The war between Iran and Iraq, lasting nearly eight years, commenced with the Iraqi invasion of Iran on 22 September 1980, and ended with the bilateral acceptance of the UN Security Council Resolution 598 on 20 July 1988. Considered by Iranians as “imposed war” (jang-e taḥmili), the Iran-Iraq War has been called “the longest conventional war of the 20th century,” and cost 1 million casualties and $1.19 trillion (Hiro, 1989, pp. 1-5).

On 22 September 1980, the simmering conflict between Iraq and Iran erupted into a full-scale war with the simultaneous Iraqi air-raids on ten Iranian civilian and military airports and the invasion of Iranian territory along the entire border between the two countries. Prior to the outbreak of the war, relations between the two countries deteriorated steadily in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. This was due not only to personal hostility between Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini, but also, more importantly, due to the political ambitions of both states as well as ideological and territorial disputes. Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been living in exile in Iraq after 1963, was expelled from that country on 4 October 1978 at the request of the government of Mohammad Reza Shah following the outbreak of political disturbances in Iran.

On 28 September, six days after the Iraqi military invaded Iran, the UN Security Council called on both countries to refrain immediately from further use of force. Iraq declared its willingness to negotiate, but only if and when Iran accepted the Iraqi demands articulated by the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz (Masserat, p. 55). These included a mutual guarantee of non-intervention in the affairs of the other country; an Iranian undertaking to cease all acts of “aggression” toward Iraq; Iran’s recognition of Iraqi sovereignty over all territories and waterways it claimed, including the Shatt al-Arab/Arvand Rud waterway.


The pretext for the Iraqi invasion of Iran. Iraq claimed it was engaged in a defensive war and was “obliged to exercise its legitimate right to self-defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity and to recover its territories by force, considering that the Iranian Government had barred the way to all legally recognized ways to resolve the issues emanating from its obligations” (Dekker and Post, p. 84). Before the invasion, Iraq frequently had accused Iran of acts of aggression against Iraq and of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs, such as supporting the banned al-Daʿwa Party (Menashri, p. 157). In Arabic-language radio broadcasts Iranian leaders vehemently vilified the Ba’th regime as anti-Islamic and a puppet of imperialist powers. The regime in Baghdad also was accused of acts of aggression against Iran by publicly supporting separatist insurgents in Khuzestan, promising them assistance in liberating ‘Arabestan,’ the name adopted by the Iraqi regime for the old Persian province. According to the governor-general of Khuzestan, Admiral Aḥmad Madani, Iraq was supplying arms to the rebels (Keesings, 1980, p. 609). On several occasions, Iraq even had carried out attacks on Iranian border towns, for instance on Kurdish towns in north-western Iran in June 1979 and the following month on Ṣāleḥābād in the south, where several people were killed. During the first half of 1980 additional border clashes occurred.

The Iraqi claim of sovereignty over all contested territories and waterways revived the old territorial dispute between the two countries (Dessouki, p. 2). The most contentious territorial disagreement was over the Shatt al-Arab and other waterways. In addition, three small islands in the Persian Gulf were also part of Hussein’s unsubstantiated territorial claims. The islands of Abu Musā and Greater and Lesser Tonbs (qq.v. at, far from the Iraqi border, are close to the Strait of Hormuz and of great strategic importance. Until the late 19th and early 20th century, when the British occupied a number of Iranian islands and administered them through Arab sheikhs, as British protectorates, these islands had been parts of Iranian territory. The Iranian Abu Musā was administered on behalf of Great Britain by the sheikh of Sharjah and the two other islands by Raʾs al-Khaymah, both of these sheikhdoms later joining the United Arab Emirates. Iran had recaptured the islands on 30 November 1971, a few days before the United Arab Emirates came into existence following its independence from Britain. Iran quickly recognized the newly-created emirate. In September 1980, Iraq made an unfounded and provocative claim to sovereignty over the three islands on behalf of the “Arab nation,” demanding Iranian recognition of Iraq’s “legitimate” rights (Balta, p. 102).

The boundary disputes. The main dispute revolved around the demarcation of the boundary in the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the Iraqi claim to the Iranian province of Khuzestan. According to the pan-Arab ideology of the Ba’th party, Khuzestan belonged to the Arab nation and should return to Arab hands (Pipes, p. 23). The most important bone of contention, however, was over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which is formed by the confluence of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Kārun rivers (Grummon, p. 3). The final 55 miles of the 130-mile Shatt al-Arab waterway form the frontier between Iraq and Iran. The Shatt al-Arab is of economic and strategic importance to both countries. Basra, the only Iraqi port with an outlet to the Persian Gulf, lies 47 miles upstream, and large oil installations in both countries are located near the Shatt al-Arab (for a historical sketch of the disputes, see v and vi, above; see also Pārsādust, 1990a).

After the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, with Iraq first becoming a British mandate in 1920 and then an independent state in 1932, Iran repudiated the demarcation line established in the Constantinople Protocol of November 1913 (see vi, above). Iran wanted the border to run along the thalweg, the deepest point of the navigable channel, maintaining that the Constantinople Protocol had been the legacy of colonial rule. Iraq, encouraged and supported by Britain, took Iran to the League of Nations in 1934, but no settlement was reached. Negotiations between the two countries continued, and in 1937 Iran and Iraq signed their first boundary treaty. Among other things, the treaty established the waterway border on the eastern bank of the river except for a four-mile anchorage zone near Ābādān, which was allotted to Iran and where the border ran along the thalweg. Years later, Iraq accused Iran of taking advantage of Iraq’s weak negotiating position at a time when Iraq was beset by internal political turmoil following the military coup of November 1936 by Nuri al-Said (Abdulghani, p. 116).

For three decades no important developments in the dispute occurred. But in the 1960s, when Iran had become a strong regional power and Iraq was weakened by several coups, Iran again took advantage of Iraq’s political vulnerability. First, it sent a delegation to Iraq soon after the Ba’th coup in 1969 and, when Iraq refused to proceed with negotiations over a new treaty, Iran abrogated the treaty of 1937. Then, it further pressured Iraq by supporting the Kurdish rebels in the north. Iraq was obliged to give in to Iranian demands concerning the Shatt al-Arab, in exchange for an Iranian promise to end its support of Kurdish rebels (Ismael, p. 20). This resulted in the Algiers Protocol of 1975, in which the thalweg was for the first time recognized as the border between the two countries along the entire length of the Shatt al-Arab. But five years later, on 17 September 1980, Iraq suddenly abrogated the Algiers Protocol following the Iranian revolution. In his speech to the National Assembly, Saddam Hussein claimed that the Islamic Republic of Iran refused to abide by the stipulations of the Algiers Protocol and, therefore, Iraq considered the Protocol null and void. Furthermore, Hussein declared in the same speech that the entire Shatt al-Arab had been Iraqi-Arab throughout history and that Iraqi authority over the Shatt al-Arab should be restored. Five days later, the Iraqi army crossed the border (see Pārsādust, 1990b; Anvari Tehrani, 1993).

Iraq’s objectives in invading Iran. There were several factors which jointly or independently appear to have influenced the Iraqi regime’s decision to initiate a war. These factors can be divided into aims and motives: Saddam Hussein’s ambition for political and economic hegemony in the Persian Gulf; achieving control of the entire Shatt al-Arab waterway and capturing territories claimed by Iraq; strengthening Iraqi security and counteracting the effect of Iran’s Islamic revolution on the large Iraqi Shiʿite population. The post-revolutionary political turmoil in Iran, the collapse of Iranian armed forces, as well as the encouragement by the elites of the Iranian ancien regime in exile, evidently were perceived by Iraqi leaders as circumstances offering an ideal opportunity to wage war.

The ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and especially the attempt to export the Islamic revolution to other Muslim countries, was seen by Iraqi leaders as a threat to the secular ideology of their Ba’th party and as a danger to the stability of the country. Iranian propaganda, aimed at Iraq’s disaffected population, focused on the un-Islamic character of the secular Ba’th ideology and was intended to incite Iraqis to revolt and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein (Maddy-Weitzmann, p. 181). Although the Iranian propaganda had a universal message and was meant for all Muslims, it was feared in Iraq that the Shiʿites, who formed the majority of the population but were ruled by Sunnites, were especially susceptible to the Iranian call for action (see x, below). To counter this propaganda, the Sunnite Iraqi leaders took measures to diminish the threat of a revolt by the Shiʿite population. First, they intensified the persecution of people suspected of “illegal” political activities, such as membership in the clandestine Shiʿite party al-Da’wa. The prominent Shiʿite Ayatollah Bāqer al-Ṣadr was detained and secretly executed in April 1980. Thousands of Shiʿites, many of them of Iranian origin but whose families had resided for generations in the Shiʿite religious centers of Karbala and Najaf, were expelled from the country, as in the early 1970s (Mallat, p. 728). Next, the Arab character of Islam was stressed, such as the Arab lineage of the prophet Mohammad, the Arabic language of the Qurʾan, and the location of the holy cities of Islam in Arab countries. By emphasizing the Arab roots and tradition of Islam, Saddam Hussein sought to undermine the appeal of the Iranian Islamic revolution in the eyes of the Iraqi population. Later, in order to underscore the superiority of Arabs over Iranians, he called the war ‘a second Qadesiya’, in reference to the battle of Qadesiya in 636, where the Persian Sasanids were defeated in their central province by the Muslim Arab forces (Reissner, p. 15). It should be noted, however, that Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) was then the central province of the Persian empire, referred to as “the heart of Iranian kingdom” (del-e Irānšahr) in medieval Islamic sources (see i, above).

Saddam Hussein also aspired to economic and military hegemony in the Persian Gulf. Until the Islamic revolution, Iran had been the major power in the region with the support of the United States. During the Cold War, because of its geographical location to the south of the Soviet Union, Iran was of strategic importance to the United States and therefore was supported militarily. After the revolution, relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic fast deteriorated. Given the post-revolutionary turmoil in Iran and worsening relations with the Arab states along with the cessation of U.S. military supplies, Iran lost its position as the major power in the region. The termination of American military supplies after the start of the Iranian hostage crisis (q.v.) in November 1979 drastically weakened Iran’s military. Iraq expected that Iran would accept Iraqi military supremacy after the invasion and immediately would submit to Iraqi demands (Chubin and Tripp, pp. 54, 57). Saddam Hussein sought to exploit Iran’s internal political turmoil and military disarray for attaining his objectives, as Iran had done against Iraq in 1936, 1969, and 1975.

By gaining control over the Shatt al-Arab, Khuzestan, and the three islands in the Persian Gulf, Iraq’s revenues would increase substantially. Nearly all of Iran’s oil reserves are in the province of Khuzestan, which also has large oil facilities and refineries. Moreover, by depriving Iran of its most important source of income, Iraq would have prevented Iran from again emerging as the most powerful state in the region. Finally, the occupation of Khuzestan would considerably have expanded Iraq’s coastline, which at the time was only 40 miles long, securing Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, Iraq claimed the three islands in the Persian Gulf not only symbolically to “regain” territories of the ‘Arab nation’, but also for economic and strategic reasons, considering the possibilities for offshore oil installations (Pipes, p. 22).

The Iraqi war strategy was to fight a limited war, instead of a full-scale one (Karsh, p. 18). This was indicated by the fact that only a part of the Iraqi army was engaged in fighting, which took place only in limited locations. It was clearly intended that the war should be over before the onset of winter, when inundation makes a large part of the area inaccessible (Staudenmaier, 1982, p. 28). One reason was that the Iranian armed forces were unprepared for a war. This was due to the arms boycott imposed by the United States after the hostage crisis got underway. This had resulted in a shortage of spare parts for Iran’s American-made military equipment. Also, the Islamic authorities did not trust the high-ranking military officers, many of whom had been loyal to the ex-shah. The military was regarded as a symbol of dependence on the United States and of extravagant expenditure, as well as a former instrument of state oppression (Entessar, p. 35). After the revolution, systematic purges were carried out in the military, first among the senior ranks, and afterwards more extensively. The Revolutionary Guards (Sepāh-e pāsdārān-e enqelāb-e Eslāmi) were trained as an armed force to counterbalance the regular army and to assume many of its functions. The Pāsdārān, headed by Moḥsen Reżāʾi, were closely linked to the militant clerics and were, in part, responsible for the success of the Islamic revolution (Zabih, p. 136).

The deterioration of Iran’s economy may also have been a factor in the Iraqi invasion. The entire Iranian economy had been critically affected by the political turmoil during and after the revolution in 1979. For instance, in the oil industry, by far the most important sector of the Iranian economy, production had fallen from 5.7 million barrels per day (MBD) in 1977 to 3.9 in spring 1979 and to 1.4 in summer 1980 (Kanovsky, p. 241).

Finally, Saddam Hussein no doubt also counted on taking advantage of the internal unrest in Iran. This consisted of revolts by ethnic minorities and opposition from various political groups, as well as divisions within the religious hierarchy itself. In the northwestern provinces the Revolutionary Guards and the army were engaged in heavy fighting with the Kurds. During the revolution the Kurds had attained a kind of informal autonomy, which they now wanted to institutionalize. In August 1979, however, Khomeini ordered a general mobilization to end all Kurdish resistance. In Khuzestan, the Arab minority was also striving for autonomy. This was wholly unacceptable to Khomeini, because the Iranian economy depended to a considerable degree on oil industries in this province. Here, heavy clashes occurred between rebels and the Revolutionary Guards (Menashri, p. 89).

There was also opposition to the regime from within the religious establishment, notably from Ayatollah Moḥammad Kāẓem Šariʿatmadāri, whose chief criticism was that Khomeini and his followers had appropriated the revolution and were opposed to political and religious pluralism. Further opposition to the clerical leadership of Khomeini came from the monarchists, religious liberals such as Mehdi Bāzargān, the former prime minister, and leftist groups such as the Mojāhedin-e Ḵalq and Fedāʾiān-e Ḵalq (see COMMUNISM iii). Apart from this, there was a power struggle underway between factions within the religious establishment, which also distracted attention from friction with Iraq (Menashri, pp. 127-45).

The international reaction to the war. On 28 September 1980, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 479, which called upon both countries to refrain immediately from any further use of force and to settle their dispute by peaceful means and in conformity with principles of justice and international law. It had little effect. Iraq announced that it could only accept the resolution on condition that Iran handed over territories claimed by Iraq. The Iranian leaders, in turn, were only prepared to negotiate a truce after the Iraqi army had evacuated Iranian territory, accusing Iraq of unprovoked aggression. At the UN, both countries defended their engagement in the war as an act of self-defense. The Iraqi foreign secretary, Sa’dun Hammadi, accused Khomeini during the United Nations session on 15 October 1980 of trying to export the Islamic revolution by inciting religious and sectarian strife in Iraq. Iran ended its refusal to accept the United Nations Security Council resolution. Premier Rajāʾi of Iran characterized the war as an “imposed war” (jang-e taḥmili) and stated that Iran could only accept a truce if and when the aggressor was punished. Other peace missions were attempted by the Islamic Conference Organization and the Non-Aligned Movement, but neither had any success (Sick, p. 234; see also Pārsādust, 1992).

At the onset of the war, the official position of the United States and other Western countries, the Soviet-Union, and the Persian Gulf states, was one of neutrality. The Soviet Union, which before the war had been the major supplier of arms to Iraq, informed Iraq that its arms shipments would be curtailed (Chubin and Tripp, p. 191). The United States’ relations with both Iran and Iraq were already at a low ebb. Only King Hussein of Jordan openly declared support for Iraq. The Persian Gulf States, despite their official stance of neutrality, provided financial assistance to Iraq. Iran, meanwhile, was supported by Syria and Libya (Hiro, 1984, p. 16). The two warring countries, however, had no difficulty in obtaining arms supplies from other countries. France became the major source of Iraq’s high-tech weaponry, particularly the Mirage warplanes. The Soviet Union was Iraq’s largest weapon’s supplier. Israel provided arms to Iran, hoping to prolong the war. And at least ten nations sold arms to both of the warring sides. In 1986, there was even the revelation of secret arms deals between the United States and Iran (see IRAN-CONTRA AFFAIRS). The United States had used the Iran-Iraq war as a vehicle for expanding its military in the Gulf region. The reflagging operation of Kuwaiti’s oil tankers further enhanced the U.S. position and led to the establishment of the U.S. hegemony in the region (see Farhang, 1985, p. 668; Pārsādust, 1992; Richard Halloran, New York Times, 4 December 1988, p. 32).

From the start of the war, the international community worried chiefly about the effect the war would have on international trade and oil exports from the Persian Gulf. Because both countries were major oil producers, another oil crisis was feared, such as the one during the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973. Although Iraq and Iran attacked each other’s oil installations from the start of the war in order to destroy one another’s oil production capabilities, oil prices only rose for a short period, and there was no real effect on the world oil market during the war (Ramazani, p. 216; Mossavar-Rahmani, p. 61).


The Iraqi invasion. The war began on 22 September 1980, when Iraq launched air raids against ten major Iranian airports and invaded Iranian territory on the ground along three fronts. In the north, Qasr-e Shirin was occupied because of its strategic position. The high elevation around Qasr-e Shirin offers strategic advantage over the surrounding lowlands, and it is near the road to Baghdad. Further south, in Khuzestan, strategic points near Mehran, and the town of Dezful, which was important because of its military bases and oil pipelines, were targeted. The main targets, however, were Khorramshahr and Abadan (q.v.), the latter site of large oil refineries. But the isolated position of these two cities, delimited by the Shatt al-Arab, Kārun, and Bahmanshir rivers and only accessible by two bridges, made the cities difficult to capture. Heavy fighting between units of the Iraqi army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took place during the first weeks. On 24 October, at the cost of heavy losses, only Khorramshahr was occupied by the Iraqis; Abadan was also besieged but held out. By December only parts of Khuzestan had been occupied by the Iraqi army (O’Ballance, 1981, p. 54). After Khorramshahr was captured, the Iraqis changed their war strategy from a limited, dynamic war into a static one with few direct battles but increased shelling and bombing to defend seized territory. With a few exceptions, no ground operations were carried out, and the war consisted of artillery exchanges and air raids by both sides on strategic targets (Karsh, p. 21).

Iraq did not succeed in quickly defeating the Iranian armed forces, although it had a larger air force and army. One reason was that the Iranians, although surprised by the invasion, immediately mustered a strong resistance, consisting of a combination of regular army, police, Revolutionary Guards, and volunteer units. Another reason was the incompetence of the Iraqi military leadership, which committed strategic and tactical blunders (Cordesman, 1982, p. 47). The army was poorly trained and incapable of using and maintaining their advanced major weapons systems. The senior officers in Iraq were promoted, not because of their competence, but on account of their loyalty to the Ba’th leadership and on account of their Sunnite or Tikriti (Saddam Hussein’s birthplace) affiliation (Karsh, pp. 15-16).

The situation in Iran was not much better. The purges in the military after the revolution had resulted in a major overhaul at the top. Key positions were in the hands of officers who had been promoted after the revolution for their loyalty to the Islamic principles of the revolution. For example, the former army captain Sayyed ʿAli Širāzi, the commander of the ground forces (Entessar, p. 68), was promoted to this position because of his dedication to the Islamic revolution. The Iranian army was, like the Iraqi army, poorly trained. In October 1980, Khomeini combined the forces of the regular army and the Revolutionary Guards, and appointed a seven-member Supreme Defense Council, which was responsible for the conduct of the war and for settling military disputes (Staudenmaier, 1982, p. 28). President Bani Ṣadr, who was already commander-in-chief, was appointed head of the council. The council, however, was ineffective because of the power struggle taking place at that time between Bani Ṣadr and clerics such as Ayatullah Moḥammad Behešti and Akbar Hāšemi Rafsanjani. Their conflict was mainly over the political orientation of the Islamic Republic (Menashri, p. 173). Bani Ṣadr objected to the participation in governmental affairs by clerics, who, in turn, wanted to reshape the state and society through a process of ‘Islamicization.’ His opponents relied on the Supreme Defense Council and the military leadership in criticizing Bani Ṣadr, thus making military decisions contingent upon political rivalry (Arjomand, 1988, p. 142). In June 1981, Bani Ṣadr was deprived of military command, and was later dismissed as president. The power struggle between him and Behešti was settled in the latter’s favor because Khomeini withdrew his support of Bani Ṣadr. In the first half of 1981, Bani Ṣadr’s power was already diminished, and he was not consulted in political decision making, such as, the decision of ruling factions to release the America hostages in January 1981. Khomeini initially had asked both sides to settle their differences, but in June he grew alarmed at the possibility of a coup by opposition groups who had begun to support Bani Ṣadr. Besides, Khomeini blamed Bani Ṣadr for the situation at the front, where the war had settled into a stalemate with Iraqi forces occupying Iranian soil (Menashri, p. 173).

The Iranian counterattack. On 5 January 1981, the Iranians for the first time launched a counteroffensive. Initially this counterattack near Susangerd was successful, but the Iraqi forces eventually encircled the Iranian divisions and inflicted heavy losses on them (Staudenmaier, 1983, p. 39). Bani Ṣadr had been opposed to this operation, because he did not yet consider the time ripe for a large-scale attack; but he had to yield to pressure from Behešti and his supporters (Menashri, p. 173). In September 1981, the period of stalemate came to an end when the Iranians launched a series of successful offensives. The first one drove the Iraqi army back to the western side of the Kārun river and thus ended the siege of Abadan, which had lasted for almost a year. At the end of 1981 Iran launched two minor offensives near Susangird (29 November) and in the Qasr-e Shirin area (12 December) and recaptured some lost Iranian territory (O’Ballance, 1988, p. 69). These offensives were followed by an even more successful attack on 22 March 1982. This operation, in the Shush-Dezful area, called Fatḥ Mobin (a clear victory; Gieling, pp. 107-38), which involved about 120,000 troops, was the largest offensive since the beginning of the war. It was carried out by the combined forces of the regular army and the Revolutionary Guards, who utilized a war strategy which consisted of a mixture of classical maneuvers and innovative tactics (Karsh, p. 24). Part of these tactics were the human-wave assaults in which Basij units, the military forces consisting of volunteers, attacked Iraqi defense positions with light armor and cleared the way for the Revolutionary Guards. These Basij units, officially called Basij-e mostażʿafin (Mobilization of the Oppressed) and loyal to the principles of the Islamic revolution, were formed and trained under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards (Katzman, p. 67). In November 1981, the Ministry of the Revolutionary Guards, headed by Muḥsen Rafiqdust, was established to coordinate contacts between the government and the rapidly growing forces of the Revolutionary Guards (Menashri, p. 219). According to Fred Halliday, the Revolutionary Guards were numerically larger than the regular army, but other sources disagree (Halliday, p. 4). Kamrān Mofid asserts that by 1986 there were some 300,000 volunteers in the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guards (compared to 305,000 in regular armed forces), but this number did not include the Basij forces (Mofid, p. 72).

The Iranian campaign resulted in a serious defeat for Iraq, which lost three divisions and had to withdraw its troops to the pre-war border. In spring 1982, the Iranians launched two offensives in which they used the same tactics as in Operation Fatḥ Mobin for driving the Iraqi army from Khuzestan. The first offensive, north of Bustān, which started on 22 March, was an impressive assault that resulted in the liberation of some 50 square miles of Iranian territory (O’Ballance, 1988, p. 79). The second offensive, which consisted of two separate attacks, was a major turning point in the war. The first stage, lasting from 24 April to 12 May, drove the Iraqi troops back to Khorramshahr from the Ahvaz-Susangird area after heavy fighting. In the second stage, on 20 May, Iranians attacked Iraqi positions in Khorramshahr, the last stronghold of the Iraqis in the area. Although the Iraqi forces expected the attack and had fortified the city, they were not able to defend it against the Iranian forces, who entered the city on 24-25 May (Karsh, p. 25). Iran scored two military victories in 1981 and 1982 because its forces not only used conventional, and improvised non-conventional, tactics, but also carried out their operations with Bani Ṣadr as commander in chief (Menashri, p. 229). After Bani Ṣadr’s dismissal, the leadership in Tehran was able to focus more on the war front.

Saddam Hussein announced on 20 June 1982 that all Iraqi troops had started to withdraw from Iranian soil. He was prepared to negotiate a truce, but Iran, which had gained confidence after its recent successes, demanded additional conditions for a settlement. Besides insisting on a complete withdrawal of Iraqi forces, Iran demanded the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’th regime, a substantial reparation, and the repatriation of 100,000 Shiʿites expelled from Iraq in 1980 (New York Times, 21 June 1982).

Iranian advances into Iraqi territory. In July 1982, Iranian leaders decided to advance into Iraqi territory. Before this decision, a heated debate took place among the leadership regarding the practicality of invading Iraq and confronting substantial Iraqi forces anticipating an Iranian offensive. The Iraqi army had more than doubled since 1980 from some 200,000 troops to about 475,000 in 1983. The Iranian military leadership and religious leaders, such as the new Premier Mir Ḥosayn Musawi and President Sayyed ʿAli Khamene’i, were opposed to an invasion. On the one hand, they argued that the Iranian army lacked the capability for such an offensive. On the other hand, they feared that advancing into Iraqi territory would require considerable human, material, and political sacrifices (Karsh, p. 25). Those in favor of an invasion, which included some elements in the regular army and many commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, believed a major offensive was necessary for toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. They maintained that Iran could succeed by relying on revolutionary tactics and zealous fighters. Moreover, the Iranian offensive would target an area primarily inhabited by Iraqi Shiʿites, and it was expected the Shiʿite population would revolt against the Iraqi regime and support the Iranian forces (Bakhash, p. 127). Both sides, however, agreed on one point: Iran should punish Iraq for its unprovoked aggression. The leadership in Iran was united in sending an unambiguous message to its neighbors and the international community that the Islamic regime was determined to defend the country and punish aggressors.

On 13 July, the first day of Ramażān, it was clear that the decision had gone against the military. The Iranian army started an offensive called Ramażān in the direction of Basra, with around 100,000 men, of whom 50,000 belonged to the regular army. After two weeks of heavy fighting it was evident that the troops had failed to break through the Iraqi defenses. This defeat was due to tactical failures on the Iranian side and lack of artillery, air support, and well-trained regular forces. Other factors included the Iraqis’ superior equipment and their use of chemical weapons (Karsh, 1987, p. 26).

Iranian authorities insisted on launching two more offensives despite growing criticism from the military leadership, who, after the failure of the last offensive, increasingly disapproved of the way politicians and the religious leadership interfered in military affairs. These new offensives, Operation Moslem b. ʿAqil, from 1 to 10 October near Mandali, and Operation Moḥarram, from 1 to 11 November near Musiān, failed as well, mainly because the religious leadership did not want to wage conventional warfare or utilize a combination of conventional and revolutionary tactics as in Operation Fatḥ Mobin. As in the July offensive, the latest offensives consisted of massive frontal attacks by infantry troops and human-wave assaults without air and artillery support. The bulk of the forces consisted of Pāsdārān and Basij units, the volunteers being for the most part badly trained, poorly equipped, and often very young or very old (Karsh, 1987, p. 26).

The Iranian offensive seemed to be a repetition of the Iraqi invasion in September 1980. Now the strategy of both countries had reversed. Iran was waging a war of dynamic operations, whereas Iraq fought a defensive war of attrition, in order to exhaust its enemy. For both sides it proved easier to defend territory than to capture it, with the troops lacking motivation when they were not defending their homeland. Saddam Hussein reportedly had expected Iran’s minority Arab population in Khuzestan to support the Iraqi troops; however, not only did Iranian-Arabs not revolt but they fled the province after the Iraqi invasion (Wright, p. 846). Khomeini, on the other hand, had hoped Iraqis would revolt against Saddam, and this expectation too proved abortive. In his speeches, Khomeini stressed the fact that Iran was continuing its war effort against the Ba’th regime and Saddam Hussein in order to establish an Islamic republic in Iraq (Imam, p. 28). Iran supported the opponents of the Iraqi regime and supported the formation of the Shiʿite-dominated Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was based in Tehran and was headed by Moḥammad Bāqer al-Ḥakim (Menashri, p. 251). Several explanations have been offered for the fact that Iraqi Shiʿites did not revolt in 1982. One explanation is that for the Shiʿites their national—Iraqi and Arab—identity transcended the religious sectarian, Shiʿite identity. This was supported by the fact that the Iraqi ground forces, composed mostly of Shiʿites, ardently fought against the invading Iranians (Batatu, p. 200). Another explanation is that the Shiʿite community lacked unity and leadership as a result of the Iraqi policy of manipulation and was unprepared to revolt against the Iraqi government (Chubin and Tripp, p. 102).

Despite high casualty rates during the latest operations, Iran continued its offensive. During 1983 operations Wa’l-fajr I-IV got underway unsuccessfully (Karsh, p. 27). In 1984 Iraq threatened to attack Iranian cities if Iran staged new offensives. Unimpressed, Iran launched a new offensive. In return, Iraq attacked Dezful with ground-to-ground missiles and began air strikes on other cities. Iran retaliated with air strikes on Basra, Mandali, and other Iraqi border towns. This was the opening stage in the ‘War of the Cities,’ during which many civilians were killed. Iran nevertheless continued its offensives, with Wa’l-fajr V and VI and Ḵaybar in February (see Taheri Shemirani, 1993).

On 30 March 1984, after allegations by Iran that Iraq had used chemical weapons, the President of the UN Security Council stated there was unanimous agreement among UN-appointed experts that chemical weapons had been used in the war. A year later, on 25 April 1985, the Security Council issued another statement expressing it “was appalled at the use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces during March 1985” (King, p. 71). In these statements Iraq was not mentioned by name. In a way, the international community remained silent as Iraq used weapons of mass destruction against Iranian as well as Iraqi Kurds. Apparently, United States played a significant role in preventing a UN condemnation of Iraq in this regard.

Extension of the war to the Persian Gulf. Until 1983 the war had taken place on land, but in 1983 it was expanded to the Persian Gulf by Iraq. By destroying Iranian oil installations, Iraq tried to undermine Iran’s economy and by obstructing the flow of oil export give a warning to the West in order to force the Iranian leadership to engage in negotiations. In February and March 1983, Iraqi aircraft damaged Iranian offshore installations and caused an oil spill of around 7,500 barrels a day, which also threatened the coast and water supply of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. At the end of the year Iraq warned merchant vessels to stay out of the northern part of the Persian Gulf, declaring this was a war zone (Karsh, p. 27). The war escalated further when in February 1984 Iraq announced a blockade of Kharg Island. By targeting international trade, Iraq hoped to provoke the international community into forcing Iran to end the war. In September 1983, France and the United States became embroiled in the conflict following the French decision to supply Iraq five Super Etendard aircraft armed with AM-39 Exocet air-to-surface missiles. According to France, it was decided to deliver the fighter planes, which could easily attack Iranian oil facilities in the Persian Gulf and Kharg, so that the Iraqi military could pressure Iran into accepting a negotiated settlement (King, p. 55). It seems, however, more likely that France wished to strengthen the Iraqi military position. Iraq’s debt to France since the start of the war—because of arms purchases—was substantial, and France feared Iraq would be unable to repay the debt if it was defeated in the war (Chubin and Tripp, p.193). Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iraq used its Super Etendards against Iran. The United States warned Iran against such a move and declared that it would keep the Strait open to international shipping. In order to show its determination, the United States dispatched three warships to the Indian Ocean on 13 October.

In March 1984, Iraq for the first time used the Super Etendards in an attack on a Greek tanker in the Persian Gulf. Probably because it was almost impossible to close the Strait, which is 12 miles wide, and because this would affect Iran’s own oil exports, Iran did not follow through with its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz after this and other Iraqi attacks on tankers anchored at Kharg. Instead, in May 1984, Iran followed Iraq’s lead in attacking tankers (Cordesman, 1991, pp. 192-94). For the remainder of the year both countries continued their attacks. Iraq carried out 54 attacks and Iran 18 (Hiro, 1989, p. 284). On 1 June, the Security Council accepted Resolution 552, in which attacks on ships en route to and from ports in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were condemned. At the same time, the UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar tried to negotiate with Iran and Iraq for an end to resumed bombardments of civilian targets. On 11 June, he succeeded in formulating a moratorium on shelling and bombing of urban centers, which both sides accepted (Hiro, 1989, p. 130).

The measures Iraq adopted for pressuring Iran to accept a negotiated settlement acutely impaired Iran’s economy, but Iraq failed in its primary objective. Iran would not accept a truce and took steps to minimize its oil revenue losses by moving its shipment points out of the range of Iraqi aircrafts (Ramazani, p. 221). In 1985, both countries launched some land offensives, but the war was waged mainly in the Persian Gulf. As Iraq increased its attacks on shipping, Iran responded with its own attacks and began inspecting ships going through the Strait of Hormuz in order to impede arms supplies to Iraq. Despite Iraq’s use of modern, advanced weapon systems, destroying the Iranian oil installations proved impossible, and after two years of attacks on tankers and oil installations it became clear this phase of the war also had reached a stalemate (Ramazani, p. 223).

In February 1986, Iran launched Wa’l-fajr VIII, which, with the occupation of Fāʾu peninsula, turned out to be its greatest success since the liberation of Khorramshahr. However, Wa’l-fajr IX too only had limited success, Iraq launched a counter-offensive to boost the morale of the Iraqi troops and population. Despite a worsening economic situation and spiraling inflation, Iran continued its expensive ground war. In autumn, more Iranian offensives, named Karbalā, followed, but these also had only limited results; and Karbalā IV, launched in December, was a failure with a high casualty rate on both sides (Cordesman, 1991, p. 124).

International involvement. In 1987 the Islamic Republic had become more and more isolated from the rest of the world due to its uncompromising stance in the war (Chubin and Tripp, pp. 219-20). There was, however, no indication that the Iranian regime was prepared to alter its policy; instead, it undertook a renewed and intensified campaign for mobilization at the end of 1987. Iran continued its ground attacks, seemingly with the primary objectives of draining Iraq economically and militarily by inflicting a large number of casualties on the Iraqi army, which was struggling with a shortage of manpower. Iraq retaliated by increasing its attacks on Iranian oil refineries and shipping installations. In 1987 Iranian and Iraqi attacks in the Persian Gulf led to greater involvement by the international community in the war. While only two Kuwaiti tankers had been hit by Iran since 1985, in January 1987 Kuwait officially requested to have its tankers reflagged as American ships, thus securing American naval support in the Persian Gulf. Initially the United States was reluctant, concerned that this would directly involve it in the conflict and erode its facade of neutrality by supporting one of Iraq’s allies. However, the United States increased its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, followed by Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The decision to send warships to the region was readily justified after Iran positioned Chinese-made Silkworm coastal defense missiles near the Strait of Hormuz. With these powerful missiles the Iranians were capable of sinking tankers and cargo vessels in the Persian Gulf. In March, Kuwaiti tankers were finally placed under the American flag when it was learned that Kuwait also had contacted the Soviet Union about protecting its vessels and that the Soviet Union had agreed to lease tankers to Kuwait. In May, there was heightened concern in Washington with the war after the American frigate USS Stark was hit by two Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi aircraft, killing 37 and injuring 21 of its crew (Stork, 1987, p. 4).

A new crisis developed in June after the discovery of mines in the Persian Gulf; it was suspected that Iran was responsible. Several tankers and ships were damaged by the mines. As a result, the NATO partners reconsidered their refusal of an American request to send minesweepers to the Persian Gulf. In September, minesweepers were dispatched by Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands (Keesings, 1987, p. 626). Tensions increased as the United States Navy engaged in direct military action in the Persian Gulf. On 21 September, the U.S. Navy attacked an Iranian landing-vessel, killing three people. The U.S. Navy alleged that Iranians were laying mines and had mines aboard.

While the war continued on all fronts and other countries became more and more involved, the United Nations Security Council on 20 July 1987 unanimously accepted Resolution 598. Among the ten articles, the most important called for an immediate cease-fire, an exchange of prisoners of war, the withdrawal of both sides’ forces behind internationally recognized frontiers, and the appointment of a commission to determine responsibility for the war. Iraq accepted the resolution on the condition that Iran too should accept it. Iran neither accepted nor rejected the resolution; rather, it demanded that the sequence of the articles in the resolution be changed. Instead of article 1, which demanded an immediate cease-fire, Iran wanted the resolution to begin with article 6, which authorized the appointment of a commission to inquire into responsibility for the conflict. By taking this stance instead of outright rejection, Iran avoided an international embargo which the United Nations sought to impose on the party that rejected the resolution. The peace mission of Peréz de Cuéllar to both countries in September for discussing a cease-fire was unproductive, because Iran reiterated it would only accept a cease-fire if Iraq was identified as the aggressor by the UN (Keesings, 1987 p. 630).

At the beginning of 1988, there were only limited land encounters in the war, with most attacks directed against shipping in the Persian Gulf and the cities. The war of attrition pursued by Iran did not correspond to Saddam Hussein’s plans. Iraq wanted an end to the war, but, considering the attitude of Iranian leaders, that seemed a remote possibility. In February, the ‘War of the Cities’ was resumed by Iraq on a much larger scale with Iran following suit. On 16 March, the Iraqi air force used poison gas to attack Ḥalabja, an Iraqi town which had been captured by Iranian forces and their Iraqi Kurdish allies the day before. At least 4,000 people were killed, most of them civilians. A month later, the Iraqi army launched several offensives forcing the Iranian army to retreat from their positions in Iraq.

In the Persian Gulf the war continued with increased Iraqi attacks on Iranian targets and escalating confrontation between Iran and the United States. Fear of Iranian suicide bombers made the Americans very nervous. After the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark, to which the U.S. had not reacted quickly enough, Americans did not want to take any chances. This was presumably the reason for the USS Vincennes’ downing of the Iran Air Airbus over the Strait of Hormuz on 3 July 1988 by a missile. The civilian airbus was on a regular flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, carrying 290 passengers. The captain of the Vincennes, which was later admitted to have been in Iranian territorial waters, gave orders to fire at the plane allegedly after concluding that the plane was a hostile warplane (i.e., an F14 Tomcat). Moreover, at the time he claimed that the Iranian plane did not identify itself and did not respond to warning signals from the Vincennes. Iran, however, insisted that the civilian aircraft was ascending and therefore could not have posed a threat to the Vincennes. Other independent sources, including the airport controllers in Dubai, have confirmed this as well as Iran’s claim that the plane did indeed identify itself to the American naval ship. Initially, there was harsh rhetoric on the Iranian side, but no retaliatory actions followed: instead Iran called upon the United Nations to condemn the United States for the incident (Keesings, 1988, p. 433). The U.S. later paid compensation, though still challenging Iran’s account of the incident and refusing to issue an apology (for an independent investigation, see Ted Koppel, “The USS Vincennes: Public War, Secret War,” ABC News Nightline, 1 July 1992).


On 18 July 1988, President Khamene’i in a letter to Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar announced that Iran had accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, which called for an immediate cease-fire. In a public speech broadcast by the Iranian media, Khomeini stated that he personally had endorsed the acceptance of the resolution (Gieling, pp. 164-75). The downing of the Iran Air Airbus was not the main reason for Iran’s acceptance of Resolution 598, but it certainly was a contributing factor. Iran’s decision to end the war was based on a number of factors. Chief among these were the recent military defeats caused by the shortage of arms, Iran’s international isolation, deteriorating economic conditions, American presence in the Persian Gulf, the war expenditure, and heavy casualties (Mofid, 1990, p. 135). According to unofficial estimates, inflation in Iran had reached 40-50 percent by 1987 and early 1988. The unemployment rate was very high (28.6 percent of the labor force in 1986), despite the high level of mobilization (Kanovsky, p. 243). Another major reason may also have been that the war no longer served the Islamic revolution and had actually become a threat to the very existence of the Islamic Republic. This threat emanated from within Iran as well, with mounting criticism of the continuation of a war without the prospect of victory voiced, not only by the opponents of the regime, but also by a large segment of the population in general. The initial zeal and patriotic support of the population for the war had been replaced by loss of morale among the public and at the front, especially after the intensive Iraqi attacks on Iranian cities and the growing fear that the Iraqis would use chemical weapons against Iranian cities (Chubin, p. 23).

Iraq reacted skeptically to Iran’s acceptance of the UN resolution. It announced it would continue the war as long as Iran used “deceptive language,” and would only accept a truce when Iran agreed to direct negotiations. This intractable stance was accompanied by Iraqi attacks on Iranian border towns and the capture of Iranian territory in order to improve Iraq’s bargaining position before the talks got underway. On 6 August, Saddam Hussein again declared that he was amenable to a settlement if Iran accepted direct talks after the truce. Iran accepted this proposal a few days later. After two weeks, on 20 September, the cease-fire between the two countries formally commenced. The negotiations, which started five days later under the auspices of the United Nations in Geneva, soon became deadlocked over the question of the Shatt al-Arab. Both parties refused to make concessions on this point and some other issues, such as the continued occupation of Iranian territory by the Iraqi forces. As a result, further rounds of negotiations in September and November 1988, and in the spring of 1989, failed to yield any constructive result.

Two years later, on 15 July 1990, two weeks after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein finally offered a permanent settlement to the war, which technically had not yet ended. He announced that Iraq would accept the Algiers Protocol of 1975, accept joint sovereignty over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, withdraw Iraqi troops from up to 1,000 square miles of Iranian territory which Iraq still occupied, and exchange prisoners of war held by both sides (Gorawantschy, p. 156). War reparations and the subject of responsibility for the outbreak of the war were not part of the offer, which in fact was never ratified by the Iraqi government. Resolution 598 was only implemented to effect a cease-fire and separation of forces (McLachlan, p. 70). In 1988, the Iranian government hailed Saddam’s acceptance of the cease-fire “the greatest victory of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but added that it would urge full Iraqi compliance with the terms of Resolution 598. Iran opposed the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait. In an official statement on 14 November, Iran said it did not approve of any change in internationally recognized borders through military action. Apart from this, Iran wanted an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait because it had resulted in the military presence of the United States in the region, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, which Iran condemned (Haeri, p. 13). Although Iranian leaders used strong rhetoric and in September 1990 Khamene’i, under pressure from more radical elements, even called for a jihad against the United States’ presence in Saudi Arabia, Iran maintained an official position of “active” neutrality throughout the conflict (see GULF WAR; Arjomand, 1991, p. 62; Milani, p. 41).



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(Saskia M. Gieling)

Originally Published: December 15, 2006

Last Updated: March 30, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XIII, Fasc. 6, pp. 572-581