Iran-Iraq War Revisited

Monday, September 21, 2015

Esmaeil Bashari
IRI Air Force Colonel & Expert on International Issues

The Iran-Iraq war which lasted for eight years from 1980 to 1988 was among the longest wars in the 20th century with huge losses of life and property on both sides. Unfortunately, a vicious trend has been observed in recent years in which some authors and analysts have been trying by distorting or ignoring some facts to change the place of the party which had actually started the war. In doing so, they have been intentionally or unintentionally trying to exonerate the party which initiated that bloody war. In other words, in some of their writings, they have been trying to make the world believe that the invasion of Iran by the Baathist Iraqi regime has been a preemptive act of defense in response to the threat that Iraq perceived from the Islamic Revolution in Iran. As a result, Iran is introduced by them as the main party to be blamed for losses of life and property as a result of the continuation of that war. The present article is an effort to shed more light on some ambiguities in order to help the fair readers to have a real grasp of the facts related to eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

Motivations for the Beginning of the War

The Islamic Revolution in Iran, which triumphed in February 1979, was at first a popular uprising against the authoritarian regime of Iran's former Shah and, therefore, its focus was limited to within the Iranian borders. However, the revolution gradually grew in dimensions and started to influence neighboring countries like Iraq and Bahrain where the majority of population consists of Shias who disagreed with their repressive governments. It also touched the hearts of Shia minorities in other countries in the region. That situation made many rulers in the Middle East region to reflect on the situation and most of them reached the conclusion that survival of their rule was faced with a serious threat from Iran. Therefore, they decided to find a way to head off that threat. Fanning the flames of ethnic differences in various parts of Iran was one such solution which occurred to them. Certain measures which were taken to oppose and stymie the growth of the nascent Islamic system in Iran which at times led to efforts at toppling the Islamic establishment, were supported both financially and logistically by regional countries. On the other hand, certain measures taken by the new Iranian government such as widespread purges in the Iranian Army and other parts of the country’s armed forces, withdrawal of foreign military advisors from Iran, and discontinuation of military cooperation between Iran and the West, especially the United States which were represented by abrogation of a number of arms deals, were some instances of such measures whose main result was weakening of the military might of the new Iranian government. Under these conditions, when the newly established Islamic Republic was heavily preoccupied with domestic unrest and problems, the country could not have any motivation for beginning a new war outside its borders. As a result, getting engaged in a difficult war at that juncture was well-nigh impossible for Iran. At the same time, due to prominence of the ideological nature of the Islamic establishment which had its roots in Shiite tenets and the Islamic Revolution, the ideas of the Islamic Revolution in Iran were by themselves motivating enough to kindle revolutionary tendencies among regional people. The attractions of the Islamic Revolution for regional nations could be, at most, construed as Iran's most powerful weapon of soft war, which should have not been countered with hard war approaches.

On the opposite, the Baathist regime of Iraq which was led by Saddam Hussein had enough motives to wage a war. A fundamental tenet on which the Baath Party of Iraq had been established was extreme tendency toward Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism. Following the conclusion of the Camp David Peace Accord between the then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel, which led to suspension of Egypt’s membership in the Arab League, Saddam Hussein believed that he was qualified enough to become the leader of the Arab world. To prove his hegemony over Arabs, he had to embark on a series of radiant measures which would catch the eyes of other Arab states.

Saddam claimed to be fighting Israel, on the one hand, while having plans to annihilate the age-old foe of the Arabs (Iran), on the other hand. This was exactly why Saddam used the phrase “Qadisiyyah of Saddam” to describe his war against Iran. On April 2, 1980, and a few months before launching his devastating war on Iran, he paid a visit to Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University. During his address to academics and students, he pointed to the defeat of Iranians at the hands of invading Arabs during the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636 AD. While calling the Iranians cowards and mean people, he claimed that the Iranian people were awaiting their chance to revenge their historical defeat in the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah. But, he added, the blood and honor of al-Qadisiyyah warriors conveyed a great message to “top flowers of Iraq,” that is, the university students.

Saddam Hussein firmly believed that the agreement he had signed with the Shah of Iran in 1975, which covered various differences between Tehran and Baghdad, including the territorial dispute over Arvand River, was unfair and imposed on Iraq under pressure. As a result, he was trying to take advantage of the situation which reigned in Iran as a result of the Islamic Revolution, to turn the table and restore the situation which governed the two countries’ relations before the agreement was signed with the former Shah. Iran, on the one hand, was entangled in a number of domestic armed conflicts in such border provinces as Kordestan, Azarbaijan, Turkmen Sahra, Khuzestan, and Baluchestan, while on the other hand, political tensions among various parties and political groups had diverted the government’s attention from trans-border threats. The Iranian Army was also a long way from military readiness. The weakness of the Army was evident both with regard to the human resources, and from the viewpoint of logistics and maintenance.

On the opposite, the Iraqi regime had spent a lot of money, which it had earned through selling oil at 36 dollars per barrel, on military affairs as well as non-military affairs related to military activities in 1979-80 and was, thus, quite ready to launch a war. At the beginning of the war with Iran, the Iraqi army had prepared more than 190,000 soldiers who were organized as 12 mechanized divisions equipped with the latest Russian weapons. Meanwhile, there were no powerful obstacles on the Iranian side of Shatt al-Arab to prevent advancement of the Soviet-made vessels provided to Iraq by the Soviet Union in order to be used by the Iraqi army to cross the river. The defensive fortifications along the shores of Karkheh and Karoun rivers in Iran were not strong enough to prevent advancement of the invading Iraqi forces. At that time, two army divisions were responsible for defending the Iranian border in the southwestern Khuzestan province which were mostly present in and around the provincial capital, Ahvaz, as well as the cities of Dezful and Abadan and were stretched for equipment.

A few days before officially launching his war against Iran, Saddam Hussein appeared before TV cameras and tore down the 1975 Algeria Accord in order to prove his resolve for enforcing exclusive sovereignty of Iraq over the entire Arvand River. On the other hand, he practically supported the Arab secessionist forces during the unrest they created in Iran's Khuzestan province. Other people who were involved in planning a coup to overthrow the nascent government of the Islamic Republic of Iran had also confessed to having received support from Iraq. In addition to plans for breaking Khuzestan away from Iran, Saddam further announced that another important goal he pursued was to take three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf (that is, the Lesser Tunb, the Greater Tunb, and Abu Mousa) and give them to the United Arab Emirates.

The aforesaid facts clearly prove the intent and practical purpose of the Baathist regime of Iraq for beginning a war. On the opposite, charges leveled against the Islamic Republic are mostly related to Iran's plan to export its revolution. This is more similar to a soft war, rather than hard war, strategy. Even when a revolution has no plan to get exported, it may be quite naturally welcomed by people in other countries. Saddam Hussein mentioned preventing the export of the Islamic Revolution to the rest of the region, especially to Iraq, as another important reason behind his invasion of Iran.

International Reactions to Iran-Iraq War

An important and thought-provoking aspect of Iraq’s imposed war against Iran was international reactions to it and comparison of those reactions with similar developments, especially with reactions shown to Iraq’s later invasion of Kuwait. The Iraqi air force launched an all-out offensive targeting Iran's airbases on September 21, 1980, with the main goal of destroying aerial capability of the Iranian army. Iraq’s extensive invasion of the Iranian territory started on September 23. The aggressive Iraqi forces took control of Iran's border posts at Talaeiyeh and Koushk regions through heavy artillery fire after which the Iraqi infantry, including mechanized and armored units, crossed the Iranian border and began their progress toward predetermined objectives.

Within an interval of six days from the beginning of war to September 28, 1980, the Iraqi forces gained rapid ground in Iran's Khuzestan province. It was on that day that the situation of the battlefield changed and Iraq’s war machine ran aground just 15 km southwest of the provincial capital city of Ahvaz. It was in the same day that, for the first time, the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein offered cease-fire to Iran. He noted that since the Iraqi forces had achieved predetermined objectives, Iraq was ready, if the Iranian government accepted conditions set by Baghdad, to stop hostility and solve its differences with Iran though direct negotiations or via mediation by a third country. Right under those conditions when Saddam Hussein had found more progress inside Iran difficult or even impossible, but nonetheless had achieved many of its goals, the United Nations Security Council convened a session on September 28, 1980, in which it adopted Resolution 479 with no direct reference to Iraq’s blatant aggression of Iran. It asked both parties to the conflict to stop military measures and enter into negotiations with each other in order to find a solution to their disputes. In other words, the Security Council apparently waited for the Iraqi forces to first achieve their objectives before taking any step to stop the war. (Before they stopped their extensive operations against Iran in the winter of 1981, the Iraqi forces had actually occupied about 13,600 square kilometers (sq. km.) of the Iranian soil which was close to total area of Kuwait – 17,820 square kilometers.)

A comparison between this situation and conditions which befell Kuwait many years later following invasion of that small Persian Gulf sheikdom by the Iraqi army, and the different reaction shown by the Security Council in the case of Kuwait, reveals the Security Council’s discriminatory approach to Iran. After the beginning of the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi forces on August 2, 1990, the Security Council met on August 3 and by adopting Resolution 660, it condemned Iraq’s act of aggression against Kuwait and called for the immediate withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from the occupied territories in Kuwait. The second resolution related to Iraq’s war with Iran was Resolution 514, which was adopted by the Security Council on July 12, 1982; that is, about two years after the first resolution. Its content was not much different from the previous resolution and, like its predecessor it refrained from denouncing or condemning invasion of Iran by Iraq. On the opposite, the Security Council adopted five resolutions – 660, 661, 662, 664, and 665 – on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in a matter of three weeks from August 3 to August 25, 1990, with every resolution being harsher in content than the one before it. The delicate point about adoption of Resolution 514 was its timing, which almost coincided with the liberation of the Iranian port city of Khorramshahr. Before liberation of that city, the Iranian soldiers had carried out four successful operations; that is, Operation Thamen ul-A’emma (September 27, 1981), Operation Tariq ul-Quds (November 29, 1981), Operation Fathul Mubin (March 22, 1982); and Operation Beit ul-Muqaddas (May 24, 1982). In those operations, they had managed to liberate more than 11,000 sq. km. of the occupied territories from the Baathist enemy and to push the Iraqi forces into a weak position.

During the occupation of Kuwait by the Iraqi forces, which took seven months, the Security Council adopted 12 resolutions and while imposing heavy sanctions against Iraq, it paved the way for the establishment of a coalition of the allied forces for the liberation of Kuwait. During the entire period of Iran-Iraq war (that is, eight years), and before the adoption of the Security Council Resolution 598 on July 20, 1987, the Security Council had adopted only seven resolutions all of which invited Iran to accept a cease-fire with Iraq. Even in Resolution 540, which was adopted on October 31, 1983, and Resolution 582, which was adopted on February 24, 1986, the former only condemned violation of international law in the war, while the latter simply condemned the use of chemical weapons in Iraq-Iraq war. The condemnation fell short of mentioning that Iraq had been using chemical weapons since 1984 and had extensively used nerve agent, vesicant gas as well as blood agent against the Iranian forces and civilians. The Baathist regime of Baghdad also used chemical weapons against its own Kurd nationals in March 1988 in the city of Halabjah where it killed more than 5,000 Kurds and injured 7,000 others. On the whole, more than 50,000 of the Iranian forces and Iraq’s Kurdish people were killed or injured in a total of 378 cases of chemical attacks by the Baathist Iraqi army. The content of the Security Council resolutions, however, never specified which party was to blame for this phenomenon.

Basically, Iraq was never taken to task for its actions up to the end of the war with Iran. In fact, Saddam was only introduced as the beginner of war against Iran in the United Nations Secretary-General’s annual report on December 11, 1991, after its army had been driven out of Kuwait and Iraq was in a weak position. Following the fall of the Baathist regime of Iraq by the United States, Saddam Hussein and his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, nicknamed Chemical Ali, were put to trial for having launched the war against Iran and for their chemical crimes against the civilian people of Halabjah and were condemned to death. However, the double-standard behavior of international bodies with relation to Iran did not stop there. Due to its seven-month occupation of Kuwait, Iraq had paid a total of about 36.5 billion dollars in compensation to Kuwait by July 12, 2012, and payment of compensation is going to continue until early 2015. Iraq is currently paying a total of five percent of the revenues it earns through selling crude oil and its derivatives as compensation to the victims of the military invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and it is supposed to pay an additional 16 billion dollars to them. However, no set amount of compensation has been yet determined and paid to Iran for the invasion and occupation of its soil by Iraq during the eight-year war.

Even the final days of Iran-Iraq war were marked with hostile acts by direct and indirect enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The attack on the Iranian navy fleet by the US warships in the Persian Gulf, downing of an Iranian passenger plane over the waters of the Persian Gulf, and continued use of chemical weapons by Iraqis against the Iranian forces in the operation they carried out to reclaim the port city of Faw were only a few examples of those measures.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, despite the deep sense of injustice it had due to the unfair treatment by international organizations, accepted the Security Council Resolution 598 on July 18, 1988. However, despite Iran's acceptance of the cease-fire, Iraq which had consistently tried to pass itself as an advocate of peace, tried to use the interval that remained before enforcement of the cease-fire to do what it had not been able to do through eight years of imposed war. As such, it tried to conquer big parts of Iran's Khuzestan province and its capital city, Ahvaz, in that short period. On the other hand, he unleashed the military forces of Mojahedeen-e Khalq Organization (MKO), which were then based in Iraq, to put a final end to the Islamic establishment.

Six days after Iran accepted Resolution 598, more than 7,000 fully equipped MKO forces, used the aerial cover provided to them by the Iraqi air force as well as the diversion created by Iraq’s land operations in Khuzestan province and western Iranian fronts, to launch their own assault against Iran. The MKO forces, at first, succeeded to proceed as far as the western Iranian city of Kermanshah. However, the powerful reaction shown to their invasion by the joint forces of the Iranian army and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, backed by airborne forces of the army and the army helicopter unit, foiled their offensive.

Intelligence and Arms Assistance to Warring Parties

In order to better explain the trend of military assistance to either of the two warring parties, it would be necessary to cast a look at a report about military reinforcement and weakening of the warring parties, which was published by the international Economist magazine on September 19, 1987. The report stated that Iraq had 2,700 tanks in 1980 while the corresponding figure for Iran was 1,740. According to figures produced later, Iraq had more than 4,500 tanks while Iran's tanks had been reduced to 1,000 in 1987. In 1980, the number of the Iraqi warplanes stood at 332 while Iran had 445 such aircraft. In 1987, the number of Iraq’s warplanes, despite considerable losses during the war, stood at more than 500, while Iran had only 65 warplanes left. Similarly, the number of artillery articles of Iraq added up to 1,000 cannons in 1980, which had increased to more than 4,000 by 1987. During the same period, the figure for the Iranian canonry stood at 1,000.

The Islamic Republic of Iran lacked a loyal ally throughout the imposed war with Iraq, although the government of Syria, which was an ideological rival to the Baath Party in Iraq, was opposed to Iraq’s Baathist government. As a result, Damascus shut down the oil pipeline which took Iraq’s crude oil from Kirkuk to Banyas (also known as Iraq – Mediterranean oil pipeline) and inflicted considerable financial losses on Iraq’s oil revenues. Therefore, Syria had apparently taken sides with Iran throughout Tehran’s war with Baghdad. In the meantime, Syria acted cautiously in its support for Iran so as not to cause widespread consternation of the other members of the Arab League. There were also few countries which provided Iran with arms support in return for money, which were limited to North Korea and Libya. Of course, the military cooperation with Libya was not lasting and did not continue until the end of war with Iraq.

On the opposite, Iraq was basking in unbridled financial, intelligence, and weapons support at regional and international levels. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other littoral countries of the Persian Gulf sold their oil on behalf of Iraq and gave the proceeds back to Iraq in order to be used for Baghdad’s military purchases. At the same time, the government of Iraq also took advantage of diplomatic as well as financial and credit assistance in addition to arms support provided to it by the Arab states, European countries and the United States. Baghdad was granted hefty loans in order to purchase necessary weapons and was provided with extensive intelligence on the situation of the Iranian forces.

A report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on the amount of arms sold to Iraq during eight years of war with Iran includes interesting facts. According to the report, between 1980 and 1982, Iraq had received 5.468 billion dollars of arms from the former Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc; 1.645 billion dollars from France; 217 million dollars from the People’s Republic of China; 129 million dollars from Egypt; and 523 million dollars from other countries. In the interval between 1983 and 1988, the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc (member states of the Warsaw Pact) sold about 13.940 billion dollars of weapons to Iraq followed by 3.182 billion dollars by France, 4.952 billion dollars by China, 200 million dollars by the United States, 392 million dollars by Egypt and 1.444 billion dollars by other countries. According to another report, in the interval between 1983 and 1988, Iraq had imported a total of about 40 billion dollars of arms while Iran's arms imports did not exceed 10 billion dollars in the same period. Both sides of war were apparently under arms embargo, but the sanctions were practically only carried out against Iran and were never extended to Iraq. Throughout the war, Iran was forced to procure military equipment it needed for the war from international black market and other unofficial channels as well as via intermediaries.

The names of countries exporting arms to Iraq will make a long list and include many countries such as Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Jordan, Poland, Romanian, South Africa, Switzerland, the United States, the Soviet Union, Denmark, Western Germany, Egypt, France, Hungary, and Italy. The weapons sent by those countries to Iraq included various types of warplanes and bombers such as MiG 21, MiG 23, MiG 25, MiG 29, Sukhoi 22, Sukhoi 25, Mirage F-1, and training planes in addition to attack and transportation helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers, various types of ordinary and self-propelled howitzer cannons, multi-barrel rocket launchers, mortar launchers, Scud missiles, radars, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tanks weapons…. France had even provided a number of Super Étendard assault warplanes to Iraq on the lease basis. On the opposite, North Korea, China, and Libya were few suppliers of arms to Iran.

In addition to the above instances, one can refer to other forms of assistance provided by certain Western companies (most of them belonging to the United States, Britain, France, West Germany, and the Netherlands) which supplied raw materials and necessary technology for building chemical and microbial weapons to Iraq as well as giving satellite photos of the war theater and positions of the Iranian forces to the Iraqi government.


During eight years of imposed war, Iran stood up almost single-handedly to an Iraq which enjoyed the support of a large number of Arab, Western, Eastern, and even South American countries. During all those years, it insisted on two goals: condemnation of Iraq’s aggression against Iran and suitable punishment of the aggressor by international authorities. Iran, however, was denied both its requests. On the opposite, after Saddam’s forces invaded Kuwait, the international community moved to impose crippling sanctions against Iraq which finally led to the downfall of the Baathist Iraqi regime followed by the execution of Saddam Hussein and other criminal officials of his government. As for Kuwait, the subsequent government of Iraq was forced to pay remuneration to Kuwait. None of these happened in the case of Iran. Although damages inflicted on Iran have been estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars, no mechanisms have been considered for the determination and payment of damages by the new Iraqi government. The question here is would the war between Iran and Iraq have lasted for eight long years if the international community, in general, and big powers, in particular had adopted the same positions on the invasion of the Iraqi forces against Iran as they took with regard to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq? And the second question that follows: Shouldn’t Iran be considered rightful not to trust many of these countries anymore?

*Link For Further Reading: Review of Correspondence between Presidents of Iran and Iraq on the Anniversary of Iran’s Acceptance of UN Resolution 598