11: The Iran-Iraq War: 1980 to 1988
The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) was a brutal eight-year war between the Tnations of Iran and Iraq. It created terrible upheaval in both countries and revealed divisions among peoples of the Middle East that would be at the root of major conflicts in the region in the following years. The war pitted Persians, the people of Iran who generally speak Farsi or other Persian languages and have a unique ethnicity, identity, and culture, against Arabs, the people of the Middle East and North Africa who speak Arabic or live in countries in which Arabic is the dominant language. Sunni Muslims (followers of the Sunni branch of the religion of Islam) struggled against Shiites (followers of the Shia branch of Islam). Pan-Arabists (advocates of the unification of Arab peoples and the political alliance of Arab states) opposed Pan-Islamists (advocates of the unification of Muslims under a single Islamic state where Islam provides the basis for political, social, and cultural life). The war also pitted two ambitious authoritarian leaders against one another: Iran's Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini (c. 1900–1989) and Iraq's president Saddam Hussein (1937–2006).
The Iran-Iraq War forced people in both countries to question which form of identity was most important or unifying: their ethnic group, their religious sect (group), or their nationality. On a global level, the war demonstrated the power of other countries to influence the outcome of war in the Middle East. At the national level in Iran and Iraq, however, the war accomplished little or nothing and at great cost. Although the bloody conflict seemed to solidify the idea of nationalism (devotion and loyalty to the nation and its culture), neither Iran or Iraq gained territory from or political authority over the other, and both suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties and severely damaged economies.
A history of of conflict
One of the conflicts that led to the Iran-Iraq War was a dispute over the shared border between the two countries. At the heart of this conflict was
a 120-mile (193-kilometer) river called the Shatt al Arab, which is formed by the joining of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The Shatt al Arab flows past Iraq's port of Basra and the Iranian city of Abadan before entering the Persian Gulf at the Iraqi port of Al Faw. The southern half of the river
forms the long-disputed boundary between Iraq and Iran. The Shatt al Arab is important to both nations; it is Iraq's only access to the Persian Gulf and it provides a strategic waterway for both Iran and Iraq for shipping their oil and other products. Since the seventeenth century, the people of both the region known as Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and the region known by Westerners as Persia (which officially became known as Iran in 1935) a have at times claimed the river, or at least one of its banks, as part of their lands.
The border conflict began anew at the end of World War I (1914–18; a global war between the Allies [Great Britain, France, and Russia, joined later by the United States] and the Central Powers [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies]), when the victorious Allies divided up the lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the vast empire of the Ottoman Turks which included southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe and lasted from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century. Great Britain was granted a mandate (administrative authority) to govern Iraq, and in creating the mandate of Iraq, Britain included some border areas that Iran claimed as its own. When Iraq tried to declare its independence in 1932, Iran refused to recognize it as a nation until these border claims were resolved. Iran and Iraq agreed to a treaty in 1937 that defined their boundaries along the east bank of Shatt al Arab, which favored Iraq. For a time, the treaty brought resolution, but the monarchies that ruled these countries ended in the 1950s. The new rulers were not as willing to submit to the terms of the treaty as the earlier rulers had been.
Problems arose near the end of the 1960s, when the Ba'ath Party, a political party that had originated in Syria, took control of Iraq. The party was secular (nonreligious), and its original objective was to bring about a peaceful unification of Arab nations. The Ba'ath Party leaders of Iraq took the idea to a new level, envisioning Iraq as the central force in the united Arab world of the future. This was disturbing to Iran, since Iran's population is Persian and not Arab. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the shah of Iran, did not want a powerful union of Arab countries so close to Iran.
With this hostility already festering, the shah demanded that the boundaries along the Shatt al Arab be changed in Iran's favor. In order to pressure the Iraqis to agree to his terms, the shah began to interfere in Iraq's internal problems with the Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group who lived along Iraq's northern border. The Kurds had been fighting for self-rule within Iraq since the 1920s. In the mid–1970s the Kurds began attacking Iraqi targets in an attempt to gain self-rule. In retaliation the
Iraqi government began an organized effort to drive the Kurds living along the Iran-Iraq border out of the country. Much to the dismay of Iraq, Iran began to support the Kurds, providing them with weapons, safe refuge, and other types of aid and support, within its borders. (It is important to note, however, that Iran had its own population of Kurds who also wanted self-rule, and Iran did not support their efforts or grant them self-rule.)
Under these pressures, the two governments decided to negotiate. In 1975 Iran and Iraq signed the Algiers Agreement, in which Iran agreed to end its aid to the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq gave up full control of the Shatt al Arab. According to the agreement, the boundary between Iran and Iraq would be in the center of the Shatt al Arab. Each country would have
rights to one bank and its half of the river. But this agreement would soon prove to be unstable.
Borders and Kurds were not the only sources of friction between Iran and Iraq. A new political movement arising in Iran would significantly add to the hostility. Starting in the 1960s, Iranian Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini began to encourage Iran to isolate itself from the rest of the world. He protested against modern, and, specifically, Western values. Many Iranians disliked the control that foreign powers had over the shah. During the years following World War II, Iran's oil industry had been controlled by British and American companies and the Soviet Union had begun to support Iranian Communist groups that were trying to overthrow the shah. (Communists are advocates of Communism, a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single political party holds power.) In 1953, in an effort to regain control of Iranian resources and government, Iran's prime minister led an uprising in which he seized control of Iran's oil industry and forced the shah into exile. The United States, however, had been unwilling to lose control in Iran, particularly given the Soviet Union's interest in the country and the U.S. interest in its oil. The United States helped a small group of Iranians stage a coup (overthrow of the government) that returned the shah to power in 1954. After that, the shah was one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East. Throughout his rule, the United States supplied Iran with billions of dollars' worth of military equipment, in the hope of deterring the Soviet Union's power in the region, and had bought billions of dollars of Iranian oil.
Khomeini declared that in modernizing Iran, the shah had created policies that went against the teachings of Islam and ancient Persian tradition. Khomeini felt that the power and influence of foreigners in Iran were damaging to the dignity of the Iranian people. He was especially disgusted by the preferential treatment given to American soldiers in Iran. In 1964, a new law was enacted that gave U.S. military personnel and their families immunity from Iranian criminal laws. According to Robin Wright in Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, Khomeini thought that Americans were given these freedoms in Iran because the United States had just loaned the shah's government $200 million. As quoted by Wright, Khomeini remarked: “; If the shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him. … Are we to be trampled underfoot by the boots of
America simply because we are a weak nation and have no dollars?” For his outspoken criticism of the shah, Khomeini was arrested and in 1964 he was forced into exile. First exiled to Turkey, he soon moved to Iraq, where for the next thirteen years he continued to preach his opposition to the shah and his government.
During the years when Khomeini was exiled in Iraq, Shiites formed the majority, at about 60 percent of that country's population, but Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party was made up of Sunni Muslims. Khomeini, who was a charismatic figure and a Shiite, began to develop a strong following among the Iraqi Shiites. He was also open in his criticism of the high-ranking Ba'ath Party member Saddam Hussein, who was then in charge of Iraq's internal security. Khomeini called him an infidel (unbeliever). Saddam was so concerned about Khomeini's perceived power that he had him driven out of Iraq in 1978.
Saddam comes to power
Saddam had joined the Ba'ath Party in his youth. Even in his early years as a Ba'athist, Saddam envisioned himself as the leader of a pan-Arab country. When Saddam was only twenty-two, the Ba'ath Party assigned him to help in the assassination of Iraq's military leader, which failed. After other secret and often violent missions, Saddam emerged in the 1960s in a high position within the party. By the late 1960s, as the head of Iraq's internal security, he began to use the system to purge the country of all enemies of the Ba'ath Party by having them driven out of the country, imprisoned, or killed. By the late 1970s Saddam had also begun to ruthlessly eliminate members of his own party who he perceived as rivals to his political ambitions.
Saddam became president of Iraq in July 1979. Once he had taken office, he ordered the executions by firing squad of hundreds of high-ranking Ba'ath Party members and officers of the Iraqi military—anyone he thought might threaten his power in Iraq. He ruled as the absolute dictator of Iraq, brutally eliminating those who threatened to oppose him. Once in power, he set his sights on expanding his realm. The Soviet Union had been an ally of Iraq's for decades, and had supplied it with enough weapons to enable a powerful assault on its neighbors when the time seemed right.
Khomeini comes to power
The same year that Saddam became president, 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran. It was a time of great upheaval. The monarchy of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, heir to the Pahlavi dynasty (series of rulers from the same family) that had transformed Persia into the modern state of Iran starting in 1925, was collapsing. The shah had modernized and secularized Iran, creating a wealthy class. He led a secular government and was his rule was heavily influenced, in terms of culture, politics, and economy, by the West. But many Iranians, especially the devotedly religious and the poor who had not benefited from the new economy, feared that their traditions, values, and Persian identity were being wiped away by modernization and the shah's allegiance to the Western world.
These disgruntled Iranians banded together, and in 1979 popular protest escalated into an Islamic revolution, an Islamist movement intended to bring the laws and regulations of the country under the control of Islam. The revolution sent the shah into exile. Led by Khomeini, Iran formed an
Islamic republic, which granted the ayatollah ultimate command of the country as its Supreme Leader. A Council of Guardians, made up of six Islamic clergy members appointed by the ayatollah, oversaw legislative acts created by an Islamic Consultative Assembly of 290 elected legislators. The new government adopted a constitution that used sharia as its guiding principles for Iran's laws and regulations.
The Islamic republic placed strict rules on society. It took control of the country's industries and businesses and enforced adherence to sharia in all aspects of life. Women were forced to wear traditional Muslim dress, usually including a chador, a veil that covers their body and hair. Textbooks were rewritten to better represent Islamic values. Government employees were subjected to loyalty tests. Opponents to the new government were arrested or executed. Khomeini hoped to inspire other Shiites around the globe to rise up and create Islamic countries according to his pan-Islamic ideology. Like Saddam, Khomeini aspired to rule a larger territory than his own country and was willing to take extreme measures to make this happen.
Saddam knew that Khomeini was a rival to his own ambitions in the Middle East, and he was also concerned about the effects the Islamic Revolution in Iran might have on his own country. There was good reason to doubt the loyalty of Iraqi Shiites, for Iraq had a long history of oppressing its Shiite population. In 1972 the Iraqi government had forced nearly seventy thousand Shiites out of the country and in March 1980, Saddam had seized the property and homes of nearly thirty thousand Iraqi Shiite men and exiled them to Iran.
With Iran controlled by Islamists after 1979, Iraqi leaders also worried about Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf along the Shatt al Arab waterway. Iraq relied on secure access to the gulf to transport oil, its main export. After 1979, hostilities between Iran and Iraq grew over control of the disputed islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs in the Persian Gulf and over the oil-rich Khuzistan, an Iranian province located at the head of the Persian Gulf that borders Iraq. In the spring of 1980, an Iranian group tried to kill Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz (1936–), who was Saddam's close adviser. Saddam retaliated by deporting thousands of Iranians and by ordering the extremely brutal execution of the leader of the Iranian group suspected of attempting to kill Aziz.
By April 1980 both Khomeini and Saddam began to incite the public against each other, using speeches that were broadcast to both Iran and Iraq. Khomeini appealed to Iraqis to “wake up and topple this corrupt regime in your Islamic country before it is too late.” Saddam responded, “Anyone who tries to put his hand on Iraq will have his hand cut off,” as quoted in The Middle East, edited by Daniel C. Diller.
Saddam decided to strike before Khomeini's new government became established, hoping Iran would be unprepared for war so soon after the Islamic Revolution. On September 17, 1980, Saddam broadcast his rejection of the 1975 Algiers Agreement by destroying a copy of it on television. He claimed the Shatt al Arab for Iraq alone. Khomeini responded by announcing that Iran would no longer abide by the agreement either and started to fund Iraqi insurgents (people rebelling against the Iraqi government), especially the Kurds, once again.
Iraq mounted the first offensive. Iraqi troops crossed the Iranian border near Baghdad on September 22, 1980, and then, farther south, they crossed the Shatt al Arab. By October Iraq controlled much of the Khuzistan province. Oil, being the main source of income for both countries, was the main target of these early attacks. Iran and Iraq bombed each other's oil wells and refineries, and each tried to destroy the other's trading routes. As Iraq had hoped, the new Islamic republic had had little time to organize a military, and it was overwhelmed by Iraq's superior weaponry and established military. Iraq quickly captured Shatt al Arab and a long strip of Iranian territory along the border. Observers around the world thought the war would be over within a few weeks. But they were wrong.
Rather than destroying the new Iranian regime, the Iraqi attacks actually inspired a sense of nationality among the Iranians. Thousands volunteered to join the military and fight their new enemy. According to many historians, the new soldiers were extremely committed to the fight, because they connected it to the recent Islamic Revolution and felt they were fighting for their religion as well as their country. As Iran strengthened its forces and Iraqi war casualties mounted, Saddam's hopes for a quick victory were dashed. Though the Soviet Union had been an ally in the past, it had declared it neutrality when the war broke out and
temporarily stopped supplying Iraq with weapons, although it would resume in 1982. Saddam soon appealed to Khomeini and the international community to negotiate a peace settlement.
The pleas and bargaining efforts of neighboring Arab states and the United Nations (an international organization of countries founded in 1945 to promote international peace, security, and cooperation) failed to bring peace. Khomeini announced that he would not stop fighting until he had established “an Islamic government in Iraq” and destroyed “the Iraqi regime in the same way as we destroyed the shah,” as quoted by Diller. Khomeini's plan frightened many in the Arab and Western worlds who feared the growth of the Islamist country and the power of its authoritarian leader.
International fears increased when Iranian counterattacks started pushing Iraqi troops back across the border. Iran had begun using
human wave attacks, in which a large line of volunteer soldiers rushes toward enemy lines in a formation that is many men deep. The enemy can kill the men in front with machine guns and cannons, but because of their sheer numbers, the soldiers just keep coming in waves and their attack continues. This form of warfare is rarely used, because it results in a large loss of life. The Iraqis were overwhelmed by the Iranians, and by 1982 Iraqi troops had retreated to their home soil, where the battles would be fought for the remainder of the war.
Both Iran and Iraq had few allies when the war began in 1980. Neither had asked other countries to send troops to help them or for money or weapons until the peace negotiations failed in 1982. But after the attempts for peace failed and Iraqi troops had been driven across the border, Saddam turned to the West for help.
Although the West was reluctant to support either Saddam or Khomeini, Saddam seemed the one most likely to assist in protecting Western interests in Middle East oil, which both Iran and Iraq had in abundance. Neighboring Arab countries with huge oil reserves but small militaries feared being targeted by Iran as part of its Islamic Revolution; they also supported Iraq in the war. France sold weapons to Iraq, while Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other countries along the Persian Gulf loaned it billions of dollars in the hope that an Iraqi victory would protect them from the spread of Khomeini's style of Islamism.
The United States, which had not had relations with Iraq since 1967, sided with Iraq as well. Like other countries coming to Iraq's aid, the United States “was willing to ignore the brutality of [Saddam's] regime in order to prevent the spread of the kind of Islamic radicalism and anti-U.S. sentiment represented by Khomeini,” writes William L. Cleveland in A History of the Modern Middle East. But the main U.S. interest in the Middle East was oil. Before being deposed (removed from office). After the revolution, the relationship between the United States and Iran changed drastically. The ayatollah announced his intentions to rid the entire Middle East of American influence. Immediately after the Islamic revolution in Iran, the U.S. embassy in the capital city, Tehran, was overtaken by a group of Iranian students, who took the entire U.S. staff, as well as several bystanders, hostage. They demanded that the shah, who was receiving medical treatment in the United States, be returned to Iran to face trial. Some of the hostages were initially released, but fifty-two Americans were held hostage for
444 days. The United States, not surprisingly, came to view the ayatollah, who openly supported the hostage-taking, as its enemy. The United States supported Iraq with troops and naval vessels to keep the Persian Gulf open for oil tankers to pass.
Iran gained support from Libya and Syria during the war. Both Libya and Syria were Arab countries that hoped that Iran would help them in battles against the West and other foes in the Middle East. The alliance between Iran and Syria would prove to be important and long-term for both countries, but during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran relied mainly on its vast population and huge oil wealth for its needs.
A brutal war
Empowered by international aid and support, both Iran and Iraq continued to launch offensives in the mid–1980s, aimed at destroying each other's resolve to continue the fight. Hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides resulted from these attacks. Territory was continually gained and lost. Iranian and Iraqi oil tankers were sunk, depriving both sides of much-needed income. In 1985 densely populated civilian centers became military targets. Iraq directed its superior supply of missiles at Tehran, the capital of Iran. Even though Iran had far fewer missiles and those that they had were less powerful, it retaliated by launching them at Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Although Iraq's attacks were decidedly more devastating, the population in both countries was rapidly growing weary of the war.
In the late 1980s Iran announced new attacks against Iraq, making it seem as if Iran was making progress toward winning the war. But these attacks were held off by Iraqi resistance. One of Iran's attacks in 1986 sent waves of soldiers into the Iraqi port of Basra, located 75 miles (121 kilometers) up the Shatt al Arab from the Persian Gulf. After two months, Iran had gained little in territory or strategic position and thousands of Iranian soldiers had been killed.
Iranian resolve to fight faltered not only due to the high rate of death in battle but also because Iraq had begun to use chemical weapons, or toxic chemical substances used during armed conflict to kill, injure, or incapacitate an enemy. Early in the war Iraq used mustard blister gas, which causes blistering of the skin and eyes and lung irritation, but has a fairly low death rate. Later it used sarin gas, which can enter the body through contact with the skin or by being inhaled and can quickly kill the victim. Use of chemical
weapons violates the 1925 Geneva Protocol, an international law. Iraq had been accused of using chemical weapons since the mid–1980s. It had used large quantities of poison gas to regain the Al Faw Peninsula at the mouth of Shatt al Arab after it was captured by Iran in early 1986. The poison gas caused hundreds of casualties. The international community publicly condemned Iraq for its use of these weapons but did not stop its aid to the nation, and Iraq continued to use chemical weapons.
Despite Iran's occupation of large tracts of Iraqi land by the late 1980s, none of its offensives seemed dramatic enough to end the war in its favor. Even with public knowledge of its use of chemical weapons, Iraq continued to enjoy international support, and by 1987 countries from the West, especially the United States, were working hard to end the war in Iraq's favor. On July 20, 1987, the United Nations passed Resolution 598, calling for a cease-fire and a withdrawal of troops to the borders between Iran and Iraq that had existed before the war. Although the resolution favored Iraq, Iran did not flatly reject it. Instead, Iran asked to modify it.
Before any alterations to the resolution were made, Iraq increased its bombings of Iranian targets. In February 1988 Iraq launched approximately one hundred missiles at Tehran. By April 1988 Iraq had forced the majority of Iranian troops from its borders and advanced on Iranian territory. The Iraqi government went so far as to launch a devastating campaign of chemical warfare against its own citizens, the Kurdish inhabitants of the border village of Halabja, whom it suspected of aiding Iran.
Iraq used more chemical weapons against Iranians in subsequent offensives in May and June 1988. By July 1988 Iran's morale was broken. Khomeini agreed to the original Resolution 598 cease-fire proposal. On July 21, 1988, Khomeini announced to his country that although he believed the cease-fire to be “in the best interests of the revolution and the [Islamic republic],” he considered the agreement to be “more lethal to me than poison,” as quoted by Shaul Bakhash in The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. A final cease-fire took effect on August 20, 1988.
The legacy of war
At the end of the Iran-Iraq War, both countries were in shambles. Nearly one million people had died in the battles, with approximately twice as many Iranians as Iraqis killed. More than one million people, mostly from near the border, were forced to flee from their homes in cities that had been destroyed by the eight-year war. Both countries' ports, oil refineries, roads, and farm irrigation systems were in desperate need of repair.
One of the more remarkable elements of the war was what did not happen. Contrary to some expectations, Shiite Muslims in Iraq did not rise up and join their fellow Shiites from Iran; similarly, ethnic Arabs living in Iran's Khuzistan province remained loyal to Khomeini and did not follow Saddam in a pan-Arab revolution. Religion and ethnicity, thought to be such powerful forces in the region, proved to be less powerful than
nationalism. This was considered confirmation that the relatively young countries of the Middle East (most had achieved independence between 1920 and 1950) had attained a stable national identity. The Iran-Iraq War was the greatest show of nationalist sentiment seen yet in the Middle East.
Iran, which had used its own finances and huge population to fund and execute the war, immediately turned its attention to reconstruction. Khomeini ruled strictly and often harshly in order to control Iran's internal disagreements about the best way to start reconstructing cities and industry and provide for the welfare of the country's huge internal refugee population of people who had lost their homes in the war. Nearly two thousand opponents to Khomeini's rule were executed in the months following the end of the war. Actual reconstruction of homes and business began after Khomeini died in 1989.
Rather than plunge into the challenges of reconstruction, Iraq took a completely different path after the war. Saddam continued his quest to
dominate the Arab countries of the Middle East and poured money into rebuilding Iraq's military. Iraq had borrowed billions of dollars to finance its war efforts. Rather than repay its debts, Iraq set its sights on controlling its former allies. Two years after the Iran-Iraq War, in 1990, Iraq invaded and annexed (took over) Kuwait. Its aggression soon started the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). This time the international community fought against Iraq, and Iraq suffered a major defeat that further damaged the country. While Saddam did eventually begin to rebuild Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, it was clear that Iraq, much like Iran, would never be as strong as it had been before the start of the Iran-Iraq War.
For More Information
Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2004.
Diller, Daniel C., ed. The Middle East. 8th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
Dudley, William, ed. The Middle East. Opposing Viewpoints Series. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2004.
Karsh, Efraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988. Oxford: Osprey, 2002.
Kort, Michael G. The Handbook of the Middle East. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.
Ojeda, Auriana. The Middle East. Current Controversies Series. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2003.
Smith, Charles D., ed. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin's, 2001.
Wright, Robin. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. New York: Penguin, 2008, pp. 26, 266.
MacFarquhar, Neil. “Saddam Hussein, Defiant Dictator Who Ruled Iraq With Violence and Fear, Dies,” New York Times (December 30, 2006). Available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/30/world/middleeast/30saddam.html?pagewanted=3 (accessed on November 30, 2011).
“1981: Tehran Frees US Hostages After 444 Days.” BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/january/21/newsid_2506000/2506807.stm (accessed on November 30, 2011).