Today in Middle Eastern history: the Iran-Iraq War begins (1980)

An unsuccessful Iraqi first strike sets the tone for an extended and very brutal war.

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Apart from the Israel-Palestine conflict and possibly the US invasion of Iraq, it would be difficult to find anything that has defined the course of recent Middle Eastern history as much as the Iran-Iraq War. You could add the 1979 Iranian Revolution to that list, but since this war followed almost immediately on the heels of the revolution, and since the revolution in large measure triggered the war, it’s hard to separate them into two distinct events. For that matter, if you’re inclined to think the 2003 Iraq War was more impactful, consider that there’s a decent chance that war wouldn’t have happened without this one.

In essence, the Iran-Iraq War was about two things: waterway rights in the Shatt al-Arab and Saddam Hussein’s fears about the Iranian Revolution. The Shatt al-Arab is the river created by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates that runs from the point where they meet out to the Persian Gulf, defining the Iran-Iraq border for the last half (give or take) of its journey. Control over the river and the right of passage along it was a source of regular conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the various dynasties that ruled Iran in the 17th-20th centuries. When the empire reached its end and Iraq eventually gained independence, Iran and Iraq tried to settle the issue diplomatically, with Iraq controlling most of the river and Iran paying tolls to use it.

This arrangement broke down starting in 1969, when Iran (easily the stronger party) simply refused to pay tolls anymore. The Iraqi government didn’t respond with force, which probably would have been futile. Instead, the Iraqis broke off diplomatic relations with Iran and began to encourage Arabs living in Iran’s Khuzestan province to revolt against Tehran (the Iranians, in response, started to do the same thing with Iraq’s Kurds). After a couple of minor border conflicts, the 1975 Algiers Agreement was supposed to settle the issue, with Iraq mostly conceding control over the waterway in exchange for a return to normal relations between the two countries. The Iraqis came off worse in this deal, but relations did improve, and Hussein, who was by then the de facto ruler of Iraq, saw the deal as a short-term arrangement that he would “revisit”—after strengthening his military, of course. Iraq’s oil boom gave Baghdad the money to put his plans into action.

Then the Islamic Revolution happened, and Hussein’s problems with the Algiers Agreement were compounded by a real fear that, once things were settled in Tehran, the revolution would roll over Iraq next. When people talk about Hussein’s fear of the revolution they’re usually referring to Iraq’s majority Shiʿa population, which was being repressed by the mostly-Sunni Baʿathists and seemed like a prime target for the revolution’s message. This is understandable…to a point. The first revolutionary elements in Iraq did develop within its Shiʿa community, and Hussein viewed the Shiʿa as a potential fifth column for Iran. But the fact is that that the Iranian Revolution wasn’t really conceived as a primarily sectarian thing. Yes, Iran was/is a mostly Shiʿa nation, and yes, that shaped elements of the revolution. However, at its core the revolution was an Islamist revolt against a corrupt secular autocracy. That model could be applied all over the Islamic world, including (especially?) in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. So what really scared Iraqi Baʿathists was not the idea that Iraq’s Shiʿa population would revolt, but that the entire country would.

Thus, and I don’t say this to excuse him in any way, Hussein did have his reasons for wanting to go to war. He had only just assumed the Iraqi presidency outright in 1979, after amassing power behind the scenes for several years, and wanted a big military victory to cement his position. He wanted to stop the Islamic Revolution before it could spill out of Iran. He wanted control over the Shatt al-Arab. He even, in his wildest dreams, wanted Khuzestan and its oil. He also had a swanky new military to play with, courtesy of that oil boom I mentioned earlier.

Iran, meanwhile, was doing what most revolutionary governments do right after they come to power: purging elements of the previous regime. This meant that most of Iran’s most senior military officers were being “retired,” if they were lucky, or executed, if they were not, and those who could get the hell out of Iran were doing so. The resultant loss of experience weakened the Iranian military at just the right time, from Baghdad’s perspective. The switch in relative military power between Iraq and Iran convinced Hussein that this was the moment to pick a fight. All it took were a few skirmishes between revolution-minded Shiʿa militias and Iraqi security forces, starting the spring of 1980, and Hussein had his justification for war. Iraqi forces began shelling Iranian positions over the border and skirmishing with Iranian troops.

I don’t want to rehash the entire war because we’d be here forever. So let’s just mention September 22’s outcome, which wasn’t nearly what Iraq wanted or needed and in many ways set the tone for the rest of the conflict. Iraqi airstrikes, intended to eliminate Iran’s air force, really barely dinged it. Iran’s air force was able to quickly retaliate and deal serious damage to the Iraqis, more or less establishing air superiority. The Iraqi invasion, which began the next day, depended to some extent on the Arabs in Khuzestan revolting against Tehran and joining the Iraqi forces, which never happened, and Iran’s strength in the air was decisive in blunting the Iraqi offensive. Iraq turned to chemical weapons, and things settled in to a terrible status quo that lasted for nearly eight more years.

In the end the war was considered a stalemate. Hussein failed to achieve any of his objectives, but after the war began to look like it was going Iran’s way the Iraqis did recover to restore the status quo ante bellum. Since it was Hussein who started the war, I still tend to think of the war as an Iraqi defeat. Hussein’s desperation for a military success and pressure from Kuwait over Iraqi war debt led him to invade his tiny Gulf neighbor a couple of years later. The ensuing Gulf War fixated many in the US foreign policy community on the idea of ousting Hussein, which…well, you know how that ended.