The Israeli Connection
In the autumn of 1964, Israeli officials developed an interest in establishing contacts with the Iraq’s Kurdish rebels. In the early 1960s, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had conceived a strategy known as the “peripheral doctrine,” which was premised on the improbability of achieving peace with the surrounding Arab states. According to Trita Parsi, Ben-Gurion wanted Israel “to build alliances with the non-Arab states of the periphery—primarily Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia—as well as with non-Arab minorities such as the Kurds and the Lebanese Christians.”30 Thus, in contrast to America’s nonintervention policy, from the mid-1960s onward, both Iran and Israel would play a major role in supporting and training the Iraqi Kurds.
The first indications US officials got of Israel’s involvement with the Kurds came in October 1964, when Strong raised the issue with Talbot. He wrote:
Israel plays an important role in Iran and is known to be supporting the Iraqi Kurds. Britain shares with Israel and the Shah a deep antipathy for Nasser . . . It requires little imagination to conceive that, given the depth of [British] hostility to Nasser and the importance of the Gulf to the UK, the British may well engage in covert cooperation with Iran and Israel against a Nasserist dominated Iraqi regime
as well as against Nasser elsewhere.31
According to Eliezer Tsafrir, the head of Mossad’s operations inside Iraq during the 1960s, Israel’s relationship with the Kurds began in 1964, when one of Barzani’s representatives in Paris, Amir Badr-Khan Kamuran, approached the Israeli Embassy and made an appeal for help. Seduced by the prospect of having a strategic ally inside Iraq, Barzani’s request was immediately forwarded on to Tel- Aviv and made its way to Ben-Gurion, who directed Mossad officials to cultivate this relationship. Soon thereafter, the Israelis invited Badr-Khan to visit Israel, where the Kurds and Israelis agreed to a de facto alliance. In an arrangement that has endured to this day the Israelis traded its considerable military experience, advanced weaponry, training, and intelligence tactics in exchange for the Kurds maintaining a near-constant state of revolt inside Iraq to tie down its military, and rendering it incapable of being used in a wider Arab war against Israel.32
The growing international involvement in the Kurdish question was not lost in the Iraqi regime. For instance, on December 10, when Secretary Rusk met with the new Iraqi foreign minister, Naji Talib, at the annual UNGA meeting, he complained that “unidentified forces” were assisting the Kurds, whom he described as “poor people.” He wondered where they were “getting money from to buy staple foods, arms, and equipment,” asking, “who [were] these mysterious forces [and] what [did] they want[?]” Rusk assured Talib that the United States was “not directly or indirectly supporting the Kurdish movement” and had “no other interest in Iraq affairs” other than maintaining its independence, integrity, and prosperity. Rusk then agreed to Talib’s request that he look into who was helping the Kurds and what their motivations were.33
A few days later, Barzani representatives informed the US Embassy in Baghdad that the Shah had been urging them to resume fighting and had asked them to participate in a plot to overthrow the Arif regime.34 When word of this reached Washington, the State Department refused to be involved in “any scheme to overthrow [the] Iraq government.” It felt there was “good reason to believe [Iraq was] already privy to Iranian subversive activity.” Moreover, the plot was “bound to be uncovered sooner or later” and when that happened, the “Kurds would have exposed themselves as willing collaborators with Iranian intrigue against [the] government [of] Iraq thus earning deepened Arab suspicion and resentment of Kurdish ambitions.” Finally, even if the plot succeeded, there was no guarantee that the next regime would be more sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations.35 Once again, the Johnson administration’s reaction to this plot reflected a clear break from its allies over the question of Iraq.
By the start of 1965, it was clear that Britain, Iran, and Israel were pressing the Kurds to resume the Kurdish War with Baghdad. However, just as tensions mounted, Barzani confounded US officials in Baghdad when he sent the regime a letter in mid-January 1965 that admitted that his previous demands had “been excessive” and then presented a “minimum” offer for autonomy, dropping all his previous demands with the exception of maintaining his 2,000- to 3,000- men Peshmerga force. Aware of the level of pressure on the Kurds to resume the war, US diplomats described Barzani’s letter as “one of the most startling developments] of the entire revolt.” There was no evidence to suggest that Barzani was weak, since he had held out against the government’s vicious assaults for years. This led the embassy to suspect that the letter was part of a psychological campaign to goad the regime attacking first, which would give Barzani a moral victory. Intended or not, US officials reported, this was precisely the outcome that occurred, as the regime once again began to prepare for war.36
As the situation deteriorated, Nasser became concerned that a renewal of the Kurdish War would threaten his strong position in Iraq and disrupt his plans for unification. In October 1964, he informed Arif that unification would be contingent on settling the Kurdish problem through political and not military means.37 When this did not work, Nasser sent Barzani a letter in February urging him to surrender, but that seemed unlikely. By April, a resumption of the war appeared inevitable. According to O’Ballance, on April 3, Iraqi prime minister Tahir Yahya informed Nasser that the regime was about to launch an offensive, who responded with a furious tirade. He warned Yahya that Iraq was doomed to fail and urged him to give diplomacy another chance. Nasser’s warning fell on deaf ears; on April 5, the Iraqi regime launched a three-prong offensive against the Kurds using 40,000 troops.38
The renewal of the Kurdish War put the United States in a difficult position. On the one hand, the overriding objective of the US policy toward Iraq was to maintain friendly relations with the Arif regime and to prevent Soviet encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty. However, the war’s renewal guaranteed that two of America’s closest regional allies, Iran and Israel, would increase their support for the Kurds. Eventually, the Iraqis urged the United States to convince Iran to cease its support for the Kurds, but America’s entreaties fell on deaf ears. As long as Arif maintained close relations with Nasser, the Shah had no interest in abandoning his “Kurdish card,” unless Iraq was willing to make territorial concessions over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which was highly unlikely.39
Just after the renewal of the Kurdish War, Secretary Rusk traveled to Tehran for a CENTO meeting. On April 7, he met with the Shah and discussed the situation in Iraq. The Shah was candor in admitting to helping the Kurds against Iraq, describing them as “a trump card” that he would not relinquish as long as Arif remained in league with Nasser. While he denied encouraging the Kurds to resume hostilities with Baghdad, he made it clear that he saw no problem in abandoning them if “a national government [was] established in Baghdad.”40 This statement is very significant because it foreshadowed precisely the Shah’s abandonment of the Kurds in March 1975, almost a decade later.41
By the end of April, Iraq’s growing frustration with Iranian interference in the Kurdish War was evident when Talib cornered Ambassador Strong at a reception in Baghdad and accused Iran of supporting the Kurds for the first time. He was convinced that the Kurdish campaign’s failure was due to Iran’s support for the Kurds. He told Strong that he had learned that “several loads of unidentified equipment” had been “transported onto Iraqi soil in jeeps without license plates” from Iran, and asked if the United States could try to convince the Shah to change his hostile policy toward Iraq. Talib then asked if the Kurds had been discussed at the CENTO meeting just held in Tehran. Strong denied that it had been a topic of discussion, reminded him of Turkey’s cooperation with Iraq on the Kurdish question and Pakistan’s efforts to mediate an Iran-Iraq rapprochement, and argued that aiding the Kurds was not in CENTO’s interests. He also reiterated America’s nonintervention policy and said that he would report the conversation to Washington. In his request for guidance on the matter sent on April 30, Strong complained that he had “about run out of arguments on Kurds- Iran-Iraq triangle” and that it seemed “useless any longer [to] try [to] pretend [that] Iran [was] not helping [the] Kurds.” The department responded on May 4, stating, “it was unlikely that further arguments could erase the Foreign Minister’s suspicions, but US officials should continue to reiterate the US policy line.” With respect to the CENTO meeting, the department advised Strong to “tell Talib that Secretary Rusk had not brought any new element into his discussion of Iranian security with the Shah.”42
In May 1965, an experienced Israeli intelligence operative, David Kimche, traveled secretly to Kurdistan via Iran to meet directly with Barzani. According to Parsi, the purpose of the meeting was to “check if the situation [permitted] a permanent presence of Mossad operatives [in Iraq].” Kimche was apparently impressed by his visit to Kurdistan and believed that an operation to help the Kurds fight Baghdad was crucial to Israeli security. The only obstacle was that Israel needed either Iranian acquiescence or involvement in the operation.43 Fortunately, this was no great challenge because the Shah already saw this as an opportunity to expand his strategic alliance with Israel. According to Uri Lubrani, who served as an adviser to Ben-Gurion in the 1960s and later as the head of the Israeli mission to Iran:
From the Shah’s perspective, Iran’s alliance with Israel would serve as a strategic decoy to divert Arab attention and resource away from Iran. The Shah believed that his Israeli connection would provide a deterrence to Arab regimes [particularly Iraq] because it would create the impression that if an Arab state were to attack Iran, Israel would take advantage of this pretext to strike Iraq’s western flank.44
Given the Shah’s desire to strengthen his relationship with the Israelis and his own existing program to support the Kurds, Iran approved Israel’s request but insisted that any operation be coordinated with SAVAK.45 Another Israeli intelligence officer, Eliezer Tsafrir, confirmed this account in an interview and described the extent of Israel’s support for the Kurds, which included exchanging information with the Kurds on common interests (i.e., intelligence on Iraq); supplying them arms, ammunition, and technicians; offering courses in military training, which were conducted in Kurdistan, Israel, and Iran; and helping the Kurds with political lobbying in the United States and Europe.46
The impact of Israel’s involvement was immediately apparent to US officials in Baghdad. For instance, toward the end of May, the embassy noticed a marked improvement in the Kurds’ military tactics. Although in the past the Kurds had shown “little aptitude for guerrilla warfare” and had only been victorious due to the “gross incompetence” of Iraq’s military, since the February 1964 ceasefire, the Kurds had improved tactically. Unlike before, they now “refused to defend flat areas, [had] let the government move into the mountains albeit at the cost of some casualties, [had] attacked army supply lines and [were] now apparently attacking bivouac areas.” This led the embassy to the conclusion, “it now [seemed] clear . . . that the Kurds [were] getting some assistance, possibly even training, from Israel.”47
In early August, Iraqi officials summoned J. Wesley Adams, the US Charge d’Affairs in Baghdad, to the foreign ministry to ask “in the strongest terms” that the United States urge Iran to cease arming the Kurds. In his report to Washington, Adams indicated, “Iraq now has fairly accurate information [on the] nature and extent [of] Iranian assistance.” This, in turn, put the United States in a very difficult position because Iraq’s “request for support [in] efforts [to] halt [the] flow of arms from Iran to dissident Iraqi Kurds [could not] reasonably be refused.”48 The State Department responded on August 11 by advising the US Embassy in Tehran to inform the Iranian government of Iraq’s request and to express America’s “concern over pressures by Iraqis arising out of Iranian assistance to Kurds.”49 When this was done on August 13, Iranian foreign minister Abbas Aram appeared “distressed that the [US] had become involved in the matter” and insisted that “Iran was not aiding the Kurds,” arguing instead that Iraq was “following a studied policy of annoying Iran.”50 Aram’s denial, of course, was in direct contradiction of what the Shah had told Rusk just a few months earlier at the CENTO meeting, not to mention a large body of evidence suggesting otherwise. Even so, the fact that the United States raised this matter with the Iranian government shows that the Johnson administration shared Iraq’s concern about the Kurdish problem and the interference of its allies.
The year between August 1964 and August 1965 is indicative of the sharp contrast between the policies of the US government and that of its close regional allies, Britain, Iran, and Israel. While the White House wanted to maintain friendly relations with the Arif regime, it was willing to overlook its relationship with Nasser, whose popular, pan-Arabist ideology was believed to be a potential ideological bulwark against communism. In short, the Johnson administration’s interest in the Arif regime stemmed from its desire to keep Iraq out of the Soviet camp. However, America’s allies viewed the Arif regime and its relationship with Nasser in a much different light. Britain’s loathing of Nasser and long-standing strategic interests in the Gulf trumped Cold War considerations when assessing its national interests in Iraq. For similar reasons, the Shah had his own imperial designs for the Gulf and wanted to limit Nasser’s influence in Iraq and the region. He also saw the Kurds as a useful means of coercing Iraq into territorial concessions he had long coveted. The Israelis, however, saw Iraq in terms of the wider Arab-Israeli struggle, believing that support for the Kurds would tie down Iraq’s army inside its borders, and thereby limit its effectiveness and ability to participate in a major Arab-Israel war. For these reasons, the policies of Britain, Iran, and Israel were all at odds with that of the United States with respect to Iraq and the Kurdish War. At the same time, the renewal of the Kurdish War put the United States in a difficult position. While the Johnson administration wished to maintain friendly relations with Iraq, America’s allies Iran and Israel had escalated their support for the Kurds. Consequently, it could not reasonably reject Iraq’s requests to urge Iran to cease its support for the Kurds. But with two American allies, Iran and Israel, now backing the Kurds against Iraq, the Kurdish War had clearly transitioned from being a Cold War conflict to a regional one.