Thirty-seven years ago this week the longest and one of the bloodiest wars seen in the 20th century began, when Iraq launched a full scale invasion of Iran. The two countries fought for eight years with an estimated one million dead and over a trillion dollars in damages. Hostilities ended in August 1988 following the acceptance of UN General Assembly Resolution 598.
What: Iran-Iraq War
When: 22 September 1980 – 20 August 1988
Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, launched a full scale war, initially by ordering his Air Force to destroy Iranian air fields. The invasion followed months of border conflict and diplomatic rows between the new Shia Islamic Republic in Tehran and the Ba’athist leader aspiring to become the leader of the Arab world.
Iraqi troops made swift territorial gains into Iranian territory, especially the oil producing regions, as they advanced to secure the disputed waterway known as the Shatt Al-Arab. Sovereignty over the southern end of the river was disputed by both countries but Saddam felt he could no longer allow the new revolutionary Mullahs in Tehran to maintain a chokehold on his country’s oil economy. Saddam saw the post-revolution upheaval in Tehran as the perfect opportunity to snuff out his new enemy.
While economic consideration was a major factor that prompted the invasion, the conflict was rooted in broader ideological and political calculations. Hussein felt directly threatened by the Iranian revolution, which deposed a secular military regime in Tehran. He believed that the revolutionary wave would topple his own reign in Baghdad and threaten the entire region. The attempted assassination of his Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, five months before the invasion, was further proof to the Iraqi leader of an Iranian Islamist backed conspiracy to destabilise his country. Overthrowing the Mullahs in Tehran before they could overthrow him became a primary motivation.
Initial gains made by Iraqi troops were halted as Iranian forces regained territory within two years while managing to push back Iraqi soldiers. The conflict turned into a war of attrition. Rulers in Tehran rejected Saddam’s offer of ceasefire and the war became a bitter stalemate reminiscent of the trench wars of World War One. Neither side was strong enough to achieve total military victory over the other and nor could any of them afford to lose.
What happened next?
In the stalemate that lasted for years until a ceasefire was agreed, over a million lives are said to have been lost. Western countries including the US offered assistance to Saddam Hussein, while Iran lost nearly all foreign support after the 1979 revolution which saw the eviction of US patron, the Shah, from power. Supreme religious leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini somewhat evened the odds by deploying hundreds of thousands of young voluntary militias called the Basij (the mobilisation).
During the eight-year war, cities were pounded on both sides from air and tank fire. In the last stages of the war, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds he believed were supporting Iran in Halabja killing nearly 5,000 people. In July 1987 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 598, which called for an immediate ceasefire, but it would take another year for both countries to accept the unanimous decision. The UN then installed an observer group to oversee the ceasefire.
Saddam failed to hold onto the territory he captured and the Iranians were unable to topple their arch enemy Saddam Hussein. But the war, which seemed to have been forgotten in the West, set in motion a series of events that would shape the region for the foreseeable future. Iraq was in financial ruins having borrowed billions of dollars from oil rich Gulf States to pay for the conflict. Saddam viewed the demand for the repayment of loans as treacherous; in his eyes, Iraq had bled for eight years to protect the region from being swept aside by the Iranian revolution. Within two years, Iraq’s economic woes pushed the country into another fateful war in Kuwait.
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