The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988

Saddam Hussein just before he launches the Iran-Iraq War, which would last for 8 years.
Photo of Saddam Hussein rallying Iraqi troops before the invasion of Iran, 1980. Keystone Archive / Getty Images

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988 was a grinding, bloody, and in the end, completely pointless conflict. It was sparked by the Iranian Revolution, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which overthrew Shah Pahlavi in 1978-79. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who despised the Shah, welcomed this change, but his joy turned to alarm when the Ayatollah began calling for a Shi'a revolution in Iraq to overthrow Saddam's secular/Sunni regime.

The Ayatollah's provocations inflamed Saddam Hussein's paranoia, and he soon began calling for a new Battle of Qadisiyyah, a reference to the 7th-century battle in which the newly-Muslim Arabs defeated the Persians. Khomeini retaliated by calling the Ba'athist regime a "puppet of Satan."

In April 1980, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz survived an assassination attempt, which Saddam blamed on the Iranians. As Iraqi Shi'as began to respond to the Ayatollah Khomeini's call for revolt, Saddam cracked down hard, even hanging Iraq's top Shi'a Ayatollah, Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, in April of 1980. Rhetoric and skirmishes continued from both sides throughout the summer, though Iran was not at all militarily prepared for war.

Iraq Invades Iran

On September 22, 1980, Iraq launched an all-out invasion of Iran. It began with airstrikes against the Iranian Air Force, followed by a three-pronged ground invasion by six Iraqi Army divisions along a 400-mile-long front in the Iranian province of Khuzestan.

Saddam Hussein expected ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan to rise up in support of the invasion, but they did not, perhaps because they were predominantly Shi'ite. The unprepared Iranian army was joined by the Revolutionary Guards in their efforts to fight off the Iraqi invaders. By November, a corps of some 200,000 "Islamic volunteers" (untrained Iranian civilians) were also throwing themselves against the invading forces.

The war settled into a stalemate throughout much of 1981. By 1982, Iran had gathered its forces and successfully launched a counter-offensive, using "human waves" of basij volunteers to drive the Iraqis back from Khorramshahr. In April, Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces from Iranian territory. However, Iranian calls for the end to monarchy in the Middle East convinced the reluctant Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to begin sending billions of dollars in aid to Iraq; none of the Sunni powers wished to see Iranian-style Shi'a revolution spreading southward.

On June 20, 1982, Saddam Hussein called for a ceasefire that would return everything to the pre-war status quo. However, Ayatollah Khomeini rejected the proffered peace, calling for Saddam Hussein's removal from power. The Iranian clerical government began to prepare for an invasion of Iraq, over the objections of its surviving military officers.

Iran Invades Iraq

On July 13, 1982, Iranian forces crossed into Iraq, heading for the city of Basra. The Iraqis, however, were prepared; they had an elaborate series of trenches and bunkers dug into the earth, and Iran soon ran short on ammunition. In addition, Saddam's forces deployed chemical weapons against their opponents.

The ayatollahs' army was quickly reduced to complete dependence on suicide attacks by human waves. Children were sent to run across mine-fields, clearing the mines before the adult Iranian soldiers could hit them, and instantly becoming martyrs in the process.

Alarmed by the prospect of further Islamic revolutions, President Ronald Reagan announced that the U.S. would "do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran." Interestingly enough, the Soviet Union and France also came to Saddam Hussein's aid, while China, North Korea and Libya were supplying the Iranians.

Throughout 1983, the Iranians launched five major attacks against the Iraqi lines, but their under-armed human waves could not break through the Iraqi entrenchments. In retaliation, Saddam Hussein sent missile attacks against eleven Iranian cities.

An Iranian push through the marshes ended with them gaining a position just 40 miles from Basra, but the Iraqis held them there.

The "Tanker War":

In the spring of 1984, the Iran-Iraq War entered a new, maritime phase when Iraq attacked Iranian oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Iran responded by attacking the oil tankers of both Iraq and its Arab allies. Alarmed, the U.S. threatened to join the war if the oil supply was cut off. Saudi F-15s retaliated for attacks against the kingdom's shipping by shooting down an Iranian plane in June 1984.

The "tanker war" continued through 1987. In that year, U.S. and Soviet naval ships offered escorts to oil tankers to prevent them being targeted by the belligerents. A total of 546 civilian ships were attacked and 430 merchant seamen killed in the tanker war.

Bloody Stalemate:

On land, the years 1985 to 1987 saw Iran and Iraq trading offensives and counter-offensives, without either side gaining much territory. The fighting was incredibly bloody, often with tens of thousands killed on each side in a matter of days.

In February of 1988, Saddam unleashed the fifth and deadliest missile attack on Iran's cities. Simultaneously, Iraq began to prepare a major offensive to push the Iranians out of Iraqi territory. Worn down by eight years of fighting and the incredibly high toll in lives, Iran's revolutionary government began to consider accepting a peace deal. On July 20, 1988, the Iranian government announced that it would accept a UN-brokered ceasefire, although the Ayatollah Khomeini likened it to drinking from a "poisoned chalice." Saddam Hussein demanded that the Ayatollah revoke his call for Saddam's removal before he would sign the deal. However, the Gulf States leaned on Saddam, who finally accepted the ceasefire as it stood.

In the end, Iran accepted the same peace terms the Ayatollah had rejected in 1982. After eight years of fighting, Iran and Iraq returned to the antebellum status quo - nothing had changed, geopolitically. What had changed was that an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Iranians were dead, along with more than 300,000 Iraqis.

Also, Iraq had seen the devastating effectiveness of chemical weapons, which it later deployed against its own Kurdish population as well as the Marsh Arabs.

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 was one of the longest in modern times, and it ended in a draw. Perhaps the most important point to be drawn from it is the danger of allowing religious fanaticism on one side to clash with a leader's megalomania on the other.