The Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988)

The Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988)

In late 1979, an Islamic revolution occurred in Iran that toppled the regime of the Western-supported shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–80)—who subsequently left the country along with his family and closest aides—and brought to power the Shii religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–89). The revolutionaries who took over the government consisted of theology students, members of the bazaari class (traders and shopkeepers), and representatives of some secular political groups, some of whose leaders had been arrested under the shah.

In the chaotic postrevolutionary situation that unraveled the Pahlavi monarchy as quickly as a woolen sweater, conditions seemed ripe for outside intervention, particularly by Iran’s neighbors, if not by the United States. It was Baathist Iraq that struck the fi rst blow, sparking a crisis that was to weaken the Baathist government irretrievably.

The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was the longest and costliest war ever fought between the two countries. It was truly a war without a winner. Besides the devastating losses incurred on both countries’ armies, air forces, and navies, the bombings of the important oil-refi ning towns of the Shatt al-Arab, and the lingering aftermath of poison gas attacks and air raids on both civilians and soldiers, the war was also prolonged by political entanglements and alliances that contributed to the appalling destruction on both sides.

Finally, there was the ideological component: Both Iraq and Iran used their incipient state medias (and, on Ayatollah Khomeini’s part, weekly sermons) to project messages of invincibility and righteousness based on interpretations of either pre-Islamic annals (Iraq) or Islamic history (Iran).The war started on September 22, 1980, after repeated border skirmishes. Whether those were suffi ciently provocative to draw in the Iraqi army, history must be the fi nal judge.

An Iranian scholar has considered them less confrontational than the shah’s arming of the Kurdish rebellion in the 1970s, but that is clearly only one opinion (Bakhash in Potter and Sick 2004, 22). It does seem fairly obvious, however, that several factors played into Saddam Hussein’s timing in launching the war. One was the turmoil in Iran as a result of the spreading grip of the Islamic revolution on the country as a whole. The shah’s hasty departure, the collapse of the once-powerful Iranian army and the execution of its top leadership, the factional struggles taking place in Iran’s political establishment, and the revolutionary zeal that eventually brought on the American hostages crisis roiled the country.

The country was isolated internationally and seemed weak.Second was the desire on Hussein’s part to abrogate the Algiers Treaty so as to return Iraqi sovereignty to both sides of the Shatt alArab waterway. Many observers in Iraq believe that for Hussein, the agreement had been a temporary truce and not a defi nitive compact. Finally, it must be noted that the Iraqi command structure harbored unrealistic expectations for immediate victory. It severely miscalculated Iran’s strength and was confronted with an unexpected determination of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to fi ght on.

Stages of the War

The war developed over several stages. The fi rst stage involved Iraqi air and land attacks on several positions in west and southwest Iran. These were initially rebuffed. Meanwhile, six divisions crossed into Iran and occupied Khuzistan, Khorramshahr, and Abadan, the last of which was the site for Iran’s southern oil fi elds. After seizing a considerable strip of territory, Iraq fully expected that Iran would surrender, but the Iranians refused, commencing an uneven counteroffensive against the Iraqi army that eventually brought about the recapture of Abadan in 1981.

The second stage began with the Iranians overrunning Iraqi lines and launching a large campaign on Iraqi territory, near Basra. The Iraqis soon repulsed them. Three major human wave campaigns then took place, in which the Iranians suffered a large number of casualties. Eventually, the ground war settled into a war of attrition that lasted from 1984 until 1987. During those years, Iraq repeatedly employed chemical weapons against Iran; the war on cities and long drawn-out sieges on population centers became the order of the day.

The war was also internationalized when both sides started attacking merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf so as to prevent supplies from reaching the opponent. Eventually, the United States entered the war on the side of Iraq, initially supplying intelligence and aid. When Kuwait, which bore the brunt of the “Tanker War,” as this phase of the hostilities was called, petitioned the international community for help, the United States and the Soviet Union both offered assistance (as a way of protecting their own vested interests) in 1987.

The U.S. Navy then began protecting any tanker in the area fl ying the Stars and Stripes, an important signal to the Iranians of superpower intent. In May 1987, the worst assault of the war on a U.S. warship occurred when the USS Stark was accidentally attacked by an Iraqi plane. While this caused some diplomatic problems, the United States basically shrugged off the mistake to focus its enmity on Iran. U.S. military assistance to Iraq during the war amounted to destroying Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, sinking Iranian gunboats, and the “accidental” downing of an Iranian airliner, for which the United States paid an indemnity.

Also in the dwindling days of the confl ict, the external war made way for the internal one. In an act little publicized by the parade of high U.S. offi cials visiting Hussein in the latter days of the war, it is believed that the Iraqis used poison gas against the Kurds at Halabja in March 1988, a town then controlled by Iranian troops and Kurdish guerrillas.

The massacre of hundreds of civilians went unnoticed for several years until a forceful campaign by human rights activists brought it to the world’s attention. Finally, after years of stalemate and reversal in which thousands of people perished and the two capitals, Baghdad and Tehran, had been attacked with missiles, Ayatollah Khomeini made his famous speech in which he compared accepting a cease-fi re to drinking poison. This ushered in an end to the war, which took place on August 20, 1988, when both sides agreed to abide by UN Resolution 598.