The Iran- Iraq war officially broke out on September 22, 1980 when Iraqi forces launched a land and air invasion on western Iran. The war lasted almost nine years, claimed thousands of casualties and caused damages running into billions of dollars for both countries. Since both countries are major oil producers and are situated in a region that has more than half of the world’s oil reserves, the economies of many countries were affected. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein claimed that he decided to launch the attacks due to a territorial dispute over the Shatt al Arab, a waterway on the Iran- Iraq border that empties into the Persian Gulf. Still, there are many factors that contributed to the war that was the culmination of a conflict that dates back into history.
Border disputes leading to conflicts between Arabs and Persians date back to the twelfth century and periodically flared up during the past few centuries. The main area of dispute was the Shatt al- Arab waterway that connects the Persian Gulf with the Iraqi port of Basra and two Iranian ports- Khorramshahr and Abadan. In 1847 Iraq and Iran (then Ottomans and Persians, respectively) signed a treaty that established the Shatt as a boundary between both countries and allowed both countries to freely navigate the waterway. This did not turn out to be a long term solution as disagreements continued over the next several decades. In 1975 a new treaty was signed that established the boundary as a straight line (called the thalweg) drawn down the middle of the waterway. The Baath leadership of Iraq regarded as a mere truce and by 1979 had revived the dispute by claiming the entire waterway up to the Iranian border as its territory. Iran maintained that the thalweg was the true boundary.
Saddam vs. Khomeini
The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran saw the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme ruler of Iran. Buoyed by their success at home, the new regime made no secret of their plans to spread Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Arab world. They had a problem in particular with the largely secular Baath leadership of Iraq which they termed as anti- Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini had been expelled from An Najaf, Iraq in 1977 where he had stayed for 15 years in exile. He promised vengeance for the Shia victims of Baathist oppression. The Iraqi ruling class was predominantly Sunni Muslims while Iran was ruled by the Shiite elite. Saddam Hussein on his part wanted to establish himself as the leader of the Arab world especially after Anwar Sadat of Egypt was ostracized for making peace with Israel. Iran openly supported Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq while Iraq responded by supporting Arab separatist movements in Iran. After the revolution Iran’s military was weak and disorganized and Saddam and his people wanted to exploit this to consolidate their rising military power and replace Iran as the dominant Persian Gulf state. They planned a surprise attack which they hoped would bring swift victory to them. This turned out to be a miscalculation, as Iraqi affairs analyst Phebe Marr noted; “the war was immediately the result of poor political judgment and miscalculation on the part of Saddam Hussein”.
The early part of the war favored Iraq due to the surprise attack and Iran’s disorganization. They were also well equipped with the latest soviet military equipment. They managed to capture the southwestern oil-producing region of Iran called Khuzestan, as well as the two ports- Khorramshahr and Abadan on the Shatt al Arab waterway. The Iranians responded strongly and by June 1982 they had driven the Iraqis oout of their country. In July the same year Iran invaded Iraq to continue with the war there. The Iranians managed to capture Iraq’s Majnun islands in 1984 and the Fao peninsula in 1986. Iraq got desperate and started using chemical weapons on Iranian forces and even its own Kurdish minority citizens who were perceived to be sympathetic to Iran. The two countries also started attacking oil tankers in the gulf that were perceived to belong to their enemies’ allies. The international community was forced to intervene and the UN Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution in 1987 which came into effect on August 1988.
The rest of the world also took sides in the conflict with hopes of influencing the outcome to their advantage. Iraq’s support came mainly from the Gulf States especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who provided financial support. Egypt and Jordan provided weapons and supplies. The Soviet Union, France and partly United States also sided with the Iraqis. Iran’s chief ally was Syria which diverted Iraq’s attention from the Iranian front by periodically attacking them from the opposite end. Iran also acquired missiles and other weapons from China, North Korea and Libya. Israel also surprisingly supplied arms to Iran, their Anti-Jewish enemy. Iran still had a large Jewish population whose safety Israel wanted to secure. Despite all these interests the rest of the world should not have let this war last for so long. The United States mostly played neutral since they hated the Soviet-backed dictator Saddam and at the same time were wary of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist ideology. The United Nations was relatively unconcerned until the two nations started attacking oil tankers in the gulf that belonged to other countries. As much as UN Security Council resolution eventually brought an end to the war, it ought to have been done earlier.