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What Caused The Iran-Iraq War?

September 19, 2022

Via Wikimedia Commons.

With its society under pressure from the lasting effects of war and the pandemic Baghdad was once again in turmoil this July as angry mobs overran the legislature and nearly unraveled Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Khadimi’s fragile government. But further chaos was averted weeks later when the Sadrists, the fanatical loyalists of the cleric and parliamentarian Muqtada al-Sadr, backed down from open battles with the military. Opposing them were, ironically, the neutral armed forces and the pro-Iran factions who’ve become entrenched in the Iraqi state since the US military’s 2011 withdrawal. This drama was just the latest violent turn in a conflict that dates back to the 1930s and has haunted both countries since.

Upon gaining full independence on October 3, 1932 after a decade of British occupation that foisted a short-lived monarchy Iraq was beset be external and internal problems. An enduring headache for its government, aside form Kurdish separatism in the north, was a tranquil water passage called the Shatt al-Arab (pictured above) that stretched from the southern marshes flowing down through Basra and winding toward the Persian Gulf. Therein lay an intractable dilemma; the last 90 kilometers of the Shatt al-Arab traced a vague border with Iran whose own oil fields and their refineries were located on the same narrow coast it shared with Iraq.

By 1975 the respective leaders of either country met in Algiers to hammer out terms and sign a treaty. The conditions they accepted on May 6 stipulated Iran and Iraq shared control over the Shatt al-Arab as their national borders followed the middle of the water passage. At the time the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was ascendant in his own country’s political system although he hadn’t seized power yet. Besides, Iraq’s military were bogged down fighting the Kurds. His rival, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, enjoyed the unwavering support of the United States and Israel and had the raw military strength afforded by a constant petrodollars surplus. Unbeknownst to the Shah his own regime would be toppled in a matter of years.

From left to right: Shah Reza Mo. Palavi, Pres. Houari Boumediene, and Saddam Hussein in Algiers. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The revolution that swept Iran in 1979 created an uneasy alliance between Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini and the better organized Marxist opposition but neither had a viable program nor the administrative skill to properly govern the country. This situation was made all the more difficult as relations with the US and Western Europe fell apart. Once the Pahlavis went into exile on January 16 the former regime of the Shah, including the powerful Artesh or armed forces, were left in total disarray. Not surprisingly, the newly installed President Saddam Hussein, with his Baathist party now purged of dissenters, accelerated war plans that were being discussed years before as surging oil exports paid for a larger military.

Historians have since acknowledged four objectives that triggered the war and all of them drove the Baathist regime’s justifications. They are:

  1. Perceiving the weakness and vulnerability of the long-term rival Iran.
  2. Territorial gains in the majority Arab and oil-rich province of Khuzestan and putting the Shatt al-Arab under full Iraqi control.
  3. Reducing Iranian prestige in the greater Middle East.
  4. For Iraq to become a regional power through force of arms.

A specific part of Iraq’s calculations and perceptions that hasn’t been settled is whether its nuclear and chemical weapon programs were driven by wartime goals or a much longer effort that was separately being readied as war planning got underway. Readers may find Iraq’s actions throughout the summer of 1980 familiar based on how wars are still being framed and justified in this century. As early as 1979 official statements from Baghdad condemned Iranian plots against the national leadership and the invisible threat posed by Persian citizens–a minority whose roots stretched back generations in multicultural Iraq. Earlier examples of Iranian perfidy fed the script justifying a war; Tehran’s support for Kurdish separatists since the 1960s was a longstanding grievance.

Small battles erupted along the sparsely populated borders of the two countries in July and August 1980. With diplomacy non-existent Iran’s revolutionary government couldn’t gather intelligence on Iraqi troop movements. Even the regular armed forces had no coordinated response to the looming threat. When the Iraqis finally pounced on September 22, 1980, they took inspiration from Israel’s own performance in its Six Day War (1967) and October War (1973). The Eastern Front in World War 2 also exerted a strong influence on Iraq’s generals. This is how waves of airstrikes reached Iranian airbases albeit achieving little effect–Iranian infrastructure and air defenses were too robust. Once on the move the inadequacies of Iraq’s military came to light as local resistance by paramilitaries slowed their advance. The Iraqis weren’t beaten out of Khuzestan until 1982 and from then all of the fighting on the ground happened outside Iranian territory.

By 1980 the armed forces of Iraq brought together British, French, and Soviet equipment in large quantities. The army in particular had an estimated 2,000 Soviet medium tanks including at least 150 French-made AMX-30’s together with an impressive arsenal of howitzers and rocket artillery. The air defense and air force branches looked good on paper with a fleet that included Soviet Ilyushins, MiGs, and Sukhois and even British-made Hawker Hunters. Iraq’s soaring military budget smoothed the sale of between 60 to 65 French-made Mirage F1’s, among other expensive pieces of equipment, from 1981 onward. (For comparison’s sake Iran’s air force boasted 521 twin engine fighter jets in 1979 and had airborne early warning and aerial refueling support.) The naval branch was predictably miniscule but had adequate offshore vessels and shore-based armaments for its role. In the course of the war, however, the Iraqi military had to adapt against a determined foe that saw capturing Baghdad and the holy shrines venerated by Shi’ism as its main objectives. For this reason the country’s oil wealth together with lines of credit from neighboring Arab countries were squandered on a national war machine that drained Iraq’s labor force and gave it an ad hoc military-industrial sector.

The Iran-Iraq War lasted for seven years and 10 months and ended with a United Nations-backed ceasefire (Resolution 598) on August 10, 1988. The conflict is recognized for its duration compared to the 20th century’s other wars and the immense scale of its battles. The bleeding edge of Cold War technology got sucked into the vortex as well, from ballistic missiles to strategic bombers and poison gas, and the human toll was dramatic. To date exact casualty figures from the war remain elusive. Iraqi losses are believed to have reached from 150,000 to 250,000 killed. Iran’s casualties hover around 250,000 killed and half a million wounded. Summaries of the war tend to project a million deaths in total for the belligerents. But it was Iraqi society, along with its political system, that suffered the most in the long-term. The defeat in the “second” Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm and the international isolation that followed stagnated its economy and the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003 ushered not just foreign occupation but a traumatic shift to representative government that’s constantly roiled by civil strife.

Contrasting the decline of their Baathist foes the Iranian theocracy humbled by the ordeal during the 1980s consolidated its power at home in the following decades and memorialized the “imposed war” and its victims as a “Sacred Defense” that is celebrated each September. As a form of unexpected revenge the same Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that suffered and toiled in numerous futile battles built up its proxies to influence Iraq’s political system in the 2010s, and even saved it from the ISIS scourge from 2014 until 2018, yet this advantage is slowly dwindling as nationalist fervor boils over.

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