The conflict between these two great powers of the Middle East haunted every move made during the subsequent Persian Gulf hostilities. Many factors, as well as many sensitive questions, involved in the eight-year-long struggle came into play: Would Iran enter the coalition’s war to drive the Iraqi army from Kuwait, and if so, against whom—Iraq, or Iraq’s mortal enemy the United States? How would Iranian fundamentalism affect the warring powers, including the delicate Persian Gulf states and Saudi Arabia? What role would the Sunni Muslims in Iraq (known to be allied with Iran) play?
Except for the slim piece of land adjoining the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iraq has no port access to the Persian Gulf and thus no real water border. In 1975 a treaty between Iran and Iraq allowed for their dual access to this vital waterway; however, in 1980 Saddam Hussein nullifted the treaty, claiming that Iraq owned the waterway completely. When Iran refused to withdraw from its half of the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq attacked. This was not the sole purpose for Iraq’s move. One source on the Iraqi dictator said, “His ambition to become a regional leader, along with his fear of the impact of the Islamic revolution, motivated his decision” to invade Iran. Another source, a paper written by military historians Stephen Pelletiere and Douglas Johnson II, says of the conflict, “Iraq emerged from its war with Iran as a superpower in the Persian Gulf. This had not been its original intent; it did not deliberately use the war to transform its strategic position or to impose its domination over the region. Iraq achieved regional superpower status through a series of escalatory steps that were required to repel Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist crusade. Iraqi leaders mobilized a diverse population, strengthened Iraq’s armed forces, and transformed its society to take the offensive and terminate the war with Iran.”
The move to claim the Shatt al-Arab was not Iraq’s first assertion on that Iranian territory; as early as 1958, Iran and Iraq battled over the waterway. After a peaceful period lasting from 1963 to 1968, the Ba’ath party’s ascension to power in Iraq resurrected all the old hatreds. In a series of speeches that brings to mind those delivered over Kuwait, Iraq claimed that some parts of Iran belonged to Iraq. In a 1969 speech the deputy prime minister of Iraq proclaimed, “Iraq has not had [a] serious dispute with Iran over [the] Shatt al-Arab, since this is part of Iraq’s territory. The dispute is in connection with Arabistan [Iran’s Khuzestan], which is part of Iraq’s soil and was annexed to Iran during foreign [Ottoman] rule.” Thus, the atmosphere was established regarding Iraqi claims against Iranian territory. From 1972 to 1974 a series of border skirmishes occurred, in which Iraq claimed that Iran had occupied 5 square kilometers of Iraqi territory. A meeting of the UN Security Council was convened, but found no solutions to the demands of each side. The region was gradually slipping toward one of the worst wars in human history.
A series of actions starting in mid-1979 and ending in April 1980 began this long slide toward armed conflict between Iran and Iraq. In June 1979 Âyat Allah Bakir (Baqir), a Shiite cleric in the city of al-Najaf in Iraq, came out in favor of the militant Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran over the socialist regime of Saddam Hussein. On 1 April 1980 a grenade was thrown at Tariq Aziz, the foreign minister of Iraq, by members of the al-Dawa (“the Call”) opposition party, believed by many to be allied with Iran. Although Aziz was only slightly injured, a number of students listening to him speak at a rally were killed. On 9 April, Iraqi Shiite dissidents Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and his sister, Bint al-Huda, who had been arrested the previous year for supporting the Iranian revolution, were executed by the Iraqi government. Finally, on 12 April Latif Nsayyif Jâsim, the Iraqi minister of culture and information, was assassinated; his killers were assumed to be Iranian-backed. These events led the Iraqi regime to begin rounding up members of the pro-Iranian al-Dawa party and proceed with the forcible deportation of some 35,000 Shiites of Iranian descent to Iran by that summer. However, author Samir al-Khalil, in his Republic of Fear: The Inside Story of Saddam’s Iraq, finds that Iran was to blame for the ensuing conflict: “Iran had already abrogated the Algiers Agreement through 187 border violations, all of which had allegedly taken place in the four-month period preceding the war (any violation, Iraq claimed, nullified the entire document). Numerous statements by Iranian leaders also proved their intent to ‘export’ the Islamic revolution. It followed, once the treaty was abrogated, that the Shatt al-Arab waterway had to revert back to Iraqi sovereignty according to all previous agreements. All naval craft along the Shatt were henceforth to fly the Iraqi flag, and navigation fees should be paid to Iraq. In addition, the region of Ahwaz, or ‘Arabistan’ [as the Iraqis called it] had been wrongfully ceded in the second treaty of Erzerum in 1847; its inhabitants were overwhelmingly Arab and their ancestry could be traced back to the Islamic conquest of Iran.”
On 4 September 1980, border skirmishes between Iraqi troops and Kurdish guerrillas supported by Iran began to flare up. Iranian artillery batteries shelled the Iraqi cities of Khaniqîn and Mandalî, killing an untold number of civilians. The shelling was repeated on 7 September. Although Iraq delivered a diplomatic protest to the government in Tehran, no reply was given, and the stage was set for war. That same day, Iraq nullified the 1975 Algiers Agreement, effectively declaring war against Iran. Two weeks later, on 22 September 1980, Iraqi fighter-bombers strafed across the border and bombed ten Iranian air bases, while Iraqi foot soldiers raced across the border, claiming that by 25 September they had laid siege to Ahvaz, Dezful, and Khorramshahr. On 24 October, Iraqi troops overran Khorramshahr. In honor of the Arab victory over the Persians in the A.D. 636 battle of Qadissiyat, Saddam Hussein called this 1980 offensive “Qadissayat Saddam.” The “war against oil” began soon after the occupation of Khorramshahr. Iraq shelled and destroyed the Iranian oil centers of Abadan and Bandar Khomeini (formerly Bandar Abbas), while Iran demolished the Iraqi oil stations at Kirkuk and Mosul. The Iranian counteroffensive began in May 1981, and eventually pushed the retreating Iraqis back across the Karûn River. In May 1982 the Iranians retook Khorramshahr. After the summer of 1982, when Iranian troops tried to take the Iraqi city of Basra with frightening losses, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate like that of the trench warfare of World War I.
The war became unpopular at home for Iraq. Saddam Hussein continually faced the possibility of his army falling apart—because most of them were Shiites, there was a great fear that they might defect to Iran. Further, many Iraqis felt that the country’s defenses were being weakened, while the real enemy of Iraq—Israel—remained strong. Further, by 1984 the Iraqis had suffered at least 65,000 killed, with 50,000 to 60,000 prisoners of war in Iranian hands (Iran had 180,000 killed and 8,000 taken prisoner). Although at one point Iran was in the midst of the embassy hostage crisis, and later the diplomat hostage dilemma in Lebanon with the United States, and was in a horrible economic situation, it appeared to have an endless well of young men to send in waves to be slaughtered by Iraqi guns.
The destruction of oil facilities of both countries led to the so-called Tanker War in 1986 and 1987; both mined the Persian Gulf to stop the other side from selling oil to finance the war effort. This led to the first direct American involvement in the Gulf when tankers reflagged with American flags sailed the Gulf with American military escort. Other factors that kept the war going include the selling of American foodstuffs to Iraq in an effort to stop an Iranian victory, the sending of American weapons (with the help of Israel) to keep Iran in the war and to achieve the release of American hostages held by Islamic terrorists in Lebanon, and the funding by Persian Gulf states (particularly Kuwait) of Iraq with billions of dollars to keep Baghdad’s economy afloat.