After eight years of bloody encounters on the battlefield, the horrific use of chemical weapons, and an estimated half a million dead on both sides, the Iran-Iraq war ended in an effective stalemate in 1988. In addition to those killed, an estimated 1 million more were injured, and the total material losses rose well over $1 trillion.
The conflict was among the longest and largest-scale conventional military confrontations between two neighboring countries since the Korean War in the 1950s. And, just as in the case of Korea, the repercussions of the Iran-Iraq war went on for years, playing a big role in determining the state of not only the combatants themselves but the wider Middle East and the world today.
On September 22, 1980, war broke out with Iraq’s massive incursion over its western border with Iran. The Iraqis claimed that the actual start of the conflict took place earlier in September, when Iranian soldiers shelled its border outposts.
An unsettled region
After the departure of Great Britain in the 1960s from its position of hegemony over the Persian Gulf, the resulting geopolitical reshuffling left Shia-majority Iran facing off against Shia-majority but Sunni-dominated Iraq. Disputes over territory fueled tensions into the 1970s.
By 1980, both nations were brutal dictatorships with an abiding mutual hatred for Israel and distrust of the United States. President Saddam Hussain, at the head of the violently controlling Ba’ath Party in Iraq, had assumed power in 1979. That same year, the repressive fundamentalist Islamist regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over via revolution in Iran.
In its isolation under its fanatical Islamist regime, Iran found only two allies in its war with Iraq: Libya and Syria. On the other hand, Iraq found tacit support from both the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as financial and other types of support from Saudi Arabia, tiny neighboring Kuwait, and other Arab nations.
Historians credit President Ronald Reagan’s intervention on behalf of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq with ultimately giving the bigger advantage to that country, with American forces involved in violent—but unacknowledged—military confrontations with the Islamic Republic at sea and in the air. Although American interests hinged on maintaining a balance of power and petroleum-trading capacities between Iraq and Iran, as Iran seemed to gain the upper hand in the conflict, Washington saw no alternative to making its bed with Iraq.
That choice was made less unpalatable by the fact that, at the start of the war, Iran still held dozens of the American hostages it had taken in Tehran when the Islamists came to power in 1979.
But as the war progressed, the Reagan administration sent arms to Iran in the mistaken hope it would help them free American hostages held in Lebanon, part of the larger scandal of the Iran-Contra Affair. When that plan collapsed, the US tilted back toward Iraq.
The scourge of chemical weapons
By the early 1980s, as later-declassified American government documents show, Iraq had begun deploying mustard gas against Iran, which, in turn, began to develop its own chemical weapons program. Tens of thousands of Iranians likely lost their lives to Iraq’s chemical weapons, which later included nerve agents. Many more Iranians suffer the effects of their exposure to this day.
American documents also show that Iran was likely successful in the limited use of cyanide and mustard gas against the Iraqis by 1987. And in the last year of the war, thousands died in a Kurdish village in Northern Iraq, possibly as a result of being caught in the crossfire of chemical weapons used by both Iraq and Iran.
All for nothing
The parties agreed to abide by a UN-facilitated cease-fire in 1988, though tragically, their respective borders at the end of the war were scarcely different than they had been at the beginning.
Iran and Iraq did not finalize an official peace treaty or resume normalized relations until August 1990. That was the same month that Saddam Hussain ordered his troops to invade Kuwait, drawing the US and the region into the Persian Gulf War that would culminate in the rout of the Iraqis the following February.
Farther along this trajectory came the Iraq War (also known as the Second Persian Gulf War), which began with a quick Anglo-American victory and the trial and death of Hussain in 2003. This conflict, of course, deteriorated into the long slog of the US-led occupation and the bloody Iraqi insurgency that lasted until 2011.
Toward the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, Hussain unleashed a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds using chemical weapons, even as Khomeini in Iran tightened his grip on power and stepped up the imprisonment and execution of dissidents, further entrenching his country in the vice of Islamist theocracy.
As a consequence of American actions in the Iran-Iraq war, both those nations came to believe that the US had played them for its own ends.
By the end of the 1980s, Iraq viewed the US as a major threat despite the masses of strategic intelligence the Americans had provided it. To Iranians, the conflict became known as the “Imposed War” because they believed the US was behind it.
The Iranians continue to believe that the Americans were orchestrating events at major points of their conflict with Iraq and that the US was behind the global turn in favor of Iraq. This is easier for Iranians to believe when they correctly remember that the UN did not condemn Iraq’s initiation of the war at the time. Iran’s view of itself as a smaller power threatened by the Americans further helped the ayatollah consolidate his regime’s power over the country after the war’s end.
And that war, with its aftermath of deep mistrust of Western powers, was the formative historical event in the lives of subsequent Iranian leaders, including current president Ebrahim Raisi and religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As young men, both played notable roles during the war, with Raisi long associated with a line of politically motivated executions in Iran at the war’s end.