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How We Became Enemies of Iran and Iraq
10 November 2001
'These two hated with a hate found only on the stage.' Lord Byron, Beppo
Since no one else has answered his question it falls to me to do so. The question was posed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. It's probably not surprising that he didn't know the answer because when it was happening he was in private industry and not concerned with affairs of government. However, it is useful to provide him the answer now since it may inform future decisions.
In what appears to be a softening attitude toward Iran, there seems to be a growing consensus in the Bush administration that the Clinton administration policy of "dual containment" which isolated and punished both Iran and Iraq was not a good one and that we should not have both of them as enemies. Commenting on the fact that they were both enemies a New York Times reporter said that Donald Rumsfeld asked a journalist at a black-tie dinner: "How did it happen that we are on the opposite side of both Iran and Iraq?. It makes no sense." The reporter does not indicate whether or not the question was answered for the secretary but on the off-chance that it was not, I shall venture to do so since it all goes back to the 1980s. The way we got be enemies of both of them was the same way we were friends of both of them back then.
Back in the mid-1980s our policy was to sell arms to the Iranian government to use in its longstanding war with Iraq. We also provided covert assistance to emigre groups that were trying to overthrow the Iranian government to which we were selling arms, thus providing aid to both sides of the internal conflict as well as providing arms to assist that country in its fight with Iraq.
The fact that we were selling arms to Iran early on in its war with Iraq would suggest to a casual observer that we hoped (a) that Iran would defeat Iraq and (or is it or) (b) that the emigres would defeat the government we were busily arming. That was not, however, the case, at least insofar as Iraq was concerned. (It's unclear whose side we were on with respect to the internal struggle.) We actually hoped no one would win. Accordingly, and to offset the harm that might have been done to Iraq by our weapons' sales to Iran, we sold arms to Iraq and furnished that country with intelligence data it could use in its war against Iran.
That might seem to have given Iraq a slight advantage over Iran. It did not. That is because the information we were giving Iraq was deliberately incomplete in order to make it misleading. Satellite photos were altered to leave out important details. If that were all there was to it, an observer would conclude that we were tilting towards Iraq. That was not all there was to it. We were also furnishing intelligence information to Iran. It was the same sort we furnished Iraq. It was deliberately distorted or inaccurate. When all was said and done, it was not clear whose side we were on.
That was the whole idea. As explained by State Department officials, we shared doctored information with both sides in an effort to prevent either from prevailing in the conflict. The success of that foreign policy goal was attested to by the fact that the war went on from 1980 to 1988. When asked about the policy, a state department spokesperson said: "You had to have been there" in order to understand it.
Donald Rumsfeld was in the private sector during the period this was going on and that explains why he did not understand how it was that we got on the opposite side of both Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the foregoing will answer the question for him. Whether our recent overtures to Iran will cause us to once again be friends, only time will tell. (As an aside, it is worth noting that even as we are now celebrating the fact that we and the Russians are united in the fight against terrorism, this is not the first time we have shared goals. An earlier time hearkens back to the same Iran-Iraq war. At the same time that we were helping the Iranians and the Iraqis in our peculiar way, the Soviets were doing exactly the same thing. On the very same day that the state department spokesperson was telling reporters that they had to have been there in order to understand our foreign policy, another report suggested that one of the consequences of our foreign policy was to drive Iraq closer to the Soviet Union.
Although true, it turned out that the Soviets shared our desire that neither Iran nor Iraq emerge victorious. The Soviets were arming Iraq but they were doing it quietly so as not to upset the Iranians. To avoid alienating Iran, the Soviet Union made no effort to block sales of arms to Iran by the United States and other countries such as Libya, Syria, North Korea and the Eastern Bloc, all whom were selling arms to Iran. When the Soviet spokesman was asked about this he did not say you had to be there to understand, he simply said that the Soviets were furnishing arms to Iraq not to enable it to win but to keep Iran from doing so. By helping create a stalemate, so he suggested, there was a better chance of a settlement.)
Iran and Iraq were lucky to have us both as friends. They were lucky to have us both as enemies. They were able to maintain hostilities much longer than would have been the case without our help. Mr. Rumsfeld is lucky too. Our conduct way back then helps explain, at least in small part, why it is that we have both countries as enemies today.