The war between Iran and Iraq is approaching its fourth anniversary. In its duration, large numbers of casualties and physical damage, this war already ranks as one of the most serious armed conflicts since World War II. Several Iranian cities and numerous towns have been destroyed, and the city of Basra, Iraq’s second largest, has been under serious threat for a year or more. Both countries have extensive industrial and oil exporting facilities in the war zone which have been heavily damaged in the fighting. Economic losses in both countries are calculated in many tens of billions of dollars. Iran claimed in May 1983 that it had suffered $90 billion in economic damages. [1] Iraq has not provided any comparable estimate; Deputy Oil Minister ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Samarra’i said in early 1982 that it would take five years to restore Iraq’s hydrocarbon industry to its pre-war efficiency. [2]

The human costs have been enormous. US military analysts estimated that by mid-February 1984 — before the latest phase of shellings and offensives — Iran had suffered 180,000 killed and Iraq 65,000; Iran’s wounded were estimated at 540,000 and Iraq’s at 165,000. [3] These are obviously very crude estimates, which tend to overstate Iran’s losses and understate Iraq’s. Other estimates of Iraqi deaths are as high as 100,000, and the true figure is probably around 75-80,000. Iranian wounded are calculated by a “battlefield rule of thumb” of three wounded for every fatality. For Iraq, the ratio used is inexplicably lower. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross in May 1983, Iran reported holding 45 to 50,000 Iraqi POWs, while Iraq had registered some 6,800 Iranian POWs. [4] In terms of the damage inflicted and the hatreds engendered, the war — no matter what its immediate outcome?has probably defined an era of intense protracted conflict which will last for many years.

Despite its intensity and duration, though, this war has been strangely limited. In the opening weeks of the war, and again recently, both countries’ air forces have taken part, but this has largely been a land war. Large numbers of troops and artillery have been involved in major offensives but produced only small movements of the front lines. The war has raged along almost every part of the 730-mile border between the two countries, but most of the national territory of both states, including Tehran and Baghdad, has remained outside the war zone. The war’s regional impact had been quite limited until Iraq initiated the latest “tanker war” phase in mid-April. Even then, the world oil market has experienced no crisis of supply or price. Finally, the specter of superpower confrontation in the war has remained fairly remote. The recent escalation may force a truce and a negotiated settlement, as Iraq hopes. It seems likely, though, that the conflict will remain stalemated, with both armies dug in along most of their border for many months to come.

Backdrop to the War

Relations between Iran and Iraq have frequently been hostile. In the modern period, the territory that became the independent state of Iraq had been part of the Ottoman Empire, and as such had a degree of leverage over Iran, then known as Persia. This relationship continued after World War I, when Britain assumed formal political control over the new Iraqi state. In the 1930s, clashes along their disputed borders and the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway led to a treaty in 1937 which allocated the entire Shatt al-‘Arab to Iraqi sovereignty except for small anchorage areas at the Iranian ports of Abadan and Khorramshahr. The treaty was in line with earlier agreements of 1847 and 1913-1914, and reflected the political weight of Britain as Iraq’s sponsoring power. The next two decades were relatively peaceful, although Iraq was predictably aligned with Britain in the crisis over Iranian nationalization of British oil interests under Mohammad Mossadeq, the crisis which restored the Shah to power in August 1953. (In fact, the Iraqi battle plan of September 1980 was reportedly based on a British military contingency plan drawn up in 1950 which mapped out an Iraqi military occupation of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan province. [5]) These decades of relative tranquility ended when Iraq’s British-sponsored monarchy was toppled by Iraqi army officers in July 1958. Iran had regarded the 1937 treaty as an imposition of British hegemony, and in November 1959 the Shah demanded that the river border be moved from the Iranian shore to the middle of the Shatt al-‘Arab channel. Iranian ships stopped using Iraqi pilots or paying Iraqi tolls. Iraq’s ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim responded the next month by also declaring the 1937 treaty void, claiming the waters around Abadan and Khorramshahr for Iraq. But Baghdad lacked the military strength to challenge Tehran.

Hostilities between the two countries came to the fore again after the Baath Party took power in Baghdad in July 1968. Border clashes erupted in March 1969. In April, Iraq insisted that Iranian ships resume toll payments. Iran refused, Iranian vessels entered the Shatt al-‘Arab under Iranian naval escort, and the Shah abrogated the 1937 treaty. The border conflict was symptomatic of deeper problems between the two regimes, and in many respects the shifting location of the river boundary simply expressed changes in the overall balance of forces between the two countries. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, Baghdad had been engaged in a prolonged struggle with the major Western oil companies over control of Iraq’s reserves and production. Iran’s relations with these same companies were quite warm. Politically and militarily, Iran was closely aligned with the United States, while Iraq found support from the Soviet Union. After 1968-1969, the Shah’s regime made great efforts to destabilize the Baath in Baghdad by actively supporting Kurdish secessionists led by Mustafa Barzani. This campaign was carried out in very close collaboration with both the United States and Israel. Iraq in turn supported secessionist elements among Iran’s Arab, Kurdish and Baluch minorities, but these annoyances did not compare with the threat posed to Baathist rule by the Kurdish insurgency. Much of Iraq’s armed forces were tied down in the Kurdish campaign, and President Saddam Hussein has since claimed that the Iraqi army suffered 16,000 casualties in what amounted to an undeclared war between the two countries fought out largely through Kurdish forces.

By late 1974, this war had escalated to the brink of direct clashes between Iraqi and Iranian military forces. This threat prompted mediation efforts, first by Turkey and then Algeria. On March 6, 1975, Saddam Hussein (then vice president of Iraq) met with the shah during an OPEC summit conference in Algiers. Their agreement called for an end to “all acts of infiltration of a subversive character.” In return for Iran’s restraint on this score, Iraq agreed to Iran’s long-standing demand that the Shatt al-‘Arab border be set at the thalweg, or mid-channel, as is the norm for international borders involving rivers. A Treaty of International Boundaries and Good Neighborliness was signed in Baghdad on June 13, 1975, and the treaty was ratified in September. At one level, the war that erupted in September 1980 was an act of Iraqi retribution for Iran’s imposition of the 1975 treaty. “We would not have agreed if we’d had the choice,” Iraqi Defense Minister ‘Adnan Khayrallah stated on September 25, 1980.

Iran’s support for the Kurdish insurgency points to another major factor in the history of hostile relations between these two nation states: namely, the interlocking of communities. Kurds make up about 6 percent of Iran’s population and about 20 percent of Iraq’s. Iraq has long claimed to represent the ethnically Arab population of southern Iran’s Khuzistan province. The most potent instance of this interlocking of communities emerged after the Iranian revolution — the responsibility which the Islamic Republic assumed for the 55 percent of the Iraqi population which is Shi‘i. At another level, then, the cause of this four-year-old war was the Iranian revolution itself, for it introduced into this already tense equation a new and dynamic element, Islamic universalism versus Iraqi nationalism. Both regimes felt that the adversary was supporting their domestic opponents, and both were drawn into the conflict as a result of their domestic divisions and unstable political bases.

In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that the Iraqi government was in any danger of being overthrown in the period after the Iranian revolution. But Saddam Hussein, who took full and formal power as president of Iraq in July 1979, believed strongly that his tenure required him to move fast and hard against any threats of opposition. The fate of his neighbor the Shah could only have reinforced this inclination. In June of 1979, when Iraqi Shi‘a protested the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the government dispersed them with military force, killing scores and arresting some 3,000. Hussein insisted that the leading members of the Shi‘i opposition organization, al-Da‘wa al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Call), be executed. This was reportedly one factor in the resignation of President Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and the accession of Saddam Hussein. In March 1980, the Iraqi government executed around 100 Shi‘i activists, many of them members of al-Da‘wa. Al-Da‘wa, for its part, claims that some 500 of its cadre and sympathizers were executed between 1974 and 1980, and another 600 since September 1980.

Tensions between Baghdad and Tehran increased dramatically, and each government asked the ambassador of the other to leave. On April 1, a hand-grenade attack at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyya University wounded Deputy Prime Minister Tariq ‘Aziz and killed two students. An Iraqi of Iranian descent was seized and accused of the crime. On April 5, at a funeral procession for the students killed a few days earlier, a bomb killed another student. Over the next week clashes erupted along the border, more diplomats were expelled, and Iraq raised the demand that Iran withdraw from the three small Persian Gulf islands that the Shah had seized in 1970. In Tehran, leading spokesmen of the Islamic Republic, including President Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, Foreign Minister Sadeq Qotbzadeh and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, asserted that the Iraqi regime would be, in the ayatollah’s words, “dispatched to the refuse bin of history.” Iraq deported more than 15,000 Iraqi citizens of Iranian origin to Iran. Sometime in this month, most probably on April 8 or 9, Baghdad secretly executed Ayatollah al-Sadr after he refused to reverse his condemnation of the regime as “un-Islamic.” On April 22, Khomeini declared three days of mourning for al-Sadr, and Tehran began training Iraqi Shi‘a in guerrilla tactics. It seems most likely that Saddam Hussein made the final decision to go to war in April 1980.

In June, each government broke off diplomatic relations with the other. Tehran stepped up its propaganda attacks against Saddam Hussein, while Baghdad allowed two prominent Iranian exiles, Shahpour Bakhtiar and Gen. Gholam Ali Oveissi, each to operate their own separate radio stations from Iraqi territory. July saw the failure of a military coup attempt in Iran, masterminded by Bakhtiar. According to one account of this period, the Soviet Union, through the Tudeh Party, passed to Tehran Iraqi war plans which visualized capturing Khuzistan province in a week, linking up with the insurgents in Iranian Kurdistan, and declaring a “Free Republic of Iran” under Bakhtiar based in the southern city of Ahwaz. [6]

The First Phase: Invasion

The war has so far passed through five fairly distinct phases. The first phrase, the Iraqi offensive into Iran, began in September 1980 and had clearly ended by late March 1981. Saddam Hussein asserts that the war began on September 4 with Iranian attacks across the border near Qasr-i-Shirin, Nasrabad and Kalantari. On September 6, Iraq threatened to capture some 200 square kilometers of territory around Musian (which Iraq claimed under the 1975 Algiers agreement). On September 10, Baghdad claimed it had seized this territory. Border clashes continued over the following week, and on September 17 Saddam Hussein formally abrogated the 1975 treaty, declaring that Iran had refused to abide by it and that the Shatt al-‘Arab river was “totally Iraqi and totally Arab.” When Iran refused Iraqi demands that its ships take on Iraqi pilots, heavy fighting broke out along the waterway. On September 22, Iraqi warplanes bombed ten Iranian airfields and the next day approximately a third of Iraq’s 200,000-man army moved across the border into Khuzistan. In the very first days of the war — on September 23 and 24 — both sides launched air attacks against oil production and exporting facilities and other economic installations, forcing both countries to halt oil exports. There is no basis for the assertion that Iran “started” the attacks against oil installations. Eventually Iraq was able to resume limited exports via the pipelines through Turkey and Syria, and Iran was able to resume exports through Kharg Island. Iraqi attacks against Kharg Island continued throughout the war, and Iran’s ability to continue exporting was not due to any Iraqi restraint in this regard.

Certainly one of the calculations behind the Iraqi escalation and invasion of Khuzistan was the reported deterioration of the Iranian military under the impact of the revolution. Western sources estimated that some 140,000 military personnel had deserted in the course of the revolution, lowering the armed forces from 260,000 to 110,000. [7] Strains between the military command and the new revolutionary regime were considerable. Most important, in the Iraqi view, was that the hostage crisis had completely severed Iran from its superpower patron, the United States, cutting off the Iranian military from badly needed spare parts and logistical assistance. In addition, much of the armed forces were occupied by the Kurdish insurgents, or stationed along the Soviet border. The Iraqis faced little opposition from the regular Iranian military as they slowly advanced into Khuzistan behind heavy artillery. Iraqi strategy, designed to keep its own casualties to a minimum, called for surrounding and besieging the major cities in Khuzistan — Abadan, Ahwaz, Khorramshahr and Dezful. One month later, Iraq was finally able to announce the capture of Khorramshahr after close, intense house-to-house fighting with the Revolutionary Guards who comprised the major Iranian defense force in the province. Sieges continued against the other cities, but they were never taken. Western analysts subsequently faulted the Iraqi high command for not moving swiftly to take Dezful, the major economic and communications link of Khuzistan with Tehran and the Test of the country. [8]

Another factor was the extent to which Baghdad misjudged the support it could expect from Khuzistan’s Arab population. The invasion aroused no significant support for Iraq among this target group. By the end of two months, Iraq had captured about a third of Khuzistan province, but only Khorramshahr among the major cities. The major fighting over the next several months was for control of Abadan. Iranian officials claimed the invasion had created 1.5 million refugees. In late December, Iraq opened a second front in the northern Kurdistan area but apparently made no major gains there. On the Iranian side, an offensive commenced on January 5, but this achieved little. By February, it appeared that neither side was able to achieve a decisive military breakthrough, raising outside hopes that the situation was conducive to negotiations through the auspices of the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement or the Islamic Conference Organization.

According to the Iraqi government, its war aims were limited to the “recovery” of “complete rights to the Shatt al-‘Arab and other usurped Iraqi territories,” an end to Iranian interference in Iraq’s internal affairs and the return of the three small Gulf islands to the United Arab Emirates. On the one hand, Baghdad professed no interest in keeping any Iranian territory. On the other hand, Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yasin Ramadan declared on October 21, 1980, that Iraq would “continue to clean up the region and take the cities of Arabistan,” and that “Arabistan oil will remain Iraqi as long as Tehran will not negotiate.” [9]

Tehran made clear on numerous occasions that it would not consider a ceasefire until Iraqi troops had completely withdrawn from Iranian territory. These irreconcilable positions frustrated UN special mediator Olof Palme, who visited both capitals in mid-February 1981. An Islamic Conference team visited both capitals in early March and proposed a ceasefire followed by an immediate Iraqi withdrawal. The Iranian Supreme Defense Council rejected this unanimously, while Iraq indicated interest in the proposal. Khomeini thus used the Islamic Conference to test Iraqi resolve to continue the war. Baghdad’s eagerness for negotiations encouraged the Iranian leadership to fight on. Saddam Hussein recognized the trap he had stepped into, and tried to reverse the situation with a determined effort to capture the city of Susangard on March 19-20. The failure of this offensive marked the end of the first phase of the war.

The events of March 1981 also marked a significant escalation in the declared war aims of both sides. Saddam Hussein declared Iraqi readiness to aid Iranian minorities to “achieve their national rights” and establish relations with Iraq, and later pledged “full support for all nationalities and national movements” attempting to overthrow the Khomeini regime. Tariq ‘Aziz declared in mid-April that “we have reached a point where objectives have changed,” and that “now we don’t care if Iran is dismembered.” [10] On the Iranian side, Speaker of the Majlis Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani asserted that “removal of Saddam’s regime” was “our strategic goal on which we will not compromise.”

This first phase of the war also produced a relatively stable pattern of regional and international alliances behind the contending parties. On the Arab side, only King Hussein of Jordan declared open and unambiguous support for Iraq’s war initiative. Support from the Arabian Peninsula states was more circumspect publicly but also more significant materially. As the war dragged on, they provided Baghdad an estimated billion dollars a month over the first two years. Kuwait, in addition to financial support, also provided a crucial transshipment point for Iraqi imports once the Shatt al-‘Arab was closed by the fighting. Several Iranian air attacks on Kuwaiti targets in November 1980, June 1981 and October 1981 posed the danger of a wider war, but until the spring of 1984 actual fighting remained confined to Iranian and Iraqi territory. Iran, for its part, enlisted the support of Syria and Libya early on. Outside the Arab world, Turkey’s new military junta maintained a careful neutrality and profitable trade with both states. Israel covertly supported Iran by selling badly needed spare parts for US-supplied weapons and aircraft through third parties. The Israelis asserted that their support for Iran was coordinated with the US, which Washington denied. Once the war broke out, the US adopted a stance of official neutrality, while using the crisis to build up its military forces in the region. Whatever unofficial encouragement Washington might have given Baghdad to attack Iran, it declared its opposition to any effort to force the collapse of the Iranian nation-state. Washington already had a full embargo on military shipments to Iran, thanks to the hostage crisis, and after the war broke out it cancelled several standing Iraqi orders for items such as gas turbines with potential military application. The Soviet Union, which had been the source of some 85 percent of Iraq’s military imports, opposed the invasion and halted military shipments. Deprived of military supplies from its major source, Iraq turned to Egypt and other friendly countries with Soviet-supplied military inventories for assistance.

The Second Phase: Stalemate

Iraq continued to hold about 14,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory, mostly in Khuzistan, but was unable to press its offensive any further. Iran had managed to re-mobilize its regular forces; together with the irregular Revolutionary Guards, Iran was now able to prevent further Iraqi advances but unable to break the sieges against Ahwaz, Dezful and, especially, Abadan. On April 4 the Iranian air force did manage to strike deep into Iraqi territory and destroy 46 warplanes at the al-Walid air base. [11] (Iraq later claimed that Syria had provided air cover for the Iranian attack.) For Iran, this year was one of political turmoil and economic difficulty. President Bani-Sadr was forced out of office and into exile; the government brutally suppressed the Mojahideen and other opposition forces. These developments paved the way for political consolidation of the regime and especially for cooperation between the army, the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij volunteer force established in late 1979. The Basij is an auxiliary, irregular short-term volunteer force which does not have the military training or structure of the Revolutionary Guards, for instance. They now come under the authority of the Revolutionary Guards. The poor state of the economy led Iran to spur its oil exports by offering discounts off the mandated OPEC price, and by the spring of 1982 it was again exporting nearly a million and a half barrels per day. This was probably an important asset for those in the leadership arguing for a massive, multi-pronged offensive against the Iraqi occupation forces.

Iraq, for its part, continued its “guns and butter” approach of isolating its citizens from the indirect economic consequences of the war by drawing down its reserves and continuing to receive impressive subsidies from Saudi Arabia and other neighbors with a stake in the outcome of the war. Oil exports via pipelines through Syria and Turkey continued to provide some foreign exchange. As this period of stalemate continued, though, Iraq faced the need to shift to a program of austerity. On the battlefield, too, the tide began to turn against the Iraqis. In late September 1981, Iranian forces partially broke the siege of Abadan by driving Iraqi troops back to the west of the Karun River. In early November, Saddam Hussein proposed a one month ceasefire to coincide with Ramadan; Iran rejected this. December 1981 saw further heavy fighting. Saddam Hussein, during a tour of the battlefront, reflected the course of these battles when he told his troops: “It is very important that you must not lose any more positions.” [12]

Other signs that this year of stalemate might be coming to a close include renewed indications of support for Iraq from other Arab states. In early November 1981, Baghdad broadcast official congratulations to Egyptian volunteers participating in the war. Besides the accumulating signs of Iraqi reversals, the exposure of a conspiracy of pro-Iranian sympathizers in Bahrain to overthrow the Al Khalifa ruling family prompted declarations of concern among the Gulf rulers about the course of the war. In early February, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) publicly stated the intent of its member countries to counter Iranian influence in the Gulf. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, then in Riyadh, declared that US assistance in establishing a Gulf arms industry was “a very real possibility.”

Early March of 1982, like the same period a year earlier, saw a number of failed efforts to initiate a ceasefire and negotiations. By the end of the month, it was apparent that the war had entered an entirely new phase.

Phase Three: Iran Takes the Offensive

The Iranian new year, March 22, 1982, marked the start of this third phase of the war. The Iraqis had been expecting a new year’s offensive against Khorramshahr. Instead, Iran sent some 200,000 troops, Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia against Iraqi lines to the north of Khorramshahr, in the Dezful-Shush region. Waves of approximately 1,000 combatants, each armed with shoulder-held rocket launchers, advanced at intervals of 200 to 500 yards, straining Iraqi ammunition supplies and eventually overpowering them. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. The Iranians destroyed one mechanized and two armored Iraqi divisions and captured between 14 and 15,000 Iraqi prisoners. Western journalists were then invited to the Iranian front for the first time, where they reported that Iraqi POWs showed few signs of combat stress or battle fatigue. “They didn’t fight; they surrendered en masse,” was the conclusion of one analyst. [13] (There is reason to believe that many of these POWs were from the so-called Popular Army, a mass militia, rather than the regular army.) Saddam Hussein, in a message to Iraqi troops, asked them “not to feel bitter over the rearrangement of the Iraqi defense lines.” US intelligence officials referred to the Iraqi army as “on the verge of collapse.” [14]

Iraqi setbacks, meanwhile, were not limited to the battlefield. On April 8, Syria closed its borders with Iraq on the grounds that Iraq had been supporting the Syrian Muslim Brothers. On April 10, Damascus cut off the flow of Iraqi oil exports to the terminal at Banyas. The day before, on April 9, an Iranian tanker arrived at Banyas with the first consignment of oil to cover the supplies which Syria had been drawing from the Iraqi pipeline. This Iranian supply of oil to Syria on very favorable credit terms was renewed this past spring by the Iranian Majles. This reduced Iraqi oil exports to some 600,000 barrels per day through the Turkish pipeline, and cut some $5 billion from Iraq’s expected export earnings. On the next day, April 11, President Hussein announced the start of economic austerity.

Iraq’s Arab allies also assumed a more visible profile. Some 15 to 17,000 Egyptians were serving in the Iraqi army, recruited from the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers then in Iraq by promises of high pay and war bonuses. [15] Egypt agreed in late March to sell Iraq $1.5 billion worth of war materiel — small arms, ammunition and Egyptian-manufactured anti-tank rockets. [16] Jordan’s King Hussein rushed to Iraq and reportedly offered to send about 20,000 men, or two divisions, to the front. [17] (Jordanian military “volunteers” were already guarding important Iraqi installations, freeing Iraqi troops for the front, and high-ranking Jordanian officers have apparently worked closely as advisers to the Iraqi high command. There are no indications that any regular Jordanian troops were ever sent to the front, although the king did encourage Jordanians to volunteer for a special “Yarmuk Brigade.” [18] This appeal did not strike a popular chord, though, and it seems unlikely that the number of Jordanian forces serving in Iraq in any military capacity ever exceeded 5,000.) In May 1982, Baghdad denied rumors of regular Egyptian or Jordanian forces serving in Iraq, and acknowledged only the presence of volunteers from Jordan and North Yemen. [19] Deputy Prime Minister Ramadan said in early 1983 that the Popular Army which he heads includes 14,000 volunteers from “other Arab countries.” [20] Those mentioned include, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan, along with Egypt, Jordan and the YAR.

Saddam Hussein declared on April 12 that Iraq would withdraw from Iran if it had assurances this would end the war. The GCC states were reportedly considering a Gulf Reconstruction Fund which would serve as a mechanism for meeting Iranian demands for reparations. Iran’s response was to resume its offensive on April 30. Within a week, Iran regained a 22-mile section of the border between Husayniyya and Khorramshahr and prepared to retake the only major city which Iraq had managed to capture. The attack on Khorramshahr began on May 21, as 70,000 Iranians moved against the 35,000 Iraqi occupation troops there. On May 23, Saddam Hussein invoked the Arab League defense charter to secure military assistance, to no avail. On May 24, Khorramshahr fell to the Iranians; 12,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered while the rest fled. On May 28, Iranian forces moved north to the central front to expel Iraqi troops from Iranian territory there. Iran’s Speaker of the Majles Rafsanjani declared that Iran had no intention of interfering in the Gulf states, but that replacement of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad was a necessary condition for negotiations.

Syria and Saudi Arabia reportedly held consultations on a possible successor to Saddam Hussein, with Damascus favoring former president Hasan al-Bakr and the Saudis suggesting Shafiq Daraji, Iraq’s ambassador in Riyadh. [21] On June 2, the GCC foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh offered a peace plan: a ceasefire, withdrawal to the 1975 treaty borders, and negotiations to resolve all outstanding issues. These efforts were soon blown off course by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The attempted assassination of Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London was apparently masterminded by Nawwaf al-Rusan, a colonel in Iraqi intelligence, according to later court proceedings in London. One interpretation of the sequence of events is that Baghdad ordered the assassination to precipitate a major crisis such as the invasion of Lebanon and provide a rationale for Iraq to declare an immediate ceasefire in order that all parties might join a common front against Israel.

On June 10, as the Israeli army reached the outskirts of Beirut, Iraq’s ruling Revolutionary Command Council declared its readiness for an immediate ceasefire and a verdict on which side started the war from the UN, the Non-Aligned Movement or the ICO. Iran spurned the offer. On June 20, Saddam Hussein unilaterally announced that Iraq would withdraw completely from Iran within ten days. Rumors were then circulating in Baghdad that Saddam Hussein would soon be replaced by a triumvirate of Tariq ‘Aziz, Taha Yassin Ramadan and Foreign Minister Sa‘doun Hammadi. Khomeini may have concluded that Saddam Hussein’s departure was imminent. But on June 28 Saddam Hussein confounded his adversaries and critics by dismissing the entire Revolutionary Command Council and reappointing a smaller one, with himself still as chairman. He extended the purge to the cabinet and the senior officer corps. The former minister of health, Riyad Ibrahim Husayn, was executed, reportedly for the crime of suggesting that Iraq’s interests might be better served if Saddam Hussein were to step aside in favor of former president al-Bakr. This elimination of potential opposition within the Baath regime, coupled with the earlier ruthless suppression of al-Da‘wa, left Khomeini with only one way to fulfill his goal of toppling Saddam. On July 9, Majles speaker Rafsanjani reiterated Iran’s demands: restoration of the 1975 treaty borders, repatriation of over 100,000 Iraqis expelled by Baghdad, $100 billion in war reparations and acceptance of war guilt by Iraq. If these demands were not met, he added, Iran would carry the war into Iraq.

Phase Four: The Assault Against Iraq

On July 12, Iran rejected a UN Security Council call for a ceasefire and withdrawal and on the next day deployed five divisions to capture Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. The Iranians drove ten miles into Iraq, coming within seven miles of Basra. Iraqi defenses consisted of well-placed machine gun and artillery positions, minefields and barbed wire, manned by four divisions. Some 150,000 troops were locked in intense battles that raged for a week. The Iraqis, defending their own territory, blunted the Iranian thrust and even managed to push back Tehran’s forces. A second Iranian offensive, on July 22, was likewise blocked. The fortnight’s bloody fighting ended in a stalemate. Independent observers estimated Iranian battlefield casualties at 1,000 per day.

The major accomplishment of this offensive, from Iran’s perspective, was that Saddam Hussein was forced to ask the Non-Aligned Movement to shift the venue of its upcoming summit from Baghdad to New Delhi, and thus to relinquish his three-year term as leader of the movement.

In September 1982, the Arab League summit in Fez, Morocco, proposed a ceasefire for the coming pilgrimage season, complete Iraqi withdrawal, and more than $100 billion in compensation to Iran through an Islamic Reconstruction Fund. Iran rejected the proposals and launched four new offensives in late October-early November, three of them on the central front. Each gained small amounts of territory but failed to penetrate far into Iraq. The offensives resumed in February 1983 in the Musian area. The Iranians succeeded in pushing many miles into Iraq, but Iraq, using aircraft and helicopter gun ships extensively for the first time in battlefield support missions, was able to push them back. In late March, however, the first Iraqi offensive in two years, near Shahrani in the central sector, made no gains.

The change in Iraq’s military fortunes, once the war had shifted to its territory, had two causes. First, troop morale and the coherence of Iraq’s war aims were both enhanced by the overriding goal of defending Iraqi territory. Politically, Saddam Hussein’s position was strengthened by the military threat of an Iranian conquest. Iraqi Shi‘a shared with their fellow citizens fear of the violent disruption of their lives which an Iranian victory would entail. Second, although Iraq had lost 117 warplanes and more than 2,300 tanks and armored personnel carriers, it had managed to maintain a substantial inventory of weapons and ordnance. The chief supplier of advanced weaponry was France. Egypt was an important source of weapons and ammunition as well, including Chinese-made MiG-19s and 21s. Thus Iraq was able to maintain its pre-war strength in combat aircraft at around 332. Furthermore, once the war had shifted onto Iraqi territory, the Soviet Union resumed its military supply relationship with Baghdad. (It appears that the USSR began delivering previously contracted military supplies in the summer-fall of 1982, once the war shifted into Iraq. The subsequent Iranian government suppression of the Tudeh Party, beginning in the fall of 1982, left the Soviets little incentive to restrain arms shipments to Iraq. Although the Tudeh crackdown had several causes, probably the most important was Tudeh criticism of the government for pursuing the war into Iraq.)

Iran, for its part, managed to get certain military supplies through Syria, Libya and Israel, and from states outside the region, mainly North Korea. War losses and the lack of spare parts reduced airworthy Iranian warplanes from about 445 to 80. Iran was forced to conserve their use for defensive purposes, to protect airfields, refineries, important cities and economic installations, rather than to provide air cover for its troops.

Iran still had the advantages of rising oil earnings and a greater political capacity to sustain casualties. Nevertheless, Iranian losses in the series of attacks up through February 1983 compelled Tehran to abandon reliance on large, concentrated “human wave” offensives. During that spring, the Iranians built up their forces all along the border with a view to overstretching Iraq’s resources and exploiting Baghdad’s vulnerability to a war of attrition. In an offensive that began July 20 in the Piranshahr area of the northern sector, dissident Iraqi Kurds and Shi‘a reportedly fought with the Iranians. This battle brought the Iranians nine miles inside Iraq and captured the garrison of Hajj ‘Umran, cutting off Iraqi supplies to Iranian Kurdish insurgents. This time the Iraqi counterattack failed to dislodge the Iranians, and on July 30 Iran moved six miles into Iraq on the central Mahran front. Baghdad acknowledged that it had implemented a “strategic retreat” in the central sector. In the occupied northern territory, Iran allowed the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI) to open offices.

In the fall of 1983, Iraq prepared to initiate yet another phase in the war. Baghdad had already received from France, its main Western supplier, Exocet missiles which had proved effective in Argentinian hands during the Falklands war, but it lacked a delivery system which allowed it to attack Iranian naval targets from a distance. In January 1983, Iraq had requested that France supply it with Super Etendard jet fighters which would allow it to threaten credibly Iran’s oil exports by attacking tankers taking oil from the main export facility at Kharg Island. Iraq evidently had three objectives in mind. First, it would use the threat of such escalation to ward off any new major Iranian offensive. Second, faced with this threat, Iran might allow Iraq to renew its own oil exports through the Gulf or through the Syrian pipeline. In fact, Iran responded with a threat to retaliate by hitting the oil exports of Iraq’s allies in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. From Baghdad’s perspective, this would serve a third objective of transforming the struggle into an Arab-Iranian battle and prompting superpower pressure for a truce or direct US intervention against Iran.

Both Washington and Paris wanted to avoid an Iraqi military collapse; they agreed with Baghdad that Iran’s attrition strategy had to be challenged. The US was primarily concerned about the consequences of an Iranian victory on the balance of political forces throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The French interest was more directly tied to the survival of Saddam Hussein. Le Monde, in May 1983, put French military sales to Iraq at $5.6 billion since September 1980, plus $4.7 billion in civilian and commercial contracts. [22] At least $7 billion of this total was in the form of loans and credits which might be at risk if the present regime were to be replaced by one strongly under Iranian influence. [23] Iraq renewed its request for the Super Etendards when Tariq ‘Aziz visited Paris in May 1983. During that same visit, ‘Aziz met with Secretary of State George Shultz.

Iran appeared undeterred. In mid-September, Iranian forces crossed into Iraq in the Marivan area. On the third anniversary of the war, Khomeini warned that if Iranian oil exports were interrupted Iran would make sure that “not a drop of oil flowed through the Hormuz Straits.” Tehran moved its elite troops to Larak, Henqin and Sirri islands in the Straits, and built up its artillery and anti-aircraft installations on Qeshm and Greater Tunb islands. The US concentrated its naval forces in the Gulf region and warned that Washington would not allow Iran to close off the Gulf to oil exports. On October 8, Iraq informed the US that it planned to employ Exocet-armed Super Etendards against Iran.

Iran launched another offensive in the northern sector on October 19, pushing Iraqi forces out of the territory between Baneh and Marivan and then advancing 25 miles into Iraq. During these battles the first reports of Iraq using chemical weapons surfaced. [24] Iraq retaliated by mining the port of Bandar Khomeini and attacked Dezful, Masjid-i Suleiman and Behbehan with Scud-B surface-to-surface missiles, reportedly killing hundreds of civilians.

The immediate prospect of further escalation had no impact on peace proposals then in the air. Following the usual pattern, Iraq accepted and Iran rejected a UN Security Council call for a ceasefire. On November 2, Iraq confirmed the arrival in Iraq of the Super Etendard fighter jets. Heavy fighting continued on the northern front; Iraq’s elite Presidential Guard joined the battles there on November 5. The specter of a widening war came closer in December. A series of car bombings in Kuwait against the US Embassy and other targets there seemed aimed at forcing Kuwait to halt its political and financial aid to Iraq. The next day Iraq launched missile attacks against five Iranian towns in retaliation.

The land war intensified again in February 1984 along the southern border. On February 15, Iranian forces moved towards Kut and claimed to shell the main Baghdad-Basra highway. On February 22-23, Iran claimed to have taken Qurna, at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iraq denied both claims, and reports from the area indicated that the Iranians failed to maintain whatever gains they had made. Each side claimed to have inflicted thousands of casualties on the other. Iran then attacked across the marshlands near Basra on February 27, pushing some ten miles into Iraq and only four miles from the main north-south highway. Further large battles occurred over the next week. By March 5, though, Iraq claimed it had pushed the Iranians back at every point with the exception of the Majnun islands, the border site of a very large but undeveloped oil field. [25] During these battles of February and March, Iraq used mustard gas and other chemical weapons against Iranian combatants. [26]

Once again Iraq blunted the Iranian offensives but displayed no ability to turn the tide of battle. As of early 1983, Iraq had more than 300 first-line fighter bombers to less than 50 for Iran; in tanks Iraq had 3,000 and Iran only 8-900; and Iraq’s 1,800 heavy artillery pieces were double Iran’s. [27] A year later the margin was, if anything, even more heavily in Iraq’s favor. Still Iraq made no move to mount a counteroffensive. Iraqi forces remained in static positions. Iraq was beginning to use helicopter gunships effectively as battlefield support weapons, but this merely compensated for their use of tanks as pillboxes rather than mobile armor.

In February-March 1984, as a year earlier, Iraq effectively checked Iran’s current “final offensives.” Baghdad had used 1983 to stanch the erosion of its economy by securing additional credit and renegotiating interest and payments due, and to acquire additional advanced arms from France and the Soviet Union. It was thus in a better position in early 1984 to cope with Iran’s strategy of attrition. There was still one major point of vulnerability, though, which both countries shared to some degree: How long could these armies continue locked in combat before one or the other snapped? As one American military analyst observed, “This collapse could come at any time or never.” [28] Iraq has been unable to utilize advantages such as air power to retake its territory or impose unacceptable casualties on the Iranians. This was the situation Iraq attempted to compensate for by acquiring sophisticated weapons systems to strike at Iran’s oil exports.

Phase Five: The Tanker War

From the very first days of this war, both combatants had made serious efforts to destroy economic installations and particularly oil production and export facilities. As the conflict wore on, and both sides conserved their air power in favor of land maneuvers, attacks against economic targets tended to be restricted to the southern border region. The huge Iranian refinery, petrochemical and export facility at Abadan was the site of one of the longest sieges of the war. On the Iraqi side, much of its industrial infrastructure — steel, fertilizer and petrochemical plants among others — was concentrated in the area around Basra, and Iraq’s main oil exporting facilities were centered there as well.

Iraq maintained attacks against Iranian shipping throughout the war. Most of these took place around the port of Bandar Khomeini, at the head of the Gulf and close to the war zone. The targets were freighters of various nationalities. About 50 such attacks were recorded in the first three and a half years of the war. Iraq also kept up attacks against Kharg Island, Iran’s main crude exporting terminal. Kharg had been closed by the first weeks of fighting, but was quickly repaired and its anti-aircraft defenses strengthened. In July 1982, as Iran prepared to carry the war into Iraqi territory, Iraqi raids on Kharg doubled insurance premiums and reduced tanker traffic there. On August 12, 1982, Baghdad declared the northern part of the Gulf a military exclusion zone. On August 18, surface-to-surface missiles slammed into Kharg’s T jetty from Basra, 120 miles away. On August 25, Iraqi warplanes raided the island again. Iranian exports fell from around 1.8 million barrels a day to an estimated 700,000 mbd. [29] Further Iraqi attacks were reported over the next few weeks, but Iranian price discounts succeeded in stabilizing exports at a level only slightly below that preceding the attacks. [30] For reasons that are not clear, Iraq was unable to maintain this pressure on Iranian exports.

This is the campaign Iraq was trying to revive in a more credible fashion by introducing the Etendard-Exocet system. Judging from the extended preliminary publicity which Baghdad devoted to this acquisition, the Iraqis were clearly hoping that the mere threat of its use would pressure Iran (and Syria) into allowing Iraq to resume its own exports either through Syria or through the Gulf. France, the Soviet Union and Iraq’s Arab allies tried and failed to persuade Damascus to allow Iraq use of the pipeline from Mosul to Banias that had been closed in April 1982. Late in 1983, Iraq purchased several oil-loading buoys from the US construction firm of Brown and Root, which would allow for limited exports via the Gulf until more permanent facilities could be rebuilt or replaced. In the absence of assurances from Iran barring attacks, however, Baghdad has been unable to convince foreign contractors to install them, and at last report they were gathering dust in a Bahrain warehouse. [31]

On March 27 Iraq announced it had used the Etendard- Exocet combination for the first time, attacking two small tankers southwest of Kharg. The attacks occurred just as the National Iranian Oil Company was beginning negotiations with Japanese traders for the renewal of a contract for 200,000 b/d of crude. Some oil industry observers had speculated that these attacks would begin in March or April. Iraq had expanded its exports a bit via improvements in the Turkey pipeline, and Saudi Arabia had set up a “floating stockpile” of some 60 million barrels of oil in chartered supertankers located strategically near the major markets. Iran had been exporting from Kharg at the exceptional rate of 3 million b/d following Iraq’s February 27 declaration of a blockade. [32] Risks of supply or price disruptions from any escalation of the war were thus minimized.

This new phase of the war began in earnest on April 18, when the Iraqis hit a small Panamanian tanker just outside Kharg. The Iraqis hit a large Saudi-owned tanker on April 26, and another on May 7. [33] On May 13, a Kuwaiti tanker was hit near Bahrain. This was the first Iranian attack on commercial shipping (although Iran never acknowledged responsibility for this or any subsequent attacks). Within five weeks, eleven ships were hit by both sides, 10 of them oil tankers. Oil prices in the usually sensitive spot market showed no movement. Insurance rates rose sharply for ships going to Kharg, from 0.25 percent to 7.5 percent by the end of May. This translated into an increased cost of between $1 and $1.50 per barrel of oil, and Iran quickly offered compensatory price discounts. Iranian exports fell by about half as customers diversified their supplies.

The situation escalated further in early June. The Iraqis sank a Turkish-flag tanker off Kharg on June 3, and two days later American-assisted Saudi jet fighters downed an Iranian jet over the middle of the Gulf. On June 10, a Kuwaiti tanker was hit near Qatar. This attack, presumably Iranian, was the first in the lower Gulf; the fact that the Saudis did not challenge it despite ample warning time seemed to signal Saudi intent to limit the expansion of the fighting.

On June 11, the day after the Kuwaiti tanker was hit, both Iran and Iraq accepted a UN-initiated halt to shelling each other’s cities and towns. Iran’s exports from Kharg had reportedly returned to near normal at 1.6 million barrels per day. On June 15, Majles speaker Rafsanjani proposed extending the truce to include Gulf shipping as well. Iraq insisted that any such truce must allow it to repair or replace its own export facilities in the Gulf, to which Iran made no response. On June 20, Washington announced that Saudi Arabia had set up an “air defense interception zone” known as the “Fahd line” which went beyond Saudi territorial limits. [34] This would allow Saudi F-15s, guided by USAF AWACs and refueled by USAF KC-10 tankers, to engage other aircraft threatening Gulf shipping. At the end of June, Iraq resumed occasional attacks on several tankers and other ships at the northern end of the Gulf.

The War and the Future

Iraq has succeeded to a considerable degree in transforming the war into an Arab-Iranian struggle. One of the first indications of this was the March 14, 1984 Baghdad meeting of Arab foreign ministers, including those from Algeria and the UAE, which condemned Iran for continuing the war. In the process, Baghdad has also engaged US military support at a higher level. In staving off defeat, however, Baghdad is still far from victory. There is every likelihood that the focus of the conflict will shift back to the land war, especially along the southern front. Iran does not have the air power to take on the Saudis and their US patrons. Its relative advantages lay on the ground. Since March, Iran has maintained hundreds of thousands of troops, perhaps half a million, on the southern front poised to take Basra or cut it off from the rest of the country. Success in this endeavor would probably trigger an Iraqi military collapse and the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iran would then accept a ceasefire quickly, confident that any successor Baath regime would not long survive a post-war realignment of power. Such a dramatic Iranian victory or Iraqi collapse might also prompt direct US intervention, in the form of several F-15 squadrons operating from Saudi Arabia.

While there is virtually no chance that Iran will lose this war, in the sense of having its territory occupied or its government removed, the developments of the latest phase cast serious doubts on its ability to impose its terms on Iraq and its Gulf allies. Baghdad long ago abandoned its original war aims, but Tehran as yet is unprepared to acknowledge Saddam Hussein’s political tenure. Iran’s failure to take and hold Iraqi territory in its previous offensives, and Iraq’s improved defensive position in the last several months, make an Iranian breakthrough increasingly unlikely.

Speculative reports of divisions within the Iranian leadership may be correct, but there is every reason to expect at least one more major Iranian ground offensive. If it fails, it seems doubtful that Iran can continue the struggle at the same level of intensity as it has for the past four years. The war will continue, but probably subside to a level of border clashes and mutual subversion. This would serve the interests of both regimes while seriously threatening neither. Both sides would no doubt engage in a crash effort to rebuild their military inventories at a very high level of technology, thus providing lucrative markets for US, French and other arms merchants while setting the stage for another, even more destructive rematch in years to come.

Both sides would also have to undertake vast and expensive economic reconstruction projects. The combination of economic reconstruction, military refurbishment and (at least in the case of Iraq) payment of deferred and rescheduled debts will place great pressure on both countries to expand rapidly their oil exports and earnings. While the immediate question may be how to cope with a threatened reduction in oil supplies, the more persistent problem is likely to be how the world oil market, with its present surfeit, will allocate production allowances to these two major producers. Any increase in Iraqi exports, for instance, would tend to come at the expense of Saudi Arabia.

What seems most unlikely is that a formal, negotiated peace treaty will emerge from this present phase, or that it Would be very durable if it did. The blood, treasure and political capital invested by both sides make such a pacific resolution almost inconceivable. Instead, we are likely to witness a long period of hostility and recrimination.


[1] BBC, Summary of World Broadcasts, May 9, 1983.
[2] Middle East Economic Digest, April 9, 1982.
[3] Washington Post, February 24, 1984.
[4] International Committee of the Red Cross press release, May 11, 1983.
[5] New York Times, October 16, 1980.
[6] Eric Rouleau, “The War and the Struggle for the State,” MERIP Reports 98 (July-August 1981).
[7] New York Times, September 23, 1980.
[8] See, for instance, New York Times, October 24, 1980. For a thoroughgoing critique of Iraqi strategy and tactics, see Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), ch. 16.
[9] Unless otherwise noted, citations can be found in the chronologies of the Middle East Journal for this period.
[10] Washington Post, April 19, 1981.
[11] New York Times, April 5, 1981.
[12] New York Times, December 10, 1982.
[13] Washington Post, April 1, 1982.
[14] Financial Times, April 2, 1982.
[15] Defense and Foreign Affairs, June 1983, citing al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi.
[16] Washington Post, May 21, 1982.
[17] Guardian, April 8, 1982.
[18] Guardian, February 1, 1982.
[19] Iraq News Agency, May 23, 1982; Foreign Broadcast Information Service, May 24, 1982.
[20] Middle East Economic Digest, February 18, 1983.
[21] David Hirsh in the Guardian, May 31, 1982. Others have observed that it would be highly uncharacteristic of the Saudi rulers to involve themselves in a project of this sort.
[22] Wall Street Journal, August 19, 1983.
[23] Economist, February 19, 1983.
[24] Guardian, November 25, 1983.
[25] New York Times, February 18, 1984; Washington Post, February 24, 1984; Economist, March 10, 1984.
[26] Details on Iraqi chemical warfare and the US government response are in Seymour Hersh’s story in the New York Times, March 30, 1984.
[27] Anthony Cordesman in Armed Forces Journal International, May 1983.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Middle East Economic Survey, August 30, 1982.
[30] Arab Oil and Gas, September 16, 1982 and October 16, 1982.
[31] Middle East Reporter (Beirut), January 14, 1984.
[32] Middle East Economic Survey, March 5, 1984.
[33] The Iraqi attack against a Saudi-owned tanker was not the result of any “confusion,” as Saudi Oil Minister Yamani tried to suggest. This was Iraq’s way of signaling its determination to threaten any and all shipping moving to or from Iranian ports. Safinat al-‘Arab, the large tanker hit on April 26, belonged to al-Safina Company, one of whose principal shareholders is King Fahd’s son Faysal. It was heading from Kharg with 2.6 million barrels of Iranian crude bound for France, Iraq’s main Western ally. See Arab Oil and Gas, May 16, 1984.
[34] New York Times, June 21, 1984.

How to cite this article:

"Chronicle of the Gulf War," Middle East Report 125/126 (July-September 1984).

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