The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous five chapters of this series we recalled the circumstances that led to the formation of the Iraqi-led Arab coalition that which to war with Iran in 1980; the course of the Iran-Iraq War itself; the assassination of Ayatollah Khomeini near the end of the war; the Arab capture of Tehran that sealed the fall of Iran’s Islamic regime and the Arab coalition’s final victory; the political disputes which divided the Arab coalition in the postwar era; the beginning of the breakdown of US-Iraqi diplomatic relations; and the formation of the CIA’s Iraq Study Group. In this segment we’ll look at the Arab coalition occupation authorities’ attempts to organize a postwar Iranian government, the Qom massacre of 1986, and the USS Stark incident of 1987.
The main topic of the Iraq Study Group’s first official report to the White House was an analysis of the Iraqi Baathist government’s efforts to create a stable post-Islamic Republic Iranian civilian government. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the administration of Iran had been handled largely by Arab coalition military commanders with assistance from the Iranian exiles who had formerly comprised the anti-Khomeini volunteer militia. However, as old political discords between the Arab states began to resurface and new discords arise in the postwar era, this arrangement was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain; Saddam was anxious to install as quickly as possible a civilian Iranian government friendly to Baghdad. He knew the longer it took to get a new civil administration in Tehran up and running, the less chance there would be of putting such an administration in place at all before the coalition finally broke up for good.
The Iraq Study Group’s verdict on Baghdad’s early efforts to reconstitute the Iranian government was highly negative. One group member bluntly said in a memo to President Reagan: "Forget the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing, the thumb on that left hand doesn’t know what the forefinger’s doing. Bureaucratic ineptitude is rife at all levels of the Iraqi occupation authority in Iran; personal intrigues and currying favor with Saddam are considered more important than creating an effective postwar Iranian government."1 The memo went on to report that the military sections of the occupation authority were often at odds with their civilian brethren; its author even gave hints that the top Iraqi civilian occupation official in Iran had been the target of assassination attempts by rogue elements of the Iraqi military. Other Arab occupation forces were encountering problems on the ground in Iran, but they paled in comparison to those which were being experienced by the Iraqis.
Along with the petty intrigues and chronic incompetence that were handicapping Iraq’s occupation policy in Iran, the Iraqis were starting to find themselves confronted by the first dim stirrings of Iranian political opposition to the Arab coalition presence in Iran. After being cowered by the sheer weight of Iraqi military might in the first few months after the Islamic Republic collapsed, the Iranian masses were slowly recovering some of their old spirit and giving vent to their anger over Iraqi occupation troops’ mistreatment of Iranian civilians. First in small clusters and then in medium-sized throngs, the Iranian masses took to the streets to condemn Baghdad’s actions in postwar Iran.
Not all the protestors were Muslims or even necessarily backers of the old Khomeini regime; many of those protesting the behavior of Iraqi occupation troops in Iran were people who in the past had also been highly critical of the old Islamic regime. Even a few members of the recently organized Iranian Baathist Party2 disagreed with the way their Iraqi brethren were handling the business of restoring order in Iran. Tensions in the Iraqi-occupied sectors of Iran kept on building throughout late 1985 and early 1986....
...and finally hit the boiling point less than two weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Residents of the city of Qom, upset at the news that Iraqi occupation authorities were extending the dusk-to-dawn curfew there for another three months, spontaneously took to the streets to demand that the curfew be lifted without delay. The senior Iraqi military commander in Qom immediately dispatched troops to order the crowd to disperse, and the stage was thus set for one of the most horrific massacres the Middle East had seen in a generation. Although official Baathist propaganda at the time put all the blame for the Qom tragedy on the protestors, independent witnesses said-- and an Iraqi defector would later confirm --that most of the responsibility for the bloodshed actually lay with the military contingent sent to disperse the marchers.
The Iraqi troops opened fire on the demonstrators with almost no warning, killing 155 people and wounding almost 400. A French TV journalist sent to Qom to interview members of the Iranian dissident movement was among the casualties of the massacre; his videotapes of the Iraqi troops’ assault on the demonstrators were smuggled out of the country by an Iranian Kurd sympathetic to the dissidents and later aired by the BBC to a shocked and outraged world. In his weekly White House radio address the Saturday after the massacre, President Reagan denounced the Iraqi government’s actions as "outright savagery" and threatened to expel Iraq’s ambassador to the US from Washington unless Baghdad held the perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Saddam chose instead to defend his troops’ actions at Qom, asserting that the Iranians killed in the massacre were "terrorists" seeking to attack Iraqi occupation forces without provocation. When the human rights group Amnesty International produced photographic evidence clearly proving that the Iraqi soldiers had fired first, Saddam dismissed the photographs as forgeries. So ten days after he threatened to sever US-Iraqi diplomatic relations, President Reagan made good on that threat: he recalled his own embassy staff from Baghdad and expelled the Iraqi embassy staff from Washington. From here on out, the United States and Iraq would be eyeing each other like Old West gunslingers until the tension between them exploded into full-scale war in 1990.
When he first heard that the United States had severed diplomatic relations with Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North wasted no time in arranging a meeting with President Reagan to lay out an agenda for the next phase of the Iraq Study Group’s covert campaign to overthrow the Saddam regime. Lt. Colonel North was convinced, and many of his peers in the Pentagon establishment agreed, that the time had come to forge closer ties between Washington and domestic anti-Baathist underground organizations inside Iraq; North also advocated starting a program to aid anti-Saddam resistance movements in occupied Iran.
Reagan knew he’d be walking a political and diplomatic tightrope if he followed North’s recommendations. But he also knew that allowing Saddam to run wild in the Persian Gulf unchecked would spell disaster for American interests in that region. In the end he chose to sanction North’s risky gambit, and in the summer of 1986 CIA undercover teams in the Gulf began establishing new contacts with anti-Saddam factions in Iraq and Iran and expanding existing links.
On a more overt level Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger secured deals with the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to let US military bases be deployed in those countries as a deterrent to whatever expansionist designs Saddam might have on his other neighbors in the Gulf region. Around that same time Secretary of State George Shultz met with Kuwait’s foreign minister to assure the Kuwaitis that the United States would come to their defense if their kingdom was attacked by Iraq; the Kuwaiti government greatly needed those assurances, given that as a major oil producer and a former province of Iraq Kuwait was a highly tempting target for the aggressive Baathist oligarchy in Baghdad.
In September of 1986 a high-ranking Iraqi air force officer code-named "Flapjack" by the CIA flew across the Iraq-Jordan border and landed his plane at Amman’s main civil airport, where he was met by a deputy to the defense attaché at the US embassy in Jordan. Upon arriving at the embassy "Flapjack" applied for and received political asylum; within hours of his defection to the United States, he was on his way to a safe house in Munich, where he proceeded to give his CIA handlers a treasure trove of information on the Saddam regime’s plan for strengthening its position as the dominant regional power in the the Persian Gulf.
"Flapjack" also confirmed once and for all that Iraqi army troops had been primarily responsible for the Qom massacre; one of his last assignments before his defection had been as duty officer for the radar station at Qom’s main airport, by then an Iraqi air force base, and on the day of the massacre he’d been on his way to the airport to start his designated duty shift for that day when Iraqi occupation troops opened fire on the Iranian demonstrators. In direct contradiction of official Baathist assertions that the Iranian dissidents had been ‘terrorists’ attacking the troops without any provocation, "Flapjack" told CIA debriefers that the occupation forces had been the aggressors.
Armed with the information supplied by "Flapjack", and with secret testimony from Iraqi women who had been subjected to the tortures of Saddam’s ‘rape rooms’3, then-US ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick went before the UN General Assembly one month later and called for worldwide economic and diplomatic sanctions to be imposed on Iraq. When Kirkpatrick’s proposed sanctions came up for a vote in the Assembly only one of Iraq’s old coalition partners, Jordan, voted against the resolution. Kuwait abstained; Syria and Egypt both voted in favor of the sanctions; and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN missed the vote because he’d been called back to Riyadh for emergency consultations with the Saudi foreign minister.
By February of 1987 US naval vessels had joined warships from eighteen other countries in patrolling the Persian Gulf as part of the international effort to enforce the UN sanctions against Baghdad. The Baathist regime viewed the US naval presence in the Gulf as a personal insult and vowed to avenge the perceived slight by any means possible.
The sanctions against Iraq had been in effect for five months when the American guided missile frigate USS Stark set out on the morning of March 26th, 1987 for its daily patrol along one of the major commercial sea lanes in the Gulf. Stark was one of the most advanced warships in the US Navy’s arsenal at the time; it had originally been constructed to guard NATO convoy routes in the Atlantic against Soviet attack, but as tensions between the West and the USSR diminished in the last days of the Cold War the Oliver Hazard Perry-class vessel had been reassigned to the Middle East to defend US interests and allies in the region.
At 11:30 AM local time the ship’s radar operator spotted two bogeys closing on the Stark at high speed. Immediately suspecting that trouble was brewing, Stark’s captain ordered his crew to go to general quarters. His suspicions were soon proven right-- the bogeys had been identified as Iraqi air force Mirage F1s and were lining up in attack formation. Within seconds both jets were confirmed as being armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles.
Official Baathist accounts of the Stark incident would claim that the American missile frigate had violated Iraqi territorial waters and the Iraqi jets had acted in self-defense when they fired on her. Not until after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War did the Iraqi government finally acknowledge that no such violation had occurred and the jets’ attack on the USS Stark had been unprovoked.
Stark’s anti-aircraft weapons immediately opened fire on the Iraqi Mirages while the ship’s ECM4 systems were activated to throw the Exocet missiles off her scent. One of the Iraqi jets, however, managed to score a hit on her port side, killing seven of her crew and injuring fifteen others5; the pilot of the F1 which made the hit was himself killed a few minutes later when a surface-to-air missile blew his jet to pieces. The surviving Iraqi fighter, not wanting to share his comrade’s fate, turned tail and fled back to the sanctuary of his home airfield at Shaibah.
The final casualty count for the Stark’s crew would come to nine dead and sixteen wounded; three sailors were caught in a strafing run by the lone remaining Iraqi jet just before it bolted home to Shaibah, and two of those sailors would succumb to their wounds in sickbay as Stark limped to a naval base in Bahrain to undergo temporary repairs before returning to the US for more extensive mending of the battle damage she had sustained in the Iraqi jets’ attack. Even those sailors who hadn’t been injured in the incident would require psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though Congressional Democrats and Republicans had quarreled with each other on many other issues during Reagan’s administration, the attack on the USS Stark united them in a conviction that action had to be taken to deter the Iraqis from such unprovoked aggression in the future. The American public was also unified by outrage over the Stark incident; a New York Times survey of its readers five days after the attack found that 89% percent of those polled said they would support President Reagan if he made the decision to go to war with Iraq, and of that number 91% felt the United States should immediately commence military action against Baghdad to smash the Baathist dictatorship.
While at least three more years would pass before US and Iraqi ground troops actually met in combat, President Reagan did certainly take action to respond to the Stark incident. On April 3rd, 1987, eight days after the Iraqi jet attack, he signed an executive order giving US air and naval units in the Middle East clearance to fire on Iraqi military forces in the Persian Gulf without prior orders if the said Iraqi forces showed aggressive intent towards American personnel. Two weeks later, the United States signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow US military outposts to be established in that country to deter Iraq from invading the oil-rich kingdom. There was little doubt now that a war between Washington and Baghdad was brewing; it was only a question of where and when the shooting would begin in earnest...
To Be Continued
 Excerpt from a memorandum by the Iraq Study Group chairman dated June 2nd, 1985.
 An offshoot of Iraq’s Baathist party; it was formed in December of 1984.
 Special detention cells where wives and female relatives of political dissidents were sexually assaulted as punishment for the dissdents’ perceived crimes against the Baathist regime.
 Electronic countermeasures.
 A memorial to the dead and wounded crewmen can be seen today at the Stark’s former home port in Mayport, Florida.