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The Iran-Iraq War, also called the First Persian Gulf War, or the Imposed War (جنگ تحمیلی) in Iran, was a war between the Republic of Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran that lasted from September 22, 1980, until August 20, 1988. It was commonly referred to as the Persian Gulf War until the Iraq-Kuwait conflict (1990-91), which became known as the Second Persian Gulf War and later simply the Persian Gulf War.
The war began when Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. The conflict saw early successes by the Iraqis, but before long they were repulsed and the conflict stabilized into a long war of attrition. The war irrevocably altered politics in the area, playing into wider global politics and leading to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The pre-war situation
Although the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 was fundamentally a war over dominance of the Persian Gulf region, the roots of the war go back many centuries. To begin with, there has always been rivalry between various kingdoms of Mesopotamia, and those of Iran to the immediate east of the Tigris and Euphrates.
More precisely, the origins of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 go back to the question of sovereignty over the resource-rich province of Khuzestan. Khuzestan, home to Iran's Elamite Empire, was an independent non-semitic speaking kingdom whose capital was Susa. Khuzestan has however been attacked and occupied by various kingdoms of Mesopotamia (the percursors of modern Iraq) many times.
On December 18, 1959, Abdul Karim Qassim, who had just taken control over Iraq by a coup d'etat, openly declared: "We do not wish to refer to the history of Arab tribes residing in Al-Ahwaz and Mohammareh [Khorramshahr]. The Ottomans handed over Mohammareh, which was part of Iraqi territory, to Iran." The Iraqi regime's dissatisfaction over Iran's possession of oil rich Khuzestan province was not limited to rhetorical statements; Iraq started supporting secessionist movements in Iran's Khuzestan province, and even raised the issue of its territorial claims in the next meeting of the Arab League, without any success. Iraq showed reluctance in fulfilling existing agreements with Iran, especially after the death of Nasser in Egypt and the rise of The Baath party, when Iraq decided to take on the role of "leader of the Arab world".
In 1969, the deputy prime minister of Iraq openly declared: "Iraq's dispute with Iran is in connection with Arabistan [Khuzestan] which is part of Iraq's soil and was annexed to Iran during foreign rule." Soon Iraqi radio stations began exclusively broadcasting into "Arabistan", encouraging Iranian Arabs and even Baluchis to revolt against Iran's central government. Basra TV stations even started showing Iran's Khuzestan province as part of Iraq's new province called Nassiriyeh, renaming all Iranian cities with Arabic names.
In 1971, Iraq broke off diplomatic relations from Iran after claiming sovereignty rights over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in the Persian Gulf, after the British left. Iraq then expelled 70,000 Iranians from Iraq after complaining to the Arab League, and the UN, without any success.
One of the factors contributing to hostility between the two powers was a dispute over full control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf, an important channel for the oil exports of both countries. In 1975, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had sanctioned that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, attack Iraq over the waterway, which was under Iraqi control at the time; soon after both nations signed the Algiers Accord, in which Iraq made territorial concessions, including the waterway, in exchange for normalized relations.
Iraq had staged a battle against Iranian forces a year earlier in 1974, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. Iran attempted to destabilize Iraq and encouraged Kurdish nationalists to break up the country, in answer to Iraq's similar activities in Iran's Khuzestan province. Iran's embassy in London was even attacked by Iraqi terrorist forces a few months before the war in 1980, in what came to be known as The Iranian Embassy Siege.
Saddam was eagerly interested in elevating Iraq to a strong regional power. A successful invasion of Iran would make Iraq the dominating force in the Persian Gulf region and its lucrative oil trade. Such lofty ambitions were not that far-fetched. Severe officer purges (including several executions ordered by Sadegh Khalkhali, the post-revolution Sharia ruler) and spare part shortages for Iran's American-made equipment had crippled Iran's once mighty military. The bulk of the Iranian military was made up of poorly armed, but committed, militias. Iran had minimal defenses in the Arvand/Shatt al-Arab river.
The aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was central to the conflict. Ayatollah Khomeini was threatening to spread revolution to the rest of the Middle East, even though Iran was militarily hardly in any position to do so, as most of the Shah's army had already been disbanded. The Khomeinist camp believed that the oppressed Shi'ites in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait could follow the Iranian example and turn against their governments. At the same time the revolution in Iran, the destabilization of the country and its alienation from the West made it a tempting target to the expansionist Saddam Hussein. Combined with the fact that Iran had also lost its military supplier & close ally the US.
The UN Secretary General report dated 9 December 1991 (S/23273) explicitly states "Iraq's aggression against Iran" in starting the war and breaching International security and peace. (See also "Who started the Iran-Iraq war?" by R.K. Ramazani, The Virginia Journal of International Law 33, Fall 1992, p69-89)
Iraq launched an invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980. An accusation against Iran of backing an assassination attempt aimed at Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was used as a pretext for the attack. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait supplied substantial financial support. The surprise offensive advanced quickly against the still disorganized Iranian forces. However, rather than turning against the government of the Ayatollah's, as exiles had promised, the people of Iran rallied around their revolution and mounted far stiffer resistance than had been anticipated.
Early on Iraq had some limited successes, advancing on a wide front into Iranian territory along the Mehran Khorramabad axis in Central Iran and towards Ahvaz in the oil rich southern province of Khuzestan. However, the Iraqis soon found that the Iranian military was not nearly as depleted as they thought. In June of 1982, a successful Iranian counter-offensive recovered the areas previously lost to Iraq. Most of the fighting for the rest of the war occurred on Iraqi territory, although some have interpreted the Iraqi withdrawal as a tactical ploy by the Iraqi military. By fighting just inside Iraq, Saddam Hussein could rally popular Iraqi patriotism. The Iraqi army could also fight on its own territory and in well established defensive positions. The Iranians continued to employ unsophisticated human wave attacks, while Iraqi soldiers remained, for the most part, in a defensive posture.
Iraq's army was primarily armed with weaponry it had purchased from the Soviet Union and her satellites in the preceding decade. During the war, it purchased billions of dollars worth of advanced equipment from the Soviets and France , as well as from the People's Republic of China, Egypt, Germany, and other sources (including European facilities for making and/or enhancing chemical weapons). Germany  along with other Western countries (among them Britain, France, Italy, and the United States), provided Iraq with biological and chemical weapons and the precursors to nuclear capabilities. Much of Iraq's financial backing came from other Arab states, notably oil-rich Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Starting in 1982 with Iranian success on the battle field, the United States changed its less announced policy of backing Iraq to a clear direct support, supplying it with intelligence, economic aid, normalizing relations with the government (broken during the 1967 Six-Day War), allegedly also supplying weapons . The United States also engaged in a series of naval battles with Iranian forces in 1987 and 1988. The cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew on July 3, 1988. The American government said that the airliner had been mistaken for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat which had been in the same general area as the civilian plane shortly beforehand. Perhaps the most important support for Iraq was allowing the neutral oil tankers heading to Iraqi ports to fly the American flag, and thus be safe from Iranian attack, guaranteeing Iraq's revenue stream for the duration of the war. The American government had, at the same time, also been secretly selling weapons to Iran; first indirectly (possibly through Israel) and then directly (for details see the Iran-Contra Affair).
Iraq offered a cessation of hostilities in 1982 but Iran's insistence from July 1982 onward to destroy the Iraqi government prolonged the conflict for another six years of static warfare. In the final years of the war Iraq received more and more foreign aid, and began to build a more modern, well-trained army, air force, and navy. In 1988 Iraq launched another offensive into Iranian territory and began serious air attacks on Iranian cities, such as Tehran. Iran felt militarily isolated and being threatened with war by the US, offered to open peace negotiations. Iraq accepted, since the Iraqi economy and population had suffered from the war for 8 years, and they wanted to solidify their position.
The war was characterized by extreme brutality, including the use of chemical weapons, especially tabun, by Iraq. Very little pressure was brought upon Iraq by the world community to curb such attacks or to condemn its earlier initiation of hostilities. Iraq and the United States government alleged at some time that Iran was also using chemical weapons, but these allegations were never confirmed by independent sources. The tactics used in the war resembled those of World War I, with costly human wave attacks commonly used by both sides, but by Iran in particular.
List of successful Iranian operations during the war
The following information has been shortened considerably for purposes of presentation. Source of info was IRNA:
- September 27, 1981: Abadan, Darkhovein, east of Karun river: Operation Thamen-ol-A'emeh: Several roads connecting Ahwaz and Abadan, two factories, and 150 km² of Khuzestan province were de-occupied. Iraq's 3rd infantry division was totally annihilated along with 250 tanks, 250 vehicles, and 2 P.M.P. bridges, 30 bulldozers, 5 152mm artillery units. POWs taken: 1800
- November 29, 1981: North and South of Karkheh river: Operation Tarigh ol-Qods: Bostan and 70 villages were de-occupied totalling 800 km² of Iranian territory. 45 Platoons from Iraq's 5th infantry division were annihilated along with 118 tanks, 150 bulldozers, 17 jet fighters, 4 helicopters, 270 vehicles, and 19 152mm artillery units. 500 POWs taken.
- March 21, 1982, Susa, Dezful, and the Karkheh river: Operation Fath-ol-Mobeen: 18 jet fighter, 3 helicopters, 510 tanks, 2 Iraqi infantry divisions, 670 vehicles, 4 SAM-6 missiles, and 165 130mm, 152mm, and 182mm artillery units were destroyed. POWs taken: 15,000.
- April 30, 1982: west of Ahwaz and Karun river, and North of Khorramshahr: Operation Beit-ol-Moqaddas: The cities of Khorramshahr and Hoveizeh are de-occupied in 25 days. In the course of this massive operation, Iraq lost 390 tanks, 500 vehicles, 40 aircraft, 95000 mines, 30 106mm mobile artillery Jeeps, 18 120mm artillery units, a dozen brigade units, with 19000 POWs.
- July 14, 1982: East of Basra: Operation Ramadhan: Iraq lost 1097 tanks, 100 vehicles, 5 aircraft, and several Brigade units. POWs taken by Iran: 1315. From this point on, Iran went on the offensive.
- April 9, 1983: Northwest of Fakeh: Operation Valfajr-1: Iraq lost 98 tanks, 5 helicopters, and dozens of vehicles. Several Brigade units were destroyed, and 250 POWs were taken.
- October 19, 1983: Baneh, Marivan, Panjvein: Operation Valfajr-4: Iraq lost 260 tanks, 410 vehicles, 212 105mm and 106mm artillery units, and 500 POWs.
- February 22, 1984: Hoor ol-Howeizeh and Majnoon Island: Operation Kheibar: Iranian forces capture Majnun Island (160 km²) with 50 oil wells. Several Iraqi Brigade units are wiped out, with Iraq losing 6 aircraft, 9 helicopters, 372 tanks, and 1140 POWs in the process.
- March 10, 1985: East of Tigris river, Al-Qorneh: Operation Badr: Iraq loses 16 aircraft, 5 helicopters, 250 tanks, 200 vehicles, and 100 artillery units. Several Brigades were wiped out and 3200 POWs were taken by Iranian forces.
- February 9, 1986: Fav Island, Operation Valfajr-8: Iran captures Fav's vast military and oil installations. Iraq lost 74 aircraft, 11 helicopters, 17 frigates, 740 tanks, 335 artillery units, 750 vehicles, 2 corps divisions, and several Brigade units, yielding 2000 POWs.
- June 2, 1986: Mehran : Operation Karbala-1: Iran recaptures the city of Mehran with several other villages. Iraq lost 183 tanks, 100 vehicles, 110 artillery units, and several Brigade units, yielding 1400 POWs.
- September 1, 1986: Haj Emran: Operation Karbala-2: Iran captures numerous strategic elevations. Several Iraqi Brigade units sustained damages of 50% or greater. Iraq lost 2 aircraft, 6 tanks, dozens of vehicles, and 200 POWs to Iran.
- January 9, 1986: East of Arvand river, Shalamcheh : Operation Karbala-5: 150 km² of the Shlamacheh area are liberated and occupied by Iranian forces. Iraq lost 80 aircraft, 920 tanks, 2000 vehicles, 325 artillery units, and 2700 POWs.
- June 21, 1987: Northern Iraq: Operation Nasr 4: Iran captures 50 km². Iraq loses dozens of tanks, dozens of vehicles, and 560 POWs.
- March 16, 1988: Halabcheh: Operation Valfajr-10: Iraq loses 11 aircraft, 700 tanks, 100 vehicles, one corps division, several Brigades, with 4400 POWs.
- July 27, 1988: Kerend e Qarb, Islam-abad and the northern front: Operation Mersad: Iraq lost 120 tanks, 400 armoured vehicles, and 270 artillery units. In this operation, Iranian forces confronted the Iraqi based MKO forces, killing 4800 of them in battle. Soon after, UN Resolution 598 ended the war.
List of UN Security Council Resolutions on the Iran-Iraq war
See full list and contents here.
US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war
Western support for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war has clearly been established. It is no secret that the Soviet Union, West Germany, France, the United States, many western companies, and Britain provided military support, and even components of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction program. The role the United States played in the war against Iran is not well known to the American public.
After the revolution, with the Ayatollahs in power and levels of enmity between Iran and the US running high, early on during the Iran-Iraq war, realpolitikers in Washington came to the conclusion that Saddam was the lesser of the two evils, and hence efforts to support him became the order of the day, both during his long war with Iran and afterward. This led to what later became known as the Iraq-gate scandals.
Much of what Saddam received from the West however was not arms per se, but so-called dual-use technology -- ultra sophisticated computers, armored ambulances, helicopters, chemicals, and the like, with potential civilian uses as well as military applications. It is now known that a vast network of companies, based in the US and abroad, eagerly fed the Iraqi war machine right up until August 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait.
The Iraq-gate scandal revealed that an Atlanta branch of Italy's largest bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, relying partially on US taxpayer-guaranteed loans, funneled $5 billion to Iraq from 1985 to 1989. In August 1989, when FBI agents finally raided the Atlanta branch of BNL, the branch manager, Christopher Drogoul, was charged with making unauthorized, clandestine, and illegal loans to Iraq -- some of which, according to his indictment, were used to purchase arms and weapons technology.
Who reported Iraq-gate? Beginning in September 1989, The Financial Times laid out the first charges that BNL, relying heavily on US government-guaranteed loans, was funding Iraqi chemical and nuclear weapons work. For the next two and a half years, the Financial Times provided the only continuous newspaper reportage (over 300 articles) on the subject. Among the companies shipping militarily useful technology to Iraq under the eye of the US government, according to the Financial Times, were Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, and Matrix Churchill, through its Ohio branch.
Even before the first Gulf war started in 1990, The Intelligencer Journal of Pennsylvania, in a string of articles reported: "If US and Iraqi troops engage in combat in the Persian Gulf, weapons technology developed in Lancaster and indirectly sold to Iraq will probably be used against U.S. forces. . . . And aiding in this . . . technology transfer was the Iraqi-owned, British-based precision tooling firm Matrix Churchill, whose US operations in Ohio were recently linked to a sophisticated Iraqi weapons procurement network."
Aside from The NY Times, LA Times, and ABC's Ted Koppel, the Iraq-gate story never picked up much steam, even though The US Congress became involved with the scandal. FAS report
Yet the evidence was nowhere to leave: In December 2002, Iraq's 1200 page Weapons Declaration revealed a list of Western corporations and countries -- as well as individuals -- that exported chemical and biological materials to Iraq in the past two decades. Many American names were on the list. Alcolac International, for example, a Maryland company, transported thiodiglycol, a mustard gas precursor, to Iraq. A Tennessee manufacturer contributed large amounts of a chemical used to make sarin, a nerve gas implicated in Gulf War diseases. See a full list of those companies and their involvements in Iraq here. [part 2] [part 1]
On May 25, 1994, The US Senate Banking Committee released a report in which it was stated that pathogenic (meaning disease producing), toxigenic (meaning poisonous) and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq, pursuant to application and licensing by the U.S. Department of Commerce. It added: These exported biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction.See here for details
The report then detailed 70 shipments (including anthrax bacillus) from the United States to Iraqi government agencies over three years, concluding, It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the UN inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program. See another list here. And another here.
The list of American companies involved in the arming of Iraq was simply embarrasing. Twenty-four US firms exported arms and materials to Baghdad. 
Donald Riegle, Chairman of the Senate committee that made the report, said, "UN inspectors had identified many United States manufactured items that had been exported from the United States to Iraq under licenses issued by the Department of Commerce, and [established] that these items were used to further Iraq's chemical and nuclear weapons development and its missile delivery system development programs." He added, "the executive branch of our government approved 771 different export licenses for sale of dual -use technology to Iraq. I think that is a devastating record."
Even The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, released a list of US companies and what they exported to Iraq. See page 11 of this report: p1 p2 p3 p4 p5 p6 p7 p8 p9 p10 p11
See here for timeline of US support for Saddam against Iran. Another Timeline. For the Statement of Henry B. Gonzalez, Chairman, House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs on Iraq-gate, see links given on this page.
- University of Missouri School of Journalism database
- University of Sussex report
- A Global Policy Forum Report
- Text of the US Senate Riegle Report
- NSA Archives
A war with Weapons of Mass Destruction
With more than 100,000 Iranian victims (1) of Saddam Hussein's Chemical and Biological weapons during the eight-year war with Iraq, Iran is the world's top afflicted country by Weapons of Mass Destruction, only after Japan.
The official estimate does not include the civilian population contaminated in bordering towns or the children and relatives of veterans, many of whom have developed blood, lung and skin complications, according to the Organization for Veterans of Iran.
Nerve gas agents killed about 20,000 Iranian soldiers immediately, according to official reports. Of the 90,000 survivors, some 5,000 seek medical treatment regularly and about 1,000 are still hospitalized with severe, chronic conditions. Many others were hit by Mustard gas.
Furthermore, 308 Iraqi Missiles were launched at population centers inside Iranian cities between 1980 and 1988 resulting in 12,931 casualties.(1)
Despite the removal of Saddam and his regime by American forces, there is deep resentment and anger in Iran that it was Western companies (West Germany, France, US) that helped Iraq develop its chemical weapons arsenal in the first place and that the world did nothing to punish Iraq for its use of chemical weapons throughout the war.
Also See The Chemical Attack on Halabja.
Further reading on surviving veterans of these weapons:
- The New Jersey Star Ledger, report
- The South Africa Star, report
- The NY Times report
- MSNBC report
- Report: Iranian WMD Veterans sue Germany
- Vets suing the US
- NPR report on Iranian WMD veterans (audio)
- Medical reports
(1) Center for Documents of The Imposed War, Tehran.
Human Wave Attacks in the Iran-Iraq War
Many people claim that the Iran-Iraq conflict spawned a particularly gruesome variant of the "Human Wave" attack. The Iranian clergy, with no professional military training, were slow to adopt and apply professional military doctrine. The country, at that time lacked sufficient equipment to breach Iraqi minefields and were not willing to risk their small tank force. Therefore Pasdaran forces and Basij volunteers were often used to sweep over minefields and entrenched positions developed by the more professional Iraqi military. Allegedly, unarmed human-wave tactics involving children as young as 9 (apparently considered expendable) were employed. One un-named East European journalist is reported to have seen "tens of thousands of children, roped together in groups of about 20 to prevent the faint-hearted from deserting, make such an attack.".
There has been a suggestion that girls were more commonly used for frontline mine clearance, and boys for unarmed "assaults". The children were reportedly issued with a special "Paradise Key" as a symbol of martyrdom by the Mullahs. Reliable firsthand accounts of the use of children in human wave attacks are rare however. The most serious contemporary firsthand account recently surfaced at the end of an article by the respected technology journalist Robert X. Cringely who relates the experience of a trip to the front for an unconnected Penthouse magazine assignment.
The war was disastrous for both countries, stalling economic development and disrupting oil exports, and costing an estimated 1.5 million casualties for Iran alone (1, p206), and $350 Billion in total damages (1, p1). Iraq was left with serious debts to its former Arab backers, including fourteen billion US dollars loaned by Kuwait, a debt which contributed to Saddam's 1990 decision to invade Kuwait.
Much of both sides' oil industry was damaged. Air raids had been launched by both nations against the oil infrastructure.
The end of the war left the borders unchanged. Two years later, as war with the western powers loomed, Saddam recognized Iranian rights over the eastern half of the Shatt al-Arab, a reversion to the status quo ante which he had repudiated a decade earlier.
The war was extremely costly, one of the deadliest wars since the Second World War in terms of casualties. (Conflicts since 1945 which have surpassed the Iran-Iraq War in terms of casualties include the Vietnam War, Korean War, the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, amongst others.)
On December 9, 1991, the UN Secretary-General reported the following to the UN Security Council:
- "That Iraq's explanations do not appear sufficient or acceptable to the international community is a fact. Accordingly, the outstanding event under the violations referred to is the attack of 22 September 1980 against Iran, which cannot be justified under the charter of the United Nations, any recognized rules and principles of international law or any principles of international morality and entails the responsibility for the conflict.
- Even if before the outbreak of the conflict there had been some encroachment by Iran on Iraqi territory, such encroachment did not justify Iraq's aggression against Iran - which was followed by Iraq's continuous occupation of Iranian territory during the conflict - in violation of the prohibition of the use of force, which is regarded as one of the rules of jus cogens.
- On one occasion I had to note with deep regret the experts "conclusion that "chemical weapons ha[d] been used against Iranian civilians in an area adjacent to an urban centre lacking any protection against that kind of attack" (s/20134, annex). The Council expressed its dismay on the matter and its condemnation in resolution 620 (1988), adopted on 26 August 1988."
- The Iran-Iraq war: the politics of aggression. Farhang Rajaee. Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1993.
- UN Secretary General report to the UNSC: p1 p2 p3
External links and further reading
- Arming Iraq: A Chronology of U.S. Involvement
- How Saddam could embarrass the West (How the USSR, France, and the US armed Iraq)
- Global Map of countries who took sides in the Iran-Iraq war
- IRNA's webpage on Sacred Defense
- Another IRNA website on the war.
- Sabokbalan ("The light winged")
- Isfahan's War Veterans Foundation
- Iran Veterans Affairs Organization
- Martyr Avini's website. A prominent photographer of the war.
- Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi.
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