Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988)

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Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988)

Major Figures


The Ayatollah Khomeini (c. 1902–1989), a powerful religious leader of Iran, endured arrest and exile for his criticism of the shah of Iran. The ayatollah’s fundamentalist Islamic teachings inspired the overthrow of the shah in 1979. Under the title “Supreme Leader,” Khomeini became the religious and political ruler of Iran until his death in 1989.

Early Life

Ruhollah Musawi was born either May 17, 1900 or September 24, 1902 (different dates are given in different sources) into a family of mullahs (Shi’ite clerics) in Khomein, a town about two hundred miles south of Tehran, Iran. His father was murdered when he was an infant, but his mother and aunt made sure he attended Islamic schools until their deaths fifteen years later. His older brother, who also became an ayatollah (a rank of high honor given to a respected expert in Islam), taught Musawi Islamic law.

Musawi completed his studies in law, philosophy, and ethics in the city of Qom. He remained there as a teacher and writer, with the title of ayatollah as a mark of his religious scholarship. The Khomeini part of his name came from his birthplace. He married and had two sons and three daughters.

Political Activism

In 1963, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran announced his ‘White Revolution,’ a program intended to reform Iran’s industry, economy, land ownership, and educational system. The revolution threatened the cultural traditions and property base of Shi’ite religious leaders, so they opposed it vehemently. Khomeini, by now a respected leader in his sixties, began speaking out against the shah’s rule in 1962, calling it illegitimate and anti-Islamic. He issued manifestos against the White Revolution and accused the shah of corruption and of submitting to Israel and the United States.

Khomeini was arrested in June 1963. In response, antigovernment protests erupted in Iran’s major cities. They were quickly suppressed, but hundreds of demonstrators were killed. Khomeini was exiled to Turkey, then settled in Najaf, Iraq.

From his exile, Khomeini continued to criticize the shah. He lectured that society should be led by clerics who would govern under Islamic law. By virtue of his age and scholarship, Khomeini’s importance as a spiritual leader grew. In 1978, Vice President Saddam Hussein of Iraq forced the ayatollah to flee to France.

Regime Change in Iran

Revolts—not always religious in nature—beset Iran’s government throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A newspaper attack on Khomeini in January 1978 ignited a series of violent protests and inflamed religious fervor, which was met by martial law. Brutal repression failed in the end, and the shah abdicated in January 1979.

On February 1, the ayatollah returned to Iran, which was in economic and social turmoil. Khomeini’s followers seized power ten days later. Khomeini named his own prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, who found his efforts constantly blocked by religious authorities. A referendum passed in March approving Islamic rule, and Bazargan resigned two days after the American embassy in Tehran was overrun.

Last Controversial Acts

In 1988, Khomeini accepted a ceasefire ending the Iran-Iraq War. Months later, in February 1989, he issued a fatwa (death sentence) against Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, because he found Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses blasphemous. Three murderous attacks against translators and publishers of the book followed; one man died.

On June 3, 1989, Khomeini died of cancer after eleven days in a hospital. He is buried at Behesht-e-Zahwa cemetery, where thousands gather to memorialize him every June 3. His two sons predeceased him; one of Khomeini’s grandsons lives under house arrest for publicly speaking against the Islamic republic in 2003.

Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) was president and virtual dictator of Iraq for twenty-four years, until his reign was toppled by the United States’ invasion in 2003. Besides the Iran-Iraq War, his legacy includes crimes against the Kurds and the ruthless suppression of dissent.

Early Career

Saddam Hussein was born April 28, 1937 in Tikrit, Iraq. Statements from his government claim descent on his mother’s side from the prophet Muhammad. As his father died just before Hussein’s birth, his mother married her brother-in-law and moved to the village of Uja. Hussein left home to attend school in Tikrit.

By age twenty, he had joined the underground Baath Party, which promoted pan-Arab socialism. Hussein was jailed for killing a government official shortly after the 1957 military coup that overthrew Iraq’s King Faisal II. Within two years, Hussein was a key player in the Baath Party’s attempt to assassinate General Qasim, prime minister and de facto ruler of Iraq. When that plot failed, Hussein fled to Damascus, Syria.

Return to Iraq

Hussein was treated as a hero in Syria, and promoted by Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Baath Party. He settled in Egypt, where he acquired a high school level education. When Qasim’s government was overthrown in 1963, Hussein returned to Iraq. More power struggles and coup attempts followed; Hussein was imprisoned briefly, escaped, and after two more coups in July 1968, the Baath Party was in control of the country.

Hussein became deputy to President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a distant relative. Throughout the next ten years, Hussein used his position as head of Iraq’s security agencies to eliminate rivals and enemies. When al-Bakr retired in 1979, Hussein took over as president.

By then, Iraq was a one-party state. The Kurds of the north and the Shi’ites in the south were excluded in varying degrees, and most organized dissent had been quashed.

Holding Power at Any Costs

Posters of the new ruler flooded Baghdad, showing him as a family man, a hero, and an athlete. Over the years, Hussein’s publications and propaganda created a cult of personality much like Stalin’s in the Soviet Union. Government posts were filled by relatives and friends, many from Tikrit and all of the Sunni religion.

Hussein declared himself a general in 1976, legitimizing his control over the army. He had thousands of administrators and officers killed as he purged his party and government of those he did not trust. In 1980, the Shi’ite cleric Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (father-in-law of Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential twenty-first-century Iraqi cleric) was one of hundreds killed in a crackdown of both Communist and Islamic opposition leaders.

Hussein then turned his attention to his neighbor to the east. Hussein assumed that Iran was unstable and anticipated a quick, easy victory, but the war dragged on for eight years and built up a debt of eighty billion dollars. After the war’s end, the Kurds of northern Iraq renewed their long-standing rebellion. In a program called Anfal (“spoils of war”), Hussein ordered the use of poison gas against Kurdish towns and villages.

The First Gulf War

Hussein considered the small, oil-rich state of Kuwait an appealing takeover target because of its location and wealth. In August 1990, Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait, and Hussein declared it Iraq’s nineteenth province. The U.S. president George H.W. Bush worked with other nations (including the Soviet Union, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) to form a coalition. Hussein ignored the economic sanctions of the United Nations and rejected diplomatic solutions from the Arab states—and even a last minute proposal from France—while a multinational force of over 500,000 troops from thirty-four countries assembled in the Middle East.

Hussein believed the United States would not involve itself in a bloody war and refused to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. On January 17, 1991, the coalition, led by the United States, began an air and sea campaign of bombing. This lasted for well over five weeks and was followed by a ground invasion on February 24. One hundred hours later, President Bush called a cease- fire.

Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed during the air war. Iraq shot Scud missiles into Israel, hoping in vain to cause dissension in the coalition. Once the ground campaign began, Iraqi troops surrendered by the thousands to coalition forces. The Basra Road became known as the “Highway of Death” because of the thousands of Iraqi soldiers killed there.

While the coalition stopped their attack in February, the Kurds and Shi’ite groups in the north and south rose in rebellion. Through the month of March, violent demonstrations, revenge killings, and seizures of government buildings were met by Hussein’s remaining forces. The uprisings were quickly suppressed, with further loss of life.

Unable to inflict the bloody damage that he thought would scare the Americans off, Hussein had sent his war planes to Iran. Although the aircraft escaped being bombed, they were impounded. Hussein had little choice but to acquiesce to the coalition’s demands and end the war. On April 6, 1991, Iraq officially accepted the United Nations Resolution 687, which set the terms for a permanent cease-fire.

The 1990s

The war’s cease-fire mandated that Iraq destroy all chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. United Nations inspectors visited the country throughout the 1990s and reported some compliance, but in 1995 the husbands of Hussein’s two daughters defected with their families. In Jordan, they reported elaborate secret programs of weapons production. The two men were killed in a gun battle when they returned to Iraq; as of 2007, their wives and families (Hussein’s daughters and grandchildren) remain in Jordan.

In 1998, Hussein refused to permit further inspections. He relented after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and let inspectors visit in 2002. Within months, though, Hussein accused the inspectors of being spies, and the stage was set for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.

Capture and Death

Nine months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, Hussein was found in an underground lair near Tikrit and captured. His two sons had already been killed in a firefight with U.S. troops. In July 2004, Hussein was handed over to the new government of Iraq. In a public trial marked by shouting and melodrama—and the kidnappings and assassinations of his lawyers—Hussein was eventually convicted of crimes against humanity. He was hung on December 30, 2006.

Major Battles

Invasion of Iran

The invasion of Iran by Iraqi forces began the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980. Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had assumed that Iran, weakened by a recent coup, could not defend itself. Much to everyone’s surprise, the invasion evolved into an eight-year war—the longest-running conventional war of the twentieth century.

The 1970s

Border and religious disputes had troubled relations between Iran and Iraq for centuries, erupting in violence right up to 1974. In 1975, during an OPEC meeting in Algeria, the two countries signed the Algiers Agreement; Iraq agreed to observe Iran’s definition of the border along the Shatt al-Arab, an important shipping channel that emptied into the Persian Gulf. In return, the shah of Iran stopped arming and supporting the Kurds of northern Iraq in their rebellion.

Positions of Iran and Iraq

After 1968, Iraq was ruled by President al-Bakr and, after 1979, Saddam Hussein. These men established friendly relations with both the Soviet Union and the West to build up Iraq’s arms and technology base. The ruling Baath Party espoused a Socialist, pan-Arab philosophy and was dominated by Sunnis.

In Iran, however, the shah pulled away from the West as religious unrest threatened his rule. Finally forced to abdicate, the shah left Iran in 1978; the Ayatollah Khomeini then returned from exile to oversee the creation of a new Islamic state. Khomeini followed the conservative Shi’ite branch of Islam, as did most Iranians. He denounced the Baath government of Iraq as corrupt and called on Iraqis to overthrow Hussein.

The Iranian military ranks had disintegrated during the Islamic revolution and were replaced by independent organizations of often untrained men, such as the Revolutionary Guards. Tribunals executed many of the shah’s supporters, including military officers. In November 1979, Iran alienated much of the West when the government allowed American hostages to be taken in the U.S. Embassy and held captive.

The Invasion

To the ambitious Hussein, Iran looked unstable and isolated. On September 17, 1980, Hussein appeared on television and literally ripped up the Algiers Agreement. Five days later, Iraqi forces invaded Iran. The first bombing targets were the airfields. The Iraqi MiG-23s and MiG-21s failed to destroy Iranian air power, however, because Iran’s planes were sheltered in reinforced hangers.

Hussein’s strategy targeted roads, refineries, and oil fields. Six Iraqi army divisions then attacked across the Shatt al-Arab and the border east of Baghdad, and crossed into Iran. In a month, Iraqi troops occupied a strip of Iranian borderland, including much of Khuzistan, an ancient province.

Curiously, the Iraqis stopped there, although the troops’ momentum and the lack of resistance would have allowed then to push further. Also perplexing is the fact that Hussein utilized only half his army in the invasion. These facts lead some observers to wonder what his goals truly were. Perhaps he wanted no more than the strip of land taken in that first month.

Whatever Hussein’s reasons, the Iranian air force retaliated by bombing oil installations near the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Baghdad, putting them out of operation. Iraq’s casualties were far higher than anticipated. A thrust to take the city of Khorramshar—the last territorial gain by Iraq—left at least six thousand Iraqi troops dead after days of hand-to-hand fighting.

No Quick Victories

In Iran, the invasion prompted a surge of patriotism and loyalty. If Hussein imagined he would weaken Khomeini’s hold on the country, the opposite happened: Iranians rallied round their leader. The shah had left Iran well-armed, and Khomeini pardoned and released all pilots and military officers from prison to fight for their country. Iraqi forces were pushed back in an Iranian counteroffensive that began in November 1980.

Iranian Counteroffensive

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran. When Iran struck back, the war became one of attrition that lasted eight years and claimed a million lives.

Iran’s Position

Because of the overthrow of the shah’s government and the Islamic revolution in early 1979, as well as the American hostage crisis, Iran was isolated and unsupported by most Arab nations and the West when Iraq invaded. While Iran had triple the population of Iraq, it possessed only about one-fifth the number of Iraq’s combat aircraft. Iranian equipment was old and poorly maintained, except for some recently acquired U.S. planes, and their military units were led by mullahs rather than trained army officers. Algeria, Libya, and Syria were Iran’s only supporters in late 1980.

Despite these limitations, the religious fervor inspired by Iran’s leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, proved far more important than Hussein or any observers expected. Rather than foment fear and chaos, the invasion inspired Iranians to patriotism. Thousands of young men joined the Revolutionary Guard (the Pasdaran), eager to defend their homeland and Islam. Khomeini used his increased popularity to suppress dissent, and Iranians fought Iraqis inside Khuzistan and other occupied areas, inflicting heavy casualties. Hussein offered to negotiate for peace if Iran would recognize Iraq’s sovereignty over the disputed waterway, the Shatt al-Arab. Iran refused.

Iran’s Offensive Moves

Hussein’s failure to thrust further into Iran gave Khomeini time to regroup his forces and develop a strategy. In 1981, Iran engaged Iraq in what would stand as the largest tank battle of the war, eventually pushing the invaders back from the recently occupied territory.

Israel briefly intruded on the war, staging a surprise air attack in June 1981 that destroyed a nuclear facility near Baghdad where—Israel claimed—nuclear weapons were made.

In March 1982, Iran launched an assault called “Operation Undeniable Victory” and soon Iran recaptured the larger cities in Khuzistan. By May, Hussein wisely decided to retreat; he redeployed his troops along the Iraqi border.

Having brought the war back to Iraqi territory, Khomeini had no intention of stopping; he stated in speeches his intention to crush the corrupt Iraqi government. Volunteer soldiers, many not even teenagers, swept fields and cleared them of mines by sacrificing themselves, then tanks and convoys followed. Iran struck in the south, where Shi’ite dislike of Hussein would be strongest.

Iran’s forces pushed towards Basra in “Operation Ramadan.” From July through the fall and winter of 1982, Iran fought its way east, gaining two or three miles of Iraqi territory in an attempt to cut Basra off from Baghdad. At the same time, the Kurds of northern Iraq renewed their rebellion.

Losses Continue on Both Sides

In February 1983, Iran attacked with over 100,000 troops. Men poured forward in human waves against Iraqi lines of defense surrounding Basra and were killed by the thousands. By April, Iran had penetrated twelve miles into Iraq, but at a terrible price.

If Khomeini expected the Shi’ites near Basra to rise against Hussein, he was disappointed. The Soviet Union resupplied Iraq, Israel shipped arms to Iran, and the war continued. Over the next years, thousands more died on both sides while the international community tried in vain to bring peace to the area.

Key Elements of Warcraft

Religious Fervor

Religion and War

Religious fervor may have influenced warfare as long ago as the Stone Age. Certainly much of recorded history shows that religion has been used to inflame supporters and demonize enemies. The Crusades and the religious conflicts of sixteenth century Europe serve as examples. In the modern age, though, religious fervor in war is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Rejection of Western Influence

Why has religious passion become so prominent in the Middle East? Most observers point to 1967 as the flash point. In June 1967, the nations of Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Jordan waged a six-day long war against Israel and suffered an embarrassing defeat. Arabs and Muslims took a lesson to heart from that loss, suspecting that their leaders were weak. The source of their weakness? Many believed it to be dependence on the West.

For a century or more, rulers of Arab nations modernized their countries using western democracies as models. These leaders adopted European dress, codes of law, and technology, and imported American entertainment and consumerism. Legal reforms in Egypt, Iraq, and other countries changed laws, including those regarding the status of women, just when the populace desired a return to traditional rules. This inflamed local leaders, who felt that their governments were undermining Islam. A backlash among the upper and middle-classes developed after 1967, and visible signs of an Islamic resurgence emerged: increased attendance at mosques, the use of Islamic banks that paid no interest, and the rise of fundamentalist teachers who gave rousing sermons on television. Men grew beards, and women wore veils.

The separation of church and state, an important tradition of the United States, was never a part of Middle Eastern philosophy, and was one of the first western ideas to be rejected as individuals and countries fought for a return to Islamic principles.


In Iran in the 1970s, American influence was linked directly to governmental corruption. Religious speeches by expatriates such as the Ayatollah Khomeini built up resentment toward the shah over years. Brutal repressions against Khomeini’s supporters in 1978 led to more protests. In December of that year, military troops—refusing to kill more civilians—deserted their commanders, and the shah fled. Iran became an Islamic state, ruled by the most learned religious leaders.

Khomeini’s vitriolic speeches condemning Saddam Hussein and his Baath regime played a role in starting the Iran-Iraq War. Khomeini called for the overthrow of monarchies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as well, pushing them to support Iraq in the war. While the passionate fundamentalism of Iran alienated many neighbors, it inspired Iranians to serve and fight. Soldiers as young as nine enlisted and died in war. Human waves were not an effective weapon against enemies armed with artillery and bombs, however, and the volunteer soldiers died in incredibly high numbers.

Iran remains an Islamic state and has inspired revolutionary groups to violence since 1979. Organizations such as Hizbollah in Lebanon have received support and arms from Iran, and the state is accused of arming other terrorist groups.

Impact of the Iran-Iraq War

When the Iran-Iraq War ended in August 1988 after eight years, little was settled. Both rulers—Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—were more entrenched than ever; if anything, the war consolidated their hold on their countries. Although neither side attained their objectives during the war, much had changed that would affect the future of the region.

Iraq became a military power in the Middle East because of the war. Besides increasing its army size from 190,000 to a million strong, Iraq developed an armament industry in the 1980s that produced missiles, light arms, and chemical weaponry. Hussein wore military uniforms in public, clearly enjoying his role as commander in chief. Iraq emerged from the war owing over eighty billion dollars. Over thirty billion had come from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.

The vital port at Basra, Iraq, was in ruins, and other infrastructure needed rebuilding. Hussein, however, did not cut military spending. In the year following the war’s end he devoted ten billion dollars to rearming. Gambling that other countries would not get involved, Hussein decided that a takeover of Kuwait’s territory and oil fields would enrich Iraq. Fiscal recovery from the Iran-Iraq War did not require the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but Hussein chose that path rather than more peaceful economic measures.

Iran and Iraq suffered financially during and after the war. Both depended on oil revenues, but the armies and bombers of both sides deliberately targeted oil production facilities. Two million barrels of oil spilled into the Persian Gulf because of the war. Besides the destruction in Basra, Iranian oil production on Kharg Island—which was once the world’s largest offshore crude oil terminal—was destroyed in 1986. Twenty years passed before comparable production was reached again at Kharg.

Rearmament, leading to developing nuclear potential but including research in chemical warfare and missile delivery, was important to both sides. The Gulf War pushed Iraq to negotiate with Iran over outstanding issues from the war, such as prisoner exchange and sharing the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Diplomatic relations were restored between the two countries in 1990, which led to Iran’s offer to shelter Iraqi planes during the Gulf War. Iran refused to return the planes, though, and relations deteriorated once more.

Initially, the religious leadership of Iran benefited from the war. Dissent was suppressed, while patriotism and defense of the country grabbed everyone’s attention. During the war, Iran threatened other neighbors and attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf. Its arms buildup after the war did little to restore trust with Arab states in the region.

The death of Khomeini in 1989 resulted in a slight economic liberalization, but this was later reversed. During the Gulf War, Iran renewed diplomatic ties with many neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Relations with the West are still tense, and formal diplomacy with the United States has not been restored. In the view of some scholars, distrust of the United Nations and a sense of isolation and self-reliance is a legacy of the eight-year-long war.

Iran remains an Islamic state ruled by religious law. The conservative regime, more than the Iran-Iraq War, resulted in a lack of development technologically. Iran’s economy depends on its vast oil and natural gas fields, but no other products are manufactured for export in significant amounts.

Subsequent events in Iraq can be traced directly back to the war. Hussein’s invasion of Iran focused his ambitions and set in motion the confrontational actions that led to U.N. sanctions, the Gulf War, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.