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The Capture of Tehran, 1983


Part 5


By Chris Oakley



Summary: In the first four chapters of this series we looked back on the circumstances that led to the formation of the Iraqi-led Arab coalition that went to war with Iran in 1980; the course of the Iran-Iraq War itself; the assassination of Ayatollah Khomeini near the warís end; and the Arab capture of Tehran that sealed the downfall of Iranís Islamic regime and the Arab coalitionís final victory in the war. In this segment weíll look at the political disagreements that divided the Arab coalition in the postwar era and chart the beginning of the breakdown in US-Iraqi relations that would eventually climax in the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War.



March 9th, 1984 was a day of celebration throughout the Arab world. At noon Baghdad time on that day Saddam Hussein officially declared the Iran-Iraq war over; this wiped away the last traces of doubt that the Iraqi-sponsored Arab multinational coalition had won. One hour later, Hafez el-Assad and Hosni Mubarak simultaneously gave similar televised speeches to the citizens of their respective nations and King Fahd declared a national holiday in Saudi Arabia. In Tehran, where the former fighters of the anti-Khomeini Iranian exile militia had put together a fragile provisional secular government for Iran, symbols of the defunct Islamic regime which hadnít already been torn down when the Iranian capital fell to Arab forces six months earlier were being steadily erased.

Jordanís King Hussein marked the occasion by making a visit to Ammanís largest mosque to pay final respects to the Jordanian soldiers and combat pilots whoíd died in action on the Iranian battlefront and to pray for guidance in leading his nation through the postwar era. In Israel, there was little official public reaction to the news of the Iran-Iraq warís end or the capture of Hashemi Rafsanjani and his inner circle, but privately new Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres confided to one of his aides his hope that the final demise of the theocratic dictatorship which had once ruled Iran would pave the way for at least a start towards restoring the cordial relations between Tehran and Tel Aviv which had existed under the Shahís rule.

In Moscow Yuri Andropovís successor, Konstantin Chernenko, noted with satisfaction that the attrition of arms and munitions experienced by the Iraqis during the war had created new arms sales opportunities for the Soviet Union in the postwar era; his hope was that those sales would lead to stronger ties between Moscow and Baghdad. With Egypt now choosing to buy its military hardware from the United States, Iraq had  become the chief Middle Eastern client for Soviet weaponry, with Syria running a very close second.

At the White House, President Reagan convened a special session of the National Security Council to get their candid assessment of how the collapse of Iranís Islamic regime would alter the balance of power in the Middle East. While there was considerable dispute between the NSC members on specific details they were all in agreement on two very important general points: (1)that Iraq had supplanted Iran as the main regional power in the Persian Gulf; and (2)that the awkward marriage of convenience between Washington and Baghdad which had existed during the war would now gradually deteriorate until the United States and Iraq became adversaries once again. Reaganís defense secretary, Caspar  Weinberger, bluntly went on record as predicting that the US and Iraq would be in armed conflict in the near future-- if not during Reaganís term in office, then certainly during that of his successor.

In any event, the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the final liquidation of the theocratic regime he had once headed had sharply changed the equation of Middle Eastern geopolitics. With Iran now under Arab coalition occupation, Islamic radical groups who had been operating partly with the support of Tehran in their struggles with Israel and the West now faced a rather urgent dilemma: whether to abandon their fight and lose face in the eyes of their followers, or make a devilís bargain with one of the secular regimes they detested in hopes of obtaining a new lease on life.

Hezbollah, the largest of these groups, chose the second option. Based in Lebanon, Hezbollah had been established just after the Iran- Iraq War began and was dedicated to eradicating Israel; it had relied on Iranís old Islamic regime for much of its funding and arms until Khomeiniís assassination. With the Islamic Republic now just a memory, Syria became the groupís new chief foreign patron...


....and in doing so put itself at odds with most of its wartime coalition partners. Hezbollah ideology was not only anti-Israeli, it was also anti-American; the fact that Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia were all US allies put all three countries on Hezbollahís enemies list along with the United States and Israel-- and greatly complicated Arab coalition efforts to implement a consistent postwar occupation policy in Iran. Hosni Mubarak feared Hezbollahís terrorism along the Israeli-Lebanese border might jeopardize the Camp David peace accords; King Fahd resented the groupís propaganda campaign to undermine the Saudi monarchy; and King Hussein was worried that Hezbollah might seek to form close ties with Jordanís own extremist elements.

In June of 1984, about three months after Hashemi Rafsanjaniís capture, the Arab League convened a special session in Damascus aimed at resolving unsettled questions about postwar policy on Iran. Just before departing for the Damascus summit, Jordanís foreign minister confided to King Hussein that he had a deep sense of foreboding the meeting was not going to go well; the king answered that he felt the same way. Their dread was well-founded-- almost as soon as it began, the Damascus conference bogged down in arguments over how the postwar occupation zones should be divided and how postwar Iranís civilian government should be arranged. Kuwait, the forgotten junior member of the Arab wartime coalition, complained that it was being given little say in the redistribution of oil profits confiscated from the defunct Iranian Islamic regime or the administration of Iranís postwar oil industry.

The conference was also derailed by sharp and at times bitter debate over some of the methods Iraqi occupation troops in Iran were using to deal with those who opposed their presence. Since at least the fall of Tehran, rumors had been circulating that Iraqi forces on the ground in western Iran were committing all manner of atrocities against Iranian civilians; the Egyptians felt that such accusations, whether true or not, could severely undermine Arab coalition efforts to gain support among the Iranian population for the coalitionís plans regarding Iranís postwar government.

But on one point all the participants at the Damascus conference were in total agreement: action needed to be taken quickly in order to maintain long-term stability in postwar Iran. Since the collapse of the Islamic Republic, bandit gangs and mobs of disaffected ex-Iranian regular army soldiers had been engaging in all kinds of criminal acts, and this was hampering Arab coalition efforts to reconstruct the war-damaged Iranian economy. The chief of the Egyptian delegation proposed that a new modestly sized Iranian militia, modeled on the post-World War II Japanese Self-Defense Force and trained under the supervision of coalition advisors, be formed to keep order in Iran once the Arab occupation forces had left the country. The proposal was approved by the conference participants on the second day of the Damascus summit.

Three days later, the boundaries for postwar occupation zones in Iran were finally settled when the conference participants agreed to a plan under which Iraq and Jordan would jointly administer most of the northwestern parts of Iran and place the rest under Syriaís control; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait would be granted jurisdiction over the southwestern regions of the country and the islands in the Straits of of Hormuz; Saudi Arabian and Iraqi occupation forces would guard the  southeastern part of Iran; and the northeast would fall entirely under Iraqís command. It was hoped that a stable postwar Iranian civilian government might be firmly in place within a year....


...but old animosities and Iraqís own regional ambitions would conspire to derail that hope. It was those regional ambitions in particular which would, a few years down the line, lay the groundwork for a new war in the Persian Gulf, this time between Iraq and the United States. Saddam viewed himself as a latter-day Gamal Abdel Nasser, destined to unite the Arab world in a vast secular leftist pan-Arab empire. That notion had been one of the underpinnings of his original decision to go to war with Iran; it would also, in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War, be the primary factor in a diplomatic row between Iraq and Kuwait-- a row that would climax with an Iraqi invasion of its tiny southern neighbor just after Reaganís second term in the White House ended.

The first warning sign of the impending rupture in US-Iraqi relations came in early August of 1984, when Iraqís entire Olympic team pulled out of the Summer Games in Los Angeles in protest after the White House turned down an Iraqi government request to prevent US human rights organizations from staging a demonstration outside the Iraqi compound at the Olympic Village to denounce suspected human rights violations by Iraqi occupation troops in Iran against Iranian civilians.

Two months later a junior diplomat at the US consulate in the Iraqi oil town of Mosul was arrested and deported on charges that heíd been secretly meeting with leaders of Iraqís Kurdish minority in an attempt to foment a Kurd uprising against Saddam. The proof of these charges was dubious at best, but nonetheless the incident was a solid illustration of the resurgence of anti-American feeling within the Baathist regime in Baghdad in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War.

After Reagan won re-election to the presidency, albeit by a somewhat slimmer margin than expected, he began to adopt a tougher policy toward Iraq and directed the Pentagon to write up contingency plans for deploying troops to the Persian Gulf in the event of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Similar contingency plans had previously been drafted during the Iran-Iraq War to deal with a potential Iranian invasion of these countries, and many of those plans would now be revised to take account of the new geopolitical realities in the Gulf.

Likewise Margaret Thatcher, Reaganís staunchest foreign ally during his tenure in the White House, directed the British military to start giving its personnel refresher courses in the basics of desert combat. Britain had security and commercial interests of its own to protect in the Gulf, and Thatcher suspected that the time was approaching when it would be necessary to defend those interests by force of arms.


Shortly after Reagan was sworn in for his second term as President of the United States, the CIAís station chief in Baghdad began getting reports that guards at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison were committing physical and mental abuse against Iranian civilians being held there for alleged crimes against Iraqi occupation authorities in Iran. This was by no means the first time Abu Ghraib had been the subject of accusations of human rights violations; even before the Iran-Iraq War began human rights organizations like Amnesty International had been investigating mistreatment of Iraqi dissidents at the prison. Nor would it be the last time either-- transcripts of interrogations at Abu Ghraib of purported "traitors" to Saddamís regime would be found among Iraqi Baathist documents captured by US troops near the end of the Persian Gulf War and used as evidence against Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants at their war crimes trial.

Yet the CIAís debriefings of Reagan on Abu Ghraib in the opening months of his second term would have a singular place in the annals of US Middle East policy. They would serve as the catalyst for the establishment of the Iraq Study Group, a special CIA sub-division ostensibly created for the purpose of analyzing Iraqi government and defense policies but in reality intended to formulate strategies for the overthrow of Saddamís dictatorship. The man chosen to act as the liaison between this group and the White House was a decorated Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran, Oliver North...


To Be Continued



[1] Arabic for ďArmy of GodĒ.

[2] Hezbollah considered the royal dynasty of Saudi Arabia too secular to be ruling an Islamic country.

[3] See Part 2.


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