First Gulf War

Iran vs. Iraq: 1980-1988

Map of the 1st Persian Gulf WarThe borderlands between Iran and Iraq have never made any sense. Rather than defining any real ethnic homeland, the border merely marks where two expanding imperial dynasties -- the Ottomans and Persians -- ran into each other in the Sixteenth Century. The final treaty signed some two centuries later split Kurds, Shiites and Arabs between two alien overlords along a vague line drawn somewhere in the wild mountains. Even the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War One didn't improve matters much, as the non-Turkish provinces were turned over to the British and French as mandates under the League of Nations rather than formed into logical nation-states.

Under the 1975 Algiers Agreement, Iraq ceded 518 km2 of oil-rich borderlands along the Shatt al-Arab in exchange for an Iranian agreement to stop supporting Kurdish rebels in Iraq. By 1979, however, Saddam Hussein had clawed his way to the top of the ruling junta of Iraq and took advantage of the chaos unleashed by the recent Iranian Revolution to shift the disputed border back in Iraq's favor, with the excuse being that the predominantly Arab population of this region would prefer being part of the predominantly Arab state of Iraq. His armies crossed into Iran in September, 1980. After some initial success, the Iraqis stalled in the outskirts of Abadan.

When two of the world's leading suppliers of oil go to war, the world has to take sides, but when the war pits a corrupt dictatorship against a fanatic theocracy, it's hard to know which side to take. As a purely practical matter, however, it's best to line up with corrupt dictatorships because they're usually more willing to work a deal. During the Iran-Iraq War, the world as a whole tossed in with Iraq. The two superpowers openly assisted the Iraqis, as did most centrist Moslem states such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Taking Sides:

There were exceptions, however. Most of the diplomatically isolated nations of the world, such as Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Libya and Argentina, supported their fellow outcast, Iran, if only to score one more rare ally and trading partner. Although the Soviets openly supported their traditional client state, Iraq, they covertly assisted Iran in exchange for not meddling in Afghanistan. The United States supplied the Iraqis with intelligence, and committed the US Navy to safeguarding the flow of oil out of (and the flow of money and arms into) Iraq, but secretly sold arms to Iran in order to fund anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua, and gain influence with hostage-holding Muslim militias in Lebanon.

In May 1982, an Iranian counterattack restored the antebellum border, and shifted the momentum of the conflict. Over the next couple of years, the Iranians gradually slugged deeper into Iraq, until once again the war stalled in the suburbs of a major objective. Finally, in August 1988, the two exhausted countries agreed to a cease-fire negotiated by the U.N.

Contemporary Context:

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Last updated March 2003

Copyright © 2000-03 Matthew White