Iran-Iraq War, armed conflict that began when Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980 and ended in August 1988 after both sides accepted a cease-fire sponsored by the United Nations (UN). The war was one of the longest and most destructive of the 20th century, with likely more than one million casualties. Despite the conflict's length and cost, neither Iran nor Iraq made significant territorial or political gains, and the fundamental issues dividing the countries remained unresolved at the end of the war.
The border between Iraq and Iran has been contested diplomatically and sometimes militarily for several centuries. After the Ottoman Empire conquered present-day Iraq in 1534, making it the easternmost part of its empire, Iran, its eastern neighbor, became a frequent rival. More recently, when Iraq was made a separate state in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), Iraq and Iran disagreed sharply over the precise border between them, especially in the area of the Shatt al Arab, a river channel providing Iraq's only outlet to the sea, via the Persian Gulf. In 1937 the two sides came to an agreement establishing a boundary that gave Iraq control of the Shatt al Arab.
Despite the border agreement, relations between Iran and Iraq continued to suffer periodic crises for two reasons. First, although Iraq is predominantly Arab and Iran is predominantly Persian, the border still cut across some political loyalties. In the north, a large population of Kurds (who are neither Arab nor Persian) straddled both sides of the border. Along the southern part of the border, an Arab minority inhabited the Iranian province of Khūzestān among a Persian majority. Furthermore, the largest portion of the Iraqi population is Shia Muslim (see Shia Islam), as is the majority of the Iranian population. Shia religious leaders at odds with the secular (nonreligious) government of their own country sometimes sought refuge in the other, straining Iranian-Iraqi relations. The most prominent refugee was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leading Shiae religious scholar who settled in Iraq after being exiled from Iran in 1964.
The second reason Iran and Iraq continued to suffer crises was that both countries were politically unstable. When either Iran or Iraq experienced a revolution or coup, the other country would exploit the troubled country’s political weakness to gain a diplomatic advantage. As Western countries, especially the United Kingdom, gradually lost influence in the area in the mid-20th century, both Iran and Iraq felt freer to pursue more ambitious foreign policies, unhindered (and at times even supported) by external powers. By the beginning of the 1970s both Iran and Iraq sought broader influence in the region. Under Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran felt it could assert its authority in the area, partly with the backing of the United States. Iraq, governed by the Arab nationalist regime of Major General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, sought to unite and strengthen the Arab world and reject Western influence. These opposing views created a bitter rivalry between the neighboring countries.
|III||PRELUDE TO WAR|
In the early 1970s Iraq's Kurdish population rebelled against the country's government, and Iran joined several other countries in supporting the insurgency. At peace talks in Algiers, Algeria, in 1975, Iran agreed to abandon its support for the Kurdish rebellion in return for an agreement by Iraq to share the Shatt al Arab waterway with Iran. Thereafter, the border between Iran and Iraq was drawn down the middle of the Shatt al Arab rather than along its eastern (Iranian) bank as agreed in 1937.
In January 1979 followers of Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that toppled the shah. The following month, Khomeini returned to Iran and began to take control of the new government. In April, after a popular referendum, Khomeini declared the establishment of an Islamic republic. The revolution posed what seemed to be both an enormous opportunity and a dire threat to the Iraqi government, now under the control of Saddam Hussein. On the one hand, Iran was in disarray. The various elements in the coalition that overthrew the shah were badly divided and the army was being purged. Further, the taking of American hostages in November 1979, combined with the desire of the new government to free the country from all foreign influence, left Iran internationally isolated. Never had Iraq’s rival been so vulnerable.
On the other hand, Iranian Shia Muslims had carried out the successful revolution against the shah’s secular government. Their success excited many Iraqi Shias with the possibility of similar gains in their country. Although Shiaes also constitute the majority of Muslims in Iraq, the Sunnis (Sunni Islam) had long held political power in Iraq’s secular government. Cautiously, the domestic opposition to Hussein’s strong-handed government became emboldened. One Iraqi religious leader in particular, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, emerged with ideas very similar to Khomeini’s. Al-Sadr was soon arrested and executed, bringing protests from some Iraqi Shias as well as a crisis in Iranian-Iraqi relations.
While these events were unfolding, some Iranian officials made no secret of their desire to have other Muslim countries follow their path of Islamic revolution. A crisis between Iran and Iraq escalated during 1980 as the two countries accused each other of border violations and interfering in each other’s internal affairs. Iraq responded to the escalation by repudiating the 1975 agreement giving Iran access to the Shatt al Arab. On September 22, Iraq further escalated the conflict, launching the full-scale invasion of Iran that initiated eight years of warfare.
|IV||INVASION AND COUNTERATTACK|
Iraqi troops invaded Iran along a front some 500 km (300 mi) long. Numerous and well-equipped Iraqi forces overwhelmed the small Iranian border units and advanced into southwestern Iran. With the far side of the Shatt al Arab thus secured, Iraq captured the southern border city of Khorramshahr in the oil-rich Khūzestān province and began besieging other towns along the frontier. However, the Iranian resistance was stiffer than Iraq expected. Using its superior naval power, Iran quickly mounted an effective sea blockade. Standing up to Iraq’s larger air force, the Iranian air force issued retaliatory raids that checked Iraq’s advance on the ground. In January 1981 Iran launched its first counteroffensive, but Iraq decimated the assault. The war entered a protracted stalemate.
The stalemate did little to encourage either country to engage in diplomatic dialogue. The Iraqi government accused Iran of being bent on regional domination, while the Iranian government called for revolution in Iraq. Briefly in 1981 Iraq stopped fighting and expressed some willingness to consider a cease-fire, but Iran rejected any attempt to stop the war while Iraq occupied Iranian territory. Thereafter, the Iranian leadership staked out a very firm diplomatic position, claiming that it would never accept negotiations with the Iraqi government.
As the stalemate continued, Iran was able to mobilize irregular forces (groups not normally part of the army but drafted and armed in response to a crisis), including the Revolutionary Guard, an ill-trained but dedicated core of fighters. By early 1982, the struggle for political power in postrevolutionary Iran was resolved, allowing the government to pursue a more coherent war policy. Iran seized the initiative with several offensives that pushed Iraq out of much of Iran and brought the fighting into Iraqi territory. Throughout the summer and fall of 1982, Iranian attacks along the border focused on splitting the south of Iraq, where the majority of the Shias lived, from the north and capturing the southern Iraqi city of Al Başrah.
The Iranian offensives of 1982 set a pattern that continued for the rest of the war. Exploiting their superiority in numbers, Iran sent its Revolutionary Guard on the attack, supported by regular military forces. Outnumbered Iraqi forces inflicted heavy losses on the Iranians but ultimately fell back. As soon as the initial Iranian thrust had exhausted itself, however, the Iraqi army exploited Iranian disorganization and lack of equipment to retake much of the lost territory.
As the war continued, Iraq’s defense grew increasingly desperate. Probably as early as 1983 the armed forces used poison gas against Iranian troops. Iraq also widened the war to civilian targets, launching missiles against Iranian cities, bombing Iranian oil installations, and attacking Iranian shipping in the Persian Gulf. Iran responded with attacks against civilian and economic targets in Iraq.
|V||DIPLOMACY AND INTERNATIONAL INVOLVEMENT|
The diplomatic situation mirrored the battlefield. Iraq had initiated the war with the conviction that a weak and isolated Iran would surrender and accept border modifications. The Iraqi leadership undoubtedly hoped to constrain and perhaps even bring down the Iranian revolutionary leadership. As the war progressed, however, Iraq scaled down its aims drastically. While it continued its harsh criticism of the Iranian leadership (and sometimes of the Iranian people) and supported dissident Iranian groups, Iraq accepted the idea of a cease-fire and negotiations concerning the border dispute.
The Iranian leadership probably perceived the Iraqi diplomatic retreat as a sign of further weakness. After evicting Iraq from most Iranian territory by 1982, Iran was reluctant to end the war until Iraq acknowledged that, as instigator, it bore full responsibility for the war’s disastrous consequences. Iran continuously rejected a cease-fire on terms that Iraq could accept, demanding huge reparation payments and an end to Hussein’s rule before it would stop fighting. These conditions effectively killed any hope of a peaceful resolution.
International reaction to the Iran-Iraq War was remarkably muted, at least at the outset. Although the United Nations Security Council called for a cease-fire after a week of fighting and renewed the call on later occasions, the initial call was made while Iraq occupied Iranian territory. Moreover, the UN refused to come to Iran’s aid to repel the Iraqi invasion. The Iranians thus interpreted the UN as subtly biased in favor of Iraq. Outside the UN, other governments took few constructive steps to end the fighting—which was unusual for a war of such proportions. The international silence was partly caused by Iran’s international isolation and the mutual hostility between Iran and the West in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Further, Iran did not actively seek international support, wanting to remain free of relationships that might make it beholden to other nations. Iraq, expecting an easy victory against a vulnerable opponent, also did not seek international support in the early stages of the war.
Only within the Middle East did either side seek to win diplomatic support. Most Arab states regarded Iraq warily but were even more frightened by the prospect of a victory by the revolutionary Iranian regime. Slowly at first, then more quickly after 1982, most Arab states—especially Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other states of the Arabian Peninsula—aided Iraq militarily and diplomatically. Iran had few friends in the region: Syria, a longtime rival of Iraq, stood out in the Arab world for its support of Iran, and at times Libya offered its support.
As the war wore on and Iraq failed to persuade Iran to accept a cease-fire, Iraq sought increasingly to internationalize the conflict. It first made clear that it would accept international mediation, casting pressure on Iran to do the same. Iraq also attacked Iranian shipping; this brought Iranian reprisals against not only Iraqi shipping but also the shipping of Iraq's backers (such as Kuwait). Western powers, including the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), were eventually drawn to the Persian Gulf to protect the valuable shipments of oil from the Middle East.
The prolonged fighting forced both sides to search desperately for military equipment, even if it meant dealing with former enemies. At the start of the war, Iraq had no diplomatic relations with the United States due to its friendly relations with the USSR and its longstanding conflict with Israel, the main U.S. ally in the Middle East. As the war continued, however, Iraq toned down its rhetoric to gain American support. The United States responded by giving trade credits to Iraq and supplying the Iraqi armed forces with intelligence information through Saudi Arabia. Equally important, the United States dropped objections to efforts by its allies, especially France, to give weapons and other supplies to Iraq. The United States was motivated in part by a desire to back its friends in the region (most of whom supported Iraq), and in part by its fear of the broader consequences of an Iranian victory. Iraq also relied heavily on the USSR for military supplies.
Iran was also willing to accept support from its former enemies. Since Iran’s military had been built under the rule of the pro-American shah, most of its equipment was of American origin. So while the new revolutionary government was hostile to both the United States and Israel, it needed American spare parts. Israel could supply some of these and chose to do so early in the war. Israel was anxious to undercut Iraq, a potential Arab adversary. Equally remarkable, the United States government opened a secret channel for selling arms to Iran in 1985, even as it urged other governments to stop all military sales to the country (see Iran-Contra Affair). American motives seemed designed partly to induce pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon to release Americans held captive there, and partly to improve relations with Iran. Profits from the arms sales were channeled to right-wing guerrillas in Nicaragua, known as contras, to supply arms for use against the leftist Nicaraguan regime. The exposure of the secret policy in 1986 greatly embarrassed the government of U.S. president Ronald Reagan.
As the war continued, Iraq, no longer believing it could achieve the sweeping victory it had hoped for at the outset, concentrated more and more on simply preventing an Iranian victory. Nevertheless, by 1986 Iraq's condition grew increasingly desperate. Its ability to hold its defensive positions was threatened by Iran’s willingness to suffer enormous casualties. Iran sent massive numbers of older men, children, and sometimes women as human “waves” against Iraq’s better-equipped forces. Although thousands upon thousands of these poorly armed forces were slaughtered with each assault, the Iranian government continued to send them to the front. With its larger population, Iran seemed confident that it would ultimately prevail. Iraq also mustered civilians not normally called on to fight, and by the mid-1980s its population was severely strained.
In 1986 Iran captured the Iraqi gulf town of Al Fāw. Iraq responded with more effective techniques—especially the use of massive amounts of poison gas—to thwart Iran’s frontal assaults. Iraq also stepped up its attacks on Iranian cities, oil installations, and shipping, drawing severe Iranian reprisals against Iraqi oil production and shipping that prompted more American activity in the gulf. Although clashes between American and Iranian forces fell far short of full-scale battles, the American presence nevertheless brought an end to Iranian superiority over Iraq at sea, giving Iraq time to resupply its weaponry and stop the Iranian ground advance.
In 1987 Iran's leaders prepared for what they hoped would be a last round of offensives to end the war and topple the Iraqi government. As the situation became steadily graver, international concern mounted. In July the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 598, calling for both sides to stop fighting, withdraw to the prewar border, and submit to an international body to determine responsibility for the war. Iraq seized on the resolution, but Iran refused to end hostilities with victory so near. Iran continued its attacks but did not achieve the victory for which it had hoped.
By 1988 Iraq, sufficiently rearmed and regrouped, drove the Iranians out of Al Fāw and several other border areas. Iran was in no position to launch a counterattack, and the international situation seemed increasingly favorable to Iraq. Many Iranian leaders concluded that the war could not be won and worked to persuade Khomeini to accept Resolution 598. Although the resolution failed to provide key Iranian aims—such as an end to Hussein’s government, payment of reparations, or clear identification of Iraq as the initiator of the war—Khomeini endorsed the cease-fire in July. On August 20, 1988, both sides ceased fighting in accordance with the terms of Resolution 598.
|VIII||CONSEQUENCES AND AFTERMATH|
The Iran-Iraq War lasted just short of eight years and resulted in catastrophic destruction in both countries. Because both Iran and Iraq used irregular military units, attacked civilian populations, and played down their own losses while playing up those of their opponents, reliable casualty figures do not exist. For example, Iran claimed to have lost 200,000 or fewer of its own citizens, while Iraq claimed to have killed 800,000 Iranians. Neutral estimates come closer to the Iranian claim but are uncertain. Because of different battlefield techniques, Iraq’s deaths were probably about half those suffered by Iran. The total number of people killed almost certainly exceeds 300,000. Wounded and captured soldiers push the casualty total over one million, and some estimates of total casualties exceed two million.
The war was also extremely destructive to each country’s economy. Estimates vary, but the war’s total cost, including military supplies and civilian damages, probably exceeded $500 billion for each side. Both Iran and Iraq sacrificed their considerable oil wealth to the war for nearly a decade, and Iraq was forced to borrow heavily, especially from its allies on the Arabian Peninsula.
Remarkably, the war led to no tremendous political change in either country. Despite having led his country into a disastrous military conflict, Hussein emerged from the war more secure than before; he even claimed the Iranian failure to unseat him represented a tremendous Iraqi victory. The Iranian government could have ended the war in 1982 on only marginally different terms from those obtained six years later, yet the ensuing years of fruitless struggle consolidated rather than undermined Iranian popular support for the Islamic republic.
Internationally, the war resolved few issues between the two countries. Although Resolution 598 called for both sides to withdraw to the prewar border, release prisoners, and negotiate all outstanding issues, these terms proved difficult to implement and negotiations remained deadlocked for two years. In some ways the Iran-Iraq War contributed to the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War in 1991: It left Iraq with a strong army and large debts to Arab nations, including Kuwait. Iraq cited Kuwait’s refusal to forgive Iraq’s war debt as one reason for invading its oil-rich neighbor. Only when Iraq was forced into desperate straits during the Gulf War did it move to repair its relationship with Iran. Iraq withdrew from Iranian territory, agreed to restore the 1975 border, and engaged in a large-scale prisoner exchange. Both sides charged the other with retaining some prisoners, however, and the border demarcation remained incomplete. A decade after the 1988 cease-fire, Iran and Iraq had yet to settle these differences.