U.S. Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships
with Iraq 1980 - 1990

by Nathaniel Hurd

July 15, 2000 (updated 12 December 12, 2001 by Nathaniel Hurd and Glen Rangwala).


Before 1980
Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War Iraq severed diplomatic relations with the U.S. In late 1979 the State Department (SD) put Iraq on its list of States sponsoring groups categorized by the SD as "terrorist."[1]

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) asserted in a report that Iraq has been 'actively acquiring' Chemical Weapons [CW] capacities since the mid-1970s.[2]

Despite intelligence reports that Iraq still sponsored groups on the SD's terrorist list, and "apparently without consulting Congress", the Reagan Administration removed Iraq from the State terrorism sponsorship list in 1982.[3] The removal made Iraq eligible for U.S. dual-use and military technology.[4]

A SD report concluded that Iraq continued to support groups on the SD's terrorist list.[5]
Iraq reportedly began using chemical weapons (CW) against Iranian troops in 1982, and significantly increased CW use in 1983. Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, said that reports of Iraq using CWs on Iranian military personnel "drifted in" at the year's end.[6] A declassified CIA report, probably written in late 1987, notes Iraq's use of mustard gas in August 1983, giving further credence to the suggestion that the SD and/or National Security Council (NSC) was well aware of Iraq's use of CW at this time.[7]

Analysts recognized that "civilian" helicopters can be weaponized in a matter of hours and selling a civilian kit can be a way of giving military aid under the guise of civilian assistance.[8] Shortly after removing Iraq from the terrorism sponsorship list, the Reagan administration approved the sale of 60 Hughes helicopters.[9] Later, and despite some objections from the National Security Council (NSC), the Secretaries of Commerce and State (George Baldridge and George Shultz) lobbied the NSC advisor into agreeing to the sale to Iraq of 10 Bell helicopters,[10] officially for crop spraying. See "1988" for note on Iraq using U.S. Helicopters to spray Kurds with chemical weapons.

Later in the year the Reagan Administration secretly began to allow Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt to transfer to Iraq U.S. howitzers, helicopters, bombs and other weapons.[11] Reagan personally asked Italy's Prime Minister Guilio Andreotti to channel arms to Iraq.[12]

The SD announced on 6 March that, based on "available evidence," it "concluded" that Iraq used "lethal chemical weapons" (specifically mustard gas) in fresh fighting with Iran.[13] On 20 March, U.S. intelligence officials said that they had "what they believe to be incontrovertible evidence that Iraq has used nerve gas in its war with Iran and has almost finished extensive sites for mass-producing the lethal chemical warfare agent".[14]

European-based doctors examined Iranian troops in March 1984 and confirmed exposure to mustard gas.[15] The UN sent expert missions to the battle region in March 1984, February/March 1986, April/May 1987, March/April 1988, July 1988 (twice), and mid-August 1988. These missions detailed and documented Iraq's CW use.[16]

According to the Washington Post, the CIA began in 1984 secretly to give Iraq intelligence that Iraq uses to "calibrate" its mustard gas attacks on Iranian troops. In August, the CIA establishes a direct Washington-Baghdad intelligence link, and for 18 months, starting in early 1985, the CIA provided Iraq with "data from sensitive U.S. satellite reconnaissance photography...to assist Iraqi bombing raids." The Post's source said that this data was essential to Iraq's war effort.[17]

The United States re-established full diplomatic ties with Iraq on 26 November,[18] just over a year after Iraq's first well-publicized CW use and only 8 months after the UN and U.S. reported that Iraq used CWs on Iranian troops.

In 1985 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to put Iraq back on the State terrorism sponsorship list.[19] After the bill's passage, Shultz wrote to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Howard Berman, cited the U.S.' "diplomatic dialogue on this and other sensitive issues, " claimed that "Iraq has effectively distanced itself from international terrorism," and stated that if the U.S. found that Iraq supports groups practicing terrorism "we would promptly return Iraq to the list."[20] Rep. Berman dropped the bill and explicitly cited Shultz's assurances.[21]

Iraq's Saad 16 General Establishment's director wrote a letter to the Commerce Department (CD) detailing the activities in Saad's 70 laboratories. These activities had the trademarks of ballistic missile development.[22]

The Defense Department's (DOD) Under Secretary for Trade Security Policy, Stephen Bryen, informed the Commerce Department's (CD) Assistant Secretary for Trade Administration in November that intelligence linked the Saad 16 research center with ballistic missile development.[23] Between 1985 and 1990, CD approved many computer sales to Iraq that go directly to Saad 16. CD approved over $1 million worth of computer equipment for sale to Saad 16 after Commerce received the above-mentioned November letter from DOD.[24] As of 1991 Saad 16 reportedly contained up to 40% U.S.-origin equipment.[25]

The CD approved exports in January and February to Iraq's SCUD missile program's procurement agency. These exports allowed Iraq to extend SCUD range far enough to hit allied soldiers in Saudi Arabia and Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv and Haifa.[26]

On 23 March, London's Financial Times and several other news organizations reported from Halabja, located in Iraqi Kurdistan, that several days prior Iraq used CWs on Halabja's Kurds.[27]
In May, two months after the Halabja assault, Peter Burleigh, Assistant Secretary of State in charge of northern Gulf affairs, encouraged U.S.-Iraqi corporate cooperation at a symposium hosted by the U.S.-Iraq Business Forum. The U.S.-Iraq Business Forum had strong (albeit unofficial) ties to the Iraqi government.[28]

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a team to Turkey to speak to Iraqi Kurdish refugees and assess reports that Iraq "was using chemical weapons on its Kurdish population."[29] This report reaffirmed that between 1984 and 1988 "Iraq repeatedly and effectively used poison gas on Iran," the UN missions' findings, and the chemical attack on Halabja that left an estimated 4,000 people dead.[30]

Following the Halabja attack and Iraq's August CW offensive against Iraqi Kurds, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed on 8 September the "Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988" the day after it is introduced.[31] The act cuts off from Iraq U.S. loans, military and non-military assistance, credits, credit guarantees, items subject to export controls, and U.S. imports of Iraqi oil.[32]

Immediately after the bill's passage the Reagan Administration announced its opposition to the bill,[33] and SD spokesman Charles Redman called the bill "premature".[34] The Administration works with House opponents to a House companion bill, and after numerous legislation compromises and end-of-session haggling, the Senate bill died "on the last day of the legislative session".[35]

According to a 15 September news report, Reagan Administration officials stated that the U.S. intercepted Iraqi military communications marking Iraq's CW attacks on Kurds.[36]

U.S. intelligence reported in 1991 that the U.S. helicopters sold to Iraq in 1983 were used in 1988 to spray Kurds with chemicals.[37]

"Reagan administration records show that between September and December 1988, 65 licenses were granted for dual-use technology exports. This averages out as an annual rate of 260 licenses, more than double the rate for January through August 1988."[38]

A general note about the Security Council's reaction to Iraq's CW use. Between 1984 and the implementation of the ceasefire on 20 August 1988 the UN Security Council passed six resolutions directly or indirectly related to the "situation between Iran and Iraq." In 1984, Security Council Resolution (SCR) 552 "condemns [Iran's] recent attack on commercial ship en route to and from ports of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia"[39] but it did not pass a resolution on the Iran-Iraq War generally or the UN expert mission's chemical weapons March findings specifically. During all of 1985 the Security Council did not pass a resolution on the "situation between Iran and Iraq" or Iraq's chemical weapons use therein. Although the UN's expert mission concluded in March 1986 that Iraq used chemical weapons on Iranian troops,[40] SCR 582 (1986) symmetrically noted "that both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq are parties to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous and Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare signed at Geneva on 7 June 1925"[41] and "deplores...in particular the use of chemical weapons contrary to obligations under the 1925 Protocol".[42] Resolution 588 (1986) did not mention chemical weapons.[43] In 20 July 1987, SCR 598 again deplored "in particular the use chemical weapons contrary to obligations of the 1925 Protocol",[44] but does not elaborate. After considering the expert mission's 25 April 1988 report, the Security Council in Resolution 612 is "dismayed" by chemical weapons' continued use and "more intensive scale".[45] Furthermore, the Council "affirms the necessity that" both parties observe the 1925 Geneva Protocol, "condemns vigorously the continued use of chemical weapons" and "expects both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons".[46] SCR 619 (1988) focused on implementing the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group and did not mention chemical weapons.[47] After the ceasefire, the Security Council considered the reports of the expert missions from 20-25 July and 2-19 August 1988 and stated in SCR 620 that it is "deeply dismayed" by the "continued use of chemical weapons" and that "such use against Iranians has become more intense and frequent".[48] Despite identifying Iranians as more frequent chemical weapons targets, the Security Council did not condemn Iraq. Rather, the Security Council "condemns resolutely the use of chemical weapons in the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq"[49]. All of the subsequent four resolutions, passed between 1989-1990 and relevant to "the situation between Iran and Iraq," pertained to the United Nations Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group and as such omitted any reference to chemical weapons use.[50]

The Security Council could only condemn Iraq by name for using chemical weapons through non-binding Presidential statements, over which permanent members of the Security Council do not have an individual veto. On 21 March 1986, the Security Council President, making a "declaration" and "speaking on behalf of the Security Council," stated that the Council members are "profoundly concerned by the unanimous conclusion of the specialists that chemical weapons on many occasions have been used by Iraqi forces against Iranian troops...[and] the members of the Council strongly condemn this continued use of chemical weapons in clear violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which prohibits the use in war of chemical weapons".[51] The US voted against the issuance of this statement, and the UK, Australia, France and Denmark abstained. However, the concurring votes of the other ten members of the Security Council ensured that this statement constituted the first criticism of Iraq by the Security Council. A similar Presidential statement was made on 14 May 1987, which noted that the Council was "deeply dismayed" about the CW use against Iranian forces and civilians.

In March, CIA director William Webster testified before Congress that Iraq was the largest CW producer in the world.[52]

James Baker received an SD memo stating that Iraq was diligently developing chemical, biological, and new missiles, and that Baker was to "express our interest in broadening U.S.-Iraqi ties" to Iraqi Under-Secretary Hamdoon.[53]

Although the CIA and the Bush Administration knew that Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (MIMI) "controlled entities were involved in Iraq's clandestine nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs and missile programs ... the Bush administration [approved] dozens of export licenses that [allowed] United States and foreign firms to ship sophisticated U.S. dual-use equipment to MIMI-controlled weapons factories".[54]

By October 1989, when all international banks had cut off loans to Iraq, President Bush signed National Security Directive (NSD) 26 mandating closer links with Iraq and $1 billion in agricultural loan guarantees. These guarantees freed for Iraq hard cash to continue to buy and develop WMDs, and are suspended only on 2 August 1990, the same day that Iraq invaded Kuwait. Richard Haass, then a National Security Council official, and Robert Kimmitt, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, also told the Commerce Department (CD) not to single Iraq out for dual-use technology restrictions.[55]

When one American firm twice contacted the CD with concerns that their product could be used for nuclear weapons (NW) and ballistic missiles, the CD simply requested Iraqi written guarantees about civilian use, said that a license and review was unnecessary, and convinced the company that shipment was acceptable.[56]

From July 18 to 1 August (Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August) the Bush Administration approved $4.8 million in advanced technology product sales to Iraq. End-buyers included MIMI and Saad 16. Mimi was identified in 1988 as a facility for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. In 1989 Saad was linked to CW and NW development.[57]

The Bush Administration approved $695,000 worth of advanced data transmission devices the day before Iraq invades Kuwait.[58]

Items sent from the U.S. during the Reagan and Bush Administrations that helped Iraq's non-conventional weapons programs and that were shipped to known military industrial facilities include:
Computers to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons;[59] machine tools and lasers to extend ballistic missile range;[60] graphics terminals to design and analyze rockets;[61] West Nile Fever virus, a known potential BW agent, sent by the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC);[62] the agents for botulism, tetnus, and anthrax.[63]

One study lists 207 firms from 21 countries that contributed to Iraq's non-conventional weapons program during and after the Iran-Iraq war. E.g., West German (86); British (18); Austrian (17); French (16); Italian (12); Swiss (11); and American (18).[64]

Throughout the U.S. exports to Iraq, several agencies were supposed to review items relevant to national security or that could be diverted for a nuclear program. The reviewers included the SD, DOD, Energy Department, Subgroup on Nuclear Export Coordination (included representatives from Commerce Dept., Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), the intelligence community, and DOD).[65]

Sometimes CD did not send items to reviewers. On other occasions, reviewers objected, and CD still approved the items. Stephen Bryen, Deputy Under Secretary of DOD for Trade Security Policy during the second Reagan Administration, claimed that the DOD objected to 40% of applications that CD actually sent to DOD for review. Compare with a 5% DOD objection rate to dual-use technology applications for export to the U.S.S.R. during that same time period.[66]


[1] Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq: How the U.S. and Britain Secretly Built Saddam's War Machine, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997), p. 11.
[2] Phythian, pp. 73-74. Phythian cites Financial Times, 23 February 1983.
[3] Milt Freudenheim, Barbara Slavin and William C. Rhoden, "The World in Summary; Readjustments In the Mideast", New York Times, 28 February 1982.
[4] Phythian, p. 34.
[5] Bruce W. Jentleson, With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush, and Saddam, 1982-1990, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), p. 52.
[6] Leonard A. Cole, The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare, (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997), p. 87. Shultz's comment is from George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993), p. 238, quoted in Jentleson, p. 48.
[7] "CW Use in Iran-Iraq War", declassified on 2 July 1996 and placed on the website of the Federation of American Scientists.
[8] Phythian, pp. 37-38.
[9] Phythian, p. 37.
[10] Phythian, p. 38. Phythian cites former NSC official Howard Teicher and Radley Gayle, Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America's Flawed Vision in the Middle East from Nixon to Bush, (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 275.
[11]Phythian, p. 35. Phythian cites Murray Waas and Craig Unger, "In the Loop: Bush's Secret Mission," New Yorker, p. 70.
[12] Phythian, p. 36. Phythian cites Alan Friedman, Spider's Web: Bush, Saddam, Thatcher and the Decade of Deceit, (London: Faber, 1993), pp. 81-84.
[13] Cole, p. 243, n36. See Bernard Gwertzman, "U.S. Says Iraqis Used Poison Gas Against Iranians in Latest Battles," New York Times, (March 6, 1984) for State Department quote.
[14] Cole, p. 243, n36. See Seymour M. Hersh, "U.S. Aides Say Iraqis Made Use of a Nerve Gas," New York Times (March 30, 1984). Quotation marks are for Hersh's words.
[15] Jentleson, p. 76.
[16] Jentleson, p. 76.
[17] Bob Woodward, "CIA Aiding Iraq in Gulf War; Target Data From U.S. Satellites Supplied for Nearly 2 Years," Washington Post, 15 December 1986.
[18] Bernard Gwertzman, "U.S. Restores Full Ties With Iraq But Cites Neutrality in Gulf War," New York Times, 27 November 1984.
[19] Jentleson, p. 54.
[20] Jentleson, p. 54. Jentleson quotes from Letter from Secretary of State George Shultz to Congressman Howard L. Berman, 20 June 1985.
[21] Jentleson, p. 54.
[22] Prepared statement of Gary Milhollin, director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, before the Subcommittee on Technology and National Security of the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, 23 April 1991. Cited in Committee on Government Operations, House, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System," 2 July 1991, para.11.
[23] Committee on Government Operations, House, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System," 2 July 1991, para.10.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid, para.9.
[26] Prepared statement of Gary Milhollin, director, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, before the Subcommittee on Technology and National Security of the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, 23 April 1991. Cited in Committee on Government Operations, House, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System," 2 July 1991, para. 25.
[27] Andrew Gowers and Richard Johns, "Iraq Uses Chemical Bombs on Its Own Citizens, " The Financial Times, 23 March 1988.
[28] Jentleson, p. 84-85.
[29] Peter W. Galbraith and Christopher van Hollen, Jr., staff report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Chemical Weapons Use in Kurdistan: Iraq's Final Offensive, October 1988, p. v.
[30] Galbraith and van Hollen, p. 30.
[31] Jentleson, p. 78.
[32] U.S. Senate, "Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988," 100th Congress, 2nd session, 8 September 1988.
[33] Jentleson, p. 78.
[34] Robert Pear, "U.S. Says It Monitored Iraqi Messages on Gas," New York Times, 15 September 1988.
[35] Jentleson, p. 78.
[36] Robert Pear, "U.S. Says It Monitored Iraqi Messages on Gas," New York Times, 15 September 1988.
[37] Henry Weinstein and William C. Rempel, "Big Help from U.S.; Technology was Sold with Approval -- and Encouragement -- from the Commerce Department but Often over Defense Officials' Objections," The Los Angeles Times, 13 February 1991.
[38] Jentleson, p. 88. Jentleson cites U.S. Department of Commerce, "Approved Licenses to Iraq, 1985-1990".
[39] S/Res/552, 1 June 1984, paragraph 4.
[40] Nick Ludington, "U.N. Says Iraq Used Poison Gas in War Against Iran," The Associated Press, 14 March 1986.
[41] S/Res/582, 24 February 1986, preamble.
[42] S/Res/552, 24 February 1986, para. 2.
[43] S/Res/588, 8 October 1986
[44] S/Res/598, 20 July 1987, preamble
[45] S/Res/612, 9 May 1988, preamble
[46] S/Res/612, 9 May 1988, para. 1-3
[47] S/Res/619, 9 August 1988
[48] S/Res/620, 26 August 1988, preamble
[49] S/Res/620, 26 August 1988, para. 1
[50] S/Res/631, 8 February 1989; S/Res/242, 29 September 1989; S/Res/251, 29 March 1990; S/Res/671, 27 September 1990; and S/Res/676, 28 November 1990
[51] S/17911 and Add. 1, 21 March 1986. Note that this is a "decision" and not a resolution.
[52] Jentleson, p. 106. Jentleson cites U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, "Chemical and Biological Weapons Threat: The Urgent Need for Remedies," Hearings, 101st Congress, 1st Session, 1 March 1989, pp. 27-45.
[53] Jentleson, p. 107. Jentleson cites and quotes State Department memorandum, "Meeting with Iraqi Under Secretary Hamdoon," 24 March 1989.
[54] Statement by Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Tex), "Details on Iraq's Procurement Network," 102nd Congress, 2nd session, 10 August 1992.
[55] Douglas Frantz and Murray Waas, "Bush Secret Effort Helped Iraq Build It's War Machine," Los Angeles Times, 23 February 1992.
[56] Jentleson, p. 110.
[57] Committee on Government Operations, House, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System" .
[58] Stuart Auerbach, "$1.5 Billion in U.S. Sales to Iraq", Washington Post, 11 March 1991.
[59] Sub-committee on Commerce, Consumer and Monetary Affairs of the House Committee on Government Operations, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System," 2 July 1991.
[60] Committee on Government Operations, House, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System", 2 July 1991, section "National Security vs. Export Promotion: Sales to Iraq," para. 16.
[61] Auerbach, "$1.5 Billion in U.S. Sales to Iraq".
[62] Committee on Government Operations, House, "Strengthening the Export Licensing System".
[63] Cole, p. 85. Cole cites U.S. Senate, a report by chairman Donald W. Riegle, Jr., and ranking member Alfonse M. D'Amato of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual Use Exports to Iraq and Their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Persian Gulf War, May 25, 1994, pp. 39-41.
[64] Cole, p. 82. Cole cites Kenneth R. Timmerman, The Poison Gas Connection, (Los Angeles: Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1990) p. 46.
[65] Kenneth R. Timmerman, The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), pp. 202 and 410 n5.
[66] Jentleson, p. 62, Jentleson cites U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, "Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL)," Hearing, 102nd Congress, 1st Session, 9 April 1991, p. 79.


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