The Iran-Iraq War

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The Iran-Iraq War

For eight years, the nations of Iran and Iraq fought to a bloody standstill in their war for regional dominance. While the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) was an important event in the history of both of those countries, it also revealed some of the more complex issues facing the Middle East in the twentieth century. The war forced people in both countries to question which form of identity was most important or unifying: their ethnic group, their religious sect, or their nationality. In addition, the war demonstrated the power of other countries to influence the outcome of war in the Middle East. In the end, the war signaled that the international community was not willing to allow the spread of Islamic fundamentalism (the belief that the Islamic religion should govern all aspects of life), and it solidified the idea of nationalism (devotion to the interests and culture of a particular nation) in some of the still-developing countries of the Arab world. While Iraqi and Iranian leaders gained significant national support for their political systems as a result of the war, neither Iraq nor Iran gained territory nor political authority over their opponents; and both suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties and severely damaged economies.

Setting the stage for war

In the years leading up to the Iran-Iraq War, these two countries grew increasingly aggressive toward each other. Ethnic and religious disputes, border disputes, and personal differences between the countries' leaders all contributed to the hostilities that would eventually lead to conflict.

One of the first disputes between the two nations involved a struggle based on ethnicity. Iraq had suffered civil upheaval from the mid-1950s to the 1970s, when the Kurds, a group of non-Arab Muslims (followers of Islam) living in the north of Iraq, tried to assert their independence and create their own state. By the mid-1970s the Kurds had began attacking Iraqi targets in an attempt to gain self-rule. In retaliation, the Iraqi government began an organized effort to rid Iraq of Kurds living along the Iran-Iraq border. Much to the dismay of Iraq, neighboring Iran supported the Kurds, providing them with weapons, aid, and safe refuge within its borders. But when Iraq offered to negotiate with Iran about control of the shipping channel that the two countries shared, Iran quickly accepted. In 1975 Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Agreement, in which they promised to end all of their boundary disputes. Iran agreed to end its aid to the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq gave up full control of its only waterway access to the Persian Gulf, the Shatt al Arab, known as the "river of the Arabs." According to the agreement, the 120-mile Shatt al Arab, formed by the joining of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, would now be the border between Iran and Iraq. But this agreement would soon prove to be unstable.

The Kurds were not the only source of friction between Iran and Iraq. Iranian Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) encouraged a break between Iran and the rest of the world starting in the 1960s, when he led protests in Iran against modern, and specifically Western (pertaining to countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States), values. Khomeini declared that the shah of Iran, the country's ruler, had created policies that went against the teachings of the Islamic religion. For this Khomeini was arrested and, in 1964, forced into exile (the removal from one's home country). From his exile in Turkey and then Iraq, Khomeini continued to preach his opposition to the shah and his government. Over time, he drew a large following among Shiite Muslims, the sect of the Islamic faith that believed that only the direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad should hold leadership positions in the religion, who formed the majority in Iran and Iraq. Khomeini's perceived power was so great by 1978 that he was forced from Iraq by Saddam Hussein (1937–), who was then in charge of Iraq's internal security. By 1979, however, Khomeini had returned to Iran, where he led the successful Islamic revolution, an event in which the followers of the Islamic religion overthrew the secular (non-religious) government of Iran and installed Khomeini as the supreme leader of the country, which was now run by Islamic laws.

Hussein and Khomeini had an ongoing struggle. Both assumed control of their respective countries in 1979, and both aspired to rule over larger territories. But they had very different political visions for their region. Hussein envisioned himself as the leader of a Pan-Arab state (one that joined all Arab states), much like that desired by Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1960s. Hussein's ambitions were supported by his Baath Party, which was committed to a political plan, or ideology, that emphasized Arab unity and promoted secular government, among other things. Khomeini's version was diametrically opposed to Hussein's. He rejected notions of Arab nationalism due to Iran being ethnically Persian, not Arabic. Khomeini made Islam the basis for his country's government, and he hoped to inspire other Shiites around the globe to rise up and create Islamic states according to his Pan-Islamic ideology, which hoped to unite all Muslims under the religion of Islam regardless of ethnic or national identities.

Creating an Islamic Republic

The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran brought an end to the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980), heir to the Pahlavi dynasty that had transformed Persia into the modern state of Iran starting in 1925.

The Pahlavi dynasty aligned itself with the West (including countries such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States) and channeled Iran's substantial oil revenues into new political and economic systems, drastically altering the structure of life in Iran, which had remained basically unaltered since the medieval period (500–1500). Traditionally, the population of Iran had been made up of about half nomadic tribes (people with no fixed home who moved about in search of water, food, and grazing land for animals) and half settled people. Among the settled people were landowners who had been granted property by the shah, or king, and peasants who worked the land. Industry was limited, for the most part, to trading at markets called bazaars. The Pahlavi dynasty changed all of that. With huge sums of money generated from Iran's oil wells and refineries, the shah guided the country's development of manufacturing companies, banking systems, insurance companies, and retail networks. Along with these modernizations, the Iranian population boomed and urban centers grew quickly. The educational system, the court system, and women's rights were also modernized. Women were no longer required to wear veils, and in 1963 they gained the right to vote. The government was also secularized, or freed from religious influence.

By the early 1970s, many Iranians had mixed feelings about the changes occurring in their country. Some, especially those merchants and business people benefiting from uncontrolled corruption and rapidly increasing oil prices, had gained great wealth and were happy with the improvements in their standard of living. Others, especially the devotedly religious and those not benefiting from the new economy, feared that their traditions and values were being wiped away by modernization. A growing number of people worried that Iran's Islamic identity was being threatened by the shah's allegiance to the Western world.

Disgruntled Iranians banded together, and in 1979 popular protest escalated into an Islamic revolution, a movement intended to bring the laws and regulations of the country under the control of the Islamic faith. The revolution sent the shah into exile and placed the Shiite clergy in charge of the country. Led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran formed an Islamic Republic, which granted the Ayatollah ultimate command of the country. A Council of Guardians made up of six Islamic clergy members, appointed by the Ayatollah, or Supreme Leader, oversaw legislative acts created by an Islamic Consultative Assembly of 290 elected legislators. The new government adopted a constitution that used Sharia, or Islamic law, 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 the Islamization, or adherence to Islamic law, of all aspects of life. Women were forced to wear traditional Muslim dress, including a veil that completely covered their faces; if they showed their faces in public, they were subject to arrest and up to a year in jail. Textbooks were rewritten to better represent Islamic values. Government employees were subjected to loyalty tests. Opponents to the new government were arrested or executed. Furthermore, the Ayatollah, hoping to start Islamic revolutions in other countries, called on other Shiites to rise up around the Middle East.

Many observers thought the political aspirations of Islamist movements would not become a lasting force. Although no other Islamic revolutions have yet occurred, by the 1990s the highly political Islam that started in Iran had become "one of the most enduring Middle Eastern phenomena," according to William L. Cleveland in A History of the Modern Middle East.

Hussein was especially worried about Khomeini's power over the Iraqi Shiite population, which comprised nearly 60 percent of the country's total. Khomeini had lived in Iraq for thirteen years and had openly criticized Hussein, a Sunni Muslim (a branch of the Islamic faith that believed that elected officials from the tribe of Muhammad not directly descended from Muhammad could rule the Islamic religion), for being an infidel, or an unbeliever of Islam. In addition, Hussein had reason to doubt the loyalty of Iraqi Shiites, for Iraq had a long history of oppressing its Shiite population. In 1972 the Iraqi government forced nearly seventy thousand Shiites out of the country and in March 1980, Hussein seized the property and homes of nearly thirty thousand Iraqi Shiite men and exiled them to Iran, leaving their wives and children without husbands or fathers. Also, many in the international community believed that Hussein had ordered the 1980 execution of the Iraqi Shiites' highest leader, who was a friend of Khomeini and an outspoken opponent of Hussein's Baath Party.

With Iran controlled by militant Islamists after 1979, Iraq also worried about its access to the Persian Gulf along the Shatt al Arab waterway. Iraq relied on secure access to the Gulf to transport its main export: oil. Soon, though, the hostilities between Iraq and Iran broadened. Skirmishes over control of the disputed islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and over the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzistan, mostly populated by Sunni Arabs, led both countries to put their militaries on alert. By April 1980 Khomeini and Hussein began to seek public support, 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." Hussein responded, saying that "anyone who tries to put his hand on Iraq will have his hand cut off," as quoted in the The Middle East edited by Daniel C. Diller.

Iraqi invasion

Saddam Hussein's concerns over Khomeini's threat to Iraq increased in 1979 and early 1980. Hussein wanted to destroy the momentum of the Islamic revolution in hopes of preserving his own power in Iraq, and so that he could realize his broader ambitions of leading a Pan-Arab state. Hussein determined to strike before Khomeini's new government could really take hold. Hoping Iran would be "too disorganized to mount a defense," as Michael G. Kort wrote in The Handbook of the Middle East, Iraq attacked. On September 17, 1980, Hussein 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 working 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, further 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. Iraq and Iran bombed each other's oil wells and refineries, and each tried to destroy the other's trading routes. With its superior weaponry and an established military, Iraq expected, and observers felt, that the war would be short-lived. But they were wrong.

Lingering conflict invites international attention

Rather than destroying the new Iranian regime, the Iraqi attacks actually inspired a sense of nationality among the Iranians. With Iraqi hopes for a quick victory over Iran dashed and increasing Iraqi casualties, Hussein appealed to Khomeini and the international community to negotiate a peace settlement. But the pleas and bargaining efforts of neighboring Arab states, the United Nations (an international group created after 1945 to promote peace and cooperation between countries), and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) all failed to bring peace.

Although Hussein was open to settlements that would end the war, Khomeini was not. 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," according to Diller. Khomeini's plan frightened many in the Arab and Western worlds who feared the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, or strict adherence to religious faith in all aspects of life including government, which usually held as part of its beliefs a dislike of the West and Western influences in the Middle East. Their fears increased when waves of Iranian soldiers started pushing Iraqi troops back across the border. 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. In fact, neither had called on other countries to send troops or aid until the peace negotiations failed in 1982. But after the attempts for peace were not successful and Iraqi troops were driven across the border, Hussein strategized that involving others in the battle might help Iraq to regain the advantage in the war. Hussein turned to the West for help; he even declared his acceptance of Israel's right to exist as an independent Jewish state (a reversal of earlier calls he had made for Israel's destruction).

Although the West had difficulty supporting either Hussein or Khomeini—one was a secular dictator, the other a religious dictator—Hussein seemed the one most likely to assist the West in protecting its interest in Middle East oil, which both Iraq and Iran had in abundance. Neighboring Arab states with huge oil reserves but small militaries feared being targeted by Iran as part of its Islamic revolution and also supported Iraq in the war. Iraq bought weapons from France, while Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states loaned billions of dollars to Iraq in hopes that an Iraqi victory would protect them from being threatened by Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalists.

The United States, which had not had relations with Iraq since 1967, sided with Iraq as well. As with the other countries coming to Iraq's aid, the United States "was willing to ignore the brutality of [Hussein's] regime in order to prevent the spread of the kind of Islamic radicalism and anti-U.S. sentiment represented by Khomeini," according to Cleveland. But the main U.S. interest in the Middle East was oil. Before being deposed, the shah of Iran had been one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East. Throughout his years of rule, the United States had supplied Iran with billions of dollars' worth of military equipment, in hopes of deterring the Soviet Union's power in the region, and had bought billions of dollars of Iranian oil. But the Ayatollah was anti-American, and he announced his intentions to rid the entire Middle East of American influence. When the Ayatollah took command of Iran, fifty-two Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran. Despite U.S. sanctions, diplomatic efforts, and a military raid, the hostages remained captive for nearly two years, and the United States came to view the Ayatollah as its greatest enemy. The United States supported Iraq with troops and naval vessels to keep the Persian Gulf open for oil tankers to pass. In 1988 the United States even instituted a boycott of Iranian oil.

Iran gained support from Libya and Syria during the war, two Arab countries whose support was based on the hope that Iran would help them in battles against the West and against other foes in the Middle East. But Iran relied mainly on its vast population and huge oil wealth for much of its needs.

Calling it quits

Empowered by international aid and support, both Iraq and Iran continued to launch offensives in the mid-1980s, each aimed at destroying their opponent's resolve to continue the fight. Hundreds of thousands of casualties resulted from these attacks. Territory was continually gained and lost by both sides. Iraqi and Iranian 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, and Iran retaliated by launching its fewer, less powerful missiles at Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Although Iraq's attacks were decidedly more devastating, the populations in both countries soon grew weary of the war.

In the late 1980s Iran announced new attacks against Iraq, making it seem as if Iran were making headway into winning the war. But these attacks were defended by stiff Iraqi resistance. One of Iran's attacks in 1986 sent waves of soldiers into the Iraqi port of Basra, located seventy-five miles up the Shatt al Arab from the Persian Gulf. Two months into this offensive, Iran had gained little in territory or strategic position in return for the thousands of men (and children) killed. Worse, Iranian resolve to fight had faltered, for its enemy had breached the 1925 Geneva agreement that made it a crime to use chemical weapons during a war. Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Iran had been accused of using chemical weapons since the mid-1980s, but Iraq's massive use of poison gas in the attack on Basra was proof of this war crime and horrified the world. 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 its 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 the end of the 1980s, countries from the West, and 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 ceasefire 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 use chemical weapons on its own citizens in an attempt to remove the last of the Iranian troops from the Kurdish border village of Halabja. 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 ceasefire proposal. On July 21, 1988, Khomeini announced to his country that although he believed the ceasefire 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," according to Shaul Bakhash in The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution. A final ceasefire 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 died in the battles, with approximately twice as many Iranians as Iraqis killed. Over 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 in creating an Islamic revolution; similarly, ethnic Arabs living in Iran's Khuzistan province remained loyal to Khomeini, and did not follow Hussein 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 to be a confirmation that the relatively young states 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 yet seen 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 very 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 refugee population. Nearly two thousand opponents to his rule were executed in the months following the end of the war, showing that Khomeini was more concerned about staying in power then he was about rebuilding Iran. 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: Hussein 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. In 1990 Iraq invaded and annexed (took over) Kuwait. Its aggression soon started the first Gulf War, and this time the international community fought against Iraq. Iraq suffered defeat in the first Gulf War, which further damaged the country. While Hussein did eventually begin to rebuild Iraq after the first Gulf War, it was clear that Iraq, much like Iran, would never fully 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 Press, 2004.

Diller, Daniel C., ed. The Middle East. 8th ed. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.

Dudley, William, ed. The Middle East: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004.

Karsh, Efraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988. Oxford: Osprey Publishers, 2002.

Kort, Michael G. The Handbook of the Middle East. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Ojeda, Auriana. The Middle East: Current Controversies. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003.

Smith, Charles D., ed. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents. 4th ed. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Twist, Clint. The 1980s. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1994.


Minard, Lawrence. "Iraq: The Oil, C'est Moi" (August 18, 1980). Available online at (accessed on July 8, 2005).

Web Sites

"After the War." CBC News. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

"On This Day: 1981: Tehran Frees U.S. Hostages After 444 Days." BBC News. (accessed on July 8, 2005).

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The Iran-Iraq War

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