Known as one of the longest ground wars in the 20th century, the Iran-Iraq War spanned the decade of the 1980s and continues to influence the geopolitical and social realities of the Middle East in the present. The war between Iran and Iraq was sparked by a series of territorial disputes, mutual distrust and spite, and the desire of each government to overthrow the other. Once hostilities began, the conflict quickly developed into one of total war, characterized by the use of chemical warfare, mass military mobilization of the population, and an open targeting of civilians. In the end, the Iran-Iraq War concluded in stalemate and resulted in little more than the destruction of lives and property for both countries.
Political Change in Iraq
In the decade leading up to the Iran-Iraq War, both nations underwent dramatic political changes that deeply concerned the other. Iraq endured tremendous political instability throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, until the Arab Baath Socialist Party coup, led by Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, took control of the nation in 1968. One of al-Bakr's most prominent deputies was Saddam Hussein. Secular in outlook and not afraid to use repression as a method to quiet the nation's many ethnic and sectarian divisions, Iraq's Baath Party made history in 1972 when it nationalized Iraq's oil fields and took control over the extraction, refining, and selling of the country's vast oil bounty from international oil companies. Leading that move was Hussein, and in the 1970s, he became renowned the world over for organizing literacy programs, universal education, free health care, and a sophisticated agricultural and industrial infrastructure in Iraq using the profits from the country's many oil reserves.
By 1979, Saddam Hussein consolidated his power over the Iraqi government, eliminating all opposition and placing himself as the overall political and military commander in Iraq. Hussein promoted a very secular agenda, and he made Iraq one of the only nations in the Arab world that used secular law, rather than sharia (Islamic religious law), for court cases involving such civil issues as marriage, divorce, and child custody. At the same time, individuals who opposed his regime were often arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. While many religious and ethnic groups—particularly Shiite Arabs and Kurds—were increasingly persecuted due to their distaste for Hussein's government and its practice of giving good jobs to secular Sunnis.
Iran's Islamic Revolution
Tensions between Hussein's secular Sunni regime and Shiite-majority Iran were exacerbated by Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1978–1979, which deposed the secular, U.S.-aligned regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced it with an Islamic theocracy. Although the revolution began as a move by many disparate political and religious groups—including Islamists, socialists, and Western-style liberals—to overthrow the corrupt and autocratic shah, it was clear by mid-1979 that the new government would be theocratic in nature, led by theologians who would interpret sharia as the primary legal code of an enthusiastically religious Iranian nation.
At the forefront of the revolution was an extremely popular Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. He argued that foreign imperialism (e.g., the economic exploitation perpetrated by U.S. companies in impoverished Iran) needed to be cast off, and he asserted that rampant secularism like that promoted by Iraq's Baath Party needed to be purged in favor of strict adherence to Islamic law as interpreted by religious leaders like himself. Central to the revolution in Iran was a strong message that its principles should be a model for Muslim-majority nations throughout the world, a proposal that terrified secular dictators like Hussein in neighboring Iraq.
Political Tension and Territorial Disputes
Hussein was fearful that Khomeini would stir up support among Iraq's majority Shiite population and overthrow his regime, particularly because anti-Hussein rhetoric was common in the propaganda of the Islamic Revolution. Moreover, the two nations had a long-standing territorial dispute over the Khuzestan region. Because it was an area with an Arab-majority population that was ruled by Persian-majority Iran, Iraq had long wanted to annex it. The mutual desire of Iran and Iraq to assert power over Khuzestan was heightened by the region's rich oil holdings and proximity to the mighty Abadan oil field, which was one of Iran's most lucrative holdings.
The two countries were also in conflict over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which lies along the border of Iran and Iraq. Under the Ottomans, the Arabs of the Basra province (now in Iraq) had controlled both shores of that important access route to the Persian Gulf. When Iraq was created by the government of the United Kingdom following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Iran was given control over the eastern shore. That development was not acceptable to the Iraqis.
As a result of those territorial disputes and, in particular, his fear that the Iranians would export their revolution and depose him next, Hussein determined to invade Iran in an effort to bring an end to the Islamic Revolution and neutralize any threat to his rule. On September 22, 1980, Iraqi troops invaded Iran on the pretext of an alleged Iranian violation of a 1975 treaty, launching a war that Hussein hoped would bring Khomeini's government to collapse and garner rich oil fields and greater control over the Shatt al-Arab for Iraq. Hussein was convinced that Iraq would achieve a quick victory. He expected that the large Arab minority in Iran, as well as non-Muslims in the country, would fight on the Iraqi side, and he figured that the Iranian military had been too weakened by the revolution to launch an effective defense.
The Iranians likewise believed that they would achieve a quick victory. They hoped that the majority of Iraq's population—the Shiite Muslims—would fight for Iran in support of spreading the Islamic Revolution to Iraq. They also believed that ethnic Kurds, who were harshly persecuted under the Baath Party, would rise up against Iraq's government as well. The assumptions made by the leadership of both countries were incorrect, however, and the war turned out to be anything but quick.
Although the Iraqis surprised Iran with their initial invasion of the Khuzestan region, the Iranians quickly mounted an effective defense. Iran's population, already sensitive to any opposition trying to halt their popular revolution, mobilized behind the war effort in a manner that far exceeded Iraq's expectations. Iranian forces doggedly met the Iraqi Army in brutal combat, and after suffering a series of reversals, the Iraqis sued for peace in 1982. The Iranians refused to end the conflict, as they were now determined to achieve a complete victory and overthrow Hussein's regime. Iran employed their Islamic Revolutionary Guard in a counteroffensive so powerful that the Iraqi government feared collapse. After falling back to their own territory, the Iraqi forces were able to stabilize their lines, and the war soon settled into a stalemate.
Stalemate Leads to Brutality
Over the next six years, a variety of brutal tactics aimed at breaking the stalemate were adopted. Both nations employed air assaults on the other's civilian centers in a move called the "war of the cities." Bombing campaigns aimed at eroding civilian morale and destroying infrastructure and military installations only served to rally patriotism and determination in both nations. Moreover, a brutal series of trench battles along the border of the two countries were witness to so-called human wave attacks reminiscent of the futile trench warfare that characterized World War I. Large numbers of Iranian troops—often men and boys conscripted off the streets and given little training—were sent into battle to face certain decimation in massive frontal assaults.
Chemical weapons—including sarin, tabun, and mustard gas—were also used by the Iraqi military on Iranian troops. Iran countered by blockading the Shatt al-Arab and launching air strikes on Iraqi and other Arab nations' oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. That assault on the supply of oil, as well as the vehement U.S. distrust of the new Iranian regime, led the United States to side with Hussein and supply his military with munitions and financial aid. The United States also sent naval ships to the Gulf to serve as escorts for oil tankers from Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates in order to keep the vital supply of oil from the Middle East open.
In the earliest stages of the war, U.S. president Jimmy Carter was reluctant to support either side. Carter's primary concern was securing the release of the U.S. embassy staff that was being held captive in the Iranian capital of Tehran during the American hostage crisis. When U.S. president Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, his administration began to support Iraq through arms sales and intelligence sharing. Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld—who had served as secretary of defense under Gerald Ford—to Iraq as a special envoy to meet with Hussein and pledge U.S. support for the Iraqi war effort in 1983 and 1984. Such neighboring Arab states as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates also supported the Iraqis. They bankrolled much of the war in exchange for not having to participate in the fight against what they also viewed as an expansionist Islamic Revolution. The Soviet Union tacitly sided with Iraq as well.
Several events surrounding the indirect involvement of the United States in the Iran-Iraq War sparked a significant amount of controversy. In the fall of 1986, the Iran-contra scandal broke when a Middle Eastern newspaper revealed that members of Reagan's administration had secretly sold weapons to Iran despite tacitly supporting Iraq in the war and had passed the money from the sales to the contras, a rebel group fighting to overthrow the government in Nicaragua. That complex arrangement violated several U.S. laws that banned both the sale of arms to Iran and the provision of funds to the contra rebels. In July 1988, the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet amidst the oil tanker escort operations in the Persian Gulf, resulting in the deaths of 290 civilians. The shooting down of Iran Air 655 sparked international outrage and greatly contributed to the ongoing collapse of the already fragile relationship between Iran and the United States.
The Fighting Ends
After eight years of fighting, support for the war was waning on both sides. The horrifying war of the cities had reached an apex; Iraqi assaults on Tehran, Shiraz, and other large Iranian cities were commonplace, as were Iranian air strikes on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Transportation, industry, and other key centers of infrastructure were in ruins in both nations, and their populations were weary from the tremendous buildup of casualties.
While Iraq enjoyed widespread foreign support for its war effort, the Iranians were more isolated. Libya and Syria were their only major supporters, which forced Iran to fund the war largely on its own. Iran was bankrupt by 1988, which compelled the government to accept a United Nations-brokered cease-fire in August of that year.
Aftermath Following the cease-fire, the two combatants withdrew to their original borders with no major territorial gains recorded on either side. Officially, at least 500,000 people were killed in the lengthy conflict (including some 100,000 Iraqi Kurds targeted by Hussein's government under the pretext that they were sympathetic to Iran). Unofficial estimates have reached as high as 2 million; many soldiers were conscripted and killed without records, while the war of the cities killed countless civilians. The widespread physical destruction and massive debt wrought by the war also left the economies of both nations in ruins. Contrary to Iraqi hopes, the war failed to undermine the Islamic Revolution, but instead left the new theocratic government and the rule of Islamic law firmly entrenched in Iran. In 1990, Iran and Iraq restored diplomatic ties, but relations between the two nations remained tense. Territorial disputes—particularly regarding the Shatt al-Arab—continued, and the last of the prisoners taken during the war did not return home until March 2003.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Iraq's Arab neighbors demanded that Hussein's government repay their war loans, which led the Iraqi leader to invade Kuwait in an attempt to usurp its oil fields as a means of resolving the massive debt that Iraq faced. The Kuwait invasion that ensued in August 1990 turned those nations that had previously supported Iraq against Hussein and directly led to the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991. Iran, still struggling to recover economically, remained officially neutral.
Hiro, Dilip, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict, 1991; Pelletiere, Stephen C., Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum, 1992; Rajaee, Farhang, ed., The Iran-Iraq War : The Politics of Aggression, 1993; Schaffer, David, Iran-Iraq War, 2002.