Beyond  /  Retrieval

The Forgotten World War III Scare of 1980

Moscow and Washington trapped themselves in a cycle of fear over Iran.

There was widespread concern within the U.S. government that a force buildup by the Soviet Union in its southwest was the prelude to an invasion of Iran. The Joint Chiefs was “unambiguous in its assertion that we cannot defend Iran on any line today against a determined Soviet attack. We simply do not have the forces.” The participants debated the pros and cons of spreading the conflict geographically as opposed to using nuclear weapons. And they discussed some unspecified “deterrence actions” proposed by the Joint Chiefs. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie considered them a “formula for moving toward World War III.”

Contrary to one previous account of this remarkable but little-known war scare, the United States cannot claim success for deterring an attack on Iran—because no attack was planned. Our research, based on declassified Soviet and U.S. sources, as well as memoirs and oral histories, suggests that the crisis was fueled by reciprocal, exaggerated fears. Both the Soviet Union and the United States worried incorrectly that the other had designs on Iran and took steps to deter or mitigate the consequences of its rival’s acting on those designs. Each step compounded fears on the other side, exacerbating tensions. The crisis culminated with a Soviet military exercise that the United States misinterpreted as possible preparation for an invasion and that led Muskie to deliver a thinly veiled nuclear threat to his Soviet counterpart at the end of September 1980.

The extent to which exaggerated fears of adversaries’ intentions fuel international conflict is a perennially important question. For some, such as Harvard University professor Stephen M. Walt, writing in these pages, the “security dilemma” underlies conflicts in the West Pacific, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Actions that one state takes to enhance its own security tend to decrease the security of rivals, resulting in a “tightening spiral of hostility that leaves neither side better off than before.”

Governments typically have little sympathy with this theory. Both Beijing and Washington, for example, have made it clear that neither believes it exaggerates the other’s hostility. Washington sees Beijing as aggressive and expansionist. Beijing sees Washington as seeking global hegemony. The war scare of 1980 cannot reveal to decision-makers in China and the United States whether their states are currently locked into a security dilemma—but it should give them pause before automatically assuming the worst about their adversary’s intentions.

The backdrop to the war scare was the Islamic Revolution in Iran at the start of 1979, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at that year’s end. A nervous Washington, including a beleaguered White House under President Jimmy Carter, who was beset by accusations of weakness, saw these developments as posing a serious threat to its Middle Eastern interests. The Soviet Union was supporting national liberation movements in what was then called the Third World and had long fixated on acquiring a blue-water navy. Washington now feared that the Soviet Union would embark on further adventurism to advance these goals.