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Wait ‘til the Winter: Iran, Iraq and the Kurdish Rebellion

Iraqi Kurds are scheduled to hold a referendum on independence in September, 2017. The Kurdistan region of about five million people already has a great deal of autonomy, with its own parliament and armed forces, but relations with the central Iraqi government have become increasingly strained in recent years. This latest development tracks with a prolonged history of conflict between the Iraqi region of Kurdistan and Baghdad.

The Kurdish people have sought autonomy in northern Iraq for decades, conducting military operations against successive Iraqi regimes from 1960 to 1975. In March 1970, Iraq announced a peace plan that would provide for autonomy to be implemented in four years, but the negotiations failed. In 1974 the Iraqi government launched a new offensive against the Kurds, pushing them close to the border with Iran. Kurdish rebel forces which had fought against each other for supremacy, including the Popular Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Tabalani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mustafa Barzani, united in trying to drive out Saddam Hussein’s army.

Iran and the United States were giving clandestine material support to the Kurdish rebels. But as the fighting intensified, Iraq made a deal with Iran: in exchange for Iran ending its support of the Iraqi Kurds, Iraq transferred strategic territory to Iran. Ultimately the Kurdish militias collapsed and Iraqi troops regained control of northern Iraq. Barzani and most of the KDP leadership fled to Iran.

Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann was at this time the Principal Officer of the U.S. Consulate in Tabriz, Iran. From his vantage point in western Iran, he had a firsthand view of the Kurdish rebellion as well as the beginning of unrest in Iran that would lead to the collapse of the Shah’s regime three years later.

To read more about Iran, Kurds, Iraq, or to read about Iraqi Kurds, Operation Provide Comfort, and the Birth of Iraq’s Opposition,  please follow the links.


“Wait ‘til the winter”

Ronald E. Neumann, Principal Officer, U.S. Consulate Tabriz, 1974-1976

NEUMANN: After the Kurdish rebellion began, I realized that whatever I was going to lose for bad Persian was going to be more than made up for by what officials would tell me if I didn’t have an interpreter with me, because the Iranians are rightfully suspicious of whom the interpreter might also report to. So I cut the umbilical cord, left my interpreter and after that I did all my traveling on my own. My Persian in those days was a whole lot better than it ever became since. (Neumann is seen at left.)

It was an interesting period because, at first, I was not aware of the clandestine U.S. support of the Iraqi Kurds. But I learned an awful lot. I misattributed it in the end to Iranians sending U.S. equipment into Iraq in violation of the FMS agreements, the Foreign Military Sales agreements.

I had picked up on my own that there were American weapons going in to Iraq, particularly because some of them were recoilless rifles that had a very distinctive shape and could only be U.S. I had picked up that the Iranians were firing artillery from the Iranian side of the border in support of the Kurds.

There was one governor who used to tell me when I dropped it on him what our guns were doing. In fact, they blew up one of the guns because they didn’t clean the barrel: the carbon built up until it got smaller than the round they were trying to shoot out of it.

There was a U.S. Army team that I discovered had come down to repair the weapon and assess the damage. I had discovered that there were foreigners going into Iraq, quite possibly Americans. So I actually picked up quite a bit on my own. But I did not in my naive younger days understand that this was actually a clandestine operation in support of the Kurds.

However, I was tracking the battle progress and did a lot of reporting, some of which can still be found in the famous volumes titled Nest of Spies, because a lot of my reporting was still in Tehran where the embassy was taking seven years later, and the shredded pieces having been put back together can be read in the volume the Iranians published.

The Kurds were fighting for their independence. It was interesting because, coming into the winter of 1974, the Kurds were being forced back against the Iranian border.

And people kept saying, “Wait ‘til the winter.” But they didn’t do well in the winter.

“They were not going to do mass attacks through the barbed wire into machine gun fire”

What had happened in previous wars was that in the winter the Iraqi troops would pull back out of the higher Kurdish mountains and the Kurdish would get back for free whatever positions they had lost, and then they could start fighting again in a essentially defensive war in the spring.

In the winter of ’74-’75, the Iraqis didn’t pull back. They entrenched on all their forward positions, put up barbed wire, and determined to stay.

The Kurdish military performance that winter was actually quite disappointing. We had expected from the way that they were talking that they would get some of this ground back when the Iraqis couldn’t use their air because of bad weather. They didn’t. What I realized later was that the Kurds were great defensive fighters, they were courageous.

But these guys were not the Viet Cong. They were not going to do mass attacks through the barbed wire into machine gun fire to overrun a position. That just wasn’t the nature of the tribal warfare that they had practiced.

Since mass attacks into machine gun fire was the only way they were going to take back those positions, they didn’t take them back. The result was that the spring of ’75 opened with the Kurds already having lost a lot of ground and being steadily shoved back toward the Iranian border.

I’ve often thought that this has not been adequately taken into account when people have condemned both the United States and the Shah of Iran or the Shah’s subsequent betrayal of the Kurds — and it was a betrayal; he promised to support them — but I don’t know what was in the Shah’s mind.

I doubt that the Shah had ever expected to get into a situation with the high risk of all-out war with Iraq when he signed up to back the Kurds. In fact, that was what was beginning to happen in 1975. The Iranian artillery was firing regularly to protect the insurgency.

There were two areas. One was the Ruwandiz Gorge in Iraq (seen right.) The only thing that was keeping the Iraqi Army from coming all the way through the Ruwandiz Gorge sand shoving the Kurds across the border was Iranian artillery fire.

One of the things I figured out was that the Iranians had to have people in the fight because you don’t shoot artillery without someone calling the rounds, calling it where it lands and adjusting fire, and usually you don’t let other folk do that for you. I’d also worked out that the Iranians were intervening in the war.

The other place they were shooting was into the Kalidasa basin. There’s a range of hills and there’s a basin, and there’s another range of hills right back –into the Iranian-Iraqi border. It was the Iranian artillery fire — they once had five artillery pieces firing out of a place north of Sanandaj — that was keeping the Iraqis out of this area. That was what was protecting the Kurds on their last line of hills.

But this was getting a lot closer to being all-out war between Iranians and Iraqis than just covert support for the Kurds. Yet frankly, if the Iranians didn’t keep up the artillery fire the Kurds were going to lose. But if they didn’t stop intervening there was a real risk of an outbreak of war with the Iraqis.

I think this was far more direct risk than the Shah had ever planned on, although that’s entirely surmise on my part. What I do know is that everybody that I talked to in those days expected the war to be much more a model of the previous Kurdish rebellion where the Kurds were able to take back positions in the winter, where the war went on year by year in kind of a stalemate, and where it would take a much larger Iraqi operation than they were likely to be able to mount to really bring it to a close. That simply was not what happened.

The Kurds were steadily losing the war from late ’74 right into when the Algiers Agreement was signed that cut off Iranian support and led to their collapse. After that there was a massive migration of Kurds into Iran, and that’s when I got to know a lot of the Kurdish leaders that I was later to work with in Iraq.

“There were a lot of tribal issues that moved into politics”

There were Iranian Kurds — that is, Kurds who were native to Iran — but these were Iraqi Kurds. And of course Iraqi Kurds could communicate in Kurdish with the Iranian Kurds, but the Iraqi Kurds mostly speak Arabic as a second language while Iranian Kurds also have Farsi. And there were some Kurds who spoke different dialects but they could all talk to each other easily enough.

There are various differences. There are tribal differences and other things. In fact, the Kurds are a very divided people in tribal terms. I did a study once when I was in Tabriz of Kurdish rebellions in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey during the early part of the 20th century. And one of the distinguishing features was that they could never manage to get a rebellion going on two sides of the same border at the same time so that they were never able to have any kind of secure base area or a situation where the Kurds on one side of the border would be helping the other side.

In fact, one of the distinguishing features of the ’74 rebellion was that it did bring together groups that have fought against each other. Talabani’s PUK, Popular Union of Kurdistan, is much more of an intellectual, somewhat left-leaning urban intelligencia. Barzani’s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) was much more of a tribal group based around the Barzani tribe.

And in fact, some of the Kurds that fought for Saddam and against the rebellion were tribal enemies of the Barzani tribe. There were a lot of tribal issues that moved into politics. It wasn’t all about nationalism, by any means.

“I used to travel with a pistol in my briefcase”

I called on all the governors and many other officials. There was wide variation. Some would tell me a lot, some would tell me very little. I remember the district governor in Piranshahr would tell me nothing. And the district guy out in Sardasht would tell me all kinds of things.

So the only reason I would travel up to Piranshahr, which was a whole day’s trip out and back, would be to make it a little fuzzy that one guy was talking to me more fully than another. But I got to know quite a few of those guys, yes.

Hamedan city was in our area as well as Rasht where the Russians had a consulate. I remember having cold whiskey at 10:00 in the morning calling on the Russian consul in Rasht. And then having a really, really bad drive over bad roads, which was particularly hard on the stomach after having done Georgian wine and Russian whiskey and God knows what, before lunch.

Diplomat life was definitely better in those days, although there was a terrorist threat in Iran. However, Tehran was worse.

There was one successful assassination of American officials in Tehran every one of the three years that I was in Iran. One was two Air Force guys. One was a Defense Attaché. I think the third was couple of contractors, all of them guilty of the first sin of counter security, not varying their routes and times.

But a year or two before I got to Tabriz, my predecessor had had a bomb thrown up the balcony of the room he was staying in, in Mahabad. We hadn’t had any immediate threat for some time, although there was periodic information that there would be threats in our area. I used to travel with a pistol in my briefcase.

In fact, I remember once I was coming back from a trip and I was dozing in the front seat of the Carryall, which was my normal way of traveling, and I suddenly felt the vehicle slowing. I sort of groggily woke up and I looked up and there was a herd of sheep going across the road.

There was a car parked on the side of this very narrow diked-up road that you couldn’t drive off of easily. And the car was stopped with the driver standing outside the car for no apparent reason on the roadside of the car, smoking a cigarette.

It just looked like a classic ambush. That herd of sheep was going to bring us to a halt exactly next to this stopped car with the guy smoking a cigarette right next to my window. And you know, having come out of Vietnam not too long before, I looked at this setup and boy, did I come awake in a hurry.

And I had that briefcase open and I had my hand on the pistol and the sheep passed, and the fellow smoked his cigarette. Thank goodness he didn’t ask me for a light or I’d have probably blown him away.

I kept swiveling my head to look for people coming up from behind the dyke behind us. Absolutely nothing happened. The herd of sheep passed, the man finished his cigarette, and we drove on. But I didn’t sleep for a while.