Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War, the longest conventional war of the twentieth century and the most lethal war since World War II, caused more than one million deaths, witnessed the use of chemical weapons, and destabilized the Persian Gulf area, setting the stage for turmoil in the region into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

The border between Iraq and Iran separates two countries and two cultures Iraqi Arabs and Iranian Persians with a turbulent history of conflict and animosity fueled by religious divisions (Sunni versus Shia Muslims) and border disputes. This rivalry exploded in the late 1970’s. Saddam Hussein attained absolute political power in Iraq in July, 1979; in February, 1979, the Iranian Revolution toppled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi from power and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini from exile to rule a theocratic Iran, renamed the Islamic Republic of Iran. In November, 1979, angry students swarmed the U.S. embassy in Tehran to demand that the U.S. government return the shah to Iran to stand trial. The students held fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days. Amid this turmoil, Iraqi forces attacked Iranian territory on September 22, 1980. [kw]Iran-Iraq War (Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988)
[kw]Iraq War, Iran- (Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988)
[kw]War, Iran-Iraq (Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988)
Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War]
[g]Middle East;Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988: Iran-Iraq War[04290]
[g]Iran;Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988: Iran-Iraq War[04290]
[g]Iraq;Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988: Iran-Iraq War[04290]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 22, 1980-Aug. 8, 1988: Iran-Iraq War[04290]
Hussein, Saddam
Khomeini, Ayatollah

Several factors influenced Saddam Hussein’s decision to attack Iran. First, Hussein’s iron-fisted efforts to forge a cohesive, secular Iraqi nation-state among hostile ethnic groups and religious sects faced tremendous challenges from Iran’s fundamentalist revolution. Hussein viewed Iranian officials’ inflammatory plans to incite revolution throughout the Middle East as a threat to Arab and Iraqi influence in the Persian Gulf area. For example, Iran’s leaders and its Shia majority population touted a “brotherhood” with the politically repressed but majority Shia population in Iraq.

Second, the ongoing revolution diminished Iran’s regional influence. Khomeini wrestled to consolidate his leadership as diverse political groups vied for power. Further, to ensure the loyalty of the military to the new rulers, Iran’s revolutionary leaders executed, imprisoned, or expelled thousands of officers. Hussein tried to expand Iraq’s influence and thwart rebellion by exploiting Iran’s apparent weakness. Third, Hussein and Khomeini hated each other. Khomeini settled in Iraq in 1962 after fleeing persecution in Iran. In 1977, Hussein expelled Khomeini, who fled to France, where he pledged to avenge Hussein’s repression of Shias. In 1980, as political leader of Iran, Khomeini encouraged the overthrow of Hussein. Finally, a chronic border dispute with Iran offered an excuse for Iraq to attack.

The war proceeded in three phases. Initially, along the northern and central regions of the Iran-Iraq border, Iraqi forces overwhelmed weak resistance to capture substantial Iranian territory. The main attack occurred in the south, however, along the hotly disputed border adjacent to the Persian Gulf. Iraqi forces quickly advanced almost eighty kilometers (about fifty miles) into Iran’s Khūzestān region. The advance stalled in the cities of Ābādān and Khorramshahr, where Iraqis could not subdue resistance in grueling house-to-house fighting. This resistance especially frustrated Hussein, who had expected ethnic Arabs in the region to turn against the Persian Iranians.

Iranian leaders quickly mobilized three military forces: the Basij (People’s Militia), pasdaran volunteers ages nine to fifty who were deeply committed to the Iranian revolution and Islamic government but lacked military training and adequate equipment, and formal armed forces comprising former military officers and pilots released from prison. By late 1981, Iranian forces could coordinate operations and launch modestly successful counteroffensives. These assaults occasionally involved “human wave” attacks by thousands of pasdaran or Basij volunteers. Such assaults sought to overwhelm Iraqi troops by sheer force of numbers, and often thousands of Iranians died in a single battle.

Iranians watch as troops prepare to board a helicopter to fight the Iraqis in February, 1984.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The second phase of the war began in mid-1982, when Iran launched a highly successful offensive that demoralized the Iraqis by recapturing important towns and territory. In May and June, 1982, Hussein offered to withdraw Iraqi troops from Iranian territory, but Khomeini refused to stop fighting. Iran attacked deeper into Iraqi territory and more frequently used human-wave assaults. Neither country could win a decisive victory in 1983. Iraq appeared unable to win the war at all, but Iran could perhaps “win” a long, lethal, and exhausting war of attrition.

The third phase of the war, the war of attrition, began early in 1984 when Hussein adopted a new strategy: He would prevent Iranians from capturing Iraqi territory, draw great powers into the conflict, and impose unbearable costs on Iran. Three new tactics accompanied this new strategy: Iraq used chemical weapons Chemical weapons
Weapons;chemical to repel human-wave attacks and kill huge numbers of Iranians, attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf (in what became known as the Tanker War), and attacked Iranian cities with missiles and artillery (the War of the Cities).

Iraq began using chemical weapons in 1984. Extensive evidence compelled the United Nations in March, 1986, to condemn Iraq formally for this practice. By early 1987, Iraq was using chemical agents as offensive rather than defensive weapons, and in March, 1988, Iraq launched at least thirty-nine chemical attacks against civilians in northeastern Iraq, where Kurdish insurgents supported Iranian forces. In the city of Halabja, five thousand civilians died. World leaders widely condemned these attacks, the most flagrant and lethal use of chemical weapons since the 1925 ratification of the Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of such weapons.

The Tanker War erupted dramatically in March, 1984. Iraq sought to break the military deadlock by attacking tankers carrying Iranian oil for export and thus curbing Iran’s oil revenues. Hussein apparently hoped that Iran would blockade all oil shipping, thereby provoking Western powers to intervene to end the war. Iran retaliated by attacking ships too, especially vessels leaving or approaching Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran was punishing Kuwaiti and Saudi leaders for supplying Hussein with cash and equipment. Shipping attacks decreased Iraq’s oil exports by 70 percent and Iran’s by 50 percent. Total shipping in the Persian Gulf dropped by 25 percent. By 1987 many tankers, especially those from Kuwait, had “reflagged”; that is, they sailed under the American or Soviet flags, thereby engaging the defenses of the U.S. or Soviet navies.

The Tanker War continued into 1987, when an Iraqi missile struck the USS Stark, Stark (ship) killing thirty-seven crew members. The United States blamed the Iranians for provoking the conflict and announced intentions to stand by its regional allies. Pro-Western Arab governments were skeptical, as earlier news had revealed that U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s administration had authorized illegal arms sales to Iran. By 1988, ships from eighteen national navies were patrolling the Persian Gulf, more than four hundred sailors had died, hundreds of ships had been attacked, more than eighty of which suffered serious damage, and ship owners and insurers had suffered losses and damage totaling millions of dollars.

The War of the Cities began in May, 1984, when Iraqis launched missiles and air strikes against the Iranian capital of Tehran and other major cities. Iraqi attacks killed many more civilians than comparable Iranian strikes.

The Iran-Iraq War finally ended in August, 1988, when Iran, exhausted and fearful of potential Iraqi chemical attacks on its major cities, accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, which called for a cease-fire. Iraq had long sought to end the war.


The Iran-Iraq War cast a long, dark shadow into the twenty-first century. The prolonged, blood-soaked, and indecisive conflict secured no military, political, or economic goals, yet it reinforced the political power of the ruling regimes in both countries: Saddam Hussein, his party, and his ethnic Sunnis in Iraq, and the revolutionary party and ruling Shia clergy in Iran. By reinforcing Hussein’s authoritarianism and Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic republic, the war exacerbated regional cleavages and established the shape and character of Persian Gulf politics for years to follow. Iranian Revolution (1978-1980)
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Iran;hostage crisis
Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War]

The eight-year war, the longest conventional war of the twentieth century, illustrated the horrific carnage of conflicts fought in defiance of international laws and norms concerning war. Human-wave attacks, missile attacks, and chemical weapons including lethal nerve gas, blister-agent mustard gas, and chemical fires killed one million soldiers on the battlefields and wounded many thousands of others. Hundreds of thousands of civilians suffered casualties, and millions became refugees. Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)[Iran Iraq War]

Further Reading

  • Hiro, Dilip. The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict. London: Grafton Books, 1989. One of the best sources on the topic, by an accomplished journalist, provides history as well as insightful reporting and analysis. Includes glossary and maps.
  • Karsh, Efraim. The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. New York: Osprey, 2002. Brief volume discusses broad thematic concerns rather than details of military operations and weapons. Informative, despite a noticeable pro-Iraqi bias.
  • Navias, Martin S., and E. R. Hooton. Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping During the Iran-Iraq Conflict, 1980-1988. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996. Presents a detailed assessment of the war’s effects on merchant shipping. Intended for academics, insurers, and readers interested in naval affairs.
  • Pelletiere, Stephen C. The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum. New York: Praeger, 1992. Volume by a professor of national security at the U.S. Army War College addresses broad political issues and focuses on military strategy and tactics as well as on international political concerns.
  • Rajaee, Farhang. Iranian Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War. Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1997. Provides a valuable balance to some of the pro-Iraqi bias arising from sharp U.S. animosity toward Iran and U.S. support of Hussein against the Iranians that informed some analyses before 1991.
  • Workman, W. Thom. The Social Origins of the Iran-Iraq War. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1994. Presents a rich assessment of the origins and conduct of the war. Includes a fascinating argument, drawn from primary and secondary sources, that leaders in both nations exploited the war to entrench their power.

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