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The Soviet Union, Not the West, Was Saddam Hussein's Main Backer in His War Against Iran

September 22, 2020
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
Contrary to Iranian propaganda, the financial value of US aid to Iran was greater than the aid given to Iraq
Contrary to Iranian propaganda, the financial value of US aid to Iran was greater than the aid given to Iraq
A year before Iraq’s September 1980 attack on Iran, the United States informed the Iranian government about the possible attack
A year before Iraq’s September 1980 attack on Iran, the United States informed the Iranian government about the possible attack

Forty years after the onset of the bloody Iran-Iraq war, several important aspects of the conflict remain obscure and overshadowed by official propaganda. To this day, these issues are rarely discussed, and many of the facts remain unknown to citizens of both countries. 

During the war, the longest of the twentieth century, a number of countries provided numerous military and weapons assistance to both sides of the conflict, depending on their relations with the governments of Iraq and Iran and driven by their own agendas. 

Islamic Republic officials have repeatedly identified the United States as one of the key perpetrators and instigators of the war and the mastermind behind Saddam Hussein's attack on Iran, labeling it the Great Satan. So did the US incite Iraq to invade Iran and then equip and arm the Iraqi government against Iran? What role did the Soviet Union, of which Russia is the main heir today, play in this war, and to which country did it extend its military aid?




The Islamic Republic of Iran has produced extensive propaganda about its eight-year war with Iraq, and disseminated this material widely over a 40-year period. But contrary to this propaganda, the financial value of US aid to Iran was greater than similar aid it sent to Iraq. Crucially, the Soviet Union provided Iraq with half of what it spent on the war.

According to published documents, about a year before the September 1980 Iraqi attack on Iran, the United States informed the government of Mehdi Bazargan, the caretaker prime minister of Iran, of the possible attack, and even provided the Iraqi army’s military plan to Iranian officials.

Ebrahim Yazdi, the foreign minister of the interim Iranian government, had confirmed the reports. "Iranian officials were aware of Iraqi military movements through their then-ambassador to Iraq, as well as through information provided by some Iraqi army officers to the Iranian ambassador to Kuwait at the time. Even from a month or two before the attack, they knew about the date it was going to take place.”

It is debatable whether the US effort to inform Iran of the possible Iraqi invasion can be seen as proof that the US aimed to prevent a large-scale conflict between the two countries. But it is a crucial lesser-known point that US military aid to Iraq during the eight-year war is far less than the direct and indirect military aid it provided to the Islamic Republic.

According to documents included in The Iran-Iraq War by Pierre Razoux, published by Harvard University Press, the total foreign military aid to Iraq during the eight-year war was worth about US$80 billion and the total foreign military aid to the Islamic Republic was approximately $24 billion.

This calculation is the dollar value of all military aid and assistance, including logistics and training, services, direct and indirect sales of military weapons and equipment and related services, including repairs and spare parts, civilian goods, all of which were used in some way toward the war effort and in support of the military, including medical and hospital facilities, cash and credit assistance, and any other similar facilities, including loans for military purchases, provided to the receiving government during the conflict.


Countries That Helped Both Sides

The Soviet Union was one of the top donors to Iraq in its war against Iran. The total value of Soviet military aid to Iraq was at least $30 billion, which in some sources is estimated at as much as $40 billion. This figure shows that half of all foreign aid that Saddam Hussein received to fight Iran came from the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union, donors of military aid to Iraq included France, with $17 billion, China with $6 billion, Italy with nearly $4 billion, Egypt with $3 billion, Brazil with $2.7 billion and Yugoslavia with $1.2 billion.

Countries that donated less than $1 billion to Saddam Hussein during the war with Iran include Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, South Africa, West Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden. According to Razoux's book, the Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, provided little assistance to Saddam, amounting to less than $50 million.

However, in its official propaganda, the Islamic Republic presents the countries of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, as chief financial supporters of Iraq during its war with Iran. But documents obtained from the Iraqi National Archives after the fall of Saddam Hussein, in line with US Department of Defense documents, show that the Gulf states' financial assistance to Saddam can be practically disregarded compared to the massive amount of Soviet aid.

So, regarding the $24 billion foreign aid to Iran during the war, which countries played a major role? China and North Korea come top of the list of donors to the Islamic Republic, each having given an estimated $3 billion (a total of $6 billion) in financial assistance. Libya, which gave $2.5 billion, the Soviet Union, with $1.5 billion, and South Korea, with $1.2 billion, were other major donors to Iran.

Bulgaria, Syria, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Sweden, Italy, France, Austria, Brazil, Switzerland, Greece, South Africa, and Ethiopia are among the countries that gave less than 1 billion dollars’ worth of aid during the eight-year war. Syria, the Islamic Republic's most important ally, contributed $800 million, less than South Korea, which has no close ties to the Islamic Republic.

The financial value of US aid to Iran during the eight-year war was $650 million, while US aid to Iraq was $250 million; that is, the value of US military assistance to Iran was almost three times the value of aid to Iraq. Contrary to what the official propaganda of the Islamic Republic says, the value of US military aid to Iran was greater than the aid it gave to Iraq and the Soviet Union — today Russia is considered to be the "strategic ally" of the Islamic Republic — provided the greatest military assistance to Iraq, equivalent to half of the foreign aid to Iraq.

One of the most remarkable points in the history of the Iran-Iraq war is that, during the eight-year war, more than 60 percent of foreign aid to Iraq was provided by Soviet-led Eastern Bloc countries, while this group of countries' financial and military assistance to Iran make up about 10 percent of foreign aid to Iran. The United States gave a larger share of direct and indirect aid to the Islamic Republic than it did to Saddam-led Iraq, which was eventually overthrown by the United States.


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