Iran-Iraq War

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Iran-Iraq War (also known as the First Gulf War) was an armed conflict between Iran and Iraq that lasted from September 1980 to August 1988, making it the 20th century's longest conventional war. Active hostilities began with the Iraqi invasion of Iran and lasted for eight years, until the acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 by both sides. Iraq's primary rationale for the attack against Iran cited the need to prevent Ruhollah Khomeini—who had spearheaded the Iranian Revolution in 1979—from exporting the new Iranian ideology to Iraq. There were also fears among the Iraqi leadership of Saddam Hussein that Iran, a theocratic state with a population predominantly composed of Shia Muslims, would exploit sectarian tensions in Iraq by rallying Iraq's Shia majority against the Baʽathist government, which was officially secular and dominated by Sunni Muslims. Iraq also wished to replace Iran as the power player in the Persian Gulf, which was not seen as an achievable objective prior to the Islamic Revolution because of Pahlavi Iran's economic and military superiority as well as its close relationships with the United States and Israel.


  • Europe came to the forefront in the early 1980s in part because the opportunistic and unsuccessful attack of Saddam Hussein of Iraq on Iran in 1980 began a major war that lasted until 1988. This conflict continued after the Iraqi forces were driven out of Iran in 1982. The decision was taken by the Iranians to invade Iraq in an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. This commitment ensured that Iran seemed a far less serious threat to America’s allies in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. During the war, the West provided indirect support to Iraq, not least by sending warships to protect tanker traffic in the Gulf from Iranian attack. This deployment led to clashes between American and Iranian forces, clashes in which the latter were defeated. Although largely armed by the Soviet Union, Iraq was also provided with Western weaponry. However, in contrast to the situation from 1990, South-West Asia in the 1980s required only a relatively modest outlay of American resources, which ensured that attention could be devoted elsewhere.
  • The most important departure from determinism during the Cold War had to do, obviously, with hot wars. Prior to 1945, great powers fought great wars so frequently that they seemed to be permanent features of the international landscape: Lenin even relied on them to provide the mechanism by which capitalism would self-destruct. After 1945, however, wars were limited to those between superpowers and smaller powers, as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, or to wars among smaller powers like the four Israel and its Arab neighbors fought between 1948 and 1973, or the three India-Pakistan wars of 1947-48, 1965, and 1971, or the long, bloody, and indecisive struggle that consumed Iran and Iraq throughout the 1980s.
  • The tension between these conflicting aims is perhaps particularly acute in the late twentieth century because of the publicity given to the existence of various alternative “models” for emulation. On the one hand, there are the extremely successful “trading states”—chiefly in Asia, like Japan and Hong Kong, but also including Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria—which have taken advantage of the great growth in world production and in commercial interdependence since 1945, and whose external policy emphasizes peaceful, trading relations with other societies. In consequence, they have all sought to keep defense spending as low as is compatible with the preservation of national sovereignty, thereby freeing resources for high domestic consumption and capital investment. On the other hand, there are the various “militarized” economies—Vietnam in Southeast Asia, Iran and Iraq as they engage in their lengthy war, Israel and its jealous neighbors in the Near East, and the USSR itself—all of which allocate more (in some cases, much more) than 10 percent of their GNP to defense expenditures each year and, while firmly believing that such levels of spending are necessary to guarantee military security, manifestly suffer from that diversion of resources from productive, peaceful ends. Between the two poles of the merchant and the warrior states, so to speak, there lie most of the rest of the nations of this planet, not convinced that the world is a safe enough place to allow them to reduce arms expenditure to Japan’s unusually low level, but also generally uneasy at the high economic and social costs of large-scale spending upon armaments, and aware that there is a certain trade-off between short-term military security and long-term economic security.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • A curious military force of professional soldiers, mullahs, neighborhood militiamen and schoolboys as young as 13, linked by an intense Islamic fervor, broke the long deadlock in the Persian Gulf war by routing entrenched Iraqi troops.
  • Why should we hate the people we once loved because of a war that mars even our memories?
    • Frouzanda Mahrad, an Arabic poem by Lamia Abbas Amara (translated by Mike Maggio in: Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen (2002). The Mandaeans: ancient texts and modern people. New York: Oxford University Press.). This poetic line alludes to how the Mandaeans, an ethnoreligious group, were divided by the Iran-Iraq War.
  • The need to escape, whether from poverty or punishment, can force people into the military, while others are encouraged and sustained even in combat by their own cultures. Values and ideologies, including religion and nationalism, motivate individuals just as they do nations. Religions promise immortality or rewards in the afterlife for those who die in battle. Thousands of Iranian volunteers marched across mine-strewn battlefields in the long war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, believing that they would go directly to heaven when they died because the ayatollahs had told them so. Some carried keys they had been given which were supposed to speed their entry.
  • In September 1980, Iraq went to war with Iran. Saddam's ostensible aim was to capture the Shatt al-Arab waterway that separates the two countries, but in reality he wanted to secure the Iranian oilfields and strike a blow against Iran’s Islamic revolution which threatened to seduce his own Shia minority. After some initial successes, the Iraqi army was pushed back. Saddam’s forces seemed on the verge of collapse until the US provided Iraq with satellite intelligence on Iranian troop manoeuvres, allowing Saddam to deploy his aircraft with greater effect.
  • Certain aspects of the Iran-Iraq conflict — including trench warfare, barbed-wire fences and soldiers attacking machine-gun emplacements across open ground — echoed the fighting of the First World War. But there were some sinister innovations, such as Iran’s sending of human waves of young boys — who were told that they would become ‘martyrs’ if they were killed - across minefields. No less horrific was Saddam’s profligate use of chemical weapons against the advancing Iranian troops. The conflict settled into a war of attrition. By the time a ceasefire was agreed, in July 1988, both sides were effectively back where they had begun — with over a million lives lost.
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