Key Point: Neither side managed to destroy the other, although Hussein's invasion utterly failed. The conflict was yet another awful proxy match of the Cold War.
The world awoke to ominous news on September 22, 1980. Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein had launched a massive armored and air attack across the Iraq-Iran border. Believing that his Islamic fundamentalist neighbor to the east had been weakened by the ongoing revolutionary turmoil that in February 1979 had toppled the Shah, Hussein was confident that his forces would win a lightning victory and restore long-disputed territory to Iraqi control. Such a victory, not incidentally, would put Hussein at the forefront of a resurgent Middle Eastern pan-Arabism.
Among the causes of the war—the ruthless ambition of Saddam Hussein; ongoing disputes over control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, a shipping lane formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that created the southern borders of both countries; the struggle for dominance in the Persian Gulf region—the overriding issue was a centuries-old dispute regarding sovereignty over oil-rich Khuzestan Province in southwestern Iran. Khuzestan was the ancient home of the empire of Elam, an independent, non-Semitic, non-Indo-European-speaking kingdom whose territory spanned almost all of present-day southwestern Iran. Khuzestan had been attacked and occupied many times by various Arab kingdoms of Mesopotamia, the precursors of modern-day Iraq.
A Centuries-Old Rivalry
The rivalry between Mesopotamia and Persia had lasted for centuries. Before the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was part of Persia. This changed when Murad IV annexed Iraq from the weakening Safavids of Persia in 1638, making it the easternmost province of the Ottoman Empire. Border disputes between Persia and the Ottomans persisted. Between 1555 and 1918 Persia and the Ottomans signed 18 different treaties delineating their disputed borders.
The British and other Western powers received a League of Nations mandate after World War I to carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire and virtually rewrite the map of the Middle East. The Ottomans had backed the losing side, Germany, against their traditional enemies, the Russians. Great Britain took control of Palestine, Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and various Gulf states; France was responsible for Syria and Lebanon. The new map ignored religious, tribal, ethnic, and historical divisions. Borders did not reflect natural frontiers such as rivers and mountains, but rather demarcations on a map drawn in a European conference room. Of all the new nations created with the potential for ethnic-religious strife, Iraq was the worst, a combustible mix of mutually antagonistic peoples—Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Kurds—each of which considered itself separate and sovereign.
Growing Rivalry With Iran
The modern nation-state of Iraq was granted independence in 1932 and immediately spiraled into ethnic and religious turmoil. Iraq was a rarity in the region, a nation where the Sunni minority ruled over the Shiite majority. In 1969, Iraq’s Ba’ath Party mounted a successful coup under the leadership of General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and renewed its claim to full control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. This led Iran to denounce the 1937 treaty dividing control of the waterway between the two nations. On April 22, 1969, an Iranian ship entered the Shatt with a military escort and refused to pay tolls to Iraq. Relations between Iran and Iraq deteriorated over the next two and half years.
On November 30, 1971, the day before the British withdrew from the Gulf for good, Iran seized three strategic islands in the lower Gulf—Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs—owned by the United Arab Emirates. Their seizure led Iraq to sever diplomatic relations with Iran. Scattered border clashes occurred in 1972, after which Iraq expelled some 72,000 Iranians from Iraq. A new series of border incidents occurred in February 1974. Iraq, its military readiness far inferior to that of Iran, was compelled to ask for a compromise, which took the form of the 1975 Algiers Accord. Under its terms, Iran conceded territory in the Qasr e-Shirin area and agreed to halt arms shipments to the Kurds in return for concessions in the Shatt that again designated the middle of the waterway as the international border.
“Totally Iraqi and Totally Arab”
The Iran-Iraq rivalry was profoundly altered by the Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah in February of 1979, ending 2,500 years of monarchy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s sudden rise to power created a regime in Iran that was far more of a threat to Iraq than the Shah had ever been. The revolution cut Iran off from the United States and the West. The 444-day U.S. Embassy hostage crisis began on November 4, 1979, and a brutal power struggle broke out between religious revolutionaries under Khomeini and radical Marxist movements that had initially supported the revolution. The internal disarray made Khomeini seem far more vulnerable than he really was, and led Saddam Hussein to believe that the time was ripe to transform Iraq into the dominant power in the Gulf.
On September 17, 1980, Hussein abrogated the 1975 Algiers Accord and declared the Shatt al-Arab “totally Iraqi and totally Arab.” Heavy fighting broke out along the waterway, and Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr decreed a general mobilization. Convinced that his antagonist had been severely weakened by the purges of its regular forces and was preoccupied with suppressing grave internal threats, Hussein launched an invasion two days later. Six Iraqi army divisions advanced into Iran on three fronts along a 435-mile-broad arc in an initially successful surprise attack. In the north, an Iraqi mechanized division overran the border garrison at Qasr e-Shirin in Bakhtaran Province and pushed on, advancing 25 miles eastward to the base of the Zagros Mountains. Iraq’s forces spent several days reaching the villages along the main route to Tehran; many villages were destroyed and their inhabitants expelled. On the central front, Iraqi forces captured Mehran, on the western edge of the Zagros chain in Ilam Province, an important position on the major north-south highway close to the border.
Unexpected Fierce Resistance
The main thrust came in the south, where five armored and mechanized divisions invaded Khuzestan Province on two axes. One easily crossed the lightly defended Shatt al-Arab near Basra, the second headed for Susangerd and the provincial capital of Ahwaz. Supported by heavy artillery barrages, the Iraqis made rapid and significant advances—almost 50 miles in the first few days. The Iraqis made heavy use of artillery and anti-tank guided missiles to break up strongpoints and met with little more than minor resistance from a mix of Revolutionary Guard and gendarmerie infantry forces.
Iraqi units entered Susangerd on September 28; finding it undefended, they pushed on toward Dezful and Ahwaz, crossed the Karun River, and approached the outskirts of Ahwaz and Korramshahr. Iraqi units now threatened all the major cities in southwestern Iran.
Emulating Israeli tactics used in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Hussein sent formations of MiG-21s in a preemptive strike against Iran’s air bases at Mehrabad, Ahwaz, Dezful, and Abadan, but failed to destroy Iran’s air force on the ground. Iranian jets were housed in hardened shelters and survived intact; Iraqi bombs designed to crater runways could not destroy Iran’s spread-out airfields. Within hours, Iranian F-4 Phantoms took off from the airfields, attacking strategic targets near major Iraqi cities. Although Iran’s 100 sorties were not especially effective, they shot down two aircraft and surprised the Iraqis; the Iranians also used helicopters to fly transport and attack missions. The Iraqi air force, with at least a 3-to-1 numerical advantage, virtually abandoned the skies to preserve its planes.
Iran was in the early stages of transforming its Revolutionary Guard Corps into a serious alternative to the regular army, which meant that much of the initial defense of Iran’s central and southern borders fell to a mix of paramilitary forces, a few scattered regular army brigades, and between 12,000 and 30,000 Revolutionary Guards. The military experience of the Guards consisted largely of training as conscripts in the Shah’s army or low-level fighting against the Kurds or other internal opponents. Meanwhile, the Iranian navy quickly established its mastery of the waters of the Gulf, sinking four enemy vessels and shelling Umm Qasr, the Iraqi oil port on the Faw Peninsula. Within a week, the Shatt waterway was closed for the duration of the war.
Iranian resistance at the outset of the invasion was unexpectedly fierce, if not particularly well organized. Iraqi forces easily advanced in the northern and central sectors and crushed scattered resistance there, but in Khuzestan the attackers encountered unyielding opposition. Iran had rapidly mobilized fiercely loyal Revolutionary Guard units, as well as tens of thousands of untrained and ill-armed popular volunteers called basij. By the end of November, a mixed force of 200,000 troops had been dispatched to the front.
Iraqi armored units paused outside Khorramshahr while artillery attempted to soften up the city’s defenses. When the Iraqis finally pushed into the city of 70,000 people on September 28, they encountered about 2,000 Iranian regulars and a like number of Revolutionary Guards armed with rocket launchers and Molotov cocktails ready to wage a street-by-street fight. While armored units secured the perimeter of the city, Iraqi special forces and Republican Guards, untrained for urban warfare, were committed piecemeal and suffered heavy losses. Iraq finally managed to gain control over most of the city on November 10; the two sides together suffered at least 8,000 troops killed or wounded. After capturing the city, the Iraqis lost their initiative and began digging in along their line of advance; they were now facing a rapidly reinforcing army which had dug in or withdrawn to the foothills of the Zagros Mountains west of Dezful to set up a defensive barrier.