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Context of '1990: Commerce Department Expedites Weapons Technology Export to Iraq'

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Kurds gassed in Halabja.Kurds gassed in Halabja. [Source: PersianEye / Corbis]Days after the end of the Iran-Iraq War (see August 20, 1988), Saddam Hussein begins the first of a series of poison-gas attacks on Kurdish villages inside Iraq. A September 1988 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee states: “Those who were very close to the bombs died instantly. Those who did not die instantly found it difficult to breathe and began to vomit. The gas stung the eyes, skin, and lungs of the villagers exposed to it. Many suffered temporary blindness… . Those who could not run from the growing smell, mostly the very old and the very young, died.” While the gas attacks are continuing, Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead circulates a highly classified memo among senior State Department officials recommending that the US cultivate even closer ties with Iraq, whom it supported over Iran in the last few years of the war (see Early October-November, 1986). Whitehead offers a Cold War rationale: “[Soviet] clout and influence is on a steady rise as the Gulf Arabs gain self-confidence and Soviet diplomacy gains in sophistication. The Soviets have strong cards to play: their border with Iran and their arms-supply relationship with Iraq. They will continue to be major players and we should engage them as fully as possible.” Whitehead adds, “It should be remembered… that we have weathered Irangate” (see January 17, 1986). More must be done to develop closer ties with “the ruthless but pragmatic Saddam Hussein.” (Also see September 8, 1988.) [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, John Whitehead, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

Veteran diplomat Joseph Wilson arrives in Baghdad to assume the post of Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) under US Ambassador April Glaspie. Wilson has extensive experience throughout sub-Saharan and Central Africa, as well as brief stints on the staffs of Senator Al Gore (D-TN) and Representative Tom Foley (D-WA). Wilson will later write that he and his colleagues share the belief that Iraq is ruled by “a shockingly brutal regime… an ugly totalitarian dictatorship” and its leader, Saddam Hussein, a “sociopath.” For the next three years, Wilson and his colleagues will send harsh reports of Hussein’s systematic violations of the human rights of his subjects to Washington.
Walking a Fine Line between Isolation and Appeasement - Still, most of the embassy staff, including Wilson and Glaspie, are not advocates of totally isolating Hussein with extreme economic and diplomatic sanctions. Wilson will write, “Isolating a regime often results in isolating ourselves, and we then lose any leverage we might have to influence outcomes. On the other hand, when dictators are treated like any other leaders, it’s often interpreted by them as a free pass to continue in their autocratic ways, while critics label it as appeasement.… The merits of ideologically driven diplomacy versus a more pragmatic approach have been a recurring theme of foreign policy debates throughout the history of international relations and America’s own domestic policies.”
'Tread Lightly' - Wilson will note that “Iraq’s Arab neighbors unanimously urged us to tread lightly. They argued that after almost a decade of a grinding war with Iran, Saddam had learned his lesson and that his natural radicalism would now be tempered by the harsh experience.… [I]t was better to tie him to relationships that would be hard for him to jettison than to leave him free to make trouble with no encumbrances. Engaging with him at least kept him in our sights.” Iraq had behaved monstrously during its war with Iran, and had offended the world with its chemical attacks on its own citizens (see August 25, 1988) and its Iranian enemies (see October 1988). But it had emerged from the war as a powerful regional player both militarily and economically. The Bush administration is torn between trying to moderate Hussein’s behavior and treating him as an incorrigible, irredeemable enemy of civilization. And Washington wants Iraq as a balancing force against Iran, which is awash in virulently anti-American sentiment (a sentiment returned in full by many American lawmakers and government officials). No other country in the Gulf region will tolerate the presence of US forces as a counterbalance to Iran. So, as Wilson will write, “All of Iraq’s neighbors continued to argue for a softer approach; and since they clearly had at least as much at stake as we did, the Bush administration was willing to follow their lead.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 78-79, 451]

Entity Tags: Joseph C. Wilson, Saddam Hussein, April Glaspie

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The Defense Department discovers that an Iraqi front company in Cleveland is funneling US technology to Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program. However, the Bush administration allows the company to continue its operations, even after Iraq invades Kuwait in 1990 (see November 8, 1990). At the same time, a top-secret CIA assessment informs Secretary of State James Baker that Iraq has a nuclear weapons program, and is using “covert techniques” to obtain the technology needed to build a nuclear bomb. The report identifies some of the specific dual-use technology that Iraq’s procurement network is trying to obtain around the world for its nuclear-weapons program, including oscilloscopes, high-speed cameras, and centrifuges. [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, James A. Baker, Bush administration (41)

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s

In response to a US company’s concern that their product might be used by Iraq to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the US Department of Commerce asks Iraq’s government to provide a written guarantee that the company’s product will be used for civilian purposes only. The Commerce Department tells the company that a license and review is unnecessary, and that there is no reason why the product in question should not be exported to Iraq. [Jentleson, 1994, pp. 110]

Entity Tags: US Department of Commerce

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

Saddam Hussein, emboldened by President Bush’s continued support for his regime even as he develops chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons (see September 1989) and is gassing his own citizens (see August 25, 1988), boasts that he now has chemical weapons and will “burn half of Israel.” Additionally, Iraqi forces on manuevers in the southern part of the country are being told that they are training to attack Israel. Nevertheless, the White House blocks efforts by the Commerce Department to stop the flow of US technology to Iraq, even technology that is being used to develop weapons of mass destruction (see 1990 and July 18, 1990-August 1, 1990). One White House official explains, “The president does not want to single out Iraq.” US diplomat Joseph Wilson, the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad (see September 5, 1988 and After), will later write: “While we were concerned about the tensions in Iraq’s relations with Kuwait (see May 28-30, 1990 and July 17, 1990), we did not suspect that the southern military exercises were, in fact, a first signal of Iraq’s intention to invade that country. We were more worried that Saddam’s hard line toward Israel would further inflame Arab passions and contribute to making any lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that much more difficult to achieve.” [New Yorker, 11/2/1992; Wilson, 2004, pp. 95]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bush administration (41), US Department of Commerce, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

Alan Simpson.Alan Simpson. [Source: Britt Bolen]A delegation of US senators meets with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to deliver a message from President Bush. The delegation is led by Robert Dole (R-KS) and includes Frank Murkowski (R-AK), Jim McClure (R-ID), Alan Simpson (R-WY), and Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH). The senators are joined by US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie, her deputy Joseph Wilson, and various embassy staffers. Dole delivers the message from Bush: Iraq must abandon its chemical and biological weapons programs and stockpiles, and, in return, the US will continue working to improve relations between the two countries (see July 27, 1990 and July 25, 1990). In response, Hussein says he is not trying to destabilize the region and work against US interests. As part of his statement, he says: “I didn’t really say I was going to set fire to half of Israel (see April 1990). What I said was that if Israel attacks me, then I will set fire to half of Israel.” Hussein insists he will only take action against Israel if his country is attacked first, but such a response will be swift and overwhelming, with his new WMD playing a central role. He also protests against what he calls US and British efforts to contain Iraq by scaling back economic and commercial programs, and what he calls a Western smear campaign against him and his government. When the other senators are given a chance to speak to Hussein, Wilson is struck by Metzenbaum’s response. “Mr. President, I can tell you are a honorable man,” Metzenbaum says. Wilson later writes, “I remember thinking to myself that whatever beneficial impact the president’s message and Dole’s statement may have had on Saddam, it had all just been negated by this obsequious boot-licking.” Simpson joins Metzenbaum in stroking Hussein, bending forward so low from his chair that he looks as if he is on bended knee and telling the dictator: “Mr. President, I can see that what you have here isn’t really a policy problem; what you have is a public relations problem. You’ve got a problem with the haughty and pampered press. I know all about that, because I’ve got problems with the press back home. What you need is you need a good public relations person.” Wilson will write: “Saddam no doubt took from the meeting not the admonition to stop developing weapons of mass destruction and threatening his neighbors, but rather support for his own misguided belief that he was an honorable man who didn’t really have policy problems at all, just clumsy relations. After all, one of Israel’s champions had told him so, and another American leader had knelt before him to reassure him that he had no problems with the American government.” [Wilson, 2004, pp. 95]

Entity Tags: Jim McClure, Alan Simpson, April Glaspie, Frank Murkowski, George Herbert Walker Bush, Howard Metzenbaum, Saddam Hussein, Robert J. (“Bob”) Dole, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

In repeated statements, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein says that overproduction of oil by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is “economic warfare” against Iraq. [PBS Frontline, 1/9/1996] Iraq is not merely issuing blustery allegations with no basis in fact. Iraq is virtually bankrupt and deeply in debt to both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which funded Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, as well as other nations such as the US and Japan. Hussein has spent billions rebuilding his military and distributing massive amounts of consumer goods to the populace in an attempt to persuade them that Iraq won the war against Iran and is now able to spend its “war dividends.” In 1999, Kuwait defied the quotas laid down by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and increased its oil production by 40%. The subsequent sharp drop in oil prices drove Iraq’s economy towards catastrophe. The situation is further aggravated by Iraqi suspicions that Kuwait is deliberately “slant-drilling” oil from Iraq’s Rumaylah oil field (see July 15-17, 1990). Hussein needs a massive infusion of revenue to maintain his large standing army and the fiction of economic growth, and he looks to Kuwait as the source of that revenue. Land issues also play a part: Iraq wants to swap some territory along the border for control of two Kuwaiti-held islands across from its port at Umm Qasr, but Kuwait is unwilling to make the trade. US diplomat Joseph Wilson, the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, describes the Iraqi outlook on Kuwait as a nation “small, rich, and despised.” All in all, the US diplomatic entourage in Baghdad is alarmed at Iraq’s preparations for war. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 93-94; NationMaster, 12/23/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Joseph C. Wilson, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Bush administration officials advocate additional agricultural loans to Iraq (see October 31, 1989), and rebuff efforts by the Departments of Defense and Commerce to restrict the export of technology Iraq is using to develop weapons of mass destruction. President George H. W. Bush personally opposes Congressional efforts to impose economic sanctions on the increasingly belligerent Iraq (see April 1990). By this point, the Reagan and Bush administrations have provided Saddam Hussein with over $5 billion in loan guarantees, money Hussein has used to rebuild his military after the Iran-Iraq War, become a major military power in the Persian Gulf (see August 1, 1990), and to invade Kuwait (see November 8, 1990). [New Yorker, 11/2/1992]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, George Herbert Walker Bush, Saddam Hussein, US Department of Commerce, Bush administration (41)

Timeline Tags: US-Iraq 1980s

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein excoriates those Arab leaders whom he believes are collaborating with the US and Israel to obstruct Arab development. He accuses several unnamed Arab heads of state of being bought off with fancy houses and vehicles, and failing to stand up to Western attempts to stymie Arab ambitions. The real thrust of his criticisms is oil-based. He says that overproduction of oil and the resultant low oil prices are “a poisoned dagger” in Iraq’s back, delivered by the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait (see May 28-30, 1990). Hussein intends to use his influence with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to drive the price of oil from $14 to $25 and thus raise a large amount of cash to help pay off his country’s staggering debts to Japan, the US, and several European countries. Hussein intends to stop Kuwait overproduction, and he is willing to use military force to do it. [Wilson, 2004, pp. 97-98]

Entity Tags: Saddam Hussein, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The US Commerce Department approves $4.8 million in sales of advanced technology products to Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization (MIMI) and Saad 16 research centers. MIMI is known to be a development facility for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs (see 1989) and Saad 16 is known to be involved in the development of chemical and nuclear weapons (see November 1986 and November 1986). [US Congress, 7/2/1991]

Entity Tags: US Department of Commerce, Iraq Ministry of Industry and Military Industrialization

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, US-Iraq 1980s

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