Saddam's 'Green Light'
In 1980, Iraq's Saddam Hussein was suddenly a bigtime
international 'player,' invited to the gaudy palaces of the Saudi
Arabian monarchy. But there was an ulterior motive behind the
flattering invitation: Saddam's army was the new protector of the
petro-rich against the Iranian hordes.
Saudi Prince Fahd claimed to have a message, too, from the
President of the United States. It was a missive that might have
changed the course of history, another installment from the
By Robert Parry
- October Surprise X-Files (Part 5): Saddam's 'Green Light'
WASHINGTON -- In summer 1980, Iraq's wily president Saddam
Hussein saw opportunities in the chaos sweeping the Persian
Gulf. Iran's Islamic revolution had terrified the Saudi princes
and other Arab royalty who feared uprisings against their own
corrupt life styles. Saddam's help was sought, too, by
CIA-backed Iranian exiles who wanted a base to challenge the
fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. And as
always, the Western powers were worried about the Middle East
So because of geography and his formidable Soviet-supplied army,
Saddam was suddenly a popular fellow.
On Aug. 5, 1980, the Saudi rulers welcomed Saddam to Riyadh for
his first state visit to Saudi Arabia, the first for any Iraqi
president. The Saudis, of course, wanted something. At those
fateful meetings, amid the luxury of the ornate palaces, the
Saudis would encourage Saddam to invade Iran. The Saudis also
would claim to pass on a secret message about President Carter's
During that summer of 1980, President Carter was facing his own
crisis. His failure to free 52 American hostages held in Iran
was threatening his political survival. As he wrote in his
memoirs, Keeping Faith, "The election might also be riding on
their freedom." Equally alarming, President Carter had begun
receiving reports that the Republicans were making back-channel
contacts with Iran about the hostage crisis, as he would state
in a letter to a journalist nearly a decade later.
Though it was unclear then, this multi-sided political intrigue
would shape the history from 1980 to the present day. Iraq's
invasion of Iran in September 1980 would deteriorate into eight
years of bloody trench warfare that did little more than kill
and maim an estimated one million people. What little more the
war did was to generate billions of dollars in profits for
well-connected arms merchants -- and spawn a series of national
In 1986-87, the Iran-Contra Affair peeled back some of the
layers of secrecy, but bipartisan investigations dumped the
blame mostly on Oliver North and a few low-level "men of zeal."
Later inquiries into Iraqgate allegations of secret U.S.
military support for Saddam Hussein also ended inconclusively.
The missing billions from the sleazy Bank of Credit and Commerce
International disappeared into the mist of complex charge and
counter-charge, too. So did evidence implicating the CIA and
Nicaraguan contra rebels in cocaine trafficking.
A similar fate befell the October Surprise story and President
Carter's old suspicion of Republican interference in the 1980
hostage crisis. A special House task force concluded in 1993
that it could find "no credible evidence" to support the October
Haig's Talking Points
Still, I gained access to documents from that investigation,
including papers marked "secret" and "top secret" which
apparently had been left behind by accident in a remote Capitol
Hill storage room. Those papers filled in a number of the era's
missing pieces and established that there was more to the
reports that President Carter heard in 1980 than the task force
publicly acknowledged. (For more details, see the first four
issues of The Consortium.)
But besides undermining the task force's October Surprise
debunking, the papers clarified President Reagan's early
strategy for a clandestine foreign policy hidden from Congress
and the American people. One such document was a two-page
"Talking Points" prepared by Secretary of State Alexander Haig
for a briefing of President Reagan. Marked "top
secret/sensitive," the paper recounted Haig's first trip to the
Middle East in April 1981.
In the report, Haig wrote that he was impressed with "bits of
useful intelligence" that he had learned. "Both [Egypt's Anwar]
Sadat and [Saudi Prince] Fahd [explained that] Iran is receiving
military spares for U.S. equipment from Israel." This fact
might have been less surprising to President Reagan, whose
intermediaries allegedly collaborated with Israeli officials in
1980 to smuggle weapons to Iran behind President Carter's back.
But Haig followed that comment with another stunning assertion:
"It was also interesting to confirm that President Carter gave
the Iraqis a green light to launch the war against Iran through
Fahd." In other words, according to Haig's information, Saudi
Prince Fahd (now King Fahd) claimed that President Carter,
apparently hoping to strengthen the U.S. hand in the Middle East
and desperate to pressure Iran over the stalled hostage talks,
gave clearance to Saddam's invasion of Iran. If true, Jimmy
Carter, the peacemaker, had encouraged a war.
Haig's written report contained no other details about the
"green light," and Haig declined my request for an interview
about the Talking Points. But the paper represented the first
documented corroboration of Iran's long-held belief that the
United States backed Iraq's 1980 invasion.
In 1980, President Carter termed Iranian charges of U.S.
complicity "patently false." He mentioned Iraq's invasion only
briefly in his memoirs, in the context of an unexpected
mid-September hostage initiative from a Khomeini in-law, Sadeq
Tabatabai. "Exploratory conversations [in Germany] were quite
encouraging," President Carter wrote about that approach, but he
added: "As fate would have it, the Iraqis chose the day of
[Tabatabai's] scheduled arrival in Iran, September 22, to invade
Iran and to bomb the Tehran airport. Typically, the Iranians
accused me of planning and supporting the invasion."
The Iraqi invasion did make Iran more desperate to get U.S.
spare parts for its air and ground forces. Yet the Carter
administration continued to demand that the American hostages be
freed before military shipments could resume. But according to
House task force documents that I found in the storage room, the
Republicans were more accommodating.
Secret FBI wiretaps revealed that an Iranian banker, the late
Cyrus Hashemi, who supposedly was helping President Carter on
the hostage talks, was assisting Republicans with arms shipments
to Iran and peculiar money transfers in fall 1980. Hashemi's
older brother, Jamshid, testified that the Iran arms shipments,
via Israel, resulted from secret meetings in Madrid between the
GOP campaign director, William J. Casey, and a radical Islamic
mullah named Mehdi Karrubi.
For whatever reasons, on Election Day 1980, President Carter
still had failed to free the hostages and Ronald Reagan won in a
A 'Private Channel'
Within minutes of President Reagan's Inauguration on Jan. 20,
1981, the hostages finally were freed. In the following weeks,
the new administration put in place discreet channels to Middle
East powers, as Haig flew to the region for a round of
high-level consultations. The trim silver-haired former
four-star general met with Iraq's chief allies, Saudi Arabia and
Egypt, and with Israel, which was continuing to support Iran as
a counter-weight to Iraq and the Arab states.
On April 8, 1981, Haig ended his first round of meetings in
Riyadh and issued a diplomatic statement lauding Saudi Arabia's
"dedication to building a better world and the wisdom of your
leaders." More to the point, he announced that "the foundation
has been laid during this trip for the strengthening of
After Haig's return to Washington, his top secret Talking Points
fleshed out for President Reagan the actual agreements that were
reached at the private sessions in Saudi Arabia, as well as at
other meetings in Egypt and Israel.
"As we discussed before my Middle East trip," Haig explained to
President Reagan, "I proposed to President Sadat, [Israel's]
Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin and Crown Prince Fahd that we
establish a private channel for the consideration of
particularly sensitive matters of concern to you. Each of the
three picked up on the proposal and asked for early meetings."
Haig wrote that on his return, he immediately dispatched his
counselor, Robert "Bud" McFarlane, to Cairo and Riyadh to
formalize those channels. "He held extremely useful meetings
with both Sadat and Fahd," Haig boasted. "In fact, Sadat kept
Ed Muskie [President Carter's secretary of state] waiting for an
hour and a half while he [Sadat] extended the meeting."
These early contacts with Fahd, Sadat and Begin solidified their
three countries as the cornerstones of the administration's
clandestine foreign policy of the 1980s: the Saudis as the
moneymen, the Israelis as the middlemen, and the Egyptians as a
ready source for Soviet-made equipment .
Although President Carter had brokered a historic peace treaty
between Egypt and Israel, Sadat, Begin and Fahd had all been
alarmed at signs of U.S. weakness, especially Washington's
inability to protect the Shah of Iran from ouster in 1979.
Haig's Talking Points captured that relief at President Carter's
removal from office.
"It is clear that your policies of firmness toward the Soviets
has restored Saudi and Egyptian confidence in the leadership of
the U.S.," Haig wrote for the presentation to his boss. "Both
[Fahd and Sadat] went much further than ever before in offering
to be supportive."
Haig said "Sadat offered to host a forward headquarters for the
Rapid Deployment Force, including a full-time presence of U.S
military personnel." Sadat also outlined his strategy for
invading Libya to disrupt Moammar Khadafy's intervention in
Chad. "Frankly," observed Haig, "I believe he [Sadat] could
easily get overextended in such an undertaking and [I] will try
to moderate his ambitions on this score."
'Special Status,' Money and Guns
Haig reported that Prince Fahd was "also very enthusiastic"
about President Reagan's foreign policy. Fahd had agreed "in
principle to fund arms sales to the Pakistanis and other states
in the region," Haig wrote. The Saudi leader was promising,
too, to help the U.S. economy by committing his oil-rich nation
to a position of "no drop in production" of petroleum.
"These channels promise to be extremely useful in forging
compatible policies with the Saudis and Egyptians," Haig
continued. "Both men value the 'special status' you have
conferred on them and both value confidentiality. I will follow
up with [Defense Secretary] Cap Weinberger and [CIA Director]
Bill Casey. ...The larger message emerging from these exchanges,
however, is that your policies are correct and are already
eliciting the enthusiastic support of important leaders abroad."
In the following years, the Reagan administration would exploit
the "special status" with all three countries to skirt
Constitutional restrictions on Executive war-making powers.
Secretly, the administration would tilt back and forth in the
Iran-Iraq war, between aiding the Iranians with missiles and
spare parts and helping the Iraqis with intelligence and
indirect military shipments.
When the Soviets shot down an Israeli-leased Argentine plane
carrying U.S. military supplies to Iran on July 18, 1981, the
State Department showed it, too, valued confidentiality. At the
time, State denied U.S. knowledge. But in a later interview,
assistant secretary of state Nicholas Veliotes said "it was
clear to me after my conversations with people on high that
indeed we had agreed that the Israelis could transship to Iran
some American-origin military equipment."
According to a sworn affidavit by former Reagan national
security staffer Howard Teicher, the administration enlisted the
Egyptians in a secret "Bear Spares" program that gave the United
States access to Soviet-designed military equipment. Teicher
asserted that the Reagan administration funnelled some of those
weapons to Iraq and also arranged other shipments of devastating
cluster bombs that Saddam's air force dropped on Iranians troops.
In 1984, facing congressional rejection of continued CIA funding
of the Nicaraguan contra rebels, President Reagan exploited the
"special status" again. He tapped into the Saudi slush funds
for money to support the Nicaraguan contra rebels in their war
in Central America. The President also authorized secret
weapons shipments to Iran in another arms-for-hostages scheme,
with the profits going to "off-the-shelf" intelligence
operations. That gambit, like the others, was protected by
walls of "deniability" and outright lies.
Some of those lies collapsed in the Iran-Contra scandal, but the
administration quickly constructed new stonewalls that were
never breached. Republicans fiercely defended the secrets and
Democrats lacked the nerve to fight for the truth. The
Washington media also lost interest because the scandals were
complex and official sources steered the press in other
When I interviewed Haig several years ago, I asked him if he was
troubled by the pattern of deceit that had become the norm among
international players in the 1980s. "Oh, no, no, no, no," he
boomed, shaking his head. "On that kind of thing? No. Come
on. Jesus! God! You know, you'd better get out and read
Machiavelli or somebody else because I think you're living in a
dream world! People do what their national interest tells them
to do and if it means lying to a friendly nation, they're going
to lie through their teeth."
But sometimes the game-playing did have unintended consequences.
In 1990, a decade after Iraq's messy invasion of Iran, an
embittered Saddam Hussein was looking for pay-back from the
sheikhdoms that he felt had egged him into war. Saddam was
especially furious with Kuwait for slant drilling into Iraq's
oil fields and refusing to extend more credit. Again, Saddam
was looking for a signal from the U.S. president, this time
When Saddam explained his confrontation with Kuwait to U.S.
Ambassador April Glaspie, he received an ambiguous reply, a
reaction he apparently perceived as another "green light." Eight
days later, Saddam unleashed his army into Kuwait, an invasion
that required 500,000 U.S. troops and thousands more dead to
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