The allies' radar operators stared at their screens in surprise: the cream of Saddam Hussein's Air Force was running for cover into territory it was at war with three years ago. First came a support system-20 transport planes, including Iraq's only surviving radar-defense plane; U.S. intelligence officials suspect they were packed with parts, ammunition, technicians and communications gear. Next, unarmed Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighters, Su-24 long-range bombers and three types of Soviet-built MiG fighters slipped across the border to Iran. In apparent confusion, Iranian aircraft rose to challenge the first fighters. But by last week an Iraqi strike force of 89 planes--more than 10 percent of Saddam's Air Force--was safely parked in orderly formations.
What was Iraq up to? Saddam first demanded the aircraft back, then hinted at a deal: Iran and Iraq, he told CNN, "are two neighboring Muslim countries and . . . these facts shall remain the most important." But Iran insisted that the move came as a surprise and that the planes would be mothballed until after the war. Ahmad Khomeini, son of the late ayatollah, accused Saddam of "crimes against Muslims." Saddam sent a diplomat to Teheran--by road--to discuss "issues of common concern."
In the absence of facts about the talks, theories about the flight to Iran abounded. Among them:
The Soviet news agency Interfax reported that Saddam had executed top Air Force and air-defense officers for their failure to stand up against the allies in the first days of the war. Then Soviet intelligence sources were reported to believe that Saddam's bodyguards thwarted a coup attempt two weeks ago by Air Force officers, provoking a purge and the flight of frontline aircraft. Skeptics said that the orderly pace of the transfer argues against these theories.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens noted that the Su-24 bombers now in Iran are the only Iraqi aircraft capable of reaching Israel without refueling. American intelligence officials suspect that Iran is allowing the deployment as part of a "secret codicil" to an agreement the two countries reached last November. In that agreement, Iran and Iraq agreed to restore diplomatic relations, exchange POWs and move troops from occupied territories. The fear is that Iran also agreed to accept the Iraqi Air Force and allow it to launch a counterattack if Israel enters the war. But senior State Department and Pentagon officials discount any such deal. "If the war is going so badly that Iraq would need to use these planes, would Iran want to get involved at that point?" asked an analyst at State.
"We were kicking the crap out of [Saddam's] Air Force, and he didn't want to lose everything said a top Bush administration official. The official said Saddam had been surprised by the ability of laser-guided "smart" bombs to penetrate his hardened bunkers. Saddam Hussein has used the tactic before--stashing most of his warplanes in Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, North Yemen and Oman during the first years of the Iran-Iraq War. This time it could be a hedge against the possibility that a negotiated end to the war will leave him in power. To retain any regional influence, he needs to be able to project that power.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf last week listed all three possibilities, then indicated he didn't much care which one was true. What counted, he said, was that the planes were out of action. If they scrambled, the allies could "take care of that situation." Meanwhile, he suggested, "we should take Iran at its word." His nonchalance was rooted in back-channel diplomacy. Using the Swiss and other intermediaries, the administration had warned Iran that allowing the Iraqi planes to attack from Iran would bring Iran into the war. Within a day, Iran came back with fresh assurances that the planes would be impounded.
Iran was a clear winner. If nothing else, it acquired an Air Force at no charge; its own was shattered by Iraqi raids and Western economic sanctions during the 1980-1988 war. That dovetailed neatly with Iran's own vision of a "new world order" following the war. Iran has for decades sought hegemony in the gulf region. President Hashemi Rafsanjani is using diplomacy to accomplish what Khomeini's expansionism could not. The European Community lifted all economic sanctions in October, French firms are rebuilding Iran's main oil terminal at Kharg Island, relations with the gulf emirates are improving and oil revenues are expected to triple this year. It is potentially a no-lose situation for Teheran. If Iraq is crippled by the war, Iran almost automatically fills the resulting power vacuum in the region. But Rafsanjani is hedging his bets. Iranian leaders denounce both Saddam's aggression and the presence of foreign forces in the region, but are bidding for popular support in Iraq. The Iranian Red Crescent last week began shipping medicine and powdered milk to Baghdad, "Iran will not help Iraq militarily because Teheran's objective now is an alliance with a new Iraq issuing from the war," said Abdul-Karim Abul-Nasr, an editor of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas based in Cairo. "That could make Iran the gulf's dominant regional power."
The 89 Iraqi planes that have flown to Iran include some of the most sophisticated in Saddam's Air Force. Including combat losses, about 18 percent of his Air Force is now out of action.
This Soviet-made two-seat fighter is highly maneuverable and has a 700-mile range.
Iraq's best air-to-air fighter, this French jet is capable of all-weather attacks at any altitude.
A Soviet swing-wing bomber that carries a variety of precision air-to-surface missiles.
This is Iraq's only remaining early-warning-radar jet, similar to U.S. AWACS.