Iran-Iraq War

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Fought between September 1980 and August 1988, with prisoners returned as late as 2003, the Iran-Iraq War was one of the longer, and certainly bloodier, of modern wars. Much of the conflict was a static stalemate reminiscent of the trench warfare of the First World War. Iraq, which had invaded Iran over a territorial dispute, suddenly asked for peace in 1988, in what may well have been a plan by Saddam Hussein to shift his attention to became the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, starting the Gulf War. Several other disputes, including Islamic sectarian conflict and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, led to parallel fighting.

A substantial number of countries supplied and advised Iran, Iraq, or, in a number of cases, both, although there were no significant units from other countries directly involved in the fighting between Iran and Iraq. Starting in 1984, there was fighting between Iran and the U.S. and some of its allies, but that was more of a parallel conflict, often called the Tanker War.

Even the Soviets, along with the French, were position, especially in the early phases of the war, was officially neutral to both sides. They had been Iraq's major arms supplier,see Soviet support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. and resumed shipments later in the war, although they clandestinely provided a smaller amount of support to Iran. Later in the war, they more visibly supported Iraq, but still maintained an official position of neutrality but actually had relations with both sides.

France became the more high-tech supplier to Iran. No country started out aggressively supporting Iran, but Iran did have a large stockpile, questionably maintained, of munitions obtained from the U.S. while the Shah was a client.

Many countries in the West had regarded Iran, and to a lesser extent Iraq, as a buffer against Soviet expansion. The rich oil reserves of both countries also was important to the major powers. These priorities had created some important background for regional tensions, such as Operation Ajax, a U.S. and British covert operation that deposed the popular, if left-leaning, government of Mohammed Mossadegh, and restored the Pahlavi Dynasty. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was aggressively Westernizing Iran, offending a good deal of conservative Shi'ite Muslim opinion, and governing with the assistance of an aggressive secret police apparatus.

Contributing to the attitudes of other countries was the Iranian Islamic Revolution that deposed the Shah. In reaction to the U.S. giving sanctuary and hospitalization to the Shah, members of the loosely organized revolutionary forces. This led to the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy, with diplomats held hostage until Ronald Reagan took office. The seizure caused intense friction between the U.S. and Iran.


Iran and Iraq are culturally, ethnically, and theologically distinct, although the more heterogeneous Iraq had groups that shared some, but not all, aspects with Iran. The current governments of Iran and Iraq detested one another, over a wide range of issues.

Ethnic and theological

Iranians are fairly monolithic, of Persian culture, Shi'ite Islamic religion, and speaking Farsi. While it was conquered many times, Iran was relatively homogeneous, and had a tradition of absorbing its conquerors.

Remember that modern Iraq was a British invention, joining three Ottoman provinces. Iraqis are primarily of Arab ethnicity, speaking Arabic, with, in the North, a substantial Kurdish minority speaking a significantly changed dialect of Farsi. Arabs of Sunni Islamic religion dominated Iraq, especially from Saddam's home area of Tikrit. The classic Mesopotamian civilization was most related to these Sunni in central Iraq, near what has been called the cradle of civilization, the joining of the Tigris and Euphrates River in the southeast Baghdad area.

In the south of Iraq, the majority of the population are Shi'ite Muslims, but ethnically Arab rather than their coreligionists in Iran. It was not a given that Southern Iraq was automatically allied with Iran.

Ideological issues

There are few who would suggest that Saddam was an altruist, purely interested in the greatest good for the greatest number. Nevertheless, he had come to prominence through the Ba'ath Party, a relatively secular organization with strong nationalism and anticolonialism. An Islamist movement that wanted to make no distinction between civil government and religion would be threatening to a Ba'ath position.

Before the takeover by Shi'ite fundamentalists, Iraq had a working relationship with the unpopular Shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi, formed in 1975 at the OPEC . That ended dramatically when the Islamic Revolution had Khomeini return on February 1, 1979, and gradually take power; the Shah had already left. In the 1975 agreement, the key compromise was that Iran and Iraq agreed that their border would no longer be on the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab, but down its center. The Shah also agreed to stop supporting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, who had also been supported by the U.S., who had sent in United States Army Special Forces. Some minor territorial disputes also were resolved.

Under the Shah, the U.S. and Iran, with British and other support, agreed that Iran should be the regional superpower, which was bitterly resented by Saddam. Indeed, there was resentment through many Arab countries against the power of the non-Arab, ethnically Persian, Iran. Under the Shah, there also were relaxed relations between Iran and Israel.

Khomeini claimed that, just as Iran had abetted Kurdish rebels, Iraq was supporting the Arab rebels of Khuzistan Provice, one of Iraq's major oilfields. He also called on Iraq's Shi'ite (although Arab) population in the South to overthrow the Sunni government.

In this already tense environment, Iraq wanted Iran to return several small but strategic islands, nominally Iraqi, that had been occupied by Iran. Iran ignored the request.


Saddam saw himself in a heroic mold, based not only on his public presentations, but on some of his personal effects discovered after the 2003 capture of his household. Portraits of him in heroic roles were all over Iraq, but there were such things as his having commissioned portraits of himself by fantasy artists.

While there is no question that there was an intense focus on Khomeini the man in the Islamic Resolution of Iran, he had gained that stature by defiance of the Pahlavi government, his portraying the West as responsible for many of Iran's troubles, and for a drive to a fundamentalist version of Shi'a Islam, with strong resistance to what was seen as western cultural imperialism.

The Iranians were inspired by Khomeini, who railed against Iraq's "godless" rulers, dismissing them as pawns of "the great Satan." Saddam was an "infidel guilty of blasphemy."

As has been observed, both countries supported rebel guerrillas in the other. At a more significant level, Iraq sheltered an actual military force of 3,000 soldiers, the "Iran Liberation Army (ILA)", under Ghoylam Ali Ovisi, who had been the military commander of Tehran under the Shah. While the ILA was not part of the original Iraqi invasion, the Iranians believed it likely to come.

Beliefs about a short war

Given the limited military capabilities of the combatants, the war did not appear likely to be a prolonged one, although Iran's Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini pledged to fight until "the government of heathens in Iraq topples." Mediation efforts by the U.N. were rebuffed, but the Conference of Islamic Nations dispatched a "goodwill mission" consisting of Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq and Tunisia's Habib Chatti, the organization's secretary-general, to the combatant capitals. No matter how long the struggle continued or how soon it ended, the shock waves had already reached out from the gulf.

Shatt al-Arab issues

As is common in the Middle East, there was an immediate issue of water rights. Beyond that, however, the Shatt al-Arab is a relatively narrow body of water that provided Iraq's main port, Basra, with access to the Persian Gulf. Especially with anti-shipping missiles, armed speedboats, and other hard-to-detect, hard-to-stop fast weapons, Iran was in a position to block shipping, not only petroleum exports but all Iraqi trade dependent on sea transportation.

Iraq invades Iran

Saddam Hussein, ostensibly a Sunni Muslim, claimed to have started the war to block the export of Shi'ite radical Islam by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and also to gain control of the Shatt al-Arab, a relatively narrow body of water that provides sea access to Iraq's main port of Basra. While Iraq, at first, pushed back Iranian troops after the September 22, 1980 invasion. By March 1981, however, the Iraqi momentum had stalled.

After the situation was stalemated, there were various attempts to broker a settlement. Saudi Arabia offered to pay reparations to Iran and guarantee the removal of Iraqi troops, but Khomeini rejected that proposal.

The military balance

System Iran Iraq
Senior command Many U.S. trained officers had been purged, but more decentralized Centralized under Saddam, primarily Soviet doctrine
Infantry 180,000; many desertions 200,000
Tanks 875 British-built Chieftain tanks, perhaps 1/3 operational 2,500
Artillery 1,075 armored vehicles; 1,000 major 2,000 armored vehicles; 1,000 major
Bomber and attack aircraft 188 U.S. F-4 Phantom, 166 F-5s 335 combat aircraft
Integrated air defense system 77 U.S. F-14 Tomcat interceptors, 8 operational row 1, cell 3
Logistics row 1, cell 2 row 1, cell 3

Both countries had command problems. Iran because experienced, Western-trained officers had been purged by the new clerical regime following a failed military coup in July 1980. Iraq, on the other hand, was led by the conspiracy-sensitive Saddam Hussein whose leadership discouraged officers from displaying independent-mindedness.


The two countries provided about 40 percent of the oil in the non-Communist world, and, especially when oil facilities were attacked, the war caused worldwide economic disruption

Resource Iran Iraq
Major shipping terminals Kharg Island Basra, via Shatt al-Arab; also Mediterranean pipeline
Refineries and petrochemicals Abadan Basra
Oilfields Abadan Kirkuk

The key issue was less what happened to either country, but that the Strait of Hormuz, at the southern end of the Persian Gulf, might be closed, interfering not only with the two belligerents but with Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, and smaller states' tanker and equipment freighter traffic.

Iraq attacks

The subsequent Gulf War, in part, may have been attractive to Saddam because control of the port of Kuwait gave a more defensible access to the sea. He abrogated the Algiers Agreement on 17 September and invaded on the 22nd. The border had not been quiet before then, with harassing artillery and occasional air strikes from Iraq.

While the Iraqi forces seemed better organized, Iran had a larger reserve of personnel, and religious fervor to fight Iraq was much stronger than in the Ba'ath attack on Iran. Opposition parties like the left-wing Socialist People's Mujahidin and the Marxist People's Fedayan were captured by the patriotic fever and backed the war effort of President Abolhassan Banisadr's government.

Little reliable public information came to the outside world. Iraq, for example, claimed to have shot down 158 Iranian planes in the first five days. Since this number was roughly the number the West believed Iran had operational, and Iranian raids continued, the Iraqi claims were doubtful. Iraq, at first, remained optimistic, originally issuing visas for 300 foreign newsmen and busing many of them to Baghdad from Jordan, across 500 miles of desert.

At the end of the first week, Iraq claimed to have cut the rail lines between the oilfields in the southwest to Tehran, and the border towns of Khorramshahr and Abadan (a refinery site) remained under attack. This level of penetration, however, with deeper air raids, appeared to be consistent with the capability of Iraqi logistics, and also the much rougher terrain of the Zagros Mountains, a natural defensive line.

By March 1981, the Iranian offensive had essentially halted.


"Iraqi pilots flying Soviet-built MiGs headed eastward for bombing raids on military targets and oil facilities across the Iranian border, including the Tigris-Euphrates estuary known as Shatt al Arab. Caught by surprise at first, the Iranians responded with attacks of their own, sending American-made Phantom F-4 fighter-bombers against Iraqi cities and installations." [1]

Iran had less actual combat experience having only fired in anger during periodic border problems with Iraq . More recently, however, they had used tactical airpower along with ground forces to assist the sultan of Oman in counterinsurgency operations in Dhofar, the western portion of Oman.

In contrast, the Iraqi air force had experienced combat operations during wars with Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. It had also operated extensively during the long running Kurdish insurgency that ended in 1975 . And, of course, it had also engaged in periodic attacks along the Iranian border.

The Arabs, most notably the frontline states of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, had been been given decades of airpower lessons by Israel. Iran and Iraq did consider some of this experience. [2]

Typically for modern wars, and this was the first modern war around the Gulf[3] The deepest Iraqi raid was against Mehrabad Airport, a civilian and military base four miles west of Tehran. While Iraq apparently wanted to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground, it failed.

Iranian F-4 fighter-bombers launched counterattacks against two bases in the Basra area. Throughout the war, neither side ever put up large air strikes; 2-4 aircraft raids were common, and forces in the low tens of aircraft were unusual. Neither side had a good doctrine or paid much attention to suppression of enemy air defense.

Nevertheless, while Iran did not put many planes into each attack, they launched near-simultaneous strikes on at least 16 Iraqi targets on the second day of the war. Targets included Baghdad, Erbil, Kirkuk and Mosul. Iraq claimed that 67 Iranian aircraft were shot down.

Both sides' targeting changed from military, population and command targets to oil. Iraqi bombers flew against the Abadan refinery and the Kharg Island oil terminal.


Iraq declared a blockade of Iran. Iranian ships attacked Fao Island, while their aircraft hit petrochemical and refining facilities at Basra.

With considerably more coast than Iraq, Iran was much more capable at sea. Ships passing through Hormuz were advised by Iranian navy craft to avoid Iraqi ports. Some supertanker traffic stopped in international waters, hoping for a quick resolution.


Iraqi armor and infantry punched across 500 miles of desert front at many points, surrounding two key Iranian cities but running into stubborn resistance and counterattacks.

Iraq used 1,000 tank transporters, to protect the surprisingly delicate treads of tanks until the tanks disembarked in the battle area. The Iraqis mounted a multipronged drive aimed at Abadan, the nearby port of Khorramshahr, Ahwaz and Dezful, a vital pumping station on the Abadan-Tehran pipeline, and to the north around Kermanshah. The heaviest fighting, reported TIME Correspondent William Drozdiak, was around Khorramshahr, which was being pounded from three sides by Iraqi tank and artillery fire. An Iraqi general told him "There is terrible fighting around Khorramshahr. Unfortunately we are not yet in control of the city."[1]

Iran admitted the loss of five border posts in the early fighting. But as the week went on, the Iranian defenses hardened and the Iraqis found themselves pressed to maintain their salients.

External effects of the early hostilities

Major powers

The gulf war pitted not just Iraq against Iran but, on the sidelines, the U.S. against the U.S.S.R. Both superpowers had strategic interests in the area; neither would be casual about political gains by the other side.

Going back to the early days of the Republic, freedom of navigation has been a core issue of U.S. policy. President Jimmy Carter, in 1979, committed to keeping open the Strait of Hormuz. Since the U.S. has little influence on Iraq or Iran, keeping the waterway open might require force, unless an effective coalition could be built. The Soviets saw this as a potential proxy fight.

Though neither Iraq nor Iran made any attempt last week to interfere with shipping through the strait, the Soviets talked about U.S. "preparations for armed interference in the Persian Gulf," obviously concerned that, in case of a blockade, the U.S. might resort to military action. In Washington, officials expressed fears that if the conflict dragged on, the Soviets, who are Iraq's main armorers and who share a 1,250-mile border with Iran, would have a built-in advantage in case of internal complications in either country.

France was a major supplier to Iraq.[4]; see French support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war


Iranian counteroffensives

In mid-March 1982 Iran took the offensive. Of especial significance was regaining the oilfields of Khuzestan province, marked by retaking the city of Khorramshahr on 24 May 1982.

Saddam announced he was withdrawing some troops in June 1982, to help Lebanon after an Israeli invasion. At this time, Saudi Arabia also tried to broker a settlement, in which it would pay reparations to Iran. Khomeini, however, would not settle for less than the ouster of Saddam.

On 13 July, Iranian troops crossed the border, moving toward Basra. Iraq, however, was most skilled in defensive techniques. Neither side was really efficient in the breakthrough methods of modern combined-arms warfare, so the counteroffensive soon became a bloody grind through defensive lines, reminding many of First World War trench warfare.

During this offensive, the Iraqis first used human-wave attacks of teenage volunteers to clear thick Iraqi minefields, so the more mobile regular troops could break through. For information on the source of many of the mines and mine technology, see Italian support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Also as part of its defense, Iraq used chemical weapons.

The U.S. began its "tilt to Iraq" in 1982, under the Reagan Administration. February, 1982.[5] As one of his first acts, Reagan removed Iraq from the list of terrorist nations, allowing exports. Technical advice also was authorized by the March 1982 National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM 4-82).[5] While there were Congressional objections, the decision tapped into a strong popular opinion against Iran. Throughout the war, the intensity of U.S. popular resentment over the 1979 embassy seizure and hostage taking never seemed to register with the Iranian leadership, or, at least, there were few visible attempts to reduce tension with the U.S.


Through most of 1983, neither side made many territorial gains, although they both worked hard on developing worldwide sources of weapons and spare parts. U.S. tilt became more visible, as seen in a declassified State Department document. [6]

Offensives and counteroffensives

Khomeini's troops captured the oil-rich Majnoon Islands from Iraq in Feb., 1984, and southern Iraq's Fao peninsula in early 1986.

Tanker War

Iran and Iraq both saw oil revenue as affecting the other side's ability to fund its war, and began acting to deny such revenues. This involved attacks on third-country shipping and on ports containing third-country ships.

Essentially independently of the main fighting, Iran was increasingly involved with the U.S. and allies such as Kuwait. The period was rife with bad judgment, such as the USS Vincennes (CG-49) shooting down a misidentified Iranian civilian airliner, Iran Air flight 655 and the Iraqis attacking a patrolling U.S. frigate, USS Stark (FFG-31)

War of the Cities

Saddam issued an ultimatum that he would begin to strike Iranian cities if they did not withdraw by 7 February 1984. Iran did not, and Iraq began several weeks of attacks on cities; there would be five rounds of city targeting through the war. Each side then tried to break the morale of the others by attacks on cities, primarily by wildly inaccurate SCUD ballistic missiles and derivatives, but also with small raids by aircraft. As in WWII, this caused misery but was indecisive.

Iranian counteroffensives

Un particular, the Iranians came close, but did not succeed, in cutting the Baghdad-Basra highway on 15-22 February (Operation Dawn 5) and on 22-24 February 1984 (Operation Dawn 6). Another attack, Operation Khaibar again went for Basra between 24 February and 19 March. The Iraqis lost some part of the Majnum Islands and held them through the war. Iraq, in dealing with these offensives, made greater use of chemical warfare.

Iraqi counteroffensive

The Iraqis launched an offensive on 28 January 1985, the first since late 1980. It did not hold ground, and the Iranians again counterattacked in the Basra area with Operation Badr beginning 11 March 1985.

Part of Iran's ineffectiveness had to do with divided command, between th regular military and the more irregular but also more fervent Pasdaran, also known as the Revolutionary Guard. Operation Badr, with more effective cooperation between the two arms, did break the highway. Iraq countered with more tactical chemical attacks, as well as the second round of city attacks.

U.S., Chinese, and Soviet maneuvering for influence

Also in 1985, Iranian relations with the Soviet Union improved somewhat, with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev. "Support" began to include some diplomatic exchanges and economic cooperation, preparing the way for much better relations after the war ended in 1988. While the fall of the Soviet Union was not foreseen, Gorbachev took a long-term view of Soviet-Iranian relations.

There was also some covert direct and satellite support for Iran by the Soviet Union, with the apparent strategic goal of damaging the United States by proxy. Iran, after the Western embargo of 1979, was motivated to expand its own manufacturing capability and to seek short-term, clandestine procurement of spares and replacements compatible with its Western equipment base. When it improved the Soviet position, it either shipped equipment through satellite states such as Bulgaria,Poland and Romania, or arranged for the satellites to ship from their own stocks or factories. Certainly, Soviet clients, such as Libya and Syria, were providing Soviet products to Iran, and the Soviets did not announce a general embargo on them. [7]

The Soviets were selective, as when they a proposed shipment of advanced naval mines from Libya to Iran, saying "opposed the unauthorized transfer of their military technology to a third country" indicates that some exports were tolerated. [8]"After American officials told Moscow of the deal, Soviet officials said they opposed the unauthorized transfer of their military technology to a third country and informed the United States that they had made this policy known to Tripoli," according to Administration officials.

The Soviet Union was also competing for influence with China. North Korea both shipped Soviet-designed weapons it made, as well as acting as a conduit for shipments directly from the Soviet Union and the PRC, even though China was a rival of the Soviets for Middle East influence.[9]

Iraq had already established an extensive and clandestine foreign procurement network, including the use of shell companies in Germany, the U.K., and U.S., as well as financing from a state-owned Italian bank.

Ceasefire and setting the stage for future conflict


  1. 1.0 1.1 Davidson, Spencer (6 October 1980), "War in the Persian Gulf", Time
  2. Berquist,Ronald E. (1982), The role of airpower in the Iran-Iraq war, Airpower Research Institute, United States Air Force
  3. The Arabian Gulf to Iraq and some other Arab states; more commonly the Persian Gulf to the Iranians and much of the world.
  4. , Chapter 7: Operation Staunch"Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War", Iran Brief
  5. 5.0 5.1 Battle, Joyce, ed. (25 February 2003), Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts toward Iraq, 1980-1984, vol. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82
  6. Battle, Joyce, ed. (October 7, 1983), Iran-Iraq War: Analysis of Possible U.S. Shift from Position of Strict Neutrality, Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts toward Iraq, 1980-1984, vol. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82
  7. National Intelligence Council, Iran: Current National Security Situation
  8. Sciolino, Elaine (September 11, 1987), "U.S. and Soviet Protest to Libya Over Iran Mines", New York Times
  9. Kenneth Timmerman, Chapter 9: Iran's new Soviet Arsenal, "Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War", Iran Brief