The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was one of a series of crises during an era of upheaval in the Middle East: revolution in Iran, occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by militant students, invasion of the Great Mosque in Mecca by anti-royalist Islamicists, the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, and internecine fighting among Syrians, Israelis, and Palestinians in Lebanon. The war followed months of rising tension between the Iranian Islamic republic and secular nationalist Iraq. In mid-September 1980 Iraq attacked, in the mistaken belief that Iranian political disarray would guarantee a quick victory.
The international community responded with U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire and for all member states to refrain from actions contributing in any way to the conflict's continuation. The Soviets, opposing the war, cut off arms exports to Iran and to Iraq, its ally under a 1972 treaty (arms deliveries resumed in 1982). The U.S. had already ended, when the shah fell, previously massive military sales to Iran. In 1980 the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Iran because of the Tehran embassy hostage crisis; Iraq had broken off ties with the U.S. during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The U.S. was officially neutral regarding the Iran-Iraq war, and claimed that it armed neither side. Iran depended on U.S.-origin weapons, however, and sought them from Israel, Europe, Asia, and South America. Iraq started the war with a large Soviet-supplied arsenal, but needed additional weaponry as the conflict wore on.
Initially, Iraq advanced far into Iranian territory, but was driven back within months. By mid-1982, Iraq was on the defensive against Iranian human-wave attacks. The U.S., having decided that an Iranian victory would not serve its interests, began supporting Iraq: measures already underway to upgrade U.S.-Iraq relations were accelerated, high-level officials exchanged visits, and in February 1982 the State Department removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. (It had been included several years earlier because of ties with several Palestinian nationalist groups, not Islamicists sharing the worldview of al-Qaeda. Activism by Iraq's main Shiite Islamicist opposition group, al-Dawa, was a major factor precipitating the war -- stirred by Iran's Islamic revolution, its endeavors included the attempted assassination of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.)
Prolonging the war was phenomenally expensive. Iraq received massive external financial support from the Gulf states, and assistance through loan programs from the U.S. The White House and State Department pressured the Export-Import Bank to provide Iraq with financing, to enhance its credit standing and enable it to obtain loans from other international financial institutions. The U.S. Agriculture Department provided taxpayer-guaranteed loans for purchases of American commodities, to the satisfaction of U.S. grain exporters.
The U.S. restored formal relations with Iraq in November 1984, but the U.S. had begun, several years earlier, to provide it with intelligence and military support (in secret and contrary to this country's official neutrality) in accordance with policy directives from President Ronald Reagan. These were prepared pursuant to his March 1982 National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM 4-82) asking for a review of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
One of these directives from Reagan, National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 99, signed on July 12, 1983, is available only in a highly redacted version [Document 21]. It reviews U.S. regional interests in the Middle East and South Asia, and U.S. objectives, including peace between Israel and the Arabs, resolution of other regional conflicts, and economic and military improvements, "to strengthen regional stability." It deals with threats to the U.S., strategic planning, cooperation with other countries, including the Arab states, and plans for action. An interdepartmental review of the implications of shifting policy in favor of Iraq was conducted following promulgation of the directive.
By the summer of 1983 Iran had been reporting Iraqi use of using chemical weapons for some time. The Geneva protocol requires that the international community respond to chemical warfare, but a diplomatically isolated Iran received only a muted response to its complaints [Note 1]. It intensified its accusations in October 1983, however, and in November asked for a United Nations Security Council investigation.
The U.S., which followed developments in the Iran-Iraq war with extraordinary intensity, had intelligence confirming Iran's accusations, and describing Iraq's "almost daily" use of chemical weapons, concurrent with its policy review and decision to support Iraq in the war [Document 24]. The intelligence indicated that Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces, and, according to a November 1983 memo, against "Kurdish insurgents" as well [Document 25].
What was the Reagan administration's response? A State Department account indicates that the administration had decided to limit its "efforts against the Iraqi CW program to close monitoring because of our strict neutrality in the Gulf war, the sensitivity of sources, and the low probability of achieving desired results." But the department noted in late November 1983 that "with the essential assistance of foreign firms, Iraq ha[d] become able to deploy and use CW and probably has built up large reserves of CW for further use. Given its desperation to end the war, Iraq may again use lethal or incapacitating CW, particularly if Iran threatens to break through Iraqi lines in a large-scale attack" [Document 25]. The State Department argued that the U.S. needed to respond in some way to maintain the credibility of its official opposition to chemical warfare, and recommended that the National Security Council discuss the issue.
Following further high-level policy review, Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 114, dated November 26, 1983, concerned specifically with U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The directive reflects the administration's priorities: it calls for heightened regional military cooperation to defend oil facilities, and measures to improve U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and directs the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take appropriate measures to respond to tensions in the area. It states, "Because of the real and psychological impact of a curtailment in the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf on the international economic system, we must assure our readiness to deal promptly with actions aimed at disrupting that traffic." It does not mention chemical weapons [Document 26].
Soon thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld (who had served in various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as President Ford's defense secretary, and at this time headed the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co.) was dispatched to the Middle East as a presidential envoy. His December 1983 tour of regional capitals included Baghdad, where he was to establish "direct contact between an envoy of President Reagan and President Saddam Hussein," while emphasizing "his close relationship" with the president [Document 28]. Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and the U.S.'s efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq's oil; its facilities in the Persian Gulf had been shut down by Iran, and Iran's ally, Syria, had cut off a pipeline that transported Iraqi oil through its territory. Rumsfeld made no reference to chemical weapons, according to detailed notes on the meeting [Document 31].
Rumsfeld also met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and the two agreed, "the U.S. and Iraq shared many common interests." Rumsfeld affirmed the Reagan administration's "willingness to do more" regarding the Iran-Iraq war, but "made clear that our efforts to assist were inhibited by certain things that made it difficult for us, citing the use of chemical weapons, possible escalation in the Gulf, and human rights." He then moved on to other U.S. concerns [Document 32]. Later, Rumsfeld was assured by the U.S. interests section that Iraq's leadership had been "extremely pleased" with the visit, and that "Tariq Aziz had gone out of his way to praise Rumsfeld as a person" [Document 36 and Document 37].
Rumsfeld returned to Baghdad in late March 1984. By this time, the U.S. had publicly condemned Iraq's chemical weapons use, stating, "The United States has concluded that the available evidence substantiates Iran's charges that Iraq used chemical weapons" [Document 47]. Briefings for Rumsfeld's meetings noted that atmospherics in Iraq had deteriorated since his December visit because of Iraqi military reverses and because "bilateral relations were sharply set back by our March 5 condemnation of Iraq for CW use, despite our repeated warnings that this issue would emerge sooner or later" [Document 48]. Rumsfeld was to discuss with Iraqi officials the Reagan administration's hope that it could obtain Export-Import Bank credits for Iraq, the Aqaba pipeline, and its vigorous efforts to cut off arms exports to Iran. According to an affidavit prepared by one of Rumsfeld's companions during his Mideast travels, former NSC staff member Howard Teicher, Rumsfeld also conveyed to Iraq an offer from Israel to provide assistance, which was rejected [Document 61].
Although official U.S. policy still barred the export of U.S. military equipment to Iraq, some was evidently provided on a "don't ask - don't tell" basis. In April 1984, the Baghdad interests section asked to be kept apprised of Bell Helicopter Textron's negotiations to sell helicopters to Iraq, which were not to be "in any way configured for military use" [Document 55]. The purchaser was the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. In December 1982, Bell Textron's Italian subsidiary had informed the U.S. embassy in Rome that it turned down a request from Iraq to militarize recently purchased Hughes helicopters. An allied government, South Korea, informed the State Department that it had received a similar request in June 1983 (when a congressional aide asked in March 1983 whether heavy trucks recently sold to Iraq were intended for military purposes, a State Department official replied "we presumed that this was Iraq's intention, and had not asked.") [Document 44]
During the spring of 1984 the U.S. reconsidered policy for the sale of dual-use equipment to Iraq's nuclear program, and its "preliminary results favor[ed] expanding such trade to include Iraqi nuclear entities" [Document 57]. Several months later, a Defense Intelligence Agency analysis said that even after the war ended, Iraq was likely to "continue to develop its formidable conventional and chemical capability, and probably pursue nuclear weapons" [Document 58]. (Iraq is situated in a dangerous neighborhood, and Israel had stockpiled a large nuclear weapons arsenal without international censure. Nuclear nonproliferation was not a high priority of the Reagan administration - throughout the 1980s it downplayed Pakistan's nuclear program, though its intelligence indicated that a weapons capability was being pursued, in order to avert congressionally mandated sanctions. Sanctions would have impeded the administration's massive military assistance to Pakistan provided in return for its support of the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.)
In February 1984, Iraq's military, expecting a major Iranian attack, issued a warning that "the invaders should know that for every harmful insect there is an insecticide capable of annihilating it whatever the number and Iraq possesses this annihilation insecticide" [Document 41]. On March 3, the State Department intervened to prevent a U.S. company from shipping 22,000 pounds of phosphorous fluoride, a chemical weapons precursor, to Iraq. Washington instructed the U.S. interests section to protest to the Iraqi government, and to inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that "we anticipate making a public condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons in the near future," and that "we are adamantly opposed to Iraq's attempting to acquire the raw materials, equipment, or expertise to manufacture chemical weapons from the United States. When we become aware of attempts to do so, we will act to prevent their export to Iraq" [Document 42].
The public condemnation was issued on March 5. It said, "While condemning Iraq's chemical weapons use . . . The United States finds the present Iranian regime's intransigent refusal to deviate from its avowed objective of eliminating the legitimate government of neighboring Iraq to be inconsistent with the accepted norms of behavior among nations and the moral and religious basis which it claims" [Document 43].
Later in the month, the State Department briefed the press on its decision to strengthen controls on the export of chemical weapons precursors to Iran and Iraq, in response to intelligence and media reports that precursors supplied to Iraq originated in Western countries. When asked whether the U.S.'s conclusion that Iraq had used chemical weapons would have "any effect on U.S. recent initiatives to expand commercial relationships with Iraq across a broad range, and also a willingness to open diplomatic relations," the department's spokesperson said "No. I'm not aware of any change in our position. We're interested in being involved in a closer dialogue with Iraq" [Document 52].
Iran had submitted a draft resolution asking the U.N. to condemn Iraq's chemical weapons use. The U.S. delegate to the U.N. was instructed to lobby friendly delegations in order to obtain a general motion of "no decision" on the resolution. If this was not achievable, the U.S. delegate was to abstain on the issue. Iraq's ambassador met with the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Jeane Kirkpatrick, and asked for "restraint" in responding to the issue - as did the representatives of both France and Britain.
A senior U.N. official who had participated in a fact-finding mission to investigate Iran's complaint commented "Iranians may well decide to manufacture and use chemical weapons themselves if [the] international community does not condemn Iraq. He said Iranian assembly speaker Rafsanjani [had] made public statements to this effect" [Document 50].
Iraqi interests section head Nizar Hamdoon met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Placke on March 29. Hamdoon said that Iraq strongly preferred a Security Council presidential statement to a resolution, and wanted the response to refer to former resolutions on the war, progress toward ending the conflict, but to not identify any specific country as responsible for chemical weapons use. Placke said the U.S. could accept Iraqi proposals if the Security Council went along. He asked for the Iraqi government's help "in avoiding . . . embarrassing situation[s]" but also noted that the U.S. did "not want this issue to dominate our bilateral relationship" [Document 54].
On March 30, 1984, the Security Council issued a presidential statement condemning the use of chemical weapons, without naming Iraq as the offending party. A State Department memo circulating the draft text observed that, "The statement, by the way contains all three elements Hamdoon wanted" [Document 51].
On April 5, 1984, Ronald Reagan issued another presidential directive (NSDD 139), emphasizing the U.S. objective of ensuring access to military facilities in the Gulf region, and instructing the director of central intelligence and the secretary of defense to upgrade U.S. intelligence gathering capabilities. It codified U.S. determination to develop plans "to avert an Iraqi collapse." Reagan's directive said that U.S. policy required "unambiguous" condemnation of chemical warfare (without naming Iraq), while including the caveat that the U.S. should "place equal stress on the urgent need to dissuade Iran from continuing the ruthless and inhumane tactics which have characterized recent offensives." The directive does not suggest that "condemning" chemical warfare required any hesitation about or modification of U.S. support for Iraq [Document 53].
A State Department background paper dated November 16, 1984 said that Iraq had stopped using chemical weapons after a November 1983 demarche from the U.S., but had resumed their use in February 1984. On November 26, 1984, Iraq and the U.S. restored diplomatic relations. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, in Washington for the formal resumption of ties, met with Secretary of State George Shultz. When their discussion turned to the Iran-Iraq war, Aziz said that his country was satisfied that "the U.S. analysis of the war's threat to regional stability is 'in agreement in principle' with Iraq's," and expressed thanks for U.S. efforts to cut off international arms sales to Iran. He said that "Iraq's superiority in weaponry" assured Iraq's defense. Shultz, with presumed sardonic intent, "remarked that superior intelligence must also be an important factor in Iraq's defense;" Tariq Aziz had to agree [Document 60].
The current Bush administration discusses Iraq in starkly moralistic terms to further its goal of persuading a skeptical world that a preemptive and premeditated attack on Iraq could and should be supported as a "just war." The documents included in this briefing book reflect the realpolitik that determined this country's policies during the years when Iraq was actually employing chemical weapons. Actual rather than rhetorical opposition to such use was evidently not perceived to serve U.S. interests; instead, the Reagan administration did not deviate from its determination that Iraq was to serve as the instrument to prevent an Iranian victory. Chemical warfare was viewed as a potentially embarrassing public relations problem that complicated efforts to provide assistance. The Iraqi government's repressive internal policies, though well known to the U.S. government at the time, did not figure at all in the presidential directives that established U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S. was concerned with its ability to project military force in the Middle East, and to keep the oil flowing.
Most of the information in this briefing book, in its broad outlines, has been available for years. Some of it was recorded in contemporaneous news reports; a few investigative reporters uncovered much more - especially after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. A particular debt is owed to the late representative Henry Gonzales (1916-2000), Democrat of Texas, whose staff extensively investigated U.S. policy toward Iraq during the 1980s and who would not be deterred from making information available to the public [Note 2]. Almost all of the primary documents included in this briefing book were obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act and were published in 1995
There is a lot more info in: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/