With today’s evacuation of Canadian diplomats and the closure of our embassy in Tehran, and with a new movie on the “Canadian Caper” about to be released this month (“Argo”), I am reminded of the heady days of 1979 when handfuls of cassette tapes with the incoherent religious ramblings of a bearded fanatic and an Air France airliner replaced street corner pamphleteering and the sealed railway car as vehicles for revolution. With the ‘quasi-war’ between Iran and the United States now exceeding thirty years, I thought it would be opportune to recall a time when Iran was an ally against the Soviet Union in the Cold War rather than a country populated with monotonous “Death to the Great Satan!” opponents.
Prior to 1979, Iran played an important role in monitoring the Soviet Union’s internal activities, particularly in the realm of strategic weapons. Clearly, this was due to the geographical proximity to those facilities. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan all hosted facilities for these and other collection activities. In Iran there were five stations, three manned by Iranian and US military personnel, and two by a combination of CIA, NSA, and contract personnel. This was in addition to a radar chain provided by the US that stretched across the mountainous northern provinces.
The two US-manned TRACKSMAN sites kept an eye on Soviet missile and space delivery system testing and were part of a system to cue COBRA BALL and other surveillance aircraft operating over the Pacific in order to collect telemetry which revealed Soviet missile capabilities (TRACKSMAN II at Kapkhan was around 700 miles from the Tyuratam launch site while TRACKSMAN I was located near Bushehar). TRACKSMAN handled Project MELODY, a means of intercepting Soviet radars as they bounced signals off of their ICBMs while they were launched and they also intercepted the missiles’ beacon signal. As this was directly related to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent posture, such information and its conclusions was highly compartmentalized as it was vital to national security.
The three Iranian-US sites, which were established in the early 1960s, handled SIGINT, ELINT and COMINT interception primarily targeting the Soviet air defence system. Aerial ferreting, possibly under the code-word IBEX, played a role in their operations. A variety of reconnaissance variant F-4 Phantom IIs and RF-5 Freedom Fighters were provided to the Imperial Iranian Air Force and flown with joint Iranian-American crews. Missions penetrated Soviet airspace frequently and on one occasion in 1973 an RF-4 was shot down by A Soviet MiG-21 and the crew captured. According to one source they were traded for a Soviet satellite film capsule that landed in Iran by accident.
The Soviets were no angels in this drama: they frequently over-flew Iranian airspace with their insanely fast MiG-25 FOXBAT recce aircraft. Iran lacked the ability to intercept them (losing another F-4 on the Soviet side of the border in the process) and the Shah eventually asked for SR-71 Blackbirds. He was denied this request but apparently it was taken seriously for some time. A block of four C-130 transports configured fro ELINT were also flown by the IIAF in a collection role along the border.
The role of Iran in Strategic Air Command bomber operational planning is still murky. Aircraft operating from Spain (and before Ghaddafy’s coup in 1969, Libya) had targets in the Soviet Union. Those could be reached through Turkish airspace but using Iranian airspace would allow greater target selection, so understanding air defences from the Causasus to Kazahkhstan would have been a useful proposition. Certainly probing this soft underbelly forced the Soviets to expend resources to cover it and increased their uncertainty.
David Crist’s new book, “The Twilight War” on the thirty-year American-Iranian quasi-war notes that there was planning for the use of nuclear weapons to defend Iran if the Soviets made a play for the oil fields. According to Farzad Bishop and Tom Cooper, some Imperial Iranian Air Force F-4 and F-5’s were wired for nuclear weapons use so American weapons could be brought in in an emergency basis.
Trashed Kw-7 crypto machine in the embassy
It is unclear what happened to the five sites and their crews during the Revolution. James Clavell’s epic fictional portrayal of the Iranian Revolution, Whirlwind has a whole sub-plot devoted to a helicopter company co-opted by Soviet agents trying to exploit the SIGINT sites during the chaos which ensued when the Shah departed. Clavell’s atmospheric novel certainly captures the uncertaintly of the times. Some sources say the sites were seized by revolutionaries but nobody has publicly recounted what happened to the CIA, NSA, and USAF personnel. Another source believes that there was a deal struck between Saudi Arabia and the new government to continue to operate these facilities for a time with somebody else’s technicians….
One possibility is that some of the American staff were recovered by the Canadian Forces. A Canadian Forces 707 and four CC-130 transports operating from Lahr, West Germany, staged to Turkey in 1979 and flew missions into northern Iran where they rescued approximatly 400 “NATO member-nation expatriates” from a remote location or locations(s). If so, there was more to “Argo” and the “Canadian Caper” than has so far been revealed….
I would highly recommend the superb “Iran-Iraq War in the Air” by Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop. Their website is also worth perusal.
And thanks to Jerry Proce for the trashed crypto pic.
Thanks to Boeing for the F-4 pic.