Iran-Iraq War

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This photograph was taken more than six decades after WWI.
It never changes
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A view to kill

The Iran-Iraq War was a horrific conflict between those two nations which took place between 1980 and 1988. It was a devastating conflict in which both sides employed tactics highly reminiscent of the trench-warfare of World War One because that worked out great the first time around. The war is estimated to have killed roughly half-a-million people,[1] a huge death toll which shouldn't be too surprising, all things considered.

Conflict broke out due to hostile relations between Ba'athist Iraq and the recently empowered Islamist government in Iran. Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader at the time, feared that the revolutionary Iranian government led by Ayatollah Khomeini would encourage a religious revolt among Iraq's oppressed Shiite majority.[2] Hussein also hoped to take advantage of Iran's post-revolutionary chaos to annex a few oil-rich provinces near his eastern border because of course he would want that.[3]

Unfortunately for Iraq, their offensive ground to a halt in less than two years against the surprisingly resilient Iranians, and they were forced onto the defensive until the war's end.[4] Notably, both the United States and the Soviet Union offered support to Iraq during the conflict, as both nations had a sour view of the ayatollahs. Meanwhile, Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, a long oppressed ethnic minority, sided with Iran. This would have really bad consequences for them in the following decades.

The war ended with a white peace, meaning there were no border changes or reparations. However, the financial ruination it caused for Iraq led Saddam to invade Kuwait to steal oil and avoid debts, sparking a series of events which would lead to his downfall.


Thar be oil in the marked provinces! Arr!

Relations between Iraq and Iran had been hostile for decades, especially under the rule of the US-backed Shah Pahlavi. After the Shah was deposed during the Iranian Revolution, Hussein initially welcomed this event as the downfall of a longtime enemy.[5] However, these good feelings were not returned by Khomeini. The Ayatollah was eager to spread his revolution beyond Iran's borders. To this end he encouraged Iraq's Shiite minority to launch a revolt against Saddam's rule, and he frequently instigated violent border clashes between the two nations.[6] Iran's calls for a Shiite revolution was not ignored either, as Hussein's secular Ba'athist government heavily discriminated against religious minorities (especially the Shia).[5]

While it might seem natural and obvious for both countries' Shia peoples to unite against Hussein, it's not that simple: Iraq's Shias are Arab (and use Arabic, a Semitic language), while Iran's population is Persian (and their language, Persian, is Indo-European). The idea that these groups would identify with each other and unite behind Shia Islam against Hussein is like assuming Mexico and Ireland will always side with one another just because both are Catholic.

Meanwhile, Hussein also had ambitions of raising Iraq into superpower status, and he now hoped to do this by annexing Iran's oil-rich region of Khuzestan, which was directly across the border.[7] His goal was to replace Egypt as the most powerful Arab nation and achieve hegemony over the Persian Gulf.[8]

In early 1980, Iran withdrew its ambassador from Iraq and demanded reciprocal action.[5] As war became more and more likely, Hussein's government forcibly deported thousands of Iraqi Shias under the pretext that they were connected to Iran's government.[9]

The war[edit]

The Iraqi attack backfired by rallying popular support for the new Iranian regime. Oops.

Iraqi invasion[edit]

Iraq launched a full ground invasion in late 1980, supported by an air offensive which failed to do significant damage to Iran's air forces.[10] The attack encountered problems immediately due to the poor training and morale of the Iraqi divisions as well as the hoped-for support from Iran's Arab minority failing to materialize.[11] Meanwhile, Iran's air force, consisting of potent American-built fighters like the F-14 (acquired prior to the Shah being deposed), was able to do significant damage to the Iraqi advance, most importantly by disabling and damaging armored vehicles.[12]

Iran's ground forces were unable to directly face Iraq's artillery and armored superiority and thus retreated into the cities to fight defensively.[13] Within the cities, the Iranians used Molotov cocktails and RPGs to harass the Iraqi tanks and used the terrain against the attackers.[13]

The Iraqi attack solidified popular support for the then-weak Iranian regime, and a new wave of 200,000 zealous volunteers allowed the mullahs to replenish the ranks of their armies.[14] With all of these factors working against them, the Iraqi advance ground to a halt.

Bloody stalemate[edit]

An Iranian child soldier.

At this point, due to both sides going into a defensive standpoint to rebuild their strength, the war settled into World War One-esque trench warfare, and battles primarily consisted of artillery attacks and covert raids.[15][16] After some time, however, the Iranians began using human wave attacks, where their zealous soldiers would rush the Iraqi lines and attempt to overwhelm them without concern for their own losses.[13] This tactic was effective against the superior Iraqi forces, especially because the Iranians would muster their forces using buses and cars in a way that went unnoticed by the Iraqi generals.[17]

This human-wave tactic reached a new height of brutality when Iran's government began conscripting children 15 and younger to rush the Iraqi trenches.[18] These boys were also used as minesweepers.[19] Other boys were sent into battle against Iraqi tanks and were bound together with ropes to prevent desertion.[20] According to Iran's military itself, approximately 33,000 high school-age boys were killed during the war.[21]

Obligatory failed ceasefire proposal[edit]

Again, this photograph was taken in the 1980s, not the 1910s.

By mid-1982, Iran's human-wave tactics and the complacence of Iraq's generals allowed the mullahs' armies to go on the offensive with a series of successful attacks on the Iraqi lines.[22] Realizing that he was in over his head, Saddam Hussein announced in June that he wanted to withdraw from Iran and fight Israel instead, essentially offering a ceasefire to Khomeini.[23] As a gesture of goodwill, Hussein began unilaterally pulling his forces out of Iran; however the Ayatollah refused to end the war unless Iraq paid reparations and replaced the Ba'athist government with a Shiite Islamic theocracy.[24] So while Hussein started the war, Khomeini prolonged it.

In response to this, Iraq's Health Minister suggested during a cabinet meeting that Hussein could temporarily step down to placate the Iranians; an angered Hussein escorted the man into the next room and personally executed him with a pistol before returning to the meeting.[25]

More stalemate[edit]

With Hussein still futilely hoping for a way out of the war, Iran went on the offensive, seeking to invade Iraq and achieve all of its war goals. However, the Iraqi military's resolve strengthened once it was defending its own soil, and the war once again settled into trench combat and pointless human wave attacks.[26] In response to this, the Iranians changed their tactics to focus on wearing Iraq down through attrition; they launched near-constant smaller-scale assaults designed to slowly wear down Iraq's military and manpower and drive the nation into economic destitution by forcing them to drastically increase military spending.[13] On the northern front, Iran also began arming and training Kurdish militias to attack Iraq's oil industry[13] — ironic because Iran has had its own Kurdish separatist movement since 1918.[27] In 1984, Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons on the front lines, although his government would repeatedly deny the allegations before the United Nations.[28]

The "War of the Cities" and the "War of the Tankers"[edit]

See the main article on this topic: War crimes

Unable to defeat each other on the ground, both sides began using strategic bombing to destroy civilian and industrial targets in each other's cities.[29] In order to deprive each other of trade profits, both sides also began attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf, especially oil tankers. This latter policy served to fully internationalize the war, for obvious reasons.[29]

International involvement[edit]

Captured Iraqi soldiers in Khorramshahr.

Naturally for a war in the Middle East, this little scuffle between Iran and Iraq drew significant attention from nations around the world, especially once they began interfering with the world's precious oil supply.

Team Iran[edit]

Syria, at the time a rival to Hussein's Iraq, shut down the vital Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline in mid-1982 just to fuck with Hussein's finances in the middle of the war.[30] This forced Iraq to conduct most of its oil exports through a smaller pipeline in Turkey.

That's actually about the only support Iran received for the duration of the war. The United Nations Security Council delivered a half-assed "Stop it, guys" resolution, but Iran was forced to fight in complete isolation while purchasing ludicrously expensive black-market weaponry in order to avoid arms embargoes.[31]

Team Iraq[edit]

The US Navy escorts oil tankers through the Persian Gulf, 1987.

While Iraq was experiencing financial troubles due to Syria's above-explained oil fuckery, Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf State crew began subsidizing Hussein's war to the tune of $60 billion per year, as they hated and feared Iran's radical regime far more than the occasionally hostile Saddam Hussein.[32]

Iraq at this time also benefited from discreet support from the United States and Europe, which manifested as satellite intelligence and weaponry.[33] While the West had originally been neutral, this policy changed after Iran got back onto its feet and began pushing Iraq's forces out of their country. Western governments, especially the CIA and the United States were fully aware that Hussein was using chemical weapons including nerve gas, but still provided the locations of Iranian logistics and military targets knowing they would be gassed.[34] Contrary to popular belief, while the US did supply materials used for chemical weapons, it was actually Germany of all fucking countries that provided more chemical weapons supplies than all other countries combined.[35] Many other countries got involved too, including the UK, so there's plenty of blame to go around. Regardless, the Reagan administration's policy had sharply turned to ensuring an Iraqi victory at all costs, and this included ordering the Commerce Department to provide licenses to US companies to export raw materials to Iraq which could be used to construct yet more chemical weapons —[36] ironic because the Reagan administration had secretly and illegally sold weapons to Iran, as was revealed in the Iran-Contra scandal. Because it's not like that could ever backfire in any way whatsoever.

The US also responded to the "Tanker War" by launching Operations Earnest Will and Prime Chance, in which the US Navy would escort Iraqi and friendly merchant shipping in order to protect it from Iranian attacks.[37][38] This resulted in an embarrassing incident when a US ship mistook an Iranian passenger airliner for a fighter and shot it down, killing 290 civilians.[39]

Meanwhile, in a rare agreement with the West, the Soviet Union also provided arms to the Iraqis for similar reasons as the Americans, this flow of arms dramatically increased after Iran began cracking down on communists and expelling Soviet diplomats.[40]

End of the war[edit]

Victims of a 1987 Iraqi chemical attack

By 1987, Iran's economy was suffering, and its public had become thoroughly sick of the war, even resulting in a wave of anti-war protests.[41] Meanwhile, the military situation for Iran had deteriorated, as their armies were falling back on almost every front, and the US had successfully achieved naval superiority in the Persian Gulf on behalf of Iraq.[42] The naval war between the US and Iran had dramatically escalated after the US attacked Iranian oil platforms and several Iranian ships in retaliation for having vessels damaged by Iranian mines.[43][44]

With the war essentially lost on every front, Iran finally accepted a UN-mediated ceasefire after Hussein threatened (and began) to launch air strikes with chemical weapons on Iranian cities with no international outcry.[45]

And the winner is...[edit]

Funeral for an unknown soldier in Iran.

Despite the actual peace agreement resulting in no border changes or reparations, Iran can be said to have emerged from the conflict in a much better position than Iraq. Rather than leading to a collapse of the nation, the war actually helped strengthen Iran's fledgling Islamic Republic. Even cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities rallied behind the government to protect it from Hussein's attack.[46] The onset of the war also forced Iran's government to halt is ongoing military purges and enlist thousands of volunteers to fill out their ranks.[47] The actual conduct of the war then forced Iran to reform its ragtag military into a modern and tactically competent fighting force,[13] and lead Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps to become the powerful and zealous organization it is today.[48] The war was successfully used by the ruling mullahs of Iran to radicalize an entire generation of their nation's people.[49]

Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, had used brutal tactics against his nation's Kurdish minority in retaliation for their collaboration with Iran, which earned him their permanent enmity.[50] Meanwhile, Iraq's shattered finances and its use of chemical weapons would eventually set off a chain of events which would lead to the country's ruination at the hands of the United States.


"Nearly two million people travel to the former battle zones each year. The people of Iran believe that these areas are holy because of the blood of the Iranian soldiers, considered martyrs, who were killed during Iran and Iraq war." — Fatemeh Behboudi[51]
See the main article on this topic: Martyr

Since the war came so shortly after the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile, Iranian religious fervor was still high and it fueled a culture of martyropathy, a cult-like affliction of those who actively seek martyrdom.[52] Martyropathy was also present on the Iraqi side,[53] but was perhaps more tempered due to the secular government of Iraq vs. the theocratic government of Iran.[54] For Iran,

The celebration of sacrificial death became intrinsic to the political reinvention of the notion of martyrdom, which was one of the fundamental precepts of the revolution. The war, re-baptized as "the Sacred Defense" — paradoxically as it ceased to be defensive — served as an ideological and political pivot for reshaping the country.
—Chowra Makaremi[55]:11

Martyropathy in Iran was expressed in literature,[53] but more consequently in photobooks:[56]:18-286

As it became increasingly widespread, this iconography of the martyr resulted in higher levels of insensitivity to the spectacle of suffering, a sort of normalization of horror never before seen in Iranian culture. One must imagine the consequences of being exposed daily and in a repeated manner to this visual vocabulary at the earliest age. The redefinition of the thresholds of the acceptable and the level of importance accredited to the spectacle of extreme violence became part of the declared aim of creating a new type of citizen as political subject. These photobooks were the instruments used to accomplish this.
—Chowra Makaremi[57]:15

The 5-book series Memories of War[58] was cited as a quintessential example of martyropathic photobooks:

This book illustrates the "martyropathic" ideology (using an expression from sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar), which is at the core of the extreme experience of large-scale human sacrifice. It illustrates both the mechanics of indoctrination and its effects. Created for children and adolescents and presented as educational material, these volumes aim to instill Islamic/patriotic values and produce emulation by example. With print run of forty-five thousand copies, they were given out as prizes for school competitions, for example.
—Hannah Darabi and Chowra Makaremi[56]:260

See also[edit]


  1. Lacina, Bethany & Nils Petter Gleditsch (2005) Monitoring trends in global combat: A new dataset of battle deaths’, European Journal of Population 21(2–3): 145–166.
  2. Farrokh, Kaveh. Iran at War: 1500–1988. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78096-221-4.
  3. Karsh, Efraim (25 April 2002). The Iran–Iraq War: 1980–1988. Osprey Publishing. pp. 1–8, 12–16, 19–82. ISBN 978-1-84176-371-2.
  4. Molavi, Afshin (2005). The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Journey to Freedom (Revised ed.). England: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-393-32597-3.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Karsh, Efraim (25 April 2002). The Iran–Iraq War: 1980–1988. Osprey Publishing. pp. 1–8, 12–16, 19–82. ISBN 978-1-84176-371-2.
  6. Mearsheimer, John J.; Walt, Stephen M. (12 November 2002). Can Saddam Be Contained? History Says Yes. International Security. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
  7. Farrokh, Kaveh. Iran at War: 1500–1988. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78096-221-4.
  8. Saddam Hussein] Britannica.
  9. Iraq's rich mosaic of people Westcott, Kathryn (27 February 2003). BBC News.
  10. Cordesman, Anthony H.; Wagner, Abraham (1990). The Lessons of Modern War: Volume Two – The Iran–Iraq Conflict. Westview Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-8133-0955-2.
  11. Brogan, Patrick (1989). World Conflicts: A Comprehensive Guide to World Strife Since 1945. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-0260-9.
  12. Modern Warfare: Iran–Iraq War (film documentary).
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 [ THE EVOLUTION OF IRANIAN WARFIGHTING DURING THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR] Sergeant Ben Wilson.
  14. Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Global Security.
  15. Farrokh, Kaveh. Iran at War: 1500–1988. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78096-221-4.
  16. Pollack, Kenneth M. (2004). "Iraq". Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948–1991. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-8783-9.
  17. Saddam's Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War Kevin M. Woods, Williamson Murray, Elizabeth A. Nathan, Laila Sabara, Ana M. Venegas. Institute for Defense Analyses. 2011
  18. Child-Soldier Treaty Has Wide Support Letter to the editor, New York Times, DEC. 19, 1988
  19. Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - Iran United Nations Human Rights Council.
  20. The horrifying way Iran cleared mines in the Iran-Iraq War Stilwell, Blake. We Are the Mighty. 06.20.18
  21. The Lost Youth of Iran's Child Soldiers Ghajar, Aida. IranWire. 21 July 2017
  22. Farrokh, Kaveh. Iran at War: 1500–1988. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78096-221-4.
  23. IRAQ VOWS TO QUIT IRAN, FIGHT ISRAEL Associated Press. JUNE 10, 1982.
  24. IRAN SAYS IRAQIS' WITHDRAWAL WON'T END WAR Tanner, Henry. New York Times. June 22, 1982.
  25. Bulloch, John; Morris, Harvey (1989). The Gulf War: Its Origins, History and Consequences (1st published ed.). London: Methuen. ISBN 978-0-413-61370-7.
  26. Razoux, Pierre (2015). The Iran-Iraq War. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 568–572. ISBN 978-0-674-08863-4.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Kurdish separatism in Iran.
  28. Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988 Iran Chamber Society.
  29. 29.0 29.1 The Iran-Iraq war: 25 years on Hardy, Roger. Middle East analyst, BBC News. 22 September 2005
  30. Iraq to increase oil exports via Turkey UPI Archives, Dec. 17, 1982
  31. The FRONTLINE Interview: Mohammad Javad Zarif PBS. "Frontline". FEBRUARY 20, 2018
  32. Brogan, Patrick (1989). World Conflicts: A Comprehensive Guide to World Strife Since 1945. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-0260-9.
  33. Iran and Iraq remember war that cost more than a million lives Black, Ian. The Guardian. 23 Sep 2010
  34. Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran SHANE HARRIS AND MATTHEW M. AID | AUGUST 26, 2013
  35. Germany was Key Supplier of Iraq chemical weapons, The Graniuad
  36. How Reagan Armed Saddam with Chemical Weapons Dixon, Norm. June 17, 2004
  37. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Earnest Will.
  38. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Prime Chance.
  39. Iran Air Flight 655 Britannica
  40. Cold War: The Iran-Iraq War and the Contra Affair Reynolds-Wolfe, Lisa. Cold War Studies. August 2, 2010.
  41. "Anti-war protests reported in Iran". Spokane Chronicle. Google News Archive. Associated Press. 10 May 1985.
  42. The First Gulf War: Iran and Iraq at War in the 1980s
  43. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Nimble Archer.
  44. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Praying Mantis.
  45. Iran's strategic intentions and capabilities. DIANE Publishing. p. 211. ISBN 978-1-4289-9255-9.
  46. Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War: Iranian Minorities Won’t Lead Transformative Change Bolurchi, Neda. Atlantic Council. Aug 17, 2018
  47. Attacking Iran: Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War – Part 1 Fair Observer. Samuel, Annie. JULY 28, 2012
  48. How Powerful Is Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps? Council on Foreign Relations. Ray Takeyh. June 16, 2016
  49. Nasr, Vali Nasr (2007). The Shia revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future (New ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-393-32968-1.
  50. The Kurdish Factor in Iran-Iraq Relations Middle East Institute. January 29, 2009
  51. Caption to photo from War Is Still Alive (archived from May 10, 2021).
  52. Suicide Bombers: Allah's New Martyrs by Farhad Khosrokhavar, translated by David Macey (2005) Pluto Press. ISBN 0745322832.
  53. 53.0 53.1 "How to Write Death: Resignifying Martyrdom in Two Novels of the Iran-Iraq" by Amir Moosavi (2015) Journal of Comparative Poetics 35:9-31.
  54. Martyrdom and masculinity in warring Iran : the Karbala paradigm, the heroic, and the personal dimensions of war: The Karbala Paradigm, the Heroic, and the Personal Dimensions of War by Olmo Gölz (2019) Behemoth: A Journal on Civilisation 12(1):35-51.
  55. "From Revolution to the Islamic Republic: The Books in Context" by Chowra Makaremi. In: Enghelab Street, a revolution through Books: Iran 1979-1983 by Hannah Darabi (2018) Specter Books. ISBN 9783959052634. Pages 10-11.
  56. 56.0 56.1 Enghelab Street, a revolution through Books: Iran 1979-1983 by Hannah Darabi (2018) Specter Books. ISBN 9783959052634.
  57. "The Book in Iran: A Political History" by Chowra Makaremi. In: Enghelab Street, a revolution through Books: Iran 1979-1983 by Hannah Darabi (2018) Specter Books. ISBN 9783959052634. Pages 12-16.
  58. خاطرات جنگ [Memories of War] (1984) Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.