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Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War (also called the First Persian Gulf War, or the Imposed War in Iran) was a war between the Republic of Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran that lasted from September 22, 1980, until August 20, 1988.

The conflict saw early successes by the Iraqis, but soon after they were repulsed and the conflict stabilized into a long war of attrition. It was commonly referred to as the Persian Gulf War until the Iraq-Kuwait conflict (1990-91), which became known as the Second Gulf War and later simply the Gulf War.


The origins of the war are disputed, but it was fundamentally a war over dominance in the Persian Gulf region. The destabilization of Iran and its alienation from the West made that country a tempting target to the ambitious Saddam Hussein, Iraq's President. There were a number of outstanding territorial disputes between the two powers. One of the factors contributing to hostility between the two powers was Saddam Hussein's desire to regain full control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf, an important channel for the oil exports of both countries. In 1975, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had sanctioned that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, attack Iraq over the waterway, which was under Iraqi control at the time; soon after both nations signed the Algiers Accord, in which Iraq made territorial concessions, including the waterway, in exchange for normalized relations. Iraq also had designs on the Iranian province of Khuzestan, which is one of the main oil-rich areas in Iran.

Saddam had recently come to power and was interested in elevating Iraq to a strong regional power. A successful invasion of western Iran would make Iraq the dominating force in the Gulf region and its lucrative oil trade. Such lofty ambitions were not that far-fetched. Severe officer purges (including several executions ordered by Sadegh Khalkhali, the post-revolution Sharia ruler) and spare part shortages for Iran's American-made equipment had crippled Iran's once mighty military. The bulk of the Iranian military was made up of poorly armed, but committed, militias. Iran also had minimal defenses in the Arvand/Shatt al-Arab river.

The aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was also central to the conflict. Iran was threatening to spread its revolution. It was widely believed that the oppressed Shi'ites in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait could follow the Iranian example and turn against their regimes. The Iranians had been supporting Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq, and Shi'ite leaders in the rest of the country.

The war

Iraq launched an invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980. An accusation against Iran of backing an assassination attempt aimed at Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was used as a pretext for the attack. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait supplied substantial financial support. The surprise offensive advanced quickly against the still disorganized Iranian forces. However, rather than turning against the regime of the Ayatollah's, as exiles had promised, the people of Iran rallied around their revolution and mounted far stiffer resistance than had been anticipated.

Early on Iraq had great successes, advancing on a wide front into Iranian territory. However, the Iraqis soon found that the Iranian military was not nearly as depleted as they thought. In June of 1982, a successful Iranian counter-offensive recovered the areas previously lost to Iraq. Most of the fighting for the rest of the war occurred on Iraqi territory, although some have interpreted the Iraqi withdrawal as a tactical ploy by the Iraqi military. By fighting just inside Iraq, Saddam Hussein could rally popular Iraqi patriotism. The Iraqi army could also fight on its own territory and in well established defensive positions. The Iranians continued to employ unsophisticated human wave attacks, while Iraqi soldiers remained, for the most part, in a defensive posture.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein

Iraq's army was primarily armed with weaponry it had purchased from the Soviet Union and her satellites in the preceding decade. During the war, it purchased more equipment from the Soviets and their allies, as well as from the People's Republic of China, France, Egypt, Germany, and other sources (including European facilities for making and/or enhancing chemical weapons). Much of Iraq's financial backing came from other Arab states, notably oil-rich Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Starting in 1982 with Iranian success on the battle field, the United States changed its less announced policy of backing Iraq to a clear direct support, supplying it with weapons and economic aid, and normalizing relations with the government (broken during the 1967 Six-Day War). In particular, the United States, along with its allies (among them Britain, France and Italy), provided Iraq with biological and chemical weapons and the precursors to nuclear capabilities. The United States also engaged in a series of naval battles with Iranian forces in 1987 and 1988. The cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew on July 3, 1988. The American government said that the airliner had been mistaken for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat which had been in the same general area as the civilian plane shortly beforehand. Perhaps the most important support for Iraq was allowing the neutral oil tankers heading to Iraqi ports to fly the American flag, and thus be safe from Iranian attack, guaranteeing Iraq's revenue stream for the duration of the war. The American government had, at the same time, also been secretly selling weapons to Iran; first indirectly (possibly through Israel) and then directly (for details see the Iran-Contra Affair).

Former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini
Former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini

Iraq offered a cessation of hostilities in 1982 but Iran's insistence from July 1982 onward to destroy the Iraqi regime prolonged the conflict for another six years of static warfare. In the final years of the war Iraq received more and more foreign aid, and began to build a more modern, well-trained army, air force, and navy. In 1988 Iraq launched another offensive into Iranian territory and began serious air attacks on Iranian cities, such as Tehran. Iran felt militarily isolated and offered to open peace negotiations. Iraq accepted, since the Iraqi economy and population had suffered from the war for 8 years, and they wanted to solidify their position.

The war was characterized by extreme brutality, including the use of chemical weapons, especially tabun, by Iraq. Very little pressure was brought upon Iraq by the world community to curb such attacks or to condemn its earlier initiation of hostilities. Iraq and the United States government alleged at some time that Iran was also using chemical weapons, but these allegations were never confirmed by independent sources. The tactics used in the war resembled those of World War I, with costly human wave attacks commonly used by both sides, but by Iran in particular.


The war was disastrous for both countries, stalling economic development and disrupting oil exports, and costing an estimated million lives. Iraq was left with serious debts to its former Arab backers, including fourteen billion dollars loaned by Kuwait, a debt which contributed to Saddam's 1990 decision to invade Kuwait.

Much of both sides' oil industry was damaged. Air raids had been launched by both nations against the oil infrastructure.

The end of the war left the borders unchanged. Two years later, as war with the western powers loomed, Saddam recognised Iranian rights over the eastern half of the Shatt al-Arab, a reversion to the status quo ante which he had repudiated a decade earlier.

The war was extremely costly, one of the deadliest wars since the Second World War in terms of casualties. (Conflicts since 1945 which have surpassed the Iran-Iraq War in terms of casualties include the Vietnam War, Korean War, the Second Sudanese Civil War , and the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others.)

Last updated: 11-08-2004 00:22:08