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Iran's Arms Imports from the USA

Foreign influence on the regular armed forces had historically been massive, vital, and controversial. Around the turn of the century, before Reza Shah unified the military, officers from Sweden, Britain, and Russia commanded various Iranian units. These officers were unpopular because they were perceived as occupiers rather than as advisers, and the seeds of xenophobia were planted. Aware of these sentiments, Reza Shah tried to minimize direct foreign military influence, although an exception was made for Swedish officers serving with the Gendarmerie. Between the two world wars, a large number of Iranian officers attended military academies in France and Germany, where they received command and technical training.

In a further effort to counter the influence of both Britain and Russia (by that time, the Soviet Union) in Iranian affairs, Reza Shah attempted to establish closer ties with Germany, a relationship that would be controversial during World War II. Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in 1940, and occupied it to ensure a route for lend-lease goods and other communication between the Western Allies and the Soviets. The United States deployed various transportation units to Iran after its formal entry into the conflict to assist in the transportation of goods to the Soviet Union. After 1945 the United States gradually became more influential and had a significant impact on the Pahlavi dynasty's leadership and the military.

With the establishment during World War II of a small United States military mission to the Gendarmerie (known as GENMISH) in 1943, Washington initiated a modest military advisory program. In 1947 the United States and Tehran reached a more comprehensive agreement that established the United States Army Mission Headquarters (ARMISH). Its purpose was to provide the Ministry of War and the Iranian army with advisory and technical assistance to enhance their efficiency. As a result, the first Iranian officers began training in the United States, and they were followed by many more over the next three decades. The United States initiated its military assistance grant program to Iran in 1950 (the bilateral defense agreement between Iran and the United States was not concluded until 1959) and established a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to administer the program. In 1962 the two missions were consolidated into a single military organization, ARMISH-MAAG, which remained active in Iran until the Islamic revolutionary regime came to power in 1979.

Between 1973 and 1979, the United States also provided military support in the form of technical assistance field teams (TAFTs), through which civilian experts instructed Iranians on specific equipment on a short-term basis. Although the GENMISH program ended in 1973, United States military assistance to Iran rose rapidly in the six years before the Revolution.

United States military assistance to Iran between 1947 and 1969 exceeded US$1.4 billion, mostly in the form of grant aid before 1965 and of Foreign Military Sales credits during the late 1960s. The financial assistance programs were terminated after 1969, when it was determined that Iran, by then an important oil exporter, could assume its own military costs. Thereafter, Iran paid cash for its arms purchases and covered the expenses of United States military personnel serving in the ARMISH-MAAG and TAFT programs. Even so, in terms of personnel the United States military mission in Iran in 1978 was the largest in the world. Department of Defense personnel in Iran totaled over 1,500 in 1978, admittedly a small number compared with the 45,000 United States citizens, mostly military and civilian technicians and their dependents, living in Iran. Almost all of these individuals were evacuated by early 1979 as the ARMISH-MAAG program came to an abrupt end. Ended also was the International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program, under which over 11,000 Iranian military personnel had received specialized instruction in the United States.

Washington broke its diplomatic ties with Tehran in April 1980, closing an important chapter with a former CENTO ally whose security it had guaranteed since 1959. The relationship had evolved dramatically from the early 1950s, when Iran depended on the United States for security assistance, to the mid-1970s, when the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales program dominated other issues. Arms transfers increased significantly after the 1974 oil price rise, accelerating at a dizzying pace until 1979. From FY50 through FY79, United States arms sales to Iran totaled approximately US$11.2 billion, of which US$10.7 billion were actually delivered.

The transfer of such large volumes of arms and the presence of thousands of United States advisers had an unmistakable influence on the Iranian armed forces. The preponderance of American weapons led to a dependence on the United States for support systems and for spare parts. Technical advisers were indispensable for weapons operations and maintenance.

After the Revolution, Iranians continued to buy arms from the United States using Israeli, European, and Latin American intermediaries to place orders, despite the official United States embargo. Israeli sales, for example, were recorded as early as 1979. On several occasions, attempted arms sales to Iran have been thwarted by law enforcement operations or broker-initiated leaks. One operation set up by the United States Department of Justice foiled the shipment of more than US$2 billion of United States weapons to Iran from Israel and other foreign countries. The matériel included 18 F-4 fighter-bombers, 46 Skyhawk fighter-bombers, and nearly 4,000 missiles.

However, while the Department of Justice was attempting to prevent arms sales to Iran, senior officials in the administration of President Ronald Reagan admitted that 2,008 TOW missiles and 235 parts kits for HAWK missiles had been sent to Iran via Israel. These were intended to be an incentive for the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian militiamen in Lebanon. Unverified reports in 1987 indicated that Iranian officials claimed that throughout 1986 the Reagan administration had sold Iran ammunition and parts for F- 4s, F-5s, and F-14s. In addition, Tehran reportedly purchased United States-made equipment from international arms dealers and captured United States weapons from Vietnam.

Despite official denials, it was believed that initially Israel was a supplier of weapons and spare parts for Iran's American-made arsenal. Reports indicated that an initial order for 250 retread tires for F-4 Phantom jets was delivered in 1979 for about US$27 million. Since that time, unverified reports alleged that Israel agreed to sell Iran Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, radar equipment, mortar and machinegun ammunition, field telephones, M60 tank engines and artillery shells, and spare parts for C-130 transport planes.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:13 ZULU