The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2016)

24

The Road to Catastrophe

The revolution in Iran brought the American house of cards across the region as a whole tumbling down. The signs pointing to instability had been there for some time. The corruption of the Shah’s regime, combined with economic stagnation, political paralysis and police brutality made for a poisonous combination – one that played into the hands of outspoken critics whose promises of reform fell on fertile ground.

Those who were worried about how things were moving in Iran were all the more jittery because of the signs that the USSR was actively plotting to take advantage of the situation. Soviet activity continued even after the KGB had lost its main asset in Iran, General Ahmad Mogharebi, regarded by Moscow as ‘Russia’s best agent’ with contacts across all sections of the elite in Iran. He was arrested in September 1977 by the Savak, which had become suspicious of his regular meetings with his KGB handlers.1 This served to spur an intensification of activity by the Soviets.

There was speculation that unusually large volumes of trading in Iranian rials on the Swiss currency markets in early 1978 were the result of Soviet agents being ordered to finance supporters in Iran; the noticeably high quality of Navid, the newsletter distributed by the left-wing Tudeh party, convinced some that it was being printed not just with Soviet help, but in the Soviet embassy in Teheran. New camps set up outside the country to train Iranian dissidents (among others) in guerrilla warfare and Marxist doctrine were an ominous sign that Moscow was preparing to fill any void in the event of the fall of the Shah.2 This was part of a wider engagement with a region that seemed about to go through a period of change. Additional support was therefore also given to President Assad in Syria, even though the KGB considered him ‘a petit-bourgeois chauvinist egomaniac’.3

Some who were watching the situation unfold closely were convinced that doom lay around the corner. By the end of 1978, William Sullivan, the US ambassador in Teheran, dispatched a cable to Washington entitled ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’, urging that contingency plans had to be put in place immediately. This was ignored – as was Sullivan’s recommendation that ‘we attempt to structure a modus vivendi between the military and religious [leaders]’ at the first opportunity. He meant that the US should try to open channels of communication with Khomeini, before he took power rather than afterwards.4 Loud voices in the White House, however, continued in the belief that the US could control the situation, maintaining support for the Shah and backing a proposal made at the end of January 1979 by the Prime Minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, that Ayatollah Khomeini should be arrested if he flew into Iran.5

The blinkered futility of this thinking became apparent within a matter of days. On 1 February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini touched down in Teheran fourteen years after being forced into exile. Enormous crowds gathered to greet him at the airport, following him as he made his way first to the Cemetery of Martyrs, twelve miles south of Teheran, where some 250,000 supporters were waiting. ‘I will strike with my fists at the mouths of this government,’ he roared defiantly. ‘From now on it is I who will name the government.’ Reporting this speech, the BBC estimated that 5 million people lined the streets as he made his way into the capital.6

Things moved quickly as Khomeini’s supporters took control of the country. On 11 February, the US embassy went into lock-down, as Ambassador Sullivan cabled home: ‘Army surrenders. Khomeini wins. Destroying all classified.’ Sensitive material was still being shredded three days later when militants stormed the embassy compound – although order was soon restored by Khomeini’s lieutenants.7 On 16 February, Ambassador Sullivan met with Mahdī Bāzargān, the newly appointed Prime Minister, and told him that the United States had no interest in intervening in Iran’s domestic affairs.8 Less than a week later, the US formally recognised the new government – which, following a national referendum, declared on 1 April that the country was to be known as the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’. A second referendum held at the end of the year endorsed a new constitution, which stated that henceforward ‘all civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political and other laws and regulations in the country [are] to be based on “Islamic” criteria’.9

The US had bet heavily on Iran and on the Shah for decades. It now had to pay a heavy price for its gamble going wrong. The revolution sent shockwaves round the world, causing oil prices almost to triple. The effect on the oil-hungry economies of the developed world was disastrous as inflation threatened to gallop out of control. As panic set in, there were fears of the crisis spilling over: by the end of June alarming numbers of service stations across the US remained closed due to a lack of supply. President Carter’s approval ratings fell to the all but unknown level of 28 per cent – around the same level as Nixon at the nadir of the Watergate scandal.10 With the President’s re-election campaign about to get into gear, it seemed that regime change in Teheran might be a significant factor in the forthcoming presidential election.

It was not just the rising price of oil that threatened to derail the western economies. So too did the mass cancellation of orders and the immediate nationalisation of the industry. British Petroleum (BP), the heir of the original Knox D’Arcy concession, was forced into a major reorganisation (and share sale) after oilfields that accounted for 40 per cent of its global production disappeared at a stroke. Then there were the contracts to build steel mills, upgrade airport terminals and develop ports that were scrapped overnight, and the arms contracts that were annulled and torn up. In 1979, Khomeini cancelled $9 billion of purchases from the US, which left manufacturers with a painful hole in their accounts and sizeable amounts of stock to try to sell into other markets less keen to militarise than the Shah had been.11

As it was, Iran’s turgid economy meant that the nuclear programme had already been slowed down before the Revolution; after it, it was cancelled altogether. The cost of the loss of business to companies like Creusot-Loire, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Kraftwerk Union – based in France, the US and West Germany respectively – was in the region of $330 billion.12 Some were admirably stoic in the face of adversity. ‘We must never forget how well we did out of the Shah’s regime,’ wrote the diplomat Sir Anthony Parsons, veteran of the Middle East and British ambassador to Teheran at the time of Khomeini’s return. ‘British business and industry made an enormous amount of money out of Iran.’13 He did not say as much, but it was clear that the good times had come to an end; it was better to celebrate what the past had yielded than to bemoan what the future would withhold.

For the US, however, the stakes went beyond the economic and political fall-out at home. It was some consolation that Khomeini and his fellow clerics had little time for the atheist politics of the Soviet Union, and little sympathy with – or affinity for – left-wing groups in Iran.14 But even though the fall of the Shah did not lead to the USSR gaining ground, the US was nevertheless pushed decisively on to the defensive; a series of footholds that had previously been secure became precarious or lost altogether.

After Khomeini had taken power, he immediately shut down the US intelligence facilities located in Iran that served as early-warning systems for Soviet nuclear attacks, and as listening posts monitoring missile-launch tests in Central Asia. This deprived the US of a vital means of gathering information on its rival at a time when doing so had assumed an added importance in the wake of intensive talks between the USA and USSR to limit the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at existing levels. The closure of stations that played an important role in the verification process therefore threatened to compromise the series of strategic arms agreements that had taken years to negotiate, as well as to derail ongoing highly sensitive discussions.

It would take at least five years, the Director of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner, told the Senate intelligence committee in early 1979, to restore the capability for monitoring Soviet missile tests and developments.15 A ‘real gap’ had emerged in US intelligence collection as a result of events in Iran, noted Robert Gates, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the USSR (and later Director of the agency, as well as Secretary of Defense). ‘Exceptionally sensitive’ efforts were therefore made to build new alliances elsewhere that would fill the void. These included high-level discussions with the Chinese leadership about building replacement facilities in western China, which led to a secret visit by Admiral Turner and Gates to Beijing in the winter of 1980–1, a trip that was only revealed to have taken place many years later (albeit with precious little detail).16 Sites were built at Qitai and Korla in Xinjiang by the Office of Sigint (Signals Intelligence) Operations, with the new facilities operated by the Technical Department of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army of China working closely with US advisers and technicians.17Close co-operation between US and Chinese military and intelligence was a by-product of the fall of the Shah.

The Iranian Revolution meanwhile may not have helped the USSR politically, but it certainly did militarily. Despite the efforts in the American embassy in Teheran to shred important documents, the speed and strength of the wave of change that had transformed the country led to some damaging losses. The Shah had bought a fleet of F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft, along with a state-of-the-art Phoenix air-to-air missile system, Hawk surface-to-air missiles and a range of hi-tech anti-tank weapons. The Soviets were able to acquire invaluable close-up visual images, and in some cases instruction manuals for this military hardware as well. This was not just an embarrassing loss; it had potentially serious implications for US national security as well as for that of America’s allies.18

The sense of a familiar world rapidly collapsing now swept through Washington – for it was not just Iran where things suddenly looked very different. The US had been keeping a watchful eye on the situation in Afghanistan, whose strategic importance rose further in the wake of Khomeini’s Revolution. In the spring of 1979, for example, a CIA team conducted a survey to assess the country as a possible replacement location for the intelligence sites lost in Iran.19 The problem was that the situation in Afghanistan was fast moving, and looked increasingly likely to mirror events in Iran.

The turbulence had begun when the chess-loving King Zahir Shah was deposed by his nephew Muimageammad Dāwud, who installed himself as President in his place in 1973. Then five years later Dāwud himself was ousted. His downfall did not come as a great surprise, given the increasing brutality of his regime, which saw political prisoners being routinely executed without trial, lying face down in the grounds of the notorious and chronically overcrowded Pul-i Charkhi prison just outside Kabul.20

The Communist hardliners who took Dāwud’s place proved to be equally ruthless – and relentlessly progressive as they set out an ambitious agenda to modernise the country. It was time, they declared, to improve literacy levels dramatically, to break the ‘feudal’ structure of the tribal system, to end ethnic discrimination, and to deliver rights for women, including educational equality, job security and access to healthcare.21 Efforts to introduce comprehensive changes provoked a furious response that was especially strong among Muslim clerics; just as it did in the early twenty-first century, attempts to reform succeeded only in uniting traditionalists, landlords, tribal leaders and mullahs who made common cause to protect their own interests.

Opposition quickly became vocal and dangerous. The first major uprising took place in March 1979 in Herat, in the west of the country, where those proclaiming national independence, a return to tradition and the rejection of outside influence took heart from events across the border in Iran. Rioters turned on any and every target – including Soviet residents in the city, who were butchered by a rampaging mob.22 Unrest soon spread to other cities, including Jalalabad, where Afghan military units refused to oppose the resistance, and instead turned on and killed their Soviet advisers.23

The USSR responded to these events cautiously, with the ageing Politburo concluding that support should be given to the troublesome and trigger-happy Afghan leadership, some of whom had long-standing personal connections with the Soviet Union, to help them face down the unrest that had spread to Kabul too. A series of measures were taken to boost the regime, led by the President, Nur Muimageammad Taraki, who was well regarded by Moscow and was thought of by some as ‘Afghanistan’s Maxim Gorky’ for his writings on ‘scientific socialist themes’ – high praise indeed.24 Generous shipments of grain and food were dispatched across the border, while interest payments for outstanding loans were waived. To help swell government coffers, the Soviets also offered to pay more than double what they had paid for Afghan gas for the previous decade.25 Although requests for chemical weapons and poison gas were turned down, Moscow did provide military support, dispatching 140 artillery pieces, 48,000 guns and nearly 1,000 grenade launchers.26

This was all noted in Washington, where the implications of the ‘gradual but unmistakable’ rise in Soviet involvement in Afghanistan were carefully considered. If the USSR were to provide direct military assistance to Taraki and send in troops, observed one high-level report, there would be consequences not only in Afghanistan itself but across the spine of Asia in Iran, Pakistan and China – indeed beyond.27 The uncertainty of what would happen next was made clear with the murder of the US ambassador to Kabul in February 1979. Just days after Khomeini had returned home, Ambassador Adolph Dubs’s armoured vehicle was car-jacked in broad daylight on the streets of the Afghan capital, at what appeared to be a police checkpoint. He was taken to the Kabul Hotel (now the luxury Kabul Serena Hotel), where he was held hostage for a few hours before being killed during a botched rescue operation.28

Although it was unclear who had been behind the ambassador’s kidnapping or what the motives were, it was enough to encourage the US to engage more directly with what was going on in the country. Aid to Afghanistan was immediately cut, and support given to the anti-Communists and others who opposed the new government.29 It marked the start of a long period during which the US willingly and actively sought to co-operate with the Islamists, whose interests in resisting the left-wing agenda were naturally aligned with those of the US. It took decades for the price of this deal to become apparent.

Behind this new approach were fears that Afghanistan might fall to the Soviets, who by the second half of 1979 appeared to be preparing for military intervention. The question of the USSR’s intentions rose to the top of the agenda in US intelligence briefings and became the subject of a rash of position papers outlining the latest developments – although this did not mean there was any insight into what was going on.30 One report presented to the National Security Council with the title ‘What Are the Soviets Doing in Afghanistan?’ provided a response that could not be faulted for its candour: ‘Simply, we don’t know.’31 While unpicking Moscow’s thinking was difficult, it was obvious that the fall of the Shah meant that the US had lost its principal ally in the region; it looked worryingly as if a domino effect was about to make the position even worse.

The Soviets were worried about precisely the same thing. Events in Iran had produced no benefit, and in fact were assessed by Moscow as being detrimental to the USSR’s interests as Khomeini’s seizure of power had reduced opportunities, rather than opened them up. Contingency plans were therefore drawn up by the Soviet military for a major deployment in the event that it became necessary to reinforce what General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev called ‘the Government of the friendly nation of Afghanistan’. The US monitored troop movements to the north of both the Iranian and Afghan borders, recording the dispatch of a unit of Spetsnaz special forces to Kabul, alongside a battalion of paratroopers that the CIA concluded had been deployed to secure Bagram airbase, the main entry point for Soviet supplies.32

At this critical stage, however, the future of Afghanistan suddenly came into play. In September 1979, a power struggle saw the removal of Nur Muimageammad Taraki by Hafizullah Amin, a man who was as ambitious as he was hard to read. He had been explicitly written off as a viable leader in editorials that had appeared in Pravda, the official mouthpiece that reflected the thinking of the Politburo in the USSR.33 He was now denounced in Moscow as an enemy of the revolution, a man who sought to manipulate tribal rivalries for his own ends, and ‘a spy for American imperialism’.34 The Soviets were also concerned about rumours that Amin had been recruited by the CIA – gossip that had been spread energetically by his enemies in Afghanistan too.35 Records of Politburo meetings show that the leadership in Moscow was intensely worried about the reorientation of Amin towards the US, and about the latter’s eagerness to support a friendly government in Kabul.36

The Soviets were becoming more and more concerned about the situation. Amin’s frequent meetings with the acting head of the US mission in Afghanistan before his putsch seemed to indicate that Washington was repositioning itself after the catastrophic failure of its policies in Iran. When Amin became increasingly aggressive in his dealings with the Soviets in Kabul while making a series of overtures to the US immediately after taking power, the call came for action.37

If the USSR did not stand firm and support its allies now, the logic went, it would lose out not only in Afghanistan but in the region as a whole. General Valentin Varennikov later recalled that senior officers ‘were concerned that if the United States were pushed out of Iran, they would relocate their bases to Pakistan and seize Afghanistan’.38 Developments elsewhere also concerned the Soviet leadership and gave the impression that the USSR was being pushed firmly on to the back foot. The Politburo discussed the way Washington and Beijing had improved relations in the late 1970s, noting that here too Moscow was falling behind.39

The US was trying to create a ‘new Great Ottoman Empire’ spanning Central Asia, senior Communist party officials told Brezhnev in December 1979; these fears were magnified by the absence of a comprehensive air-defence system across the USSR’s southern frontier. This meant that America could point a dagger at the heart of the Soviet Union.40 As Brezhnev put it soon afterwards in an interview in Pravda, Afghanistan’s instability represented a ‘very major threat to the security of the Soviet state’.41 The sense of having to do something was palpable.

Two days after the meeting between Brezhnev and leading officials, the order was given to devise an invasion plan based on an initial deployment of 75,000–80,000 troops. The Chief of the General Staff, General Nikolai Ogarkov, a hard-headed officer of the old school, reacted angrily. An engineer by training, Ogarkov argued that this force would be far too small to hold communication routes successfully and secure key points across the country.42 He was overruled by the Defence Minister, Dmitri Ustinov, a consummate political survivor prone to making ostentatious statements about the brilliance of the Soviet armed forces, whose fighting ability, he said, meant it could achieve ‘the accomplishment of any tasks set by the party and the people’.43

Whether he actually believed this is one thing; what mattered now was that he and his generation of Second World War veterans, whose grasp on the changing world around them was fading fast, were sure that the Americans were planning to supplant the USSR. Ustinov is reported to have asked late in 1979: ‘If [they can] do all these preparations under our noses, why should we hunker down, play cautious and lose Afghanistan?’44 At a Politburo meeting on 12 December, Ustinov, alongside a clutch of grey old men like Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, gave the go-ahead for a full-blown deployment of troops in Afghanistan.45 It had not been a simple decision to take, Brezhnev was quoted as saying in Pravda a few weeks later.46

A fortnight after the meeting, on Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet forces began to stream over the border as part of Operation Storm 333. This was not an invasion, Ustinov declared to army commanders leading troops across the border, in a line that was to be repeated again and again by Soviet diplomats and politicians over the course of the next decade; rather, it was an attempt to restore stability at a time when the ‘political and military situation in the Middle East’ was in turmoil, and after requests by the government in Kabul ‘to provide international help to the friendly Afghan people’.47

From Washington’s point of view, the timing could not have been worse. For all the Soviet fears about US expansion into Afghanistan, the full extent of American weakness across the region was becoming painfully clear. After flying out of Teheran at the start of 1979, the Shah had moved from one country to another in search of a permanent home. By the autumn, President Carter was being encouraged by senior members of his administration to allow a dying man who had been a staunch friend to the US into the country to receive medical treatment. As this was being discussed, Khomeini’s new Foreign Minister told the President’s advisers point-blank that ‘you are opening Pandora’s box with this’.48 White House records show that Carter was aware of how high the stakes were if he allowed the Shah entry to the US. ‘What are you guys going to advise me to do if [the Iranians] overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?’ the President asked. He did not receive a reply.49

On 4 November, two weeks after the Shah had checked into the Cornell Medical Center in New York, militant Iranian students overwhelmed the security guards at the US embassy in Teheran and seized control of the embassy compound, taking around sixty diplomatic staff hostage. Although the initial aim seems to have been to make a short, sharp protest about the decision to admit the Shah to the US, things escalated rapidly.50 On 5 November, Ayatollah Khomeini commented on the situation at the embassy. He did not mince his words, let alone appeal for calm. The embassies of Teheran, he declared, were breeding grounds for ‘underground plots [that] are being hatched’ to bring down the Islamic Republic of Iran. The chief orchestrator of these plots, he went on, was ‘the great Satan America’. With that, he called on the US to hand over ‘the traitor’ so that he could face justice.51

Initial US efforts to defuse the situation ranged from the inept to the shambolic. One envoy, carrying a personal appeal from the President to Khomeini, was flatly denied an audience with the ayatollah and was unable to deliver his letter; it emerged that another envoy had been authorised to open discussions with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), whose members had been behind terror attacks such as the massacre at the Munich Olympic Games and whose primary aim was the establishment of a Palestinian state at the expense of Israel. Even more embarrassing than the disclosure that the US was trying to use the PLO as a conduit to reach the Iranians was the news that the Iranians themselves refused to let the PLO play a mediating role in the crisis.52

President Carter then resolved to take more decisive action that would not only unlock the hostage situation but would also serve as a statement of intent that although the Shah had fallen, the US was a force to be reckoned with in the centre of Asia. On 12 November 1979, in an attempt to put Khomeini’s regime under financial pressure, he announced an embargo on Iranian oil. ‘No one’, he declared as he announced the ban on imports, ‘should underestimate the resolve of the American government and the American people.’53 Two days later, the President went further still, issuing an executive order to freeze $12 billion of Iran’s assets. This decisive action played well domestically, with Carter experiencing what was described as the largest increase in presidential popularity since the Gallup poll was invented.54

The sabre-rattling had little effect, however. The oil embargo was dismissed by Teheran as irrelevant. ‘The world needs oil,’ said Ayatollah Khomeini in a speech a week after Carter’s announcement. ‘The world does not need America. Other countries will turn to those of us who have oil, and not to you.’55 The embargo was anyway not easy to enforce from a logistical point of view given that Iranian oil often passed through third parties and could still reach the US. That the boycott put pressure on supply inevitably threatened to drive oil prices higher – which played into the hands of the Iranian regime by boosting its revenues.56

The seizure of assets spooked many in the Arab-speaking world, who were concerned about the precedent set by US action. The stand-off exacerbated political disagreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia, which did not see eye to eye with Washington over policy in the Middle East, particularly in relation to Israel.57 As a CIA report prepared a few weeks after the introduction of the embargo concluded, ‘our current economic pressures are unlikely to have any positive effect; [in fact] their impact may be negative’.58

Moreover, many western countries were reluctant to be drawn into the escalation of a crisis with Teheran. ‘It soon became apparent’, Carter wrote, ‘that even our closest allies in Europe were not going to expose themselves to potential oil boycotts or endanger their diplomatic arrangements for the sake of American hostages.’ The only way to concentrate minds was to make ‘the direct threat of further moves by the United States’.59 Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Cyrus Vance, was therefore sent on a tour of western Europe with the message that if sanctions were not imposed on Iran, the US would take unilateral action, including mining the Persian Gulf if necessary.60 This would naturally have an impact on oil prices – and therefore on developed economies. In order to put pressure on Teheran, Washington had to threaten its own supporters.

It was against this tense backdrop of desperate, counter-productive and badly thought through measures to force a settlement in Iran that news was received that Soviet columns were marching south into Afghanistan. US policymakers were taken completely by surprise. Four days before the invasion, President Carter and his advisers had been contemplating plans to seize Iran’s offshore islands, and to look at military and covert operations to overthrow Khomeini. An ominous situation had turned critical.61

Already facing a disastrous hostage situation, the US was now forced to contemplate a major extension of Soviet power in this region. Moreover, Washington’s views mirrored those of Moscow – namely that a move on Afghanistan was likely to be a prelude for the further expansion of one superpower at the expense of the other. Soviet sights were likely to be set next on Iran, where trouble was bound to be stirred up by agitators, as one intelligence report suggested in early 1980. The President should therefore start considering the circumstances under which ‘we [would] be prepared to put US forces into Iran’.62

Carter ramped up the rhetoric in his State of the Union address on 23 January 1980. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan meant that a region of ‘great strategic importance’ was now under threat, he said; Moscow’s move had eliminated a buffer, and brought it within striking distance not only of an area that ‘contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil’ but also of the crucial Straits of Hormuz ‘through which most of the world’s oil must flow’. He therefore articulated a carefully worded threat. ‘Let our position be absolutely clear,’ he said; ‘an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’ This was a defiant statement that perfectly encapsulated attitudes to the oil of the Middle East and to the position first built up by the British and then inherited by the Unites States: any attempt to change the status quo would meet with a ferocious challenge. This was imperial policy in all but name.63

Carter’s bombastic words, however, contrasted with what was happening on the ground. Discussions with the Iranians about releasing the hostages had been continuing in the background, but were becoming ever more farcical. Not only were talks being held between representatives of Teheran and a presidential aide who wore a wig, false moustache and glasses to some meetings; but, as these discussions were going on, Ayatollah Khomeini kept giving speeches about the ‘world-devouring USA’ and about how the ‘great Satan’ should be taught a lesson.64

Eventually, in April 1980, President Carter resolved to bring matters to a conclusion and authorised Operation Eagle Claw, a covert mission to rescue the hostages from Teheran. The result was a fiasco to make schoolboys blush. Eight helicopters dispatched from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz were supposed to rendezvous with a ground team at a location near Tabas in central Iran, where they would be led by Colonel Charlie Beckwith and a new unit of crack troops, christened Delta Force. The operation proved to be stillborn: one helicopter turned back because of weather conditions; another developed a cracked rotor and was abandoned intact, while yet another was discovered to have a damaged hydraulics system. Beckwith concluded that the mission was no longer viable and obtained permission from the President to abort. As the helicopters returned to the Nimitz, one flew too close to a C-130 refuelling aircraft, resulting in an explosion that brought down both – and killed eight American servicemen.65

It was a propaganda disaster. Khomeini, not surprisingly, portrayed it as an act of divine intervention.66 Others looked on with bemusement at the ineptitude of the failed mission. The fact that the US had been unable to secure the release of the hostages through negotiation or by force spoke volumes about how the world was changing. Even before the failure of the rescue mission, some of the President’s advisers had felt there was a need to act decisively so as not to look impotent. ‘We need to do something,’ Zbigniew Brzezinski – the President’s National Security Advisor – said, ‘to reassure the Egyptians, the Saudis and others on the Arabian peninsula that the US is prepared to assert its power.’ And that meant establishing ‘a visible military presence in the area now’.67

The US was not alone, however, in trying to find a response to the tumultuous events that would enable it to protect its interests and reputation. On 22 September, Iraq began a surprise attack on Iran, bombing Iranian airfields and launching a three-pronged ground invasion that targeted the province of Khūzestān and the cities of Ābādān and Khurramshahr. There were no doubts in Iranian minds about who lay behind these attacks. ‘The hands of America’, thundered Khomeini, had ‘emerged from Saddam’s sleeve’.68 The attack, claimed President Bani-Sadr, was the result of an American–Iraqi–Israeli master plan whose aims were variously described as attempts to depose the Islamic government, to reinstate the Shah or to force the disintegration of Iran into five republics. Either way, he alleged, Washington had provided the Iraqis with the blueprint for the invasion.69

Although the idea that the US was behind the attack has been championed by some commentators and repeated by many others, there is little hard evidence to show that this was the case. On the contrary, the sources – which include millions of pages of documents, audio recordings and transcripts recovered from the presidential palace in Baghdad in 2003 – point firmly to the fact that Saddam had acted alone, choosing an opportune moment to strike at a volatile neighbour with whom he had a score to settle after coming out on the wrong side of territorial settlements five years earlier.70 These documents show an aggressive escalation in information-gathering by Iraqi intelligence in the months prior to the attack as thoughts in Baghdad turned to a surprise invasion.71

Saddam was also driven by a heavy dose of insecurity and a strong streak of megalomania. He was obsessed with Israel and with the powerlessness of the Arabs to defeat a country that was ‘an extension of the United States of America and the English’, while at the same time complaining that any aggressive action taken against Israel by the Arabs would result in the west deciding to retaliate against Iraq. If we attack Israel, he warned his senior officers, the Americans would ‘throw an atomic bomb at us’. The ‘first target’ of western action, he noted, ‘will be Baghdad, not Damascus or Amman’.72 Somehow, in Saddam’s mind, it seemed to make sense: attacking Israel would leave Iraq facing annihilation; therefore an attack on Iran should receive precedence.

The coupling of Israel and Iran could be found in the grandstanding rhetoric used by both Saddam and senior figures in the Iraqi leadership that referred excitedly to Iraq assuming the mantle of leadership for Arabs everywhere. The attack on Iran in 1980 was presented as an example of reclaiming land that had been ‘extorted’ during the territorial settlement of 1975. This would give encouragement to others, declared Saddam to his high-ranking officials, and galvanise ‘all the people’ whose lands have been taken from them to rise up and claim what was theirs by right too – a message intended above all for the Palestinians.73 Saddam convinced himself that invading Iran would help the cause of the Arabs elsewhere. Driven by such perverse logic, it was little wonder that the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, took to describing Iraq as ‘the most irresponsible of all Arab regimes, with the possible exception of Kaddafi’.74

Saddam had also been ruffled by the Revolution in Iran, muttering that the removal of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini was ‘completely an American decision’. The unrest was the start of a master plan, he declared, that would use Muslim clerics ‘to scare the Gulf people so that [the Americans] can have a presence and arrange the situation in the region’ however they saw fit.75 Such paranoia was blended with moments of genuine insight, such as when the Iraqi leader immediately grasped the significance of the Soviet move into Afghanistan – and what this meant for Iraq. Would the USSR do the same thing in the future to get its way in Baghdad, he asked; would puppet governments be set up in Iraq too, under the guise of providing help? ‘Is this’, he asked Moscow, how you will treat your other ‘friends in the future’?76

His misgivings only grew as the USSR worked to capitalise on anti-American sentiment in Iran and set about courting Khomeini and those close to him.77 Saddam realised that this too was potentially damaging and that Iraq might be jettisoned by Moscow in favour of its neighbour. ‘Soviet penetration of the region . . . should be checked,’ he told diplomats from Jordan in 1980.78 Feeling increasingly isolated, he was prepared to turn away from his Soviet backers, who had stood square behind his rise to power in the 1970s. His disillusion was one reason why the Soviets were not told of the forthcoming attack until the day before it was launched – which resulted in a frosty response from Moscow.79 By then, according to Iraqi intelligence reports, the fact that Iran was suffering from a ‘choking economic crisis’ and was in no fit state to ‘defend [itself] on a large scale’, represented too good an opportunity to miss.80

The fall of the Shah had set an extraordinary chain of events in motion. By the end of 1980, the whole of the centre of Asia was in a state of flux. The futures of Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan lay in the balance, resting on choices made by their leaders and on the intervention of outside forces. Guessing which way things would go in each of these countries let alone in the region as a whole was nigh on impossible. For the US, the answer was to try to muddle through by playing all sides. The results were disastrous: while it was true that the seeds of anti-American sentiment had been planted earlier in the twentieth century, it was by no means inevitable that these would grow into full-blooded hatred. But US policy decisions over the last two decades of the century would serve to poison attitudes across the region lying between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas.

For sure, the United States had a hard hand to play at the start of the 1980s. To start with, the Iraqi assault seemed a blessing for US policymakers, who saw in Saddam Hussein’s aggression an opportunity to open discussions with Teheran. President Carter’s National Security Advisor Brzezinski ‘made no secret of the fact that the Iraqi attack was a potentially positive development that would put pressure on Iran to release the hostages’, according to a senior advisor involved in the crisis meetings that took place in this period.81 The pressure on Khomeini’s regime was amplified by the knowledge that, in order to respond to the attack, it desperately needed spare parts for military hardware that had previously been purchased from the US. The Iranians were told that Washington might be minded to provide the relevant materials – whose value ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars – if the hostages were released. Teheran simply ignored the approach, which had the personal approval of the US President.82 Not for the first time, Iran was a step ahead: its agents had proved resourceful, buying much needed spares from elsewhere, including Vietnam, which had large stocks of US equipment captured during the war.83

Iran was also supplied in large volume by Israel, which took the view that Saddam Hussein had to be stopped at all costs. The willingness of the Iranians and the Israelis to do business with each other was in many ways surprising, especially given the derogatory way that Khomeini in particular regularly talked about Jews and about Israel. ‘Islam and the Islamic people met their first saboteur in the Jewish people who are at the source of all anti-Islamic libels and intrigues,’ he wrote in 1970.84 Iran and Israel were now cast as unlikely bedfellows thanks to Saddam Hussein’s intervention in the Gulf.

This was one reason why Khomeini’s rhetoric towards minorities and to other religions softened in the early 1980s, by which point he was referring to Judaism as ‘an honourable religion that had arisen among the common folk’ – although he distinguished this from Zionism, which in his eyes at least was a political (and exploitative) movement that was in its essence opposed to religion. This change in posture towards religions was so extensive that the Islamic Republic of Iran even issued postage stamps with a silhouette of Jesus Christ and a verse from the Qurimageān written in Armenian.85

It was not just in the matter of arms sales that Israel and Iran co-operated, but in military operations too. One specific target of mutual interest was Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. According to one intelligence officer, a mission to attack the facility had been discussed by Iranian and Israeli representatives during clandestine talks in Paris even before Saddam’s attack started.86 Just over a week after Iraq’s assault on Iran was launched, the reactor was the subject of a daring raid by four Iranian F-4 Phantom jets that targeted the research laboratories and the control building. Eight months later, in June 1981, Israeli fighter pilots went one better, badly damaging the reactor at a time when it was widely feared it was about to become critical.87

The Iraqi attack on Iran had been intended to deliver a short and sweet victory. To start with, even despite the assault on Osirak, things looked promising from Baghdad’s point of view. As time went on, however, the tables began to turn on Iraq. The USSR punished Saddam for his unilateral action by withholding weapons supplies and suspending the shipment of arms, leaving the Iraqi leader frustrated and short of options. In a frank admission that the war was not going as well as expected, he regularly gathered his confidants around him to moan, articulating one far-fetched international conspiracy after another to explain the setbacks. But the bottom line was that the Iraqis were increasingly finding themselves outfought and outgunned. On one occasion in mid-1981, Saddam asked his generals almost forlornly: ‘Let us try to buy weapons now from the black market. Can we achieve that the same way the Iranians can?’88

Iran was indeed proving resourceful, resurgent – and increasingly ambitious. By the summer of 1982, Iranian troops had not just managed to force the Iraqis out of territories they had captured, but had penetrated across the border themselves. A special intelligence report prepared by the National Security Agency in the US in June of that year painted an unequivocal picture: ‘Iraq has essentially lost the war with Iran . . . There is little the Iraqis can do alone or in combination with other Arabs, to reverse the military situation.’89 With the wind in their sails, the Iranians were now seeking to spread the idea of Islamic revolution to other countries. Funding and logistical support was given to radical Shīimageite forces in Lebanon and to organisations like Hezbollah (Party of God), while efforts were made to foment riots in Mecca and to sponsor a coup in Bahrain. ‘I think the Iranians pose a major threat without any question to the countries of the Middle East,’ the Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, was quoted as saying in July 1982; ‘they are a country run by a bunch of madmen.’90

Ironically, therefore, the increasing difficulties facing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were a godsend for the US. Although the embassy hostages were finally released from Teheran after being held hostage for more than a year following a deal struck behind the scenes, the end of the stalemate had not marked an improvement in US relations with Iran. In contrast, the Soviets continued to court Khomeini – as the CIA noted with alarm. Momentum seemed to be behind the USSR, especially given its apparent success in Afghanistan where troops had occupied the cities and secured the major communication routes and seemed, from the outside at least, to be in command of the situation. Diplomatic pressure on the Soviet Union, which included a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, failed to deliver any tangible results. From Washington’s point of view, there was little to be hopeful about – until it dawned on policymakers that there was an obvious move to make: to back Saddam.

As Secretary of State George Shultz later put it, if Iraq continued to retreat, the country could easily collapse – which would have been ‘a strategic disaster for the United States’.91 In addition to causing turmoil across the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as a whole, this would result in strengthening Teheran’s hand when it came to the international oil markets. Slowly but surely, a new policy emerged. The US decided to bet big on Iraq; this was the square of the board where Washington’s chances of being able to influence what was going on in the centre of Asia were strongest. Helping Saddam was a way of remaining engaged, as well as countering the advance of both Iran and the Soviet Union.

Support took several forms. After removing Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the US acted to help prop up the economy, extending financial credit to support the agricultural sector and allowing Saddam to buy first non-military equipment and then ‘dual-use’ technology, such as heavy trucks that could be used to transport equipment to the front lines. Western governments in Europe were encouraged to sell weapons to Baghdad, while US diplomats worked flat out to convince other regional powers, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to help finance Iraq’s military expenditure. Intelligence gathered by US agents began to be passed to Baghdad, often via King Hussein of Jordan, a trusted intermediary.92 The US administration under President Reagan also helped boost Iraq’s oil exports – and as a result its revenues – by encouraging and facilitating an expansion of pipelines to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to counter the problems of shipping through the Persian Gulf caused by the war with Iran. This was intended to ‘redress the Iran–Iraq oil export imbalance’ – in other words, to level the playing field.93

In addition, active steps were taken from the end of 1983 to cut down sales of weapons and spares to Iran in a bid to stem battlefield advances in an initiative christened Operation Staunch. US diplomats were instructed to request host nations to ‘consider stopping any traffic in military equipment of whatever origin that may exist between your country and Iran’, until a ceasefire had been agreed in the Gulf. Diplomats should emphasise that the fighting was ‘threatening to all our interests’; it was imperative, the order stated, to ‘diminish Iran’s ability to prolong the war’.94

This measure was also intended to earn the trust of the Iraqis and of Saddam, who remained deeply suspicious of the United States and its motives, even after all these steps had been taken.95 When President Reagan sent his ambassador-at-large, Donald Rumsfeld, to Baghdad at the end of 1983, therefore, one of the latter’s explicit aims was to ‘initiate a dialogue and establish a personal rapport’ with Saddam Hussein. As Rumsfeld’s briefing notes put it, he was to reassure the Iraqi leader that the US ‘would regard any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West’.96 Rumsfeld’s mission was judged to have been a notable success, both by the Americans and by the Iraqis. It was, furthermore, ‘a very good development’ in the opinion of the Saudis, who were equally concerned about Khomeini’s export of Shīimagea Islam across the Middle East.97

So important was the alignment with Iraq that Washington was prepared to play down the use of chemical weapons by Saddam, which, as one report stated, was an ‘almost daily’ occurrence.98 Efforts to deter the Iraqis from this should be made – but in private, so as to ‘avoid unpleasantly surprising Iraq through public positions’.99 It was noted too that criticism of the use of chemical weapons (strictly banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925) would hand a propaganda victory to Iran, and do nothing to calm tensions. The US sought to prevent shipments of chemicals used to manufacture mustard gas, and lobbied hard to put pressure on the Iraqis not to use chemicals on the battlefield – especially after Iran took the matter to the United Nations in October 1983.100

However, even when it became apparent that poison gas had been used against Iran in the course of the Badr offensive of 1985, nothing critical was said in public – other than bland statements that the US itself was strongly opposed to the use of chemical weapons.101 As such, however, it was highly embarrassing that Iraq’s production capability, as one senior American officer pointed out, was ‘primarily [derived] from Western firms, including possibly a US foreign subsidiary’. It did not take much to realise that this raised uncomfortable questions about complicity in Saddam’s acquisition and use of chemical weapons.102

In time, even the low-key public comments and private entreaties to high-ranking Iraqi officials about chemical weapons were dropped. In the mid-1980s, when United Nations reports concluded that Iraq was using chemicals against its own civilians, the US responded with silence. Condemnation of Saddam’s brutal and sustained moves against the Kurdish population of Iraq was conspicuous by its absence. It was simply noted in American military reports that ‘chemical agents’ were being used extensively against civilian targets. Iraq was more important to the United States than the principles of international law – and more important than the victims.103

Similarly, little was said or done to curtail the nuclear programme in Pakistan thanks to the country’s heightened strategic value following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Across the globe, human rights came a distant second behind US interests. The lessons of pre-Revolutionary Iran had not been learnt: the United States certainly did not seek to endorse bad behaviour, but it was inevitable that there was reputational damage and a price to pay for supporting dictators and those prepared to mistreat their own populations or intent on provoking their neighbours.104

A case in point was the help given to insurgents in Afghanistan who opposed the Soviet invasion and who became known collectively in the western press as the ‘Mujahidin’ – literally those engaging in jihad. In fact, they were a motley collection, made up of nationalists, former army officers, religious fanatics, tribal leaders, opportunists and mercenaries. They were also, on occasion, rivals who competed with each other for recruits and for money and weapons, including the thousands of semi-automatic rifles and RPG-7 (rocket-propelled grenade launchers) that were supplied by the CIA from early 1980, mostly via Pakistan.

Despite its organisational incoherence, resistance to the Soviet military juggernaut proved nagging, constant and demoralising. Terrorist attacks became a staple feature of life in major cities and along the Salang highway and the route running south from Uzbekistan to Herat and Kandahar, the main arteries that pumped troops and equipment into Afghanistan from the USSR. Reports sent back to Moscow remarked on the worrying rise in the number of hostile incidents, as well as the difficulty of identifying perpetrators: insurgents had been instructed, one memo stated, to blend in with the local population so they could not be detected.105

The growing success of the Afghan rebels was impressive. In 1983, for example, a raid led by one commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, succeeded in capturing two T-55 tanks, along with hardware that included anti-aircraft guns, rocket launchers and howitzers which he protected in a nest of tunnels near Khost, close to the Pakistani border. They were now used in strikes on convoys passing along exposed highways, providing invaluable propaganda tools that convinced the local population that the nose of the mighty USSR could be bloodied.106

Triumphs like these demoralised Soviet troops, who reacted brutally. Some wrote of the ‘thirst for blood’ and the unquenchable desire for revenge after seeing colleagues and comrades killed and injured. Reprisals were horrific, with children killed, women raped and every civilian suspected of being a Mujahid. This created a vicious circle, in which more and more Afghans were drawn into supporting the rebels.107 It was sobering, as one commentator has written, for Soviet commanders to realise that the sledgehammer of the Red Army was unable to crack the nut of an elusive, uncoordinated enemy.108

The strength of the insurgency impressed the US, for which containing the Soviet expansion in Afghanistan was no longer the objective. By early 1985, talk had turned to defeating the USSR and driving the Soviets out of the country altogether.109 In March, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166 stating that the ‘ultimate goal of [US] policy is the removal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan’; in order to do so, it went on, it was necessary ‘to improve the military effectiveness of the Afghan resistance’.110 What this meant soon became clear: a dramatic escalation in the amount of arms being provided to the insurgents. The decision prompted a lengthy debate about whether this should include Stinger missiles – fearsome portable launchers capable of taking down aircraft at a range of three miles and with a considerably greater accuracy than other weapons then available.111

The beneficiaries of the new policy were men like Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose achievements against the Soviets and whose religious devotion convinced the US Congressman Charlie Wilson – later the subject of the glowing Hollywood blockbuster Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) – to describe him as ‘goodness personified’. Given access to more and better hardware, Jalaluddin was able to build up his own position in southern Afghanistan, his hardline views reinforced by military success made possible by the flood of American weapons after 1985. This did not mean he felt any loyalty to the US. In fact, he was to become a thorn in its side: after 9/11, he was named the third most wanted man in Afghanistan.112

The US supported around fifty such commanders, paying retainers of $20,000–$100,000 per month depending on results and status. There was a surge of money from Saudi Arabia too in support of the Mujahidin, the result of Saudi sympathy for the rhetoric of Islamic militancy employed by the resistance, and a desire to help persecuted Muslims. Men of Saudi extraction who followed their conscience to fight in Afghanistan were highly regarded. Men like Osama bin Laden – well connected, articulate and personally impressive – were perfectly placed to act as conduits for large sums of money given by Saudi benefactors; inevitably, their access to these resources in turn built them into important figures within the Mujahidin movement itself.113 The significance of this too was only to become apparent later.

Chinese support for the resistance also had long-term implications. China had declared its opposition to the Soviet invasion at the outset, seeing an expansionist policy with uncomfortable consequences. The USSR’s move in 1979 was a ‘threat to peace and security in Asia and the whole world’, according to one Chinese daily newspaper at the time; Afghanistan was not the real goal for the Soviets, who intended to use the country simply as a ‘stepping stone for a southward thrust towards Pakistan and the whole subcontinent’.114

Those resisting the Soviet army were also actively courted by Beijing and provided with weapons in volumes that increased steadily in the 1980s. Indeed, when US troops captured Taliban and al-Qaida bases at Tora Bora in 2001, they discovered large stockpiles of Chinese rocket-propelled grenade launchers and multi-barrelled missile launchers, along with mines and rifles that had been sent to Afghanistan two decades earlier. In steps that it too has come to regret, China also encouraged, recruited and trained Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, before helping them make contact with and join the Mujahidin.115 The radicalisation of western China has proved problematic ever since.

Heavy patronage helped the resistance to the Red Army swell, and the Soviets found themselves being ground down and sustaining serious losses of hardware, manpower – and money. In the spring of 1986, an estimated 40,000 tons of ammunition, worth around $250 million, was blown up in an arms dump outside Kabul. Then there was the success of the US Stinger missiles which brought down three MI-24 gunship helicopters near Jalalabad in 1986 and proved so effective that they changed the way air cover was used in Afghanistan: Soviet pilots were forced to modify their landing patterns, while missions were increasingly flown at night, to reduce the chances of being shot down.116

In the mid-1980s, prospects were starting to look rosy from Washington’s point of view. Considerable effort had gone into cultivating Saddam Hussein and building trust with Iraq; the situation in Afghanistan was improving as the Soviet forces were driven on to the defensive – and eventually, by the start of 1989, out of the country altogether. To all intents and purposes, the US had not only managed to see off Moscow’s attempts to extend its influence and authority in the centre of Asia, but had managed to build new networks of its own, adapting as and when it had been forced to do so. It was a shame, one intelligence document written in the spring of 1985 stated, that given ‘Iran’s historic, geostrategic importance’ relations between Washington and Teheran were so poor.117 Indeed, a year earlier, Iran had been officially designated a ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism’, which meant that there was a blanket ban on arms-related exports and sales, strict controls of dual-use technology and equipment, and a raft of financial and economic restrictions.

It was unfortunate indeed, noted another report written around the same time, that the US had ‘no cards to play’ in its dealings with Iran; perhaps it was worth considering a ‘bolder – and perhaps riskier policy’, suggested the author.118 There was much to gain – for both sides. With Khomeini now old and ailing, Washington was keen to identify the next generation of leaders who would rise to positions of power. According to some reports, there was a ‘moderate faction’ in Iranian politics that was eager to reach out to the US and bring about a rapprochement; engaging with these moderates would help build ties that could prove valuable in the future. There were hopes too that Iran could help secure the release of western hostages who had been taken by militant Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon in the early 1980s.119

From the perspective of Iran too there were attractions in a more constructive approach. The developing situation in Afghanistan, where Iranian and American interests dovetailed neatly, was a promising start, a sign that co-operation was not only possible but could be fruitful. Moreover, Iran was keen to move forward to improve relations for other reasons. Not least of these was the more than 2 million refugees who had spilled over the border since 1980. Their influx into the country was not easy to absorb, which meant that the leadership in Teheran was perhaps more willing to cultivate friendships that might reduce volatility across the region.120 Meanwhile, Iran was finding it difficult to source military hardware at a time of continued heavy fighting with Iraq. Despite the tide turning in its favour and despite extensive arms purchases on the black market, securing weapons and spares from the US was more and more appealing.121 Tentative overtures to open channels of communication were made.

Initial meetings were tetchy, difficult and uncomfortable. Determined to win over the Iranians, the Americans presented what was later revealed as being both ‘real and deceptive intelligence’ about Soviet intentions towards Iran, focusing above all on the USSR’s putative territorial designs on parts of the country in an effort to impress on Iran that aligning with the US had obvious benefits.122 As discussions progressed, however, so too did the information flow about matters that were of particular interest to the United States – such as about the combat-worthiness of Soviet equipment. The Americans always followed such matters attentively, and indeed paid $5,000 to acquire an AK-74 assault rifle captured in Afghanistan soon after it had been introduced by the Soviet army.123 The Americans listened closely to Afghan fighters in assessing the merits, limitations and vulnerabilities of the T-72 tank and the MI-24 ‘Krokodil’ assault helicopter; they learnt of the extensive use of napalm and other poison gases by the Soviets; and they also heard how the Spetsnaz special forces in operation across the country were singularly effective, probably as a result of the better training they received compared with regular Red Army soldiers.124 This provided a valuable primer two decades later.

There was a natural elision of interests between Iran and the US. The statements by Iranian negotiators that ‘Soviet ideology is directly opposed to Iran’s’ paralleled American attitudes towards Communism, which could be expressed equally emphatically. That the USSR was giving substantial military support to Iraq at this time was also crucial. ‘The Soviets’, one senior figure said during the discussions, ‘are killing Iranian soldiers.’125 In the space of a few short years, Iran and the US may not have gone from being the worst of enemies to the best of friends, but they were increasingly willing to put differences behind them and work towards a common goal. This attempt to plot a path through the middle of the rivalries between great powers was classic policy that would have been instantly recognisable to previous generations of Iranian diplomats and leaders.

Keen to cement the relationship, the US began shipping weapons to Iran in contravention of its own embargo and despite pressuring foreign governments not to sell arms to Teheran. Some were opposed to this development, including Secretary of State George Shultz, who remarked that the initiative might lead to an Iranian victory, and ‘a fresh burst of energy for anti-Americanism throughout the region’.126 There were others who were already arguing that it served US interests for Iran and Iraq to exhaust each other. Richard Murphy, one of Shultz’s deputies, stated at congressional hearings the previous year that ‘a victory by either [Iran or Iraq] is neither militarily achievable nor strategically desirable’ – sentiments that were echoed in comments by senior White House officials.127

The first consignment of 100 tube-launched, optical-tracked, wire-guided missile systems (TOWs) was sent in the summer of 1985. The arms were shipped via an intermediary eager to build up links with Teheran: Israel.128 The amicable relationship seems surprising from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century when Iranian leaders routinely call for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’. But in the mid-1980s ties were so close that the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was able to declare: ‘Israel is Iran’s best friend, and we do not intend to change our position.’129

Israel’s willingness to participate in the US arms programme owed much to its desire to keep Iraq in a position where it was forced to focus its attention firmly on its eastern neighbour – rather than contemplate action elsewhere. Nevertheless, there were considerable sensitivities relating to the arrangement with Iran. The US proposal involved Israel shipping American ordnance and equipment to Teheran, before being compensated by Washington. As a result, the Israeli government asked for – and received – confirmation that the scheme had been cleared at the highest level in the United States. In fact, it had the direct and personal approval of President Reagan himself.130

Between the summer of 1985 and the autumn of 1986, Iran received several major shipments from the US, including more than 2,000 TOW missiles, eighteen Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and two consignments of spares for the Hawk systems.131 Not all were delivered through Israel, for it was not long before deliveries were made directly, though in the process the waters were muddied still further when the proceeds of the sales were used to provide funds for the Contras in Nicaragua. Ever since the Cuban missile crisis Washington had been spooked by the threat of Communism on the United States’ doorstep and was keen to fund dynamic groups capable of acting as effective bulwarks against left-wing rhetoric and politics – and would pass over their shortcomings in silence. The Contras, who were in fact a loose grouping of rebels often locked in fierce conflict with each other, were a major beneficiary of American anti-Communist doctrine – and foreign policy blindness. In a mirror image of how US private and public actions differed in the Middle East, aid was being passed to opposition forces in Central America despite legislation that specifically forbade the US government from doing so.132

Matters came to a head at the end of 1986, when a series of leaks revealed what had been going on. The scandal threatened to bring down the President. On 13 November, President Reagan took to the airwaves to make a primetime nationwide address about ‘an extremely sensitive and profoundly important matter of foreign policy’. It was a make-or-break moment, which required all his considerable charm to pull off. The President wanted to avoid apologising or sounding defensive; what was needed was an explanation. His comments encapsulated perfectly the significance of the countries of this region – and of America’s need to have influence at all costs.

‘Iran’, he told transfixed viewers, ‘encompasses some of the most critical geography in the world. It lies between the Soviet Union and access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Geography explains why the Soviet Union has sent an army into Afghanistan to dominate that country and, if they could, Iran and Pakistan. Iran’s geography gives it a critical position from which adversaries could interfere with oil flows from the Arab States that border the Persian Gulf. Apart from geography, Iran’s oil deposits are important to the long-term health of the world’s economy.’ This justified ‘the transfer of small amounts of defensive weapons and spare parts’, he said. Without specifying precisely what had been sent to Teheran, he stated that ‘these modest deliveries, taken together, could easily fit into a single cargo plane’. All he had been trying to do was to bring about ‘an honourable end to the bloody six-year war’ between Iran and Iraq, ‘to eliminate state-sponsored terrorism’ and ‘to effect the safe return of all hostages’.133

This performance did little to avert spectacular fall-out in Washington as it became known that the US had been selling arms to Iran in what looked like a direct trade for the return of American hostages. Things became even more toxic when it emerged that those closely involved with the Iran–Contra initiative had been shredding documents that bore witness to covert and illegal actions being authorised by the President himself. Reagan appeared before a commission appointed to look into the affair, where he pleaded that his memory was not good enough to recall whether or not he had authorised the arms sales to Iran. In March 1987, he made another televised address, this time to express his anger about ‘activities undertaken without my knowledge’ – a statement that played fast and loose with the truth, as Reagan himself now noted. ‘A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me otherwise.’134

These embarrassing revelations had consequences that ran deep through the Reagan administration, where a slate of senior figures were subsequently indicted on charges ranging from conspiracy to perjury to withholding evidence. They included Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense; Robert McFarlane, National Security Advisor, as well as his successor, John Poindexter; Elliott Abrams, Assistant Secretary of Defense; and a host of senior CIA officers, including Clair George, Deputy Director of Operations. The illustrious roll-call showed how far the US had been prepared to go in order to secure its position in the heart of the world.135

So too did the fact that the charges turned out to be nothing more than window-dressing: all the leading figures later received presidential pardons from President George H. W. Bush, or had their convictions overturned on Christmas Eve 1992. ‘The common denominator of their motivations – whether their actions were right or wrong –’, read the citation, ‘was patriotism.’ The impact on their personal finances, careers and families, the President went on, was ‘grossly disproportionate to any misdeeds or errors of judgment they may have committed’.136 Several of those pardoned had already been convicted on charges ranging from perjury to withholding information from Congress, while Weinberger’s trial had been due to start two weeks later. It was a classic case of justice being elastic, and of the ends justifying the means. The ramifications went far beyond the Washington Beltway.

Saddam Hussein was apoplectic when news broke about US dealings with Iran – at a time when Iraq believed it was being supported by Washington against its neighbour and bitter rival. In a series of meetings held immediately after Reagan’s first televised address in November 1986 to discuss what the President had said, Saddam ranted about how the arms sales represented a disgraceful ‘stab in the back’ and how the behaviour of the United States set a new low for ‘bad and immoral behaviour’.137 The US was determined to ‘shed more [Iraqi] blood’, he concluded, as others agreed that only the tip of the iceberg had been uncovered. It was inevitable, commented one senior figure a few weeks later, that the US would continue to conspire against Iraq; this was typical of imperialist powers, concurred Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.138 The anger and sense of betrayal were tangible. ‘Don’t trust the Americans – the Americans are liars – don’t trust the Americans,’ one voice can be heard imploring on audio tapes recovered from Baghdad more than twenty years later.139

The Irangate scandal cost jobs in Washington, but it played a decisive role in the development of a siege mentality in Iraq in the mid-1980s. Let down by the US, Saddam and his officials now saw conspiracies everywhere. The Iraqi leader started talking about fifth columnists and cutting their throats if he found them; other Arab countries whose relations with Iran or the US seemed too close for comfort were suddenly regarded with deep suspicion. As a later high-level US report concluded, Saddam became convinced after Irangate that ‘Washington could not be trusted and that it was out to get him personally’.140

The belief that the US was willing to double-deal and double-cross was hardly unfounded. The Americans had been prepared to make friends with the Shah; now they were trying to cement ties with the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Substantial military and economic support was given to an unsavoury group of characters in Afghanistan solely on the basis of long-standing US rivalry with the USSR. Saddam himself had been brought in from the cold when it suited policymakers in Washington – but then sacrificed when it no longer suited them. Putting American interests first was not in itself the problem; the issue was that conducting imperial-style foreign policy requires a more careful touch – as well as more thorough thinking about the long-term consequences. In each case, in the late twentieth-century struggle for control of the countries of the Silk Roads, the US was cutting deals and making agreements on the hoof, solving today’s problems without worrying about tomorrow’s – and in some cases laying the basis for much more difficult issues. The goal of driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan had been achieved; but little thought had been given to what might happen next.

The stark reality of the world that the US had created was all too obvious in Iraq in the late 1980s and 1990. Embarrassed American officials did their best after the debacle of Irangate to ‘regain credibility with the Arab states’, as the Secretary of Defense put it.141 In the case of Iraq, this meant awarding extraordinarily large credit facilities, developing initiatives to build up trade – which included loosening restrictions on dual-use and other hi-tech exports – and funding Iraq’s stuttering agricultural sector. These were all steps taken to try to rebuild trust with Saddam.142 In fact, they were understood quite differently in Baghdad: although the Iraqi leader accepted the deals he was offered, he thought this was part of another trap – perhaps a prelude to a military attack, perhaps part of an attempt to ratchet pressure upwards at a time when settling debts built up during the Iran–Iraq War was becoming a problem.

The Iraqis, declared the US ambassador to Baghdad, were ‘quite convinced that the United States . . . was targeting Iraq. They complained about it all the time . . . And I think it was genuinely believed by Saddam Hussein.’143 At the end of 1989, rumours began to spread through the Iraqi leadership that the US was plotting a coup against Saddam Hussein. Tariq Aziz told the US Secretary of State, James Baker, point-blank that Iraq had evidence that the US was scheming to overthrow Saddam.144 The siege mentality had developed into paranoia so acute that, no matter what step the Americans took, it was liable to be misinterpreted.

It was not hard to understand Iraq’s misgivings – especially when loan guarantees that had been promised by Washington were abruptly cancelled in July 1990 after White House attempts to funnel financial support to Baghdad had been derailed by Congress. Worse, in addition to withdrawing $700 million of funding, sanctions were imposed as punishment for Iraq’s past use of poison gas. From Saddam’s point of view, this was a case of history repeating itself: the US promising one thing and then doing another – and doing so in an underhand way.145

By this time, Iraqi forces were gathering in the south of the country. ‘Normally this would be none of our business,’ said the US ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, when she met with Saddam Hussein on 25 July 1990. In what is one of the most damning documents of the late twentieth century, a leaked transcript of the US ambassador’s meeting with the Iraqi leader reveals that she told Saddam she had ‘direct instructions from President Bush to improve our relations with Iraq’, noting with admiration Saddam’s ‘extraordinary efforts to rebuild your country’. Nevertheless, Glaspie told the Iraqi leader, ‘We know you need funds.’

Iraq was going through difficult times, admitted Saddam, who was ‘cordial, reasonable and even warm during the meeting’, according to a separate memorandum that has also subsequently been made public.146 Angular gas drilling, long-standing border disputes and the depressed price of oil all presented problems for the economy, he said – as did debts run up in the war with Iran. There was one potential solution, he said. Taking control of the Shaimageimage al-imageArab waterway, a region over which Iraq was involved in a long-running dispute with Kuwait, would help resolve some of the current problems. ‘What is the United States’ opinion on this?’ he asked.

‘We have no opinion on your Arab–Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait,’ replied the ambassador. She went on to clarify what this meant: ‘Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960’s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.’147 Saddam had asked for a green light from the US, and he had been given one. The following week, he invaded Kuwait.

The consequences proved catastrophic. Over the course of the next three decades, global affairs would be dominated by events in countries running across the spine of Asia. The struggle for control and influence in these countries produced wars, insurrections and international terrorism – but also opportunities and prospects, not just in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in a belt of countries stretching east from the Black Sea, from Syria to Ukraine, Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, and from Russia to China too. The story of the world has always been centred on these countries. But since the time of the invasion of Kuwait, everything has been about the emergence of the New Silk Road.