The History and Geopolitics of the Iran-Iraq War
By Mazi Bahadori
May 2, 2005
Anthony Adamthwaite, Professor & Thesis Advisor
Department of History
University of California, Berkeley
Table of Contents
Statement of Literature 3
Statement of Sources 3
Roots of the Hostility between Persians and Arabs 4
Modern Iran and Iraq during the Ottoman Empire 7
Iran and Iraq: Nation-States from 1921 – 1963 11
Revolutions and Accords: 1963 – 1979 15
The Iran-Iraq War: 1980 – 1988 22
The Iran-Iraq War was a bitter conflict that lasted eight years and claimed the lives of more than one and a half million people. Historians often root this war in the millennia-long struggle between the Persian people of Iran and the Arab population which dominated Iraq.1 This animosity began with Muslim Conquests, lasted 1,300 years and helped shape Iran-Iraq relations in the 20th century. Though this historical foundation is important to the understanding of the Iran-Iraq War, it does not explain the intense geopolitical forces at work in the Middle East during the 1980s. The war between Iran and Iraq enlisted support from dozens of nations, many of which aided both countries during the conflict. By the mid-1980s, the Iran-Iraq War was used by all the world’s superpowers to promote their interests in the Middle East. The Cold War climate surrounding the Iran-Iraq War fostered policies designed to weaken Iran and Iraq. Thus, what began as a regional conflict with historic roots soon escalated into an international priority with competing interests.
Eventually, the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War brought no change in borders or international agreements between the two belligerents. While regional politics were accommodated, the short-lived solutions that concluded the war did not address 1,300 years of Persian-Arab animosity or 500 years of sovereignty disputes over the Shatt al-Arab river. Instead, international intervention in the Iran-Iraq War prevented either country from achieving their stated war aims, leaving the two nations ravaged. Ultimately, factors including the history of Iran-Iraq relations, a complex Persian-Arab relationship, geopolitical forces and the influence of foreign powers produced an eight-year Iran-Iraq War that served the interests of most everyone involved with the exception of Iran and Iraq.
Statement of Literature
There are three schools of thought regarding the Iran-Iraq War. The first field places the responsibility of the war almost entirely in the hands of Hussein’s Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s Thus We Should Fight Persians and the Islamic Republic’s The Imposed War promote this view.
The second group believes that the Iran-Iraq War was designed, in large part, by the Western powers, namely the United States, to serve Cold War-oriented interests in the region. Two of the dominant texts in this group are Adam Tarock’s The Superpowers’ Involvement in the Iran-Iraq War and Mohammaed H. Malek’s International Mediation and the Gulf War.
Lastly, some authors argue that Khomeini’s Islamic Republic used the conflict to consolidate their power in Iran and expand the influence of Islamic governance in the Middle East. Iran and Iraq at War, written by Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp argues in favor of this group of literature.
This paper borrows analyses and conclusions from each field. However, this paper introduces an emphasis on the history of Iran-Iraq relations, with a survey of Persian-Arab relations beginning in the 7th century C.E, to the examination of the Iran-Iraq War. This paper aims to create an evaluation of the Iran-Iraq War which accounts for ethnic, religious, geopolitical, economic and historic factors.
Statement of Sources
Most of the primary sources used in this paper come from the Iranian and United States government; Iranian, Arab, United States and European news agencies; United Nations records, resolutions, speeches and interviews; and Library of Congress records of Middle Eastern treaties and accords. Furthermore, I conducted personal interviews with a soldier who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, scholars who have thoroughly researched the war and individuals who traveled through Iran and Iraq during the war.
The primary sources that could not be obtained for this paper are the Iraqi government’s policy papers and the Reagan Administration’s classified documents. Hussein’s Ba’th party never made their documents available to the public. After the 2003 US-Iraq war, the US government did not release any captured or confiscated documents, leaving most of Hussein’s papers and plans out of public reach. Similarly, any foreign policy document created by the Reagan administration is unavailable, per President Nixon’s Executive Order 11652. The order states that all government documents qualify for declassification twenty-five years after their creation. Therefore, any sensitive document created by the US government after April 1980 is unavailable.
The unavailability of these documents created some setbacks. Not knowing Hussein or Reagan’s classified war plans and policies forced the research to focus on other primary sources of the time. Fortunately, many US Senate committee reports compensated for the absent Reagan documents; and, many of the Arab media sources with interviews of Hussein’s advisors substituted the place of Hussein’s documents.
Roots of the Hostility between Persians and Arabs
The Iran-Iraq War is often viewed as the continuation of a millennia long conflict between the Persians, who have historically occupied modern-day Iran, and the Arab peoples that were traditionally rooted in modern-day Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. This animosity began in the 7th century C.E. when scattered Arab tribes were united under Mohammad, the Muslim prophet and founder of Islam. Mohammad led his armies out of the Arabian Peninsula and into the northern lands of the Middle East. Mohammad and his generals began the Muslim Conquests, a series of campaigns that conquered territories from modern-day India in the East to modern-day France in the West. The Sassanians, who ruled the Persian Empire since the 3rd century C.E., were the final Persian dynasty before the arrival of Islam in Iran. Yazdgerd III, King of the Persian Empire, was defeated by the advancing Arab Muslim generals, marking the official end of the Persian Empire in 642 C.E.
Over the next two decades, the Arab conquerors consolidated their forces to shift their focus on attacking the Byzantine Empire. It was not until 661 C.E. that the Umayyad Dynasty ruled the newly created Muslim Empire. Thus began a period of Arab rule over the former Persian Empire. The Arabs dominated modern-day Iran until 1040 C.E. when the Saljuqs, a Turkmen tribe from Central Asia, defeated the Abbasid Dynasty. More than two centuries later, the Mongols, led by Hulegu Khan, defeated the Saljuqs and conquered Baghdad in 1258. The Mongols controlled the region until 1383 when Tamerlane, a successor of the Royal Khanate, established the Timurid Dynasty in Samarqand and ruled modern-day Iran and Iraq. The Timurid Dynasty lasted until 1501, when Ismail I defeated Farrokh Yasar and proclaimed himself Shah of Iran. Thus, the Safavid Dynasty emerged, bringing an end to foreign dominated rule of modern-day Iran. It was the first time since the 7th century that modern-day Iran was ruled by indigenous groups as a unified and independent state.
Though Iran re-emerged under its own political body, the Persians of Iran were not unaffected by the five centuries of Arab rule. From the 7th century C.E. until the 11th century C.E., there were countless revolts and resistance movements that fought against the Arab invaders. Two notable opposition movements, led by Babak Khorramdin, leader of the Persian Khorramdins and Mazyar, son of Gharen, occurred in the 9th century C.E. These men utilized the support of a neighboring Armenian tribe and challenged the Arab rulers in Iranian Azerbaijan. Their resistance proved very costly to the Arab rulers but was eventually thwarted. Dozens of local conflicts and skirmishes occurred over the years of Arab rule, each of which weakened the Caliphates but did not end their domination of modern-day Iran. However, very small provinces and localities formed semi-independent power centers after fighting with the Caliphate.
The creation of local Persian provinces led to a cultural Persian revival movement that coincided with the military resistance to Arab rule. Soon, these provinces opted to make Persian, a language of spoken Pahlavi and Arabic, the official language of their centers. The undeclared leader of Persian cultural revitalization was Ferdowsi. In 1010 C.E., Ferdowsi completed the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”). It is an epic poem that brings the history of Persia together from the ancient times of the Achaemenian Dynasty to the fall of the Sassanians. Ferdowsi refrained from using any Arabic words in the Shahnameh, creating a piece of literature that celebrated pre-Islamic and pre-Arab Persian culture. Ferdwosi’s epic, written four hundred years after the Arab conquests, illustrates the enduring hostility between Persian and Arabic culture.
The Persian cultural revival movement experienced as many successes as did the Persian military resistances. Yet, both opposition efforts maintained their pressure against the Arab Caliphates for centuries to come. The struggle between Persian and Arabic culture and language soon became the centerpiece of the hostility between the two groups. Eventually, the Persians and Arabs would be separated, for the most part, giving them each the ability to develop their own independent nations. However, their separation did not diminish their bitterness towards each other. This resentment would endure the Ottoman Empire’s control of the region and resurface in the newly created modern Middle East after the end of World War I.
Modern Iran and Iraq during the Ottoman Empire
Modern-day Iran was governed by the Safavid Dynasty from 1501 until 1736. The Afsharid and Zand Dynasties successively ruled Iran from 1736 to 1795. In 1795, Agha Mohammad Khan, leader of the Qajar tribe, defeated Lotf Ali Khan and established the Qajar Dynasty. The people inhabiting modern-day Iraq, however, would not undergo native political struggles. Instead, the region was highly contested between the rulers of the Safavid Dynasty and Ottoman Empire. In 1508, the struggle over the control of Eastern Iraq between the Safavids and Ottomans began.
For Safavid Iran, which recently declared Shi’ism the state religion of the Persian Empire, control of Iraq fostered the expansion of Shi’ism and ensured access to the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. More importantly, the Safavids wanted Iraqi territory to ensure the livelihood of the Basrah-Baghdad trade route, which included the Shatt al-Arab waterway. On the other hand, the Ottoman Empire saw the Iraqi cities of Basrah, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul as economic centers that would greatly contribute to the Ottoman state.2 The Shatt al-Arab river was also of great importance to the Ottomans as it was Baghdad and Basrah’s only access to the Persian Gulf. Religion played a motivating role for Ottoman activity in Iraq as well. Safavid influence in the region led Ottoman Sultans to support Sunni Arabs and defend Sunni shrines and tombs from Shi’a attacks. The subsequent conflict between the Ottomans and Persians would last more than three hundred years and amplify the pre-existing hostility between the Persians of Iran and the Arabs of Iraq.
Shah Ismail of the Safavids captured Eastern Iraq in 1508. Shortly after, Sultan Selim I of the Ottomans regained control of Iraq in 1514 using a mixture of Turkish and Arab soldiers. The wars continued as the Safavids recaptured Iraq in 1529, but lost control to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in 1543. After decades of continual warfare, both sides deemed a complete military victory over the other unachievable. On May 29, 1555, emissaries from the Ottoman and Persian empires met in Amasya (modern-day Turkey) and signed the Treaty of Amasya.3 This agreement is the first recorded treaty between the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire (claiming to represent indigenous Iraqis) regarding the border between modern-day Iran and Iraq. The treaty remained in effect for nearly twenty years until warfare erupted between the two empires. The Ottoman Empire retained hegemony over Iraq until Baghdad was captured by the Persians in 1623. But in 1638, Ottoman Sultan Murad IV defeated the Persians and reclaimed Baghdad. The ongoing war between the Persians and Ottomans over Eastern Iraq came to a relative end in 1639 with the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab.
The 1639 Treaty of Zuhab was the first agreement between the Ottoman Empire and Persian Empire to delineate a border, roughly separating Persians in Iran and Arabs in Iraq. The border region was approximately one hundred miles wide, extending from the edge of the Zagros Mountains in the East to the banks of the Tigris and Shatt al-Arab Rivers in the West.4 Though the treaty brought an end to significant warfare in the 17th century, it was inherently flawed and failed to prevent future conflicts. This was due to the treaty’s lack of tribal designation. Numerous nomadic tribes occupied the one hundred mile border region, most of which had no allegiance to either empire. During the latter part of the 17th century, skirmishes occurred between the tribes, often times with the support of the Ottoman or Persian state. Not only was this a problem for the treaty, it also set a precedent for future conflict in the region. The Persians and Ottomans saw that they could attack each other by funding and supporting a local tribe in the opposing empire’s territory. That the Treaty of Zuhab did not accommodate this shift was due to a lack of insight. However, the new combination of tribal and state warfare further integrated the indigenous peoples of Iran and Iraq into the ongoing conflict.
The Treaty of Zuhab lasted less than one hundred years. Full-scale war broke out once again in 1733 when Nader Shah of Persia attempted to capture Baghdad. The siege and accompanying battles ended in 1746 with the agreement of the Treaty of Kurdan. The Kurdan Treaty reiterated the Treaty of Zuhab’s terms, but did little to accommodate the shifting tribal loyalties within the border region.5 It then came as no surprise when in 1775, Karim Khan, founder of the Zand Dynasty of Persia, attacked and occupied Basrah. The occupation lasted through the turn of the century, but ended in 1821 when another war took place between the two empires. The war, fought again over nomadic tribes in the questionable border region, ended in 1823 with the assistance of British mediation and the signing of the Treaty of Erzurum.
The Treaty of Erzurum was a major landmark in Iran-Iraq relations during the Ottoman period. It provided Persian Shi’a pilgrims safe passage to Karbala, Najaf and Mecca.6 Although the treaty did not delineate new borders, the strictly called for the non-intervention of both sides in the others’ affairs. As it states in Article I of the treaty:
“From this period, on the side of Baghdad and Koordistan no interference is to take place, nor with any Districts of the Divisions of Koordistan within the boundaries, is the Persian government to intermeddle, or authorize any acts of molestation, or to assume any authority over the present or former possessors of those countries.”7
While the terms of the treaty were clear, both sides continued to intervene in each other’s territory. The creation of the new and independent state Muhammarah (modern-day Khorramshar, Iran) in 1812 added a new dimension to the conflict. Iraqi governors and the Persian Shahs vied for control over Muhammarah. By 1840, tensions over nomadic tribes and attacks on Muhammarah nearly brought the two empires to war. However, Britain established a boundary commission composed of Iranian, Turkish, British and Russian diplomats to mediate the conflict. In 1847, the Persians and Ottomans, with the help of the newly created commission, approved the second Treaty of Erzurum.
The second revision emphasized the importance of the Shatt al-Arab river. Persia was given control of the land east of the Shatt al-Arab while the Ottomans received sovereignty of the land west of the Shatt al-Arab.8 In addition to the new border distinctions, the treaty made clear that the Persian government could not interfere in Northern Iraq (particularly in dealing with Kurdish tribes).9 In return, Persia was given control over Muhammarah. The second revision of the treaty not only outlined new terms for the two empires, but also brought the first foreign intervention in Iranian-Iraqi relations. While small, occasional border disputes would occur, the two empires would not engage in another large-scale war due to the presence of the foreign powers.
Foreign powers, namely the British and Russians, sought a hand in Persian and Ottoman affairs mostly because of the discovery of oil in 1908. After the discovery of oil, a string of negotiations maintained normal relations between the two empires. The Tehran Protocols occurred in 1911 followed by the Constantinople Protocols in 1913 and the Delimitation Commissions Agreement in 1914. These agreements reinforced the role of foreign powers with the further development of mediating commissions.10 In addition, Britain secured a clause in each agreement declaring the rights of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, created in 1909, to extract and trade oil. A new dimension was added to the conflict as foreign powers viewed the region with greater economic interest than before.
The tumultuous relationship between the states of Iran and Iraq during the Ottoman Empire saw four centuries of interrupted warfare. The Ottoman period amplified the ongoing conflict of the border region of Iran and Iraq. The Persian and Ottoman governments further integrated indigenous nomadic tribes, particularly the Kurds of Northern Iraq and Arabs of modern-day Khuzestan (Muhammarah), into the territory struggle. Along with pre-existing hostilities, the conflict became a clash between two empires. However, the 20th century began with a major world war, leaving in its wake a dismantled Ottoman Empire and new states in the Middle East. Iran-Iraq relations would not change, despite the changing world political atmosphere. Instead, the two countries would remain in conflict but under new international terms and increased foreign influence.
Iran and Iraq: Nation-States from 1921 – 1963
The 1920s saw the birth of modern-day Iran and Iraq. In 1921, Iraq became a British mandate governed by King Faisal I. In the same year, Reza Khan, the future King of Iran, launched his campaign to unify Iran and end the Qajar Dynasty’s rule. Both leaders found the need to create a strong political base among their citizens. While King Faisal I relied on Sunni Arabs in central Iraq, Reza Khan depended on the majority Persian Shi’as of Iran. However, both men also saw the need to gain the support of tribal leaders along the border region of Iran and Iraq. The Iranian government offered attractive citizenship deals, waiver from military conscription and other benefits for Iraqi citizens to move and assimilate within Iranian society. Reza Khan made numerous agreements with the Muhaisin, Muhammarah and other tribes to proclaim their allegiance to Iran. Eventually, many Arab tribes in Southern Iran and Iraq became members of the Iranian state, prompting Iraq’s Faisal I’s protest to the League of Nations for treaty violations.11 Despite the fruitless diplomatic endeavors, both governments continued to vie for power over the nomadic tribes of the border region.
In 1925 Iran officially became an independent and sovereign state. Reza Khan adopted the Pahlavi name and proclaimed himself Shah of Iran. Several years later, in 1932, the British Mandate of Iraq ended with the declaration of the Kingdom of Iraq. In 1933, King Faisal I died, leaving the Iraqi throne to his pan-Arab and anti-British son, King Ghazi.
Using the status of a recognized state, Iran took her border disputes to the League of Nations in 1934. Iran’s chief complaint involved the 1914 Delimitation Commission’s conclusion to grant full control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to Iraq.12 Little came of these formal negotiations. Iraq, on the other hand, in early 1936, signed an alliance with Saudi Arabia, establishing a treaty of non-aggression on the grounds of pan-Arabism.13 This was one of the first pan-Arab-based treaties in the Middle East, beginning a pattern of the Arab states’ exclusion of Iran. However, the treaty had little time to fully develop as a military coup, led by Bakr Sidqi, overthrew the predominant Arab Sunni government of Iraq in November of 1936. King Ghazi was permitted to reign, but the true power of Iraq rested in the hands of the military. Because of this domestic turmoil within Iraq, Iran renegotiated the border agreements with Iraq and created the 1937 Iranian-Iraqi Treaty. The treaty called for a politically weak Iraq to cede a four-mile anchorage area on the Shatt al-Arab river to Iran.14
With the border dispute temporarily resolved in Iran’s favor, leaders from Iran and Iraq met with leaders from Turkey and Afghanistan to address a new international threat. According to Jasim Abdulghani, “Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia [in 1935] aroused the apprehensions of these countries and served as a catalyst for the emergence of the [Sa’dabad] pact.”15 The four countries signed the Sa’dabad Pact in 1937 with the intention of promoting regional security and territorial integrity. Above all, the pact was a sign of good will among the signatories and sought to prevent increased Soviet expansion in the Middle East. More importantly, the pact laid the foundation for the future Baghdad Pact of 1955 which would enlist the support of other Western powers. For the most part, the norm was preserved in the region with little change elsewhere.
World War II created significant changes in Iran and Iraq. In 1939, King Ghazi died and was replaced by his three-year old son, King Faisal II. The effective ruler of Iraq was General Said, the pro-British prime minister. However, in 1940, General Said was replaced by Rashid al-Gailani, an anti-British nationalist. Tense relations between Britain and Iraq led to an Iraqi military revolt in 1941 and a severance of ties. The new Iraqi government declared its support for Germany and supplied the German military effort. In response, Britain invaded Basrah in Southern Iraq. Gailani was defeated and Said was reinstated as prime minister of Iraq, making Iraq an important supply route for allied forces to the Soviet Union.
Similarly, Iran’s pro-Nazi sentiments invited an allied invasion force. Reza Shah, viewing Hitler’s pro-Aryan regime as aligned with Iranian interests, remained neutral but leaned towards the German cause.16 In 1941 the allied invasion of Iran forced Reza Shah to abdicate his throne; he was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. Mohammad Reza Shah was more subservient to foreign influence than his father. Thus, Iran and Iraq, in the aftermath of World War II, were left with two pro-Western leaders and an integrated oil supply in the world economy.
Despite increased foreign presence in Iran and Iraq, tensions remained high between the two countries over the Shatt al-Arab boundary issue. In 1946, Arab tribes in Khuzestan worked with the Iraqi government to receive Iraqi citizenship and political rights. These negotiations lasted for a few years, but did not develop an Iraqi state of Khuzestan. However, angered by the agreements, Iran expelled all Iraqi subjects living in Iran in March 1950. Though Iran-Iraq relations were dwindling, a new world climate shifted the two countries’ positions towards each other.
By mid-1947, the world entered the Cold War. In this atmosphere, regional pacts and alliances were created to either prevent or foster Soviet and US expansion. The Middle East followed this theme and played host to the Baghdad Pact in February 1955. The pact, whose original member states included Iran, Iraq, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Pakistan, urged members to “co-operate for their security and defence.”17 While Iran and Iraq’s entry to the pact was motivated by anti-communist ideology, the United States saw more reasons for their entries into the pact. According to David Newsom, then US Under-Secretary of State, “John Foster Dulles saw in the adherence of Iraq to the Baghdad Pact in February 1955 a successful effort to draw an important Arab country away from a preoccupation with Israel.”18 However, Iran’s entry to the pact set the stage for her new role in the Middle East. With full US backing, Iran would rise to become the dominant power in the region. While Iran had traditionally dealt with Britain and Russia, the new pact allowed her to deal predominantly with the US, making Iran a fully pro-Western country. For Iran, the pact brought a new era of foreign policy. For Iraq, the pact would be short lived and dismissed a few years later.
The Baghdad Pact’s influence dissolved when General Qasim, in July 1958, led a revolution that overthrew the ruling monarchy in Iraq. Qasim was much more of a pan-Arabist than King Faisal II and much less pro-Western than his predecessor. For Iran, the Iraqi revolution marked a dangerous shift in Iran-Iraq relations. In 1959, Iraq’s new government withdrew from the Baghdad Pact (known at the time as the Central Treaty Organization). This action removed Iraq from a cooperative pact with Iran – a sign of hostility. In response, the US issued an executive agreement in 1959 calling for the US defense of Iran in the event of foreign aggression.19 As Iraq further disassociated itself with the Iran, Iran became a stronger ally of the United States.