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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of an abandoned T62 tank near Safwan, Iraq.

An abandoned T62 tank near Safwan, Iraq. One of the 4,000 tanks supplied by the former USSR.

Image courtesy of the author.

articles > Who used whom?...

Who used whom? Baathist Iraq and the Cold War, 1968–1990

Geraint Hughes, Defence Studies Department, King's College London, teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Watchfield (1)

Throughout the Cold War, the politics of 'East-West' rivalry were intertwined with those linking the rich 'North' with the poor 'South'. The relationship between the major powers and the third world has traditionally been presented as the interaction between manipulators and manipulated. Some authors go as far as to portray the USA and the UK in particular as rapacious powers whose intervention in poorer countries had calamitous humanitarian and socio-economic consequences. (2) This 'inverse chauvinism' certainly colours attitudes towards US and British policy towards Iraq during the Cold War, and was reinforced by both the imposition of sanctions in the 1990s and the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq from March 2003 onwards.

American and British policymakers have very little reason to be proud of their countries' record on Iraq, particularly during the pre-1990 period. Nevertheless, the dominant narrative of Anglo-Saxon exploiters imposing their will on helpless Iraqis overlooks both the relationships that other countries developed with Iraq, and the fact that Iraq itself was an active participant in – rather than a helpless victim of – the international rivalries which afflicted the Middle East in the post-1945 era. Throughout the Cold War, third world actors could and did manipulate Eastern and Western patrons to further their own parochial objectives or regional ambitions, and Baathist Iraq was no different in this respect.

The state of Iraq was a British creation and remained the cornerstone of the UK's influence in the Arab world until the overthrow of the Hashemite dynasty in July 1958. (3) The monarchy's military successors and the Baath party – which seized and held power from the July 1968 coup – took Iraq out of the British sphere of influence and sought closer ties with the USSR. (4) Baghdad benefited from Iraq's strategic position in the Persian Gulf and the revenue it accrued from its oil exports, which increased after the nationalisation of petroleum production in 1972 and the price rises which followed the 'oil shock' of October 1973. On the other hand, Iraqi society was (and remains) split on ethnic and sectarian lines, and successive governments had to deal with Kurdish rebellions and unrest amongst the disenfranchised Shia majority.

Saddam Hussein – Iraq's de facto ruler during much of the 1970s and President from July 1979 onwards – used the Soviets to support his programme of military expansion and to strengthen his regime. Baghdad acquired arms and advisors from the USSR; the KGB and East German Stasi also trained the Baathist secret police apparatus. (5) Yet Saddam distrusted the Soviets and sought to diversify the sources of Iraq's foreign aid. When Baghdad and Moscow quarrelled over the repression of both the Kurds and the Iraqi Communist Party, Saddam took advantage of the oil windfall and the willingness of other foreign powers to acquire a stake in the Iraqi market. (6) France became Iraq's second biggest source of military aid after the USSR, and in November 1975 the then Premier, Jacques Chirac, sold the Osirak nuclear reactor to Baghdad. Other countries also assisted the Iraqi leader's aim of acquiring a non-conventional arsenal – West German firms assisted in the development of Iraq's chemical warfare programme. (7)

At this time, the USA and Britain were estranged from Iraq, as both powers were the principal allies of the latter's regional rival, Iran, until the overthrow of the Shah in February 1979. Washington's pro-Israeli stance and its role in the Camp David Accords of 1978, and London's support for the conservative Gulf monarchies, were also resented by Baghdad. The rapprochement between Iraq and the Anglo-Saxons began after the former invaded Iran in September 1980. Despite Saddam's hopes for a swift victory, Iraq became embroiled in an eight-year war which cost both belligerents up to 1 million dead. (8) Saddam needed all the help he could get from the outside world, and fortunately for him no foreign power – Western, Eastern bloc, or Arab – wanted the Ayatollah Khomeini's radical Islamist government to win the war. The USA and UK therefore joined Iraq's more established patrons in offering military aid and intelligence support to the Iraqi war effort. (9)

Saddam accepted American and British assistance in much the same spirit as he had accepted that from the French, Soviets and other foreigners: using the substance of this aid without trusting the motives of its providers. The late 1980s actually saw a divergence of interests between the interests of Iraq's benefactors – American, European and Soviet – and those of Saddam's regime. In the context of perestroika and détente Moscow and Washington collaborated on the UN ceasefire resolution (SCR619) which ended the Iran-Iraq war in August 1988, and external powers had a vested interest in seeing stability in a region of crucial geopolitical and economic importance. However, Saddam saw Iraq as a regional superpower which had the right to exercise hegemony over the Arab world. His ambitions, combined with Iraq's post-war debt of over $80 billion, led to the invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1990. This action isolated Iraq from global opinion, being both an unprovoked act of aggression and a threat to the economic and energy interests of the superpowers, the European states and indeed the wider world. What was worse for Saddam was that the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, abandoned his predecessors' traditional solidarity with 'progressive' Third World states for détente with Washington, so that when Iraq faced the US-led coalition in the war of January-March 1991 it was entirely alone. While the USA, the USSR, France, Britain and other powers had miscalculated in their dealings with Iraq prior to August 1990, Saddam also blundered in believing that he could escape the diplomatic, financial and military consequences of conquering a country with 10 per cent of the world's identified oil reserves. (10)

This brief article illustrates how complex the interaction between 'core' states and 'peripheral' countries like Iraq actually was. Simplistic statements such as 'We armed Saddam' or 'Saddam was our ally' overlook the degree to which the Iraqi leader used the global East-West competition for power and influence for his own ends, bolstering his regime through tactical changes in alignment and by soliciting military and economic aid from a variety of sources. In Iraq's case, it was a 'peripheral' state which often initiated events (such as oil nationalisation in 1972, the attack on Iran in 1980 and the invasion of Kuwait a decade later) to which richer, more powerful nations were obliged to respond. It was only when the superpowers set aside their mutual rivalry in the late 1980s that Saddam's strategy of manipulating the major powers became unstuck, with ultimately disastrous consequences which still affect his country and his former subjects today.

  1. The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed or implied in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the JSCSC, the UK MOD or any other government agency. Back to (1)
  2. See, for example, Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (New York, 2003); and Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World (2003). Back to (2)
  3. On the creation of Iraq, see Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation-Building and a History Denied (New York, 2003). Charles Tripp's A History of Iraq (Cambridge, 2002) is probably the best one-volume English language study on Iraqi history from 1917 to the period prior to 2003. Back to (3)
  4. Oles M. Smolansky and Bettie M. Smolansky, The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence (Durham, NC, 1991). Back to (4)
  5. 'Samir al-Khalil' (Kanan Makiya), Republic of Fear: Saddam's Iraq (1990), pp. 12–13. Back to (5)
  6. Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: a Political Biography (1991), pp. 125–133; and Con Coughlin, Saddam: the Secret Life (2002), pp. 125–126. Back to (6)
  7. Kenneth Timmerman, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (1992). Back to (7)
  8. Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War (1988). Back to (8)
  9. See 'The Saddam Hussein Sourcebook', online at the website of the National Security Archive, George Washington University [accessed 31 Jan 2006]. Back to (9)
  10. Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order (1994). Back to (10)

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