137. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 36.2–1–76

IRAQ’S ROLE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

[Omitted here are the foreword and the table of contents.]

PRINCIPAL JUDGMENTS

Iraq’s Ba’thist leaders are determined to perpetuate themselves in power, to impose their national, socialist, and secular philosophy on the country, and to expand the state’s power and ability to wield influence abroad. Iraq will be a state to reckon with in the Middle East for at least the five-year period of this Estimate. It has both the will and the means to pursue radical goals and will complicate US efforts [Page 435]to fashion a comprehensive Middle East peace, maintain stability among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and assure adequate oil supplies to the West.

The 40-year-old civilian Saddam Husayn is likely to succeed the ailing President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, a military man and Ba’thist of impeccable pre-1958 revolutionary credentials. We cannot predict whether the Iraqi military, arbiters of power since the 1930s, will tolerate a purely civilian regime. However, we would expect relations between the military and the political leadership to be less smooth after Saddam’s succession, at least until officers personally loyal to him occupy the most important command positions. We do not know enough about the political attitudes of military officers to do more than indicate that an orderly Saddam succession is not a sure thing—although it is clearly the most likely development.

Ba’thist power is firmly entrenched, relying on multiple security services, regimentation of the population through the party and its associated “people’s” organizations, and summary disciplining of any who might dare to differ with the regime. The country as a whole is prosperous because of large and growing oil revenues: it has achieved a 10-percent annual rate of growth since 1974 without suffering undue inflation. There are, however, serious economic problems that will take years to solve; skilled and semiskilled labor is in very short supply, and agricultural production has stagnated.

The Baghdad regime will continue to feel insecure about Iran until that country acquires a government with which Baghdad can build a satisfactory nonconfrontational relationship. The Iraqis also fear that the Islamic movement in Iran will infect their own Shia majority, which has long felt mistreated by Sunni-dominated governments in Baghdad. They are clearly worried that the Ayatollah Khomeini—who spent 14 years as an exile at the Shia theological school in An Najaf, Iraq—sees himself as a religious leader whose influence should extend beyond the borders of Iran. Another concern is that lack of central government control in Tehran will allow arms to flow from Iran to Iraqi Kurds. Baghdad will probably have to continue to use military force to control disaffection in Shia and Kurdish areas.

The regime’s desire to play a leading role in the region and a concern about unsettled conditions in Iran will, in the near term, push it toward nonconfrontational relations with many other Arab states. Although muting their policy of subversion, Iraqi Ba’th leaders will continue to support the development of party organizations in other Arab states and spread Ba’thist socialist doctrine throughout the region.

Baghdad will continue to rely on the Soviets for arms and other technological support, but Iraq is becoming increasingly concerned about the USSR’s support for such clients as Ethiopia, South Yemen, and [Page 436]Afghanistan. Should the USSR be drawn into Afghanistan’s troubles to the extent of providing troops, Iraqi-Soviet relations would take a sharp downturn. In any event, Iraq will balance its relations with the Soviets by strengthening ties with Western industrial states. This policy will include continued commercial ties with major European states, as well as military purchases from France and others.

Long a price hawk in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Iraq will continue to seek crude oil price rises that run ahead of world inflation rates. World supply/demand tightness, expected to continue in the 1980s, will increase Iraqi influence in OPEC decisionmaking, and Iraqi production decisions will have much greater impact on the international oil market. Current production is about 3 million barrels a day. Although we do not know what level Iraq plans to achieve in the next five years, we expect it to be substantially lower than Iraq’s maximum sustainable capacity.

The implications for US interests of the likely course of events in Iraq and of that country’s policies are not promising. The political framework in which Baghdad’s rulers operate is largely hostile to US policies in the region. Iraq will not change its opposition to the US approach toward the Arab-Israeli problem unless it sees convincing evidence that a Palestinian state is going to appear in the West Bank and Gaza, that Syria is retrieving Golan, and that Lebanese Maronite factions are no longer being supported by Israel. It will rather use the opposition of other states to US efforts with respect to a settlement to try to reduce US influence in the area as a whole.

The current level of relations with the United States is sufficient to satisfy Iraqi desires for access to US technology. Iraq’s leaders will not feel compelled to improve political relations with the United States unless they see progress toward a settlement of the Palestine issue, or they are jolted by some major Soviet advance in the area such as the emergence of a leftist government in Iran. The reliance of certain states on Iraqi oil will put pressure on them to accommodate Iraqi desires. Pressure on France (Iraq’s principal friend and contact in the Western world) and Italy to live up to commitments to provide major nuclear components may be quite strong, with obvious implications for US nuclear nonproliferation policy.

Despite Iraq’s cooperation with the USSR, the regime is not anxious to see it or the United States either very active or very successful in the region. Baghdad’s rulers have long made known their concern about Soviet actions in the area. In foreseeable circumstances, Baghdad will work to limit Soviet influence in the Middle East. The emergence—or perhaps only the threat of such emergence—of a leftist and Moscow-oriented regime out of the turbulent conditions in Iran would profoundly upset the Ba’th leaders. Such a development would cause the [Page 437]leaders to assess their external relations and could, if other conditions were right, lead to a major change—on the scale of that in 1975 with Iran2—in relations with the United States. Such a development looks impossible from today’s perspective, but the Ba’th regime is, within the bounds of its goals and requirements, flexible. Such flexibility is not to be confused with moderation; this is a regime led by extremists and chauvinists, determined to make the Iraq they run as self-reliant and independent as possible.

Until a year ago Iraq was considered the pariah state of the Arab world. Its relations with most neighbors were poor because of its reputation for ruthlessness and its support for terrorism and regional radical groups. The Camp David accords shocked the Iraqis into a reassessment of their contentious policies and the adoption of a new tack: they ended their bitter feud with Syria and provided strong leadership in organizing an Arab consensus against the peace terms negotiated by President Sadat. Iraq is riding high in its newfound role as a regional leader and may move on to assume the leadership of the nonaligned movement in 1982.

Iraq’s rapprochement with Syria has enhanced Baghdad’s ability to play a major role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and has already damaged efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement. While the two countries are not likely to achieve complete unity, their self-proclaimed goal, cooperation between them on selected issues is likely to increase.

Although the basing in Syria of more than token Iraqi forces is unlikely because of the probability of Israeli preemption, Iraq’s likely contribution of expeditionary forces in a war with Israel has increased to five divisions (from the two divisions which saw combat in 1973). Iraq has already expanded and improved its armed forces more than any other Arab state since the 1973 war. Specifically, Iraq has:

  • —Doubled its military manpower and its armored forces.
  • —Increased its inventory of combat aircraft by almost 65 percent.
  • —Expanded its air defense forces to nine times the 1973 level.

With the second largest and the best equipped armed forces of any of the Arab states by 1982, Iraq will, indeed, be a state to reckon with in the Middle East.

[Omitted here is the body of the Estimate.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 34, Iraq: 1/77–3/80. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. A typed notation reads in part: “The Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, and the National Security Agency participated in the preparation of this estimate. The Director of the CIA issued this estimate; the National Foreign Intelligence Board concurred, except where noted in the text.”
  2. Reference is to the March 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran following a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq that Iran had aided. In the agreement, Iraq acquiesced to Iranian demands to redefine the Shatt al-Arab waterway boundary; Iran promised to close its borders to Iraqi Kurds and to cease aid to the rebellion in Iraq.