The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two installments of this series we looked at the establishment of the multinational Arab coalition that backed Saddam Hussein when he led Iraq to war with Iran; the first Iraqi invasion of Iran and the subsequent Iranian counteroffensive; the capture of key cities like Shiraz, Abadan, and Isfahan; the assassination of Anwar Sadat and the accession of Hosni Mubarak to the Egyptian presidency; the Saudi commando raid on Kharg Island; and the reintroduction of volunteer suicide squads by the Iranians after the Arab capture of Isfahan. In this episode we’ll look at the assassination of Ayatollah Khomeini; study the so-called "war of the cities" missile campaign of early 1983 and how it changed Arab coalition strategy against Iran; and witness the start of the coalition ground forces’ all-out drive to capture Tehran.
The suicide squads’ failure to turn the tide of the Iran-Iraq war back in Tehran’s favor and the threat posed by the Arab coalition forces to Rasht and weren’t the only things weighing on the minds of the Iranian general staff in the spring of 1983. Saddam Hussein, well aware that Iran was in deep trouble and sensing the chance to further weaken the Iranians’ already tenuous strategic position, had given his army’s missile corps a free hand to use the full power of their Scuds on the steadily shrinking number of cities in western Iran still under under the Tehran government’s control.
Indeed, Tehran itself was one of the first targets for missile attack in what CNN would later dub "the war of the cities". Though Iraq had suspended its nuclear weapons development program in early December of 1980 as a concession to the United States when the two countries were negotiating to resume diplomatic ties, it could still inflict ruinous blows on Iranian urban areas using conventional high- explosive warheads. Iran, while possessing a rather sizable missile inventory of its own, had less chance of inflicting a similar blow on Iraqi cities. In terms of numbers, Baghdad had a considerable advantage over Tehran in missile capability; the Iraqis could bring five SSM launchers to bear on Iranian cities for every missile Iran aimed at Iraq.
And Saddam didn’t wait long to capitalize on this advantage. On the same day Kuwait officially announced its commitment of combat troops to the war with Iran, Iraq launched its first salvo in the war of the cities, sending over two dozen Scuds towards Tehran and another two dozen at Qom; there were also a half-dozen fired towards Bandar-e Abbas. In response to this massive Iraqi bombardment, the Iranians fired a few dozen missiles of their own at Baghdad, Nasiriyah, and Basra-- but not all of those missiles hit their intended targets. In fact, one of the Iranian missiles actually veered wildly off course and detonated in a village southwest of Tehran, killing several dozen Iranian civilians.1 For that matter, the Iraqi missiles weren’t always totally accurate either; in one especially alarming and memorable case an Iraqi Scud suffered an internal guidance failure and nearly took out one of Nasiriyah’s anti-aircraft defense batteries.2
The war of the cities would span much of the spring of 1983; it had already been in progress for several weeks by the time the Arab coalition armies made their move against Tehran. The Iraqi missile offensive and Iranian counteroffensive were both reminiscent in many respects of the Nazis’ V-1 and V-2 campaigns in the closing days of World War II. Neither side seemed particularly upset about causing massive casualties to the other’s civilians, but each side waxed righteously indignant when its own civilians were killed or injured and demanded immediate vengeance.
One of the most important consequences of the war of the cities was that it prompted Arab coalition field commanders to rethink their old plans for assaults on Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht. Originally Rasht and Bandar-e Abbas had been major objectives of the Arab coalition forces’ land campaign, but as the Iraqi missile offensive went on it was decided a serious effort to take those cities would use up troops and equipment which could be better employed securing Tehran. In the end, a conscious choice was made to allow Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht to "wither on the vine", as it were, and focus the majority of Arab land combat strength against Tehran.
But if Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht were no longer a high priority for Arab coalition ground commanders, they continued to be major targets for coalition air strikes. In fact, most of the coalition armies’ senior generals supported the continuation of air attacks on those two cities as a useful means of keeping the Iranians off-balance regarding Arab strategic plans; the Iranian high command erroneously believed the coalition still intended to mount a major land campaign to capture Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht, and the Arab generals wanted to encourage this mistaken idea on Iran’s part as long as they could. Keeping up air strikes against Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht was one of the best ways they could think of to pull the wool over Tehran’s eyes.
Another was the fabrication of bogus campaign strategies for a supposed multi-pronged attack on Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht. These counterfeit assault plans were intentionally leaked to the foreign press to further foster the Iranians’ incorrect perception that the Arab coalition continued to seek the capture of those two cities. Knowing that the dissemination of radio traffic about false army units had helped the Americans and the British deceive Germany in regard to Allied intentions about the invasion of France during the Second World War, the chief of the Iraqi general staff gave his blessing in early June of 1983 for the Iraqi army to transmit a series of messages purported to be from a mythical unit designated "the 2nd Infantry Corps" and ordering the deployment of non-existent divisions for equally non-existent attacks on Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht.
The Arab deception operations worked to near-perfection; when Arab coalition ground forces began their push toward Tehran on June 10th, 1983, at least a quarter of the Iranian regular army’s surviving divisions were tied down defending the approaches to Bandar-e Abbas and Rasht from assaults that would never come. Indeed, it took nearly ten days for the Iranian general staff to get even the vaguest inkling of the Arab alliance’s true intentions, and by then the beleaguered Iranian army and Revolutionary Guard were in full retreat.
But conquering Tehran would not by any means be an easy task for the Arab armies; taking a page from their Afghani brethren who were trying to drive Soviet occupation forces out of Afghanistan, Iranian civilians formed guerrilla units to raise hell behind the Arab lines as the coalition armies drew closer and closer to the Iranian capital. More than once coalition ground troops thought they’d secured an area only to find themselves savaged by hit-and-run attacks from one of these insurgent cells; within a month after the Arab armies had begun their offensive, Iraqi and Egyptian army units found that they were losing more men to the guerrillas than to Iranian regular troops. For Khomeini, the formation of these insurgent cells was a sign from God that the tide of the war was finally turning back in Iran’s favor, and in early July of 1983 he gave a speech before the Majlis predicting Iran would win the war against the Arab "infidels".
His optimism, however, would soon prove unfounded. Old ethnic divisions between Kurds and non-Kurds in Iran eventually began to reassert themselves, hampering the guerrillas’ effectiveness; Arab propagandists adroitly capitalized on these divisions, and also took every opportunity to exploit lingering resentments among the Iranian masses over the Khomeini government’s refusal to tell the truth when Isfahan was captured; as a result, the budding insurgency collapsed and by late August of 1983 the initiative in the fight for Tehran had passed back to the Arab coalition forces.
No one on either side of the battle lines in Iran could have ever suspected just then that the next casualty in Khomeini’s war with the Arab powers would be Khomeini himself...
On September 19th, 1983 Iran’s Islamic government held one of its last major propaganda rallies in Tehran; attendance was mandatory. The fact this rally was being held ten days before the third anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War wasn’t lost on anyone in the crowd-- or on foreign defense analysts. Morale among all sectors of Iran’s war effort was at its lowest point since the capture of Isfahan, and both the CIA and the KGB3 had picked up signs that antipathy to the Islamic regime was growing in the Iranian regular army’s officer corps to the point where a "generals’ revolt" against the Khomeini government was a real and serious possibility.
Khomeini’s security detail had warned him that he was taking his life in his hands by appearing at the rally; however, the Ayatollah was confident that God would protect him and said as much. He might have done better to heed his bodyguards’ warnings-- when he arrived at the rally and mounted the steps to the podium to address the crowd, a sniper was taking aim at him from just a few yards away. Whether the sniper was part of the "generals’ revolt" the CIA was anticipating, an Iraqi agent carrying out a black ops mission, or simply an ordinary Iranian driven to madness and rage by his country’s misfortunes during three years of war is still a matter of considerable dispute.
But the sequence of events for the assassination itself is crystal clear. Just under fifteen minutes into Khomeini’s address, the sniper fired two shots into the Iranian leader’s chest; as Khomeini staggered back from the podium and the crowd began screaming in a blind terror, a third bullet hit him square in the left temple. Less than two hours later, an IRNA official bulletin broke the news the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was dead. The assassin was later found dead as well, having committed suicide as police were closing in on his sniper’s nest; that evening Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani declared martial law in Tehran.
Whether the assassin was part of a larger conspiracy or was simply working for himself, his actions radically changed the equation of the Iran-Iraq war; Khomeini had been the spiritual engine of the Islamic regime in Tehran ever since the 1979 revolution, and with his demise the already seriously weakened foundation of that regime began slowly crumbling for good. Iran’s Arab enemies, sensing the Islamic Republic might be ripe for the plucking, ratcheted up their offensives against the Iranians a notch and prepared to mount one final major surge to capture Tehran.
Suspecting that his nation’s capital might not remain under the Islamic regime’s control much longer, Rafsanjani quietly authorized his cabinet to begin evacuating essential government functions from Tehran on September 23rd, the day after Khomeini’s funeral. His plan was for the Iranian government to reassemble out in the town of Bam, located in eastern Iran’s Dasht-I-Lut desert region, and from there direct holding operations by the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards against the Arab ground forces until the necessary number of troops could be assembled for a new large-scale offensive to retake some of the territory in western Iran that had been lost to the Arabs earlier in the war.
But time and military realities were working against the Islamic regime. On the ground Arab armor and infantry were destroying Iranian divisions with breathtaking speed; in the skies Egyptian F-4s, Syrian MiGs, Saudi F-15s and Jordanian Mirage F1s were annihilating what was left of the Iranian air force; and at sea the Iranian navy had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist. Rafsanjani and his cabinet would spend most of the next six months as fugitives in their own country, dodging Arab coalition patrols as they rode out the end of the war-- and the end of the Islamic Republic’s existence.
Khomeini’s funeral was one of the largest, and last, public displays of popular emotion in Iran before the collapse of the Islamic regime. The streets of Tehran were so crowded with mourners that motor vehicles literally couldn’t move an inch anywhere; even the generals who had in the past questioned Khomeini’s handling of the Iranian war effort were stunned by his assassination. Everything for which the 1979 Islamic Revolution had been fought seemed to have been lost along with Khomeini-- or at the very least been placed in mortal jeopardy.
Morale in all sectors of the Iranian armed forces took a severe hit after Khomeini was murdered; desertions within the ranks of the Iranian regular army soared to a level not seen since the Arab capture of Isfahan. Iranian civilian morale was also greatly damaged by the assassination, sufficiently so that a postwar UN investigation of the national suicide rate in Iran during the final months of the Iran-Iraq war would find suicides among the Iranian adult population had jumped 40% in the first two weeks after Khomeini’s death.
Reaction to Khomeini’s death among Muslims outside Iran was somewhat more divided. In Afghanistan, many Afghani Muslims braved the wrath of Soviet occupation authorities to pay respect to Khomeini’s memory; Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, one of the few non-Arab Islamic nations to maintain cordial ties with the Arab world during the Iran-Iraq war, sent Hashemi Rafsanjani a message of condolence and offered its assistance to the Iranian government in investigating the Khomeini assassination. But in many other countries with large Muslim communities, there were almost as many people celebrating Khomeini’s demise as mourning it; indeed, in Saudi Arabia in particular thousands of people took to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations of joy over the death of one of their kingdom’s sworn enemies.
Saddam Hussein certainly wasn’t shedding any tears over his old enemy’s violent end. Far from it: in his first public speech following the assassination, he praised Khomeini’s killer as "a heroic martyr to the cause of freedom" and proclaimed that the day of the assassination would henceforth be a national holiday in Iraq. Saddam’s judgment in issuing this directive was, at best, open to question; his institution of a holiday to honor Khomeini’s murderer lent credence to the theory the assassin had been an Iraqi ‘black ops’ agent. Still, his decree was an accurate reflection of the seething hate he felt for Khomeini.
Nor was there much grief in the West over Khomeini’s passing. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher called it "the inevitable fate of rulers who build their regimes on lies and hate"; President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz, was overheard to mutter "Good riddance to the SOB" when one of his aides told him about the assassination; French president François Mitterand made no public comments about the assassination but privately told one of his senior foreign policy advisors that he saw Khomeini’s death as the removal of a cancer from the body of Middle Eastern politics.
The Soviet Union was glad to see Khomeini go; Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, who had succeeded Leonid Brezhnev when Brezhnev died in late 1982 and would be dead himself by the time the Iran-Iraq war ended in the spring of 1984, had long viewed the Ayatollah as a grave threat to Moscow’s interests in the Middle East and a hindrance to its efforts to pacify Afghanistan. Andropov only regretted the KGB, the agency of which he’d once been chief, couldn’t take the credit for the Iranian leader’s demise.
Official reaction in Israel to the news of Khomeini’s murder was a mixture of shock at the way the assassin had so easily managed to strike his target; relief that one of the major sponsors of terrorism against Israeli civilians had been eliminated; and veiled admiration for the swiftness and secrecy in which the hit on Khomeini had been carried out. MOSSAD, Israel’s counterintelligence service, would later use the Khomeini assassination as a textbook example to its recruits on the basics of performing a successful counter-terrorist mission.
The third anniversary of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war was a somber occasion in Iran, not only because of Khomeini’s death but also because of the bitter knowledge among the Iranian masses that the war was all but lost. The Tehran government could no longer keep the truth about Iran’s dire state from its people; in fact some of the commentators for the official Iranian TV and radio services defied the wrath of the secret police to call for Rafsanjani to open cease- fire negotiations with the Arab coalition-- or else step aside for a new head of state who would be willing to end the hostilities before Tehran became a battleground.
In the Arab world, Iraq in particular, the anniversary of the start of the war was an occasion for reveling in the victories that Arab coalition forces had won to date and making dramatic exhortations to coalition troops to give their maximum effort to win the final victory over the disintegrating Iranian theocratic regime. Not that they needed much exhortation on this score: the Arab armies, seeing their Persian enemy was on his last legs, were pressing home their offensive against Tehran more energetically than ever.
On October 3rd, 1983 an Egyptian army infantry advance unit radioed its battalion headquarters that it was entering one of the outer neighborhoods of Tehran’s western district. The fighting had now reached the Rafsanjani government’s very doorstep...
To Be Continued
1Fearful that acknowledging the truth about the incident would be detrimental to the Iranian war effort, the Khomeini regime mounted a determined propaganda campaign to sell the bogus story that the affected village had been deliberately targeted and attacked by Iraqi missile batteries; when surviving residents of the village sought economic compensation for their losses and a forthright explanation of the accident from the Iranian government, their pleas were rejected without a word and some of them were actually arrested on trumped-up treason charges. The truth about the incident would not be fully revealed until the early 1990s.
2The unfortunate commander of the Scud battery team that fired the errant missile was later executed by a firing squad that included Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay.
3Komitet Gosudarstvenoi Bezopastnosti, or Committee of State Security, the Communist-era Russian counterintelligence service.