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Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Declared Persona Non Grata by Saddam

Iraq expelled an American diplomat stationed in Baghdad on November 17, 1988 for having contacts with Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Haywood Rankin, head of the American Embassy’s political section, was forced to leave the country after he and a British diplomat returned to Baghdad from a trip to Kurdistan that had been approved by Iraqi authorities. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was infuriated by U.S. charges that his forces used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels in far northern Iraq, repeatedly denying the allegations and saying they are part of a “Zionist plot” to defame Iraq in the wake of its military victory against Iran.

Upon Rankin’s return from his visit to the north, he sent detailed cables to Washington documenting his strong suspicion that chemical weapons had been used by the Iraqi military against Kurdish villages. Soon afterward, the Iraqis informed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that Rankin would be expelled for ”talking to Kurds” and ”contact with Kurds.”  Despite attempts to overturn the expulsion order, Rankin and the British diplomat were declared persona non grata and told to leave.

Haywood Rankin, Chief Political Officer in Baghdad from 1986 to 1988, was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1998.

To read more about Iraq, the Middle East, life in the Foreign Service, or to read about April Glaspie’s experience with Saddam Hussein, please follow the links.


“How do you influence him to be somewhat less of a horrible dictator?”

RANKIN: We were tilting toward Iraq, but without any enthusiasm. Iran seemed to be winning the war. Iran had committed an extraordinary outrage against us by taking our diplomats as hostages. Khomeini was still in power. His whole vocabulary was incredibly anti-American. (Rankin is at left.)

We in the United States had a deep loathing of the prospect of this clerical regime domination the region, particularly one both as repressive and as anti-American as Khomeini’s. An Iraqi defeat seemed all too possible. There you have it. There you have one of the most terrible foreign dilemmas that we have ever faced.

I saw this every day as political officer in Iraq. No one in our embassy had any illusions about Saddam Hussein. It was obvious that he was a horrible dictator and we hated everything about him. But we wanted Iraq to stop an advance which would not stop with Iraq but would keep right on going right through the Gulf once it got going.

The only way to stop the Iranians was through Saddam Hussein. Now there was a classic diplomatic dilemma. In the future, if I have the opportunity to be a lecturer on the art of diplomacy, I will cite that as your classic damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

There we were. We tried to be realistic. We saw that Iraq must not be defeated, must not be overrun by Khomeini. That much was clear and yet we were obviously not going to be providing Saddam Hussein any of our armaments and materiel or military assistance.

The French were there, selling the Mirage and other advanced military equipment. The Soviets at the time were very much there. Iraq was a huge, huge market for Russian armaments. Our arms were not needed. Even though Iraq was going deeper and deeper and deeper into debt, the Russians were on the hook to continue to provide stuff.

The Russians for their part were no more interested in seeing a resurgent Khomeini than were we or the French or anybody else. So, the Soviet Union and the United States were to some extent on the same side in this one. We were not able to benefit commercially from sales of arms, but we certainly saw it as a good thing that somebody was arming Iraq, not Saddam Hussein, but Iraq, against Iran.

You ask about military intelligence. The subsequent condemnations of the Reagan and then Bush policies were founded on both military intelligence and on a substantial agricultural sales program. The answer to both of those is yes, we had very substantial agricultural sales and we had something of a military intelligence link with Iraq.

I am not an intelligence officer and I didn’t know that much about it but it was there as far as I know. I never thought intelligence-sharing helped Iraq that much. Looking at it from a political standpoint rather than a military standpoint, we hoped it would give us a little leverage with Saddam Hussein.

How much leverage and to what end could we use that leverage? It was the same question with Hafez al-Assad. How do you influence a dictator? In Saddam’s case, a horrible dictator. How do you influence him to be somewhat less of a horrible dictator?

The theory was if you had a little bit of an intelligence relationship and if you had a substantial food relationship, then you had a little bit of leverage with this horrible man perhaps to make him a little less horrible.

You can say that’s totally naive and ridiculous and subsequent events have proved that this was totally naive and ridiculous but how else precisely do you operate, if I may ask, in such a situation? How else can a diplomat operate?

Do you not try to have a little bit of leverage even with the most horrible people in the world? Especially if you have to deal with them. And especially if you not only have to deal with them but if you actually need them in your own interests?

Our own American interests as we perceived them at the time were not to have a victorious Khomeini. I submit that that was indeed our interest and it made sense to give Iraq a little help…

“The Iraqi reaction to [IRAN CONTRA] was much milder than I expected”

The [Iran Contra deal] was all learned by me, and I suspect by my entire embassy, after the fact. It was in the latter days, the second term of the Reagan administration. One learned that the Israelis, despite their fervent condemnation of Khomeini, still maintained certain relations with Iran, a holdover from the days of the Shah.

There were Israelis who were close advisors of the NSC and President Reagan. As I looked at it myself it seemed a bit crude. I am certainly not an Iranian scholar or expert but it seemed a very crude way to have tried to develop a relationship with the Iranians.

In Baghdad, we were of course analyzing it from the Iraqi standpoint. I can’t say the Iraqis were surprised by it. Saddam Hussein, as I said, has to be one of the most suspicious people in the world, and I would think that he would expect even his best friends in the world to be hobnobbing with the devil. I think that is the way Saddam Hussein is.

If anything, therefore, the Iraqi reaction to these revelations was much milder than I expected. I think they kind of enjoyed it in a way because it actually made it easier for them to develop a relationship with the U.S. that might be more useful to them. I think that’s how they viewed it. That’s the sense I got from the high level Iraqis that we dealt with.

I am talking about the Nizar Hamdous and Riad al-Qaysis and Tariq Azizes (Tariq Aziz is seen at right) that we dealt with, those very sophisticated international types that Saddam Hussein used and continues to this day to use as his face to the world, as his link to the outer world.

Saddam himself is someone who understands the external world very poorly, but he has been smart enough to take some of these very, very able western-educated types and to use them. They were the types, of course, that we tended to see the most of. We as diplomats, our ambassador, we ourselves. My sense from them was that they saw Iran-Contra as an opportunity to eke more out of us…

Things began to change quickly in the summer of 1988. The Iraqis suddenly had defeated the Iranians on the battlefield and were positioning themselves to recross the Shatt al-Arab. Khomeini sent up the white flag in July of 1988, and the war suddenly was over.

About the same time our new ambassador arrived, April Glaspie, and a new Deputy Chief of Mission. It was a small embassy and I was effectively the institutional memory, having served at the post for two years.

I really looked forward to a year with April whom I had known in two previous assignments and with the new DCM whom I didn’t know, Joe Wilson, an Africanist. It was a very hopeful moment.

“The use of chemical weapons against the Kurds would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with the United States”

We had had one black cloud on the horizon already in the spring in March when Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against the Kurds in a town called Halabja. Halabja had already begun to shake our theory that if you have a little bit of leverage with a dictator like Saddam Hussein he will be a nice guy and when peace comes you will find that he is going to become more democratic and use civilized methods.

The gas attack in March on Halabja, it turned out, was a correct signal. Shortly after Khomeini ended the war in July, in August, Saddam, instead of doing what he should have done – consolidate his international position and his victory, try to refurbish himself as somehow a “nice autocrat” along the lines of Mubarak – instead of doing that, he used his newly amassed chemical weapons against his own Kurdish population in substantial attacks on northern villages with results that were gruesome.

His first priority, as always, was absolute power. One of the first things he wanted to do after defeating Iran was to defeat the Kurds, to get that Kurdish rebellion finally off the boards and control Kurdistan once and for all.

The easy way, if you like, was to use gas, rather like our use of atomic bombs. Gas didn’t involve a lot of his own troops dying. It would scare the Kurdish population. What Saddam didn’t understand – because Saddam has always had a weak understanding of the rest of the world – was that the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds would be the beginning of the end of his relationship with the United States and to some extent with the rest of the civilized world.

As political officer it was my job to investigate as well as I could on the ground what had happened and how the Kurds felt about it. That was my job to do. The earliest opportunity I had for that was in October. I put in requests to visit two Kurdish cities. I’m not talking about remote Kurdistan, I’m talking about Dohuk and Arbil. I didn’t even attempt to go to Sulaymania.

By then after two years I had developed a certain little network of contacts up in Arbil and I knew people who were associated with the Barzanis and Talabani. I applied to the foreign ministry to travel to the north and got permission to do so.

I also contacted my network of people who are Kurds and let them know that I would be wanting to see some of their people in the north. I even went with a British colleague called Charles Hollis who had newly arrived. I did not take my family on that but I did take Hollis.

We met a lot of Kurds both in Dohuk and Arbil and I learned even from Kurds who were traditionally bought off by the regime that they were really horrified by the use of gas. My political reporting was basically to say that Saddam Hussein had managed to humiliate even his own Kurdish allies in Arbil and Dohuk. It was not until November that we got the news.

“I returned to Washington as a hero”

Suddenly, April Glaspie, the ambassador (seen left), was called into the Foreign Ministry and was told that Mr. Rankin would have a week to leave. The ministry cited my trip to Kurdistan as the pretext. She was irate and did everything in her power to drive home the message that this would be another body blow to the American-Iraqi relationship and hoped that they would rethink it, but they didn’t.

Within a week, we were gone. In retrospect, as I look back on it and taking into account the time it took the Iraqis to arrive at their decision, my suspicion is that my expulsion wasn’t a reaction to the trip I made to the north. They would have expected me to talk to the Kurds. I’m a political officer and when they gave me permission to go to the north it was perfectly obvious what I was going to do.

They always knew whom I talked with and I actually talked mostly to Saddam Hussein’s bought-off Kurds, even if what they told me was actually extremely interesting. What burned them was the American reaction to the use of gas against the Kurds.

One of their senior advisors to Saddam Hussein, Saadoun Hammadi, had traveled to the United States in September. He was to have met Secretary of State George Shultz. When he arrived he was treated very coldly. He did not get his meeting with the Secretary. He was fobbed off on the head of Iraq-Iran Affairs, as I recall, or perhaps the Assistant Secretary.

That very same day, Charles Redman, who was the State Department spokesman, read out an announcement which could not have been more critical of Iraq. We had chosen that moment to tell Iraq that we totally opposed what it had done.

Saadoun Hammadi, who was actually a graduate of an American university, was humiliated. Saddam Hussein was angry. This is now only my speculation, but given the amount of time it took Saddam to act – and Saddam Hussein is not usually one to take time to act – I suspect he probably had considered PNGing [declaring “persona non grata,” which requires a diplomat to leave] April Glaspie…

I think, judging by the amount of time it took, his first inclination must have been to expel the ambassador, April Glaspie. On further reflection he decided that that would be an extreme thing to do and would really set in concrete the downturn in American-Iraqi relations.

Throwing me out made good sense because there had been such a turnover in the embassy in the summer and I was then the institutional memory. I was the logical person to throw out. I was the closest substantive advisor to the ambassador and I had had this trip to the north which served as a perfect pretext if they even needed one.

I returned to Washington as a hero. I was even in the papers for a very short while. It was the high point of my career.