The Shah's Persia vs. Saddam Hussain's Iraq: US-USSR Revelry in Middle East

  September 12, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Shah's Persia vs. Saddam Hussain's Iraq: US-USSR Revelry in Middle East
In 1973 the shah considerably increased the stakes in his competition with the Iraqis by persuading Nixon that the Ba’thists were, in his words, a Trojan horse whereby the Russians would gain access to the warm waters of the Gulf. 

Nixon, won over to this argument, entered into what we may reasonably describe as a conspiracy against the Ba’thists. He agreed to support a scheme whereby the shah would incite a rebellion of the ever restless Kurds. The Kurds’ leader at that time, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, was easily persuaded to go along, once he knew the Americans were involved. Thus was reignited one of the longest, bloodiest revolts in Middle East history.

The shah’s arguments to Nixon received additional support from the Israelis, who drew from their private stores of American-supplied weapons to arm the rebels—for which Washington reimbursed them something like $16 million. The operation made sense to the Israelis, who perceived the Aryan Kurds to be natural enemies of the Jews’ enemies, the Arab Iraqis.

As the shah made his case to Nixon, funding the Kurds would not be expensive. The guerrillas adapted easily to difficult conditions, the shah claimed, and needed but a modest provision of weapons, really only small arms. Indeed, in the shah’s view, the rugged terrain of Kurdistan would nullify whatever advantage the Ba’thists might possess in sophisticated weaponry; the Ba’thists, being plains dwellers, would not have the stomach for mountain fighting.

In this case, however, the Ba’thists proved extremely resolute, committing enormous resources to the struggle against the guerrillas. By 1975 some Iraqi units were clashing directly with paramilitary forces from the shah’s army, infiltrated into Iraq to help the rebels. It was becoming obvious that unless the situation of the Kurds improved radically, the shah was going to have to scrap his aid to the rebels or to provide direct aid in the form of Iranian reinforcements to keep the rebellion going.

At this juncture both the shah and Iraq’s strongman, Saddam Husayn, drew back. They agreed at a meeting of OPEC nations, held at Algiers in March 1975, to declare a truce. Under the terms of their Accord the shah agreed to close his border to the Kurds, which effectively killed the revolt; it collapsed within a fortnight. Saddam in return agreed to surrender Iraq’s claim to sovereignty over the entire Shatt al Arab. Henceforth the waterway would be apportioned to both Iran and Iraq by means of a line drawn down the middle.

The Algiers Accord was one of the more astonishing agreements of recent times. Few expected that the shah and Saddam, widely regarded as absolutely antipathetic toward each other, would make peace. What appears to have happened is that both sides were influenced by the 1973 Arab oil embargo. The embargo caused world oil prices to skyrocket, and this induced them to rethink their priorities. They saw it to be in their interest to sell oil, as much oil as possible, as fast as possible. Under the circumstances, the Kurdish revolt became a hindrance to their commercial activities.

With the Kurdish revolt extinguished, the Gulf—for the first time since the late 1950s—was reasonably stable. But the peace was in a very real sense poisoned. The Ba’thists were basically unhappy with the agreement, feeling they had been coerced into signing the pact by the shah, the CIA, and the Israelis. They had been forced, as they viewed the matter, to surrender their precious rights in the Shatt al Arab, their principal outlet to the Gulf.

Thus the Iraqis were ill disposed to respect the accord. In fact it seems that they would abide by it only until they had sufficiently built up their strength, whereupon they would reclaim what they perceived to be their unjustly forfeited rights. As it happened, the Ba’thists were provoked to reopen the matter of the Shatt more quickly than anyone imagined by an astonishing development in Iran.