The Iran-Iraq War (Brazilian Portuguese) or Iran-Iraq War (European Portuguese) was a military conflict fought between Iran and Iraq as a result of political and territorial disputes between both countries. The war began when the Iraqis invaded Iranian territory on September 22, 1980. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, hoped that chaotic post-revolution Iran would not be able to resist the advance of his troops and invaded without formally declaring war, but progress was slow and the attack was eventually repulsed. In 1982, the Iranians launched their counter-offensive and seized the initiative. The war then turned to religious, nationalistic, and sectarian aspects, with the Kurds and Shiites showing support for Iran in the war effort. The result was a bloodbath, with great loss of life (especially among the civilian population).
The UN Security Council sought various resolutions to try to end hostilities, but the war was not formally ended until August 20, 1988 after UN Resolution 598 signed a ceasefire accepted by both sides. At the conclusion of the conflict, the borders returned to the pre-war status of the 1975 Algiers Accords. The last prisoners of war, however, were not released until 2003, after Saddam was removed from power in Iraq.
The war was extremely costly in terms of lives and money for both sides: Official figures indicate that over half a million combatants died, with a similar number of civilians also losing their lives; thousands of people were injured and thousands more were displaced from their homes, causing a humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of billions of dollars were also spent, but in the end no territorial gains were seen by either belligerent. This conflict has been compared to World War I in terms of the tactics used, with heavy use of barbed wire trenches and booby traps, machine gun nests, and bayonet attacks in human waves across no man’s land. Another defining feature of the war was the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, by the Iraqis against Iranian and Kurdish troops and civilians. Many Muslim and Western countries supported Iraq with money, equipment, and intelligence information (such as satellite imagery). Some nations supported Iran, many clandestinely (such as the Iran-Contra affair).
The conflict left both sides extremely fatigued, but it also brought some developments. Iraq, although financially broken, now had a powerful army at its disposal. Iran, on the other hand, despite the losses it suffered, saw its Islamist revolution sedimented. The UN, though avowedly taking no sides, did not immediately seek to condemn the atrocities Iraq committed in the open, such as its chemical attacks on civilians, and refused to identify the Iraqis as the aggressors (even though they were the first to attack) until December 11, 1991, when Saddam Hussein became the region’s main antagonist after the Gulf War.
Since the wars between the Ottomans and the Persian empires in the 16th and 17th centuries, the main objective of the conflicts was to conquer the rich (in natural resources) region of Mesopotamia and to take over the abundant water routes of Xatalah Arab and Arvande. Everything was apparently resolved by the Treaty of Zuhab in 1639, which established the borders between Iran and Iraq. The Xatal Arab region contained canals that helped drain oil and in 1937, Iran and the newly independent Iraq signed a new treaty to avoid a conflict. That same year, the two countries signed the Saadabad Pact and their relations remained good in the following decades.
The 1937 treaty recognized that the border between the nations on the lower banks of the rivers on the eastern side of Xatalarabe, except for the Iranian cities of Abadan and Khorramshahr, which remained on the upper line of the river (talweg). Thus Iraq controlled much of the areas north of the Xatal Arab canal, forcing Iran to pay fees for access to the region.
In 1955, both countries accepted the so-called Baghdad Pact. However, the overthrow of the Hashemites from power in Iraq in 1958 brought about the rise of a new nationalist government that proposed to abandon the pact. On December 18, 1959, the new Iraqi leader, General Abdul Karim Qassim, declared, “we do not wish to refer to the history of the Arab tribes residing in al-Ahwaz and Mohammare (Khorramshahr). The Ottomans handed over Mohammareh, which was part of Iraq, to Iran.” Iraqi discontent focused primarily on Iran’s possession of the oil-rich region of Kuzistan (or Arabistan, to Iraq) where there was a huge Arab population in the middle of a Persian-majority country. The Iraqis began to support secessionist movements in Kuzistan and raised the issues of disputed borders at an Arab League meeting, but nothing was settled.
Iraq began to show more reluctance to accept the previously signed border agreements with Iran, especially after the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 and the rise to power of the Baath Party in Iraq in 1968, with the country now declaring itself the new “leader of the Arab World.” At the same time, in the late 1960s, the power of the Iranian emperor, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, grew and he began to expand his military forces, which increased Iran’s prominence in the region.
In April 1969, Iran revoked the 1937 treaty that established control of Xatal Arab to the Iraqis. Thus they stopped paying fees to access the waterways in southern Iraq to drain their oil production. The Iranian Shah defended this stance by stating that all the borders of nations in the world based on rivers followed the waterways, and further said that most of the ships using the region were already Iranian, which made the 1937 treaty harmful and unfair to the country. Iraq threatened to go to war against Iran, but on April 24, 1969, Iranian tankers were escorted by warships as they went down the river, and since the Iraqis had an inferior navy, they had no way to oppose them.
Iran’s abrogation of the 1937 treaty began a period of continuing tensions between the countries that lasted until the 1975 Algiers accords. In 1969, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi prime minister and second strongest man in the country, stated, “Iraq’s dispute with Iran is connected to Cuzistan, which is part of our territory and was annexed by the Iranians.” Soon, Iraqi radio began broadcasting to “Arabistan,” encouraging the Arab population and even the Baluchis in Iran to rebel against the Shah’s rule. TV stations in Baçora began to refer to Kuzistan as part of Nassisi, renaming the towns in the region with Arabic names.
In 1971, Baathist Iraq (now under Saddam’s de facto leadership) broke diplomatic relations with Iran claiming that they had sovereignty over Abu Musa Island, and Greater and Little Tunb in the Persian Gulf following the British withdrawal from the region. In retaliation for Iraq claiming sovereignty over Kuzistan, the Iranians began assisting Kurdish rebel movements in the 1970s. The two countries then began to foment separatist movements in the neighboring nation, with Iraq supporting the Arabs in Kuzistan and Baluchistan and the Iranians encouraging the uprising in Kurdistan. Between 1974 and 1975, border clashes were reported. In 1975, Iraq launched an offensive against Iran, but they were unsuccessful. Further fighting followed. However, the Iranians had a powerful army at the period. Thus, the Iraqis decided to tone down the bellicose rhetoric and even made concessions to Tehran on the Kurdish issue.
In the Algiers Accords of 1975, Iraq gave in on some issues over the control of Xatal Arab, in exchange for a return to normalization of relations between the two countries. Iraq even recognized the demarcation of the border along the banks of the talweg, with Iran, in return, stopping support for Kurdish rebels in the north. Many Iraqis saw the Algiers agreement as a humiliation. However, the agreement also put an end to Iranian and American support for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, which ensured that the Iraqis crushed the insurgency in Kurdistan, claiming more than 20,000 lives.
The relationship between the two nations improved between 1975 and 1978, when Iranian agents discovered plans for a pro-Soviet coup against the Iraqi government. When informed of this, Saddam ordered multiple executions and, in a conciliatory gesture, expelled Iranian cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, an opponent of the Shah’s rule, from Iraq. Nevertheless, Saddam considered the Algiers Accords as only a truce and not as a definitive solution to the border crisis.
After the Iranian Revolution
After a period of calm, relations between Iran and Iraq quickly deteriorated after the Iranian Revolution. The new regime in Tehran preached pan-Islamism, in contrast to Iraq’s Baathist Arab nationalism. While still demanding complete sovereignty over the Shatala Arab region, the Iraqi government initially welcomed the revolution in the neighboring country, which overthrew the Shah’s rule, which had once been an enemy of Baghdad. It is not known when the relationship between the two nations began to stagger, but border clashes soon began, mostly instigated by Iran.
With border tensions rising again, Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on the Iraqi population to rise up and overthrow the Ba’ath government in a move that generated much irritation in Baghdad. On July 17, 1979, despite Khomeini’s statements, Saddam gave a speech praising the Iranian revolution and called for a reinvigoration of Iran-Iraq relations based on mutual non-interference in each nation’s internal affairs. When the Ayatollah of Iran rejected Hussein’s words and called again for an Islamic revolution in Iraq, the Baathist government became alarmed. The new administration in Tehran claimed that the Baath government was irrational.
Besides border disputes, one of the main factors in the war was the Iraqi government’s fear of Iran “exporting” its revolution, a fear shared by countries in the region (especially the Persian Gulf). Iraq was one of the few Shiite-majority countries in the Muslim world, but was still ruled by the Sunni minority. The majority of the Iranian population was also Shiite and Saddam feared that the Shiites in his own nation would follow the example of the neighboring country and rebel against the central government in Baghdad.
Despite Khomeini’s calls for the Iraqi Shiite population to rebel, the Iraqi regime stood firm and the state apparatus frustrated any possibility of a coup. According to some sources, Khomeini’s hostility toward Saddam was actually milder than that of some neighboring Arab leaders. The main justification that Saddam used for the war was to “fix the mistakes” of the 1975 Algiers Agreement, in addition to his desire to annex the Kuzistan region and himself to become a leader in the Arab world. The Iraqi dictator wanted his country to become the new Egypt of old, which for the past two decades, had been leading the Arab nationalist movement. At the same time, he wanted to exert hegemonic power over the Persian Gulf. Saddam believed that Iran was too weakened due to the chaos of the revolution, in addition to sanctions and international isolation. Since coming to power, Hussein was obsessed with creating the most powerful army in the region, buying huge amounts of equipment from the Soviet Union and even France. By early 1980, he had more than 200,000 active soldiers, 2,000 tanks, and 450 aircraft. The slow disintegration of the once powerful Iranian army gave Iraq a unique opportunity to attack and annex the disputed territories. To seek external support, Saddam claimed to be containing the influence of the Iranian revolution, something the other Gulf countries feared.
Should the Iraqi invasion of Iran be successful, Iraq would own one of the largest oil reserves in the world and consolidate itself as a dominant regional power. Iran’s post-revolution situation was chaotic, giving Saddam the opportunity to annex the oil-rich province of Kuzistan. In addition, Kuzestan had a large Arab population (in contrast to the rest of Iran that was mostly made up of Persians). Saddam imagined that he would have the sympathy of these people and that an invasion might even instigate an uprising of the Arab minority within Iran against the Persian majority. Neighboring Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (despite their dislike of Saddam) encouraged Iraq to attack, as they feared that the Iranian revolution would come close to their borders and threaten their governments. Iranian exiles also helped convince the Iraqis to invade, saying that the weakened Islamic regime in Tehran would quickly give in.
In the period from 1979 to 1980, the Iraqis took advantage of the rising price of oil, making billions for the government. Thus Iraq was able to invest in several areas, creating a good internal infrastructure and a powerful army. In contrast to the new Iranian regime, Iraq was a country with a secular government.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, anti-Ba’ath movements within the Iraqi Shi’ite population intended to start an Islamic revolution in their country. Saddam and his government believed that these demonstrations were inspired, instigated or even architected by the Iranians. On March 10, 1980, when Iraq declared the Iranian ambassador to their country as persona non-grata, and demanded his withdrawal from the country within five days, Iran responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Baghdad. In April 1980, Iraqi Shiite Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr and his sister Amina Haydar (known as Bint al-Huda) were executed at the behest of Saddam Hussein. This execution sparked outrage in the regional Muslim community, especially among Shiites.
The Iraqi government then began to expropriate more than 70,000 civilians of Iranian origin and drove them out of the country. Most of these people were actually of Arab and Shiite descent, without many ties to Iran. This further deteriorated the relationship between the countries.
In April 1980, Shiite militants assassinated at least twenty Ba’ath party officials. Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, was almost killed on April 1. Aziz survived but the attack on him took the lives of eleven people. Three days later, at the burial of these people, there was a bombing. Another minister who escaped death was the minister of information, Latif Nusseif al-Jasim. Shiite militants were also responsible. The beginning of a Shiite insurgency in Iraq, supported by the Iranians, caused Saddam to see Iran as a serious threat to his remaining in power. He later used this as an excuse to attack the neighboring country.
Trying to strike back in the same coin as the Shiite uprisings, the Iraqis wanted to instigate an uprising among the Kurdish population in Kuzistan (a region that Saddam intended to annex) by supporting their labor disputes and giving them military support against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iraq was also supporting the revolt of the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party against Tehran. The most notable event was the siege of the Iranian embassy in London, where six Arab Kurdish insurgents took the embassy staff hostage, before being killed by British special forces.
According to Iraqi General Ra’ad al-Hamdani, in addition to the possibility of inciting a revolt among Iran’s Arab population, the conquest of Tehran and the expulsion of the Revolutionary Guards from the region could lead to a counter-revolution inside Iran, leading to a collapse of the Khomeini regime. However, instead of turning against their own government, the Iranian population (including those of Arab origin) put their differences aside to defend their country from external aggression. The struggle on the part of the Iranian population was not only nationalistic in character, but religious, with the Iranian Shiite leadership calling for a holy war against the Iraqis to defend the new Islamic Republic.
The Iraqis made their preparations for the offensive confident that they would be victorious. Iran lacked a cohesive leadership and its army suffered from a lack of equipment. Iraq, on the other hand, had a heavily armed and well-trained army with more than 200,000 men, 2,000 tanks and 450 aircraft. Saddam mobilized 12 mechanized divisions and morale was high among the troops. During the 1970s, the Baathist regime had rebuilt the country’s armed forces, primarily with equipment from the Soviet Union.
The southern region was full of rivers and swamps but the Iraqis had sophisticated equipment to cross them. Iraq correctly deduced that the banks of the Kharkeh and Karun rivers in Kuzistan were being poorly protected and would be easily overrun. Iraqi intelligence also stated that the Khouzistan region was garrisoned with poorly equipped troops and by battalions with few available personnel. There were also few Iranian tanks ready.
Iraq’s only concern was with the Iranian air force. Despite the purges of several officers and the lack of materials (such as spare parts for aircraft), it was still very powerful and had shown professionalism and strength while stifling counterrevolutionary movements in the country. They also showed good performance during the American rescue attempt (Operation Eagle Claw) to try to free the hostages in Tehran. Thus, the Iraqi military leadership decided to launch air strikes against Iranian aviation bases in the very first phase of the invasion as a priority target.
In Iran, several purges took place (many executions were ordered by Sadegh Khalkhali, one of the most important judges of the Revolutionary Courts), causing problems of lack of qualified personnel. There was also a lack of materials and, above all, of spare parts for the American-made equipment. All this caused the weakening of its once powerful armed forces. Between February and September 1979, the Iranian government executed 85 generals and forced others into exile or early retirement. By September 1980, more than 12,000 officers had been killed or disappeared in the purges. This caused a huge decline in the capabilities of the armed forces. The regular army (which in the Shah’s time was considered one of the most powerful in the world) was already tremendously weakened. Desertions also became a problem, reaching 60%, and the officer corps was devastated. Most of the military and able-bodied personnel had fled into exile, imprisoned or executed. During the war Iran was unable to recover from this flight of human capital. Sanctions and external isolation weakened the already weakened Iranian economy and, more importantly, forced Iran to acquire armaments on the black market to buy parts for tanks and aircraft. When the Iraqi invasion began, many pilots and officers were released from prison or had their death sentences commuted. These men were then sent to the front lines. To replace the generals who were purged, many officers received extra promotions and also with high positions being filled by people loyal to the regime. The Iranians still had 1,000 operational tanks and hundreds of aircraft ready for combat. Much equipment was cannibalized in an attempt to overcome the shortage.
Meanwhile, a new paramilitary force was created and quickly gained prominence within the country: the Islamic Revolutionary Guardians Army (often referred to as the “Revolutionary Guard,” or Sepah-e-Pasdaran), which aimed not only to fight for the nation, but also to maintain the new regime. Although trained as a paramilitary organization, after the Iraqi invasion, they were forced to fight as a traditional army. Initially, they rivaled the other branches of the armed forces and refused to fight alongside the regular army, which resulted in several defeats on the front lines. But starting in 1982, the two groups began to cooperate. Another prominent paramilitary group was the Basij militia. The Basij were poorly armed and were usually made up of children and teenagers or even the elderly (some over 70 years old). For reasons like this they were often ineffective in combat. They usually fought alongside the Revolutionary Guard, being part of the human wave attacks.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, skirmishes and small-scale fighting began to become more frequent on the Iran-Iraq border. The Iraqis began to get bolder, launching air attacks and ground infiltrations against disputed territory. Iran responded in the same coin, launching artillery fire on Iraqi cities. On September 20, 1980, Saddam Hussein declared that the Iraqi army had “liberated” all disputed territories with Iran. At the conclusion of the “liberating operations” on the 20th, Saddam spoke to his country’s parliament:
“Iran’s frequent and flagrant violations of our sovereignty … have made the 1975 Algiers agreement unworkable. That river … must have its Iraqi-Arab identity preserved as it was throughout history and, indeed, with all the annulment rights that emanate from its full sovereignty over the river … We do not want to launch a war against Iran.”
Although Saddam claimed that he did not want a war against the Iranians, his forces set out the next day to attack targets along the border as a prelude to a full-scale invasion. The Iraqi 7th Mechanized Division and 4th Infantry Division attacked the important Iranian cities of Fakkeh and Bostan, paving the way for more troops to enter Iran. Weakened by internal post-revolution chaos, the Iranians were unable to repel these attacks, giving the Iraqis easy initial victories. This led Saddam to believe that a war against Iran would be short and easy.
1980: The Iraqi invasion
Iraq began its full-scale invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980. The Iraqi air force launched surprise attacks against ten Iranian air bases with the aim of destroying their military aviation. Although these bases were well damaged, the offensive failed to destroy many enemy aircraft: only a few Iraqi aircraft managed to get deep into Iranian soil, including a few MiG-23BNs, Tu-22s and Su-20s. Three MiG-23s managed to reach Tehran, attacking its airport but destroyed few aircraft.
After a day of intense air strikes, Iraq launched its ground incursion against Iran along three front lines. These offensives were launched at the same time. The purpose of the invasion, according to Saddam, was to destroy Khomeini’s movement and prevent him from “exporting his revolution” to Iraq and other Gulf states. The Iraqi dictator imagined that if he annexed the province of Kuzistan, the prestige of the new regime would fall and perhaps another government could take over.
Of the six divisions that spearheaded the Iraqi invasion, four were sent into Kuzistan, which was close to the southern border, in order to cut off Xatalah Arab from the rest of the country to create a safe zone. The other two divisions attacked the central and northern region to protect Iraq from a possible counterattack by defending the southeastern oil fields. One mechanized and one armored infantry division attacked the important southern port cities of Abadan and Corramxar. Two more units, both armored, launched on the roads connecting the cities of Corramxar, Avaz, Susangerd, and Musian. On the central front, the Iraqis occupied the city of Mehran, advancing as far as the Zagros mountains, taking the main road connecting Tehran to Baghdad, important to prevent a counter-offensive, while moving toward the city of Qasr-e Shirin. On the northern front, the Iraqis tried to set up defensive positions at Suleimaniya, to protect the routes leading to the oil-rich Quircuque region. The pro-Arab rebellion Hussein hoped to instigate in Kuzistan never materialized, with the local people remaining loyal to the Iranian ayatollah. The Iraqi advances in Iran in 1980 were described by journalist Patrick Brogan as “poorly led and lacking in fighting spirit.” In the Iranian city of Susangerd the first use of chemical weapons by Iraqi troops was reported.
Despite the initial success in surprising the Iranians with their sudden airborne surges, Iraq’s situation in the air was not so good. Iran’s air force managed to retaliate and started attacking Iraqi military bases in the so-called Operation Kaman 99 (Arc 99). Groups of F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger fighters attacked various targets throughout Iraq, hitting government installations, dams, petrochemical plants, and oil refineries. Among the major cities hit were Baghdad, Mosul, and Quircuq. The force of the Iranian retaliation took Iraq by surprise. Iran’s aircraft managed to do much damage to Iraq’s infrastructure, suffering few casualties in the process.
Iranian AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters began attacking Iraqi army divisions on the front lines, along with F-4 Phantoms fighters. The attacks were successful in destroying several enemy armored personnel, but did not paralyze their offensives. Soon the efficiency of the Iraqi air force would drop sharply. Iran began to have great success with F-14 Tomcat fighters, which shot down several Iraqi aircraft, which were Soviet made.
The Iranian army, police forces, Basij militia volunteers, and Revolutionary Guard units conducted their operations separately. Thus, the first wave of Iraqi invasion did not face a coordinated and effective resistance. However, on September 24, 1980, the Iranian navy attacked the city of Baçora in southern Iraq, destroying two thermal oil refineries in the port of Faw, causing damage to the country’s economy. However, the Iraqi army continued to advance, forcing the Iranians to retreat. The Iranians, however, concentrated in the cities and established a new line of defense.
On September 30, Iran’s air force attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. On October 1, the Iraqi capital was again attacked by Iranian aircraft. In response, Iraq stepped up its air operations, bombing several cities on the border, keeping many civilians.
The violent border fighting generated huge humanitarian crises throughout the conflict, and the displacement of thousands of refugees.
On September 22, 1980, a protracted battle for Khorramshahr began, which quickly ended with over 7,000 dead on each side. Due to the bloody nature that the fighting was taking, Iranians began to call Khorramshahr the “City of Blood” (خونین شهر, Khunin shahr).
The battle began with the Iraqis attacking key positions in the city and their mechanized divisions advancing steadily. However air strikes from Iran and artillery and guerrilla activity from the Revolutionary Guard slowed the enemy advances. Iran flooded the marshes around the city, forcing the Iraqis to attack through narrow lanes and streets. Saddam’s tanks were advancing without infantry support, so many armored cars were lost. Even so, on September 30, the Iraqis managed to conquer the entire outskirts of Khorramshahr. The next day, Iraq launched another offensive, this time with tanks and infantrymen. The fighting was intense, house by house, and the Iraqis had to retreat. On October 14, the Iraqis launched a second offensive. The Iranians were forced to withdraw, but did so slowly, harassing their enemies street by street. By October 24, much of the city had fallen to Saddam’s troops and the Iranians retreated to the Karun River. Some guerrillas stayed behind and the actual fighting did not end until November 10.
Contrary to expectations, the Iranian people did not turn against the weak and still new government of the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, there was a huge popular mobilization to support the nation and drive out the Iraqi invaders. Quickly, 200,000 new volunteers went to the front lines in November.
Although the battle for Khorramshahr was over, the time it took for the Iraqis to conquer it ultimately helped the Iranians to better prepare. In November, Saddam ordered his forces to advance to Dezful and Ahvaz. However, popular militias in the way and Iranian planes were able to stop the Iraqis’ advance. Iran’s air force flew missions very efficiently, destroying Iraqi army weapons and fuel depots. On the ground, despite international economic sanctions, the Iranians’ supply problem was not as severe initially. Despite the lack of spare parts for American-origin military hardware, parts were cannibalized and purchases were made on the black market. On November 28, Iran launched Operation Morvarid, a series of combined air and sea attacks that destroyed 80 percent of the Iraqi navy and all of its radars and observation posts in the south of the country. When Iraq surrounded the city of Abadan, they failed to take the important port in the area, allowing supplies to arrive by the Iranians by sea.
By the end of 1980, Iraq had no more troop reserves. The lack of personnel and the extensive loss of equipment meant that they were unable to launch new offensives for quite some time. Despite all the effort and commitment made by the Baghdad government, the Iranian city of Khorramshahr was the only major conquest made by the Iraqis. On December 7, Hussein announced that his country would assume a defensive posture. By that time, the Iraqis had destroyed more than 500 Iranian tanks and captured another 100. For the next eight months, both sides entrenched themselves and made only defensive moves (with the exception of the battle of Dezful), with Iran wanting to buy time to reorganize and recover from the purges it had made from the army leadership between 1979 and 1980. In this period, the fighting consisted of pinpoint fighting and exchanges of artillery fire. Iraq mobilized 21 divisions for the invasion, while Iran had only 13 army divisions and one brigade, only seven of which were on the border between the two countries. Trench fighting, as in the first world war, resulted in bloody clashes with few strategic gains. Due to the power of the anti-tank weapons of the time, such as the RPG-7, caused many armored cars to be destroyed (especially Iraq’s), causing mechanized units on both sides to take very static positions. The Iranians tried to break through the Iraqi lines with “human wave” attacks, suffering heavy casualties but inflicting severe losses on the Iraqis as well.
Iraq has also started firing Scud missiles indiscriminately at Iranian cities. The projectiles hit civilian centers in areas such as Dezful and Ahvaz, killing many civilians.
By January 5, 1981, Iran had reorganized its forces and launched a massive counterattack, Operation Nasr (“Victory”). The Iranians used the city of Dezful as a base to attack in the direction of Susangerd, consisting of two large armored divisions. These attacks were successful in breaking through enemy lines. However, the Iranian tanks were advancing too fast, isolating themselves from the infantry, and thus suffering many losses. In the subsequent battle of Dezful, an Iranian armored division was almost completely blown apart in one of the largest tank battles of the war. Mud and bad terrain, especially in the marshes of southern Iraq and Iran, made moving vehicles difficult. The Iraqis lost 45 T-62 tanks, while the Iranians had between 100-200 Chieftain and M-60 tanks destroyed.
The fight for Dezful began at the behest of Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr, who believed that a victory could help his deteriorating political position. But with the failure of the operation actually accelerated his downfall. Iran was facing problems between President Banisadr, who supported the regular army, and the hardliners of the Guardians Army. With his removal from power, the rivalry ended. Thus the performance of the armed forces improved. New internal disputes in Iran began when the Islamic-Marxist Mujaheddin e-Khalq (MEK) movement began fighting Islamic Republic soldiers starting in June 1981. The MEK mujahidins gradually began to support Saddam Hussein. The battle for Dezful became a critical point in Iranian military thinking. From then on there was less emphasis on traditional combat by the army and more impetus on the unconventional (guerrilla, mainly) tactics of the Revolutionary Guards.
The severely damaged Iraqi air force moved its main aircraft to H-3 airbase in the west of the country, near the Jordanian border and away from that of Iran. However, on April 3, 1981, a fleet of Iranian aircraft, including eight F-4 Phantom aircraft, four F-14 Tomcats, three Boeing 707s for refueling, and a Boeing 747 commando, launched a surprise attack on H3 base, destroying between 27 and 50 Iraqi jets.
Despite the successful attack on the H-3 airbase in April, Iran’s air force has ended a 180-day series of air raids against Iraqi territory. Moreover they have given up trying to control their own airspace. Due to the heavy economic sanctions imposed by the West and the purges done before the war, the Iranian military aviation suffered and took decisions in a cautious way, avoiding to suffer losses. Further purges were made during the conflict, especially after President Banisadr was removed from power. Iran’s air force fought the rest of the conflict defensively, trying to hold off the Iraqis rather than hunt them down. Between 1981 and 1982 the Iraqi air force remained weak, but in the following years it managed to rearm and re-energize, and began to take the initiative.
Since the Iranians suffered from a lack of heavy weaponry, the military command wanted to take advantage of their numerical superiority (Iran had a population three times larger than that of Iraq). There was no shortage of volunteers, answering the call of their religious leaders to repel the invaders. In 1981 then Iran launched a series of human wave attacks against Iraqi positions. Typically the attacks consisted of three phases: First, the poorly armed, volunteer members of the Basij militia would launch themselves in waves against enemy lines (in some cases they were used to clear minefields). They were followed by the experienced and better armed members of the Revolutionary Guards, who would overpower the Iraqis. Soon after, the army, using mechanized units, would advance to win the battle.
According to historian Stephen C. Pelletiére, the Iranian idea of a “human wave attack” is actually a misconception. Rather, the Iranian tactic was to advance with groups of 22 infantrymen to attack specific targets. The approach of these men at the time of the offensive gave the impression of a “human wave attack.” Even so, Iran utilized massive infantry wave attacks throughout the war. One of the goals was clearly to overpower the Iraqi lines with their numbers rather than quality. The result of these operations consisted of a huge amount of casualties.
According to Iraqi General Ra’ad al-Hamdani, the Iranian human attack waves consisted only of “armed civilians” who were poorly prepared and led. However, Iran also used sophisticated tactics. Operations and raids took place at night, along with distraction missions to deceive the enemy, and infiltration maneuvers.
The Iranians used the element of surprise for their attacks, unlike the pompous frontal attacks of World War I (another notorious conflict characterized by trench fighting). In 1982, Iran used the bad terrain, the same terrain that had cost them the battle of Dezful, to infiltrate enemy lines. The infiltrating forces identified the weak points in the Iraqi position and thus cleared the way for the main force.
Wave attacks, although bloody (hundreds died in the process), were used in conjunction with infiltration and surprise offensives. Thus, they turned out to be relatively successful in many cases. While Iraq secured their static positions by entrenching their tanks and soldiers, the Iranians were able to break through their lines and surround them. The fact that the Iranians used a lot of maneuver warfare tactics, with light infantry against Iraqi static positions, surprised the Iraqi leadership and gave Iran many victories. Still, the routine lack of coordination between the army and the Revolutionary Guards, as well as the lack of heavy weaponry (such as artillery) on all fronts, deteriorated the role of the infantry.
In the year following the stagnation of the Iraqi offensives, in March 1981, there was no change in the front line, other than the Iranians conquering part of Susangerd in May. Then, at the end of 1981, Iran launched a heavy offensive against the Iraqi lines. The so-called Operation Samen-ol-A’emeh (“The Eighth Imam”), launched between September 27 and 29, 1981, ended the siege of Abadan and drove Iraqi soldiers out of this area. The Iranians used a mix of regular and militia soldiers, using artillery and armor. Iran lost 150 M-48A tanks on September 29. On October 15, as the siege ended, a large convoy of Iranian soldiers were ambushed by Saddam’s military. In the battle between Iraq’s T-55 tanks and Iranian Chieftains, Iran lost 20 of its armored personnel carriers and some other vehicles and were forced to retreat. Iraq’s use of Mi-24 attack helicopters proved deadly, although Iranian anti-aircraft managed to shoot down some of these.
By the end of 1981, the Iraqi army was low on morale. Heavy losses and stalemate on the front lines had deteriorated their will to fight.
On November 29, 1981, Iran launched Operation Tariq al-Qods with three army brigades and seven Revolutionary Guard units. Iraq was failing to patrol the territories they occupied, letting the Iranians infiltrate their lines and attacking them by surprise. On December 7, the city of Bostan was retaken by the Iranian army. Operation Tariq al-Qods also saw the first successful use of “human wave” attacks, where militia and Revolutionary Guard light infantry attacked Iraqi positions repeatedly, sometimes without air or artillery support. The fall of Bostan increased Iraq’s logistical problem, forcing them to relocate their supply routes from Ahvaz further south. In these battles, more than 6,000 Iranians and at least 2,000 Iraqis died in combat.
1982: Iraqi retreat and Iranian offensives
Iraq, realizing that Iran intended to launch a full-scale counter-offensive, decided to surprise them by launching Operation al-Fawz al-‘Azim (“Supreme Success”) on March 19. Using various tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets, the Iraqis attacked enemy positions in Roghabiyeh. Although Saddam and his generals believed that they were successful, in reality the Iranians were firmly in their trenches. Iran was better prepared, moving its forces from the cities by trains and vehicles. Despite the concentration of troops near the border, Iraq was not prepared to withstand an eventual counterattack.
The major Iranian offensive, led by General Ali Sayad Shirazi, was the so-called Operation Fath-ol-Mobeen (“Uncontested Victory”). On March 22, 1982, Iran attacked Iraqi troops with force. Using Chinook helicopters, they landed troops behind enemy lines, disabled their artillery, and captured the headquarters of Saddam’s troops in the region. The Iranian Basij militia then launched an attack in the form of a human wave, with 1,000 fighters per wave. They suffered heavy casualties, but managed to be victorious.
Iranian forces (the army and Revolutionary Guards) continued their attacks, surrounding the 9th and 10th armored divisions, as well as a mechanized division, near the Iranian city of Shush. Iraq attempted to counterattack and rescue its surrounded units. However, a fleet of 95 Iranian aircraft (F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tigers fighters) destroyed the Iraqi attackers.
Operation Fath-ol-Mobeen ended as a decisive victory for Iran and forced the retreat of Iraqi troops from several regions, such as the cities of Shush, Dezful, and Ahvaz. The Iranian armed forces destroyed about 320 to 400 Iraqi armored personnel and vehicles, but the price they paid was high. On the first day alone, the Iranians lost 196 tanks. By that time, much of Kuzistan had been retaken by the Iranians.
Also in 1982 the Iranians launched yet another new offensive. The operation, called Beit ol-Moqaddas, began with a series of Iranian strikes against Iraqi air bases, destroying 47 of their jets (including several newly imported Mirage F-1s). This gave the Iranians air superiority on the battlefield, while giving them freedom to monitor Iraqi troop movements.
On April 29, Iran began its ground offensive. Some 70,000 Revolutionary Guard men and Basij militiamen attacked the Iraqis in various positions – such as Bostan, Susangerd, the west bank of the Karun River, and the city of Ahvaz. The Basij launched human wave attacks, which were followed by army onslaughts, backed by helicopters and armored vehicles. Under heavy attack, the Iraqis retreated. On May 12, the Iranians retook the entire Susangerd region. Iran took hundreds of prisoners and picked up several abandoned Iraqi tanks. As in other fighting, the Iranian victory was costly in terms of sights, particularly for the Basij militia.
The Iraqis retreated to the banks of the Karun River. At this point, their situation was very bad with them only maintaining control of the city Khorramshahr and a few other areas. Saddam ordered 70,000 of his soldiers to surround Khorramshahr and set up defensive positions to hold it. To prevent Iranian special units from acting in the rear, the Iraqis placed metal stakes and wrecked cars in possible landing zones for enemy paratroopers. Saddam Hussein even visited Khorramshahr to encourage his men and vowed that the city would not be retaken. However, the only local supply route was from Xatal Arab, and the Iranian air force had bombed the city’s bridges while it was under artillery bombardment.
At dawn on May 23, 1982, the Iranians crossed the Karun River toward Khorramshahr. An armored division of the army led the attack, followed by the Revolutionary Guard and popular militias. Iran consistently used its air superiority, bombing enemy positions and providing cover for its troops crossing the Karun River, capturing vital bridges and launching waves of attacks against the city. Saddam’s cherished line of defense quickly collapsed. The fight for Khorramshahr, the only major Iranian city in Iraqi hands, lasted only 48 hours and ended with the surrender of 19,000 Iraqi troops, with another 10,000 being killed or wounded. Iran counted among its number some 30,000 fighters killed, wounded or missing in action. During Operation Beit ol-Moqaddas, 33 000 Iraqi soldiers were taken prisoner by Iran.
Two years of continuous fighting had weakened the strength of the Iraqi armed forces: their fighting strength had been reduced from 210,000 combatants to 150,000. Some 20,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed and another 30,000 captured; only two of four armored divisions were active, and at least three mechanized divisions had their fighting strength reduced to below brigade level. In addition, the Iranians had captured more than 450 tanks and armor that the Iraqis had left behind.
Iraq’s air force was also weakened: after losing at least 55 aircraft in December 1981, they had only 100 intact bomber and interceptor fighters. A MiG-21 pilot who had defected to Syria in June 1982 revealed that Iraqi military aviation had only three bomber squadrons available and capable of attacking Iran. The army air corps was slightly better off and still operated 70 helicopters. Despite this, the infantry still possessed more than 3,000 tanks, while the Iranians had at least 1,000 of these stockpiled.
By this time, Saddam believed that his army was too demoralized and damaged to hold on to Kuzestan and some other stretches of Iranian territory, and so he ordered his troops to withdraw from this region. He repositioned the army on the border between the two countries to defend against a possible Iranian offensive. However, Iraqi soldiers still occupied some key areas on the border and still had possession of some disputed territories, including the Xatal Arab canal. In response to frontline failures, such as at Khorramshahr, Saddam ordered the execution of several officers, including Generals Juwad Shitnah and Salah al-Qadhi, and Colonel Masa abd al-Jalil. It has been estimated that more than a dozen high-ranking officers were also executed during this period. These executions would be a common action by Hussein to punish commanders who failed in battle.
In April 1982, the rival Baathist regime in Syria became one of the few nations to openly support Iran by closing the Quircuque-Banias pipeline that allowed Iraqi oil to reach the Mediterranean Sea, which meant a $5 billion dollar monthly loss to Iraq. Journalist Patrick Brogan wrote, “It looks like Iraq will be strangled economically before it is defeated militarily. The Syrians’ move to close the Quircuque-Banias pipeline meant that the Iraqis had only their pipeline in Turkey to export oil. However, this pipeline only had a capacity of 500,000 barrels per day, which generated too little profit to continue to bankroll the war. However, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf nations saved Iraq from bankruptcy by lending more than $60 billion a year in subsidies. Although Saddam had already displayed a hostile stance against these countries, there was widespread fear that the Shiite Iranian Revolution could spread to the region, which was ruled almost mostly by Sunnis. Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that the monarchies in the region were illegitimate and an un-Islamic form of government. Statements like this were believed to be a call for local governments to be deposed.
The statements of Iran’s leader also caught the attention of the United States and European countries, which began to give more support to Iraq. Saddam Hussein received diplomatic, monetary, and military support from the Americans, including large loans, political influence, and intelligence information about military movements and events in Iran, mainly through spy satellites, helping the Iraqis to coordinate their offensives. Iraq came to rely heavily on American satellite images and radar aircraft to identify and locate where Iranian troops were.
With Iran winning one success after another on the battlefields, the United States further increased its aid to the Iraqis, economically and militarily, as well as formally re-engaging diplomatically (the tie had been broken after the 1967 Six Day War). President Ronald Reagan decided that Americans “could not allow Iraq to lose the war against Iran” and his country would do “everything possible” to prevent this. Reagan formalized this policy by signing a National Security Directive, which went into effect in June 1982.
In 1982, Reagan removed Iraq from the list of countries that “supported terrorism” and began selling weapons to the Iraqis, such as cannons (via Jordan and Israel). France also sold millions of dollars in armaments, including Gazelle helicopters, Mirage F-1 fighters, and Exocet missiles. The United States and West Germany even sold pesticides and poison, which were used by Saddam as chemical weapons. Brazil also sold huge amounts of military equipment to Iraq, including EE-9 Rattlesnake tanks. China also gave Iraq weapons, such as several rifles.
At the same time, the Soviet Union, angered at Iran for purging the Tudeh Party (the local communist party), became a major supplier of arms to Iraq. The Iraqi air force was virtually rebuilt by Soviet, and some French, equipment with the arrival of planes and helicopters. Iraq also bought huge quantities of rifles and small arms, such as AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Iraq’s once weakened armored divisions were now stocked with new Russian tanks, and Iraq was invigorated to launch itself on Iran again. The Iranians were reported to the world as the aggressors and this would be the majority view until the Gulf War (1990-1991) when Iraq became the villain of the region.
Unlike Iraq, Iran was not receiving vast international support. The country lacked the financial ability to buy weapons and was still under heavy sanctions from Western nations. Iran began to receive support from China, North Korea, Libya, Syria, and even Japan. These countries provided weapons, ammunition, logistical support, and other equipment. Clandestinely, the Iranians received armaments from Israel and even the United States.
On June 20, 1982 Saddam announced that he wanted peace and proposed a ceasefire. Khomeini rejected the proposal because an agreement at that point meant that Iraqi troops would still be occupying disputed territory. The Iranian leader stated that his country would invade Iraq and would not stop until it overthrew the Baathist regime and replaced it with an Islamic Republic. Iran supported Iraq’s government-in-exile, the so-called Islamic Supreme Assembly, led by cleric Mohamed Baqir al-Hakim, who was one of the main forces opposing Saddam Hussein. They recruited dissidents, exiles, and sympathetic Shiites to join the Badr Brigade, the military wing of the organization.
The decision to invade Iraq was made after intense debates within the Iranian government leadership. One faction, consisting of Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, President Ali Khamenei, and Chief of Staff General Ali Sayad Shirazi, wanted to accept the ceasefire since most of Iranian territory had already been recaptured. In particular, General Shirazi stated that the invasion should not happen for logistical reasons and he stated that he considered resigning his post if “unqualified personnel continued to meddle in matters of the conduct of the war.” The opposing side was led by clerics and members of the Supreme Defense Council, whose leader was Majlis Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. One of the main arguments in favor of continuing the conflict (as Rafsanjani argued) was that although Iran had thwarted the Iraqi invasion, the enemy still controlled more than 7,800 square kilometers of the national territory, including areas such as Shalamcheh, Mehran, and the Naft Shahr oil fields. In the event of an immediate ceasefire, the Iraqis would still retain control of these territories and there was a fear that they would not give up these gains, and might even use the time to prepare for a new incursion. Iran was, at that point, isolated internationally and was unlikely to receive enough support to stay on the defensive and hold off pressure from Iraq. Even in the event of peace, the country would receive no compensation and it would be difficult to get back on its feet unless it achieved a total victory on the battlefields.
Although the government agreed that only total victory would be acceptable, according to a 2003 interview, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (the architect of Iran’s strategy in the war) stated that Iran actually intended to occupy strategic positions in Iraq in order to later use these territories as bargaining points during negotiations and to force an understanding (possibly in an international court), mainly to force the Iraqis to withdraw from the regions they still occupied in Iran. They also wanted regional recognition and compensation payments for damages during the conflict. The areas that Rafsanjani said the Iranians wanted to occupy were the Al-Faw Peninsula and Umm Qasr and its ports (cutting off Iraq’s access to the sea), isolating and capturing Basra (Iraq’s second largest city), and conquering parts of the banks of the Tigris River and Highway 8 (which connected Baghdad to Basra), which would split Iraq in half and cut off the Iraqi government’s access to its main oil wells in the south. They still wanted to take the Darbandikhan dam in the northeast of the country, where much of Iraq’s drinking water came from. One hope was also that the Iranian presence on Iraqi soil would instigate a Shiite and Kurdish revolt against the regime of the Sunni Saddam Hussein, which could lead to the downfall of his government (or its almost complete deterioration). The Kurdish rebellion did happen, but at that point the Shiite revolt was almost non-existent. During its advances, Iran captured huge amounts of equipment from Iraq (especially precious tanks for the infantry). Overseas, the Iranians bought parts on the black market to maintain their Western-origin equipment.
In Iraq’s cabinet, the country’s health minister, Riyadh Ibrahim Hussein, suggested that Saddam Hussein step down as president temporarily to try to make Iran more comfortable with the proposed ceasefire. Riyadh insisted that the dictator would return to power soon after. Saddam, irritated, asked if anyone else in the cabinet agreed with the minister’s position. Frightened, no one responded positively. Hussein then escorted Riyadh into an adjoining room, closed the door, and then shot him dead. Saddam then reportedly returned to his office and continued the meeting.
For much of the last six years of the war, Iraq would spend fighting on the defensive. Being unable or unwilling to launch major offensives, they left it to Iran to take the initiative, which in the last years of the conflict launched over 70 campaigns against the Iraqis. The Iraqi strategy was no longer to hold territories in Iran, but to deny them any territorial gains in Iraq (besides keeping the border under control and continuing to occupy the disputed regions). Saddam began an internal policy of total war, mobilizing and immersing the country, at all levels of society, against Iran. By 1988, the nation was spending 40-75% of its GDP on military spending. The Iraqi dictator had doubled the size of his army from 200,000 soldiers (12 divisions and 3 independent brigades) to over 500,000 (23 divisions and 9 brigades). With an improved air force with the arrival of good Soviet aircraft, the Iraqis were able to restart their incursions into Iranian territory, hitting cities near the border, especially from 1984. By the end of 1982, the Soviets had also supplied substantial amounts of infantry equipment, and the ground war entered a new phase. Among the new tanks acquired were the T-55, T-62 and T-72, as well as BM-21 rocket launchers and Mi-24 attack helicopters. The army adopted Soviet doctrine, with three lines of defense filled with obstacles, barbed wire, land mines, explosives and booby traps, and bunkers with machine gun nests. The brigades of engineers also built obstacles in the rivers and on bridges, firming up trenches and erecting other natural defenses and fortifications. To protect Bazora and the important southern cities, plains were flooded and a swamp was artificially created to make enemy approaches more difficult.
Iraq focused on so-called “defense in depth,” a technique of slowing the enemy advance rather than stopping it, tiring them out and inflicting severe losses on them in the process. The Iraqis built a series of static defense lines to bleed the Iranian army’s advance. When faced with large numbers of aggressors, with human waves converging on top of the trenches, the Iraqis would pull back but their static defenses inflicted heavy casualties on the Iranians and the more they advanced the harder it became to move forward. Then Iraq’s air force and artillery would finish the job by falling back on the remaining enemy forces, while light infantry and armored units pushed out those that were left. At times, the Iraqis would conduct short surges against the Iranian lines to provoke them into attacking. Iraq also used chemical and biological weapons extensively, causing many deaths among the Iranians (combatants or not). The tactic of human wave attacks that had been successful in Iran’s retaking of Kuzistan now no longer worked against the new Iraqi defense system. Iraq also had logistical advantages: the front lines were close to their bases and supply depots, allowing Saddam’s troops to be more easily resupplied. In contrast, Iranian progress over the previous two years had stretched their supply lines. Trucks carrying supplies to the soldiers had to cross bad terrain and were vulnerable to air strikes.
Iran, besides the lack of supplies, also had internal problems. The officer corps of its army had undergone another purge in 1982, after another alleged coup attempt.
In mid-1982, the Iranian military leadership began to argue for a full-scale offensive against Baghdad to take the enemy capital before the supply shortage problem became more acute. The plan was denied as impractical and the strategy was to take one territory at a time through a series of attacks led by the Revolutionary Guards in order to weaken Iraq and force them into a ceasefire (with the larger goal being Iraqi withdrawal from the disputed territories).
Iran then planned an attack on Baçora, the country’s second most important city and gateway to the oil-rich southern region. Called “Operation Ramadan,” it involved more than 180,000 fighters on both sides and was one of the largest battles between conventional armies since World War II. The Iranian strategy involved attacking the weakest points of the Iraqi defense line, but they were prepared. The Iraqi military knew about the offensive beforehand and took reinforcements to the area. Iraq used tear gas and other chemicals against its enemies, which would be the first confirmed use of these types of weaponry in the conflict.
Over 100,000 Iranians (Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia members) directly attacked the Iraqi lines. The Iraqi troops were well posted in thick defensive lines, consisting of several trenches, bunkers, and artillery positions. The Basijs used human wave tactics to push the enemies back and to clear minefields, allowing the more prepared Guard troops no trouble to advance. The fighting became frantic and hand-to-hand, with Iranians climbing on Iraqi tanks and throwing grenades into them to destroy them. On the eighth day, the Iranians advanced 10 miles into Iraq and took some important bridges. Captured Iraqi tanks were reused by Iran in future attacks.
Still, the Iranians could not advance beyond what they had already done at the end of the first week of offensives against Bazora. Iran then began to firm up defensive positions to hold the territories they controlled. Iraq then launched its deadly Mi-25 helicopters, supported by Aérospatiale Gazelle armed with HOT missiles, against the Iranian mechanized columns, inflicting them severe losses. In the skies, intense air combat was taking place between Iraqi MiG fighters and Iranian aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom.
On July 16, the Iranians attempted to advance northward and even forced the Iraqis to retreat. However, only 13 km from Bazora, the poorly equipped Iranian forces were surrounded by the heavily armed Iraqis. The fighting was fierce and many people died. An Iranian AH-1 Cobra helicopter squadron managed to save its ground troops from total defeat, however. Similar fighting took place on the important Khorramshar-Baghdad road until the end of the month, but there was no decisive victory. Iraq then mobilized three armored divisions and launched a counterattack. They managed to defeat the vanguard of the Iranian army, but paid a high price in lives. The Iraqi 9th mechanized division, for example, was almost completely destroyed. In total, more than 80,000 soldiers were killed by both sides and another 200,000 were wounded. Some 400 Iranian armored vehicles were destroyed or abandoned, with Iraq losing 370 tanks. The offensive in Baçora turned out to be a partial failure for Iran, as they did not take the city. But they did manage to advance deep into Iraqi territory.
After the failure of Operation Ramadan, the Iranians launched some small attacks. Iran launched two limited offensives in late 1982 to try to retake the Sumar Mountains and isolate pockets of Iraqi resistance in Naft Shahr near the border. They intended to reach as far as the border town of Mandali in eastern Iraq. The vanguard of the attack was made up of Basij militiamen, army helicopters, and some armored personnel. Succeeding in partly breaking the enemy line, Iran took a section of a road leading to Baghdad. During Operation Muslim ibn Aqil (October 1-7), the Iranians retook over 150 square kilometers of their own territory and reached the outskirts of Mandali before being stopped by the Iraqis. Already in Operation Muharram (November 1-21), the Iranians captured part of the Bayat oil fields, with their fighters and helicopters destroying at least 105 Iraqi tanks, 70 VBTPs, and 7 aircraft, suffering few losses in the process. Iran almost managed to break through enemy positions in Mandali, but the Iraqis received reinforcements, including T-72 tanks that had heavy armor. Heavy rains also hampered the Iranians. About 3,500 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of Iranians (presumably many) were killed, without any major objectives being gained.
1983-84: strategic stalemate and war of attrition
After a series of failed offensives in the summer of 1982, Iran believed that future efforts to try to break through Iraqi lines would be a wasted effort. During 1983, the Iranians launched only five offensives, none achieving significant successes, with many people being sacrificed in the “human wave” attacks. During this period, Iran’s air force had only 70 fighter jets at its disposal. They still had a good number of helicopters to support the infantry. The Iranian pilots had better training than the Iraqi pilots and usually had an advantage in combat, but due to the lack of personnel and especially equipment and spare parts, they did not exploit these advantages as often. Iraq was supplied with Soviet aircraft, and they had logistical help from the United States (in the form of intelligence and material). Iraq, towards the end of the war, had gained air superiority in the border region. In most cases, their air incursions over Iran met little opposition.
Another standoff was Operation Fajr al-Nasr (“Before Dawn”
The northern and central sector between Mandali and Baghdad also saw heavy fighting beginning in April 1983, with Iranian offensives being stopped by Iraqi tanks and infantry. Both sides suffered heavy casualties (between killed and wounded), and by the end of 1983, it was estimated that 120,000 Iranians and over 60,000 Iraqis had died fighting in the region. In the subsequent war of attrition, in which the conflict came to be, gave the Iranians a slight advantage.
Between 1983 and 1984, Iran launched a series of operations called Valfajr (“Dawn”). In the first wave, 50,000 Iranian soldiers left Dezful and went to fight 55,000 Iraqi troops. The Iranians intended to cut off the important road connecting Baçora to Baghdad in the central sector. The Iraqis responded by launching more than 150 air strikes and even went as far as bombing Dezful, Ahvaz and Khorramshahr. Iraq tried to counterattack but were stopped by the arrival of the Iranian 92nd Armored Division.
In another offensive, the Iranians conducted secret proxy war missions beginning in April 1983 with the aim of supporting the Kurdish insurgency against Saddam Hussein. With support from Kurdish rebels, the Iranians attacked in the north on July 23, 1983, capturing the Iraqi town of Haj Omran and resisting enemy counterattacks. This operation incited Iraq to launch indiscriminate chemical attacks against the Kurdish population. The Iranians tried to resist and launched another offensive. Iran hoped to control the roads connecting the mountainous regions to the cities of Mehran, Dehloran and Elam. More Iraqi air strikes, with planes and helicopters armed with bombs carrying chemical and biological components, were launched, although not very militarily effective, causing many deaths (especially among civilians). Saddam and the General Staff of the Iraqi armed forces began to show more interest in the use of chemical weapons. In the end, more than 17,000 people died on both sides, with no country taking advantage.
The fourth Valfajr operation began in September 1983 and focused on the northern region of Iranian Kurdistan. Three Iranian army divisions, one Revolutionary Guard, and elements of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDD) approached Marivan and Sardasht to pound the town of Suleimaniyah. The Iranian strategy was to pressure the Kurds to occupy the Banjuin valley, which was 45 km from Suleimaniyah and 140 km from the important oil wells and refineries in Quircuque. To prevent this, the Iraqis launched several Mil Mi-8 helicopters armed with warheads carrying chemical weapons and executed 120 attacks against Iranian forces, which stopped them after only 15 km of their advance on Iraqi soil. In the fighting, more than 5,000 Iranians and 2,500 Iraqis died. Iran recaptured 110 km² of its own territory and also took a small portion of Iraqi territory, taking 1 800 prisoners and capturing much abandoned equipment. The Iraqis responded by launching several SCUD-B missiles against civilian targets in the cities of Dezful, Masjid Soleiman, and Behbehan. Iran used long-range artillery to strike Baçora while new battle fronts were opened in the north. The opening of this third front (in addition to the fighting in the south and center) began to fatigue Iraq more sharply.
During the first four years of the war, Iran had vast numerical superiority (with a population three times larger). However, Saddam had ordered the expansion of conscription (in his total war policy) and by the end of 1984 both armies were of similar sizes. By 1986, the Iraqis had twice as many trained soldiers as Iran. By 1988, Iraq had one million soldiers in its ranks (the fourth largest army in the world). In terms of heavy equipment, such as war tanks, the Iraqis outnumbered the Iranians 5 to 1. The Iranian military command, however, was still more tactically adept. While much of the military decisions in Tehran were made by trained career officers, the Iraqi strategy was architected by Saddam Hussein, who had virtually no military knowledge.
After the Valfajr operations in late 1983, the Iranians changed their tactics. As Iraq’s defenses improved with better firepower and more soldiers, Iran could no longer rely solely on human wave attacks, which were becoming increasingly ineffective. Iranian offensives became more complex and involved more maneuvering and extensive use of light infantry. Iran was launching frequent offensives, albeit of small intensity, to try to slowly gain ground and fatigue Iraqi forces with asymmetric, attrition fighting. They wanted to force Iraq to spend huge amounts of equipment, forcing their government to replace them by spending a lot of money and damaging their economy. The Iraqis would have to spend more money for the fighting, to the detriment of public resources. The Iranians hoped that this would create resentment among the population (especially the Shiites), however the only revolt they managed to instigate was in the north, with the Kurds. The policy of conquering important territories to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations was also maintained. Iran used heavy weaponry when it could, and they began to do this more intelligently than in previous years. The army and Revolutionary Guard began to work better together and their tactics improved. Human wave attacks became less common (but were still used). To defeat Iraq’s deep defenses, static positions, and better firepower, Iran began to focus its attacks where the Iraqis had difficulty using their heavy weapons, such as in swamps, valleys, and mountains, often using infiltration techniques (with special forces, something the Iraqis also did).
The Iranians began to train their troops in infiltration techniques, patrol, night raids, and fighting in difficult places such as mountains. Commando units, specialized in amphibious warfare, were put into action as southern Iraq was full of swamps and rivers. Iran also used speedboats to pass through the marshes and lakes of southern Iraq and landed troops and special forces on enemy-controlled shores by stealth, where they carried out sabotage missions and erected floating bridges so that more troops and supplies could cross the rivers. The Iranians also used guerrilla tactics extensively. On the northern front, it began working with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia. Iranian military advisors helped the Kurds, who attacked Saddam’s troops, their supply lines and bases. Oil refineries in Quircuque became frequent targets and were attacked by Peshmerga rockets and mortars.
By 1984, the Iranian army had reorganized and launched, together with the Revolutionary Guard, Operation Kheibar, which lasted from February 24 to March 19. Iran attacked the central region of the border battlefront where an Iraqi Army Corps was stationed: both sides had more than 250,000 men each. The aim was to make a fresh attempt to conquer the important roads connecting Baghdad to Bakora, to take the region in the middle, and to prepare to eventually advance on Saddam’s capital. The Iraqi high command assumed that the marshy regions above Baghdad were natural barriers that were too difficult to cross. The marshes made it difficult for the Iraqis to move heavy vehicles and absorbed artillery fire and bombs, diminishing their effect.
Before the main infantry attack, Iranian commandos landed from helicopters behind enemy lines and destroyed part of the Iraqi artillery. Two smaller offensives, part of operations Fajr al-Nasr, aimed to take the Iraqi town of Kut al-Imara and cut the connection between the center and south of the country, disrupting the coordination of Saddam’s forces. Iranian soldiers crossed the rivers in the region in fast, stealthy boats, but advanced only 24 km.
On February 24, the Iranians launched Operation Kheibar, with 250,000 men on the front lines on each side, crossing the Hawizeh Marsh using helicopters and boats in an amphibious assault. Iran’s army then attacked the oil-rich Majnoon Island, dropping troops via helicopter and cutting the lines of communication between Amareh and Baçora. They then continued advancing towards Qurna. Majnoon fell on February 27, but the Iraqi air force shot down several Iranian helicopters. On the same day, a fleet of helicopters carrying Iranian troops was attacked by Iraqi fighters (MiGs, Mirages, and Sukhois). It was essentially a massacre, with 49 of the 50 Iranian helicopters shot down. At the same time, fighting was going on in the water and in the marshes, on a 2 km front line. Iraq put electrodes in the water, which ended up electrocuting to death several Iranian soldiers. Bodies of the dead Iranian soldiers were often shown on Iraqi state television. Even though the war was in a bloody stalemate, the Iraqi media, controlled by Saddam Hussein’s regime, kept saying that everything was going well.
On February 29, the Iranians arrived near Qurna and approached the hotly contested highway that connects Baghdad to Baghdad. They had overcome the marshes and returned to open ground, where they were confronted with heavy conventional weapons, such as artillery, tanks, and aircraft, which dropped warheads counting mustard gas. About 1200 Iranians died in the Iraqi counterattack. Iran retreated to the marsh, maintaining control of strategic Majnoon Island.
The battle for the marshes in southern Iraq saw Saddam’s forces under constant attack. Extensive use of chemical weapons eased their plight and improvements in Iraqi defensive positions bled the advancing enemies dry and fatigued them until forcing their retreat. Iraq relied heavily on its Mi-24 helicopters to hunt down Iranian troops in the marshes, and at least 20,000 of these were killed, at the cost of nearly 10,000 Iraqi lives.
By the middle of the fourth year of the conflict, Iran had lost 170,000 men in combat and another 340,000 were wounded. Iraqi casualties numbered more than 80,000 soldiers killed and another 150,000 more wounded.
Now being unable to launch any ground offensive against Iran, the Iraqis began to conduct strategic aerial bombardments against Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf, as well as targeting other targets of economic value (such as refineries) and various cities in order to hit the economy and morale of the Iranian people. Iraq also hoped that Iran would show some overreaction that would draw the attention of the Western powers and then involve them directly in the war on Iraq’s behalf.
The so-called “Oil Tanker War” began when Iraq started attacking, in early 1984, the ports of Kharg Island and the oil tankers anchored there. The goal that Saddam hoped to achieve was to force Iran to retaliate brutally and take measures such as closing the Strait of Hormuz to maritime traffic, causing foreign powers, especially the United States, to react: The Americans had already threatened to intervene if the Strait of Hormuz was closed, by either side. So the Iranians retaliated with sabotage actions and air and naval attacks (the Iranian navy was far superior in numbers and had better technology than Iraq’s) only against Iraqi ships, allowing vessels of other nationalities to pass through without problems.
Iraq declared that all ships going to or returning from Iranian ports in the northern part of the Persian Gulf were subject to attack. They used their air power, especially helicopters, and aircraft such as F-1 Mirage and MiG-23 armed with French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles to attack. The Iraqis frequently bombed Kharg Island and its refineries and ports. After these aggressions, Iran attacked a Kuwaiti tanker carrying Iraqi oil near Bahrain on May 13, 1984, and a Saudi tanker on the 16th. Since Iraq had difficulty exporting its oil by land, they relied heavily on the help of Arab allies for shipping. The Iranians began to attack more Kuwaiti ships carrying Iraqi oil, later bombing any vessels that helped Saddam. Attacks from both sides on ships from Gulf countries (some neutral), expanded to attack generic vessels, which did not necessarily carry oil. In response, Saudi Arabia sent fighters to patrol its waters and on June 5 one of its F-15s shot down an Iranian F-4 Phantom II aircraft.
The air and sea attacks did not actually damage the economies of the Persian Gulf countries, and Iran switched to using the port of Larak Island, closer to the Strait of Hormuz.
The Iranian Navy imposed a naval blockade of Iraq, using British-made frigates, and began to detain and inspect ships doing business with Iraq. They operated with impunity, as the Iraqi navy was very small and poorly armed. In addition, Iraqi pilots had almost no training in naval air combat. Some Iranian warships opened fire on oil tankers passing through the Gulf. Iran also had the navy of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, which used light Boghammar ships. The Iranians also used aircraft and helicopters that took off from air bases on the ground, armed with AGM-65 Maverick missiles and anti-ship rockets.
In the midst of this chaos, the American battleship USS Stark (FFG-31) was hit on May 17, 1987, by two Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi F-1 Mirage. The plane had received an alert from the Stark asking it not to approach. The American frigate did not detect the missile on radar and the warnings were allegedly only given moments before the attack. The two missiles fired by the Mirage hit the American ship and exploded in the crew quarters, killing 37 sailors and wounding 21 others.
The British insurance company Lloyd’s of London, estimated that 546 commercial ships were damaged and at least 430 civilians were killed. Most of the attacks were carried out by the Iraqis in Iranian waters. But the actions of the Iranians against Kuwaiti vessels caused the government of the countries in the region to ask for outside help to deal with the situation in November 1986. The Soviet Union responded positively and dispatched ships to escort the freighters sailing in the Persian Gulf in 1987, and then the U.S. Navy also sent ships to protect the tankers of the allied Gulf nations, allowing them to use the American flag. In March 1987 the U.S. government launched Operation Earnest Will, to protect maritime traffic in the region. Ships from neutral nations going to Iran were not given foreign protection, which reduced the world’s naval oil trade with Iran, as there was a risk of an Iraqi attack. The Iranians thus accused the United States of intervening in the war on Iran’s behalf.
During the course of the war, Iran even attacked two Soviet navy ships protecting Kuwaiti tankers. There was also a case of a Seawise Giant, one of the largest vessels ever built, carrying Iranian crude oil out of the Gulf, being hit and severely damaged by an Iraqi Exocet.
Beginning in 1984, the Iraqis began to do more extensive strategic bombing of Iranian cities. Although Iraq had already carried out air and missile attacks against towns by Iran, this systematic bombing campaign was the largest of the war. This became known as the “War of the Cities”. With Soviet and American help, the Iraqi air force was restructured and expanded. Meanwhile, Iran suffered from a lack of equipment and sanctions, relying on expensive black market purchases. Iraq used Tu-22 and Tu-16 strategic bomber aircraft to launch long-distance bombing raids on Iranian cities, including Tehran. Short-range bomber aircraft, such as the Mig-25 and Su-22, to launch attacks, and fighters such as the Mig-29 for escort. Civilian and industrial targets were hit more frequently, and each successful attack did great damage to the already staggering Iranian economy.
In response, the Iranians launched more patrols with F-4 Phantom fighters and F-14s to intercept the Iraqi aircraft. Despite the casualties suffered due to Iran’s aircraft and anti-aircraft fire, the bombing of Iraq was successful and became a headache for the Iranian authorities. In 1986, Iran expanded its air defense system to try to resist. Toward the end of the war, Iraqi ballistic missile attacks were indiscriminate, while air incursions had reduced in intensity. In 1987, Saddam ordered bombing raids with warheads containing chemical components to be used against Iranian cities, such as the city of Sardasht. Hundreds of people were killed.
Iran tried to retaliate by bombing cities near the border, such as Baçora. The Iranians also used some Scud missiles from Libya and fired them at Baghdad, inflicting a lot of damage.
On February 7, 1984, (during the initial phase of the “war of the cities”) Saddam Hussein ordered his air force to directly attack eleven particular Iranian cities, going on until February 22. The purpose of these bombings was to demoralize Iran’s civilians and force their government to negotiate, but they had little effect. Iraqi military aviation suffered heavy casualties in the process and Iran fought back, hitting Baghdad and some other Iraqi cities with ballistic missiles, artillery, and even aircraft. These actions, although not very effective, caused many civilian casualties and would be repeated several times over the next few years as part of what became known as “the war of the cities”. In February 1984 alone, it was estimated that 1,200 Iranian civilians were killed by Iraqi bombs. Although not very effective, this strategy left many fatalities and cities in ruins.
By 1984, it was estimated that Iran had lost at least 300,000 fighters (between dead and wounded), while Iraqi casualties were estimated at roughly 150,000. Foreign analysts agreed that both sides had failed to use whatever modern equipment they had at their disposal and employed obsolete tactics, especially on the offensive. Much damaged equipment had to be left behind as their technicians and engineers were unable to repair it. The Iraqi and Iranian military showed little coordination with their commanders and entire units were left to fight alone. As a result, by the end of 1984, the war entered another strategic stalemate. Between October 18 and 25, 1984 Iran launched a small offensive (Dawn 7), where they drove Iraqi forces out of Mehran.
1985-86: Offensives and retreats
In 1985, Iraq’s armed forces were still receiving financial support from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states, and were still making huge arms purchases from the Soviet Union, China and France. It was in this year that, for the first time since 1980, Saddam launched new offensives against Iran.
On January 6, 1986, the Iraqis launched a new offensive to try to retake Majnoon Island. However, they could not overpower the lines of 200,000 Iranian soldiers and militiamen, who received reinforcements from amphibious troops. Still, Saddam’s military managed to gain a permanent foothold in the south of the island.
The Iraqis launched a new “war of the cities” between March 12 and 14, 1986, bombing and hitting 158 targets in more than 30 cities, including Tehran. Iran responded by launching at least 14 Scud missiles against Iraq, acquired from Libya. More Iraqi air incursions took place in August, causing many civilian casualties. Iraq continued to attack Iranian or neutral nations’ oil tankers, especially in the Persian Gulf or Gulf of Oman. These air raids were conducted by Super Étendard and Mirages F-1 aircraft, as well as Super Frelon helicopters, using French MBDA Exocet missiles.
The Iraqis launched an offensive on January 28, 1985, which ultimately failed. The Iranians responded on March 11 with another direct attack on the Baghdad-Baçora highway (one of the few major offensives of 1985), codenamed Operation Badr (named after the famous Battle of Badr, Muhammad’s first victory in Mecca). Ayatollah Khomeini then declared to the Iranians:
“We believe that Saddam wishes to return Islam to blasphemy and polytheism…if america wins…and gives victory to Saddam, Islam will receive such a blow that it will not be able to return…it is Islam against blasphemy and not Iran against Iraq.”
This operation was similar to Kheibar, but was better planned. Iran mobilized 100,000 fighters, with another 60,000 in reserve. They infiltrated the marshy terrain, cleared a path, and built a makeshift bridge. The Basij militia had acquired new anti-tank weapons, which helped future campaigns.
The ferocity and momentum of the Iranian attack surprised the Iraqis, who eventually gave in. The Revolutionary Guards, supported by tanks and artillery, advanced through the northern city of Qurna on March 14. That same night, 3,000 Iranians crossed the Tigris River using makeshift bridges, a victory, albeit small compared to other operations to take the road from Bhazora to Baghdad.
Saddam responded by sending an extensive chemical weapons bombardment against Iranian positions near the highway and started the aforementioned “war of the cities” again, bombing with planes and rockets population centers on Iran’s side of the border. More than twenty municipalities were hit, including Tehran. Under the command of Generals Hashim Ahmad al-Tai and Jamal Zanoun (considered one of the most skilled Iraqi commanders), Saddam Hussein’s troops counterattacked and forced back the Iranians, using heavy artillery and mobile infantry. Chemical and biological weapons were also used, and the Iraqis even flooded the trenches and valleys with water to make enemy movement difficult.
The Iranians had to retreat to the Hoveyzeh marshes while being attacked by helicopters. The Iraqis then had no problem retaking the highway. Operation Badr resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 Iraqis and 15,000 Iranians.
Since most of the onslaughts in the form of “human wave” attacks did not work out very well, Iran then developed better strategies, based on a better relationship between the army and the Revolutionary Guards, making the latter fight in a more conventional way. To combat Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, the Iranians began to use alternative methods, including antidotes. They also invested in technological development, to try to lessen the impact of external isolation and sanctions. Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) such as the Mohajer 1, began to be put into service. Although most were used for observation, some carried an RPG-7 launcher and conducted more than 700 strikes against Iraqi targets.
Through the rest of 1986 and into the spring of 1988, the Iranian air force’s efficiency in anti-aircraft defense increased, with new weapons arriving and new tactics being implemented. For examples, Iran had employed modern SAM systems and new fighter interceptors to create “regions of death” where Iraqi military aviation suffered heavy losses. Iraq responded by also putting more modern aircraft into service, such as the Russian Mig-29, as well as incorporating elements of electronic attack measures, anti-aircraft defense, and even anti-radiation missiles. Due to the heavy casualties suffered in the last “war between cities,” the Iraqis reduced the volume of air strikes against Iranian municipalities beyond their border. Instead, they launched several Scuds missiles, which the Iranians did not have the capability to intercept. Since the Scuds did not have the range to hit Tehran, many were modified to the Al-Hussein version, created with the help of German engineers. Iran also retaliated by modifying its own ballistic missiles. Iraq, however, had more missiles at its disposal and used them more frequently and more efficiently.
Unlike Iraq, which received extensive external support, Iran suffered from a lack of heavy armaments and other types of equipment. The Iranians’ best equipment had been lost in the early years of the conflict. Yet they still had 1,000 tanks at their disposal (many captured from the Iraqis) and also had many artillery guns, but they still suffered from a lack of spare parts. To try to overcome this, purchases were made on the black market. They secretly imported armaments abroad, such as RBS-70 type anti-aircraft guns. Despite being one of the main supporters of Iraq, the United States also started to clandestinely send weapons to Iran. The Americans, as well as some other countries, had changed their views during the course of the conflict and now wanted to maintain the status quo and prevent either side from being victorious. The White House still wanted Iran to use its influence to help in the release of American hostages in Lebanon. In the scandal that became known as the “Iran-Contra Affair,” the United States supplied some weapons such as the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile, which were more efficient than their rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Iran began to develop variants of these weapons on its own. Thus, by early 1986, the Iranians’ situation on the battlefield improved, but their losses were still high.
At the turn of the night from February 10-11, 1986, Iran launched the eighth Operation Valfajr (“Dawn”), with 30,000 troops on the front lines, attacking from two different positions to take the Al-Faw peninsula in southern Iraq, the only area of the country with land access to the Persian Gulf. Despite the high casualties suffered, the Iranians were successful. The conquest of Al Faw and Umm Qasr was a major victory for Iran and was intended to make Iraq more flexible to accept peace. The Iranians then launched a small attack on Baçora, but were stopped. Meanwhile, an Iranian amphibious assault began on the coast of the peninsula. Resistance was made by the Iraqi People’s Army militia. Poorly armed and ill-prepared, they were easily overcome. The Iranians established makeshift bridges over the Xatal Arab river, and soon 30,000 of their soldiers passed through the region. They went as far north as the peninsula and defeated what was left of the Iraqi troops in less than 24 hours. Soon after they established new defensive positions.
The sudden and relatively easy conquest of al-Faw by the Iranians took Iraq by surprise, as they thought it impossible for anyone to cross the Xatal Arab so quickly. On February 12, 1986, the Iraqis launched a major offensive to retake the al-Faw peninsula, which ultimately failed after a week of intense fighting. On February 24, Saddam sent one of his top commanders, General Maher Abd al-Rashid, and some of his best troops, the Republican Guard, to try once and for all to recapture al-Faw. Heavy fighting was reported, but again with little success and suffering high casualties: the 15th Iraqi mechanized division, for example, was almost completely wiped out. The conquest of al-Faw and the failure of counterattacks were a major blow to the prestige of the Ba’ath regime, and left the Persian Gulf countries fearful of a possible Iranian victory. Kuwait, in particular, saw the threat of Iran’s troops within ten miles of its borders and so began to give more financial support to Iraq.
In March 1986, the Iranians tried to continue the good streak and advanced on Umm Qasr, which would completely deny Iraq access to the Gulf Sea and put Iranian troops directly alongside Kuwait, which the Iranians believed would force Saddam to negotiate anyway. However, the offensive was halted due to lack of supplies and armored vehicles. At this point, 10,000 Iraqis died in this fighting. Iranian losses were higher, standing at more or less 30 000 fatalities. The first battle of al-Faw ended in March, but fighting continued on the peninsula until 1988, with neither side being able to overcome the other. The fighting ended in stalemate and a series of bloody clashes and skirmishes, especially through the marshes of the peninsula. Some 53,000 Iraqi soldiers died fighting in al-Faw. Total Iranian casualties are unknown, but are presumed to have been quite high.
Immediately after the Iranians conquered the city of al-Faw, Saddam ordered a new offensive against Iran in retaliation. The town of Mehran on the Iranian side of the border, at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, was selected as the target. Between May 15 and 19, 1986, the 2nd Corps of the Iraqi army, supported by attack helicopters, took the city by storm. Hussein offered to return Mehran in exchange for al-Faw. The Iranians rejected the offer. So Iraq continued to attack, trying to advance further inside Iran. But the Iranian infantry resisted, and Iraqi armor and vehicles suffered from attacks by Iranian AH-1 Cobra helicopters and newly acquired TOW missiles, which inflicted heavy casualties on Saddam’s troops.
Firming their positions on the high ground, the Iranians surrounded Mehran. On June 30 they attacked. Less than a week later, the Iraqi soldiers in the area surrendered. Saddam ordered the Republican Guard (his elite troops) to retake the city. They attacked on July 4 but were repulsed. The Iraqis suffered such high casualties that they had no way to stop the Iranian advances even beyond the two countries’ common border. Faced with these setbacks, Iraq had its war capacity reduced and so they were unable to launch major offensives for the last two years of the war. The Iraqi defeats in al-Faw and Mehran have hit the prestige and reputation of the Iraqi regime hard. Iraq’s poor situation worried the Western powers and the Gulf nations.
By the end of 1986, to international observers, Iran was winning the war. On the northern front, the Iranians began advancing to the town of Suleimaniya with help from Kurdish guerrillas, taking Iraq by surprise. They came within 10 miles of their target but were stopped by Baathist army incursions and chemical attacks. The Iranian military also reached as far as the Meimak mountains, just 113 km from Baghdad. Iraq managed to control the situation in the south, but they were not gaining much ground and were under constant pressure from the Iranians.
The Iraqis responded by launching another “war of the cities.” In one such attack, Tehran’s main oil refinery was hit. In another case, Iraq managed to damage the telecommunication antennas in Assadabad, disrupting telephone communications and telex services for almost two weeks straight across a large region. Civilian areas were also hit, resulting in many deaths. In the Persian Gulf, the Iraqis continued to target Iranian oil tankers. Iran, as usual, responded by launching Scud missiles against targets in Iraq.
Iraq continued to attack the important island of Kharg and the ships anchored there. Oil tankers and oil extraction stations were also hit. Iran then escorted its ships to the safer island of Larak. There they were transported to the open sea, which was more neutral. They also rebuilt oil terminals damaged by the Iraqis, while also retaliating by attacking vessels carrying Iraqi crude oil. The tanker war increased significantly in the last two years of the war, with the number of attacks doubling in 1986 (mostly carried out by Iraq). The Iraqis had permission from the Saudi government to use their airspace and attack Larak Island, although the distance made these attacks more difficult and less frequent. The attacks on freighters and tankers continued to cause tension and concern from Western nations (especially the United States) that were heavily dependent on oil from the region.
In April 1986, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring that the war should be won by May 1987. The Iranians began recruiting more personnel, gathering 650,000 volunteers. Animosity between the army and the Revolutionary Guard returned, with the military wanting to be better used, while the Guard demanded to lead the offensives. Iran, confident of success, began planning their biggest offensive of the war, which they called the “final offensives.”
Faced with the defeats at al-Faw and Mehran, Iraq seemed to be losing the war. The Iraqi generals were irritated by Saddam’s constant interference and even threatened to rebel against the Baathist regime unless they were given more operational freedoms. Strangely enough and in a rare gesture, Saddam gave in to his generals’ demands and gave them more decision-making freedom. At this point, the Iraqi strategy was to frustrate Iran’s offensives. However, the humiliating defeat in the al-Faw peninsula caused the Iraqi dictator to declare that the war had become Al-Defa al Mutahharakkha (“The Dynamic Defense”), and announced that all civilians had to take part in the war effort. Many universities were closed and male students were forced to serve in the armed forces. Civilians were sent to help in the defense and many were also sent into the southern marshes to drain them in order to prevent amphibious actions by Iranian infiltration units.
The Iraqi government, led by the Sunni minority, tried to involve the Shiites in the war effort by integrating them into the Ba’ath party. In order to counter the religious fervor invoked by the Iranians (who were mostly Shiites) and to gain more support from the masses, Saddam’s once extremely secular regime began to make religious propaganda. Images of Saddam Hussein praying and making pilgrimages to Islamic holy sites began to appear heavily in the state media. With Iraqi morale low for most of the war, the conquest of al-Faw caused a patriotic fervor to grow, with Iraqis fearing a full-scale foreign invasion. Saddam also began accepting recruits from other Arab countries to form his militias, and the Republican Guard also received more technical support from foreign nations. Despite the losses suffered by the Iraqi military, support in the form of money and equipment from abroad meant that they were still able to get back on their feet, reaching almost 1 million men in the armed forces by the end of 1988.
At the same time, Saddam ordered the start of the so-called Operation Anfal in an attempt to put down the Kurdish rebellion once and for all. The Kurds had openly supported the Iranians and took advantage of the chaos of the war to revolt. The Iraqi regime’s offensive ended in the destruction of several Kurdish villages, towns and cities. Thousands of people were killed (some sources estimate over 150,000 fatalities in a three-year period), mostly civilians.
The Iraqis also tried to improve their maneuvering tactics. Iraq has also sought to further professionalize its armed forces. Until 1986, the army (made up of conscripts), and the volunteer militia “Iraqi People’s Army”, conducted most military operations, without much effect. The Iraqi Republican Guard, once a sort of praetorian guard, was expanded to be commanded by the best officers and to have the best soldiers in the country. Loyalty to the government was no longer a requirement to enlist. However, due to Saddam’s paranoia, the old duty of the Republican Guard (protecting the leader and serving the party) was transferred to a new unit, called ‘Specials’. Large-scale training (involving military and some civilians) took place in the western deserts, which resulted in better preparation of the members of the armed forces. Iraq, when the war was over, had managed to build up a vast army, with the fourth largest infantry in the world.
1987-88: Road to Ceasefire
While the Iraqis sought to reinvent themselves, the Iranians continued to attack. The year 1987 again saw the widespread use of human wave attacks by the Iranians, both in the north and on the southern front. Iraq had fortified its defensive positions. Defense rings were erected on the banks of the Jasim River, along with natural barriers. The lakes in the east were filled with mines, and the banks had barbed wires, electrodes, and various sensors. In addition, behind the defense lines, there were heavy artillery and an airport with light combat aircraft and helicopters. In addition to conventional bombing ammunition, the Iraqis also had several warheads with poisonous gases.
Iran planned to override these lines of defense, encircle Bhazora, isolate the region from north to south, and separate the Al-Faw peninsula from the rest of the country. The Iranians imagined that the fall of Bhazora would be the fatal blow to Saddam Hussein’s regime and would force him to negotiate on terms favorable to Iran’s government. The Iranian strategy was simple: an attack near Baçora for distraction, a strong offensive in the center, and another distracting attack with an armored division to the north to draw Iraq’s attention elsewhere away from Baçora. For these battles, Ira re-expanded their armies, recruiting new soldiers and militiamen. They were able to muster a force of 150,000 to 200,000 men for the fight.
On December 25, 1986, Iran launched Operation Karbala-4 (referring to the Huceine ibne Ali defeat in 680). According to General Ra’ad al-Hamdani, this offensive was only for distraction. The Iranians launched an amphibious attack against the Iraqi island of Umm al-Rassas, which was on the shore of the Xatal Arabian River and parallel to Khoramshahr. They then erected an artificial bridge and continued their attack, eventually capturing the island. They made no progress beyond this and still suffered over 60,000 casualties (killed and wounded), while Iraq lost only 9,500 soldiers. The Iraqi commanders exaggerated the Iranian losses in their reports to Saddam and it was assumed that Iran’s main offensive against Baçora had failed and that they no longer had the capability to continue advancing. Thus, when the Iranians launched new attacks in southern Iraq in 1987, the Iraqi government was taken by surprise.
Iran launched Operation Karbala-5 at midnight on January 8, 1987, when a strike force of 35,000 troops crossed the lake region of Baçora province while four other divisions moved through the southeast, surrounding Iraqi forces and capturing Duaiji, a complex of irrigation canals. From there they set out to recapture the town of Shalamcheh. Between January 9 and 10, the Iranians broke through the first two lines of defense of Baçora to the north, thanks to their tanks. Iran reinforced its lines with 60,000 extra troops and began hunting the remaining Iraqi forces in the region.
On January 9, the Iraqis launched their counterattack, supported by Su-25 and Mig-29 aircraft. The next day, Iraq launched everything it had against Iranian positions. Despite the 10-to-1 disadvantage in the air, Iran’s anti-aircraft defense did a good job, shooting down 50 to 60 jets (10% of the Iraqi air force), allowing Iranian aircraft to provide close air support to infantry. Iran’s pilots were also better in combat against Iraqi fighters. Iraq’s tanks had difficulty getting through the marshes and were easily defeated by Cobra helicopters and TOW missiles. Then, with the infantry suffering heavy casualties due to lack of air support, the Iraqi planes came back in full force and again fought intense battles for control of southern Iraqi airspace.
Despite initial successes, the Iraqi defense lines eventually stopped Iran’s attack. Between January 19 and 24, the Iranians launched another offensive, breaking the Iraqi third line and driving the enemy from the banks of the Jasim River. With both sides bringing in reinforcements, the fighting came to a bloody stalemate. On January 29, the Iranians launched a new attack from west of the Jasim River, advancing on the Iraqi perimeter. They advanced 12 km inside Baçora. At this point neither side could advance any further. Iranian state TV showed pictures of the outskirts of Baçora, but Iran did not advance beyond that. The amount of men the Iranians lost was sky-high and so they could not resist when the Iraqis counterattacked hard and had to retreat. The fighting on the outskirts of Bazora continued, while 30,000 Iranian troops held their position in the south. Soon the opposing armies were entrenched, with neither side forcing the other to retreat. The Iranians tried several times to advance but always without success. Operation Karbala-5 officially ended in February, but fighting across the region continued while Iran still laid siege to the city.
Some 65,000 Iranians were either killed or wounded in the fighting, including General Hossein Kharrazi. Iraqi casualties totaled nearly 20,000 men in Operation Karbala-5. Baçora was left partially in ruins and material losses suffered by the Iraqi army were high. This fighting was one of the heaviest and bloodiest of the war, with both sides coming out of it badly worn. The fighting for Shalamcheh, very close to Baçora, became known as the “Somme of the Iran-Iraq war.” By that time, the situation had worsened to such an extent that Saddam, enraged, ordered the execution of several of his officers (some remarkably competent). With Iranian aviation fighting in Baçora, Iraqi bombers attacked Iran’s rearguard positions with chemical weapons, and also dropped conventional bombs on Iranian cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Qom. These attacks left more than 3,000 Iranian civilians dead. Iranian retaliation with ballistic missiles in Iraq left more than 300 civilians dead.
Almost at the same time as Operation Karbala 5, in 1987, Iran also launched Operation Karbala-6 against Iraqi positions in Qasr-e Shirin, in the center of the border, to prevent Saddam from sending troops south. The attack was led by men from the Basij organization and by Revolutionary Guard fighters and members of the 77th Khorasan Armored Division. The Iranians attacked the Iraqis in an impetuous manner, forcing their retreat. Iraqi armored personnel counterattacked the Basij in a pincer movement, but the Iranian tanks resisted. The Iranians were stopped only after Iraq launched a series of chemical attacks, causing a massive amount of fatalities.
The outcome of Operation Karbala-5 was a severe blow to Iran, affecting its morale. But to outside observers, it appeared that Iran was getting stronger. By 1988, the country had become self-sufficient in several areas, such as the production of anti-tank, ballistic (Shahab-1), anti-ship (Silkworm) missiles, Oghab tactical rockets, and the production of spare parts for other weapons in its arsenal. The country had also strengthened its anti-aircraft defense system, especially after buying weaponry on the underground market. The nation was even producing its unmanned drones and small aircraft. Iran had also doubled its artillery stockpile and was already self-sufficient in the production of ammunition and small arms.
However, what was not obvious to international observers was that the people of Iran were already tired of the war and no longer believed that the conflict was in the national interest. Nationalistic and religious fervor had faded and between 1987 and 1988 the lowest level of volunteer enlistment since the beginning of the war was recorded. Since the war effort depended on mobilization and popular support, its military strength had declined and Iran could no longer launch any major offensive since mid-1987. As a result, for the first time since 1982, the regular army and not the militias (such as the Guardians of the Revolution) had military supremacy. However, service in the army was compulsory and this made the institution unpopular among the people. A high number of desertions then began to be recorded. In May 1985, anti-war demonstrations took place in 74 cities across the country. The regime in Tehran, however, crushed any opposition to the conflict or the nation’s leadership. Many demonstrators were killed in the streets. In 1987, the desertion problem became extremely problematic and the Revolutionary Guard and the other ruling militias began to set up blockades at the exits of the cities to capture those who tried to escape military service. However, others (including nationalists and religious people), including the clergy and the regime’s military forces remained fighting in spite of everything. The issue of the border with Iraq still motivated many people to continue warring.
The Iranian leadership knew that the war was at a stalemate and so they began to act accordingly. No major offensive was planned. The head of the Supreme Defense Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani, proposed an end to “human wave” attacks. Mohsen Rezaee, head of the Revolutionary Guards, announced that the armed forces would limit themselves to small attacks and infiltration actions, while continuing to arm and finance opposition groups inside Iraq (such as the Kurds, the Badr Brigade, and the Shiite movements).
Inside Iran the domestic situation was not easy. The combination of sanctions, falling oil prices (which accounted for almost all of the country’s exports), and Iraqi air strikes on its refineries and domestic infrastructure had brought the Iranian economy to the brink of collapse. Although Iraqi air raids were no longer doing that much lethal damage, the worst thing had been Operation Earnest Will (led by the United States). While the ships of Iraq and its allies were protected by the West, Iranian ships were attacked or boarded. Fearing being caught as well, neutral nations avoided doing business with Iran. Iranian oil exports dropped more than 55% and inflation reached 50% in 1987 (with rising prices and shortages of basic goods for the population) and unemployment grew. On the other side, Iraq was also suffering from the war. Its economy was also staggering and the country faced a gigantic budget deficit, astronomical foreign debt, and a shortage of skilled workers.
By the end of 1987, Iraq had 5,550 tanks (outnumbering the Iranians 5 to 1) and 900 combat aircraft (outnumbering the Iranians 10 to 1). However, after Operation Karbala-5, the Iraqis had only 100 qualified pilots in the air force. So Saddam had to recruit foreign pilots, such as Belgians, Australians, South Africans, from both Germany (West and East), and Soviets. Most of the foreigners, however, came from Arab countries. Iraq, near the end of the conflict, was already self-sufficient in the production of chemical and some conventional weapons, but was heavily dependent on imported equipment. It was foreign aid that prevented Iraq’s collapse (economic and military) and as the war went on, its foreign debt increased, as did its military power.
While the fronts in the south and center were a stalemate, Iran decided to focus its attacks more on northern Iraq (with help from the insurgents of the paramilitary Peshmerga militia). That region was rich in energy resources, such as oil (mainly), and large dams. By occupying northern Iraq, the Iranians hoped to force Saddam to negotiate a ceasefire. Iran used infiltration and semi-guerrilla techniques in the mountains of Kurdistan, with help from Peshmerga members. During Operation Karbala-9 in early April, Iran captured the town of Suleimaniya, provoking an Iraqi response in the form of a chemical weapons bombing. During operation Karbala-10, the Iranians attacked the same area, capturing the region. During Operation Nasr-4, Iran surrounded Suleimaniya and, with the help of the Kurds, infiltrated 140 km inside Iraq and threatened to advance on Quircuque (an oil-rich region). Nasr-4 was one of the most successful Iranian campaigns of the war. However, its troops were unable to advance any further, with Iraq resisting and not immediately caring much about ceding territory in the north.
On July 20, the UN Security Council passed, with American support, Resolution 598, which called for an immediate end to the fighting and the return of the borders from before the conflict began. Iran found the proposal interesting because, unlike other resolutions, this one did not say that Iraq could keep the occupied territories (something Tehran has said it would not accept). The then leader of the Guardians of the Revolution, Mohsen Rezaee, said that this more generous agreement was taken only after the fall of Al-Faw, which gave Iran more negotiating power. However, only Iraq accepted the resolution. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati refused since the Iraqis had not agreed on a date for their withdrawal. As a result, Western nations accused Iran of not wanting peace.
With fighting on land dragging on in a bloody stalemate, warfare in the air and from tankers has become an important facet in the conflict.
After heavy casualties suffered, the Iranian air force had been drastically reduced, containing only twenty active F-4 Phantoms, twenty F-5 Tigers, and fifteen F-14 Tomcats. Despite this, Iran managed to repair several damaged aircraft. The Iranians, despite advanced aircraft, were suffering from a lack of equipment and personnel to sustain a prolonged war of attrition. The Iraqi air force on the other hand, which suffered from too few modern aircraft, began to operate advanced jets, such as the Soviet Mig-29. Countries such as France also sold various aircraft models to the Iraqis and also sent technicians to assist. However, for much of 1987, Iraqi aircraft suffered from Iranian anti-aircraft artillery.
Iraq’s tactic of attacking Iran’s economic means of waging war (the oil wells near the Persian Gulf, oil tankers, and Kharg Island) was changed as early as 1986, with the Iraqis shifting to bombing enemy economic infrastructure targets. By the end of 1987, the Iraqis had full American support to conduct long-distance operations against Iranian oil installations and other targets in the Gulf. U.S. Navy ships actively surveyed the Gulf Sea and reported to Saddam on Iranian naval movements as well as the location of their defenses. When the Americans were unable to pass information to the Iraqis, the Iraqis usually suffered heavy losses. One such case was a bombing of the ports of the important Kharg Island on March 18, 1988: The Iraqis destroyed two supertankers but lost five aircraft to Iranian F-14 Tomcats, including two Tupolev Tu-22Bs and a Mikoyan MiG-25RB. The Americans and the nations of Europe became more involved in the war through Operations Earnest Will and Prime Chance.
Attacks on oil tankers became routine towards the end of the war. Although this attitude was more frequent by Iraq, Iran also did this. Iran had a larger conventional navy and still used light ships and Revolutionary Guard boats to attack, while the Iraqis used their air power. In 1987, Kuwaiti ships began sailing under the US flag to seek more protection and with the Americans launching Operation Earnest Will, they began to militarily escort these vessels. The result was that ships from Iraq and its allies in the Gulf were very safe to sail, while the Iranians were constantly threatened. Even ships from neutral nations could be attacked. Iran’s economy was not slow to feel these attacks. The Iranians then proceeded to mine part of the Persian Gulf to discourage Iraqis and allies from sailing there. Thus, even with American protection, a ship was sunk by one of these mines. Despite this, Iran had to reduce its activities at sea.
On September 24, American Navy SEALs (naval special forces) captured the Iranian vessel Iran Ajr. Iran protested and said that the United States and the world were taking Iraq’s side in the war. At that time, the Iranians were virtually isolated diplomatically and under heavy economic sanctions. On October 8, four Iranian speedboats were sunk by the Americans. In response, the Iranians damaged a Kuwaiti tanker. The United States retaliated by hitting two Iranian oil platforms offshore in the Persian Gulf. Between November and December 1987, the Iraqi air force launched a campaign to hit Iranian military aviation bases in Kuwait. However, they lost more than 30 jets due to anti-aircraft fire and did not reach their objectives.
On June 28, Iraqi fighter bombers attacked the nearby Iranian border town of Sardasht using warheads containing mustard gas. Although Iraq had used chemical weapons before, this was the first deliberate use of poisonous gases against residential areas filled with civilians. One out of every four inhabitants of the town of 20,000 people felt the effects of the gas and 113 died immediately, with many more dying over time. Saddam ordered the attack to test the new chemical weapons and tactics at his disposal. This attack had an impact on the psyche of the Iranian people, who feared that other cities might also be targeted by Iraqi chemical attacks.
By 1988, taking advantage of the falling troop numbers available to Iran, as well as the arrival of new military equipment, Iraq was ready to launch new offensives. In February, Saddam began the fifth and bloodiest of the “war of the cities”. In a two-month period, the Iraqis launched more than 200 al-Hussein missiles against 37 Iranian cities. Saddam threatened to use chemical weapons on these ballistic missiles, which caused 30% of Tehran’s population (which was suffering from sporadic bombing) to flee. Iran retaliated and launched at least 104 missiles against Iraq in early 1988 and even bombed Bazar again. This exchange of fire was called the “Duel of the Scuds” by the global media. Overall, Iraq launched more than 520 Scuds and al-Husseins against Iran, and Iran responded by launching at least 177 missiles. The Iraqis have also increased the intensity of their air strikes, hitting the Kharg Islands and also some Iranian oil tankers. Ships from Iraq’s allied countries carrying oil were protected by the navies of the United States and some European nations. To make matters worse for Iran, the Western powers were providing the Iraqis with laser-guided smart bombs, making their attacks more lethal and less difficult to defend against. The bombing began to take a heavy toll on the already weakened Iranian economy, as well as on the morale of the people and soldiers. Civilian and military casualties also remained very high.
In March 1988, the Iranians launched operations Valfajr 10, Beit-ol-Moqaddas 2, and Zafar 7, all in Iraqi Kurdistan, aimed at capturing the Darbandikhan dam and the plants on Lake Dukan, which provided much of Iraq’s drinking water and electricity, and the town of Suleimaniya. Iran hoped that capturing these objectives would make the Iraqi government more amenable to accepting its peace terms. These infiltration maneuvers were taking place with support from the Kurdish Peshmerga militia. Iranian paratroopers acted behind enemy lines, carrying out sabotage and destroying Iraqi tanks. The Iraqis were taken by surprise at the ferocity of Iran’s advances. F-5E Tiger fighters of the Iranian air force hit the important oil refineries in Quircuque. As usual, Saddam ordered the execution of several officers between March and April 1988 for having failed in combat, including the notorious Colonel Jafar Sadeq. The Iranians even infiltrated the important Kurdish town of Halabja in the foothills of the mountains and dispersed throughout the region to better defend it.
Eventually, the Iranians managed to seize the Dukan plant and captured 1,040 square kilometers of the region and took 4,000 Iraqi soldiers prisoner. However, their advances were halted by intense bombardment with chemical weapons. It was in the mountains of Kurdistan that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launched its deadliest chemical attacks of the war. The Iraqi Republican Guard dropped more than 700 warheads with chemical components, while other army units fired more than 300 chemical warheads. These attacks were devastating. Mustard and nerve gas were used creating a cloud of poison over the region, killing or wounding 60% of the Iranian troop. Iraqi reinforcements then moved in and finished the job, driving the Iranians out. In retaliation for the Kurds’ support of Iran, Iraq launched an intense and deadly chemical bombardment on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which ended with more than 5,000 civilians killed. Iran took foreign journalists to fly over the city and showed pictures of the bodies to the world. However, the West was suspicious of the Iranian government’s actions and, as allies of the Iraqis, they blamed Iran for the incident. This view was defended by the United States. However, years later, it was discovered that the CIA (American intelligence agency) knew that Saddam Hussein was openly using chemical weapons and they did not object to it. In fact, they would have, according to some sources, offered Iraq help in this area.
On April 17, 1988, Iraq launched Operation Ramadan Mubarak (“Blessed Ramadan”), with 100,000 men on the front lines against a force of 15,000 Iranian Basij militiamen who were protecting the peninsula. The attack against al-Faw was preceded by small attacks in the north, to distract. The region was extensively bombed, hitting especially supply lines, command posts, and ammunition and fuel depots. To make the attacks even more deadly, the Iraqis used warheads with chemical weapons, such as mustard gas. Iraqi commandos were thrown behind enemy lines to attack the Iranians in the rear, clearing the way for infantry. Within 48 hours, the Iranians had retreated from al-Faw after suffering heavy casualties. The day became a national commemorative and celebratory date during the rest of Saddam’s rule.
The Iraqis planned well for the offensive that retook al-Faw. Saddam’s military gave themselves, before attacking, antidotes and medicines against the poisonous gases that they themselves used, to try to protect themselves. The chemical attack was very effective and became a decisive factor in victory (something that was repeated in some other battles). Iraqi losses were relatively low during the fighting compared to Iranian losses. Iran eventually managed to halt Iraq’s offensive on the perimeter of Kuzistan. The Iraqis, however, regrouped and attacked again. A new offensive attacked the Iranian military surrounding Bazora. Soon after, Saddam ordered a general offensive to reoccupy the south of his country. In the last years of the conflict, Iraq used chemical weapons rampantly, something that Iran had no way to react to.
At the same time of the Iraqi attack in the al-Faw peninsula, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Praying Mantis in retaliation against Iran after one of its ships was damaged by a mine. The Iranians lost at least two oil platforms, a destroyer, and a frigate in combat against the Americans. The operation ended only when President Reagan stated that the Iranian navy was down enough. Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels continued to act against oil tankers near their coast. However, defeats at al-Faw and losses in naval battles in the Persian Gulf persuaded Iran to accept peace and end the war. The Iranian leadership feared escalation of the conflict and further direct American involvement.
In the face of heavy losses, Khomeini appointed the cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani as the new Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, even though he had already held this position for months. Rafsanjani ordered another surprise counterattack against Iraq, which took place on June 13, 1988. The Iranians broke through some of the Iraqi defensive lines and advanced 10 km inside Iraq. Also, in an air strike, a bomb dropped by an Iranian fighter hit the Radwaniyah Palace, one of Saddam’s residences in Baghdad. After another ten hours of fighting, the Iranians had to retreat. The Iraqi air force launched several air raids with helicopters and airplanes, causing enormous destruction.
On June 18, 1988, the Iraqis launched Operation Chehel Cheragh (“Forty Stars”) along with the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) group in the Mehran region of Ilam province. With over 530 air incursions and heavy use of biological weapons (such as nerve gas), they crushed the Iranian forces in the region, killing 3,500 enemy soldiers and virtually destroying an entire division of the Revolutionary Guard. Mehran was then conquered again and occupied by the MEK guerrillas. Iraq also sought to expand its aerial bombardments against Iranian population centers and economic targets, torching at least 10 oil installations in the process.
On May 25, 1988, Iraq launched a series of four operations entitled Tawakalna ala Allah (“Trust in God”), which consisted of a massive artillery attack and some chemical weapons bombing. The attacks took place all along the southern border, across the marshes, with the Iraqis advancing with armored personnel, destroying enemy fortifications and defensive positions, and taking the border town of Shalamcheh after only ten hours of fighting.
On June 25, the Iraqi army launched the second phase of the Tawakal ala Allah campaign against the Iranians on Majnoon Island. Iraqi special forces attacked the enemy from behind, while infantry advanced with support from tanks and artillery barrages (and chemical weapons). The Iranians once again could not withstand Iraq’s superior firepower and had to retreat. Saddam then appeared live on state television to “lead” the offensives against the Iranians. The last two operations of Tawakal ala Allah took place near al-Amarah and Khaneqan in the Maysan region. On July 12, 1988, the Iraqis conquered Dehloran, advancing 30 km inside Iran. They inflicted severe losses on Iranian troops, especially among the armored divisions. There were more than 20 000 fighters killed or wounded on the Iranian side. Iraq lost approximately 5,000 men. The Iraqis, however, retreated some time after Dehloran, stating that they “had no interest in conquering Iranian territories for themselves.” Some historians claim that the months of Operation Tawakal ala Allah were some of the worst for the Iranians, especially because of their material losses suffered.
During the battles fought in 1988, the Iranians were resisting less than in previous years. The army and the population were already too tired after eight years of continuous total war. The human and material losses were enormous. Despite this, the country would not give up its defensive lines. On July 2, the government in Tehran unified the command of the Army and Revolutionary Guard infantry in an attempt to end the growing rivalry between these two forces. However, this move came too late. The Iranians estimated that there were at least 200 war tanks in good order to fight in the south, compared to thousands that the Iraqis had on the front lines. The only region where Iran was not suffering major setbacks was in Kurdistan to the north.
In mid-1988, Saddam sent warnings to Khomeini threatening his country with a full-scale invasion and major attacks with weapons of mass destruction. Soon after, the Iraqis bombed the Iranian city of Oshnavieh in West Azerbaijan province with poison gas, killing or injuring more than 2,000 civilians. Within the Iranian regime leadership there was fear of major chemical weapons attacks on the country’s relatively poorly defended urban centers. There was also the understanding that the international community would do nothing to stop Iraq in this regard. The lives of Iran’s civilian population had been severely changed, with one-third of the inhabitants of major cities leaving their homes for fear of further chemical weapons attacks. Meanwhile Iraqi conventional weaponry (such as bombs, rockets, and missiles) continued to fall on towns and cities throughout Iran, destroying that nation’s civilian and military infrastructure and leaving a high death toll. The Iranian anti-aircraft defense did what it could but could not stop the Iraqis.
Under the threat of a new invasion (more powerful than the one in 1980 that started the war), the commander in chief of the Iranian armed forces, Akbar Rafsanjani ordered his forces to withdraw from Haj Omran in Kurdistan on July 14, 1988. By the end of the same month, the Iranian army inside Iraq (with the exception of some areas in Kurdistan) had stampeded. Iraq then orchestrated a large parade in Baghdad, displaying weapons supposedly “captured” from the enemy, including 1,298 tanks, 5,550 heavy rifles, and thousands of other weapons. However, Iraqi casualties were also very high and every victory on the battlefield came with a salty price tag.
In July 1988, Iraqi planes had dropped deadly cyanide bombs on the Iranian Kurdish village of Zardan (in the same way they had done in Halabja). Towns and cities, large and small, such as Marivan, were also attacked with poison gas, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. In the meantime, the American warship USS Vincennes accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers. The international community’s lack of sympathy for what had happened angered Iran’s leaders, and some concluded that the United States was close to permanently entering the war alongside the Iraqis as Saddam expanded his chemical weapons attacks.
It was then that leaders within the Iranian regime, such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who had initially been one of the main advocates of the conflict), began to try to convince Khomeini to accept the ceasefire proposed by the UN. They claimed that for Iran to win the war, it would require expanding the military budget by 700% and still hostilities would not end before 1993. They told Khomeini that although Resolution 598 did not give everything the country wanted, it was better than anything that had ever been proposed and that it would be difficult for such a good proposal to come up again.
Finally, after eight bloody years, precisely on July 20, 1988, Iran formally accepts the UN Security Council Resolution 598, willing to abide by the ceasefire with the Iraqis. In an official statement on state radio, Ayatollah Khomeini said that accepting the UN proposal was not easy. He added that he was happy for those who had died for their homeland (whom he called martyrs), but was disappointed by what he considered to be a failed war.
The news of the end of the war was well received in Iraq, with parties taking place in major urban centers such as the capital Baghdad. In Tehran, the Iranian capital, however, the end of hostilities was met with fear from an extremely weary population.
Operation Mersad (مرصاد, or “ambush”) was the last major operation of the war. Both Iraq and Iran had accepted Resolution 598. But despite the ceasefire, the People’s Mujahidin Organization of Iran militia (or Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, or MEK) decided to launch their own attacks against the central government of Iran and spoke of marching to Tehran. Despite the formal cessation of hostilities, Saddam ordered support for this offensive. The attacks were concentrated on the northern and central border with Iran, going all the way into the Kurdistan region. MEK troops totaling 90,000 men poured into Ilam province, with Iraqi air force cover.
In the north, Saddam Hussein’s troops also launched an offensive, this time against Kurdistan, within their own territory, but were stopped by Kurdish militiamen, backed by forces from Tehran.
On July 26, 1988, the men of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), supported by Iraqi military, began a campaign, Operation Forough Javidan (“Eternal Light”) in the central region of Iran, advancing on the city of Qasrmanxah. The Iranians had moved a huge amount of troops toward Kuzistan, fearing a new Iraqi invasion, and as a result, the mujahideen did not meet much resistance, storming Qasr-e Shirin, Sarpol-e Zahab, Kerend-e Gharb, and Islamabad-e-Gharb in the province of Kashmir. The MEK expected support from the local population but no uprising of any kind was instigated. In the end, they only advanced 145 km into Iranian territory. Before long, Iran responded by launching a major counterattack, Operation Mersad, under the command of Lieutenant General Ali Sayad Shirazi. Iranian paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines, while planes and helicopters attacked the mujahideen positions, destroying many of their vehicles. The Iranian army continued to advance and defeated the MEK troops in the town of Kerend-e Gharb on July 29, 1988. Two days later, the mujahideen guerrillas had already withdrawn from Qasr-e-Shirin and Sarpol Zahab. Iran’s troops claimed to have killed more than 4,500 MEK fighters, losing only 400 of their own.
The last notable combat of the war occurred on August 3, 1988, in the Persian Gulf, when the Iranian navy opened fire on an Iraqi cargo ship. Iraq responded by launching a small chemical weapons bombardment against Iranian civilians in the border region between the two countries, killing or injuring more than 2,300 people. After that, the cannons went silent for good.
The international community’s posture with Iraq changed after the war, with the country being put under more pressure. Resolution 598 officially went into effect on August 8, 1988, formally ending all hostilities between the two nations. By August 20, peace within Iran had been achieved, with the defeat of the MEK mujahidins. UN peace troops (the UNIIMOG) were sent to the border between the two countries and they would stay there until 1991. Most Western analysts and historians believe that the war ended without a victor, with both nations broken and exhausted. However, Saddam Hussein’s government claimed to have been victorious, citing the successful campaigns waged between April and July 1988 (although the stated objective of the 1980 invasion was not achieved).
Although the war against Iran is officially over, Iraq continued to fight the Kurdish resistance in the north for the next few months. Using more than 60,000 troops, and supported by airplanes and helicopters, Iraq crushed the insurgency. Use of chemical weapons, mass executions, and other tactics not accepted by international law were reported. More than fifteen Kurdish villages were completely razed, killing thousands of people (many fighters, but mostly civilians) and forcing thousands more to leave their homes. Many Iraqi Kurds decided to migrate to Iran. On September 3, 1988, the anti-Kurdish military campaign was closed, with the bulk of the resistance having been brutally destroyed. Over 400 Iraqi military personnel and 50,000 Kurds were killed in this fighting.
The Iran-Iraq war was the bloodiest conventional war ever fought between armies of developing nations. Iraqi losses are estimated at 105,000 to 200,000 dead, in addition to more than 400,000 wounded and some 70,000 more taken prisoner. Thousands of civilians have died, on both sides, due to shelling from land and air. Prisoners taken by both countries began to be released in 1990, although some were held for up to ten years after the conflict. The infrastructure of both nations was devastated, with many cities in ruins (especially those near the border). Iraq, despite everything, ended the war with a gigantic army (1 million men) and came out as a regional power, although frighteningly indebted, full of financial problems and with a lack of qualified personnel to work in the economy.
According to Iranian government sources, the country has counted an additional 220,000 deaths suffered in combat, or at least 262,000 casualties, according to Western sources. This includes 123,220 soldiers killed on the front lines, 60,711 who went missing in action Among the losses suffered on the battle front, 79,664 were Revolutionary Guard members and 35,170 were army members. In addition, 42,875 Iranian soldiers were taken prisoner. Some were released within two years after hostilities ended, but some had to wait fifteen years. According to the Janbazan organization, 398,587 Iranians were injured in a way that required prolonged medical treatment, including 52,195 (13%) exposed to different chemical agents. From 1980 to 2012, 218,867 Iranians died due to injuries sustained or sequelae acquired during the war. This includes 33,430 civilians, mostly women and children. At least 144,000 Iranian children were orphaned. Sources outside Iran estimate that, in fact, between 600 000 and 800 000 Iranians have died in the war (civilians and military).
Both Iran and Iraq manipulated the total number of dead, up and down, as was convenient for them. In April 1988, international observers estimated Iraq’s combat losses at between 150,000 and 340,000. The Iranians, on the other hand, lost between 450,000 and 730,000 people. Deaths continued even after the silencing of the guns in 1988, due to combat wounds and after-effects of chemical attacks.
The battle not only cost the battlefields in terms of lives, but it was also heavy on the pockets of both countries. It is estimated that the conflict cost each nation at least $500 billion dollars ($1.2 trillion in total). In addition, the war hit the countries’ financial structure and oil exports, the main source of income for both nations, which ensured that the years following the conflict would be difficult. Iran adopted bloodier tactics on the battlefield but these were quite economical, so in the end it was not left with such a large debt. In contrast, Iraq ended up with astronomical debt (foreign and public). Saddam had to turn to the international community, running up more than $130 billion dollars in debt to foreign creditors, excluding interest, and still had to rely on weak GDP growth during the war and the years afterwards. One of the largest creditors was the so-called Paris Club, which lent more than $21 billion to the Iraqis, with 85% of this money coming from Japan, the Soviet Union, France, Germany, the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The bulk of the $130 billion foreign debt, meanwhile, came from neighboring Arab countries. About $67 billion came from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. After the war, Iraq accused the Kuwaitis of stealing Iraqi oil through clandestine drilling. Saddam also accused the southern neighbor of waging an economic war (along with the other Gulf countries) by driving down oil prices with overproduction at a time when the country was in desperate need of cash. With the request for debt forgiveness vehemently denied, Saddam ordered the invasion of Kuwait (1990), which eventually buried Iraq’s weakened economy for good. A Western coalition, led by the Americans, eventually drove Saddam’s troops out of Kuwaiti territory in the so-called Gulf War (1991), which claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 Iraqis. The United Nations Compensation Commission then demanded that Iraq pay reparations of $200 billion to parties affected by the invasion, including Kuwait and the United States. Iraq, once an ally of the Gulf States and the Americans and Europeans, became the region’s main antagonist and was completely isolated and put under heavy economic sanctions, which brought the country in the 1990s to the brink of bankruptcy, with an external debt of over $500 billion by the end of Saddam’s regime in 2003. Once the Baathist regime was overthrown, the new government renegotiated some of the debt and managed to have some of it (mainly that incurred in the Iran-Iraq war) written off.
The oil industry in both countries was ruined. Their production infrastructure, refineries and extraction sites were in ruins due to the bombing. In Bazora alone more than 10,000 shells were fired into their oil fields, seriously damaging the industry there. The recovery of this industry took years, or even decades.
In 1991, after the Gulf War, Iraq was ruining, economically and militarily. Saddam could not get his nation back on its feet again. Now an antagonist in Western relations with the Middle East, the Iraqi regime remained isolated and under heavy sanctions, rapidly impoverishing itself. Although Iran and Iraq resumed some diplomatic channels in the early 1990s, the relationship of the two nations remained cool. The Iraqis continued to support the MEK mujahideen in Iran, and the Iranians continued to support the Shiite movements in Iraq, especially in their uprisings in southern Iraq. The Tehran government even authorized some air strikes on Iraqi soil. Scud missiles were also fired at targets of the Baathist regime.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein from power. Although opposed to the American invasion, the Iranians saw this as an opportunity to expand their influence into the neighboring country. The Sunni Baathist regime had been ousted and a new Shiite government came to power. In 2005, the Iraqi government formally apologized to Iran for the war and the atrocities committed by Saddam’s troops. The subsequent Iraqi civil war and the subsequent conflict against the terrorist group ad-Dawlat al-Islāmiyah (the “Islamic State”) caused relations between the former enemies to improve markedly. The Iranians began to help the new government in Baghdad by sending Quds army and militia troops into the country to fight alongside the Iraqi armed forces, something unthinkable three decades earlier when the bloody war between the two countries had begun.
At first, Saddam wanted to make the war affect his people as little as possible, although there were rationing. At the same time, the already present cult of personality around the dictator reached new heights of adulation as the regime increased its control over the military and society.
After the Iranian victories in the spring of 1982 and the closure of the main Iraqi oil pipeline by Syria, Saddam changed his mind: a policy of austerity and total war was introduced, with the entire population being mobilized for the war effort. All Iraqis were called to donate blood, and about 100,000 civilians were sent to clear the canals and roads in the south to help the army. Huge demonstrations were held (many attendance was mandatory) to show support for Saddam. A policy of discrimination against Iraqis of Persian origin (the largest ethnic group in the neighboring country) was also instituted.
In the summer of 1982, Saddam began a policy of state terrorism. More than 300 army officers were executed for failing in combat. In 1983, a major internal terror campaign was launched against the leadership of the Shiite community. Some 90 members of the influential Shiite cleric family, the al-Hakim, led by Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, were arrested and six were immediately hanged. Actions against the Kurds were also taken, with more than 8,000 arrests made against the Barzani clan, whose leader (Massoud Barzani) led the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Several members of the Kurdish leadership were summarily executed. From 1983 onward, a violent policy of repression against the Kurds was implemented, characterized by historian Efraim Karsh as a “genocide” by the end of 1988. The infamous al-Anfal campaign, where more than 180,000 people died, was aimed at permanently “pacifying” the Iraqi Kurdish movements.
To try not to alienate the Shiite population too much and to ensure their loyalty, Saddam allowed Shiites to join the Ba’ath Party and the government, and tried to improve the quality of life of this segment of society, which was lower than that of the Sunni population (the minority that ruled the nation). Saddam ordered the state to restore the tomb of Imam Ali with marble imported from Italy. Despite this, the Baathists’ policy of persecution against the Shiite population grew, especially since the bulk of the opposition against Saddam in the south and center of the nation was made up of Shiites. The most infamous case was the massacre of 148 civilians in the Shiite town of Dujail on July 8, 1982.
Despite the costs of the war, the regime made large financial contributions to the Shiite waqf (religious endowments) to try to gain more support from the Shiites. The attempt to gain sympathy from the Shiites was such that welfare policies in their territories were expanded, despite the austerity imposed by the state. During the early years of the 1980s, the Iraqi government also tried to pitch the Kurds against the Iranians. In 1983, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (UPC) agreed to cooperate with Baghdad, but the Kurdish Democratic Party (PDC) refused. In 1983, Saddam signed a partial autonomy agreement for the territories controlled by the Patriotic Union, led by Jalal Talabani. The dictator, however, would later backtrack. As a result, in 1985, the UPC and the PDC joined forces and began a guerrilla campaign against the regime until the end of the war, when armed actions and chemical weapons attacks silenced part of the separatist Kurdish movement.
The Iranian government saw the war as a chance to strengthen its position and spread its influence in the region, while also using it to consolidate its revolution at home. The nation went into a nationalistic and religious frenzy at the beginning of the conflict, launching a jihad against its enemies and testing Iran’s national character. The regime in Tehran initiated a policy of total war throughout the country from the beginning of the conflict and tried to mobilize the entire population to defend the nation. They established a group called the Reconstruction Campaign, who were exempt from conscription, who were sent to work on the farms in the countryside to replace the men who went to serve on the front.
Iranian workers had one day’s pay deducted from their salaries each month to help pay for the war effort and there were large government mobilizations to encourage the people to donate blood, money, and food to the military. To further help finance the conflict, the government of Iran banned all imports of non-essential goods and had civilians repair refineries damaged in the bombings.
In June 1981, fighting began to break out in several Iranian cities between the Revolutionary Guard and the leftist group Iranian People’s Mujahidin Organization (Mujaheddin e-Khalq, or MEK). This fighting lasted for days and ended with hundreds of deaths. In September of the same year, more internal clashes were taking place as the MEK tried to take power for itself. Thousands of left-wing sympathizers (even those with no connection to the MEK) were arrested and executed by the government. The MEK retaliated by ambushing and killing several regime officials, especially in the fall of 1981. On June 28 of the same year, they assassinated the general secretary of the Islamic Republican Party, Mohammad Beheshti, and on August 30 they killed the country’s president, Mohammad-Ali Rajai. The government initiated mass reprisals, executing several people in a campaign of terror that lasted until 1985.
In addition to the open conflict against the MEK, the Iranian government also had to fight Kurdish groups, which were harshly repressed by the regime. In 1985 anti-war demonstrations were reported in major cities, led mainly by students. Again, the government repressed all social movements that were considered subversive or anti-war.
The war was a severe blow to the Iranian economy, although its decline was already happening even before the 1978-79 revolution. Between 1979 and 1981, foreign trade dropped from $14.6 billion to $1 billion. As a result, standards of quality of life plummeted, and Iran was described by British journalists John Bulloch and Harvey Morris as “a melancholy, sad place” ruled by a harsh regime that “seemed to have nothing to offer but war.” Industry and agriculture collapsed and oil exports became virtually the only source of income. Still, oil revenues fell from $20 billion in 1982 to less than $5 billion in 1988.
In January 1985, the former prime minister and leader of the anti-Islamic War Liberation Movement, Mehdi Bazargan, criticized the conflict in a telegram to the United Nations, calling it “un-Islamic” and “illegitimate” and asserted that Khomeini should accept the truce proposed by Saddam in 1982 instead of continuing to fight to overthrow Iraq’s Ba’ath regime. A year later, he stated to the Ayatollah, “Since 1986, you have not stopped proclaiming victory and now you call on the people to resist until the final victory comes. Is this not an admission of defeat on your part?” Khomeini was angered by Bazargan’s statements and defended the war saying that it was indeed “Islamic and just.”
By 1987, the morale of the Iranian people had sunk, reflected in the government’s difficulty in recruiting new “martyrs” to the front. Israeli historian Efraim Karsh said that the declining morale of the increasingly fatigued population between 1987 and 1988 was a major factor in the regime’s change of policy that led to the ceasefire.
But not everything in the war was bad for the government. The conflict sedimented and strengthened the revolution, and made it more radical. The Iranian regime reported in the state newspaper Etelaat that “there is not a single school or city that excludes the happiness of the ‘holy defense’ of the nation, of drinking the exquisite elixir of martyrdom, or the sweet death of the martyr, those who die to live forever in paradise.
During the war, Iraq was considered by the West and the Soviet Union as a counterweight to the Iranian revolution. The Soviets, the main ally of Saddam Hussein’s regime, did not want to end their ties with the Iraqis and were frightened when the Baathist regime threatened to buy weapons from other countries, in the West or from China if the Kremlin did not provide them with the armaments they wanted. After these incidents, Russia sought a better relationship with Iran.
During the early years of the war, the United States did not have such good relations with either side. Iran, once one of the most important American allies in the region, had become an antagonist in the Middle East after the revolution and the hostage crisis. And as Saddam harbored hostility toward Israel and friendship with the Soviet Union, relations with Iraq were also bad. After Iranian success in repelling the Iraqi invasion and Khomeini’s refusal to end the war in 1982, the United States decided to re-engage with the Iraqi regime, completely resuming diplomatic relations in 1984. The Americans wanted to prevent the Islamic revolution and its anti-Western words from spreading to other Persian Gulf countries and also wanted to prevent the Soviet Union from using the conflict to try to reestablish a zone of influence in the region. As a result, the White House approved limited support for Iraq. In 1982, Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, summarized the American police to Iran:
“The focus of Iranian pressure is right now Iraq. There are only a few governments in the world that deserve less support from us and is less able to use it. If Iraq were to win the war, the fear in the Gulf and the threat to our interests would be less than it is today. Still, given the importance of the balance of power in the region, a ceasefire is in our interest, although with this outcome an eventual rapprochement with Iran is difficult unless a moderate government replaces Khomenini or perhaps the current leader wakes up to the historical geopolitical reality that the greatest threat to Iranian independence comes from a country that shares a 2,400 km border with them: the Soviet Union. A rapprochement with Iran, of course, must wait for them to give up their hegemonic aspirations for the Gulf region.” – Kissinger
Richard Murphy, assistant to the U.S. Secretary of State, testified to Congress in 1984 that the Reagan administration believed that victory by either Iraq or Iran was “neither militarily feasible or strategically desirable.”
Support to Iraq came in the form of arms sales, technological aid, intelligence information, sale of technology to manufacture chemical and biological weapons and other war materials. Although at one time on the naval front, the United States and Iran fought each other at occasional times, it is not a consensus that a direct conflict between the Americans and the Iranians would benefit the Iraqis, or the personal feud between Washington, D.C and Tehran. The ambiguity between the United States’ relationship with the two sides involved is well put by Henry Kissinger when he says that “it is a shame that both sides cannot lose.” During the conflict, the Americans and British blocked or did not support any UN resolution that condemned Iraq, especially for using prohibited weaponry (chemical and biological warheads, mainly) against the Iranians and Kurds.
More than 30 countries provided support either to Iraq or Iran or both. Most of the foreign aid went to the Iraqis. The Iranians, under heavy sanctions, had to opt for clandestine aid and black market purchases for weapons, ammunition and other important materials. In fact, Iraq had a much larger clandestine buying network, involving at least ten countries, to maintain an ambiguity of its arms procurement and bypass import restrictions. Arab mercenaries and volunteers went to fight for both sides, but mainly for Iraq. Most came from countries like Egypt and Jordan (Yarmouk brigade).
According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the Soviet Union, France and China combined for 90% of the official arms sales to Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Brazil sold huge amounts of weapons (mainly armored vehicles) to Iraq in exchange for oil, however when the war ended in 1988, since Iraq had no way to honor its debts and payments, the Brazilian government was left in a million-dollar loss.
The United States established a strong relationship with Saddam’s regime, re-establishing diplomatic channels, removing restrictions on dual-use technology exports, overseeing the transfer of military equipment (via third parties), and providing intelligence information (such as satellite imagery) to Iraqi commanders in battle. France, which had been a major ally of Iraq since the 1970s, was one of its major military supporters, in terms of arms. The French sold at least $5 billion dollars in armaments, which meant at least one-fourth of the arms purchases made by Saddam’s regime. China, which had no political interest in the region, but rather an economic one, sold arms to both sides.
Iraq also used front companies, intermediaries, and other methods for clandestine procurement of equipment. At least ten countries were involved and participated in these illegal operations. The UK also used third parties and front organizations to bypass export regulations to do business with Iraq. The British government also allegedly traded with Iran in exchange for oil.
The UN Security Council initially called for a ceasefire in the early stages of the conflict, as Iraq occupied various disputed territories, and made further calls for both sides to end hostilities as the years went by. But as the UN did not condemn the Iraqi invasion, nor did it come to the aid of Iran, which the government in Tehran interpreted as UN sympathy for Iraq.
The main financial support given to Iraq came from its (oil-rich) Persian Gulf neighbors. Among the biggest supports are Saudi Arabia ($30.9 billion lent), Kuwait ($8.2 billion) and the United Arab Emirates ($8 billion). From the West, meanwhile, there was another $35 billion in the form of loans and another $30-$40 billion total from other Gulf countries during the 1980s.
In a case that became known as Iraqgate, the branch of Italy’s largest bank, Banco Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), in Atlanta, Georgia, sent loans (partially coming together with public money) worth $5 billion made to Iraq between 1985 and 1989. In August 1989, shortly after FBI agents searched BNL’s Atlanta branch, manager Christopher Drogoul was eventually indicted for making unauthorized, clandestine, and illegal loans to the Iraqi government (according to the investigation, some of this money was used to buy weapons). According to a report in the Financial Times, other companies clandestinely involved in technology transfer to Iraq, including Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Tektronix.
Since the revolution, Iran has been isolated economically and under sanctions. The United States, in particular, has taken a strong stance against Iran, even waging naval battles against the Islamic Republic citing freedom of navigation as the casus belli. However, in a clandestine manner, the Americans indirectly sent weapons to Iran through a hidden and illegal program that would come to light as the “Iran-Contra Affair.” The main purpose of this secret arms sale to the Iranians was the need for their intervention to support the Americans to free hostages that had been taken in Lebanon by Hezbollah, an EGRI-controlled paramilitary group. Part of the proceeds of these sales were also used by Ronald Reagan’s administration to finance the Contras militia in Nicaragua (openly disobeying a Congressional order). This illegal sale of arms in exchange for support for the release of American hostages turned out to be a major scandal in the United States.
North Korea was one of the few countries that openly sold arms to the Iranians. They also acted as intermediaries for the acquisition of military equipment from Eastern Europe. Other countries that provided arms support to Iran were Libya, China, and the Soviet Union (the latter to a limited extent).
Another country that gave Iran a lot of support was Syria, led by Hafez al-Assad. Both Syria and Iraq had a Baathist regime, however, after the coup in Syria in 1966 the original Ba’ath Party split into the Iraqi-dominated Baath Party and the Syrian-dominated Baath Party. Syria started helping Iran with weapons, training and money, and even shut down the Pipeline that went from Quircuque in Iraq to Banias to Syria, in return Iran sold oil at low prices to Syria. The two countries also cooperated due to the common rivalry they had with Israel and common support they had as certain factions in the Lebanese Civil War, sponsoring the Shiite groups of the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.
Despite openly hostile relations between Israel and Iran and Khomeini declaring Israel the great enemy of the Islamic world and Iran sponsoring anti-Israeli groups in the Lebanese Civil War, such as Hezbollah, the two countries collaborated. Israel sent weapons, money, and training to the Iranians, as well as destroying an Iraqi nuclear reactor during Operation Opera. They hoped that Iran could provide a counterweight to Iraq and that they could improve relations between the two countries back to before the revolution and protect the Persian Jewish community. Israel also participated in the Iran-Contra Affair, where it mediated the U.S.-Iran talks and made deliveries of American armaments to Iranian forces.
Support for both countries
Not only did the United States and the Soviet Union sell weapons to both sides, but countries like Yugoslavia did as well. It was reported that Portugal also did business with both countries. It was not uncommon to see Iranian and Iraqi flag ships side by side in the port of Sines.
From 1980 to 1987, Spain sold at least 458 million Euros in weapons to Iran and 172 million Euros to Iraq. Among the weapons sold to the Iraqis were 4×4 vehicles, BO-105 helicopters, explosives, and ammunition. An investigation later claimed that a warhead containing toxic agents that crashed in Iran was actually manufactured in Spain.
Although neither side received formal support from the government of Turkey, civilian goods were purchased by both nations with Turkish citizens. Turkish authorities even maintained a posture of neutrality and initially refused to cooperate with the Americans to impose sanctions against Tehran. Turkish markets profited greatly by selling products to Iranians and Iraqis. The good economic relations between Turkey and Iraq ended when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, forcing the Turkish government to cooperate with the embargo against Saddam.
- Guerra Irã-Iraque
- Iran–Iraq War
- ^ Pollack gives the figure as 1,000 for fully operational tanks in April of 1988. Cordesman gives the figure as 1,500+ operational tanks in March 1988 (1,298 were captured by the Iraqis by July 1988, 200 were still in the hands of the Iranians, and an unknown number were destroyed), with an unknown number in workshops.
- ^ Estimates of Iranian casualties during the Iran–Iraq War vary.
- ^ Estimates of Iraqi casualties during the Iran–Iraq War vary.
- ^ The total 100,000+ civilians killed during the war does not include 50,000–200,000 Kurdish civilians killed in the Al-Anfal genocide.
- «The Myth of a ‘Special’ North Korea-Iran Relationship». Thediplomat.com. Consultado em 19 de julho de 2018
- ^ Cu sprijin din partea URSS, Franța, Brazilia, Arabia Saudită, Egipt, SUA și alte state arabe sau membre ale Pactului de la Varșovia (inclusiv România).
- Dilip Hiro, S. 116