The United States and Iran: The Secret History: Part Three: Carter’s Bargain – The Islamic Bomb

The United States and Iran: The Secret History: Part Three: Carter’s Bargain – The Islamic Bomb

Friday, 31 July 2009 00:00 Joseph Trento and Susan Trento

For Jimmy Carter, the hostage nightmare in Iran was compounded by another Cold War disaster. Cheered on by Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, the CIA was playing a very dangerous game. Secretly working with Pakistani strongman General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and his intelligence service, Islamic fighters were making cross border raids into the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. These raids included attacks on Soviet bases where nuclear weapons were deployed. For the Soviets, the cross border attacks were indicative of a much bigger problem: the incitement of native Muslim extremists. But to the Carter administration, the Soviet Union massing troops along the Afghan border was interpreted as the first step toward the Russians’ desire to establish a warm water port on the Indian Ocean.
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President Carter with Muhammad Zia ul-Haq Photo by Wally McNamee / Corbis

Not understanding the fear the Soviets had of the Iranian Islamic revolution spreading to their own territory would be one of the great miscalculations of the Carter presidency.

Throughout the first half of 1979, the White House watched as Moscow ramped up support for the communist government in Kabul. When Saudi Arabia informed the CIA that the anti-Soviet Muslim rebel force it was financing was gaining strength, the CIA drafted a proposal for secret US backing of the anti-communist Afghan Muslim guerrillas soon to become widely known as the mujahedin. Such an effort, the agency reasoned, might not only slow down Soviet progress in Afghanistan but also help deflect some of the energy of Middle Eastern Muslims, inspired by the Iranian revolution, away from the United States and toward the Russians. But there were also risks. Any evidence of US interference in Afghanistan would surely lead to Soviet retaliation. The United States would have to operate through a “cutout,” a proxy through which money and weapons could be secretly supplied to the mujahedin. And the CIA had just the candidate: Pakistan’s ruthless secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Pakistanis, in fact, had already approached the agency about providing assistance to the Afghan rebels, but indicated that without a solid commitment from the US they “could not risk Soviet wrath.”

The CIA’s proposal found a sponsor in Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish émigré and fierce anticommunist hawk. Brzezinski, an academic who had done work for the CIA, believed the Afghan situation offered the United States a rare opportunity to frustrate the Soviet’s expansionist goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He recommended covert assistance to the Islamic fighters. On July 3, 1979, President Carter signed a directive authorizing nonlethal support. On that same day, Brzezinski said he sent a note the president saying his actions would result in direct military intervention by the Soviets.

On November 20, 1979, as the Carter administration struggled in vain to help the more than four dozen American citizens held captive in the US embassy in Tehran, hundreds of armed Muslim fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in all of Islam.

The militants, intent on overthrowing the Saudi royal family, engaged in a bloody, two-week battle with security forces. The fighting left hundreds dead, many hundreds injured, and the American-allied House of Saud grappling to maintain its hold on power.

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An exclusive interview with Joe Trento about western knowledge of Pakistani nuclear proliferation

As the Mecca crisis began, a rumor flew from continent to continent that the United States and Israel were behind the Grand Mosque seizure. In Washington, the State Department, still reeling from the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran only a little more than two weeks before, sent out urgent cables to US diplomatic outposts worldwide, warning of possible attacks. Anti-American protests soon erupted across the Muslim world. The most violent by far was in Islamabad. There, the CIA station had learned weeks earlier that radical students at the city’s Quaid-i-Azam University might stage demonstrations at the American embassy in support of the hostage takers in Iran. The intelligence was correct. The Pakistani students were members of the youth wing of the fundamentalist Islamic political organization Jamaat-e-Islami, with which Pakistani strongman General Zia had aligned himself in the course of his Islamization campaign. Throughout the 1970s, Jamaat, like many other conservative Muslim groups, had received generous support from oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Now the Jamaat students, inspired by the embassy takeover in Tehran and inflamed by the mosque seizure in Mecca, were ready to show what they could do.

At noon on November 21, the day after the Grand Mosque takeover began, several hundred angry Jamaat students from Quaid-i-Azam arrived by bus at the gated American embassy in Islamabad and began a demonstration. After speaking with embassy officials, the protesters got back on their buses and drove off, seemingly having made their point. Just a few minutes later, however, the students returned, accompanied by many more busloads of demonstrators. Thousands of people now surrounded the embassy compound. The mood grew ugly — then violent. The crowd pushed past police and swarmed through the gates. The demonstration, orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence, became a riot. Embassy officials called for help. One hundred thirty seven people took shelter inside the steel-reinforced code room on the building’s second floor. Others fled to the nearby British embassy compound. The mob ran wild, rampaging through the grounds, wrecking everything it could, burning cars, and setting fire to the embassy itself. As smoke and flames filled the building, armed rioters climbed to the roof and began shooting down into the code-room vault, killing a young Marine corporal.

Throughout the afternoon, US officials pleaded with the Pakistani government to intervene. President Carter even put in an “impassioned” call for help to General Zia. And yet it would be nearly four hours from the time the rioting began until the Pakistani military responded. At 5:30 in the afternoon, a single Pakistani army unit arrived at the embassy. The rioters slowly dispersed. In the meantime, US installations in Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Karachi had also been attacked. In the end, one American Marine had been killed and the embassy compound had suffered twenty-three million dollars in damage.

That night, Zia went on television to address the nation. Realizing that he could not afford to alienate the Islamic fundamentalists on whom his political life depended, the general offered only a mild reproach to the rioters. While saying that he understood the “anger and grief” over the seizure of the Mecca mosque that had sparked the attack on the Islamabad embassy, he went on to suggest that the rioters’ actions had not been in keeping with “the lofty Islamic traditions of discipline and forbearance.”

In Washington, the response was quite different. American officials fumed at the failure of Zia’s troops to respond more quickly to the attack. The CIA later determined that Zia, believing those inside the embassy had perished in the flames, decided to let the riot run its course. The diplomatic relationship between the two countries was about to dramatically change.

A little more than four weeks after the Islamabad embassy attack, on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet army marched across the border into Afghanistan. The Russians had taken the bait and invaded, just as Zbigniew Brzezinski claims to have predicted. The Soviet action sent shock waves around the world. All hopes for a thaw in Cold War relations evaporated.

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Exclusive documents authored by Brzezinski

New fears now emerged that the East–West contest would turn hot. The Soviets’ primary objective in launching the attack had, at least in the beginning, been to remove the pro-Moscow but ineffective Afghan government and install a client that could stop the incursions into Soviet territory. Brzezinski and much of official Washington viewed the invasion as part of a possible Russian push toward the Indian Ocean. In that context, no longer was Zia’s military government a pariah to be shunned. Suddenly it was an ally to be embraced and protected. As one of Brzezinski’s staff members recalled, the administration’s attitude toward Pakistan, “overnight, literally . . . changed dramatically.” Small matters such as human rights, Islamic extremism, attacks on embassies, and nuclear weapons would no longer be allowed to stand in the way of good relations between the two countries.

In its newly rehabilitated guise, Pakistan would play a central role in Brzezinski’s plan for countering the Soviet invasion. Brzezinski, the eager Cold Warrior, hoped to punish the Russians for their action. The invasion, as he saw it, offered an opportunity “to finally sow shit in [the Soviets’] backyard.” It would, however, have to be done covertly. The United States and its allies would pay for the shit, the Pakistanis would deliver it, and the Afghanis would do the actual sowing.

Brzezinski laid out his scheme in a secret memo to Carter the day after Christmas, just two days after Soviet tanks first rolled into Afghanistan. The national security advisor cast the issue as a “regional crisis.” “If the Soviets succeed in Afghanistan,” Brzezinski wrote, “and if Pakistan acquiesces, the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean will have been fulfilled.” As such, the situation posed “an extremely grave challenge” for the United States. Unless the US somehow managed to “project both confidence and power into the region,” Pakistan would likely be intimidated and might eventually succumb to “some form of external Soviet domination.” With Iran already “destabilized,” there would no longer be a “firm bulwark” in the region against a “Soviet drive to the Indian Ocean.”

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An exclusive interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski

On the other hand, Brzezinski argued, if the United States could project power into the region, there was a chance that Afghanistan would become “a Soviet Vietnam,” a quagmire from which the Soviet Union could not extract itself. As to what might be done to bring that about, Brzezinski offered some “preliminary thoughts.” The plan he outlined was, in essence, a beefed-up version of the strategy he had promoted earlier in the year that had helped lure the Soviets into Afghanistan in the first place. “It is essential,” Brzezinski wrote, “that the Afghanistani resistance continues. This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice.” Toward that end, he added, the United States should “concert with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign and in a covert action campaign to help the rebels.” It should also “encourage the Chinese” to assist. But most important, for the plan to work, the administration would have to “both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels.” That, Brzezinski wrote, “will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.” In other words, the administration would have to put aside its concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

With that, Brzezinski had laid out the strategy that would guide American action in South Asia for the next decade. The United States and its allies would covertly enable a proxy Islamic holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. To do so, it would turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Carter had no way of knowing that hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid to Pakistan for the anti-Soviet effort would be diverted to AQ Khan, the head of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Nor could Carter anticipate that Pakistan would sell the Pakistan bomb technology to all customers – including Libya and the new Islamic regime in Tehran.

Instead, President Carter quickly got behind Brzezinski’s plan. The president viewed the invasion of Afghanistan as a major shift in Kremlin policy and an “extremely serious” threat to world peace. He declared the move “the greatest foreign policy crisis confronting the United States since World War II.” Already under attack in some quarters for his seemingly

timid response to the Iran hostage crisis, Carter believed strong, forceful action was needed to counter the Soviet move. In the days ahead, Carter would embargo wheat sales to Russia, order a boycott of the Olympic games scheduled to be held in Moscow in the summer of 1980, and withdraw from Senate consideration the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), painstakingly worked out with Moscow. But those public gestures were just for show. The real action would be covert.

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David Armstrong talks about the role of the United States Promoting Pakistani nuclear proliferation.

At an NSC meeting on December 28, two days after receiving Brzezinski’s memo, Carter, in line with Brzezinski’s proposal, instructed the CIA to provide the mujahedin with weapons and ammunition as well as nonlethal supplies and support. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid through Pakistan would be diverted into the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. Almost immediately Pakistan sought to raise additional funds by offering designs and components for nuclear weapons to North Korea, Libya and Iran.

Next: Part IV How three Iranian mullahs influenced the outcome of the 1980 US presidential election.


For more information on this subject see: America and the Islamic Bomb by David Armstrong and Joseph Trento.