U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War

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The United States supported Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War as a counterbalance to post-revolutionary Iran. The support took the form of technological aid, intelligence, the sale of dual-use and military equipment, but no direct combat against Iran.[1] Other countries that supported Iraq during the war included Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and Germany.

Many reports assume every U.S. activity that was harmful to Iran was part of a plan to assist Iraq. The reality is more complex. U.S. leaders of the time were, in many cases, quite willing to see both Iran and Iraq weakened. There is also a failure to understand the intensity of U.S. hostility against Iran from the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and holding diplomats hostage. There is also a failure to understand Iranian hostility toward the U.S., going back to the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in 1952, followed by the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty. There are no clean hands in this conflict, but it was multipolar, not bipolar.

To help focus on the Iran-Iraq interactions and the deliberate U.S. actions in support of Iraq once a decision was made to "tilt", a separate article deals with U.S.-Iran Hostilities during the Iran-Iraq War.

Initial U.S. reaction to the Iran–Iraq War

At first, the United States, much as did many nations, took no strong stand on the conflict, although issuing public condemnations of the invasion.

According to then-Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski, during the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the United States initially took a largely neutral position on the Iran–Iraq War, with some minor exceptions. First, the United States acted in an attempt to prevent the confrontation from widening, largely in order to prevent additional disruption to world oil supplies and to honor US security assurances to Saudi Arabia. As a result, the US reacted to Soviet troop movements on the border of Iran by informing the Soviet Union that the US would defend Iran in the event of Soviet Invasion. The US also acted to defend Saudi Arabia, and lobbied the surrounding states not to become involved in the war. Brzezinski characterizes this recognition of the Middle East as a vital strategic region on a par with Western Europe and the Far East as a fundamental shift in US strategic policy.[2]

Second, the United States explored whether the Iran–Iraq War would offer leverage with which to resolve the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In this regard, the Carter administration explored the use of both "carrots," by suggesting that they might offer military assistance to Iran upon release of the hostages, and "sticks," by discouraging Israeli military assistance to Iran and suggesting that they might offer military assistance to Iraq if the Iranians did not release the hostages.[2]

Third, as the war progressed, freedom of navigation, especially at the Strait of Hormuz, was deemed a critical priority by President Ronald Reagan.[3]

Tilt toward Iraq

The United States had been wary of Iran since the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, not least because of the taking hostage of its Tehran embassy staff in the 1979–81 Iran hostage crisis. Starting in 1982 with Iranian success on the battlefield, the U.S. made its backing of Iraq more pronounced, supplying it with intelligence, economic aid, normalizing relations with the government (broken during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War), and also supplying weapons.[4] Iraq was removed from the U.S. Department of State list of State Sponsors of Terrorism to ease the transfer of dual-use technology to that country. According to journalist Alan Friedman, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was "upset at the fact that the decision had been made at the White House, even though the State Department was responsible for the list."[5] "I was not consulted," Haig is said to have complained.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan initiated a strategic opening to Iraq, Reagan chose Donald Rumsfeld as his emissary to Hussein, whom he visited in December 1983 and March 1984. Support for Iraq gradually became the order of the day. [6] According to the Boston Globe, The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations saw Iraq could be a strategic partner to the United States, a counterweight to Iran, a force for moderation in the region, and possibly help in the Arab-Israel peace process.[7]

Two National Security Council officials differ greatly on the nature of U.S. support. Howard Teicher, director of Political-Military Affairs, in his 1995 affidavit and other interviews with former Reagan and Bush administration officials, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly directed armaments and dual-use technology to Iraq through false fronts and friendly third parties such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait:

[T]he United States actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing U.S. military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required. The United States also provided strategic operational advice to the Iraqis to better use their assets in combat... The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq. My notes, memoranda and other documents in my NSC files show or tend to show that the CIA knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, munitions and vehicles to Iraq.[8]

Teicher refused to discuss details of the affidavit with the Washington Post shortly before the Iraq War.[9] Richard Haass, however, who was senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, wrote

No U.S. funds were ever transferred to Iraq under the CCC program, no U.S. arms were exported, and the amount and significance of the dual-use exports were minimal. If there was a scandal, it was in the behavior of the COngress, in particular Henry Gonzales...who made dozens of speeches and held seeral hearings in which he launched one unsubstantiated allegation after another. [10]

Gonzales, chairman of the U.S. House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee said about two of every seven licenses for the export of "dual use" technology items approved between 1985 and 1990 by the US Department of Commerce "went either directly to the Iraqi armed forces, to Iraqi end-users engaged in weapons production, or to Iraqi enterprises suspected of diverting technology" to weapons of mass destruction. According to the investigation, confidential Commerce Department files also reveal that the Reagan and Bush administrations approved at least 80 direct exports to the Iraqi military. These included computers, communications equipment, and aircraft navigation and radar equipment. Many of these exports were made before Iraq's eight-year war with Iran ended in 1988, a period in which Washington maintained an official policy of neutrality toward the combatants but vigorously worked to block foreign military purchases by Iran.[11]

In March 1983, Reagan signed a NSDM with the originally classified title, "U.S. Policy toward the Iran–Iraq War".[3] This placed the highest priority on keeping the Strait of Hormuz open, a goal around which other U.S. policy, such as foreign basing and rules of engagement for combat. In conformance with the Presidential directive, the U.S. began providing tactical battlefield advice to the Iraqi Army. "The prevailing view", says Alan Friedman, "was that if Washington wanted to prevent an Iranian victory, it would have to share some of its more sensitive intelligence photography with Saddam."[5]

According to retired United States Army Colonel W. Patrick Lang, senior defense intelligence officer for the United States Defense Intelligence Agency at the time, "the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern" to Reagan and his aides, because they "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose."[12] Lang cautioned that the Defense Intelligence Agency "would have never accepted the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but the use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival. Despite this claim, the Reagan administration did not stop aiding Iraq after receiving reports affirming the use of poison gas on Kurdish civilians.[13]

Parties involved

See also: Italian support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War

A large number of suppliers, wittingly and unwittingly, fed Iraq's warring capabilities right up until August 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait.[14] Iraq set up complex and clandestine purchasing operations that operated in many countries.

The "Iraq-gate" scandal revealed that an Atlanta branch of Italy's largest bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, relying partially on U.S. taxpayer-guaranteed loans, funneled US$ 5 billion to Iraq from 1985 to 1989. In August 1989, when FBI agents finally raided the Atlanta branch of BNL, the branch manager, Christopher Drogoul, was charged with making unauthorized, clandestine, and illegal loans to Iraq — some of which, according to his indictment, were used to purchase arms and weapons technology.

Beginning in September, 1989, the Financial Times laid out the first charges that BNL, relying heavily on U.S. government-guaranteed loans, was funding Iraqi chemical and nuclear weapons work. Among the companies shipping militarily useful technology to Iraq under the eye of the U.S. government, according to the Financial Times, were Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, and Matrix Churchill.[14]

Even before the Gulf War started in 1990, the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal|Intelligencer Journal reported: "If U.S. and Iraqi troops engage in combat in the Persian Gulf, weapons technology developed in Lancaster and indirectly sold to Iraq will probably be used against U.S. forces ... And aiding in this ... technology transfer was the Iraqi-owned, British-based precision tooling firm Matrix Churchill, whose U.S. operations in Ohio were recently linked to a sophisticated Iraqi weapons procurement network."[14] Exports to Iraq never became a major concern of the U.S. public. [15]

In December 2002, Iraq's 1,200 page Weapons Declaration revealed a list of Eastern and Western corporations and countries—as well as individuals—that exported chemical and biological materials to Iraq in the past two decades. By far, the largest suppliers of precursors for chemical weapons production were in Singapore (4,515 tons), the Netherlands (4,261 tons), Egypt (2,400 tons), India (2,343 tons), and Germany (1,027 tons). One Indian company, Exomet Plastics (now part of EPC Industrie) sent 2,292 tons of precursor chemicals to Iraq. The Kim Al-Khaleej firm of Singapore supplied more than 4,500 tons of VX (nerve agent), sarin, and mustard gas precursors and production equipment to Iraq.[16] Alcolac International, a U.S. company, transported thiodiglycol, a mustard gas precursor, to Iraq. Alcolac was successfully prosecuted for its violations of export control law. The firm pleaded guilty in 1989. [17]

On May 25, 1994, The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs released a report in which it was stated that "pathogenic (meaning 'disease producing'), toxigenic (meaning 'poisonous'), and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq pursuant to application and licensing by the U.S. Department of Commerce." It added: "These exported biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction."[18] The list was published without any expert commentary on the line items, so, while there were items of clear WMD potential, it included Saccharomyces cervesiae, a yeast used to brew Belgian ale.

The report then detailed 70 shipments from the U.S. to Iraqi government agencies over three years, concluding "It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the UN inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program."[19] In 2002, the German publication, Die tageszeitung, reported that Iraq's 11,000-page report to the United Nations Security Council listed 150 foreign companies that supported Saddam Hussein's WMD program. Twenty-four U.S. firms were involved in exporting arms and materials to Baghdad.[4]

It should be noted that the most critical items for a biological weapons program are not the organisms, which often can be collected from the wild. Large fermenters, centrifuges and drying equipment, which protects the organism from heat, are critical according to the U.S. Militarily Critical Technologies List.[20] Iraq obtained these from France and the Soviet Union.

Operation Staunch

Operation Staunch was created in spring 1983 by the United States State Department to stop the illicit flow of U.S. arms to Iran.[21]


  1. Hurd, Nathaniel & Glen Rangwala (12 December 2001), U.S. Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships with Iraq, 1980 - 2 August 1990
  2. 2.0 2.1 Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1983). Power and Principle, Memoirs of the National Security Advisor 1977-1981. Farrar Straus Giroux, 451-454, 504. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Reagan, Ronald (19 March 1982), National Security Decision Directive 114: U.S. Policy toward the Iran–Iraq War, in Battle, Joyce, Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts toward Iraq, 1980-1984, vol. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82
  4. 4.0 4.1 King, John (March 2003), Arming Iraq: A Chronology of U.S. Involvement, Iran Chamber Society
  5. 5.0 5.1 Alan Friedman, Spider's Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, Bantam Books, 1993
  6. Reagan, Ronald (19 March 1982), National Security Decision Directive 4-82: Strategy toward the Near East and Southwest Asia, in Battle, Joyce, Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts toward Iraq, 1980-1984, vol. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82
  7. Galbraith, Peter W. (31 August 2006), "The true Iraq appeasers", Boston Globe
  8. Statement by former NSC official Howard Teicher to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida. Plain text version
  9. U.S. Had Key Role in Iraq Buildup Washington Post, December 30, 2002
  10. Richard Haass (2009), War of Necessity, War of Choice, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978141654902-4, p. 49
  11. Smith, R. Jeffrey (July 22, 1992), "Dozens of U.S. Items Used in Iraq Arms;Exports Often Approved Despite Warnings From Pentagon, Others", Washington Post
  12. "Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas", New York Times, August 18, 2002
  13. Pear, Robert (15 September 1988), "U.S. Says It Monitored Iraqi Messages on Gas", New York Times
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Baker, Russ W. (March 1993), IRAQGATE: The Big One That (Almost) Got Away, Who Chased it -- and Who Didn't
  15. Lantos, Tom (May 19, 1992), The Administration's Iraq Gate Scandal, by William Safire, Congressional Record
  16. Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control (no longer updated after August 2006), What Iraq Admitted About its Chemical Weapons Program
  17. Iraq Chemical Chronology 1980-1989, Nuclear Threat Initiative
  18. U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Second Staff Report on U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual-Use Exports to Iraq and The Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the War
  19. Barletta, Michael & Christina Ellington (November 1998), Foreign Suppliers to Iraq's Biological Weapons Program Obtain Microbial Seed Stock for Standard or Novel Agent, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
  20. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology (February 1998), The Militarily Critical Technologies List Part II: WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION TECHNOLOGIES
  21. Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War by Kenneth Timmerman Retrieved on 5 April 2007.