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  • 9/24/2005

Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War, also calledthe First Persian Gulf War, or theImposed War inIran, was a war between the armed forces ofIraq and Iran lasting from September 1980 to August 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 whenIraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, following a long history of border disputes. 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 United Nations Security Council called upon both parties to end the conflict on multiple occasions, but a cease fire was not agreed to untilAugust 20, 1988, and the last prisoners of war were not exchanged until 2003. The war irrevocably altered politics in the area, playing into wider global politics and leading to the 1990 Iraqi invasion ofKuwait.


Although the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988 was a war over dominance of the Persian Gulf region, the roots of the war go back many centuries. There has always been rivalry between various kingdoms of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Persia (Iran).

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 precursors of modernIraq) many times.

On 18 December 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 overIran's possession of oil-rich Khuzestan province was not limited to rhetorical statements;Iraq started supporting secessionist movements in Khuzestan, 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 withIran, especially after the death of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser and the rise of the Ba'ath Party, when Iraq decided to take on the role of "leader of the Arab world".

In 1969, the deputy prime minister ofIraq openly declared: "Iraq's dispute with Iran is in connection with Arabistan [Khuzestan] which is part ofIraq'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 torevolt 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 ofAbu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb in the Persian Gulf, following the withdrawal of the British.Iraq then expelled 70,000 Iranians fromIraq 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 theArvandRiver (Shatt al-Arab) waterway at the head of thePersian Gulf, an important channel for the oil exports of both countries. In 1975, United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger hadsanctionedthat Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran,attack Iraq over the waterway, which was under Iraqi control at the time; soon afterward 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 destabilizeIraq 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.

Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein, was eagerly interested in elevatingIraq to a strong regional power. A successful invasion ofIran would makeIraq 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 crippledIran's once mighty military. The bulk of the Iranian military was made up of poorly armed, though 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. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was threatening to export Islamic revolution to the rest of the Middle East, even though Iran was hardly in any position to do so militarily, for most of the Shah's army had already been disbanded. The Khomeinist camp despisedIraq's Ba'athist secularism in particular, and 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 atempting target to the expansionist Saddam Hussein. Combined with the fact that Iran had also lost its military supplier and close ally, the U.S.

Invasion and repulse

The two nations severed diplomatic relations in June 1980, and sporadic border clashes increased. On September 17, Iraq declared theArvand part of its territory.Iraq launched a full-scale invasion ofIran on September 22, 1980, claiming as a pretext an assassination attempt on Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz it blamed on Iran. The surprise offensive advanced quickly against the still disorganized Iranian forces, advancing on a wide front into Iranian territory along theMehran-Khorramabad axis in Central Iran and towardsAhvaz in the oil-rich southernprovince of Khuzestan.

Iraq encountered unexpected resistance, however. Rather than turning against the Ayatollah's government as exiles had promised, the people of Iran rallied around their revolution and mounted far stiffer resistance;an estimated 100,000 volunteers arrived at the front by November. An Iraqi Air Force attack on Iranian airfields was ineffectual, and the Iraqis soon found the Iranian military was not nearly as depleted as they had thought. In June of 1982, a successful Iranian counteroffensive 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.

Upon invadingIran on 22 September 1980, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein boastedhewould be inTehran in 3 days. Iraq offered a cessation of hostilities in 1982, butIran's insistence from July 1982 onward to destroy the Iraqi government prolonged the conflict for another six years of static warfare.

The Tanker War and U.S. entanglement

The United States had been wary of the Tehran regime since the Iranian Revolution, not least because of the detention of its Tehran embassy staff in the 1979–81 Iran hostage crisis. Starting in 1982 with Iranian success on the battlefield, the U.S. made its backing of Iraq more pronounced, supplying it with intelligence, economic aid, normalizing relations with the government (broken during the 1967 Six-Day War), and allegedly also supplying weapons.

Starting in 1981, bothIran andIraq attacked oil tankers and merchant ships, including those of neutral nations, in an effort to deprive the opponent of trade. After repeated Iraqi attacks on Iran's main exporting facility onKhark Island, Iran attacked a Kuwaiti tanker near Bahrain on May 13, 1984, and a Saudi tanker in Saudi waters on May 16. Attacks on ships of noncombatant nations in the Gulf sharply increased thereafter, and this phase of the war was dubbed the "Tanker War."

Lloyd's of London, a British insurance market, estimated that the Tanker War damaged 546 commercial vessels and killed about 430 civilian mariners.

An Iraqi plane accidentally attacked the USS Stark, an Perry class frigate on May 17, killing 37 and injuring 21. It should be noted that this happened shortly after the Iran-Contra scandal that involved selling weapons to Iran. But U.S. attention was on isolating Iran; it criticized Iran's mining of international waters, and sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 598, which passed unanimously on July 20, under which it skirmished with Iranian forces. In October 1987,theU.S. attacked Iranian oil platforms in retaliation for an Iranian attack on theU.S.-flagged tanker Sea Isle City.

On April 14, 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts was badly damaged by an Iranian mine.U.S. forces responded with Operation Praying Mantis on April 18, the United States Navy's largest engagement of surface warships since World War II. Two Iranian ships were destroyed, and an American helicopter was shot down, killing the two pilots.

On July 3, 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew. The American government claimed that the airliner had beenmistaken for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat, and that theVincennes was operating in international waters at the time and feared that it was under attack. It has since emerged, however, that theVincennes was in factin Iranian territorial waters, and that the Iranian passenger jet was turning away and increasing altitude after take-off. The U.S. paid compensation butnever apologized.

War of the Cities and the war's conclusion

Iraqi prisoners being indoctrinated into Iran's Islamic Revolution. The land war regressed into stalemate. Both Iraq and Iran lacked sufficient self-propelled artillery to support their respective armored forces in assaults. This was made even more important because neither side had the air force capability to support ground forces. When the relatively professional Iraqi armed force advance was halted by the sheer size and commitment of Iranian infantry and the Iranian infantry moved to advance itself; it faced the terrible prospect that the Iraqis had large numbers of non-propelled artillery while the Iranians had comparatively small numbers of non-propelled artillery while even fewer numbers of self-propelled ones. Artillery was important to force opponent to disperse, tanks to be dug in and enemy infantry to take over. Without artillery Iranian tanks were vulnerable to Iraqi infantry, artillery, anti-tank missiles and crucially were not able to achieve force superiority on a focal point. What followed was a blood bath with the Iranians substituting labor (infantry) for capital (artillery), and both sides turned to more brutal weapons and tactics. Iraq's air force began strategic bombing against Iranian cities, chiefly Tehran, starting in 1985. In response to these,Iran began launching SS-1 "Scud" missile attacks againstBaghdad, and Iraq responded by launching the same againstTehran.

The extreme brutality of the war included the use of chemical weapons, especially tabun, by Iraq. International antipathy to the Tehran regime meant Iraq suffered few repercussions despite these attacks. BothIraq and theUnited States government alleged at some time thatIran 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.

Iraq financed, with foreign assistance, the purchase of more technologically advanced weapons, and built more modern, well-trained armed forces. After setbacks on the battlefield, nevertheless, it offered to return to the 1975 border. Iran was internationally isolated, threatened with war with the U.S., and facing rising public discontent. Finally, a cease-fire was agreed to on August 20, 1988.

List of successful Iranian operations during the war

Iranian soldiers doing battle in the second half of the war, when they had a critical lack of heavy weapons and armor:

27 September 1981: Operation Thamen-ol-A'emeh.

29 November 1981: Operation Tarigh ol-Qods.

21 March 1982: Operation Fath-ol-Mobeen.

30 April 1982: Operation Beit-ol-Moqaddas.

14 July 1982: Operation Ramadhan.

9 April 1983: Operation Valfajr-1.

19 October 1983: Operation Valfajr-4.

22 February 1984: Operation Kheibar.

10 March 1985: Operation Badr.

9 February 1986: Operation Valfajr-8.

2 June 1986: Operation Karbala-1.

1 September 1986: Operation Karbala-2.

9 January 1986: Operation Karbala-5.

21 June 1987: Operation Nasr 4.

16 March 1988: Operation Valfajr-10.

27 July 1988: Operation Mersad.

Arming the combatants

Iraq's army was primarily armed with weaponry it had purchased from theSoviet Union and its satellites in the preceding decade. During the war, it purchased billions of dollars worth of advanced equipment from the Soviets and the French [2], as well as from the People's Republic ofChina, Egypt, Germany, and other sources (including European facilities for making and/or enhancing chemical weapons). Germany [3] along with other Western countries(among themUnited Kingdom, France, Spain (Explosivos Alaveses), Italy, and the United States) providedIraq with biological and chemical weapons technology and the precursors to nuclear capabilities. Much of Iraq's financial backing came from other Arab states, notably oil-rich Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

 Iran's foreign supporters includedSyria and Libya, through which it obtained Scuds. It purchased weaponry from North Korea and the People's Republic of China, notably the Silkworm antiship missile.Iran acquired weapons and parts for itsShah-era U.S. systems through covert arms transactions from officials in the Reagan Administration, first indirectly (possibly throughIsrael) and then directly. It was hopedIran would, in exchange, persuade several radical groups to release Western hostages, though this did not result; proceeds from the sale were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.


During the war,Iran operated U.S.-manufactured F-4 Phantom and F-5 Freedom Fighter fighters, as well as AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. It also operated a number of F-14 Tomcat fighters, which proved devastating to the Iraqis in the early phases of the war. However, due to the Iranian government's estrangement, spare parts were difficult to obtain, and many aircraft were cannibalized as the war continued. The few F-14s still flying by the mid-1980s were mostly used for reconnaissance. These were supported by KC-135s, a refueling tanker based on the Boeing 707.

Iraq's air force used Soviet weapons and reflected Soviet training, although it expanded and upgraded its fleet considerably as the war progressed. It conducted strategic bombing using Tupolev Tu-16 Badgers. Its fighters included the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, later supplemented by large purchases of Sukhoi Su-22s and French Dassault Mirage F1s. It also deployed the Anglo-French Aérospatiale Gazelle attack helicopter and the Exocet antiship missile.

U.S.-Iraqi arms transfers in the war

Donald Rumsfeld meeting Saddam on 19 December–20, 1983. Rumsfeld visited again on 24 March 1984; the same day the UN released a report that Iraq had used Mustard and Tabun Nerve Gas against Iranian troops. TheNY Times reported from Baghdad on 29 March 1984, that "American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied with Iraq and the U.S., and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been established in all but name."NSA Archive Source

Donald Rumsfeld meeting Saddam on 19 December–20, 1983. Rumsfeld visited again on 24 March 1984; the same day the UN released a report that Iraq had used Mustard and Tabun Nerve Gas against Iranian troops. The NY Times reported from Baghdad on 29 March 1984, that "American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied with Iraq and the U.S., and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been established in all but name." NSA Archive SourceWestern support for Iraq 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 ofIraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction program. The role theUnited States played in the war against Iran however is not as well known.

After the revolution, with the Ayatollahs in power and levels of enmity between Iran and the U.S. 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 Iraq became the order of the day, both during the long war with Iran and afterward. This led to what later became known as the Iraq-gate scandals.

Much of whatIraq received from the West, however, were not arms per se, but so-called dual-use technology— mainframe 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 U.S. and elsewhere, fed Iraq's warring capabilities right up until August 1990, when Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The Iraq-gate scandal revealed that anAtlanta branch ofItaly's largest bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, relying partially on U.S. 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 this? Beginning in September 1989, the Financial Times laid out the first charges that BNL, relying heavily on U.S. 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 toIraq under the eye of theU.S. government, according to the Financial Times, were Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, and Matrix Churchill, through itsOhio branch.

Even before the Persian Gulf War started in 1990, the Intelligencer Journal of Pennsylvania in a string of articles reported: "If U.S. 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, whoseU.S. operations in Ohio were recently linked to a sophisticated Iraqi weapons procurement network."

Aside from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and ABC's Ted Koppel, the Iraq-gate story never picked up much steam, even though The U.S. Congress became involved with the scandal. FAS report

Yet the evidence was nowhere to leave: In December 2002, Iraq's 1,200 pages Weapons Declarationrevealed 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. A full list of those companies and their involvements in Iraq.

On 25 May 1994, The U.S. 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.

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 theUnited 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 embarrassing. Twenty-fourU.S. firms exported arms and materials toBaghdad.

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 toIraq. I think that is a devastating record."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control sent Iraq 14 agents "with biological warfare significance," includingWest Nile virus, according to Riegle's investigators.

Even The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, released a list of U.S. companies and what they exported toIraq. See page 11 of this report: p1 p2 p3 p4 p5 p6 p7 p8 p9 p10 p11

A timeline of U.S. 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.


Weapons of Mass Destruction

Withmore than 100,000 Iranian victims ofIraq's Chemical and Biological weapons during the eight-year war, 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.

There is great resentment and anger in Iran that it was Western companies(West Germany, France, U.S.) 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 against Iran throughout the war - particularly since the U.S. and other western powers later felt able to oppose the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and eventually invade Iraq itself to remove Hussein.


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, and $350 Billion in total damages.Iraq was left with serious debts to its former Arab backers, including fourteen billion U.S. dollars loaned byKuwait, 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 Arvand, a reversion to the status quo antebellum 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)

Final ruling

On 9 December 1991, the UN Secretary-General reported the following to the UN Security Council:

"ThatIraq'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, againstIran, 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."

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