Discover more from Matthew's Notebook
America’s spy airline and the Iranians who fought in Vietnam
The CIA used Air America to move men, materiel, and drugs across Southeast Asia. Did it inspire Russia and Iran?
Last month, the Ukrainian government announced that Iran had been using civilian airliners to transport armed drones to Russia. It wouldn’t be the first time. The Iranian government has reportedly used civilian airlines, particularly Mahan Air, to move troops and materiel around for years.
The report echoes an often-forgotten bit of spooky Cold War history. From 1950 to 1976, the CIA ran a transport company known as Air America to move its assets around Southeast Asia. The front airline became a key part of the war effort in Vietnam and Laos, carrying everything from food to weapons (and reportedly even drugs) for U.S. proxy militias.
It’s long been rumored that Iranian special forces fought for the anticommunist side in Vietnam. Last week, a vintage passport collector posted a very spicy find to Instagram: an Iranian diplomatic passport for Commander Asghar Mazaheri Colahroudi, with stamps for Saigon, South Vietnam in 1973 and 1974.
It’s unclear whether Air America directly inspired Mahan Air. Either way, these two news items are a reminder of the strange links between the present-day American and Iranian empires. Whether as close friends, bitter enemies, or conflicted frenemies, the two states have learned a lot from each other’s covert warfare tactics.
Direct U.S.-Iranian military cooperation happened at a time when Washington was painfully extracting itself from Southeast Asia, and just starting to set eyes on the Middle East.
At the time, Iran was an oil-rich modernizing monarchy, much like Saudi Arabia today. And like the Saudi kings, the Iranian emperor bought up massive amounts of advanced American-made weaponry, as part of a bid to present Iran as the anticommunist guardian of the Persian Gulf.
In fact, the drawdown from Southeast Asia directly increased Washington’s willingness to arm the Iranian military. Obsessed with “credibility” and saving face, the Nixon administration responded to U.S. defeats in Vietnam by opening unlimited lines of support to client states like Iran. Sounds familiar.
Decades later, when U.S.-backed and Iranian-backed forces ran into each other in Afghanistan, an Iranian officer joked to American diplomats that “we’re still using the manuals you left behind in 1979.”1
Some of the training may have taken place in Southeast Asia. Years later, General Alireza Sanjabi told Al Monitor that he had trained as a sniper in Vietnam, presumably before the end of the war in 1975. On the overt side, Iranian troops served as peacekeepers during the abortive peace process in 1973.
It’s possible that Iranian officers witnessed operations by Air America during that war. Or maybe not. Using civilian vessels to move things in secret is not exactly a unique insight.
Air America had been acquired by the CIA in 1950s, and became a critical part of the U.S. military operations during the “Secret War” of the 1960s. American trainers worked to turn the Hmong minority of Laos and Vietnam into an anticommunist fighting force. Air America’s aircraft ferried them to and from mountaintop villages.
As the war dragged on, the airline helped turn those villages into fortresses. Under the guise of USAID humanitarian missions, Air America flights brought in guns along with rice, which Hmong villagers increasingly relied on to survive. "Since USAID decided where the rice was dropped, the Hmong had no choice but to stand and fight," making food aid a weapon in itself.2
The helicopters didn’t necessarily leave empty. Alfred McCoy, a historian who visited Laotian villages and accompanied USAID missions, reported that Air America brought opium from the countryside to the headquarters of Laotian general Vang Pao.
McCoy’s observations became a bombshell book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. According to McCoy, the CIA didn’t directly push drugs. (After all, heroin abuse was a major nuisance for U.S. forces in Vietnam.3) But it did allow anticommunist forces around the region to sustain themselves on the opium trade, taking advantage of U.S. protection and transportation.4
The beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg worked with McCoy to sum up these findings in a catchy song:
By McCoy’s account, the U.S. government spent years harassing him after the book was published.5 Two decades later, Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson starred in a zany action-comedy called Air America about the whole thing. C’est la vie.
Air America aircraft played a major role in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. That was the end of the active U.S. proxy war in Southeast Asia. The air fleet was unceremoniously shut down and sold off.
The story played out again on a smaller scale — but with a much larger pop culture impact — a decade later. In the 1980s, the CIA used local smugglers to run guns to anticommunist Contra militias in Central America. Some of those smugglers flew cocaine back in the opposite direction.
Gary Webb, a reporter at a local California paper, wrote a controversial 1996 report tying that network to the crack epidemic in Los Angeles.
Although other journalists found issues with his reporting — perhaps because Webb was a local reporter way in over his head — the thrust of the story was correct. The U.S. proxy war was deeply tied up in cocaine trafficking,6 and some of that cocaine ended up on American streets.
Webb’s life spiraled out of control after his credibility as a journalist came under attack. His 2004 death was ruled a suicide. That gave rise to the oft-cited claim that the CIA dealt crack cocaine and killed Webb to cover it up.
This story, too, had an Iranian angle.
Some of the funding for the anticommunist guerrillas came from a secret arms deal known as the “Iran-Contra affair.”
Facing an Iraqi invasion, the new Iranian government needed spare parts for its American-made weapons,7 and the Reagan administration needed an untraceable source of money for its Central American war. So U.S. officials ran guns to Iran and then used the proceeds to buy more guns for Nicaraguan rebels.
U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated over the next few decades, but the two countries still backed some of the same players in Iraq in 2003. Colonel James Steele, a U.S. veteran of the Central American conflicts, helped train Iraqi Shi’a paramilitaries that would later become Iran’s proxies. His methods were called the “Salvador Option.”
Today, the United States and Iran are archenemies, with most of Washington having settled somewhere between isolation and regime change as its preferred approach to Tehran. During its “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration brought in an old Reagan hand — Elliott Abrams, who had been convicted of lying to cover up the Iran-Contra affair.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.8
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Parsi, Trita. Treacherous Alliance: the Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States. Yale University Press, 2009. Page 230.
McCoy, Alfred. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. Revised edition. Lawrence Hill Books, 2003. Page 320.
To sum it up:
In most cases, the CIA's role involved various forms of complicity, tolerance, or studied ignorance about the trade, not any direct culpability in the actual trafficking. With its vast budget, the CIA had no reason to handle heroin. Instead it was the agency's tactics of indirect intervention through local allies, some of them drug lords, that led to a similarly indirect involvement in drug trafficking. The CIA did not handle heroin, but it did provide its drug-lord allies with transport, arms, and political protection.
McCoy xvi-xii. He retells the story in the introduction to his 2017 book, In the Shadows of the American Century.
While the CIA’s internal watchdog claimed to debunk Webb’s reporting, the investigation ended up uncovering “a far more serious case of CIA complicity with traffickers in Central America.” McCoy, 494 - 500.
The deal was a matter of life and death, even:
It was Iran’s last resort, but it was a matter of survival. The Rafsanjani camp believed that Iran needed Washington—without access to American arms and spare parts, the war [against Iraq] could be lost, and without U.S. protection against the Soviet Union, Iran could become a Soviet satellite.
Ecclesiastes 1:9, King James Version.