Licence to kill

Paul Foot

  • Spider’s Web: Bush, Saddam, Thatcher and the Decade of Deceit by Alan Friedman
    Faber, 455 pp, £17.50, November 1993, ISBN 0 571 17002 1
  • The Unlikely Spy by Paul Henderson
    Bloomsbury, 294 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1597 2

It was the patrician Alan Clark who most accurately summed up the approach of the British and American Governments to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Nothing, he reckoned, was better for business than a lot of foreigners killing one another. This has been true of all foreign wars throughout the ages, but for businessmen of the Clark mentality a hot war in the Eighties which demanded endless supplies of expensive weaponry and technology was almost too good to be true.

Neither Iran nor Iraq was officially allied to Britain, the US, Nato, or even Russia. There was no need to join in the war on either side. Not a single Westerner need lose their lives. On the other hand, the huge market created by the war was different in quantity and quality from anything that could be expected from the region in peacetime. Neither warring country had developed the military technology the war demanded. Both Governments were prepared to dig to the very pit of their people’s stomachs to buy killing machines at whatever prices the sellers demanded. There was only one obstacle. ‘Merchants of death’ are not popular; nor of course is war itself. From the start of the Iran-Iraq war, the United Nations strongly opposed it, calling on member states to impose and enforce an arms embargo. The United States Government and Congress proclaimed such an embargo for the entire period of the war. So, rather later and rather less emphatically, did the British Government.

These embargoes were a nuisance to the merchants of death, but no more than that. As luck would have it, the Iran-Iraq war coincided with the election of President Ronald Reagan and his wild bunch, in particular his special friend and constant adviser, the former advertising mogul he made director of the CIA, William Casey. Casey and the gang of right-wing fanatics he quickly promoted to the White House were obsessed with the clandestine. They didn’t think much of elected politicians, and preferred to carry out their policies behind the backs of Congress and the Senate. For them, the Iran-Iraq war held out glorious opportunities for covert profiteering. The world now knows about Irangate: the operation that enabled President Reagan, Vice-President Bush and all their men to help themselves to the proceeds of illegal arms sales to Iran, and spend most of their ill-gotten gains on financing terrorists fighting against the elected government in Nicaragua. Now, at last, people are beginning to find out about an even bigger scandal, Iraqgate: the operation which, with nods and winks from the same men, set up a vast clandestine machinery illegally to arm the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Very early on in the war, Casey and Co decided to back Iraq. Perhaps they were influenced by the huge wealth of friendly dictatorships in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, both of whom were hot supporters of Saddam. Perhaps they were still upset by the anti-US slogans of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Whatever the reason, Saddam was their man. Awkward political obstacles were quickly smoothed away. For instance, Iraq was high on the list of states boycotted by the US as ‘supporting terrorism’. Saddam obstinately continued to support terrorism of every kind, especially state terrorism against anyone in Iraq who opposed him. But in February 1982, Iraq was suddenly dropped from the proscribed list. In December 1983, Reagan’s special envoy visited Baghdad and covered Saddam with flowers. In November 1984, Reagan formally restored US diplomatic relations with Iraq.

So much could be done openly. Equipping Saddam’s army so that it became the fourth largest on earth had to be done secretly. Casey drew around him a network of people who worked outside – and against – official Government policy. Chief among them was James Guerin, a Bible-thumping chorister-entrepreneur from Connecticut, who made a fortune by flouting his Government’s policy on arm sales – especially to South Africa and Iraq. When he was short of money in 1987, Guerin came to Britain and tricked one of Britain’s oldest and most blue-blooded arms firms, Ferranti, into lobbing out five hundred million quid for his company, which wasn’t worth a tenth that much. Workers at Ferranti are still paying with their jobs for this monumental British business imbecility. Guerin is in prison for fraud. So, too, is Sarkis Soghanalian, an Iraqi-born fixer who worked assiduously with the CIA on Saddam’s behalf until, as usual, the CIA forgot he ever existed and left him to face the music. Both men worked closely with Carlos Cardoen, the Chilean Cluster Bomb King who has only two heroes, Pinochet and Saddam Hussein.

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