U.S. support for the Kurdistan Democratic Party came about due to a dispute between the Shah and the Iraqi government. In May 1972, President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were returning from the Soviet Union when they stopped in Tehran. The Shah asked for assistance to arm the Kurds, which he was using to pressure the government of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr over rights to the Shatt al-Arab waterway to the Persian Gulf, which had been contested for decades. On the Kurdish side, their talks with Baghdad over autonomy and more rights were breaking down, and there were two assassination attempts upon KDP leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani. President Nixon eventually approved $16 million in military aid for the KDP. This was done in almost complete secrecy without other parts of the administration, such as the State Department being informed, because they opposed any weapons going to the Kurds. With U.S. and Iranian backing the KDP launched a military operation against the Iraqi government. The problem was neither the U.S. nor Iran believed in Barzani’s cause.
The Shah asked for U.S. help because Barzani did not trust him, and wanted a third party involved as a guarantor. Barzani was afraid that Iran was just using the Kurds for its own ends, and would cut off weapons as soon as it suited the Shah. The Nixon White House was supposed to stop that from happening. Unfortunately for Barzani, his fears were justified. The Pike Committee found that neither Washington nor Tehran wanted the Kurds to win the war. The U.S. simply wanted the KDP to drain away resources from Baghdad. For example, Kissinger would later write that the backing of the Kurds meant that Iraq could only spare one division for the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Shah just wanted to apply pressure upon Bakr to force him to give into Iran’s demands over the Shatt al-Arab.
After three years everything abruptly ended. In March 1975, Iran and Iraq agreed to the Algiers Accord, which gave Iran rights to the Shatt al-Arab and in return would end support for the KDP. That meant U.S. aid concluded as well. Immediately afterward, Baghdad launched an offensive against the Kurds, and crushed the rebellion. Barzani and the CIA station chief in Iran both called on Kissinger for help, but none was coming. A U.S. official told the Pike Committee, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Barzani would go into exile in Iran along with around 30,000 Peshmerga and 100,000-200,000 civilians. Barzani later said he fell for America’s promises. He knew all along not to trust the Shah, but believed in President Nixon. Both were only interested in their own national interests. The Shah wanted the border dispute resolved in his favor, and Nixon wanted to keep a threat to Israel busy. When Iran achieved its goal, it had no more use for the KDP, it was discarded and the Kurdish people were left to suffer.
Anderson, Liam and Stansfield, Gareth, The Future of Iraq, Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division? New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
Blum, William, Killing Hope, U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1995
Gunter, Michael, Kurds of Iraq, Tragedy and Hope, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992
Khadduri, Majid, Socialist Iraq: A study in Iraqi politics since 1968, Washington D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1978
Latham, Aaron, “Introduction to the Pike Papers,” Village Voice, 2/16/76
Marr, Phebe, The Modern History of Iraq, Boulder Oxford: Westview Press, 2004