From the Soviet point of view, Iraq under the Baath Party has been a troubling enigma, in terms of its place in the Third World generally and its political position in Middle East diplomacy. In the first respect, Iraq during the 1970s did not manage to consolidate itself as one of the USSR’s dependable allies, which official Soviet parlance refers to as “states of socialist orientation.” Most Soviet scholars sooner or later reached the conclusion that Iraq has really been on the capitalist path of development, although neither Moscow nor Baghdad could state this openly.
Gerd Nonneman, Iraq, the Gulf States and the War (London: Ithaca Press, 1986).
This story first appeared in Arabic in the Paris-based Kull al-‘Arab, September 3, 1986.
The men in our unit branded me “the intellectual,” a term that connoted for them more sarcasm than conviction. They pronounced it in mincing tones, and played comically with its derivatives. This ought not, of course, be imputed to intrinsic dislike among the well-meaning fighters for intellectuals. Rather, I suppose, to their belief in the futility of making oneself attend to matters other than the tangible tasks of fighting or getting ready for combat. And being, as they said, a bookworm, I had only myself to blame.
Iran’s revolution had a profound impact on the regional balance of forces in the Gulf. Until 1979, the two most powerful and ambitious states in the region, Iran and Iraq, were sufficiently constrained by each other, and by the presence of United States forces and Washington’s friendly relations with most of the Gulf states, that neither seriously attempted to overturn the status quo.
In the seven years since the Iran-Iraq war began, Soviet policy toward the conflict has been quite constant. Moscow regards the war as “senseless” and has repeatedly called for an immediate ceasefire and return to the status quo ante, as outlined in the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq. Moscow considers the war as dangerous not only because of its destructiveness to both combatant states, but also because, by alarming the Arab states of the Peninsula, it has provided a justification for greater US military deployment in the region. In the longer run, Moscow is concerned about the collapse of either the Tehran or the Baghdad regimes, and the uncertainty that could result in a region so near the Soviet Union’s borders.
France is finding out that being a “Little Satan” can be more uncomfortable than being a big one. Whatever the outcome, the Gulf war threatens to end in political and economic disaster for France, which has become number two demon in the eyes of the ayatollahs by selling Iraq more arms than it can pay for.
As the Iran-Iraq war moves into its eighth year, it threatens to explode into a shooting war between Iran and the United States, a war that could involve the Soviet Union as well. Escalation of the US military presence in the Gulf involves more than the 11 Kuwaiti tankers now flying the stars and stripes. What the Reagan administration wants to do is “reflag” the Gulf itself, using the US Navy’s protective service to draw the Arab states there into open and explicit military alliances with Washington against Tehran and Moscow.
The controversy over US-Iranian relations has implications as drastic for the government in Tehran as for that in Washington. The disputed character of the opening to Washington forced Majlis Speaker Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to go public about the talks in early November. Even Ayatollah Khomeini himself has come under attack from Islamic radicals after his explicit support for talks with the US. Khomeini, although using the title "imam" or religious leader, has never claimed to be infallible, as the 12 imams of Shi&‘i Islam are supposed to be. But when a congress of radicals in December proclaimed that the imam was “not infallible,” this was designed to challenge Khomeini’s overall authority within the revolutionary regime.
The news from Kurdistan is sad and grim. On both sides of the Iran-Iraq border, the central governments have been carrying out violent campaigns to bring the Kurdish districts under control and to wipe out the peshmergas (guerrilla fighters) of the various Kurdish organizations. This entails direct military clashes as well as reprisals against the civilian population. Numerous villages have been destroyed, either by their own government’s forces or in bombings by the neighboring country’s air force or artillery. Summary executions are commonplace.
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.
M. S. el-Azhary, ed., The Iran-Iraq War (London and New York: Croom Helm and St. Martin’s Press, 1984).
This volume comprises papers presented at a conference organized by the Universities of Exeter and Basra, at Exeter in July 1982, together with an introduction and conclusion written in the spring or summer of 1983. Some of the contributions thus have a rather dated air. John Duke Anthony, for example, thought that it was “unlikely that the Gulf states [would] be able to finance Iraq in the period ahead” in the way that they had in the first two years of the war, when in fact their munificence shows no immediate signs of abating.
Excerpts from the Friday prayer speech of Hojjat-ol-Islam Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the Imam’s representative to the Supreme Defense Council, and Speaker of the Majles, broadcast on Tehran radio, July 6, 1984.
Excerpts from a report by Thomas McNaugher and William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, published on May 14, 1984 by Cambridge Energy Research Associates. These excerpts appeared in Arab Oil and Gas (Paris), June 1, 1984.
Both sides in the Gulf war have had to import billions of dollars worth of weapons, ordnance and military services in order to maintain and expand their battle forces. As the tables show, the number of military suppliers to both belligerents has expanded greatly in the period since the war began. Before the war, the.US and the USSR were the major suppliers to Iran and Iraq respectively, although Iraq had already made efforts to diversify its suppliers. The present roster displays the extent to which European, South American and Asian industrializing countries have taken advantage of the war to boost their arms exports and improve their positions for other sales and contracts as well.
Excerpts from International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) press release, May 11, 1983:
Geneva — Since the outbreak of the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Iraq the highest authorities of both those states have several times confirmed their intention to honor their international obligations deriving from the Geneva conventions. Despite these assurances and its repeated representations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has had a delegation in both countries since the start of hostilities, more than thirty months ago, has encountered all kinds of obstacles in the exercise of its mandate under the Geneva conventions.
In July 1984, West German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher visited Tehran, the highest-level Western official to do so in the five years since the Iranian revolution. Genscher reported that his hosts expressed strong interest in refurbishing Iran’s ties with Europe and Japan. Germany’s own trade links with the Islamic Republic are already considerable. In 1983, West German exports to Iran reached an all time high of 7.72 billion deutsch marks (DM 1.90 = $1). The pre-revolutionary high had been at DM 6.77 billion in 1978, only to drop to DM 2.35 billion in 1979, the year the Shah was deposed.
The current phase of the war between Iran and Iraq has prompted a level of US military intervention in the Gulf region that is new and unprecedented in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and holds the risk of a more direct combat role on Iraq’s behalf. Since early 1983, the stalemate in the war appeared to be working in Iran’s favor. Its greater weight in terms of population and economic resources gave it the edge in a strategy of attrition. Beginning in the fall of 1983, Iraq threatened to counter by attacking Iran’s oil exporting capacity. This campaign finally began in March and April 1984, with missile attacks against oil tankers near Iran’s Kharg island loading facility.
Iran’s war with Iraq has taken a devastating toll. There have been several hundred thousand Iranian casualties, including an estimated 180,000 deaths. Property damage amounts to billions of dollars. The conflict has uprooted at least 1.5 million civilians from the war zones and diverted the society’s resources from socio-economic development into military expenditures.
Ostensibly, the war between Iraq and Iran is about boundaries, about freeing the Shatt al-‘Arab from Persian occupation, about restoring the two Tumb islands and Abu Musa in the Gulf to the Arab nation, and — admittedly always a more distant prospect — liberating Khuzistan (“Arabistan”) from the alien yoke. In fact, Iraq’s decision to start the war in September 1980 was a gamble which, over the last three and a half years, has tragically and horribly misfired.
The war between Iraq and Iran has let loose a flood of commentary and upset many predictions since it began nearly four years ago. Those who expected another oil crisis were relieved to find an oil glut. Those who anticipated a quick Iraqi victory are now facing the possibility of new Iranian offensives into Iraqi territory. Those who feared an immediate globalization of the conflict have had to revise their prognostications.