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The Arab/Muslim World: Iran-Iraq War

(1979 - 1988)

The Iran-Iraq war was fought for nearly nine years, during which time both countries suffered millions of casualties and billions of dollars in damage. The collateral damage to the economies of other nations was also immense. The war was one of the most strategically important conflicts of modern times because it involved two major oil producers and the region where more than half the world's reserves are located.

- Background
- Muslim vs. Muslim
- Rivals for Power
- Allies Choose Sides
- Rooting for a Draw
- Tanker Wars
- United States' Nonposition
- Body Count Grows
- Arms for Hostages
- Kuwait as Middleman
- "Final" Battle
- A Draw


The Arabs and Persians (natives of Persia, mostly descendants from places other than Arabia) have been historical rivals dating back centuries. Iran and Iraq, while under British and Turkish rule, also had a number of border disputes. In particular, the two have disputed control of the Shatt al-Arab, the major waterway connecting the Persian Gulf with the Iranian ports of Khorramshahr and Abadan, and the Iraqi port of Basra.

In 1847 a treaty was signed that established the Shatt as a boundary between Iraq and Iran (then the Ottomans and the Persians, respectively). Both agreed to respect freedom of navigation in the waterway, while Iran said it would cease interfering in northern Iraq in exchange for receiving control of two predominantly Arab cities, Khorramshahr and Abadan. The dispute was not completely settled and disagreements continued over the next several decades. In 1975, a new agreement was reached whereby the midpoint of the Shatt was determined to be the boundary between the countries.

By the end of the 1970's, both nations had reduced their dependence on the Shatt. Iraq had built new pipelines through Turkey and Syria, and it developed a new port and offshore oil- loading terminals in the Persian Gulf. Iran had built new oil facilities on Kharg Island in the Gulf. Still, key oil facilities of both nations were within artillery range of each other's armies.

Muslim vs. Muslim

A more important issue than geography was religion. Both nations are Muslim, with the leaders of Iraq primarily from the Sunni branch, and the Iranians, the Shiite. Prior to the Iranian revolution, the distinction between the countries was less religious than ideological. The ruling Ba'ath Party in Iraq was socialist and pro-Soviet, whereas the Iranian shah was anti-socialist (though certainly not democratic) and pro-Western.

The essentially secular Iraqi leadership became more of an issue after the Iranian revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini, who had spent part of his exile in Iraq (he was expelled in October 1978), began encouraging his former colleagues to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq because his regime was anti-Islamic. This was part of Khomeini's broader strategy of spreading the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East. Saddam responded as he did to any challenge by a ruthless crackdown on Shiite fundamentalists and by sending aid to Arab separatists in Iran.

Rivals for Power

Looking around the region at the end of the 1970s, Saddam also saw an opportunity to establish himself as the leader of the Arab world. The historic leader was the ruler of Egypt, but Anwar Sadat had been ostracized for making peace with Israel. The Gulf States had money, but were militarily weak. Syria was militarily strong, but financially weak.

Iraq's primary competition for regional dominance was its neighbor Iran, and Iran seemed vulnerable because the revolution there had not yet ended. Khomeini was still in the process of becoming the unchallenged Iranian leader, but he had not solidified his power. The Iranian army was still in disarray and radical Marxists were still battling the religious fundamentalists in parts of the country. From Saddam's vantage point, the timing seemed right to make a move.

The exact beginning of the war and its cause is difficult to pinpoint. One of the earliest clashes occurred in June 1979, when Iraqi aircraft attacked Iranian villages that were believed to be supporting Khomeini-backed Kurdish rebels.

For the next several months, Iran sought to undermine Saddam by encouraging protests by Shiites. Both countries supported rebel movements against the other, and the Iranian-backed rebel group Al Dawaa attempted to assassinate the Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz on April 1, 1980. Saddam outlawed the group, deported large numbers of Iraqis who'd been born in Iran, and executed one of the Shiite clerics who'd led the protests against his regime. Khomeini then began to publicly call for the overthrow of Saddam. Finally, in June 1980, the two nations severed relations.

Between June and September 1980, 193 clashes occurred along the Iran-Iraq border. On September 17, Iraq abrogated the 1975 treaty and proclaimed the Shatt "a national river." As Iraq mobilized Arab allies, Iran warned the Gulf states they would be overthrown if they supported Saddam. Tensions built, until a series of clashes occurred in early September along the border near Qasr e-Shirin. Each nation blamed the other for the fighting. Saddam threatened to seize territory he said Iran was supposed to transfer to Iraq under an earlier agreement, but Khomeini refused to give up the disputed lands. Sporadic fighting finally culminated in Iraq's invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980.

Allies Choose Sides

Given the perceived importance of the outcome, third parties aligned with one or the other in hopes of influencing the fighting. Iran's principal ally was Syria, which used its military to periodically divert Iraqi forces from the Iranian front. Syrian President Hafez Assad also closed a key Iraqi pipeline to the Mediterranean that affected Saddam Hussein's income. Libya, China, and North Korea all sent weapons, particularly missiles, to Iran.

The most unlikely country to support Iran was Israel, given that the revolutionary government had replaced the country's longstanding alliance with an obsessive and hostile Anti-Zionism. Still, the Israelis did provide some arms to their Iranian enemies. Why?

Two main reasons:

  • One is that Israel often subscribes to the Middle East dictum, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and Iraq was viewed as a more immediate danger.
  • A large number of Jews remained in Iran, and the Israelis hoped to essentially buy their safety while covert and not-so-covert efforts were undertaken throughout the war to get Iranian Jews out of the country.

Iraq's support came primarily from the Gulf states, which that viewed Iran as the greater danger to their security. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait each provided billions of dollars in loans and grants. Egypt and Jordan provided some weapons and supplies. The United States, France, and the Soviet Union also sided with the Iraqis.

Rooting for a Draw

One of the major concerns throughout the Iran-Iraq war was that one of the nations would win a convincing victory and emerge as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. This would threaten the security of the weaker nations in the region and ultimately the economic security of the Western nations (and Asian countries such as Japan) that depend on Gulf oil. The United States therefore had an interest in seeing the two countries engage in a protracted, inconclusive war that left both worse off than when they started.

Iraq did the best in the initial fighting, seizing a large swath of territory in southern Iran, and besieging Abadan and Khorramshahr. But the tide of the war began to turn in mid-1981, when Iran broke the siege of Abadan and later recaptured Khorramshahr. By June 1982, the Iraqis had been driven completely out of Iran. From that point on, Iraq spent most of the war on the defensive.

Saddam offered to end the war, but Khomeini was not satisfied with having fended off the invaders; he now was determined to exact vengeance on Iraq by demanding reparations for the damage the attack had caused; he also wanted to see the overthrow of Saddam. Not surprisingly, Khomeini's demands were rejected.

In the summer of 1982, Iran launched its own offensive, attacking the Iraqi port of Basra. The Iranians appeared on the verge of a breakthrough, but the Iraqi forces held, and the fighting settled into a war of attrition. Still, Basra was closed, and Iraq was denied access to the Gulf, severely restricting its commerce and, ultimately, the living conditions of the people.

Tanker Wars

After a period of stalemate, the war heated up again on a new front, the Persian Gulf. The April 1984 attack on a tanker by Iraq marked the beginning of the first phase of the "tanker war," which continued for 18 months., During this time more than 80 ships from various countries were targets. Because of a glut on the international oil market, the fighting did not significantly affect the rest of the world and did not immediately threaten the Gulf sheikdoms.

The fact that Iraq had raised the stakes in the war was a signal that Saddam was becoming more desperate in his desire to force Iran to negotiate a cease-fire. The Iranians were unmoved and responded with their own desperate measures, notably suicide missions against Iraqi strongholds and terrorist attacks on third parties, including the French and Americans (whose embassies in Kuwait were targets).

The United States' Nonposition

The U.S. was in a strange position throughout the war: It wasn't sure exactly how to react. Policymakers definitely did not want Iran to emerge victorious. The consensus was that Khomeini was a serious threat to the stability of the region and to U.S. vital interests, notably oil supplies and Israeli security.

On the other hand, Saddam was viewed as a psychopath backed by the Soviet Union who was less of a threat to American interests, but certainly no friend. Thus, the policy that emerged was to support the pro-Western regimes in the region, bolster their defenses, and hope the combatants weakened each other to the point where neither would emerge from the war as a regional threat to the region.

The Body Count Grows

Given the dictatorial regimes running the war effort in both countries, Iranian and Iraqi citizens could do little more than lament the horrific casualty tolls. These figures continued to rise in 1985, when Iran launched an offensive to cut the main highway between Baghdad and Basra and a combined total of as many as 40,000 soldiers from the two armies were killed. Iraq responded with air strikes against Iranian positions that soon were expanded to include targets in Tehran. Not surprisingly, Iran retaliated in kind, and the civilians in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities became casualties of war.

Arms for the Hostages

In the midst of the war, the United States changed its position and unexpectedly helped the Iranians. In 1985, the Reagan Administration agreed to secretly sell weapons to Iran to win support for the freeing of American hostages being held by terrorists in Lebanon. The principal negotiator on the U.S. side was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a military aide to the National Security Council, who reported his activities to the National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane and his successor John Poindexter.

When the exchange was revealed, it proved embarrassing because of Reagan's oft-stated pledge not to negotiate with terrorists and his claim not to have traded arms for hostages. The situation was further complicated by the disclosure that part of the proceeds of the arms sale had been diverted to support the Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; this was in violation of a law prohibiting U.S. aid to the Contras.

If this was not convoluted enough, the initial sales to Iran were made through Israel. The Iran-Contra Affair, as it came to be known, tarnished Reagan's image, but he was ultimately found to have had no direct knowledge of the secret operation.

Kuwait as Middleman

In 1986 and the beginning of 1987, Iran launched new offensives, the last reaching the outskirts of Basra before again bogging down. Meanwhile, Iraq initiated a new tanker war in the Gulf, prompting Iran to target neutral shipping.

Kuwait, in particular, found itself in the middle of the combatants. To protect its ships from the Iranians, the Kuwaitis sought naval escorts from the Soviet Union and the United States. The U.S. would not cooperate with the Russians, however, and the Kuwaitis refused to accept only American assistance. While the issue was being negotiated, the U.S. began to provide Iraq satellite intelligence with information about Iranian troop movements, and it beefed up its naval presence in the Gulf. An agreement was then reached whereby Kuwait agreed to transfer some of its tankers to American registry so the U.S. could protect them.

On May 17, an Iraqi missile hit the U.S. missile frigate Stark and killed 37 American sailors. Saddam apologized for the mistake and rather than being mad at the Iraqis, the United States directed its anger at Iran.

The United States and its allies began to escort ships with an eye toward preventing another Stark disaster, but the next threat came not from the sky as they expected, but from the sea, where Iranian mines bobbed unseen below the surface. When the U.S. supertanker Bridgeton hit a mine in July 1987, the Iranians exulted at having used "invisible hands" to defeat the United States. Acting once again after it was too late, the United States began minesweeping operations. Eventually, other nations joined the effort to clear the Gulf after Iran threatened to spread mines throughout the vital shipping lanes. Several months later, an Iranian ship was caught in the act of laying mines.

The "Final" Battle

In 1987 and 1988, Khomeini continued to threaten a "final" offensive against Iraq, but none of these changed the situation on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the tanker war continued unabated.

On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes was patrolling the northern portion of the Straits of Hormuz. A group of Iranian gunboats had been threatening a Pakistani merchant vessel and one fired on the Vincennes. During the confrontation with the gunboats, the Vincennes picked up an aircraft on radar moving in its direction. The plane didn't not respond to the ship's warnings, so the Vincennes fired a missile, bringing the plane down. It turned out to be an Iran Air commercial jet carrying 290 people; who all died in the crash. The Iranians claimed it was an intentional act, but President Reagan said it was a terrible accident, apologized and offered to pay compensation to the victims.

By August 1988, both the Iranians and Iraqis were growing weary of war. Both economies were in shambles, and it was clear a conclusive military result was impossible for either side.

Iran finally agreed to a U.N.-mediated cease-fire. A major factor in the decision to end the war was the Iraqi use of poison gas. Both sides used chemical weapons, but the Iraqis had the capability to use them on a large-scale, a factor that sapped the morale of the Iranian troops and the civilian population.

Ironically, two years later, after Iraq invaded Kuwait (which had previously been more concerned about an Iranian attack), Saddam agreed to withdraw all his troops from Iranian territory, share control of the Shatt al-Arab (he had previously insisted on Iraqi control), and exchange prisoners. The two countries then resumed diplomatic relations.

No one is sure of the total casualties during the Iran-Iraq war, but estimates range from 500,000 to 1 million dead, 1-2 million wounded, and more than 80,000 prisoners. There were approximately 2.5 million refugees, and whole cities were destroyed. The financial cost is estimated at a minimum of $200 billion.

A Draw

After eight years of fighting, neither side could claim victory. The border disputes were not resolved. Both autocrats remained in power and had shored up their internal support, but had lost influence outside their countries. Both countries suffered devastating loses of men, materiel, and financial resources. Nevertheless, Iraq emerged from the war with roughly one million men under arms, 500 combat aircraft, and 5,500 tanks, the nucleus of the force that would fight the U.S.-led coalition in the next Gulf war.

Despite the long war and its high cost, both Khomeini and Saddam continued to pursue their foreign policy agendas, and, within a couple of years, were fomenting instability elsewhere in the region. In the case of Iran, its revolutionaries continued to threaten the Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia. The terrorists it sponsored persisted in their efforts to undermine Western interests and menace Israel, particularly from the Lebanese border. Iraq rebuilt its forces and launched another invasion, this time of Kuwait, in August 1990.

In the years since the war, moreover, neither country has abandoned its dream of dominating the region. While Iraq's hopes have been severely undermined by United States military action, Iran has been left largely untouched. The United States has included both in its dual containment strategy, but most other nations have ignored American entreaties to impose strict sanctions on Iran. We know from the results of the 1991 Gulf War, U.N. inspections and intelligence that Iraq has still been able to build up its military and pursue a nuclear weapons program. The Iranians have not faced the same scrutiny or constraints as Iraq and undoubtedly have been even more successful in building their military capability, particularly in the area of nonconventional weapons.

Sources: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict