The Persian Gulf and the Tragic Tale of "Brown Snake"

The Persian Gulf and the Tragic Tale of “Brown Snake”

by | published January 11th, 2020
Editor’s Note: Kent previously shared this story of his Iran-Iraq War-era intelligence work with his paid Energy Advantage subscribers. He alluded to it just yesterday, in fact. But in light of the simmering United States-Iran tensions right now, he felt compelled to share in with everyone. Here he is… 

I’ve lived a long time in the world of acronyms and secrecy.

Most people know what acronyms like FBI or NYPD or CIA stand for.

Not quite as many know what military terms like C1 (Command) or DOP (Drop-Off Point) or SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) mean.

Fewer still know the acronyms I will mention in the following story.

I carry these stories around with me like a personal tactical backpack every single day of my life.

I lived them. I remember them.

I refuse to forget.

Recent events in the Persian Gulf are triggering some remarkable déjà vu, and more than a few personal reminiscences are brought to mind.

Today’s tale is one of them. It’s one that carries a lesson about consequences where oil is fought over.

It took place here in the Shatt al-Arab (“River of the Arabs”) (Fig. 1). For 50 miles or so it forms the border between Iraq and Iran.

Formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, it flows southward into the Persian Gulf. Cutting across some of the prime oil producing acreage in the world, it has been a bone of contention between Iran and Iraq for centuries.

Near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the Shatt al-Arab is about half a mile wide. But in other areas, like this photo (Fig. 2) taken just before the events I will discuss shortly, there can be only a few hundred feet of marsh separating the two countries.

It would figure large in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War pitting the fourth largest army in the world – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – against a revitalized Shiite theocracy – Iran.

And that’s where I come in…

Iran and Iraq Were at Each Other’s Throats

Before 1985, the focus of my intelligence work had been either Southeast Asia (following my counter-intel work in Vietnam) or in Europe and elsewhere against Soviet interests. But three decades ago, the Shatt al-Arab was my introduction to what spying meant in a region that remains a powder keg today.

On September 22, 1980, Saddam launched his troops across the Shatt in an attempt to capture main Iranian oil production. The other side of the water was just emerging from a religiously-inspired revolution that toppled the Shah, brought to power Ayatollah Khomeini, but was thought to be left weak as a result.

The problem was, nobody bothered to tell the Iranians that.

What transpired was a brutal stalemated conflict.

Massive military casualties on both sides, vast destruction of oil fields, indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by Iraq, and a huge number of civilian deaths. Upward to a million dead total, most of them in Iran.

Even today, about one of every two Iranian families had somebody killed or injured during the period between the 1979 Revolution and the end of the Iran-Iraq War on July 20, 1988.

Given the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the American hostages held, there was support for Iraq in the early stages of the war, despite the rather clear fact that Saddam Hussein had invaded Iran.

Initially, American satellite and other intel was provided to the Iraqi army as it moved across the Shatt.

Later, several events took place (which are still classified and I cannot comment upon) that prompted the U.S. Intelligence Community to provide support for the Iranians.

For some, this was simply guaranteeing that each would damage the other and American regional interests in the region would thereby be protected.

The stalemate became a nasty modern version of the World War I trench warfare a century ago.

By mid-1987, there was movement toward negotiations, but both sides attempted to grab strategic territory in advance of any cease fire – much like the events at the end of the Korean War.

That set the stage for this personal experience…

The Human Sacrifice

My responsibility was to provide intel support in a variety of ways to decisions about what we would share with whom. By 1986, that included erstwhile allies in Europe and MENA (Middle East North Africa) who now had their own interests to protect.

I am still unable to discuss some of the field locations I was based at during this time, but some of the operation occurred at a joint intelligence planning center outside D.C.

It was during a stint there that “Brown Snake” emerged.

We knew that Iranian forces were massing near the Shatt for a last pre-negotiation push into Iraq. The intent was to capture territory Tehran could then annex when the hostilities were over.

Satellite flyby showed at least 60,000 troops were dug in on the Iranian side of the narrow waterway at that location. But then something else emerged.

Just to the west of the troops, a long undulating brown strip would occasionally appear in the recon photos.

On again. Off again.

Nobody had any idea what it was.

So, we brought in the curious specialists we nicknamed the “crateologists.” These guys usually could tell you what was in anything crate-sized or bigger that emerged from IMINT (imagery intelligence).

The crateologists had no idea what the snake was.

I had only one other option.

That was to dispatch a HUMINT (human intelligence) agent to eyeball the situation. This almost certainly meant the agent would not survive the assignment.

Was the intel important enough to sacrifice a life?

It is one of the decisions that stays with me forever. They all seem to have “collateral” consequences.

The intel was obtained. The agent’s family was later compensated. He was a 26-year-old Iraqi. He had a name, by the way, Mustafa, and he left three children.

His body was never recovered.

The Lengths to Which We Go

I was quite unprepared upon receiving the report. The brown snake appearing and then disappearing in the photos were thousands of burial sacks, held above the heads of thousands of Iranian students. Later, we would determine that some of them were not yet in their teens.

The function of each was to walk into Iraqi military fire and die so that the soldier following behind the student had a human shield to advance. As nearly as we could determine, none of them survived when the battle was over.

But Iran had “captured” a thin strip of marshland on the other side of the Shatt.

Made no difference in the end. That land was given back to Iraq in the post conflict negotiations anyway.

During our evaluation of what was occurring, I recall one two-star’s reaction to the student convoy. He turned to nobody in particular and said, “I hope we never have to fight those bastards.”

It is now more than three decades later. We have been in Afghanistan longer than any war in U.S. history and as a nation are still coming to grips with the Iraqi campaign.

With apologies to Cicero, this certainly seems a region that is “taxing our endurance.”

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