Associated Press bureau in Riyadh reported that the Arab coalition had secured full control of Isfahan.
Despite the Iranian governmentís relentless efforts to keep a lid on the truth about Isfahan, news of the cityís capture filtered back to the Iranian masses via word of mouth and propaganda broadcasts from the various state media outlets of the Arab coalition countries. Not surprisingly the Iraqis were the most enthusiastic disseminators of such broadcasts; in one 24-hour stretch right after the city fell, the Iraqi state television service aired nonstop footage of Arab coalition troops celebrating their victory over the Iranians in the battle for Isfahan.
The loss of Isfahan was as great a shock to the Iranian people as Sadatís assassination had been to the Egyptians. The Khomeini regime, having been certain that it would prevail in the fight for the ancient city, was caught unawares by the Arab victory-- and by the surge of popular anger that erupted in some of Iranís major cities in the days immediately following confirmation of Isfahanís fall.
On October 23rd, 1981, as the Iranian regular army was drawing up battle plans for an offensive to recapture Isfahan, riots broke out in Tehran and Qom against the Khomeini government. The Qom uprising in particular came as a rude shock to the mullahs in Tehran; Qom had been a stronghold of pro-Khomeini sentiment for years, and the headquarters of the Islamic revolutionary movement prior to the Shahís overthrow. It was like Germans in Munich rioting against Hitler after von Paulusí defeat at Stalingrad or Egyptians taking to the streets of Cairo to denounce Nasser after the Arabs lost the Six-Day War. It took nearly five days to bring the Qom and Tehran riots under control, and during those same five days the Arab coalition dispatched additional troops to reinforce its hold on Isfahan.
Thus when Operation Dawn, the Iranian regular armyís offensive to retake Isfahan from the Arab armies, was finally started in early November of 1981 the attack was inevitably met with harsh resistance. Some of the Iranian regular troops committed to the attack actually deserted to the Arab side in disgust over the Khomeini regimeís deceit about what had happened during the first battle for Isfahan; many of the deserters would later join the anti-Khomeini exile militia. After three days, Operation Dawn fell apart and the remnants of the assault force had to retreat. Blaming the Iranian regular armyís generals for the failure of the offensive, Khomeini had two of them executed as a warning to the rest that further such failures would not be condoned.
If he expected these executions to spur his regular troops on, however, he was sorely mistaken. If anything, the killings served only to further undermine the Iranian armyís already badly wounded morale and cast doubts on the stability of the Islamic government. Meanwhile, in Baghdad Saddamís generals were being showered with praise, medals, and promises of influential positions in the postwar Iraqi government. Likewise, the Syrian armyís top field commanders were being lionized by the Assad regime as modern-day heirs to the legacy of the famous 12th-century conqueror Saladin. Even Hosni Mubarak-- reluctant as he usually was to engage in propaganda flourishes --made a number of televised speeches to honor what he called "the palace guards at the gates of our countryís honor".2
As bad as Operation Dawnís failure was for the Iranian cause, still worse blows were to come. One such blow was delivered in early January of 1982 when Saudi commandos raided the oil refineries on Kharg Island, destroying or damaging many of their facilities and inflicting what amounted to a kick on the solar plexus of the Iranian economy. It would take nearly three months to repair the affected facilities at Kharg; during that time Iranís oil production would drop sharply and world oil prices as a whole would rise by at least $25 per barrel.
The disruption caused to Iranian oil production by the Kharg raid was sufficiently serious to provoke the Iranian government to impose severe fuel rationing on its citizens within less than 48 hours after the raid. It also triggered fuel shortages in Europe and Asia; even in the United States, which had sharply cut back on purchases of Iranian oil after the Shahís overthrow, the Kharg Island attack had noticeable economic consequences-- the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 120 points the day after the commando raid. President Reaganís top economic advisors held a series of late-night emergency meetings to hammer out strategies for softening the blow dealt to the US dollar by the Kharg raid, while Reaganís secretary of state George Schultz negotiated deals with the oil ministers of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia for those countries to increase the number of barrels of crude they sold to America per day. Reagan himself made a televised address to the American public two days after the attack urging them to make every effort to avoid wasting fuel; at the same time he sounded a note of optimism that the economic troubles resulting from the Kharg Island assault would soon be resolved.
Millions of American motorists and workers hoped he was right; after four years of hardship under Jimmy Carter, they werenít very eager to endure a new round of privation on his successorís watch. Reaganís vice-president, George Bush, aggressively lobbied Congress to set up tax breaks for the middle class in hopes that such privation could be, if not avoided, then at least mitigated.
But in fact, it would take almost a year for the United States and its Western allies to even begin recovering from the financial aftershocks of the Kharg Island raid. The Arab states didnít have it any easier; even Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are generally known to be among the richest nations in the Middle East, felt the pinch created by the Kharg Island raid. At a special emergency session of the international oil production alliance OPEC(the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries) two months after the commando strike, the Saudi oil minister ruefully joked that his country had cut off its own nose to spite its face.
When a nation turns to asymmetrical warfare, its friends and foes are bound to do likewise sooner or later. In Iranís case it was sooner--within ten days after the OPEC meeting adjourned, the Tehran government started turning again to the practice of using volunteer suicide squads to disrupt enemy ground operations. Even with all the political troubles which had beset the Khomeini regime since the Arab coalition victory at Isfahan, plenty of Iranian young men and boys were still willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of the Islamic Republic; some Western military and foreign policy experts saw these new suicide squads as a kind of Muslim counterpart to the "Childrenís Crusade" sponsored by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, since the imams who encouraged the youngsters to volunteer that they would enter Paradise by virtue of their "glorious martyrdom".3
Children as young as nine enlisted for these suicide missions. Turning a deaf ear to the chorus of condemnation the rest of the world was now subjecting him to for sending these boys to die, Khomeini gave them lavish praise, calling them "the advance guard for our nationís inevitable march to glorious final victory".4 Many of his generals, and even some of his Revolutionary Guards commanders, saw the use of these child soldiers as at best counterproductive and at worst a propaganda tool Iranís enemies could use to rally world opinion against her; they kept such thoughts to themselves, however, knowing all too well what could happen to those who dared criticize the Tehran government.
Those suppressed fears would soon prove justified: no sooner had the Iranians resumed deploying volunteer suicide squads than state- run newspapers in Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia began publishing vitriolic editorials excoriating Ayatollah Khomeini as "a new Adolf Hitler"5 and calling for other Arab and Muslim countries to join the coalition against Iran, denounced by one Iraqi Shiite cleric as "an apostate nation"6. Libya, which had previously been a neutral party in the Iran-Iraq war, now began quietly but inexorably shifting to a more distinctly pro-Iraqi stance; Sudan, whose relations with Libya had been steadily deteriorating since the early 1970s, underwent a similar transformation in its own policy on the war, and as a result Khartoum and Tripoli eventually reconciled their old differences and resumed the alliance that had existed between them up until the late 1960s.
In May of 1982 Kuwait, which had been among the diplomatic and financial backers of the Iraq-led Arab coalition since the war began, now started giving military support to the coalitionís cause as well, dispatching an air force squadron and two army infantry divisions to support coalition ground operations along the southern front in Iran. The list of Tehranís enemies on the battlefield was steadily growing by the day...
....and as if things werenít dire enough for the Islamic regime already, the same month that Kuwait officially became part of the Arab military alliance against Iran, Iraqi and Saudi ground forces began preparing for a drive on the Persian Gulf seaport of Bandar-e Abbas. Both Iranian and Arab coalition senior generals knew that if Iraq and its coalition allies could gain control of Bandar-e Abbas it would further curtail already seriously hampered Iranian naval and merchant shipping activities in the Persian Gulf; they also knew that if the Iranians lost Bandar-e Abbas it would deal a blow to Iranian morale from which the Khomeini government might never recover.
On the Arab coalitionís northern front, meanwhile, Iraqi and Jordanian troops were positioning themselves for a lightning dash towards the Caspian coastal town of Rasht. Before he or his military advisors knew it, Khomeini would find himself between a rock and the hardest of hard places. His predilection for bolstering the suicide squads and the Revolutionary Guards at the expense of the regular army had deprived that army of manpower and equipment at precisely the moment in the war when it would need considerable amounts of both...
To Be Continued
1During the early phases of the Battle of Stalingrad, Soviet troops were desperately short on rifles; their political commissars ordered them to take rifles from their dead comrades to make up the difference.
2Quoted from a speech by President Mubarak dated December 3rd, 1981.
3Quoted from the sermon of a Sunni clergyman in Qom in mid-March of 1982.
4From an Islamic Republic News Agency bulletin dated March 13th, 1982.
5Quoted from the April 4th, 1982 edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.
6From a UPI wire bulletin dated March 30th, 1982.