World History: Mr. Ricky Waldon| Iran – Iraq War | Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) The Iran-Iraq War permanently altered the course of Iraqi history. It strained Iraqi political and social life, and led to severe economic dislocations. Viewed from a historical perspective, the outbreak of hostilities in 1980 was, in part, just another phase of the ancient Persian-Arab conflict that had been fueled by twentieth-century border disputes. Many observers, however, believe that Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran was a personal miscalculation based on ambition and a sense of vulnerability.
Saddam Hussein, despite having made significant strides in forging an Iraqi nation-state, feared that Iran’s new revolutionary leadership would threaten Iraq’s delicate SunniShia balance and would exploit Iraq’s geostrategic vulnerabilities–Iraq’s minimal access to the Persian Gulf, for example. In this respect, Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran has historical precedent; the ancient rulers of Mesopotamia, fearing internal strife and foreign conquest, also engaged in frequent battles with the peoples of the highlands.
The Iran-Iraq War was multifaceted and included religious schisms, border disputes, and political differences. Conflicts contributing to the outbreak of hostilities ranged from centuries-old Sunni-versus-Shia and Arab-versus-Persian religious and ethnic disputes, to a personal animosity between Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. Above all, Iraq launched the war in an effort to consolidate its rising power in the Arab world and to replace Iran as the dominant Persian Gulf state.
Phebe Marr, a noted analyst of Iraqi affairs, stated that “the war was more immediately the result of poor political judgement and miscalculation on the part of Saddam Hussein,” and “the decision to invade, taken at a moment of Iranian weakness, was Saddam’s”. Iraq claimed territories inhabited by Arabs (the Southwestern oil-producing province of Iran called Khouzestan), as well as Iraq’s right over Shatt el-Arab (Arvandroud). Iraq and Iran had engaged in border clashes for many years and had revived the dormant Shatt al Arab waterway dispute in 1979.
Iraq claimed the 200-kilometer channel up to the Iranian shore as its territory, while Iran insisted that the thalweg–a line running down the middle of the waterway–negotiated last in 1975, was the official border. The Iraqis, especially the Baath leadership, regarded the 1975 treaty as merely a truce, not a definitive settlement. The Iraqis also perceived revolutionary Iran’s Islamic agenda as threatening to their pan-Arabism. Khomeini, bitter over his expulsion from Iraq in 1977 after fifteen years in An Najaf, vowed to avenge Shia victims of Baathist repression.
Baghdad became more confident, however, as it watched the once invincible Imperial Iranian Army disintegrate, as most of its highest ranking officers were executed. In Khuzestan (Arabistan to the Iraqis), Iraqi intelligence officers incited riots over labor disputes, and in the Kurdish region, a new rebellion caused the Khomeini government severe troubles. As the Baathists planned their military campaign, they had every reason to be confident. Not only did the Iranians lack cohesive leadership, but the Iranian armed forces, according to Iraqi intelligence estimates, also lacked spare parts for their American-made equipment.
Baghdad, on the other hand, possessed fully equipped and trained forces. Morale was running high. Against Iran’s armed forces, including the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) troops, led by religious mullahs with little or no military experience, the Iraqis could muster twelve complete mechanized divisions, equipped with the latest Soviet materiel. With the Iraqi military buildup in the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein had assembled an army of 190,000 men, augmented by 2,200 tanks and 450 aircraft.
In addition, the area across the Shatt al Arab posed no major obstacles, particularly for an army equipped with Soviet river-crossing equipment. Iraqi commanders correctly assumed that crossing sites on the Khardeh and Karun rivers were lightly defended against their mechanized armor divisions; moreover, Iraqi intelligence sources reported that Iranian forces in Khuzestan, which had formerly included two divisions distributed among Ahvaz, Dezful, and Abadan, now consisted of only a number of ill-equipped battalion-sized formations.
Tehran was further disadvantaged because the area was controlled by the Regional 1st Corps headquartered at Bakhtaran (formerly Kermanshah), whereas operational control was directed from the capital. In the year following the shah’s overthrow, only a handful of company-sized tank units had been operative, and the rest of the armored equipment had been poorly maintained. For Iraqi planners, the only uncertainty was the fighting ability of the Iranian air force, equipped with some of the most sophisticated American-made aircraft.
Despite the execution of key air force commanders and pilots, the Iranian air force had displayed its might during local riots and demonstrations. The air force was also active in the wake of the failed United States attempt to rescue American hostages in April 1980. This show of force had impressed Iraqi decision makers to such an extent that they decided to launch a massive preemptive air strike on Iranian air bases in an effort similar to the one that Israel employed during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Iraqi Offensives, 1980-82 Despite the Iraqi government’s concern, the eruption of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran did not immediately destroy the Iraqi-Iranian rapprochement that had prevailed since the 1975 Algiers Agreement. As a sign of Iraq’s desire to maintain good relations with the new government in Tehran, President Bakr sent a personal message to Khomeini offering “his best wishes for the friendly Iranian people on the occasion of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. In addition, as late as the end of August 1979, Iraqi authorities extended an invitation to Mehdi Bazargan, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to visit Iraq with the aim of improving bilateral relations. The fall of the moderate Bazargan government in late 1979, however, and the rise of Islamic militants preaching an expansionist foreign policy soured Iraqi-Iranian relations. The principal events that touched off the rapid deterioration in relations occurred during the spring of 1980.
In April the Iranian-supported Ad Dawah attempted to assassinate Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Shortly after the failed grenade attack on Tariq Aziz, Ad Dawah was suspected of attempting to assassinate another Iraqi leader, Minister of Culture and Information Latif Nayyif Jasim. In response, the Iraqis immediately rounded up members and supporters of Ad Dawah and deported to Iran thousands of Shias of Iranian origin. In the summer of 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the executions of presumed Ad Dawah leader Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqr as Sadr and his sister.
In September 1980, border skirmishes erupted in the central sector near Qasr-e Shirin, with an exchange of artillery fire by both sides. A few weeks later, Saddam Hussein officially abrogated the 1975 treaty between Iraq and Iran and announced that the Shatt al Arab was returning to Iraqi sovereignty. Iran rejected this action and hostilities escalated as the two sides exchanged bombing raids deep into each other’s territory, beginning what was to be a protracted and extremely costly war. Baghdad originally planned a quick victory over Tehran.
Saddam expected the invasion of the in the Arabic-speaking, oil-rich area of Khuzistan to result in an Arab uprising against Khomeini’s fundamentalist Islamic regime. This revolt did not materialize, however, and the Arab minority remained loyal to Tehran. On September 22, 1980, formations of Iraqi MiG-23s and MiG21s attacked Iran’s air bases at Mehrabad and Doshen-Tappen (both near Tehran), as well as Tabriz, Bakhtaran, Ahvaz, Dezful, Urmia (sometimes cited as Urumiyeh), Hamadan, Sanandaj, and Abadan. Their aim was to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground–a lesson learned from the Arab-Israeli June 1967 War.
They succeeded in destroying runways and fuel and ammunition depots, but much of Iran’s aircraft inventory was left intact. Iranian defenses were caught by surprise, but the Iraqi raids failed because Iranian jets were protected in specially strengthened hangars and because bombs designed to destroy runways did not totally incapacitate Iran’s very large airfields. Within hours, Iranian F-4 Phantoms took off from the same bases, successfully attacked strategically important targets close to major Iraqi cities, and returned home with very few losses.
Simultaneously, six Iraqi army divisions entered Iran on three fronts in an initially successful surprise attack, where they drove as far as eight kilometers inland and occupied 1,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory. As a diversionary move on the northern front, an Iraqi mechanized mountain infantry division overwhelmed the border garrison at Qasr-e Shirin, a border town in Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) Province, and occupied territory thirty kilometers eastward to the base of the Zagros Mountains. This area was strategically significant because the main Baghdad-Tehran highway traversed it.
On the central front, Iraqi forces captured Mehran, on the western plain of the Zagros Mountains in Ilam Province, and pushed eastward to the mountain base. Mehran occupied an important position on the major north-south road, close to the border on the Iranian side. The main thrust of the attack was in the south, where five armored and mechanized divisions invaded Khuzestan on two axes, one crossing over the Shatt al Arab near Basra, which led to the siege and eventual occupation of Khorramshahr, and the second heading for Susangerd, which had Ahvaz, the major military base in Khuzestan, as its objective.
Iraqi armored units easily crossed the Shatt al Arab waterway and entered the Iranian province of Khuzestan. Dehloran and several other towns were targeted and were rapidly occupied to prevent reinforcement from Bakhtaran and from Tehran. By mid-October, a full division advanced through Khuzestan headed for Khorramshahr and Abadan and the strategic oil fields nearby. Other divisions headed toward Ahvaz, the provincial capital and site of an air base. Supported by heavy artillery fire, the troops made a rapid and significant advance–almost eighty kilometers in the first few days.
In the battle for Dezful in Khuzestan, where a major air base is located, the local Iranian army commander requested air support in order to avoid a defeat. President Bani Sadr, therefore, authorized the release from jail of many pilots, some of whom were suspected of still being loyal to the shah. With the increased use of the Iranian air force, the Iraqi progress was somewhat curtailed. The last major Iraqi territorial gain took place in early November 1980. On November 3, Iraqi forces reached Abadan but were repulsed by a Pasdaran unit.
Even though they surrounded Abadan on three sides and occupied a portion of the city, the Iraqis could not overcome the stiff resistance; sections of the city still under Iranian control were resupplied by boat at night. On November 10, Iraq captured Khorramshahr after a bloody house-to-house fight. The price of this victory was high for both sides, approximately 6,000 casualties for Iraq and even more for Iran. Iraq’s blitz-like assaults against scattered and demoralized Iranian forces led many observers to think that Baghdad would win the war within a matter of weeks.
Indeed, Iraqi troops did capture the Shatt al Arab and did seize a forty-eight-kilometer- wide strip of Iranian territory. Iran may have prevented a quick Iraqi victory by a rapid mobilization of volunteers and deployment of loyal Pasdaran forces to the front. Besides enlisting the Iranian pilots, the new revolutionary regime also recalled veterans of the old imperial army, although many experienced officers, most of whom had been trained in the United States, had been purged. Furthermore, the Pasdaran and Basij (what Khomeini called the “Army of Twenty Million” or People’s Militia) recruited at least 100,000 volunteers.
Approximately 200,000 soldiers were sent to the front by the end of November 1980. They were ideologically committed troops (some members even carried their own shrouds to the front in the expectation of martyrdom) that fought bravely despite inadequate armor support. For example, on November 7 commando units played a significant role, with the navy and air force, in an assault on Iraqi oil export terminals at Mina al Bakr and Al Faw. Iran hoped to diminish Iraq’s financial resources by reducing its oil revenues.
Iran also attacked the northern pipeline in the early days of the war and persuaded Syria to close the Iraqi pipeline that crossed its territory. Iran’s resistance at the outset of the Iraqi invasion was unexpectedly strong, but it was neither well organized nor equally successful on all fronts. Iraq easily advanced in the northern and central sections and crushed the Pasdaran’s scattered resistance there. Iraqi troops, however, faced untiring resistance in Khuzestan. President Saddam Hussein of Iraq may have thought that the approximately 3 million Arabs of Khuzestan would join the Iraqis against Tehran.
Instead, many allied with Iran’s regular and irregular armed forces and fought in the battles at Dezful, Khorramshahr, and Abadan. Soon after capturing Khorramshahr, the Iraqi troops lost their initiative and began to dig in along their line of advance. Tehran rejected a settlement offer and held the line against the militarily superior Iraqiforce. It refused to accept defeat, and slowly began a series of counteroffensives in January 1981. Both the volunteers and the regular armed forces were eager to fight, the latter seeing an opportunity to regain prestige lost because of their association with the shah’s regime.
Iran’s first major counterattack failed, however, for political and military reasons. President Bani Sadr was engaged in a power struggle with key religious figures and eager to gain political support among the armed forces by direct involvement in military operations. Lacking military expertise, he initiated a premature attack by three regular armored regiments without the assistance of the Pasdaran units. He also failed to take into account that the ground near Susangerd, muddied by the preceding rainy season, would make resupply difficult.
As a result of his tactical decision making, the Iranian forces were surrounded on three sides. In a long exchange of fire, many Iranian armored vehicles were destroyed or had to be abandoned because they were either stuck in the mud or needed minor repairs. Fortunately for Iran, however, the Iraqi forces failed to follow up with another attack. Iran stopped Iraqi forces on the Karun River and, with limited military stocks, unveiled its “human wave” assaults, which used thousands of Basij (Popular Mobilization Army or People’s Army) volunteers.