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Iran To Iraq: Minders Keepers

3 minute read

Trusting the Iranian government is a dicey enterprise for anyone, let alone for Tehran’s blood enemy, Baghdad. So it came as no great shock when Tehran decided to keep the 142 Iraqi airplanes that fled to Iran early on in the gulf war. The announcement, though, does raise the question, Has Tehran reneged on an agreement with Baghdad for the safekeeping and return of the planes, which include the cream of Iraq’s air force — or was there no such deal in the first place?

Some intelligence experts suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between: Tehran may have agreed to give sanctuary to Iraqi transport and civilian planes, about 20 of which fled to Iran even before the air war began in mid- January. Once it did, the Iranians continued to allow transport planes from Iraq to land in their territory unimpeded. But when Iraqi MiGs and Su-24s began to cross over as well, Iran’s air-defense system went on alert, some of the planes were chased away by Iranian fighters, and two of them, according to British intelligence, were shot down.

All of which suggests that Saddam may have overstretched the terms of the arrangement, if one existed, to Iran’s surprise and dismay. Another explanation favored by British officials is that an agreement may have been drawn up so hastily that the Iranian command had insufficient time to inform its air-defense forces. Whatever the case, the Iranians did not challenge subsequent flights from Iraq, though they insisted publicly they had made no deal with Baghdad.

If they did, it is now clearly off. Iran has claimed the airplanes, whose value is estimated at $2.5 billion, as partial payment of the $900 billion in reparations it seeks for damage done in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. In theory, the roughly 122 combat planes in the group would increase the Iranian air force fleet by some 66%. But in reality, the Soviet- and French-made craft are of little use. Because its own planes are American-made — a legacy of the U.S.-backed Shah, who fell from power in 1979 — Iran has neither spare parts nor properly trained pilots and technicians. Since the planes arrived in their new home, they have sat unattended on tarmacs, subject to dust storms and inclement weather; they would probably require significant refurbishing before becoming airworthy again.

Iran’s motives in seizing the planes are more political than material. President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani plainly hopes to redeem Iran’s tough behavior toward Iraq for better ties with the West and the gulf countries. Iran may still use the planes — and their pilots, who remain in detention — as leverage in any future bargaining with Iraq over a final settlement of the Iran-Iraq war, for which there is now only an oral peace pact. If that fails and the planes eventually decompose into pricey rust heaps, at least Iran will have the satisfaction of knowing that Saddam was denied their use too.

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