The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)

Nature, foreign assistance and results
Course of the war
Iraq invades Iran on 22 September 1980
1981: the Iraqi invasion stalls, Saddam begins to call for a
Mid 1982: Iran expels Iraq from Iranian territory
July 1982: Operation Ramadan, launched on the holy
month of Ramadan. Iran invades Iraq; the invader
becomes the beleaguered.
1984: attacks on shipping and oil tankers begin (the
“Tanker War”)
1985: the “War of the Cities” begin, with attacks and
airstrikes on urban centres
1986: Iran captures the al-Faw peninsula in the south of
August 1988: after major setbacks and fear of foreign
intervention, Iran agrees to UN Resolution 598. Iraq
launches a failed ten day offensive in an attempt to gain a
more favourable settlement before agreeing to UN
Resolution 598.
Attrition warfare
Attrition warfare is the reduction of the effectiveness
of a force caused by loss of personnel and material.
Attrition warfare attempts to destroy an enemy’s warwaging capabilities by:
Attacking industrial resources and infrastructure
Attacking civilian centres
Eliminating military leadership
Engaging with overwhelming force, fully employing all
available military resources
 Shattering the enemy’s morale and reducing their
capability to recover.
 Encouraging opposition groups to disrupt the war effort
The Iran-Iraq War was characterised by trenches,
dugouts, no-man’s land and minefields: comparable
to World War One and synonymous with attrition
Attrition warfare
Attrition warfare was used to break the stalemate that
Why did a stalemate develop?
Mistakes by the belligerents
Inefficiencies on both sides
Geography: Zagros Mountains, southern marshes, wide rivers
Harsh conditions: hot summers; rains and flooding in the
Iran hoped that attrition warfare would cause the
Baathist regime to collapse from within: “Only an
ideological motivated army like ours... are capable of
mobilizing the people for a long war of attrition which we
plan to wage until the Iraqi regime falls” –Revolutionary
Guard Commander Morteza Rezai
Iraq hoped that it would motivate Iran to negotiate a
Why Iraq failed to advance
Saddam underestimated Iran. Iraq appeared to be
stronger than Iran after the Iranian Revolution. The
invasion invigorated patriotism and united the country,
instead of exploiting its weakness as Saddam intended.
The Iraqi Army had fought Kurdish guerrillas in the
mountains for years prior to the Iran-Iraq War. The tactics
used against the guerrillas were ineffective against regular
armies and urban centres.
Saddam insisted that he direct military operations, despite
his lack of military training and experience.
Iraq lacked clear goals and Saddam gave his troops too
many objectives.
Saddam executed generals who lost battles or retreated.
Unlimited political objectives, limited military objectives
Why Iran failed to advance
Troops lacked military training
Iranian tactics were ideologically sound but
had little military success (eg: human wave
Iran lacked spare parts for its arsenal of US
weapons bought under the Shah
Political influence in the army:
 A new class of religious commissars joined the ranks
of the army to ensure there was no dissidence and
that the soldiers upheld Revolutionary ideology
 Extensive purges in the army, eliminating educated
officers from the Shah’s regime
Heavy mismanagement; nearest Iranian
division 50-60 miles from the border.
Conduct of war: both belligerents
Use of airstrikes and ballistic missiles to attack
places of economic importance, particularly oil
 “Tanker War”: disruption of trade by targeting oil
tankers and merchant ships
 “War of the Cities”: direct attacks against urban
The effect of this tactic is debatable. On one
hand, it raised the morale of those affected by
the attacks, affirming their commitment to the
ruling regime. On the other hand, missile
strikes were undetectable and unpredictable,
instilling fear in many.
Conduct of war: Iraq
The use of chemical weapons was unique
to Iraq and was apparent in the latter
stages of the war:
 Used against Iranian soldiers in an attempt to
retake al-Faw
 Used to commit genocide against the Iraqi
Kurds for their insurgency against the
government. One of the worst attacks occurred
against the town of Halabja (March1988), which
killed 20,000 and injured many others
This greatly affected Iranian morale in the
closing stages of the war
Conduct of war: Iran
The Iranian military contained a mix of the conventional army
and various paramilitary groups.
 The Pasdaran was a key paramilitary group who represented
and protected the ideals of the Iranian Revolution.
 The Basij militia (a branch of the Pasdaran) played a unique
role in the Iran-Iraq War.
 The Basij carried out human wave attacks aimed at surprising the
 The Basij, were mobilised to clear minefields with their bodies and
overwhelm entrenched Iraqi soldiers, so that regular forces could move
 The soldiers wore wooden or plastic keys around their neck, promised
by the mullahs that this would bring them into the afterlife.
 Children as young as 12 were drafted into the Basij militia to engage in
psychological warfare.
Hojjat el-Eslam Salek (the head of the Basij) observed that the
Basij were abandoning conventional warfare, and introducing a
new “Islamic warfare”, thereby protecting Islamic Revolutionary
ideals on the battlefield whilst utilising Iran’s superior
Opposition groups
Opposition groups shaped the nature of the war.
Opposition groups in both Iran and Iraq used the war
as an opportunity to mount a campaign against the
ruling government.
In Iraq, Iranian backed Shiite organisations mounted
campaigns against the government, even assisting
Iranian troops on the battlefield. The Kurds in the
north waged a civil war against the Iraqi regime,
forcing Iraq to fight a war on two fronts.
In Iran, the Marxist People’s Mujahedin and the
Kurdish minority (both supported by Iraq) took arms
against the government. Through a system of terror
and moral suasion, these opposition groups were rid
by 1985.
Ideological factors
The Iran-Iraq War was a heavily ideological war.
Khomeini repeatedly referred to the Iran-Iraq War as a jihad. He
propagated the idea that it was a religious duty to fight evil and
oppression against the Islamic faith, which was associated with
Saddam Hussein’s secular and Shiite-oppressive regime.
Death was portrayed as honourable in Iranian propaganda.
Khomeini tapped into a deep religious principle called the
“martyr complex”; the idea that death on the battlefield would
bring one to heaven was based on Prophet Muhammad’s
saying “Wish death and welcome afterlife”.
Religious influence was seen in the Iranian military. Islamic
mullahs were often present to lead and motivate troops in
Iran relied on faith and revolutionary zeal to motivate their
troops on the battlefield, reminiscent of the zeal held by the
Crusaders. This allowed the Iranians to achieve great feats on
the battlefield.
According to Khomeini “Victory is not achieved by swords, it can
only be achieved by blood... it is achieved by strength of faith.”
Ideological factors
A common view held by historians is that
the war ultimately galvanised a unique
combination of religious zeal and deeprooted nationalism, encouraged after the
Iranian Revolution.
 Behrouz Souresrafil differs from this
view slightly. He disputes the Islamic
nature of Iran’s war movement, stating
that Islam was Khomeini’s cover to seize
full power.
Ideological factors
For Iraq, Pan-Arabism emphasised unity between all
Arabs against a bigoted and aggressive enemy.
An important aspect of Iraqi propaganda was a cult
of personality that embraced Saddam Hussein as the
saviour of the nation.
 “Iraq’s population was at 26 million: 13 million Iraqis and
13 million pictures of Saddam.”
After the invasion of Iraq by Iran, Iraqi propaganda
shifted from “expansionism” to “defence of the
Recognising the importance of Islam, the secular
Baathist regime began to adopt a pro-Islamic stance.
 Acts of generosity were extended to the Shiites
 Saddam embraced the “martyr complex” in his speeches
 Saddam attempted to portray himself as a pious muslim
Role of
Conduct of
Alarmed by the aggressive and xenophobic nature of the new
Iranian regime, the US wanted to prevent an Iranian takeover of
the Middle East. Increased Iranian influence would threaten US
interests in the region.
Threatened by the attacks on shipping in the Tanker War, the
US stepped in to protect freedom of navigation in the Arabian
Gulf. Many Kuwaiti tankers (which transported Iraqi oil) were reflagged and were escorted under US protection.
The US gave substantial financial assistance as well as
providing arms for Iraq
The US not only supported Iraq to counter Iran, but also to
counter the USSR, who was also giving assistance to Iraq.
However, the US was forced to support Iran covertly during the
early stages of the war, in order to alleviate the hostage crisis
which involved over 50 US diplomats. This was the source of
public controversy which erupted in the Iran-Contra Affair.
Other supporters of Iraq
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Arab countries like
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait supported Iraq because
they were threatened by the spread of the Iranian
Revolution, which undermined Sunni leadership and
encouraged a Shiite uprising.
 The USSR: A long time supporter of the Baathist regime,
despite Saddam’s attempts to distance himself from
foreign support. The USSR wanted to play a role in the
region to mitigate antagonism from Muslim nations,
caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The USSR
also supported Iraq to prevent US penetration in the
 Other European nations: France, West Germany, UK and
other western European nations supported Iraq to protect
oil interests.
 Support from these countries came in the form of arms
and financial assistance (military and non-military).
Role of Israel
Iran had isolated itself from Western and Middle Eastern
nations after its aggressive actions. Iran had little to no
allies and was in desperate need of supplies.
Israel was surrounded by hostile states and needed a
regional ally to counter the Arab League.
At first, Israel became the indirect supplier of arms from
the US (which caused controversy in the Iran-Contra
Affair). Later, Israel directly provided arms and technicians
Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, to
neutralise the threat to both Israel and Iran. It was
believed that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons for
the Iran-Iraq War.
The Iranian invasion of Iraq corresponded closely with the
Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. This could be seen as
an attempt to divide attention.
Israeli support for Iran was mutually beneficial.
The alliance was unlikely, given Iran’s anti-Zionist rhetoric.
Other supporters of Iran
However support was very limited for
 A few neutral countries, such as Spain
and Yugoslavia, chose to supply both
Iraq and Iran with arms.
 The only other major arms dealer for
Iran was North Korea, which acted as a
third party for arms deals from the
communist bloc (both the USSR and
Over a million people died on the battlefield,
including both belligerents. Many more were injured
or traumatised. The million people who died does not
include those who died due to political persecution
during the war.
Despite a lack of military gain, nationalism pervaded
as each side claimed victory over the other. Large
monuments were erected in Iran and Iraq to
celebrate the war.
The war caused a scientific revolution in Iran. A new
treatment was developed by Iranian physicians for
the treatment of brain injuries, which was later
adopted around the world.
Iran’s promotion of the “martyr complex” influenced
Islamic terrorists to undertake suicide bomb attacks
as a new form of terrorism.
Saddam Hussein was recognised as the strong
leader of Iraq. A short period of political unity
occurred after the war. Political groups were willing
to unite under the leadership of Saddam.
The build up of arms in Iraq during the war would
have disastrous consequences. Iraq’s debt and
increased military strength motivated Iraq to invade
Kuwait in 1990. The years following the Gulf War
included efforts by the UN to disarm Iraq.
Dissatisfaction with this contributed to the Iraq War in
Khomeini died shortly after the war. Progressive
leaders won power from the conservatives,
encouraging an era of reform.
Borders returned to the ones set up by the 1975
Algiers Agreement
The war cost in total (for both belligerents)
over 1 trillion USD (not including inflation)
including GNP losses, debt, oil revenue losses
and damage
Oil production in both countries became
severely affected
Iraq was severely affected. Iraq accumulated
70 billion USD (not including inflation). After
the Gulf War in 1990, Iraq’s Debt-to-GDP ratio
was over 1000%.
With bloodier and cheaper tactics, Iran
escaped the war with little debt, which allowed
the country to focus on rebuilding and reform
Total war?
Heavy use of propaganda and recruitment on both
Civilians were heavily affected by the War of the
Both economies focused on the war effort
The war saw heavy casualties and brutal atrocities
Heavily centralised government control of the war
The war attracted the attention of foreign powers
Neither belligerent had tangible gains after the war
For Iran it was a total war. War became a central part
of the Iranian mentality. The entire population was
mobilised for the war effort. Many men were drafted
from all ages. Non-combatants held pro-war rallies,
which widely reported. The Iran-Iraq War became an
extension of the Iranian Revolution.
Total war?
Conflict limited and static to the border of
Iran and Iraq
 Limited military objectives despite unlimited
political objectives
 No direct foreign intervention
 For Iraq it wasn’t a total war. Iraq never
committed its entire military to the frontline.
Iraq also adopted a “business as usual”
policy, allowing construction projects to
continue. There was a great attempt to
shield Iraqi citizens from the war.
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