The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first three installments of this series we looked back at the creation of the multinational Arab coalition supporting Iraq at the start of its war with Iran; the Iraqi invasion of Iran and the subsequent Iranian counterattack; the fall of several major Iranian cities including Isfahan; the use of suicide squads by Iran in a desperate and ultimately failed effort to seize the initiative from Saddam Hussein and his Arab allies; the use of Saudi commandos to disrupt Iranian oil production; the "war of the cities" missile campaign; the assassinations of Anwar Sadat and Ayatollah Khomeini; and the early stages of the Arab coalition drive on Tehran. In this chapter we’ll review the fall of Tehran and its debilitating effect on what was left of Iran’s Islamic regime; we’ll also analyze the mopping-up operations carried out by coalition ground forces in the final months of the Iran-Iraq war.
The Arab campaign to win control of metropolitan Tehran may have been the most important military engagement around a national capital since the Soviet assault on Berlin in the final days of World War II. It was certainly the most bitterly fought such campaign: independent postwar battle death estimates put the total combined number of troops on both sides killed in the first 24 hours alone at close to 150,000; an Iranian Revolutionary Guards detachment was wiped out to the last man within just over three hours after the first Egyptian advance unit entered Tehran’s western districts. With Iran’s air force practically driven out of the skies, the Iranian capital’s beleaguered defenders were in effect sitting ducks for Arab coalition air strikes; half of the casualties incurred by the Iranian regular army during the battle for Tehran would result from air attacks.
Not surprisingly, the Iranian exile volunteer militia which which had been fighting side by side with the Arab armies from the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war was in the thick of the fighting for Tehran. That militia’s ranks had been swelled by deserters from the Iranian regular army and by civilian men fed up with a regime that had promised considerably more than it had delivered. As the coalition armies drove further and further into the Iranian capital, the militia advanced right alongside them; the question by now wasn’t so much if Tehran would fall as it was whether it would be the exile militia or the Arab coalition ground forces that snuffed out the last pocket of Iranian government resistance...
Saddam Hussein avidly read every dispatch sent to him about the battle as it came in. After just over three years of war, he had his most hated foreign enemy other than Israel down on its knees, and he was chomping at the bit to get on his presidential balcony and make the announcement that Iraq had won the fight for Tehran; however, he’d learned from years of political machinations within the ranks of his own Baathist Party that patience was a virtue, so he held himself back from making any definitive pronouncements until he knew for sure that the last fragments of Iranian government resistance in Tehran had been broken.
Meanwhile, Hashemi Rafsanjani and his cabinet, now in hiding in eastern Iran, were trying desperately but with little luck to rally their fellow countrymen to victory. But they found their exhortations increasingly falling on deaf ears. Many Iranian citizens were in deep despair, convinced the Islamic Revolution was ending in failure; many others were angry over what they saw as the final bitter fruit of a series of miscalculations and deceptions committed by Tehran at least since the fall of Isfahan, if not longer; and still others, chiefly political dissidents and Iran’s persecuted ethnic minorities, took a grim satisfaction at the prospect of seeing the nerve center of the despotism which had made their lives a misery fall into the hands of the very secular foes the late Ayatollah Khomeini had so long and so passionately detested.
One group in particular openly welcomed the impending Arab capture of Tehran. The Iranian Communist Party, which had been brutally repressed by the Islamic regime and by the Shah before that, saw in the coming occupation of the Iranian capital not only the chance for a rebirth but also an opportunity to create a rough prototype of the kind of Marxist government they hoped would rule Iran in the postwar era. They also looked forward to forging ties of friendship with their socialist brethren in Iraq and Syria and an improved Iranian-Soviet diplomatic relationship.
The superpowers naturally followed the battle for Tehran with keen interest; relations between Washington and Moscow were at an all- time low in October of 1983 and a NATO-Warsaw Pact showdown in Europe was considered inevitable, therefore Reagan and Andropov were eager to take the lessons being gleaned from the battle for Tehran and see how they could be applied to urban fighting in future conflicts in central Europe. The Israeli Defense Forces also closely followed the action in Tehran-- the ten-year anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was fast approaching and Tel Aviv was interested in finding out how the Arab armies were taking what they’d learned from that conflict and applying it to the struggle for control of the Iranian capital.
One of the key features of the struggle for Tehran was the use of helicopter gunships to supplement the bombing raids carried out by Arab coalition combat jets. Iraqi Mil Mi-24s, Jordanian and Kuwaiti UH-1 Hueys, and Egyptian Mil Mi-8s used rockets and cannon fire to get targets that couldn’t be eliminated by more conventional air attack methods. The beleaguered Iranian government forces did the best they could to bring the copters down using automatic weapons fire, but more often that not the choppers were able to safely return to their bases after blasting their targets to smithereens. In one instance, an Iraqi Mi-24 took out an entire platoon of Revolutionary Guards with a single barrage of rocket fire.
By noon on October 5th Arab coalition regular troops and anti-government Iranian militias held most of Tehran and were making solid progress toward capturing the rest; although the remnants of the Islamic government would stay at large until they were seized by an Arab coalition patrol in March of 1984, in practical terms the Iran- Iraq war would end with the fall of the Iranian capital. That fall came on October 8th as Iraqi and Egyptian armored units overwhelmed the last stronghold of Iranian government resistance inside the ruins of what had once been the headquarters of the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was dead; all that remained now was to dispose of its corpse.
News of Tehran’s capture by the Arab armies hit Rafsanjani and his inner circle like a hammer blow. With his nation’s capital now in enemy hands, the Islamic regime was effectively finished; he and his cabinet were outlaws in their own land, targets of a manhunt by Arab coalition troops which was part of a larger offensive to quash any attempts at organizing a resistance movement against the coalition occupation forces now controlling most of Iran. Even as Saddam and his coalition allies were celebrating the fall of Tehran and the anti- Khomeini Iranian exiles who’d made its capture possible were debating among themselves what shape the post-war Iranian government should take, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Saudi soldiers were systematically picking off the few regular Iranian army detachments that still had guns with which to put up a fight. The last surviving unit of the old Iranian army laid down its arms in December of 1983; two months later, the last remaining Revolutionary Guards platoon surrendered to a Saudi patrol near the ruins of Persepolis.
Once the last fragments of armed resistance to the Arab coalition by Iran’s Islamic regime had been liquidated, the only remaining task left for coalition forces to accomplish was the capture of Rafsanjani and his former cabinet. That would come soon enough, as Rafsanjani and his colleagues had nowhere left to run.
In early March of 1984 Jordanian military intelligence agents on the ground in eastern Iran got a critical break in the Arab coalition armies’ effort to capture Hashemi Rafsanjani and his inner circle; an Iranian Sunni civilian telephoned the headquarters of the commandant for Arab occupation troops in the town of Saldabad with an anonymous tip that he’d seen a man resembling the deposed Iranian ruler earlier that day in the town marketplace making inquiries of another man about how to obtain transportation to the Pakistani border. The sighting was then confirmed by undercover Iraqi Muhakbarat1 agents, and within hours a combined team of Iraqi and Saudi infantry troops had been deployed to intercept Rafsanjani and his comrades. They were caught less than a mile short of the Iranian-Pakistani border; their capture was reported on at length by nearly every major broadcast media outlet in the Arab world, and also made headlines in the Israeli and Western press. When the arrest of Rafsanjani and his former cabinet was verified, an Iraqi foreign ministry press spokesman jubilantly told a packed roomful of TV and newspaper correspondents: "We’ve got them!"
The capture of Rafsanjani and his inner circle was the high point of Arab multi-national cooperation in the Iran-Iraq war. Of all the mopping-up operations carried out by Arab coalition ground forces in the final months between the fall of Tehran and the formal dissolution by Arab occupation authorities of the Islamic Republic, the hunt for Rafsanjani was model of speed, co-ordination, and effectiveness; just thirty-six hours elapsed between the time the commandant in Saldabad was first notified of the Rafsanjani sighting and the moment the ex- Iranian president was arrested.
But the feelings of euphoria and pan-Arab solidarity engendered by the Iraqi-led coalition’s victory in the Iran-Iraq war wouldn’t last forever. In the aftermath of the war’s end, old divisions and rivalries would begin to reassert themselves; even as the Baghdad and Damascus governments were declaring public holidays to honor the fall of Iran, quarrels over postwar administration of the vanquished country were beginning to drive the Arab coalition apart...
To Be Continued
1The Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi intelligence service.