Last time we supported the Kurds

In their fight against IS, Iraqi Kurds have received support from US, Iran, and Israel, among others. This is not the first time the Kurds have thrown their lot with these three countries, however.  Forty years ago in 1974 the Kurds, the United States, Iran, and Israel also faced a common enemy. The enemy was the Baathist regime in Iraq.

In 1970 the Baath government in Baghdad aKurdish-inhabited_areas_of_the_Middle_East_and_the_Soviet_Union_in_1986nd Iraq’s Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani had agreed on an autonomy plan for Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Baghdad stalled on implementing the agreement and in 1974 unilaterally decreed a Kurdish autonomous region on its own terms.  When Barzani turned down the plan, the Iraqi military launched an offensive against the Kurds. There were at least four reasons that brought US, Iran, and Israel together to back Kurdish aspirations in Iraq.

First, the United States considered Iraq a client state of the Soviet Union and thus a threat to its interests in the Middle East. Thus, even though Iraq exported oil to the rest of the world and traded heavily with Western Europe, its military and economic ties to the Soviet Union made containing or weakening it a central goal of the American policy. This task was placed in part on the shoulders of Mohammad Reza Shah, the autocratic monarch of Iran.

Second, Mohammad Reza Shah had been challenging Iraq’s sovereignty over Shat Al-Arab waterway. The 1933 treaty had placed the border on Iran’s shoreline.  The Shah wanted Iraq to sign a new treaty that would place the border on the river’s thalweg, thus giving Iran sovereign access to its important Khoramshahr port. Iran under Mohamad Reza Shah was one of the two “pillars” of the UnitShat_edited-1ed States policy in the Persian Gulf (the other pillar being Saudi Arabia). The United States relied on the Shah to police the Persian Gulf and help with containment of Soviet Union and its ally, Iraq.  For these reasons, the Shah was given carte blanche by the Nixon-Kissinger team to buy a large array of sophisticated weapons from the United States. The Shah used its modern military and American support not only to become the policeman of the Gulf but also to put pressure on Iraq. The challenge had the additional effect of refocusing Iraq’s attention away from Israel.


Third, in the mid-1970s, Iraq had remained a concern for Israel for several reasons. Iraq was an enthusiastic participant in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and while Syria and Egypt were indirectly negotiating with Israel under the auspices of the United States, Iraq had remained a defiant foe with a large military. Furthermore, Iraq was the only major Arab country that followed a largely independent foreign policy. Gulf monarchies and Jordan had allied themselves closely with the United States. The oil rich, “socialist”, republican Iraq was therefore could attract the support of

Arab masses still hopeful for independence from superpowers and justice for Palestinians and thus represent a threat to Israel’s expansionist policies as well as the stability of conservative Arab monarchies.

Fourth, any meaningful Kurdish autonomy in Iraq would have emboldened the neighboring Kurdish populations inside Iran and Turkey, encouraging them to launch their own military campaigns and thus weakening United States and Israel’s allies, Iran and Turkey. Thus, any military support for Iraqi Kurds had to enable the Kurds to fight a war of attrition but deny them the ability to defeat the Iraqi military.

The plan, hatched by Henry Kissinger, was for United States, Iran, and Israel to provide weapons, logistical support, intelligence, and military advice to Iraqi Kurds. Some of the weapons may have been supplied by Egypt from its old stockpile of Soviet made arms in order to confuse and throw off the Iraqis regarding the true intentions of the Soviet Union. United States provided money and intelligence in addition to promises to Barazani of continuing American commitment to the Kurdish cause in Iraq.  Shah of Iran provided funding in addition to logistical support, and Israelis provided military advice. The result was that in 1974 the Kurdish forces managed to pin down a sizable Iraqi force. The pressure was sufficient enough to force the Iraqi regime to offer Iran a favorable resolution of their border disputes. The Shah and Saddam Hussein met in Algiers in early 1975.  In return for Iraq’s compromise over Shat Al Arab border, support for the Kurdish forces was withdrawn and soon thereafter, the Iraqi military was able to overwhelm the Kurds. Some of the Kurdish population and their leaders, including Barzani, fled to Iran before the Shah sealed the border. The Kurdish refugees subsisted in half dozen camps near Iran-Iraq border before they were transferred a thousand miles to northeastern Iran. Barazani lived near Iran’s capital, Tehran as the Shah’s “guest” and then traveled to US for cancer treatment where he died in 1979.

Clearly, Kurds were only to be used to achieve the national and regional goals of their benefactors and nothing more.  Indeed, the House Pike Committee investigating US intelligence agencies documented as much, accusing the US of indifference to the faith of the Iraqi Kurds from the start.


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