Superpowers and the War

  December 15, 2021   Read time 3 min
Superpowers and the War
Unable to intervene militarily to resolve the hostage crisis, U.S. policy-makers could not but welcome Iraq’s resort to armed confrontation, especially since this would—the U.S. leaders hoped—drive home to Tehran its dependence on Washington for military supplies.

Indeed, the Iranians did try to bargain with the Americans, promising freedom for the hostages in return for replenishment of spare parts; but the Carter administration found the Iranians’ terms unacceptable, and— beyond a few rudimentary contacts—the United States generally kept out of the war in this initial phase.

The situation of the Soviet Union was much different. As Iraq’s largest supplier of weapons, Moscow had the capability to seriously jeopardize Iraq’s war strategy, if it chose; and, initially, the Soviet Union did so choose. Moscow’s surprise at the outbreak of hostilities translated into an obdurate refusal to do anything to aid Iraq, with which it had a friendship treaty. The Soviets imposed an arms embargo on the belligerents, an action that mainly harmed Iraq; Iran was not looking to the Soviets for supplies for its forces, whose weapons originally had been supplied by the United States.

Moscow’s cutoff of weapons was swift, resolute, and brutal—Soviet ships loaded with arms for Iraq turned back in midjourney. There seems to have been some thought initially to allow arms already in the pipeline to pass through but to make no new deals. In November 1980, however, Brezhnev abruptly ordered all weapons transfers to Iraq ended. The loss of Soviet weapons immediately constrained the Iraqi war effort, causing shortfalls in a number of key areas—mainly artillery ammunition, bombs, and spare parts. Moreover, there is evidence that the Iraqis had planned badly going into the war and were lacking in other areas, such as lubricants for ammunition and medical supplies. The combination of an end to all military supplies from Moscow and already existing shortages posed a serious threat to the overall success of Iraq’s campaign. Had the war lasted only two weeks, as originally planned, the Soviet shutoff would not have made a great difference. But once the war went into winter, the shortage of parts and resupply became a serious concern.

At the same time the Soviets appear to have made overtures to the Iranians for closer cooperation. Soviet Minister Vladimir Vinogradav met with Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajai and Parliament Speaker Rafsanjani in October 1980, and discussed a possible amelioration of relations.Ties between the superpower and its southern neighbor were strained at this time, however, because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Iranians rebuffed Vinogradav. Nonetheless, the Soviets persisted in seeking to cajole the regime. The Soviets badly wanted to exploit the windfall presented by the shah’s overthrow, which had taken Iran out of the Western camp. At the same time they wanted to preserve ties to the Iraqis.

It was perhaps the Soviets’ inability to overcome Iran’s hostility to the Afghanistan invasion that led them to relax their arms cutoff against Iraq. By the spring of 1981 Moscow had agreed to let weapons already in the pipeline flow through. Between the spring of 1981 and the spring of 1982, the Soviets delivered $1 billion worth of weapons, including MIG-23 fighters, T-72 tanks, surface-to-air missiles, and, for the first time, MIG-25s. At the same time, Moscow’s reversal did not come quickly enough to offset the disastrous losses the Iraqis had suffered. It could be argued, however, that the Iraqis’ decision to pull back to the international border was conditioned by awareness that they would ultimately be resupplied, and therefore it was better to dig in to await reprovisioning.

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