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The Iran-Iraq War

One of the earliest focuses of Iran's interest in exporting revolution was the Persian Gulf area. The revolutionary leaders viewed the Arab countries of the Gulf, along with Iraq, as having tyrannical regimes subservient to one or the other of the superpowers. Throughout the first half of 1980, Radio Iran's increasingly strident verbal attacks on the ruling Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party of Iraq irritated that government, which feared the impact of Iranian rhetoric upon its own Shias, who constituted a majority of the population. Thus, one of the reasons that prompted Iraqi President Saddam Husayn to launch the invasion of Iran in the early autumn of 1980 was to silence propaganda about Islamic revolution. Baghdad believed that the postrevolutionary turmoil in Iran would permit a relatively quick victory and lead to a new regime in Tehran more willing to accommodate the interests of Iran's Arab neighbors. This hope proved to be a false one for Iraq.

From the point of view of foreign relations, Iran's war with Iraq had evolved through four phases by 1987. During the first phase, from the fall of 1980 until the summer of 1982, Iran was on the defensive, both on the battlefield and internationally. The country was preoccupied with the hostage crisis at the outbreak of the war, and most diplomats perceived its new government as generally ineffective. During the second phase, from 1982 to the end of 1984, the success of Iran's offensives alarmed the Arab states, which were concerned about containing the spread of Iran's Revolution. The third phase, 1985 to 1987, was characterized by Iranian efforts to win diplomatic support for its war aims. The fourth phase began in the spring of 1987 with the involvement of the United States in the Persian Gulf.

The Iraqi invasion and advance into Khuzestan during phase one surprised Iran. The Iraqis captured several villages and small towns in the provinces of Khuzestan and Ilam and, after brutal hand-to-hand combat, captured the strategic port city of Khorramshahr (see The Iran-Iraq War , ch. 5). The nearby city of Abadan, with its huge oil-refining complex, was besieged; Iraqi forces moved their offensive lines close to the large cities of Ahvaz and Dezful. Although the Iranians stemmed the Iraqi advance by the end of 1980, they failed to launch any successful counteroffensives. Consequently, Iraq occupied approximately one-third of Khuzestan Province, from which an estimated 1.5 million civilians had fled. Property damage to factories, homes, and infrastructure in the war zone was estimated in the billions of dollars.

Although the war had settled into a stalemate by the end of 1980, during the following eighteen months Iranian forces made gradual advances and eventually forced most of the Iraqi army to withdraw across the border. During this period, Iran's objectives were to end the war by having both sides withdraw to the common border as it had existed prior to the invasion. Baghdad wanted Tehran's consent to the revision of a 1975 treaty that had defined their common riparian border as the middle channel of the Shatt al Arab (which Iranians call the Arvand Rud). Baghdad's proclaimed reason for invading Iran, in fact, had been to rectify the border; Iraq claimed that the international border should be along the low water of the Iranian shore, as it had been prior to 1975. In international forums, Iran generally failed to win many supporters to its position.

The second phase of the war began in July 1982, when Iran made the fateful decision, following two months of military victories, to invade Iraqi territory. The change in Iran's strategic position also brought about a modification in stated war aims. Khomeini and other leaders began to say that a simple withdrawal of all forces to the pre-September 1980 borders was no longer sufficient. They now demanded, as a precondition for negotiations, that the aggressor be punished. Iran's leaders defined the new terms explicitly: the removal from office of Iraqi president Saddam Husayn and the payment of reparations to Iran for war damages in Khuzestan. The Iranian victories and intransigence on terms for peace coincided with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; consequently, Iran decided to dispatch a contingent of its own Pasdaran to Lebanon to aid the Shia community there. These developments revived fears of Iranian-induced political instability, especially among the Arab rulers in the Persian Gulf. In 1984 Iraq acquired French-made Exocet missiles, which were used to launch attacks on Iranian oil facilities in the Persian Gulf. Iran retaliated by attacking tankers loaded with Arab oil, claiming that the profits of such oil helped to finance loans and grants to Iraq. Iraq responded by attacking ships loaded with Iranian oil, thus launching what became known as the tanker war.

By the beginning of 1985, the third phase of the war had begun. During this phase, Iran consciously sought to break out of its diplomatic isolation by making overtures to various countries in an effort to win international support for its war objectives. The dramatic decline of international oil prices, beginning in the autumn of 1985, spurred the Iranian initiatives and led to significantly improved relations with such countries as Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Iraq responded to Iran's diplomatic initiatives by intensifying its attacks on Iran-related shipping in the Persian Gulf. Iranian retaliation increasingly focused on Kuwaiti shipping by early 1987. Iran's actions prompted Kuwait to request protection for its shipping from both the Soviet Union and the United States. By the summer of 1987, most European and Arab governments were blaming Iran for the tensions in the Gulf, and Iran again found itself diplomatically isolated.


Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 1982
Courtesy United Nations

Data as of December 1987

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