The current phase of the war between Iran and Iraq has prompted a level of US military intervention in the Gulf region that is new and unprecedented in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and holds the risk of a more direct combat role on Iraq’s behalf. Since early 1983, the stalemate in the war appeared to be working in Iran’s favor. Its greater weight in terms of population and economic resources gave it the edge in a strategy of attrition. Beginning in the fall of 1983, Iraq threatened to counter by attacking Iran’s oil exporting capacity. This campaign finally began in March and April 1984, with missile attacks against oil tankers near Iran’s Kharg island loading facility. Iran’s measured response — “an eye for two eyes,” as one US official put it — forced a two-week halt in this phase of the war, although Iraq resumed these attacks at the end of June. Iran, meanwhile, has had several hundred thousand combatants, perhaps half a million, poised along the southern front for another “final offensive.” Most observers believe that whatever the differences within the Islamic Republic leadership there will indeed be one more major offensive. If this offensive fails, the war will nevertheless go on, at least at the level of continued border clashes, for as long as the two major protagonists, Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remain in power.

This prescription would seem to fit the objective of the United States as formulated recently by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy, who told a congressional committee that “a victory by either side is neither militarily achievable nor strategically desirable.” [1] Since last fall, though, Washington’s strategic desire to see no victor in the Gulf war has required a greater US political and even military intervention on Iraq’s behalf. “We want to keep Iraq in the field and get the war ended,” was how one State Department official characterized Washington’s current definition of neutrality. [2]

Washington’s neutrality has been extremely flexible from the beginning of this war. Iraq relied heavily on Western intelligence evaluations of Iranian military capabilities when it invaded Iran in September 1980, and leading Iranian counterrevolutionary figures such as Gen. Gholam Ali Oveissi visited Washington and Baghdad in the weeks prior to the war.

Once full-scale war erupted, US military involvement in the region, if not with the combatants themselves, became significant. Four days after the Iraqi invasion, on September 26, 1980, the CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia dispatched an urgent but vague message that the kingdom’s leaders wanted US military help. High-level Carter administration officials met to assemble a series of options and debate which one they would like the Saudis to request. Defense Secretary Harold Brown and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski saw the crisis as an opportunity to transfer to Saudi Arabia 40 F-14 fighter planes from the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, already in the Arabian Sea, a similar number of F-15 fighters from US air bases, and to send several hundred US military technicians to operate Hawk antiaircraft missiles there. In the view of some military officers, the war gave the US leverage to extract more intimate Saudi collaboration with the long-term buildup of US military forces in the region.

Secretary of State Edmund Muskie took a more cautious tack, arguing that a major military intervention in the Gulf would undermine assertions of US neutrality in the war and violate the mutual nonintervention pledge the administration had made in a meeting between Muskie and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on September 25. The debate was complicated by intelligence reports that Oman and Saudi Arabia were about to allow Iraq to launch attacks from their airfields.

On September 28, Brown, Brzezinski and Muskie agreed that USAF Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (AWACs) should be sent immediately and were assured by Pentagon officials that F-14s from the USS Eisenhower could reach Saudi Arabia in less than two hours if needed. Gen. David Jones, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, happened to be in Saudi Arabia at the time. He was directed to get a formal Saudi request for the AWACs and to dissuade them and the Omanis from allowing Iraq to use their facilities. [3]

By October 9, four US Air Force AWACs were providing 24-hour coverage of Iraqi and Iranian battle movements northward as far as Dezful and scanning Iran’s oil terminal on Kharg island and its oilfields along the Gulf Coast. US military personnel screened all the intelligence gathered, passing on to the Saudis only what the US considered necessary for their defense. Another carrier battle group joined the USS Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea, and within three weeks the number of US, French, British and Australian warships in the area had doubled from 30 to 60. A US ground radar station flown in to Saudi Arabia enabled “all American units there to talk to each other, to talk to the fleet centered on two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and to communicate with American military headquarters in Europe.” The official number of US military personnel there had jumped from around 400 to around 800 in the weeks since the war began. [4]

The dispatch of the US AWACs led directly to the Reagan administration decision in early 1981 to sell five AWACs to Saudi Arabia as the centerpiece of an integrated. He was directed to regional air defense system built to US specifications to host any eventual intervention by the US Rapid Deployment Force. The AWACs agreement, according to military analyst Anthony Cordesman, provided each Saudi air base with the “service facilities, refueling capability, parts and key munitions in place to accept over-the-horizon reinforcement for [70] USAF F-15 fighters. No conceivable improvement in US airlift or USAF rapid deployment and ‘bare basing’ capability could come close to giving the US this rapid and effective reinforcement capability.” [5] An added advantage was that the Saudis paid for it all.

“55-45 Percent Neutrality”

Under Reagan, the AWACs-centered military construction proceeded apace, mainly in Saudi Arabia but also in Oman and Bahrain. The US also endorsed the efforts of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to integrate the Gulf states’ air defenses into a single network. Policy in the Gulf war continued to be one of professed neutrality. The temptation to lure Baghdad away from the Soviet Union, which had cut off arms supplies to Iraq, was tempered by a concern not to alienate Tehran any further, since Iran remained the “strategic prize” in the region. One White House official candidly described the resulting balance recently as a “55-45 percent neutrality” in favor of Iraq. [6] Early on, in March 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told Congress he noted “some shift” in Iraq’s policy reflecting a “greater sense of concern about the behavior of Soviet imperialism in the Middle East.” [7] Several weeks later, the State Department lifted a freeze on the sale of five Boeing passenger aircraft to Iraq, and Assistant Secretary of State Morris Draper met top Iraqi officials in Baghdad. In 1982, the administration removed Iraq from the list of countries officially regarded as supporting “international terrorism,” paving the way for credits and exports.

In April 1982 the administration allowed Iraq to purchase between six and twelve LI 00 transport aircraft “for civilian use.” [8] When Iran turned the tide of the war in June-July 1982, the State Department announced that the US was prepared to hold joint military exercises with states in the region. [9] Early in 1983, by which time Iraq was staring bankruptcy in the face, the administration granted some $400 million in credit guarantees for the export of US wheat and other agricultural commodities to Iraq. This not only supplied Iraq with badly needed foodstuffs; more significantly, it demonstrated political and financial support to other prospective creditors, including Arab and European governments and international banks.

The fall of 1983 posed again, as in September 1980, the question of direct US military intervention in the war, or at least more explicit backing for Baghdad. Against a background of reports that Iraq was losing the war of attrition, the National Security Council decided in October to continue an official policy of “military neutrality” while informing US allies in Europe and the Gulf that an Iraqi defeat “would be contrary to US interests.”

Five Ways to Tilt

This further “tilt” toward Iraq took five different forms. First, the US encouraged its allies to make major weapons deliveries to Iraq. Ironically, at the same time the Soviet Union had resumed arms supplies to Iraq which it had cut off when Iraq invaded Iran. Washington dropped altogether its reservations about the French decision to “loan” Iraq five Super Etendard jet fighters equipped with Exocet anti-ship missiles for Baghdad’s planned tanker war, and carefully ignored a major French airlift of weapons in October. Second, Washington encouraged Iraq’s Arab allies to resume financial assistance to Baghdad. High-level State and Defense Department emissaries toured the Gulf in October, December, February and again in April. Washington also endorsed the participation of US banks and construction companies in several schemes to increase Iraqi oil exports by building new pipelines through Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Third, Washington began pressuring allies and clients — including Israel, South Korea and Great Britain — to halt all military related sales of weapons or spares to Iran, and by June the administration was bragging through its favored columnists that supplies to Iran had “dried up.” Federal investigators also cracked down at home, and in late March 1984 claimed to have halted an attempt by a Minnesota firm, E & F Marketing, to ship $7 million in M-60 tank parts to Iran. [10]

Fourth, the Reagan administration played along with the Iraqi tanker war talk. In response to Iranian statements that it would permit no oil exports from the Gulf it its own exports were cut off, Reagan warned on October 20, 1983 that “the free world” could not “stand by and allow anyone to close the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.” More recently, after Iraqi and Iranian warplanes had hit some dozen tankers in the Gulf, Reagan backed Iraq even more explicitly. He declared that “the enemy’s commerce and trade is a fair target,” while Iran’s attacks against the ships of third party allies of Baghdad, and Tehran’s refusal to negotiate a settlement, placed its tactics “beyond bounds.” [11]

Fifth, the administration ordered further planning for US military intervention in the event of an Iraqi collapse. After the Marine barracks in Lebanon were bombed in late October, Defense Secretary Weinberger told a Congressional committee that proof of Iranian involvement would justify US military aid to Iraq. Washington announced in February that its warships in and near the Gulf had orders to shoot any aircraft approaching within five miles. On February 26, 1984, the guided missile destroyer USS Lawrence fired on an Iranian P3 patrol plane when it flew within two and a half miles of the Lawrence. [12] As Iran claimed success in taking Iraq’s Majnoun oilfield, a “high-ranking administration official” told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the administration was prepared to send ground troops to the Gulf. [13] In late March the New York Gulf oilfields and facilities Times reported from Baghdad that “Western European diplomats assume that the United States now exchanges some intelligence on Iran with Iraq,” [14] and Saddam Hussein seemed to confirm this in early May when he told a Kuwaiti newspaper that “we have benefited from the AWACs in Iraq.” [15]

When the State Department’s Richard Murphy visited the Gulf in April, he was accompanied by Rear Adm. John Poindexter, head of the Crisis Pre-Planning Group within the NSC. Murphy’s and Poindexter’s message to the ruling families was that any US military intervention on their behalf against Iran would require a public invitation and full US access to their bases. Their mission was to obtain Gulf states’ permission to store additional ammunition, fuel and weapons for use by a US intervention force. US military commanders had long maintained that the new Central Command (as the Rapid Deployment Force is now called) required land-based facilities and headquarters in the Arabian Peninsula, and the escalating war against the tankers represented another opportunity to secure Saudi acquiescence.

There are signs, though, that the administration remains divided over how far to escalate US intervention behind Iraq in order to consolidate the US military presence in the region. Some officials complain about Saudi resistance to a larger US ground presence there, while others favor a more cautious approach. “Arab reluctance will save us from our own impetuosity,” was how one State Department official put it. [16] European governments have also warned Washington against indulging its impulse to “bash” Iran. [17] As a result, the US contented itself to send Saudi Arabia new “improved” AWACs able to track ships as well as aircraft, 400 largely symbolic Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and, more significantly, a USAF KC-10 aerial tanker. This was not needed to refuel the AWACs or Saudi F-15s. Several smaller KC-135s already there were handling this task. The KC-10, though, would enable US fighter bombers based on carriers in the Arabian Sea to attack Iranian targets in the northern Gulf.

The latest crisis has also forced Kuwait to reevaluate its military ties with Washington. That country had until now declined to join the US-sponsored air defense network based around the AWACs. A US Central Command survey team visited Kuwait in June, and at the end of the month the administration announced Kuwait would buy millions of dollars worth of military equipment and would tie in with the Saudi air defense system. A Kuwaiti request for Stinger missiles was rejected by Washington as not “suitable” to Kuwaiti defense needs. How those needs differed from Saudi needs was not made clear. The real reason may be that the inventory of Stingers had been completely depleted, and the Kuwaiti request could only be met by delving into US stocks. [18] The Kuwaitis responded by entertaining an offer from the Soviet Union for some $2-300 million worth of air defense weapons systems. Regular flights of USAF C-48 cargo jets into Gulf airports suggest that some degree of pre-positioning of military equipment and supplies has been going on. [19]

At the same time, Washington has stepped up its tacit intervention on Iraq’s behalf by providing US warships as tanker escorts, starting in the third week of May. Officially, the escorts are for tankers chartered by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command to provide fuel for US forces at sea and abroad. The Pentagon asserts that only four US warships have been operating in the Gulf, but observers there believe there may be as many as 12. [20] The escorts are operating only in the southern, Arabian side of the Gulf, thus threatening to repulse Iranian but not Iraqi attacks; there have been no sightings of US tanker escorts in the vicinity of Kharg island.

Washington’s current view appears to be that any escalation of the tanker war should be handled initially by the air forces of the various Gulf states. “The feeling here is that they should get bloodied first,” said one US official. [21] With 300 modern fighters (185 of these belonging to Saudi Arabia), these forces should be more than a match for Iran’s 60 to 70 vintage Phantoms and handful of F-14s. The lack of a direct Iranian response to the loss of a Phantom in a June 5 dogfight with Saudi planes over the middle of the Gulf has encouraged the Pentagon in this view. As in the June 5 incident, US involvement in any such confrontation would be considerable, with the AWACs providing intelligence and flight guidance and the aerial tankers providing refueling. Pentagon officials reportedly gave “mixed reviews” to the “Peninsula Shield” military exercises held by the Gulf Cooperation Council in late 1983. “The maneuvers showed us how far the Gulf states have come, but also how badly they need us,” was one US official’s verdict. [22] Other US regional allies outside the Gulf are also involved. In late June, Saudi defense officials met with Jordan’s King Hussein, Pakistan’s dictator Zia ul Haq and the Egyptian chief of staff to discuss the war. [23] All three countries provide pilots, officers and military technicians to the Saudi and other Gulf military establishments.

There are two scenarios which pose the danger of direct US military intervention against Iran. One involves the likely consequences of an Iranian attack on US warships in the Gulf, especially in their tanker escort function, or against Saudi oil installations. This sort of incident would probably shift the balance in Washington decisively in favor of those who would like to repair the post-Lebanon prestige of the US at Iran’s expense. Iran’s very cautious behavior in the tanker war so far makes such a development unlikely but possible.

Prospects for such escalation depend much more on the outcome of the ground war, and particularly of the long-awaited Iranian attack on Basra. If Iraqi defenses hold, officials in Washington expect that increased oil exports through new pipelines after another year or so will enable the Saddam Hussein regime to repair its economy and political base. The major new pipeline option now under consideration would run 540 miles from Iraqi oil fields to the Jordanian port of ‘Aqaba. Washington has lent critical political and economic support to this project. Politically, the US has passed on to Baghdad “verbal assurances” that Israel would not attack the pipeline, which would run close to the Israeli border at its terminal point. Economically the administration persuaded an initially reluctant Export-Import Bank to guarantee $425 million in US commercial loans for the project. Iraq expects to raise another $500 million from European sources. The project includes a $570 million contract for Bechtel, the corporate nest of Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Ex-Im Bank support was reportedly clinched by an Iraqi agreement to order $100 million worth of US-made steel pipe instead of cheaper West German or Japanese steel for the pipeline itself. [24] On the other hand, if Iran scores a significant breakthrough, Washington expects its long-awaited “invitation” from Riyadh to intervene directly. This would involve sending between two and four F-15 squadrons to be based in Saudi Arabia. From there an air offensive against Iranian air bases and troop concentrations would enable Iraq to hold its own in the land battles. “I feel confident that within minutes, we could certainly stabilize that situation border-wide,” one US military official said in May. [25] This would represent the penultimate step in the “incremental” policy of escalation that Washington has followed for the last year of this war. Do those US officials who talk of an intervention lasting “minutes” remember that this war was supposed to be over in a few weeks when Iraq sent its forces over the border in September 1980?


[1] Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 1984.
[2] Newsday, May 20, 1984.
[3] New York Times, October 12, 1980.
[4] New York Times, October 8, 1980.
[5] Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), p. 325.
[6] Middle East Policy Survey, May 11, 1983.
[7] New York Times, March 20, 1981.
[8] Washington Post, April 14, 1982.
[9] Washington Post, July 17, 1982.
[10] Wall Street Journal, March 28, 1984.
[11] Washington Post, June 1, 1984.
[12] Washington Post, February 29, 1984.
[13] Philadelphia Inquirer, February 24, 1984.
[14] New York Times, March 29, 1984.
[15] Financial Times, May 12, 1984.
[16] Middle East Policy Survey, June 18, 1984.
[17] Washington Post, May 31 and June 6, 1984.
[18] Washington Post, June 20, 1984.
[19] Times (London), June 8, 1984.
[20] Ibid.
[21] New York Times, May 27, 1984.
[22] Middle East Policy Survey, January 13, 1984.
[23] New York Times, June 27, 1984.
[24] New York Times, July 16, 1984.
[25] Newsday, May 20, 1984.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger, Joe Stork "US Ready to Intervene in Gulf War," Middle East Report 125/126 (July-September 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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