Iran–Iraq War (1980–
On 22 September 1980, Iraq launched a surprise military attack on Iran, thereby igniting a war that would last for eight years, ending only when both countries agreed to accept the terms of a United Nations (UN) cease-fire resolution. Iraq's stated reason for initiating the war was defensive: The government in Baghdad claimed that Iranian forces were staging raids across their common border and that Iran's leaders were using the media to incite Iraqis to revolt. But Iraq had experienced more serious "border incidents" with Iran in the past, most notably in the years 1971–1975, when the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had provided well-publicized "covert" assistance for a rebellion among Iraq's Kurdish minority. The same Iraqi leaders who were determined to avoid major conflict with Iran in 1975 had become, only five years later, confident of defeating Iran in battle. The Iraqi perception of changes in international, regional, and domestic politics contributed importantly to the decision to invade a larger and more powerful neighbor.
In the fall of 1980, Iran was isolated internationally as a result of the hostage crisis with the United States. Iran's relations with the other super-power, the Soviet Union, also were problematic because Tehran opposed the Soviet role in Afghanistan. In addition, all the Arab neighbors of Iran shared Iraq's apprehensions about the Iranian rhetoric of "exporting Islamic revolution." Within Iraq, Iran's revolution had emboldened an antigovernment movement among some Shiʿite Muslims, although the actual extent of this opposition may have been exaggerated in the minds of officials. Finally, intelligence about Iran supplied by Iranian military officers who had fled their country in the wake of the 1979 revolution was replete with information about serious factional rivalries among the political leaders and disarray and demoralization within the armed forces. The combined weight of all these factors persuaded Iraqi leaders that war against Iran could be undertaken with minimal costs and major potential benefits, such as seriously weakening or even causing the downfall of a much distrusted regime.
Initially the war went well for Iraq. Iranian forces were surprised by and unprepared for the attack. Iraqis captured Iranian border towns in all four provinces adjacent to Iraq, as well as Iran's major port, Khorramshahr. The Iraqis also besieged Abadan, one of Iran's largest cities and the site of its largest oil refinery, and several smaller cities located 12 to 20 miles removed from the border. After several weeks, however, the Iranians recovered from the shock of invasion and mobilized a large volunteer army that stopped the Iraqi advance. Iraq offered a cease-fire in place, which Iran rejected on grounds that part of its territory was under enemy occupation. For the next six months, the two armies fought intermittent battles along the front line in the western part of the Iranian province of Khuzestan, with neither side achieving any significant victory. Beginning in mid-1981, however, the Iranians gradually gained an advantage, breaking the Iraqi siege of several cities, including Abadan in September. A major victory for Iran came in May 1982, when it recaptured Khorramshahr. Several weeks later, in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon, Iraq announced its forces would withdraw from all Iranian territory.
The summer of 1982 seemed an appropriate time to end the war, but Iran's leaders were beginning to feel victorious and wanted revenge. Thus, in July they decided to continue the war by taking it into Iraq. During the next five years, the advantage in the land battles on the Iraqi front remained with Iran, although it was an advantage that gained Iran only a few miles of ground, notably the Majnun Islands in 1984 and the Fao Peninsula in 1986. Strategy in this period may be described as a war of attrition; thousands of men, especially on the Iranian side, which used human wave assaults as a tactic, died in battles that ended as stalemates. In the air, the advantage was on Iraq's side, and the latter used its superiority in aircraft and missiles to strike at Iran's oil installations, industrial plants, shipping, and cities. Iraq also began to use chemical weapons against Iranian forces. Baghdad even authorized the use of chemical weapons against its own Kurdish minority in northeastern Iraq after some of them rebelled and provided logistical support to Iran.
Iraqi missile and aerial bombing of Iranian oil shipping led Iran to retaliate against the shipping of neutral Arab states such as Kuwait, which Iran accused of collaborating with Iraq by providing billions of dollars in loans. The result was the "tanker war" in the Persian Gulf, a phase that added an international dimension to the war when major countries intervened during 1987 to assert the freedom of the seas by sending armed naval ships to escort neutral vessels through Gulf waters. The situation prompted the UN Security Council to pass a cease-fire resolution (1987). Iran initially was reluctant to accept this resolution, but a combination of factors finally secured its acceptance: Iraq's extensive use of chemical weapons in battles during early 1988; a renewed wave of Iraqi missile strikes on Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran; an increasing war-weariness among the general population; and uncertainty about the intentions of the United States and other countries that had intervened to suppress the tanker war. The UN-mediated cease-fire came into effect in August 1988. By that time, Iran had lost 150,000 men in battle, and about 40,000 more were listed as missing in action; 2,000 Iranian civilians also had been killed in Iraqi bomb and missile strikes. Iraq had lost more than 60,000 men in battle, and at least 6,000 Iraqi Kurdish civilians had been killed by chemical weapons unleashed on them by their own government.
see also hostage crises.
Chubin, Shahram, and Tripp, Charles. Iran and Iraq at War. London: I. B. Tauris, 1988.
Hooglund, Eric. "Strategic and Political Objectives in the Gulf War: Iran's View." In The Persian Gulf War: Lessons for Strategy, Law, and Diplomacy, edited by Christopher C. Joyner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
updated by eric hooglund
Since its establishment in 1921, Iraq has had a precarious relationship with its eastern neighbor, Iran. The sources of contention between the two countries involved border demarcation and the desire of both states to prevent the other’s hegemonic aspirations in the Persian Gulf. However, the tensions did not result in armed conflict until Iraqi president Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran in 1980.
Until the 1970s, both countries had been militarily and economically weak. This mutual weakness sustained a delicate balance that made open conflict undesirable to both sides. However, the rise of Iran as a regional power under Mohammad Reza Shah (1919–1980) in the 1970s undermined this balance. The Algiers Agreement of 1975 resulted in the reversal of a 1937 boundary treaty that had been preferable to Iraq. Iraq agreed to a less favorable border demarcation in exchange for Iran’s withdrawal of support from the Kurdish insurgency in northern Iraq.
The relationship between Iran and Iraq entered a new phase with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. While the revolution severely hampered the military capabilities of Iran, it greatly increased the Iraqi perception of the Iranian threat. Fearful of the destabilizing impact of the Iranian Revolution to his rule, Saddam decided to preemptively strike on September 22, 1980. The immediate goal of the Iraqi invasion was to reverse the terms of the 1975 agreement; the strategic goal was the containment of the “Islamic threat.”
Although Iraq was successful in the initial phases of the war, Iran managed to recover the Iraqi occupied territory by 1982. Yet repeated Iranian attempts to make inroads into Iraqi territory were unsuccessful, and Iraq repeatedly used chemical weapons against Iran. The war continued until 1988, when it became clear to Iran’s clerical leaders that they could not achieve any decisive breakthroughs. A cease-fire was agreed on August 20, 1988, after Iran accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 of 1987. The war resulted in no major border changes.
American policies during the war were driven by the goal of containing the new Iranian regime, which had threatened American hegemony in the Middle East. Consequently, official U.S. neutrality during the war was accompanied by policies that aimed to prevent a complete Iranian victory. The U.S. Navy engaged in skirmishes with Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf, and an Iranian passenger aircraft was shot down by a U.S. cruiser on July 3, 1988. However, at the same time, the United States was covertly supplying arms to Iran in an effort to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon and to finance Nicaraguan guerrillas.
Although the “Islamic threat” was contained, the war resulted in the consolidation of the authoritarian Islamic regime in Iran. With the exception of Libya and Syria, almost all Arab countries tacitly or actively supported Iraq during the war in an effort to thwart the prospect of Iranian hegemony. In the aftermath of the war, however, Iraq emerged as a major regional power with a strong military force, a development that led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990.
SEE ALSO Destabilization; Diplomacy; Fundamentalism, Islamic; Hussein, Saddam; Iran-Contra Affair; Iranian Revolution; Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah; Stability, Political; United Nations
Gunes Murat Tezcur
Also known as the first Gulf War, a long, extremely costly, and inconclusive conflict fought from 1980 to 1988. In 1980 Iran was in an isolated and weakened condition as a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, had proclaimed a policy of exporting its Shiʿite Islamic ideology, an implicit threat to the Baʿthist state in Iraq, a secular, Sunni-dominated regime that kept itself in power partly by suppressing its Shiʿa majority.
The war began as a dispute over territory that was to have been returned to Iraq under the terms of a 1975 border treaty between the two countries. On 10 September 1980, Iraq took control of the disputed territory, and on 17 September renounced the 1975 treaty and claimed Iraqi sovereignty over the entire Shatt al-Arab, the estuary at the head of the Persian Gulf. On 22 September Iraq launched a fullscale invasion of Iran, including an aerial bombing campaign against military and economic targets. By November Iraq occupied some 10,000 square miles of Iran, including the city of Khorramshahr. Iraq offered to negotiate but Iran refused as long as Iraq occupied any of its territory. There was a stalemate until March 1982; between then and June 1982, the Iranians rallied and pushed the Iraqi forces back to their own borders. Again Iraq offered to negotiate, but this time Khomeini refused until Saddam Hussein was removed from office. In July 1982 Iranian forces began a series of offensives into Iraqi territory, including an unsuccessful attempt to take Basra. Over the next several years fighting moved back and forth and evolved into a World War I–style war of attrition, of defensive trench warfare, and of massive assaults of "human waves" that produced huge casualties. Both sides bombed civilians, and there is evidence that both sides used chemical weapons, although only Iraq did so on a large scale. Each side also attacked oil tankers in the Gulf carrying oil from the other's ports. Air attacks continued throughout the war, although by the later stages Iran's air force was seriously degraded.
Throughout the war, Iraq had the support of most Arab states, the Gulf states in particular (to which it became seriously indebted, a factor in the origin of the Gulf War of 1991), the Soviet Union, and the United States, which in the later stages of the war supplied it with weapons and intelligence, and which actually carried out naval strikes on its behalf in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians were supported by Syria, Libya, North Korea, and China (and received covert weapons shipments from the United States as well). In August 1988, after years of stalemate, with little territory gained by either side, both sides accepted a UN-sponsored truce. Estimates of the dead vary from 500,000 to 1,500,000, roughly two-thirds of them Iranian. In August 1990, at the same time that his armies were occupying Kuwait, Saddam Hussein agreed to honor the international boundary negotiated in 1975. Prisoner exchanges were still being negotiated as late as 2003.
SEE ALSO Gulf War (1991).