As the name suggests, the Iran-Iraq War was a bloody conflict between the Middle Eastern countries of Iraq and Iran. The war was very long, lasting from 1980 until 1989. It was also very bloody leaving from 1 to 1.5 million dead. The aftershocks of the Iran-Iraq War continue to dramatically influence the world to this day.

Cultural and Religious Friction

Many contributing factors led up to the Iran-Iraq War. On the most basic level, the conflict was a continuation of centuries of Arab-Persian animosity. In many ways, it was also a religious struggle. Iran had recently been taken over by Ayatollah Khomeini and his radically fundamentalist Shiite theocracy. On the other hand, Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, a secular government made up mostly of Sunni Muslims. This was in contrast to Iraq’s population which is 60-65% Shiite. The Iranians had attempted to take advantage of this by inciting Iraq’s Shiite minority to revolt in 1979 through 1980, provoking Iraq. Iraq also had designs on the Iranian province of Khuzestan which has an Arab majority.

Border Disputes

Despite all the cultural and religious differences between the two countries, the core issue that sparked the Iran-Iraq War was the disputed Shatt-al-Arab region. The Shatt al Arab is the river that is formed by the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and empties into the northern Persian Gulf. The river is of supreme strategic importance because it is the only access that Iraq has to the Persian Gulf, allowing it to export its massive oil production. The Shatt al Arab has been contested for centuries. The Persian and Ottoman Turk Empires signed a treaty in 1639 that attempted to set a frontier in the area. Yet, despite the treaty, the actual border remained ambiguous. Border clashes had persisted in the region throughout the following centuries. In 1975, Iran seized the opportunity to force a significantly weaker Iraq into an new agreement setting the border to be the midway point in the river. Five years later, however, the Iraqis supported by a refurbished and sizable army, demanded that the border be set at the eastern bank of the river, the Iranian side. This was significant as it granted Iraqi tankers complete control and navigation through the river giving Iraq a unique strategic advantage in the area.

Personal Ambitions

Another factor that precipitated the Iran-Iraq conflict was the ambition of the leaders of each country. Ayatollah Khomeini had designs on spreading his brand of Islamic Fundamentalism throughout the middle east. These efforts were minimal, however, as the Islamic Revolution had only recently seized control of Iran. Hussein had also recently come to power and was interested in elevating Iraq to a regional superpower. A successful invasion of western Iran would make Iraq the sole dominating force in the Gulf region and its lucrative oil trade. Such lofty ambitions were not that farfetched. Severe officer purges and spare part shortages for Iran’s American made equipment had crippled Iran’s once mighty military. To top it off, Iran had minimal defenses in the Shatt al Arab area. On September 22, 1980, Iraq seized the opportunity and invaded.

Initial Stages of the War

Iraq enjoyed smashing victories early in the campaign. Preemptive air strikes within the first few days of the attack attempted to neutralized much of Iran’s sophisticated American-made airforce, mirroring the tactics employed by Israel during the Six Day War. Iraqi troops made swift inroads on Iranian territory and the Iranian army was in disarray.

The United Nations Security Council waited a full four days after the initial Iraqi invasion to meet and draft a statement on the issue. On September 28, it passed Resolution 479 calling for an end to the fighting. Conspicuously missing from the resolution was any condemnation or even a mention of the Iraqi aggression. The resolution also did not call for a return to internationally recognized boundaries. The seemingly pro-Iraqi language used in the Security Council’s resolution reflected its negative view of Iran. The United States in particular was extremely hostile because of the American hostages held at the U.S.’s Embassy in Tehran.

Despite early victories by the Iraqis, Iran slowly turned the tide of the war. Iran was able to mobilize massive numbers of soldiers in a religious fervor that counteracted Iraq’s technological superiority. By the end of May 1982, Iran had recaptured nearly all its territory and Iraq was looking for a way out of the war. Iraq offered to withdraw its remaining forces from Iran and sign a cease-fire. Just as Iraq had erroneously assumed that Iran was on the verge of collapse in September 1980, Iran believed that Saddam Hussein’s government was about to collapse. Khomeini decided to go on with the war, declaring that Iran would not stop fighting until Saddam Hussein was overthrown, Iraqi war-guilt assigned, and reparations paid. This decision needlessly prolonged the war for years.

The Stalemate

As 1982 dragged on, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate. Iraq had received fresh Russian equipment and was setting up an elaborate Soviet style defense. Against this, Iran attempted many fruitless offensives. These attacks often included thousands of lightly equipped and poorly trained soldiers used in “human wave” assaults that gained little ground, yet caused staggering casualties. By the end of 1983, an estimated 120,000 Iranians and 60,000 Iraqis had been killed. Action continued for several more years, particularly in the Shatt al Arab region near the Iraqi city of Basra.

Iraq was able to refresh its war materials by purchasing weapons from outside countries, particularly the Soviet Union and France. The United States, while officially neutral, provided Iraq with nonmilitary aid and intelligence information. Iran on the other hand was ostracized from much of the world community and only gained formal support from Syria and Libya. Because of this, Iran was forced to purchase whatever weapons it could off the black market. This included secret dealings with the United States that would become the Iran-Contra Affair when it was discovered in 1986. After this public embarrassment, the U.S. government was forced to openly support Iraq in order to placate the outraged Arab states.

Despite being outfitted with some of the most advanced weapons systems of the time, neither Iraq nor Iran used its modern equipment very efficiently. Tanks and armored vehicles were most often dug in and used as artillery pieces instead of being maneuvered to lead or to support an organized assault. The aiming systems on each side’s tanks were seldom used. This handicapped the accuracy of modern tanks to World War II levels. In addition, both sides frequently abandoned heavy equipment because they lacked the skilled technicians needed to carry out even minor repairs.

One of the more horrific facets of the war was the use of chemical weapons. Both countries were members of the 1925 Geneva protocol outlawing the use of chemical agents in war, but the document did not halt the use of such weapons in the war. The first documented use of chemical warfare in the conflict occurred in 1982 when Iraq used CS gas to disrupt a massive Iranian human wave attack. Although unsubstantiated accusations abounded from each side, the UN was able to confirm Iraq’s widespread use of mustard gas as an offensive and defensive weapon. 10,000 people were said to be killed or wounded as a result of chemical weapons, but no one can be sure of the exact number of casualties due to the difficulty in attaining reliable data.

Tanker War

The fronts eventually solidified and the conflict turned into a vicious war of attrition. Each side looked for new ways to attack the other. The fighting spread to the Persian Gulf as the two countries focused on draining the economy of the other. Iraq began targeting Iranian oil installations and key infrastructure. In response, Iran targeted any shipping belonging to Iraq or believed to be aiding Iraq. The harassment of Gulf shipping brought other countries into the conflict, particularly the United States. Kuwait lost several ships in this exchange and called on the U.S. for protection. Kuwait was allowed to fly the American flag on its tankers and many ships were formally escorted through the Gulf by American warships. Both sides actively engaged in attacking Persian Gulf shipping, but Iran was assessed most of the blame.

In May of 1987, an Iraqi missile struck the American frigate, the U.S.S. Stark, apparently by accident. The U.S. dramatically increased its naval presence in the area. Then, on April 14, 1988, the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine planted in international waters. This time the U.S. reacted swiftly and harshly, launching Operation Praying Mantis. Mantis crippled Iran’s naval capabilities in the Gulf and marked a turning point in Iran’s motive to fight.

War’s End and Consequences

After spending three years on the defensive, Iraq began to make some offensive gains in 1987. Still, the conflict was still very much a stalemate. UN mediators drafted Resolution 598 in an attempt to forge a peace accord at the beginning of 1988. Khomeini agreed to sign this agreement on July 18, but Hussein dragged his feet, sensing a strategic advantage. But in August of 1988, international pressure persuaded Iraq to finally sign a cease-fire agreement, thus ending the Iran-Iraq War.

When the guns fell silent and the fighting ended, the war ended in a draw. Virtually none of the issues that prompted the war were resolved. Iraq agreed to accept the pre-war border as the official border. Millions had been killed and immense damage had been done for no appreciable gain.

Iran suffered the largest cost in human lives. While at first eager to become martyrs in the name of the Islamic Revolution, the carnage turned many against the war. On June 3, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini died, ending 10 years of his rule. After Khomeini’s death, the position of supreme religious leader and president were separated with Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani taking over the latter. The new regime decided to turn away from the religious zealousness in favor of national interests.

Iraq emerged from the Iran-Iraq War a regional superpower. The immense cost of financing the war had built up Iraq’s economy and infrastructure into a mighty powerhouse. Iraq had sustained considerable damage to its oil producing facilities, but these were quickly rebuilt after the peace settlement. Yet despite all the recovery, Iraq was still left with a massive war debt. Outside players such as the U.S. who had supported Iraq throughout the war itself immediately dropped all aid once the war ended. Facing an impending budgetary crisis, Iraq sought to take care of its massive debt load. Saddam, eyeing Kuwait’s rich oil fields, decided to invade in 1990. This act initiated the 1991 Persian Gulf War that has brought crippling military defeat and economic sanctions to Iraq and its people.

The Iran-Iraq War proved to be a particularly bloody and useless conflict that added a dark chapter in an already troubled Middle Eastern history. The Persian Gulf War was a direct result of the issues left unresolved by the Iran-Iraq War. Much suffering was sustained during the conflict, but the suffering did not stop with the fighting.

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