The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88

Weekend greetings to my fellow history buffs!

This month commemorates 35 years since Iraq’s declaration of war against The Islamic Republic of Iran in September of 1980. The Iran-Iraq war is the longest conventional war of the 20th century and, having lasted 8 years, cost upwards of 1 million lives and billions of dollars in damage and loss. The Iran-Iraq War is often overshadowed by the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, and the many conflicts currently unfolding in the Middle East. However, the Iran-Iraq War played a major role in preparing Iraq for its subsequent invasion of Kuwait and the development of a clandestine chemical weapons program. From a historical perspective, the war would come to define western relations with Iraq over a two decade period leading up to the US invasion in 2003, and have a lasting effect on the shape of the Middle East. Interestingly, it was not until 1991 (and after Iraq had already invaded Kuwait) that the Security Council would officially declare Iraq as the aggressor in the Iran-Iraq conflict.

Much of the contextual background to war in 1980 stems from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, and the consolidation of Saddam Hussein as leader in Iraq. While border disputes between the two countries had always soured relations (especially during Iran’s occupation of several small islands in the Persian Gulf in 1971), Iraq was more genuinely concerned about the possibility of Islamist propaganda from Iran feeding the seeds of revolt among its Shia Muslims. Shia militants had for example been implicated in a number of assassinations of Iraqi Ba’ath Party officials, and other resistance movements. By 1980 fear of growing Iranian influence persuaded Saddam Hussein to mobilize his army for a preemptive attack against Iran. Saddam’s military intelligence in 1980 believed that Iran was sufficiently weakened by its revolution and could not sustain a long war with Iraq. Iran however used the opportunity to strengthen and consolidate its revolutionary regime – an outcome Saddam did not anticipate. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini himself had declared that Iraqis should overthrow their Baathist leaders and thus represented a direct – albeit perceived – threat to Saddam and his regime.

Iraq launched a full-scale invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980. Due to the mountainous terrain at the Iraq-Iran border, much of the initial attack occurred via air strikes. A surprise air strike on several important Iranian airfields with the intent of destroying the Iranian Air Force did strategic damage, but failed to destroy a significant number of Iranian aircraft. Tehran was also hit by air strikes but only a few aircraft were destroyed. Iraqi attempts to quell Iranian air superiority never fully succeeded. By late September 1980, ground forces entered Iran hoping that previous air strikes had incapacitated the Iranian air force. Iraqi troops initially encountered a haphazard Iranian side of disconnected military groups and armed police. It wasn’t long before Iran began launching its own air assaults against Iraq, specifically targeting Baghdad. Over the following months, several major battles occurred, including the battle of Khorramshahr. By November, the Iraqi advance had all but stalled, and the fighting stagnated on both sides of the border. Many have described the fighting at the border as reminiscent of World War I trench warfare, where only small territorial gains were achieved over weeks and months of fighting.

This trend would continue throughout the conflict. Between 1982-84 Iran would hold a slight advantage over their Iraqi foes. From 1984-87 a war of attrition would dominate the conflict up until the ceasefire agreement. For 8 years neither Iran nor Iraq could deliver a decisive victory. Considerable damage was done however to each nations oil fields and installations – a fact later used to justify Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The last notable combat action of the war took place on August 3, 1988 in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian navy fired on an Iraqi freighter and Iraq reciprocated by launching chemical weapons on Iranian civilians, killing an unknown number. Iraq would face considerable international pressure and condemnation for its use of chemical weapons, but little international action failed to enforce any sustainable sanction against Iraq. By August 8, 1988 UN Resolution 598 would bring an end to combat operations between the two countries. August 20, 1988 the war had all but ended. A UN mission to the Iran-Iraq border would remain in place well into 1991.

Internal resistance by Kurdish fighters still presented a problem for Saddam Hussein. “Using 60,000 troops along with helicopter gunships, chemical weapons (poison gas), and mass executions, Iraq hit 15 villages, killing rebels and civilians, and forced tens of thousands of Kurds to relocate to settlements.” – Center for Strategic and International Studies. Most infamous among Saddam`s attacks against his own Kurdish population was the Halabja Massacre in March of 1988, killing upwards of 5,000 innocent civilians and injuring scores of men, women and children. A total of 50,000 Kurds would be killed during Saddam’s liquidation of Kurdish resistance pockets within Iraq.

Analysts have been inconclusive as to whether Iran or Iraq won the war. Many nations such as Russia, China and the US were involved in providing clandestine support (i.e. money, weapons, and diplomatic support and maneuvering) to both warring sides during the conflict. For the US, a strategic interest in supporting Iraq to counterbalance Iran’s rise ultimately paid few dividends. Meanwhile both Russia and China played a fine balancing act by providing arms and financial backing to both Iran and Iraq via safe transit countries in a means to bypass international sanctions. Hindsight has afforded us the opportunity to see what continued conflict has wrought the nations and peoples of the Middle East. Iraq survives in a tenuous balance of power, and Iran meanwhile continues to defy international attempts to halt its atomic weapons development program. The intervention of the past 35 years may have played into powerful strategic interests, but cost millions of innocent lives. The Iran-Iraq war provided us a `canary in the coalmine` moment. Sadly, we failed to see it.

Map #1: The Iran-Iraq War and territorial acquisitions between 1980-1988

Image courtesy of the United States Military Academy Department of History
Image courtesy of the United States Military Academy Department of History

Map #2 – A map of territorial acquisitions by Iran and Iraq between 1980-1988

Image courtesy of Healing Iraq
Image courtesy of Healing Iraq

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