President Barack Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke past each other in a recent exchange partly because both countries nurse historical grievances against the other and neither has fully acknowledged that mutual history dating back three decades.
For instance, in responding to Obama’s Persian New Year message, Khamenei appeared to reference a top-secret U.S. document in which President Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, described being told by Middle East allies in 1981 that President Jimmy Carter had given a “green light” to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in September 1980.
That “Talking Points” document, which Haig used to brief Reagan, was first revealed at Consortiumnews.com in 1996 after I discovered it among documents left behind by a House task force that had investigated allegations that Reagan’s 1980 campaign contacted Iranian officials behind Carter’s back, the so-called “October Surprise” scandal.
From those early contacts, Reagan’s administration then secretly sanctioned arms shipments to Iran via Israel, a pattern that later merged into the Iran-Contra Affair, according to evidence that has emerged from several investigations of these linked scandals.
After returning from his first Middle East trip in April 1981, Haig wrote in his “Talking Points” that he was impressed with “bits of useful intelligence” that he had learned.
“Both [Egypt’s Anwar] Sadat and [Saudi then-Prince] Fahd [explained that] Iran is receiving military spares for U.S. equipment from Israel,” Haig noted. “It was also interesting to confirm that President Carter gave the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through Fahd.”
When I contacted Haig after discovering his “Talking Points,” he refused to comment. Carter declined my request for an interview, but he had dismissed earlier reports about him encouraging Hussein’s attack against Iran.
The Iran-Iraq War started on Sept. 22, 1980, during a bitter standoff between the United States and Iran over Iran’s holding of 52 U.S. hostages, a crisis that doomed Carter’s re-election hopes.
At the time of the Iraq invasion, President Carter termed Iranian charges of U.S. complicity "patently false." In his memoir, Keeping Faith, he mentioned the Iranian allegation only obliquely in the context of mentioning the start of the war, writing: “Typically, the Iranians accused me of planning and supporting the invasion."
The issue of Carter’s alleged “green light” resurfaced on March 21 as Khamenei reacted to Obama’s message a day earlier. In a speech in Mashhad, Iran, Khamenei ticked off a list of Iranian complaints about U.S. policy since the Islamic revolution toppled the American-backed Shah of Iran in February 1979.
“Since the very beginning, the U.S. government has treated our revolution angrily and their tone has always been aggressive,” Khamenei said, according to a translation at his Web site. “The U.S. government - both Republican and Democratic presidents - treated the Islamic Republic unfairly.”
Khamenei traced the origins of this hostility to the Carter administration and its alleged encouragement of the Iraq invasion.
“They gave Saddam the green light to attack our country,” Khamenei said. “If Saddam had not received the green light from the U.S., most probably he would not have attacked our borders. An eight-year war was imposed on our country, during which about 300,000 Iranian civilians and youth were martyred.”
Khamenei also addressed another element of America’s “lost history” from that era, the so-called “Iraqgate” scandal in which the Reagan administration secretly assisted Saddam Hussein’s army as it held off the numerically superior Iranian forces.
The Reagan administration was covertly backing both sides in the war as first the Iraqis and then the Iranians had the upper hand. Like the October Surprise case, however, congressional and federal investigators shied away from any full examination of Iraqgate.
Still, that secret U.S. aid to Iraq remains a sore point for the Iranians.
“Throughout the war, especially in the last few years, Americans supported and helped Saddam,” Khamenei said. “They provided him with financial support, weapons, technical information, political assistance, satellite intelligence and media support.
“They used to use their satellites to record the activities of our forces at the front. Then they used to send the information to Saddam to use ... against our youth and forces. They turned a blind eye to Saddam's crimes. ...
“Chemical weapons were used in the front line against us. ... They [the Americans] did not raise any objections. Instead, they helped Saddam. That was another measure taken by the U.S. government against our nation.”
However, Iranian leaders have their own hidden history, particularly their secret collaboration with Israeli operatives and Reagan’s team during 1980 and later. Even today, the fact that senior ayatollahs struck covert deals with representatives of what were called the Little Satan and the Great Satan, respectively, is politically sensitive and possibly personally dangerous.
Though some Iranian officials outside Iran dared speak of these contacts – the likes of former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, ex-Defense Minister Ahmad Madani and acting Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh – key officials inside Iran denied the contacts or remained silent.
So, for instance, Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, an alleged Iranian intermediary to Reagan’s representatives and the Israelis but who remains an important political figure in Tehran, denied to me that he had any involvement in the 1980 contacts. [Ghotbzadeh was executed by the Iranian government in 1982; Madani died in 2006 in Colorado; Bani-Sadr lives outside Paris.]
In his March 21 speech, Khamenei also avoided mentioning the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, and the taking of 52 American hostages who were held captive for 444 days and not released until Jimmy Carter relinquished the presidency to Ronald Reagan on Jan. 20, 1981.
For his part, President Obama’s message on March 20 referred only generally to the troubled past between the United States and Iran.
“For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained,” Obama said in a Nowruz – or New Year – message to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Though the reference to the “Islamic Republic” and to its leaders marked a break with the more hostile tone of President George W. Bush, Obama continued to lay most of the blame for the “strained” relations on Iran with references to its alleged support of terrorism and its purported pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations,” Obama said. “You have that right – but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.”
Obama offered no specific apology for any U.S. mistreatment of Iran, nor is it clear that he has a full grasp of the “lost history” between the two countries.
Some of his Democratic advisers on the region, such as former Rep. Lee Hamilton and ex-Sen. David Boren, played key roles in sweeping the complex and painful history under the rug in the early 1990s when the political imperative favored bipartisanship over truth.
The cover-ups continued under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. [For the fullest account of the October Surprise and Iraqgate scandals, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
These historical gaps and misunderstandings proved useful to President Bush in building his case for invading Iraq in March 2003.
Because most Americans knew little about the covert U.S.-Iraqi relations, Bush could get away with painting a simplistic portrait of Saddam Hussein as an “aggressive” and “unpredictable” dictator who had invaded two neighbors, Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990.
In both cases, however, Hussein may well have believed he had “green lights” from the United States, in 1980 from Fahd’s advice about Carter’s views and in 1990 from a confused series of messages from George H.W. Bush’s ambassador, April Glaspie, and from the State Department.
President George W. Bush ensured that a full history of those events would never be known when he helped rush Saddam Hussein to the gallows on Dec. 30, 2006.
Though Bush treated the hanging as a high point of the U.S. invasion and occupation, it also represented the silencing of a dangerous witness who could have implicated prominent U.S. officials from both his father’s and his own administrations in a series of crimes and scandals.
Former President George H.W. Bush, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates were among those who could breathe a little easier after the hangman’s noose had choked the life out of Hussein.
The elder George Bush, as Vice President, allegedly oversaw a covert U.S. operation to assist Hussein’s war machine during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War; Rumsfeld, as special U.S. envoy to the Middle East, had private chats with the Iraqi dictator about his war needs; and Gates, as a senior CIA official, reportedly rebuffed Israeli protests about U.S. tolerance for third-country military shipments to Iraq, including precursor chemicals for chemical weapons.
Hussein was a unique witness to these events. Perhaps no other Iraqi possessed so much direct knowledge of these high-level discussions and what resulted from them. Thus, with Hussein’s execution, the witness with the fullest overview of how Iraq built its chemical and biological weapons program in the 1980s was gone.
In death, Hussein couldn’t disclose what Rumsfeld told him during their famous hand-shake meeting in 1983, or whether he got an alleged message from Vice President Bush in the mid-1980s about how to deploy his air force against Iran, or if his regime knew that Gates was running interference for Iraq’s military supply line in the 1980s.
Nor could Hussein give his account of the mixed messages delivered regarding the two “green lights” – one allegedly from Carter in 1980 and the other from George H.W. Bush’s ambassador in 1990. All that history and more could have been salvaged if Hussein had been turned over to an international tribunal at The Hague.
Instead George W. Bush insisted that Hussein be kept under tight American guard and be tried in Iraq despite the obvious fact that the ousted Iraqi dictator would receive nothing close to a fair trial before being put to death.
Now these historical gaps – and the unwillingness of powerful people in both Iran and the United States to have the full truth come out – are setting the stage for perhaps another series of miscalculations between Washington and Tehran, which could lead to another round of tragedies.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on March 26, 2009.