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The Iran-Iraq war is an armed conflict between Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988. By breaking off hostilities on September 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein had counted on a dazzling offensive and on a short war which will make his country the first power of the Middle -East. This ambition will not stand up to the harsh reality of bitter conflict, one of the most devastating of the twentieth century, which will not end until eight years later. A war that is complex in terms of its stakes and its actors, the Iran-Iraq war which will transcend the classic framework of cold War, will by its consequences have a profound impact on the entire Persian Gulf and beyond.
Origins of the Iran-Iraq war
The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 upset the balance of power between the powers of the Middle East. Iran until then the centerpiece of the 'containmenThe American was setting itself up as a troublemaker, resolutely opposed to Washington's influence, without, however, approaching Moscow. For Saddam Hussein, a recent master of Iraq, this was as much a threat as it was enticing opportunities.
Iran Khomeinist by its revolutionary rhetoric and its influence within Iraqi Shiite communities (demographically majority, but excluded from power since the creation of Iraq), represented an immediate danger for the Baathist regime. Nonetheless, his isolation on the international scene and the supposed weakness of his new institutions made him a tempting target.
The old Iranian-Iraqi dispute could provide a convenient casus belli in this regard. The two states had long vied for the status of dominant power in the region (which had earned Khomeini to be supported by Baghdad when he was only an opponent ...). At the heart of their rivalry, the border region of Khuzestan, owned by Iran but populated by Arabs and whom Iraq claimed as its own. A region rich in hydrocarbon deposits, which also gave its owner great latitude to control the waters of the Persian Gulf.
In the course of 1980, Saddam Hussein made the decision to attack Iran militarily. He hopes there to bring down a potentially dangerous regime, which will allow him to present himself as the protector of the Gulf monarchies (targets Iranian activism, in particular because of the treatment they reserve to their Shiite communities and their alignment with Washington) and to satisfy its territorial ambitions. Without a doubt, such a victory would make Iraq the leader of an Arab world, which has since been sharply divided. the Yom Kippur War (if not before).
The march to war was swift and masterfully organized by the Iraqi dictator. After having, through intensive propaganda highlighting the danger that the Khomeini regime posed for the region (aided by hostile statements from Tehran), Saddam Hussein accuses Iran of having organized an attack on his deputy prime minister. Once diplomatic relations are broken, the Iraqi president denounces the Algiers accords of 1975 supposed to settle border disagreements with Iran. 5 days later, on September 22, the Iraqi armed forces launched their major offensive.
After several days of open tension, the Iraqi air force is engaged in a large-scale offensive against Iranian targets. Tehran's air force is being targeted, along with the Abadan oil fields. The next day, six Iraqi divisions launched an assault on Iranian territory.
War-tested Khomeinist Iran
In many ways, the Islamic Republic of Iran of September 1980 appears fragile. The result of a revolution animated by very diverse movements (from modernizing liberals to communists), it only saw Khomeini's supporters impose themselves after a silent and violent struggle. Some parts of the country (Balûchistân, but especially Khuzestân) are experiencing armed rebellions against the regime. Economically, the country is still feeling the repercussions of the previous two years of turmoil, as well as the end of US financial support.
Equally serious, the Iranian armed forces are in a state of concern. From a management perspective, they have paid the price for the purges carried out against officers suspected of being hostile to the new regime. The creation of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdarans), the praetorian guard of the regime, further weakens the coherence of the whole. If on the material level, the initial situation is far from being hopeless (the Iranian army being largely equipped with a modern weapon system), Teheran cannot envisage a conflict which would continue with serenity. Deprived of heavy arms industry, the Iranians are dependent for their armor and air force on foreign (often American) parts, which they will have difficulty obtaining.
Finally, for their initial offensive (named Qadisiyya in reference to the Arab invasion of Persia on the 7the century) the Iraqis enjoy a great superiority in means due to a greater concentration of their forces; This, in the face of an Iranian army forced to secure other hot spots (borders with the USSR and Pakistan in particular). The Iraqi plan is based on a main offensive in the south in Khuzestân (with 4 divisions), while two other divisions attack further north to guard against an Iranian counterattack. Baghdad assumes that once Khuzestan is occupied, the mullahs’s regime will fall to a government willing to give in to its demands.
The hoped-for collapse will never happen. First, the Iranian air force was not destroyed on the ground after the bombings of September 22. It will retain for a time offensive capabilities which will hamper the progress of the Iraqis. On the other hand, despite the lack of coordination of the Iranian defense (due to rivalries between IRGC and regular units) it is fierce. Still divided in relation to the Islamic regime, the Iranian population unites behind Khomeini to defend the mother country. Volunteers flock under the flags (whether of Arab, Persian or other ethnicity) and in respect of a certain Shiite tradition, do not balk at the martyr.
Iran's will to resist was made known to international opinion after Teheran refused a UN ceasefire offer (September 28, 1980). The fighting in Khuzestân then became fierce, and the IRGC quickly acquired a reputation for ferocity with their Iraqi enemies. At the start of 1981, Saddam Hussein put an end to offensive operations, thinking that time was on his side. Teheran's resistance has indeed had an exorbitant cost in terms of human and material losses.
However, the Islamic Republic is still ready for further sacrifices, as it takes the initiative of a major armored counteroffensive in January 81. It will, however, be contained by an Iraqi army, better commanded and better suited to mechanized operations. Following this setback, the front got bogged down in trench fights that are not unlike those of the 1st World War. At sea, the marines of both camps, after an indecisive battle at sea by Umm Qasr, are content with limited harassment.
Stagnation and international interference
The year 1982 saw the Iranian armed forces temporarily break the standstill at the front. In March 1982, they attacked the Iraqi units occupying Khuzestân. Three cleverly coordinated operations allow the Iranians to liberate the province. The battle of Khorramshahr, which cost the Iraqis nearly 25,000 men (including 7,000 killed), is a good illustration of the renewal of Iranian units which compensate for their material inferiority and their inexperience with unfailing ardor in combat.
In early summer, Iraqi forces retreated to the international border and established strong defensive positions. The Iranian attacks will come crashing down and this despite the reinforcement of very young volunteer militiamen, who do not hesitate to launch into suicide charges. Two armies of nearly 50 divisions each face each other, requiring great sacrifices from their respective countries to remain operational.
This is where the issue of international support is crucial. It is indeed unthinkable for Baghdad or Tehran to supply such war machines on their own, whether because of financial difficulties (the two countries depend on their hydrocarbon exports made difficult by the fighting) or the weakness of their armaments industries. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, who from the outset presented the conflict as a defense of the Arab world against the “Persian” revolution, is supported not only by the oil monarchies, but also by the Western camp. The United States, Great Britain, France, Italy provide Saddam Hussein with the means to constantly renew his arsenal.
As for Iran, initially isolated, it ended up finding a few suppliers, whether it was China, North Korea or Libya. Teheran even manages to procure crucial armaments from the United States, after a clever manipulation involving Hezbollah and Israel (which prefers Saddam Hussein to be occupied vis-à-vis Iran). The case will come to light in 1986 in the United States, it is the famous "Irangate »And will tarnish the 2e mandate of Ronald Reagan.
Fueled by the planet’s major arms suppliers, the conflict has turned into all-out war. Besides the ideological mobilization of the population (especially in Iran, where a generation is sacrificed to fire to compensate for the material imbalance), the belligerents will stop at nothing to obtain victory. The main cities are regularly bombed and the Iraqi side is not reluctant to use chemical weapons to break the opposing momentum. Finally, from 1984 Iran and Iraq waged a veritable war on oil transport in the Persian Gulf, which did not exclude neutral vessels. This tanker war, will also provide a pretext for Washington to step up its aid to Iraq and toughen its sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Despite this escalation in terror, no camp seemed able to win between 1983 and 1988. The successive Iranian offensives, many of which took place in the marshes and in the direction of Basra, are contained (with difficulty) by an Iraqi army with greater firepower. The revolt of Peshmerga Kurds in northern Iraq were not the expected diversion either, and were finally crushed in the spring of 1988 (resulting in the chemical bombing of Halabja). However, bled by the Iranian operations of 1984 and 1987, Saddam Hussein's army is lacking in bite. Its last offensive in April 1988, which aims to promote a takeover of power in Iran by the people's mujahedin (leftist Iranian rebellion) will be a failure.
Under pressure from the UN and convinced that the battlefield could no longer separate them, the two belligerents agreed to sign a ceasefire that entered into force on August 20, 1988 (resolution 598 of the United Nations Security Council) .
Iran-Iraq war: a conflict for nothing?
When the guns finally fall silent, Iran and Iraq also find themselves exhausted. The cumulative economic losses of the two countries amount to several hundreds of billions of dollars today. The human toll is also terrifying. 300,000 dead for Iraq, maybe a million for Iran.
Politically, Saddam Hussein is largely the loser. Not only did it fail to bend Tehran and make Iraq a Middle Eastern hegemon, but on the other hand it is now largely debtor to the Gulf oil monarchies. Its prestige with the population is then at its lowest. To turn the situation to his advantage, the Iraqi dictator will end up embarking on an adventure far too risky: the invasion of the small emirate of Kuwait (supposed to bail out Iraqi coffers by blackmailing Riyadh).
The Iranian regime came out of the war greatly strengthened. Not only has he gained legitimacy in the eyes of his own population (united in a great patriotic outburst and showered with propaganda) but also with regimes and politico-military groups favorable to his theses. This will only strengthen its regional role as a disruptive power that continues to agitate the Near East and the Middle East to this day.
- The Iran-Iraq War, by Pierre Razoux. Tempus, 2017
- Iran-Iraq: a war of 5000 years by Paul Balta. 1999.