The 1991 Gulf Massacre




Western policies toward Iraq provide illuminating insight into the structure of the contemporary order, and the motives behind its construction. In 1991, the Western powers united to attack Iraq in what was known as the first Gulf War. Simultaneously, the international community imposed devastating sanctions and embargoes on the country, which by now have virtually destroyed it. By 1998-99, the United States and the United Kingdom initiated a new bombing campaign against Iraq, and since then have continued to maintain a substantial military presence there.

To comprehend the reasons and realities behind Western policies towards Iraq in the 1990s, it is essential to understand the overall direction of Western interests and strategy in the Middle East as such. This paper analyses the historical and strategic context of Western policies in the Middle East in general é utilising the example of Iran as a case study é and also attempts to relate this context to contemporary developments é this time utilising the example of Iraq as a case study. The objective of this paper is to analyse these two cases in relation to an understanding of the West’s basic interests in the Middle East, to clarify the basic principles and strategies that constitute Western foreign policy.

I. The Manipulation of the Middle East

The general tenore of Western interests in the Middle East can be gleaned from various declassified secret documents. In 1945, the United States had explicitly confirmed its desire to maintain control over the Middle East in joint coordination with its partner, the United Kingdom:

“[O]ur petroleum policy towards the United Kingdom is predicated on a mutual recognition of a very extensive joint interest and upon control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world… US-UK agreement upon the broad, forward-looking pattern for the development and utilisation of petroleum resources under the control of nationals of the two countries is of the highest strategic and commercial importance.”[1]

The long-term implications of such leverage over the Middle East were understood. For instance, two years later, Britain expressly noted that the Middle East was “a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination”, since control of the world’s oil reserves also means control of the world economy.[2] Accordingly, a 1953 internal U.S. document articulates American aims in the Middle East without ambiguity: “United States policy is to keep the sources of oil in the Middle East in American hands.”[3]

Clearly then, the United States aimed to dominate and control Middle East affairs to ensure its monopoly over regional resources, namely, oil. Within this U.S. scheme, it was envisaged that the United Kingdom would play the role of “junior partner in an orbit of power predominantly under the American aegis”,[4] while the other Western European powers would be brought in as collaborators in this process: “[I]t is essential that we should increase our strength in not only the diplomatic but also the economic and military spheres. This can best be done by enrolling France and the lesser Western European powers and, of course, also the Dominions, as collaborators with us”.[5] This would be achieved by opposing any movement threatening Western domination of the region, particularly what is referred to as “Arab nationalism”, a term referring to the desire of the indigenous populations to determine their own political and economic destinies, particularly their own resources. Thus, in 1958, a secret British document described the principal objectives of Western policy in the Middle East:

“The major British and other Western interests in the Persian Gulf [are] (a) to ensure free access for Britain and other Western countries to oil produced in States bordering the Gulf; (b) to ensure the continued availability of that oil on favourable terms and for surplus revenues of Kuwait; (c) to bar the spread of Communism and pseudo-Communism in the area and subsequently to defend the area against the brand of Arab nationalism.”[6]

Thus we find that shortly after the First World War, turning their eyes towards the Middle East, the Western powers aimed to dismantle Ottoman Turkey, which had been the Muslim caliphate for four centuries. The region encompassed by the Ottoman caliphate included and integrated the areas of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and much of Saudi Arabia. Islam was naturally the basis of unity of the caliphate, and to counteract this unity the Western powers perpetuated local divisions among the Arabs. This was achieved by relying on pro-West Arab leaders with local tribal or religious followings to promote the division of the Ottoman empire. None of these leaders, however, had a claim to popular leadership.[7]

The plans of how to sponsor uprisings were improvised by British officers in the Arab Bureau in Cairo. According to Sir Arthur Hirtzel of the India Office, British aims were to divide Arabs not unify them. Thus, despite the essential publicised pretences of supporting Arab unity, the British secretly signed the 1916 Sykes-Pikot Agreement with France, thus making official the task of manufacturing small impotent states in the Middle East, and sharing in their control. The contents of this agreement were revealed in 1921 when the Bolsheviks retrieved a copy. Oil was, of course, a major determinant in the West’s creation, division, control and support of Middle East regimes, and this factor was officially recognised in the 1920 San Remo Treaty, and in the illegal 1928 Red Line Agreement, involving the British and French sharing of the oil wealth of former Turkish territories. Here, percentages of future oil production were allocated to British, French and American oil companies.[8]

The Western powers eventually succeeded in breaking up the Arab world into several impotent client regimes, an exceedingly chaotic and bloody programme that included the literal creation of twelve previously non-existent nations. The arbitrary creation of borders within what was formerly a single empire, defined the fledgling nation-states and successfully carved the region into several divided segments. Iraq was just one of these. In all of these fictional nation-states, pro-West leaders were forcefully installed to execute Western instructions. Since the objective of this programme included unimpeded access to regional resources (oil) in opposition to the wishes of the populations, it necessarily involved the provocation of force to manipulate the political environment and ensure the establishment of impotent client-regimes whose social and economic administration was subservient to Western interests. This inevitably resulted in the impoverishment and repression of the Arab people under their newly formed illegitimate governments. Due to this programme which involved a series of political, economic and cultural manipulations, these regimes became dependent on the West for their sheer survival in all significant respects.  It is worth noting that the historical context of Iraq/Kuwait conflict therefore lies in the British decision during the early years of this century to slice off a chunk of Iraqi land in the name of various imperialist desires that have now ceased to be relevant, but which were part and parcel of the West’s policy of fracturing the Middle East.

To this day, the Western powers under the leadership of the United States continue to prop up the same illegitimate regimes created in the 20th Century in contradiction to basic humanitarian principles, to fulfil strategic and economic interests. Middle East specialist Mamoun Fandy of Georgetown University’s Center of Contemporary Arab Studies observes that:

“Securing the flow of affordable oil is a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy. The U.S. strategy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, designed to ensure that neither Iraq nor Iran is capable of threatening neighboring Gulf countries, is inextricably linked to Washington’s oil policyé Uncritical U.S. support for autocratic Gulf monarchies and their human rights abuses have weakened both U.S. policy and the oil regimes. It undermines U.S. policy by demonstrating the hypocrisy in American rhetoric about democracy and human rights and weakens the regimes by creating the perception among Gulf subjects that their countries are being ruled in the interests of an outside power.”[11]

The dire implications of this hypocritical anti-humanitarian policy have been harshly criticised by the American academy of scholars and Middle East specialists, Committee On The Middle East (COME):

“U.S. policies in the Middle East have for too long been determined by the power and money of special interest groups, as well as by narrow nationalist economic exploitation. This has led to a grossly hypocritical situation in American foreign policy, in dealing with the nations and peoples of the Middle East. While the U.S. government constantly professes a strong belief and commitment to democracy, human rights, and national self-determination, far too often the same U.S. government actually supports tyranny, repression, massive arms sales, despotism, and ongoing subjugation”.[12]

II. Defending Western Values in Iran

II.I The Shah

The case of Iran supplies a clear illustration of the profit-orientated nature of Western foreign policy and its consistent opposition to basic humanitarian principles, primarily because during the era in which the West retained close ties to the country, it was governed by a brutal dictator. During this period in the 1970s, Iran was under the reign of a monarchy which at that time was ruled by the renowned Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi. The Shah had been directly installed by the Western powers in a covert operation masterminded by the American CIA and British MI6 through a military coup.[13]

The Shah had been installed in place of the democratically elected Iranian leader, Mussadeq, whose policies were unfavourable to Western interests – Mussadeq had, for instance, planned on nationalising oil operations in Iran, i.e. employing the domestic resources for the benefit of the indigenous population, rather than the control and benefit of foreign investors. The Federation of American Scientists provides a lucid description of this process: “Shah-an-Shah [King of Kings] Mohammad Reza Pahlevi was restored to the Peacock Throne of Iran with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953” as well as British intelligence (see note 13). “The CIA mounted a coup against the left-leaning government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, which had planned to nationalize Iran’s oil industry” and “subsequently provided organizational and training assistance for the establishment of an intelligence organization for the Shah. With training focused on domestic security and interrogation, the primary purpose of the intelligence unit, headed by General Teymur Bakhtiar, was to eliminate threats to Shah” from the indigenous population.[14]

This entire episode took place during the Cold War. Accordingly, it was legitimised under the guise of the fight against Communism, supposedly to prevent Communist elements within Iran from taking power.[15] The fact of the matter, however, was that there was negligible danger of a Communist takeover. Indeed, this was privately recognised by the United States and the United Kingdom as is clear from now declassified secret documents. For example, the UK ambassador had observed in September 1952 that: “é [T]he communists have… played a largely passive role, content to let matters take their course with only general encouragement from the sidelines… they have not been a major factor in the development of the Mussadeq brand of nationalism.”[16] Similarly, the U.S. embassy noted in March 1953 that “there was little evidence that in recent months the Tudeh [the Communist Party of Iran, which had close contacts with the Soviet Union] had gained in popular strength”.[17] As for the possibility of a successful Tudeh-sponsored Communist coup that the West could have feared, the U.S. State Department itself dismissed this idea, noting in a January 1953 intelligence report that “an open Tudeh move for power… would probably unite independents and non-communists of all political leanings and would result… in energetic efforts to destroy the Tudeh by force”.[18]

Thus, the Western-sponsored coup was actually a bid to eliminate “the Musaddeq brand of nationalism”, that had included the plan to nationalise Iranian oil, bringing it and the rest of Iran’s resources out of the grip of Western, particularly British and American, investors. Once the Shah – a pliant Western puppet – was installed, the normal policies of plundering Iranian resources could resume. In a candid report, the New York Times revealed the U.S./Western elite sentiments toward the Shah’s violent restoration: “Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism” with the view to bring “rich resources” out of Western control, so that the general population may benefit. “It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries”, who may similarly wish to eliminate massive poverty, “but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders”, who will henceforth keep to their Third World box; playing their subservient role of repressing their people, while providing cheap labour and resources to their Western masters.[19]

The Shah implemented economic policies in accordance with the interests of Western investors, thus ensuring that political repression resulted in the siphoning of the country’s wealth to a minority elite. Astute observers note that the Shah’s reforms “favored the rich, concentrated on city dwellers, and ignored peasantry. The profits derived from oil and natural gas were not used efficiently but were spent on showy projects and the latest in military technology.” The result was that “an even greater gulf yawned between the Westernized rich and the traditional poor.”[20] British historian Mark Curtis, a former Research Fellow at London’s Royal Institute for International Affairs, observes that an agreement was signed the year following the coup establishing a new oil consortium in which the U.S. and the UK both had a 40 per cent interest. The consortium controlled the production, pricing and export of Iranian oil. Though Britain’s share was reduced from the level of complete control it had prior to Musaddeq, it was nevertheless far greater than it would have been under the latter’s nationalisation plans. However, the U.S. had achieved the greater substantial economic stake and political influence in the country, including a significant stake in oil.[21]

American investors and the Iranian elite alike both profited immensely from the Shah’s “White Revolution”. Yet while Western investors thus enriched themselves on Iranian resources, the country’s own population suffered horrendously. As the state had grown richer, the people had grown poorer. British historian and religious affairs commentator Karen Armstrong reports that:

“There was rampant consumerism in the upper echelons of society, and corruption and deprivation among the petty bourgeoisie and the urban poor. After the oil price increase in 1973-4, there was tremendous inflation, owing to lack of investment opportunity for all but the very wealthy. A million people were unemployed, many of the smaller merchants had been ruined by the influx of foreign goods, and by 1977 inflation had even begun to affect the riché During these years the shah’s regime became more tyrannical and autocratic than ever.”[22]

Twenty years after the Western-backed coup the top 20 per cent of households accounted for nearly half of all consumption expenditure, whilst the bottom 40 per cent accounted for 15 per cent of consumption expenditure and less than 12 per cent of total income. Mark Curtis comments: “Some of those who failed to benefit from the ‘extreme concentration of wealth’ in Iran – for example, the poor migrants and squatters in Tehran – were forced to engage regularly in a ‘desperate contest for shelter and land’; in a system that was in large part the result of the considered actions and priorities of Anglo-American power.”[23]

John Foran, assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, similarly elaborates in his award-winning study Fragile Resistance:

“The system was replete with officially sanctioned corruption, bribe-taking, and greed, from the Shah to his sister Ashraf to the minister of court Assadullah ‘Alam on down through the officer corps and economic elite, with each maintaining a mini-court of his or her own, surrounding themselves with clients and attaching a portion of all major contracts in the economy.”[24]

The extent of the deepening poverty within Iran as a result of the Shah’s regime, propped up by the Western powers, can be discerned from the heartfelt observation of a young Iranian peasant:

“Yes, we need schools and doctors, but they are just for the rich. I wish I didn’t even know doctors existed. Before, we were ignorant, but now we know that pills and shots can help us. But we can’t buy them, so we watch our children die from sickness as well as hunger. Before, the elders said if a child died, it was from the will of God (dasti khudda), but now I think it is the fault of the government (dasti-dowlat).”[25]

Naturally then, the Shah’s socio-economic policies were deeply unpopular among the Iranian population. For the Shah to maintain power, he had to control an increasingly agitated and resentful populace, and this implied pursuing policies of brutal repression é policies that were supported and, indeed, directed by America and Britain. According to Amnesty International (AI), the Shah’s regime succeeded in slaughtering over 10,000 Iranians, estimating that there were between 25-100,000 political prisoners in 1976. AI thus observed that: “[The] Shah of Iran retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran”.[26] Barry Rubin noted that “prisoners were subjected to horrendous torture, equal to the worst ever devised”, in a system in which “the entire population was subjected to a constant, all-pervasive terror”.[27] Not only was this not a cause of concern to the Western powers, it was a cause of closeness between the Shah and the West. As U.S. Iran specialist Eric Hooglund reports: “The more dictatorial his [the Shah’s] regime became, the closer the U.S.-Iran relationship became.”[28]

The United States and United Kingdom, however, were directly responsible for the repression committed under the Shah’s regime é not merely for establishing his power while encouraging and consenting to his policies, but also for creating and guiding the SAVAK secret police under the Shah’s command which perpetrated the aforementioned atrocities. SAVAK, created by the United States and trained primarily by Israel with significant British input, was even instructed in torture techniques by the CIA. The British SAS was also responsible for training the Shah’s Special Forces.[29] The Federation of American Scientists reports that SAVAK, formed “under the guidance of United States and Israeli intelligence officers in 1957”, “developed into an effective secret agency”, its job being to ensure the effective subjugation of the Iranian population to the rule of the Shah.

“An elaborate system was created to monitor all facets of political life. For example, a censorship office was established to monitor journalists, literary figures, and academics throughout the country; it took appropriate measures against those who fell out of line. Universities, labor unions, and peasant organizations, among others, were all subjected to intense surveillance by SAVAK agents and paid informants. The agency was also active abroad, especially in monitoring Iranian students who publicly opposed Pahlavi rule.”

The agency’s “torture methods” passed on to it from its U.S., Israeli and British masters, “included electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weight to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.” The extent of its terrorisation of the indigenous population is clear from the fact that it even had “at least 13 full-time case officers running a network of informers and infiltration covering 30,000 Iranian students on United States college campusesé The head of the SAVAK agents in the United States operated under the cover of an attache at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, with the FBI, CIA, and State Department fully aware of these activities.”[30] Iranian scholar Reza Baraheni observes that SAVAK’s aim was to “spread a deep sense of fear, suspicion, disbelief, and apathy throughout the country.”[31] This objective was successfully attained. The Shah’s regime of “torture and intimidation, made people feel that they were held prisoner in their own country, with the connivance of Israel and the United States.”[32]

The Western powers were very pleased with their creation’s brutal activities. America’s former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for instance, referred to the Shah as “that rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally”.[33] Kissinger also described the tyrant as “a pillar of stability in a turbulent and vital region”, a “dedicated reformer” with the most “noble aspirations”. “The least we owe him is not retrospectively to vilify the actions that eight American Presidents – including the present incumbent – gratefully welcomed”, namely, the institutionalisation of mass poverty, torture, murder and corruption.[34] At a ceremonial dinner hosting the Shah in November 1973 President Jimmy Carter delivered a moving address in which he described the Iranian regime as “an island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world.”[35] In a report submitted to President Eisenhower’s National Security Council in 1953, U.S. policymakers summed up their approval of the dictatorship:

“Over the long run, the most effective instrument for maintaining Iran’s orientation towards the West is the [Shah’s] monarchy, which in turn has the army as its only real source of power. U.S. military aid serves to improve army morale, cement army loyalty to the Shah, and thus consolidate the present regime and provide some assurance that Iran’s current orientation towards the West will be perpetual.”[36]

The Western powers exploit other countries in the Middle East  – and other areas of the world  – in much the same way, developing close political ties and using those to secure economic relations which are favourable to the West and to the Eastern dictators with whom they are working; relations which also happen to be highly detrimental to the masses who live under the grip of these regimes. Countries that have been regularly subject to such counter-democratic Western procedures include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Bahrain, among numerous others. Their goal is to further American/Western domination of the Middle East and to secure a rich supply of appropriately priced oil, which inevitably results in huge profits as well as effective control of the world economy. “Mutual Anglo-American support”, Curtis explains, “in ordering the affairs of key nations and regions, often with violence, to their design has been a consistent feature of the era that followed the Second World War.”[37]

It is clear that the purpose of such policies lies in the fact that the main Western interest in the Middle East is to ensure that there is no development of what the West describes as ‘radical nationalism’ – a technical term meaning nationalist forces that refuse to obey Western orders é with the view to protect the major Western interest in the region: control of the Middle East’s energy resources which are the largest and cheapest in the world. In earlier years, the West was able to intervene directly to ensure such control. However, as the world has become more complex and Western capacity to intervene directly has reduced, the West has turned to surrogates. This strategy of utilising regional surrogate regimes to play a subservient role within a wider matrix of Western interests was formalised in the Nixon-Kissinger doctrine. According to this doctrine, the United States, now leading the Western powers, would be committed to maintaining what the infamous U.S. statesman and war criminal Henry Kissinger called the “overall framework of order”. Regional powers would pursue particular goals within this overall framework of subservience. With regard to the extremely crucial Middle East region – primarily the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, where most of the oil is – the broad plan was that Israel and Iran under the Shah would play the role of “guardians of the Gulf”, i.e. the principal regional surrogates. This plan was outlined by the U.S. Senate’s ranking oil expert, Senator Henry Jackson, in May 1973. Jackson stressed the necessity of “the strength and Western orientation of Israel on the Mediterranean and Iran [under the Shah] on the Persian Gulf”. Israel and Iran were “reliable friends of the United States” who, along with Saudi Arabia “have served to inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states… who, were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principle sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf”, which are needed primarily as a reserve and a lever for control of the global economy.[38]

II.II The Iranian Revolution

In the 1960s, open opposition to the Shah’s regime began to grow tremendously. More and more students were attending the course in Islamic ethics by the late Ayatullah Khomeini at the Fayziyah Madrasah in Qum. He would often sit on the floor beside his students and openly criticise the government. In 1963, Khomeini spoke from his pulpit in his official capacity against the Shah’s regime. Karen Armstrong records that:

“At a time when nobody else dared to speak out against the regime, Khomeini protested against the cruelty and injustice of the shah’s rule, his unconstitutional dismissal of the Majlis, the torture, the wicked suppression of all opposition, the shah’s craven subservience to the United States, and his support of Israel, which had deprived Palestinians of their homes. He was particularly concerned about the plight of the poor: the shah should leave his splendid palace and go and look at the shantytowns in South Tehrané Reprisals were swift and inevitable. On March 22, 1963é SAVAK forces surrounded the madrasah, and attacked it, killing a number of students. Khomeini was arrested and taken into custody.”[39]

Some naive commentators attribute the unfolding Islamic movement within Iran spearheaded by Ayatullah Khomeini as well as many other religious scholars, intellectuals, and writers, to an insincere desire to gain power and establish an autocratic Islamic regime. This view arises from sheer ignorance of the complex developments within Iran at that time, particularly the new ideas and visions of political Islam being explored even by Western-educated Iranian philosophers such as Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-77).[40] Indeed, Khomeini’s outspoken opposition to the Shah’s regime almost led to his death. He only narrowly escaped execution because a senior mujtahid Ayatullah Muhammad Kazim Shariatmadari (1904-85) saved him from this fate by promoting him to the rank of Grand Ayatullah, making it too risky for the regime to kill him without provoking massive protests.[41] His radical thesis on Islamic Government, was thus not written to simply legitimise his own rise to power, but rather to provide an Islamic political alternative that was relevant and meaningful to the Muslim masses of Iran. When he first wrote his landmark book, Hokomat-e- eslami, (Islamic Government), he had not anticipated an imminent revolution. On the contrary, he thought that it would be another two hundred years before Iran would be capable of implementing such a system.[42] In fact, the revolution occurred much earlier.

The revolution entered a new stage on 9 January 1978, when four thousand students poured on to the streets of Qum, demanding a return to the 1906 constitution, freedom of speech, the release of political prisoners, the reopening of Fayziyyah Madrasah, and permission for Khomeini, who had been exiled since 1964, to return to Iran. The Shah’s police opened fire into the crowds of unarmed protestors, killing 70 students.[43] For the Shah, this was the beginning of the end. Millions of Iranians responded to the massacre with outrage, and the uprising against his regime escalated. In different subsequent marches hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the following months as the Iranian people protested against his reign. In one gathering at Jaleh Square of around 20,000 people on Friday 8 September, martial law was declared and all large gatherings were banned. The demonstrators had no knowledge of the ban which was declared at 6AM that day. The Shah’s soldiers responded to their refusal to disperse with rifle-fire, resulting in the killing of as many as 900 civilians. The massacre only inflamed the anger of the Iranian people further as crowds began raging through the streets in protest while the Shah’s forces continued to fire at them from tanks.[44]

The U.S. response to such events is instructive. At 8AM on 10 September, President Jimmy Carter called the Shah from Camp David to reassure him of U.S. support. Several hours later, the White House officially confirmed the conversation and affirmed the ongoing “special relationship” between the U.S. and Iran. The White House added that despite the President’s regret for the loss of life, he had expressed hope that the campaign of political liberalisation just begun by the Shah would continue.[45] A clearer statement of support for state terrorism can barely be imagined. Highly relevant in regard to the U.S. role is an astute series of Washington Post reports by American journalist Scott Armstrong, which is based in part on government documents. According to Armstrong, U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski continually urged the Shah to employ military force to crush the mounting popular opposition against his dictatorship. U.S. State Department sources indicate that Brzezinski even drafted a letter to the Shah “which unambiguously urged him to use force to put down the demonstrations”, although State Department officials recognised that this would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iranians. After the September 1978 massacre of demonstrators on ‘Black Friday’, “American policymakers viewed the Shah’s willingness to use force as a good sign,” reports Armstrong. U.S. admiration for the sort of brutal, dictatorial and anti-humanitarian policies habitually employed by military juntas to enforce regional U.S. hegemony was reconfirmed by then U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan who objected when the Shah’s forces lessened their human rights abuses against the Iranian people. He found that “the Shah’s new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture… are disorienting” – clearly because the practice of torture by U.S. client-regimes serves well to subjugate the masses and is therefore ‘orienting’. Sullivan expressed his distress at the results of the command to refrain from torture, since the Shah’s security forces were thereby “being prevented from using the time-honored methods of arrest, long imprisonment and manhandling – if not worse – to get at the threat” (report of 1 June 1978). Indeed, the U.S. clearly played a role that was unequivocally supportive of human rights abuses. U.S. General Robert Huyser, for instance, was dispatched to Tehran to urge Iranian generals “that the military should be pushed into action”, and should employ military force to capture the oil fields.[46]

Indeed, for this reason the economic hardships suffered by the new regime were embarrassing, especially since “for religious reasons”, the government had “put social welfare at the top of its original agenda on coming to poweré

“Khomeini did his best for the poor. He set up the Foundation for the Downtrodden to relieve the distress of those who had suffered most under the Pahlavis. Islamic associations in the factories and workshops provided workers with interest-free loans. In the rural areas, Construction Jihad employed young people in building new houses for the peasants, and in agricultural, public health, and welfare projects, especially in the war zonesé In 1981, the Majlis had proposed some important land reforms, which would ensure a fairer distribution of resources.”

Unfortunately, these efforts had been “offset by the war with Iraq, which had not been of Khomeini’s own making.”[48]

III. The Iran-Iraq War: Still Defending Western Values

The Western powers were horrified by the 1979 revolution regardless of its domestic popularity. It implicated their expulsion from Iranian territory and the subsequent insecurity of elite interests in that region, including America’s strategic designation of Iran as a ‘guardian of the Gulf’ subordinate to U.S. orders. The Islamic nature of the revolution gave the West further reason to fear. The Western powers anticipated that the events in Iran might pose a model for other Muslim nations in the region whose people suffered similarly under Western-backed dicatorships. In this respect, the Iranian revolution bore the potential to severely damage U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. As Professor John Keane comments:

“To the surprise of most observers Islam did the unthinkable. It showed that a late twentieth century tyrant, armed to the teeth and backed by western investors and governments, could be toppled by popular pressure, and that the new Islamic regime installed by such pressure could stand politically between the two superpowers without being committed to either.”[49]

The solution was to attempt to crush the revolution of Iran before it bore fruit. The objective was to illustrate to other countries in the region what is liable to happen to those who attempt to pursue an independent course; in this case, by building up the very same Iraqi regime that is ruthlessly condemned today, and pushing the new war-machine into a devastating confrontation with Iran that would cripple the newly formed Islamic Republic. With the fall of the Shah’s repressive U.S.-friendly regime, a “pillar” of US policy was lost. Therefore, a new “guardian of the Gulf” was required to keep Middle East oil “in American hands”. Iraq represented many possibilities in this regard. There was the possibility of infiltrating Iraq; of overthrowing the new government of Iran; of Iraq becoming a replacement for the former Iranian “guardian of the Gulf”; and of course the lucrative opportunities for investment. Once Saddam’s Iraq was removed from the terrorism list, the new U.S. plan could begin actualisation. Throughout this period, the disregard for human rights, democracy and peace consistently manifested itself in the traditional manner. The London Guardian reports that the war “which Saddam Hussein started” continued with “encouragement from the Americans, who wanted him to destroy their great foe, Ayatollah Khomeini. When it was over, at least a million lives had been lost in the cause of nothing, fuelled by the arms industries of Britain and the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States”.[50]

III.I Befriending Tyranny

Before the inception of the Iran-Iraq war, America had made moves toward extending the hand of friendly relations to the Iraqi regime under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In a television interview, then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated: “We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq”. He emphasised that: “We do not feel that American-Iraqi relations need to be frozen in antagonism”.[51] On 22 September 1980, Saddam Hussein initiated his offensive against Iran with U.S. consent. Referring to the tacit U.S. influence in this connection, former National Security Council aide Gary Sick reports that there was a strategy of “letting Saddam assume there was a U.S. green light because there was no explicit red light”.[52] Other reports are even more revealing, referring to U.S. involvement in a covert operation for a “blitzkrieg” against Iran, launched from Iraq. This was to be led by several of the Shah’s ex-generals “to form a provisional government [in Iran] under Iraqi tutelage”.[53] On 26 February 1982, the U.S.-Iraq special relationship was officially sealed – Iraq was removed from the U.S. terrorism list. As was later admitted by the leading Defense Department counterterrorism official, “no one had any doubts about his [Saddam’s] continued involvement with terrorism… The real reason [for taking Iraq off the terrorism list] was to help them succeed in the war against Iran.”[54]

This was followed by intensive support of Iraq during its devastating war with Iran, including the use of chemical and biological é and other é weapons of mass destruction, military training and instruction, and the provision of intelligence. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the United States turned a blind eye when Iraq used American intelligence for operations against Iran that made rampant use of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, according to senior administration and former intelligence officials”, while the “combination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and American intelligence eventually helped turn the tide of the eight-year war in Baghdad’s favor.” A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the American role admitted U.S. awareness that Iraq “used chemicals in any major campaigné Although we publicly opposed the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world we knew the intelligence we gave the Iraqis would be used to develop their own operational plans for chemical weapons.” Another administration official stated: “They [the Americans] built this guy up and let him do whatever it took to win. And that included the use of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.” U.S. intelligence sources went so far as to provide data to Iraq on Iran’s equipment and troop strength. Former intelligence officials have stated clearly that Washington was well aware that Iraq began using chemical weapons in 1983 and intensified their use in 1986. By 1988, Iraq’s use of gases had also repeatedly been documented by UN specialists.[55]

According to another former U.S. intelligence official: “It was all done with a wink and a nod… We knew exactly where this stuff was going, although we bent over backwards to look the other way.” Washington knew Iraq was “dumping boatloads” of chemical weapons on Iranian positions, he added. Policy at the time, according to another former Reagan official, recognised that: “Hussein is a bastard. But at the time, he was our bastard.” In 1986, as the Iran-Iraq war began to turn decisively in Iran’s favour the pace of U.S. intelligence information to Iraq escalated as part of a bid to restore Iraq’s edge. The United States was not alone in this endeavour. In advance of the Faw counter offensive, France, Egypt and Jordan provided help in reorganising and re-training the Iraqi military.[56] 

The United Kingdom was also heavily involved. Throughout the devastating eight-year war, the British government assured its public that it was not selling “lethal equipment” to either side. However, evidence given to the inquiry by Lord Justice Scott into arms sales to Iraq, has revealed that this alleged policy was for the purpose of public deception only. In reality, Britain was one of the 26 countries – including the United States, France and other Western nations along with their Middle East client-regimes – which sold the greater bulk of arms to Saddam’s genocidal regime.[57] American arms specialist William D. Hartung – Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute – observes that despite recent efforts by the U.S. defence industry and the Clinton administration to argue that the United States did not arm Iraq in the period leading up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there is ample documentation (some of which shall be discussed here) demonstrating that the Reagan and Bush administrations supplied critical military technologies that were put directly to use in the construction of the Iraqi war machine. Further strong evidence discussed by Hartung indicates that the “executive branch’s failure to crack down on illegal weapons traffickers or keep track of third party transfers of U.S. weaponry allowed a substantial flow of U.S.-origin military equipment and military components to make their way to Iraq.”[58]

III.II Arming Iraq

Leading American analyst Bruce Jentleson – Director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Professor of Public Policy & Political Science, and formerly of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff as Special Assistant to the Director – reports that huge amounts of military aid were poured into Iraq.[59] With Iraq off the terrorism list and export controls on dual-use technologies (i.e. with both civilian and military applications) therefore less restrictive, 60 Hughes MD-500 ‘Defender’ helicopters, and then 10 Bell Helicopters – models which were widely employed in the invasion of Vietnam – were sold to Saddam’s regime. Other helicopter sales followed, such as 48 that were said to be for “recreation” purposes. These were subsequently employed to bomb and gas Kurdish civilians.[60]

A total of 241 licenses were approved for dual-use exports to Iraq in the last two years of Reagan’s Administration; only 6 were denied. The nature of these exports was conspicuously such that they could be put to military use. Bruce Jentleson notes, for instance, that precision tools for “general military repair” ended up being used to upgrade SCUD missiles for longer-range firing. Quartz crystals and frequency synthesisers as “components in a ground radar system” were used for missile guidance systems. Fuel air explosive technology was exported, although it was capable of producing bombs ten times more lethal than conventional bombs. Indeed, exports “were knowingly sent to Iraqi nuclear installations”, according to a former White House official.[61]

The Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialisation (MIMI) was a notorious example of this. Having been created in April 1988 to bring together civilian and military projects, the United States was fully aware that MIMI was linked to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes. Yet it was regularly inundated with dozens of dual-use technologies, licensed for export by the U.S.[62] Another typical example was NASSR (Nassr State Establishment for Mechanical Industries), which from the 1970s onwards was well known to be an important military installation. By 1987, the United States knew of a ballistic missiles programme in operation there. Yet the Department of Commerce continued to licensed exports for dual-use technologies to this installation.[63] Dual-use technologies supplied to military installations such as MIMI, Sa’ad 16, and others, as well as directly to the Iraqi military, included: equipment for the Arab Company for Detergent Chemicals (a front for chemical weapons); bacteria samples to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission and University of Baghdad (both linked to “biological warfare, support and numerous other military activities” by the CIA); communications and tracking agreement for Sa’ad 16; helicopter guidance, helicopters, engines and fight equipment for the Iraqi airforce; computers to the Iraqi navy; and so on.[64]

Douglas Frantz and Murray Waas of the Los Angeles Times report that in 410 of 526 cases with potential nuclear applications, export licenses were approved. According to U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez, two of every seven U.S. non-agricultural exports to Iraq between 1985 and 1990 accrued to its expanding military-industrial complex.[65] The United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection teams confirmed that U.S. technology was used by Iraq in its weapons programme – not a surprise considering that dual-use U.S. technologies were being systematically and knowingly licensed to military installations undertaking exactly these kinds of programmes. According to the head UN/IAEA inspector: “The simple answer to the question of whether U.S. produced equipment and technology has been found to be part of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program is yes“.[66] Examples of this include the equipment discovered by UNSCOM from 11 American companies in Iraqi missiles and chemical weapons plants. Some of the 17 bacterial and viral cultures licensed by the U.S. were also found at the Salman Pak site that was party to “a major military research program… concentrating on anthrax and botulism”.[67]

As the torrent of military and financial assistance continued to pour into Iraq, Saddam was busy applying this aid – which came to him not only from the U.S., but from France, Germany, Britain, among others – in systematic human rights abuses. According to former U.S. Secretary of State Shultz, the first reports of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran – “drifted in”.[68] As was the case with Saddam’s other flagrant violations of the 1925 Geneva Protocol Banning the Use of Chemical Weapons in War, his use of chemical weapons against Iran was extensively documented by the UN.[69] The UN found evidence that Saddam had used chemical weapons four times during the Iran-Iraq war. The other three were in April 1985, February-March 1986 and April-May 1987. Saddam was also busy violently oppressing his own people, cracking down particularly on the Kurds of northern Iraq – including, for instance, according to Amnesty International, the abduction and torture of about three hundred children from Kurdish families.[70] In 1987, a U.S. Senate staff delegation to Kurdistan discovered the ravaging effects of Saddam’s policy towards the Kurds in Iraq, reporting “hundreds of villages levelled”; the countryside was described as having “an eerie quality to it. Fruit trees, graveyards and cemeteries stand as reminders of the absent people and livestock.”[71]

In February 1988, Saddam instigated an even more massive campaign against the Kurds. His troops employed the traditional methods of destruction. By 16 March 1988, the Iraqi air force was strafing Halabja with mustard gas and nerve toxins. “Entire families were wiped out and the streets were littered with the corpses of men, women and children”, reported the Washington Post. “Other forms of life in and around the city – horses, house cats, cattle – perished as well”.[72] An estimated 5,000 people were massacred. As Professor Jentleson observes, this death toll is proportionate to over a half million deaths in a city the size of New York. The U.S. response to all the above is instructive. Such atrocities did not suffice for the United States and its Western allies to cease military assistance to the regime. Even the Halabja atrocities only led to the token tightening of a few export controls related to chemical weapons manufacture and the production of what amounted to an effectively meaningless condemnatory resolution in the UN Security Council. These gestures were apparently propagandistic in purpose, since they unfortunately did not amount to any significant reduction in U.S./Western military assistance to Saddam’s regime.[73]

Indeed, the possibility of sanctions being imposed on Iraq due to the massacres was deliberately blocked by the U.S. Administration, because they would “undermine relations and reduce U.S. influence on a country that has emerged from the Persian Gulf War as one of the most powerful Arab nations”.[74] Rather than impose sanctions, the very opposite was done. Bruce Jentleson observes that after the Halabja massacres, the U.S. was granting new licenses for dual-use technology exports at a rate more than 50 per cent greater than before Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds. Between September and December 1988, sixty-five licenses were granted for dual-use technology exports – this averages out as an annual rate of 260 licenses: more than double the rate between January and August 1988 (which involved the granting of 85 licenses, amounting as Jentleson notes to a 128 annual rate).[75] The tremendous escalation of exports occurred in spite of the fact that inspectors of the U.S. Customs Service had “detected a marked increase in the activity levels of Iraq’s procurement networks. These increased levels of activity were particularly noticeable in the areas of missile technology, chemical-biological warfare and fuze technology”.[76]

In January 1988, reports of Iraqi germ warfare capabilities in the open specialised press emerged. According to a respected American analyst, “there were growing indications in late 1988 that Iraq was producing a botulin toxin in military quantities, or some similar agent”. A U.S. government official was more forthcoming: “Everybody knows the Iraqis are trying to develop biological weapons”.[77] Nevertheless, from 1985-9, seventeen licenses were approved for exports of bacterial and fungal cultures to Iraqi government agencies.[78] This occurred in spite of a human rights appeal to the UN Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, issued by Amnesty International, pointing clearly to the “grave fears that in the aftermath of the [Iran-Iraq] war a further significant deterioration in human rights could occur in Iraq”. Amnesty noted that Saddam’s regime was conducting “a systematic and deliberate policy… to eliminate large numbers of Kurdish civilians”.[79] This AI report was issued just three days before the Iran-Iraq cease-fire of 20 August 1988. Further domestic chemical attacks on an unprecedented scale were initiated by Saddam only a few days later. Yet as noted above, the aftermath of these attacks did not result in a reduction in U.S. licensed exports of dual-use technologies, but on the contrary resulted in their increase.

III.III Friendly Relations

The U.S. not only provided Saddam’s regime with military aid, but also with financial aid, huge investment, and abundant trade. For example, American CCC credits had grown to exceed $1 billion per year.[80] The U.S. had become a major customer for Iraqi oil, importing by 1987 30 million barrels. This was still minimal in comparison to later imports: In 1988 – the year of the most conspicuous domestic atrocities instigated by Saddam’s forces é U.S. imports of Iraqi oil had rocketed to 126 million barrels. This figure should be compared to the 1981 figures when the U.S. had not imported even a single barrel of Iraqi oil. The disparity constituted a momentous increase of over 400 per cent, with U.S. purchases bringing in $1.6 billion. The U.S. was essentially purchasing one out of every four barrels of Iraqi oil exports.[81] Jentleson points out that American oil companies also began receiving a discount of $1 per barrel below the prices being charged to European oil companies. This amounted to approximately $37 million in the last quarter of 1988 and another $123 million through the first three-quarters of 1989. The per-barrel discount was later increased to $1.24 in January 1990, resulting in savings of another hefty $241 million on imports (the US was so enthusiastic about these that they continued for over a month after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait).[82]

Iraq became the twelfth largest market for American agricultural exports in the 1980s; for some crops (e.g. rice) the country became the number one export market. Iraq was, in fact, second only to Mexico as a beneficiary of CCC export credit guarantees. In addition to the $1.1 billion the previous year and $3.4 billion cumulative since fiscal year 1983, another $1.1 billion in guarantees were scheduled for the fiscal year about to arise. The U.S. Agricultural Department was unsurprisingly optimistic about “Iraq’s enormous market potential for U.S. agricultural exports”.[83] As has already been seen, business was also flourishing on the manufacturing and dual-use technology export front. Jentleson reports that in sectors such as petroleum, electricity generation, petrochemicals, steel, and transportation, billions of dollars in contracts were being fervently signed.[84]

One of the groups which was particularly active in ensuring that the U.S. did not impose sanctions on Iraq was the U.S.-Iraq Business Forum, established in 1985, whose president Marshall Wiley was a lawyer and former U.S. Ambassador to Oman as well as former ranking U.S. diplomat in Baghdad.[85] According to Bruce Jentleson, companies that were members of this group – whose influence was crucial in preventing sanctions (providing yet another example of the preference of Western governments for elite interests as opposed to human rights) – included those involved in importing discounted Iraqi oil (Amoco, Mobil, Exxon, Texaco, Occidental), defence contractors (Lockheed, Bell Helicopter-Textron, United Technologies) and others (AT&T, General Motors, Bechtel, Caterpillar).[86] This clearly illustrates that the the United States is influenced most significantly in its policies by the interests of corporate elites – the military-industrial complex and multinational corporations – at the expense of the human rights and decisions of the masses throughout the world. These elite sectors possess the most powerful leverage over policy; and the results, as is now quite evident, are globally catastrophic.

Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert based in Washington, describes the anti-humanitarian nature of the U.S.-Iraq alliance, an alliance based solely on strategic and economic interests:

“Long before the invasion of Kuwait, one might have wondered about the US-Iraq alliance. Certainly it was partly tactical, aimed at preventing outright victory for the ascendant Islamic Republic of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Certainly it reflected the three long-standing goals of US policy in the Middle East: protection of Israel, control of access to oil and stability. One might have wondered why US officials willingly, if not eagerly, turned a blind eye to the Iraqi regime’s crimes. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know of Iraq’s repressive rule, its Anfal campaign to depopulate Kurdish villages and its use of internationally outlawed poison gas against both civilians and Iranian soldiers. Human rights violations are common throughout the region – arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, house demolitions, repression of dissidents, persecution of Communists – and Iraq’s government was right up there with the best. Washington knew of Iraq’s violations, but expressed little official concern.” [87]

U.S./Western policy then is simply not premised on concern for human rights. On the contrary, Western strategic and economic interests are the driving force of foreign policies that are systematically anti-humanitarian and counter-democratic.


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