a look back at israel’s arms sales to khomeini before ‘iran-contra’

The scale of Israeli military shipments to Iran in the early 1980s, well before the US-Israeli intrigue known as “Iran-Contra” got under way, was very large. In Mar 1982 the NYT cited documents suggesting that Israel had supplied half or more of Iran’s arms supplies since the Iran-Iraq war had started (in Sep 1980), amounting to at least $100m in sales. Other experts on the international arms market put the figure much higher, at $500m/yr in sales. So far as the Israelis were concerned, there were excellent reasons, both strategic and commercial, to sustain the Iranians, even though the Khomeini regime publicly abhorred the Zionist state and called for the liberation of Jerusalem. Ever since the inauguration of the “peripheral” strategy, Israel had seen Iran as an indispensable counterweight to Iraq. As Defense Minister Sharon said in May 1982:

Iraq is Israel’s enemy, and we hope that diplomatic relations between us and Iran will be renewed, as in the past.

Senior Israelis, in fact, made explicit reference, on occasion, to the fact that they were selling arms to Iran, but with US permission. Ariel Sharon said so in May 1982, though his assertion was promptly denied by the State Dept. Israeli ambassador to the US Moshe Arens repeated the claim the following October. Maj-Gen Avraham Tamir, national security advisor to the minister of defense in 1981, told us in 1989:

The US was always thinking about the Soviet Union. We didn’t worry about them, but the US thought they were going to intervene with troops. That began with Carter; he started to build the infrastructure for intervention in the Gulf. He had the Rapid Deployment Force, with bases on Diego Garcia, in Oman, in Egypt, in Kenya. After the Iranian revolution, the US thought they had to save Iran from the Soviets. They had all these scenarios. If the Soviets intervened in Iran the US were going to seize ports in the Gulf, then invade Iran themselves, then partition Iran. They were worrying about Saudi Arabia, about the Soviets intervening in Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan. They saw the Soviets all over the Middle East, in Turkey, in Lebanon. There were arrows all over the maps. Academic people like to draw arrows on maps.

The supremely vital interests of Saudi Arabia and the oil fields were deemed to be menaced by the Soviets and there was a role for the Israelis in US strategy. At the end of 1981 the US and Israel agreed to the prepositioning of US military supplies in Israel. The agreement was hailed by Sharon as a triumph, but Tamir understood very well, even if his master did not, that the US had other interests in mind, and that Israel occupied a useful but limited role in the US scheme of things:

Sharon thought he was going to be the strategic ally for the US in this. We had strategic dialogue talks, here and in the US. I was the head of the Israeli delegation, but I said to Sharon, ‘The US is not being nice to you because of your blue eyes.’ Sharon didn’t understand that the whole US policy was to draw the Arabs to the West.

There was one important area in which the US did have a role for Israel. Tamir, one of the very few men who knows what happened, spelled it out for us:

The US needed us to save Iran.

That meant arming the Iranians. Tamir was unequivocal who gave the clearance:

Haig [Reagan’s Sec State] gave us permission.

Tamir explained that the US wanted to approve the type of armaments being sent to Iran, though the “controlling system,” as he called it, does not appear to have been overly intrusive:

They approved everything we sent: spare parts for airplanes, antitank missiles, and ammunition for the artillery. Israel was a US proxy.

Tamir insisted that the Israeli shipments on their own did not, in fact, save Iran:

The Soviets sold trucks; they got supplies from North Korea and China.

That is indeed true, but Israel’s contributions to the Iranian war effort were enormous nonetheless. One interesting reflection of the military significance of the traffic is the fact that, according to Israeli reports, Saddam Hussein offered to recognise Israel at one point during the war if it would only cease its support for Iran. In Nov 1986, Boaz Ephron, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, the largest newspaper in the country, reflected on the implications of the eventual “Iran-Contra” revelations:

Since countries want to have things done which a gentleman would not touch, they turn to one who gives services, who is prepared to serve his master and dance for him; he is not only willing to fulfill any wishes, but also enjoys the fact that he is serving and is proud of it. He even makes an ideology out of his servitude and calls it ‘realpolitik’. Moreover, as befitting a corrupt servant, he even drags his master into dirty adventures, like a pimp winking at a hesitant client in order to tempt him. Yes, the famous lobby will get us out of this mess as well, but we shall remain dirty. Of course, we shall be used again, but we shall find ourselves more often standing at the servants’ entrance and less in the living room, and the day will come when it will be a shame to have us seen even at the servants’ entrance. Then the meetings shall be held in the small hours of the night in some small pub near the port while in the nearby water the bodies of servants whose services are no longer required float by.

– A & L Cockburn, “Dangerous Liaison” (1992) pp 319-323, 344-5


  1. Al
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    This Cockburn article assumes that the Reagan administration was – with the lone exception of Alexander Haig – packed with American patriots.

  2. niqnaq
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    It’s not an article, it’s a painstakingly constructed set of extracts from a book (by Andrew & Leslie Cockburn) , and I don’t think ‘patriots’ is quite the right word, but I would settle for ‘imperial USAian megalomaniacs’. And it is not saying Haig was doing anything disloyal, or behind the back of Reagan, at all, it is saying this was a regional imperial strategy, the idea being to scare all the Arab rulers into the USAian corner. The book does not just assume that Israel is a pawn of the USA, it states so quite explicitly and attempts to prove it. In fact it makes fun of people who think Israel owns the US and not the other way round, of whom there are quite a few in the mid-east.

  3. Ken Hoop
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Riddle me this Rowan:

    If Israel doesn’t control the US, then why is the Fed Chairman’s middle name “Shalom?”

  4. niqnaq
    Posted April 16, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    Jews are put conspicuously in charge of things which are obviously fraudulent in order to mislead the mases

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