US military involvement in Iran

Source: Taken from Background information on the crisis in Iran (Institute for Policy Studies. Washington, 1979).

The United States has been deeply involved in Iranian affairs since the early 1940s. especially after Mohammed Reza Shah assumed the throne in 1941. Seeking to counter Russian and British influence in Iran during World War II, Washington sent a small military mission to Iran in 1943. After the War, the United States aided the Shah in his efforts to build a substantial base of support in the armed forces, by providing arms, equipment and training to the Iranian Army. The US also helped establish the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie, a special internal security force under direct palace command, which played a decisive role in the Shah’s efforts to consolidate his control over the entire country.

America’s 1953 intervention in Iran to topple Premier Mohammed Mossadegh was one of the US’s first successful attempts to subvert a radical nationalist government. Mossadegh came to power in 1951 as leader of the National Front, and was appointed by the Shah under heavy pressure from the Iranian parliament (the MajIls). Mossadegh’s nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company earned at first the enmity of the British, and then the United States, culminating in the new Eisenhower Administration’s decision to undertake covert action in support of a military coup. CIA Chief Allen Dulles and top Mideast operative Kermit Roosevelt engineered the fall of Mossadegh’s government in August, 1953.[1]

After the coup, the United States helped the Shah consolidate his power, and the CIA and Defense Department were deeply involved in Iranian political affairs. The CIA assisted in the creation of SAVAK (the National Security and Intelligence Organisation, Iran’s secret police) in 1957, and two recent US ambassadors to Iran, Richard Helms and William Sullivan, are noted for their organisational and

Operational links to the CIA. During the current crisis, Ambassador Sullivan repeatedly met with the Shah and with Iran’s military ruler, General Azhari, to discuss the government’s strategy for suppressing the opposition.


Military aid

In the twelve years following the 1953 military coup, the United States poured over $1.2 billion in aid into Iran, almost half of which went to the Iranian Army, the Shah’s evolving power base. Between Fiscal Year (FY) 1950 and FY 1977, the United States supplied Iran with over $20 billion worth of arm5, ammunition, training, and technical assistance under the Military Assistance Program (MAP) and the Foreign Military Sales Program (FMS). This figure includes $67.4 million provided through the International Military Education and Training Program, to subsidise the training of 11,025 military personnel. Iran also received $767 million in direct MAP grants, $496 million in FMS credits and $1.7 million under the Agency for International Development’s Public Safety Program for the training of Iranian police. Iran ceased receiving MAP grant aid in 1970, and has since spent a full $18 billion on US arms under the FMS cash sales program. Since Iranian orders for new hardware were placed faster than the weapons could be produced and delivered, at the end of 1978 there was an outstanding balance of $12 billion worth of yet undelivered arms destined for Iran.[2]

US military personnel had been stationed in Iran since 1947, as part of the Military Assistance Advisory Group and a special mission to the Army (the two functions were combined in 1962). Until 1976, the United States also had a special mission to the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie. The military mission in Iran was the largest America had in any Third World country, employing (in 1978) 185 military, twenty-three civilian, and forty local personnel.


Police aid and training

In addition to the vast quantities of advanced weapons systems sold to Iran, the United States sold millions of dollars worth of arms and equipment for ‘internal security’. In recent years this included 4,000 revolvers and 300,000 rounds of ammunition to the National Police, over 50.000 hand grenades to the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie, and 356,293 gas masks and 11,994 tear gas canisters to the Iranian Army.

On 7 November 1978, the Washington Post reported that the Carter Administration had been prepared to send US Army specialists to train the Shah’s troops in riot control techniques. The offer, which was not implemented. followed delivery of a wide variety of crowd control equipment, including tear gas, riot sticks, helmets and

shields, to the Shah’s internal security forces.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the United States trained 179 Iranian Police officers at the International Police Academy in Washington, DC, under the auspices of AID’s Public Safety Program. The former head of SAVAK was a recipient of this training. In addition, General Golamn Reza Azhari, who headed Iran’s military government, was trained in military police operations in the US.


Arms sales

Iran under the Shah was America’s number one arms customer, accounting for $18.1 billion or 25 per cent of the $71 billion in military orders placed by foreign governments under the Foreign Military Sales program between FY 1950 and FY 1977. Recent sales included 141 Northrop F-SE jet fighters, 160 Hughes TOW missiles. During a May 1972 visit to Iran by the then President Nixon, the Shah was given a virtual carte blanche to purchase anything in the US arsenal except nuclear weapons. Subsequent Iranian purchases reflected the Shah’s ambition to recreate ‘the Great Persian Empire of the Past’, as well as the Nixon-Kissinger policy of relying on ‘friendly’ Third World powers to maintain regional stability in strategic areas. Iranian military purchases rose from $519 million in FY 1972 to a record high for any country of $5.8 billion in FY 1977.

Since his 1972 meeting with Nixon, the Shah consistently sought America’s most advanced and sophisticated weapons. Among his recent purchases are seven Boeing E-3A AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) radar patrol planes, a system so sophisticated that CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner originally testified against its sale on the grounds that US security would be gravely threatened if it fell into the wrong hands. Other advanced arms sold to the Iranians include the Grumman F-14 Tomcat swing-wing jet fighter, the McDonnell-Douglas Harpoon anti-ship missile, the Lockheed P-3C Orion ocean surveillance plane, and the Spruance-class heavy destroyer. Besides these potent arms, the United States also endowed Iran with the capacity to conduct warfare far from its borders. Recent deliveries have included, for instance, twelve Lockheed C-130 Hercules troop-transport planes, thirteen Boeing 707-320L tanker aircraft, 142 McDonnell-Douglas F-4E Phantom deep-strike fighter-bombers and three Tang-class submarines (which cannot even operate in the shallow Persian Gulf). These deliveries have provided Iran with a formidable military arsenal, capable of sustaining conflict at very high levels of violence and at sites far distant from Iranian territorV,[3]

On 3 February 1979 the interim government of Shahpour Bakhtiar informed the US Embassy in Tehran that it would cancel $8-b billion worth of arms contracts with the US. The cancellations, which have been reaffirmed by the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, affect arms ordered by the Shah in the 1970s and scheduled for delivery in the early 1980s. The cancellations include:

160 General Dynamics F-Th fighter planes worth $3.5 billion; seven Boeing AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) radar patrol planes worth $1.3 billion; two Spruance-class destroyers worth $1.4 billion; and a host of other aircraft, missiles and munitions.

Given the enormous figures involved, the Iranian cancellations will have a major impact on the US arms sales programme. With Iran no longer serving as the major market for US weapons, American arms firms will have to search for alternatives to the lucrative Iranian market.

The economic effects of the cancellations are not likely to be as devastating as expected. First, the various projects are in different stages of production, and Iran has made ‘progress payments’ pending actual delivery of the weapons. Iran stands to lose this money, which is held in a Department of Defense ‘trust fund’, because it cancelled the contracts. Secondly, the US government, which under the Foreign Military Sales Program signed the actual contracts with the Iranian government, and thus is liable to US contractors, is committed to finding alternative uses for the weapons. A supplemental Defense Appropriations request for Fiscal Year 1979 includes US Navy procurement of one destroyer and fifty-five F-16’s from the pool of Iranian cancellations. The Pentagon is also reportedly seeking alternate purchasing nations for the Iranian orders.

One major exception to this pattern of deferred responsibility involves Bell Helicopter’s $500 million contract to build a helicopter factory in Iran. Because Bell (a subsidiary to Textron, Inc.) bypassed the US government in its transaction, it must bear the full burden of any losses. Having received progress payments on work already performed, however, Bell’s immediate loss will be relatively small, even though the company will fire several hundred employees hired specifically for the Iran project.

Both the US government and US firms will incur indirect costs as a result of the Iranian cancellations. Previously, foreign sales allowed a contractor to pass on some research and development (R & D) costs, administrative costs, and personnel salaries to the purchasing government. The Iranian cancellations will thus cause the ‘unit cost’ of an item procured by the Pentagon for its own use to rise. In the case of the AWACs cancellation, this increase could be substantial, and could jeopardise plans for the plane’s use by NATO forces.

Aside from long-range setbacks, some of the biggest losers in the Iranian situation will be thousands of US ‘white-collar mercenaries’ who perform technical services under contract to US arms firms. Since these people were hired specifically for the Iranian programmes, they will constitute a large pool of unemployed para-military

technicians looking for other customers for their specialised services. Conceivably, many of them will seek work in places like South Africa, Taiwan and South Korea, where such skills are in high demand.


Technical military support

The Shah’s arms purchases, emphasising extremely advanced weapons, generated a requirement for many thousands of skilled technicians to maintain, repair, support and operate such high-technology gear. Some fifteen skilled technicians are needed, for instance, to keep one F-14 aircraft in combat-ready condition — and Iran had ordered eighty of these costly planes. Other specialists were needed to perform critical logistics, communications, and intelligence functions. Since Iran lacked sufficient numbers of skilled personnel to perform all of these tasks, the government had to recruit foreign technicians to perform the required functions. Normally, this involved contracting with US arms firms to perform backup services on the equipment they sold to Iranian forces. Thus Grumman deployed some 1,000 US technicians in Iran to maintain the eighty F-14s it sold the Shah in 1974, while Bell provided such support for the hundreds of AH-1J and Model-214 helicopters it has delivered and Northrop is responsible for upkeep on its F-5E aircraft.[4]

According to US government documents, there were, before the Shah fell, some 6,452 US civilian ‘contract personnel’ and 1,122 US government personnel stationed in Iran in connection with US arms programmes. (The latter figure includes several hundred military personnel associated with the Pentagon’s Technical Assistance Field Teams, or TAFT’s, which provide spot training and technical services on specific projects.) As noted by a 1976 Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report, ‘There is general agreement among US personnel involved with the Iranian programs that it is unlikely that Iran could go to war in the next five to ten years with its current and prospective inventory [of] sophisticated weapons .. without US support on a day to day basis.’ The Senate study further noted that US arms programmes had evolved into a de facto military commitment to the Shah’s regime: ‘The United States, having sold sophisticated arms in large quantities to Iran, has assumed a growing and significant "commitment" in terms of supporting that equipment — an unstated but nevertheless real obligation to train Iranians and to provide logistical support for the lifetime of the equipment.’ The result was that the United States was viewed by both the Shah and the opposition forces as being directly involved in Iranian military operations — with all the political consequences such a role entailed. In the words of the 1976 Senate study, ‘Anti-Americanism could become a serious problem in Iran ... if there were to be a change in government in Iran.’



Building Iran’s military-industrial complex

Not only did the Shah order vast quantities of America’s most advanced weapons, he was also acquiring the capability to produce them in Iran. Under a multibillion-dollar industrialisation programme, the Shah commissioned US arms firms to build entire weapons factories from scratch in Iran. Thus Bell Helicopter (a division of Textron, Inc.) was building a factory to produce Model-214 helicopters in Isfahan, and Hughes was building a missile plant in Shiraz. Northrop was also a joint partner in Iran Aircraft Industries, inc., which maintained many of the US military aircraft sold to Iran and was expected to produce aircraft components and eventually complete planes. These efforts represented a large share of US industrial involvement in Iran, and were a centrepiece of the Shah’s efforts to develop modern, high-technology industries.

These efforts came under attack from opposition elements, who argued that such plans distorted the Iranian economy at a time when basic industries and agriculture were suffering, and would do little to solve Iran’s unemployment problems (especially since so many of the workers in these plants would be foreigners). This criticism was often described as an attack on the Shah’s ‘modernisation’ plans, but the criticisms were directed specifically at these military-oriented, high-technology programmes rather than at industrialisation in general. Opposition leaders insisted in fact, that they favoured development of basic industries more suited to Iran’s long-term economic needs.


1 R. Barnet, Intervention and Revolution (1968), pp 265-8.

2 US Department of Defense, Foreign Military Safes and Military Assistance Facts (1978).

3 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 1977; International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 1978-79.

4 M, Klare, ‘America White Collar Mercenaries’, Inquiry (16 October 1978)