Part 1 -
Part 2 -
Part 3 - Part 4
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Part6 - The 1980s—Double-Dealing, Double-Crossing, and Fueling the Gulf
For over 100 years, the domination of Iran has been deeply woven into
the fabric of global imperialism, enforced through covert intrigues,
economic bullying, military assaults, and invasions. This history
provides the backdrop for U.S. hostility toward Iran today—including the
real threat of war. Part 1 of this series explored the rivalry between
European imperialists up through World War 1 over which one would
control Iran and its oil. Part 2 exposed the U.S.’s 1953 overthrow of
Mohammed Mossadegh’s secular, nationalist government in order to restore
a tyrannical client, the Shah. Parts 3 and 4 examined the impact of 25
years of U.S. domination via the Shah, and how it paved the way for the
1979 revolution. Part 5 explored the 1979 revolution and the U.S.
response, including how both fueled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
Part 6 exposes the imperialist logic, cynicism—and necessities—behind
Ronald Reagan’s 1985-86 “arms-for-hostages” gambit to Iran.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan sent a personally inscribed Bible and a
key-shaped chocolate cake—along with offers of millions in military
hardware and a new strategic relationship—as a gesture of goodwill to
Iran’s Islamic Republic, then led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Some 16 years
later, in 2002, President George W. Bush condemned Iran as part of an “axis-of-evil,”
and has since targeted Iran, openly threatened it with a military attack,
and refuses to normalize relations.
This seemingly dramatic shift is the product of dramatic global changes
and therefore different opportunities and necessities confronting U.S.
imperialism in the years between Reagan’s offer and Bush’s threats.
But there is also continuity here. The shift from Reagan to Bush may
seem stark, but both were attempting, in different circumstances and
with different tactics, to advance U.S. imperialist interests—including
strengthening U.S. domination over Iran and the whole region.
The U.S. offer of military aid to Iran was in the midst of the bloody
1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. This war was launched by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein,
with a bright green light from the Carter administration. The Islamic
Republic had just taken power in Iran following the 1979 revolution
overthrowing a hated American puppet—the Shah. The White House
calculated that Iraq’s attack would weaken the new Republic, prevent it
from threatening U.S. clients in the Persian Gulf, and force it to
release the U.S. personnel that were being held at the U.S. embassy.
Reagan’s offer didn't come about because the U.S. imperialists had come
to like or accept Iran’s new rulers. Far from it. The U.S. was stung by
the Shah’s fall and saw the new Khomeini regime as an impediment to U.S.
political, military, and economic control of Iran. And the U.S. was
increasingly concerned about Iran’s efforts to promote anti-U.S.
Islamist currents and play a larger role in the Middle East—such as in
1982 dispatching 1,500 Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon during its war
with Israel to help found the armed group Hezbollah. In 1984, the U.S.
put Iran on its list of countries supporting “terrorism.”
Fears of Soviet Coup in a “Geopolitical Pivot”
However, by 1985, the U.S. had an even bigger worry: that the Soviet
Union could score a major geopolitical coup in the struggle for power in
Iran after Ayatollah Khomeini (then in his 80s), died.
After the end of World War 2—and especially since the 1960s—U.S. actions
in the Middle East were primarily shaped by its global rivalry with the
Soviet Union, an imperialist power with a “communist” cover. This
contention, including in Iran, had placed major constraints on what the
U.S. could and couldn’t do. For instance, one reason the U.S. hadn’t
directly or massively intervened militarily in the region was the fear
that the Soviets would come to the aid of the targeted country and gain
a new beachhead. And there was also the possibility that such a
confrontation could spiral toward nuclear war.
As a result, during the 1980s, while the U.S. stepped up its military
presence in the Persian Gulf, it was still forced to work through
regional states—like Iraq—that it often despised and distrusted.
Sometimes the U.S. was reduced to trying to play one side off against
the other or use unreliable regional states as proxies. The Iran-Iraq
War was a case in point, illustrating both the cynical depravity of
America’s ruling imperialists—but also their limited options.
Domination of the Middle East—for both its vast energy resources and its
strategically central location—had been a pillar of U.S. global power
and the functioning of U.S. capitalism since the end of World War 2.
What made the prospect of Soviet gains so threatening was that Iran is
what Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski called a
“geopolitical pivot”—a country whose fate can shape global geopolitics.
Iran is large—four times the size of Iraq. It is strategically located—dominating
the Persian Gulf geographically with 1,000 miles of coastline, bordering
the energy-rich Caspian Sea, standing between the Soviet Union and the
oil fields of the Middle East, and linking the Middle East and Central
Asia. And it has the world’s second or third greatest oil reserves.
A June 1985 draft National Security Directive worried: “Soviet success
in taking advantage of the emerging power struggle to insinuate itself
in Iran would change the strategic balance in the area.” A debate ensued
in the Reagan administration, and ultimately those pushing for
attempting to open a strategic dialogue with Iran’s leaders prevailed.
National Security Advisor Adm. John Poindexter wrote, “We have an
opportunity here that we should not miss…if it doesn’t work, all we’ve
lost is a little intelligence and 1,000 TOW missiles. And if it does
work, then maybe we change a lot of things in the Mideast.”
The U.S. sent several high-level missions to Iran to attempt to work out
a deal. Beginning in the fall of 1985, the U.S. began secretly shipping
TOW anti-tank missiles, Hawk missile parts, and Hawk radars to Iran,
first via Israel and, beginning in early 1986, directly to Tehran. The
immediate goal was the release of U.S. personnel held by Islamists in
Lebanon. But the broader objective was building links and gaining
leverage with Iran’s rulers and heading off any Soviet efforts to do
What U.S. Imperialists & Iranian Theocrats Have in Common
Reagan’s offer of “arms-for-hostages” also reflected an appreciation by
the U.S. rulers of what the imperialists had in common with Iran’s
theocrats. For all its anti-U.S. posturing, the Islamic Republic’s
program was never about breaking free of the imperialist-dominated world
order. Iran’s clerics explicitly upheld capitalism and private property.
Iran’s economy was still geared to producing oil for the world market
(80 percent of its government revenue still comes from oil sales), and
it still relied on various technological and marketing agreements with
global multinationals to do so. Iran welcomed foreign investment. Iran’s
clerics preserved (and in many ways strengthened) the traditional class
and social relations which were the internal basis of imperialism’s
dominance. And they butchered those in Iran—communists, leftists,
revolutionary intellectuals, and democrats—who were part of the struggle
against U.S. domination of Iran.
Of course, for Reagan and his officials, cutting a deal never meant
treating Iran with mutual respect and equality. The point was to
incorporate and subordinate Iran in a U.S.-dominated order—through a mix
of inducements, threats, and bloody double-dealing. The goal remained,
as The New York Times put it in 1984, “that both [Iran and Iraq] should
lose” and that their “mutual exhaustion” would further U.S. interests in
the region. So in true Mafia godfather fashion, as Reagan was
dispatching envoys, gifts, and arms to Iran, his team had also set up a
secret intelligence link with Iraq, giving it near real-time battlefield
intelligence to use against Iran. And Reagan himself sent Saddam a
secret message urging him to step up the bombing of Iran.
In the fall of 1986, the U.S.’s Iran initiative collapsed (for a number
of reasons, including deep distrust between the two governments and
divisions among the U.S. rulers) after the arms-for-hostages arrangement
was revealed by a Lebanese magazine. This, plus growing fears that Iran
might defeat Iraq, led the U.S. to tilt decisively back to Iraq. It
stepped up military and intelligence aid and increased its direct naval
presence in the Gulf. On July 2, 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot
down an unarmed Iranian passenger jet—killing all 290 onboard. The U.S.
claimed it was an accident, but the Iranian leadership apparently read
it as a not-so-veiled threat: “halt the war or face further American
attacks.” On July 18, just 16 days later, Khomeini accepted a UN cease-fire
By that time, thanks in large part to U.S. encouragement for and direct
aid in the mutual slaughter, an estimated 367,000 to 262,000 Iranians
and 105,000 Iraqis had been killed, and 700,000 were injured or wounded
on both sides.
Larry Everest, Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda,
Chapter 4--“Arming Iraq, Double-Dealing Death in the Gulf”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard—American Primacy and Its
Geostrategic Imperatives, p. 41