Iraq is a country of 15.5 million people living in an area somewhat larger than the state of California. Most of its land is a plain descending from mountains in the north to desert in the southwest. The area near the Gulf is marshy. This plain includes the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, between which the ancient Mesopotamian civilization arose. Iraq’s people are 75 percent Arab and 15 percent Kurdish, with a small Turkish minority. The population is 55 percent Shi‘i Muslim, 40 percent Sunni Muslim and 5 percent Christian.

Iran is nearly four times as large as Iraq. Its more than 46 million people are concentrated in the north and southwest, with a virtually uninhabited, barren region in the center and east. About 60 percent of Iranians are Persians; Azerbaijani Turks account for another 25 percent and Kurds about 9 percent. There are small minorities of Arabs, Baluchis, Armenians and Turkomans. Ninety-three percent are Shi‘i Muslims, 5 percent Sunni Muslims and 2 percent Baha’is, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

Background to the War

The war officially began with Iraq’s September 22, 1980 invasion into Iran, but the roots of the conflict reach back much further.

Iraq and Iran have long contested their common river border. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced three goals in the first weeks of the war: to assert total Iraqi sovereignty over the narrow Shatt al-‘Arab waterway at the entrance to the Gulf which had been divided at mid-channel between the two countries by a 1975 treaty; to reclaim three small Persian Gulf islands (Greater Tunb, Minor Tunb and Abu Musa) which Iran had occupied in 1971; and to regain control of land in Iran’s mountainous Musain area. Iranian officials in turn asserted that no peace was possible while Iraq occupied any of its territory.

Ever since the 1979 revolution in Iran, Iraq’s secular nationalist Baath Party rulers had felt threatened by Iranian rhetoric about exporting its Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Iraq’s rulers claimed they invaded Iran in “self-defense” and accused Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini of trying to incite religious and sectarian strife in Iraq with his appeals for cross-border solidarity with the “oppressed” Shi‘i Muslims of Iraq. Iraq, for its part, was hoping to rally to its cause the 500,000 Iranians of Arab descent who live in Khuzestan.

Iraq invaded when it did in part because Iran’s military had been decimated by the revolution, and the US-Iran hostage crisis ensured that Iran would not be able to get spare parts for its military equipment from the US. Iraq saw this as an excellent opportunity to assert itself as the leading regional power.

The Land War

Following several weeks of border clashes, Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. A month of heavy fighting left Iraq in control of some 14,000 square kilometers of southwestern Iran, including the important port city of Khorramshahr. The first successful Iranian counteroffensive occurred one year later, in September 1981, when Iran broke the Iraqi seige of Abadan. A series of Iranian attacks between October 1981 and June 1982 forced Iraq to withdraw most of its forces from Iranian territory. Iran launched its own invasion of Iraq in July 1982. Through the use of mass ground assaults and innovative amphibious tactics Iran has retained the initiative in the land war since then but so far Iraqi defenses have largely held. Iraq has used chemical weapons to blunt Iranian attacks.

During the first four years of the war, Iran and Iraq showed huge increases in their military forces. In 1984, Iraq ranked first in the world in the number of armed forces per capita. The trend spilled over into the non-combatant Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Bahrain as well. Iran has some 2 million paramilitary Basij volunteers who are trained for one week, and then sent to the front for one- or two-month stints. Rural Basij troops often return home to help with harvest, and later return to the front. About 200,000 Basij troops are on the front at any given time, and some have served as many as seven tours.

The Air War

Both Iran and Iraq have used bombs and missiles against each other’s cities. Iraq has held the advantage in the air war since the early days of the conflict. More than 65 Iranian cities had been hit by mid-July 1987 and more than 25,000 civilians killed. In February 1984 Iraq agreed to accept a UN-sponsored halt to bombing raids on civilian targets in both countries. Iraq resumed the war of the cities in January 1985 but ceased bombing raids after two months. The latest round occurred in January and February 1987, after which Baghdad declared a unilateral ceasefire.

The Tanker War, March 1984-March 1987

Since the first days of the war, oil production and export installations have been combat targets, cutting Iran’s and Iraq’s exports sharply in 1981. All of Iran’s exports must still go through the Gulf, but virtually all of Iraq’s oil moves through pipelines to the Mediterranean via Turkey and to the Red Sea via Saudi Arabia. In the first half of 1986, the price of oil dropped from $27 to $10 per barrel, severely affecting both Iran and Iraq. For the first time, the high costs of war could not be sustained without draining away foreign exchange reserves on both sides. Iran then ranked as the world’s seventh largest world producer; Iraq the ninth largest. Gulf oil accounted for only 7 percent of total US consumption in 1986 and 15 percent of US imports. Saudi Arabia is the largest US supplier, but none of the other top 10 suppliers are from the Gulf. Japan gets 56 percent of its crude from the Gulf; West Europe 27 percent of its imports.

173 oil tankers and other Gulf ships were hit in the first four years of the “tanker war,” according to the International Association of Independent Tankers. Sixty-one percent were attacked by Iraq and 39 percent by Iran. Iraq initiated this phase of the war by attacking ships carrying Iranian oil. Iran retaliated by striking ships carrying Saudi and Kuwaiti oil. More than 100 sailors have been killed, and 41 of the ships were declared total losses. Insurance companies have paid out more than $1 billion in claims. Crews who sail ships through these treacherous waters earn bonuses ranging from 100 to 200 percent of normal pay. In October 1986 Iran intensified its attacks on ships bound for Kuwait, but during 1984-1987 only eight ships flying the Kuwaiti flag were hit.

Casualties, POWs, Refugees

Since it began in September 1980, the Iran-Iraq war has become one of the most intense, costly and bloody wars since World War II. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and wounded, cities and towns flattened, and huge amounts of money diverted into the war chests of the combatants. Casualty figures are hard to come by, but at least 300,000 Iranians and 100,000 Iraqis have been killed, and 600,000 wounded.

As many as 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting, mostly Iranians from the cities of Khuzestan province, but also Iraqis from Basra and elsewhere. The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited some 25,000 displaced Kurds in Iraq, as well as 20,000 Iranians who fled their homes and now live in Iraq. The Red Cross regularly visits 10 camps in Iraq where some 13,000 Iranian POWs are held. The Iranian government suspended Red Cross visits to Iran in October 1984, but allowed them to resume in December 1986. Since then, officials have visited 23,290 Iraqi POWs held in eight camps. There are an estimated 25,000 more Iraqis in POW camps in Iran not yet visited.

Weapons for the Warriors

Since the war began, Iraq has imported weapons at a rate three to four times that of Iran. In 1984, Iraq ranked as the largest arms importer in the world, buying $7.7 billion worth in that year alone. (Iran ranked twenty-seventh with $2.2 billion.)

Iran’s attempts to buy arms were considerably hampered in 1985 and 1986 by the US government’s Operation Staunch, which attempted to cut off arms sales to Iran by US allies. Meanwhile, Israel and the US government were themselves shipping some 2,000 TOW and 235 HAWK missiles, and five shipments of spare parts worth between $30 and $87 million to Iran in the secret arms-for-hostages deal. Apart from these shipments, and additional covert Israeli deals going back to 1981, Iran has been unable to secure a steady supply of spare parts and supplies for the $24 billion weapons arsenal the Shah had purchased from the US before the 1979 revolution. Much of its war materiel has been drawn from stocks bought before the war began, although Iran also manufactures $200 million worth of small arms and ammunition a year.

Iran has also been forced to turn to the illegal arms market, where prices are inflated, the terms are cash, and fraud is rampant. Arms analyst Anthony Cordesman estimates that Iran has received $1 worth of arms for every $3 it has spent.

The People’s Republic of China and North Korea are Iran’s current main sources of arms, accounting for 70 percent of all arms imports in 1986. While they are among the few nations that will deal with Iran on a government-to-government basis, they sell weapons that are entirely incompatible with its US arsenal.

Iraq, in contrast, has been able to buy higher quality, more sophisticated weapons from a wide variety of sellers on the legal market. It has also secured a much steadier flow of spare parts. Its largest suppliers are the Soviet Union (MiG fighter aircraft, tanks and missiles) and France (Mirage fighter aircraft). Egypt has also sold Iraq tanks and fighter planes. These shipments and others have given Iraq overwhelming superiority in artillery, tanks and planes.

Stars and Stripes Over the Gulf

Since 1949 the US Navy’s Middle East Force has operated a naval force of some five ships out of Bahrain. In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter pledged to use any means, including military force, to maintain US access to Gulf oilfields.

The Rapid Deployment Force, established in 1981, was charged with preparing for such US intervention. By January 1983, the new Central Command (CENTCOM) had inherited the Rapid Deployment Force’s mandate. The Command can requisition up to 300,000 troops from existing military units. Unable to secure permanent base rights from any Gulf state, CENTCOM had to set up its headquarters 7,000 miles away in Florida. Only a small CENTCOM command post is actually based in the Gulf, aboard the La Salle, flagship of the Middle East Force.

The US government maintains official neutrality in the Gulf War; a more accurate formulation of the policy is that the US wants to ensure that neither Iran nor Iraq emerges as the hegemonic power in the region. In practice this has meant shoring up Iraq when an Iranian victory threatened, but not so openly as to risk completely alienating Tehran, thus losing Iran to future US influence.

The Iranscam revelations make clear that the US government has at various times played both sides in this war: secretly selling weapons to Iran in 1985 and 1986, while publicly calling on its allies to embargo sales to that nation, and providing AWACS reconnaissance intelligence to Iraq via Saudi Arabia, while clandestinely providing intelligence about Iraq to Iran.

From the start, the Pentagon has viewed the Iran-Iraq conflict as an opportunity to increase US influence and military presence in the Gulf. When Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, the US immediately dispatched four AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia. By October 9 they were providing 24-hour coverage of the developing battles. A second US aircraft carrier steamed into the Arabian Sea, and the number of US military personnel in Saudi Arabia doubled from 400 to 800 in the first weeks of the war. In 1981, the Reagan administration sold five AWACS to Saudi Arabia which were to form the core of a Gulf-wide air defense system. The Pentagon expects these facilities to be available to US troops should they intervene directly.

After the Gulf tanker war erupted in March 1984, the US offered to provide air cover to the Gulf states in return for basing rights. No state accepted. Nevertheless, US warships were soon escorting oil tankers supplying fuel to US ships in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

The Reagan administration’s Kuwaiti tanker escort scheme, put into operation on July 22, 1987, has brought the number of US warships in and near the Gulf up to at least 31. The plan was designed to shore up US credibility among the Arab states of the Gulf in the wake of Iranscam revelations.

Sources: Worldbook of Facts, 1987; International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 1986-1987; Middle East Research Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Iran (London: Croom Helm, 1985); Iran and Iraq: The Next Five Years (London: Economist Intelligence Unit, February 1987); Middle East Journal, Chronologies 1981-1987. On arms sales: US Arms Exports: Policies and Contractors (Washington, DC: Investor Responsibility Research Center, 1987); Anthony H. Cordesman, “Arms to Iran: The Impact of US and Other Arms Sales on the Iran-Iraq War,” American-Arab Affairs 20 (Spring 1987). On oil: New York Times, October 31, 1986 and May 29, 1987; Armed Forces Journal International, June 1987.

How to cite this article:

"Primer: The War," Middle East Report 266 (Spring 2013).

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