Conflict in Middle East: (Part-4: Iran-Iraq War, 1980-8)


The Middle East and the Arab world were thrown into fresh confusion in September 1980 when Iraqi troops invaded Iran.

(a) Iraq’s motives

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq had several motives for launching the attack.

  • He was afraid of militant Islam spreading across the border into Iraq from Iran. Iran had become an Islamic republic in 1979 under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his fundamentalist Shiite Muslim supporters. They believed that the country should be run according to the Islamic religion, with a strict moral code enforced by severe punishments. According to Khomeini, ‘in Islam the legislative power to establish laws belongs to God Almighty’. The population of Iraq was mainly Sunni Muslim, but there was a large Shia minority. Saddam, whose government was non-religious, was afraid that the Shias might rise up against him, and he had some of their leaders executed early in 1980. The Iranians retaliated by launching raids across the frontier.
  • The Iraqis claimed that the Iranian border province of Khuzestan should rightfully belong to them. This was an area peopled largely by Arabs, and Saddam hoped that they would rally to support Iraq (most Iranians were Persians, not Arabs).
  • There was a long-standing dispute over the Shatt-el-Arab waterway. This was an important outlet for the oil exports of both countries, and it formed part of the frontier between the two states. The Shatt-el-Arab had once been completely under Iraqi control, but five years earlier the Iranian government had forced Iraq to share control of it with Iran.
  • Saddam thought that the Iranian forces would be weak and demoralized so soon after the fundamentalist takeover, so he expected a quick victory. It soon became clear that he had miscalculated badly.

(b) The war drags on

The Iranians quickly organized themselves to deal with the invasion, which began with the Iraqi seizure of the disputed waterway. The Iranians replied with mass infantry attacks against heavily fortified Iraqi positions. On paper Iraq seemed much the stronger, being well supplied with Soviet tanks, helicopter gunships and missiles, and some British and American weapons as well. However, the Iranian revolutionary guards, inspired by their religion, and ready to become martyrs, fought with fanatical determination; eventually they too began to get modern equipment (anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles) from China and North Korea (and secretly from the USA). As the war dragged on, Iraq concentrated on strangling Iranian oil exports, which paid for their arms supplies; Iran meanwhile captured Iraqi territory, and early in 1987 their troops were only ten miles from Basra, Iraq’s second most important city, which had to be evacuated. By this time the territorial dispute had become lost in the deeper racial and religious conflict: Khomeini had sworn never to stop fighting until his Shia Muslim fundamentalists had destroyed the ‘godless’ Saddam regime.

The war had important international repercussions.

  • The stability of the entire Arab world was threatened. The more conservative states – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait – gave cautious support to Iraq; but Syria, Libya, Algeria, South Yemen and the PLO were critical of Iraq for starting the war at a time when, they believed, all Arab states should have been concentrating on the destruction of Israel. The Saudis and the other Gulf states, suspicious of Khomeini’s fundamentalist brand of Islam, wanted to see Iran’s ability to dominate the Persian Gulf controlled. As early as November 1980 an Arab summit conference in Amman (Jordan), to draw up new plans for dealing with Israel, failed to get off the ground because the anti-Iraq states, led by Syria, refused to attend.
  • The attacks on Iran’s oil exports threatened the energy supplies of the West, and at various times brought American, Russian, British and French warships into the region, raising the international temperature. In 1987 the situation took a more dangerous turn as oil tankers, whatever their nationality, were threatened by mines; which side was responsible for laying them was open to debate.
  • The success of Iran’s Shia fundamentalist troops, especially the threat to Basra, alarmed the non-religious Arab governments, and many Arabs were afraid of what might happen if Iraq was defeated. Even President Assad of Syria, at first a strong supporter of Iran, was worried in case Iraq split up and became another Lebanon; this could well destabilize Syria itself. An Islamic conference held in Kuwait (January 1987) was attended by representatives of 44 nations; but Iran’s leaders refused to attend, and no agreement could be reached on how to bring the war to an end.
  • The war entered a new and even more terrible phase towards the end of 1987 when both sides began to bombard each other’s capital cities, Tehran (Iran) and Baghdad (Iraq), causing thousands of deaths.

(c) The end of the war, 1988

Although neither side had achieved its aims, the cost of the war, both economically and in human lives, was telling heavily. Both sides began to look for a way to end the fighting, though for a time they continued to pour out propaganda Saddam talked about ‘total victory’ and the Iranians demanded ‘total surrender’. The UN became involved, did some straight talking to both sides, and succeeded in arranging a ceasefire (August 1988). This was monitored by UN troops, and against all expectations, the truce lasted. Peace negotiations opened in October 1988 and terms were finally agreed in 1990.


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