Shirin Tahir-Kheli and Shaheen Ayubi, The Iran-Iraq War: New Weapons, Old Conflicts (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1983).
Tareq Y. Ismael, Iraq and Iran: Roots of Conflict (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982).
Much of the growing literature on the Iran-Iraq war is devoted to how the conflict has affected oil exports from the Gulf or the geopolitical designs of the United States in the area. The books under review are exceptional in that they concentrate on the national and regional perceptions, objectives and priorities of the principal protagonists.
Part I of the Kheli and Ayubi volume focuses on the causes of the war. The most original contribution to this section is an essay by Richard W. Bulliet, who argues quite persuasively that “the conflict between Iran and Iraq is mirrored, below surface, by suppressed conflicts within each country.” The essays in Part II address the impact of the war on the internal politics of Iran and Iraq, as well as the interaction of the regional and global actors in the conflict. Claudia Wrights’s contribution, “Neutral or Neutralized? Iraq, Iran and the Superpowers,” demonstrates how the war has intensified instability and insecurity in the area and in this way revived the historical conditions of dependency for the countries there.
Tareq Ismael’s introductory essay investigates the historical, legal and ideological aspects of the war. His first appendix presents ten documents concerning the background of territorial disputes between Iran and Iraq. The second appendix consists of nine ideological and political documents exhibiting the sources of rivalry and confrontation between the two countries. To the extent that government records and statements can shed light on the character of international conflicts, Ismael’s book is undoubtedly helpful in understanding the Iran-Iraq war. One must bear in mind, however, that what such documents conceal is often more important than what they reveal.
The essential weakness of both books lies in their deterministic treatment of the conflict. They perceive the war as if it were an earthquake whose eruption was unrelated to human choice. The causes of the hostilities are presumed to be structural and impersonal. The fact that the clash of ambitions between two expansionist absolute rulers, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein, played the decisive role in the outbreak of the war and continues to hinder a negotiated settlement has escaped Ismael and the authors of the anthology.