October 6, 2014

The Iran-Iraq War: Unattainable Objectives

The Iran-Iraq War is unique, being much longer and more intense than any previous conventional conflict in the region. A border dispute ballooned into one of the longest conventional wars of the twentieth century.

Three factors explain the long duration: military ineptitude, political and ideological motivations, and geopolitical influences. Iraq possessed a large modern military, but its rigid, top-down doctrine, inept leadership, and lackadaisical battlefield performance failed to deliver the results that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein wanted from his invasion. The Iranian military, while formerly a major force, suffered from political purges, defections, and a general lack of preparedness at the start of the war. However, Iran’s flexibility, asymmetric tactics, and fanatical ideology provided the impetus to overcome Iraq’s military superiority.  The opposing armies were so equally matched in their disastrously off-base preconceptions, stubborn insistence on using tried-and-failed tactics, and resources to fund ever-higher losses that it took eight years for both countries’ fighting spirits to fizzle out.

In addition, members of the international community supported the war in a manner that reinforced a military stalemate in the conflict. Both forces achieved a strategic parity that prevented a decisive breakthrough during the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and the Iranian invasion of Iraq in 1982. Absent a large breakthrough, both countries remained locked in a stalemate until 1988.


The border dispute’s origins date back to the sixteenth century, while political and ideological rivalries between Arabs and Persians can be traced back even further to the Muslim conquest of the Persian Empire in the seventh century and the subsequent Sunni-Shi’a schism in the Muslim faith.  The two countries were at the nexus of the Turkish and Persian empires. The border between the two was fluid, shifting as the balance of power ebbed and flowed in the region from Kurdistan and the Zagros Mountains in the north to the Shatt al-Arab river in the south.

Kurdistan, or land of the Kurds, covers a large area mainly in the Turkish south, Iraqi north, Iranian northwest, and parts of Azerbaijan, Syria, and Armenia. The Kurds spent the majority of their history unmolested by the reigning empires of the region in exchange for guarding the frontier. This came to an end at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Ottomans centralized their government and ended all minority-ruled principalities. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the Treaty of Sevres provided for Kurdish sovereignty, but the treaty was rejected by Turkey. The Kurdish lands were partitioned and divided among the new states formed by the League of Nations in the superseding Treaty of Lausanne. In Iraq, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) was founded to continue fighting for autonomy; Kurdish guerrillas, the Peshmerga, were a constant source of unrest.

The Iraqi Kurds nearly achieved their objectives in March 1970, when the new Ba’th regime released the March Proclamation. It provided the Kurds many of the rights for which they had been fighting. Yet specific Kurdish areas were not designated in the proclamation, and the area the Kurds had historically inhabited was too important to the central government to relinquish any meaningful control. The proclamation was regarded as dangerous by the Turkish government, who feared that the larger Kurdish population in Turkey would press for similar rights if the proclamation were implemented.

Due to pressure in the north and an unwillingness to lose control of the oil in Kirkuk or loosen their tight grip on the government, the Ba’thists immediately retreated from the March Proclamation. Negotiations over its implementation finally broke down in 1974, and the fighting resumed. Conditions in Kurdistan spiraled out of control, bringing about civil war in Iraq.

The Shatt al-Arab river, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is on the southern Iran-Iraq border. This river is important, as it offers access to the Persian Gulf. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman and Persian empires negotiated treaties assigning rights to the river. These treaties were drafted, signed, and abrogated: all failed to maintain lasting peace between the empires. The river was usually shared until the British negotiated a treaty on behalf of the new Iraqi state in 1937. This treaty granted the Iraqi government control of the river from its western bank across to the low water level on the eastern bank and extending from its origin to approximately the last seven kilometers, at which point the Persians and Iraqis shared the river equally. This control was granted by virtue of the high importance the British Empire placed on control of her oil-rich former mandate.

The United States emerged as a superpower in World War II, and America protected its interests in the Gulf through sponsorship of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. As the United States grew in power and global dominance, the British Empire slowly declined. After World War II, the British Empire began giving up its colonies, and in 1971 British troops withdrew from Iraq. At that time, Iraq was recovering from a series of coups and was beset by internal conflict. Iraq could no longer check Iran’s expanding power that was fueled by sharply increasing oil revenue and close political and military ties to the United States. This loss of standing was demonstrated in 1975 when Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Accord, redrawing the international line approximately through the midline of the Shatt al-Arab river according to the thalweg principle (deepest navigable point of the river).  Loss of control of the river was humiliating to Iraq, particularly since Iraq’s small coastline is unsuitable for major ports or traffic beyond that provided by the Shatt al-Arab.

Iraq’s loss of control along the southern border was only made palatable by Iran’s promise of facilitating greater Iraqi control in Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan. The long enmity between Iraq and Persia had produced meddlesome foreign policies, and the shah of Iran had provided materiel, support, and training to the Kurdish Peshmerga on the Iraqi side of the northern region. In exchange for shared control of the Shatt al-Arab, the shah agreed to cease funding the Kurdish insurgency.

Loss of Iranian support pulled the rug out from under the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and its leadership decided to cease fighting. Most fled to Iran, but a small group of dissenters remained in Iraq to continue fighting as the new Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Their smaller, poorly funded resistance was little more than a nuisance, and the reduction of hostilities allowed the Iraqi government to redirect resources to reclaiming control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. Although loss of complete control of the waterway was a necessary sacrifice, and the overall effect of the Algiers Accord was beneficial to Iraq, Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein did not forget this public loss of face.

Saddam Hussein and the shah’s successor were two different yet eerily similar men. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president during the Iran-Iraq War, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, supreme leader of Iran, differed in ideology and method, but both were insecure, ruthless men with a grand vision for their countries–a vision that far exceeded their military means.

In 1979, 43-year-old Saddam Hussein was relatively young and robust when he took the presidency. Born fatherless in a small village close to Tikrit, Saddam’s early childhood was poverty stricken. An uncle took Saddam in as a young boy and introduced him to political activism. Since Saddam lacked social connections or sufficiently high grades for entry into the military academy, politics seemed a possible avenue for him to pursue. As a teen, he participated in the movement against King Faysal II, and in 1957 he joined the Ba’th party, a secular pan-Arab party with strong al-Tikriti[2] representation in the higher ranks.

After the king was overthrown in 1958, Saddam was directly involved in a 1959 assassination attempt on General Abd al-Karim Qasim, the new nationalist leader of Iraq. The assassination attempt failed, and Saddam escaped to Syria and later Egypt. He returned to Iraq after a bloody coup in February 1963 put the Ba’th party into power. However, its rule was short-lived and the new government was overthrown in November. During the party’s brief time in power, Saddam Hussein gained increasingly powerful positions through his Tikriti connections, and by the time the Ba’thists were ousted, he was head of the Ba’thist intelligence arm and secret police. Saddam remained in Baghdad to cultivate his position within the party and to plot their return to power.

When the Ba’thists regained control in 1968, he was deputy secretary-general of the party. For the next ten years, Saddam consolidated power through skillful elimination of all threats. He promoted those loyal to him to positions of authority in the government and military; imprisoning, torturing, killing, or exiling anyone he considered a threat.

In contrast to Iraq’s youthful leader, Ruhollah Khomeini was 80 years old at the time of his 1979 triumphant return to Iran from exile in Paris. He was born during the era of the Constitutional Revolution[3] and witnessed the British and Russian occupation of Iran during both world wars–despite Iran’s proclaimed neutrality. Throughout his life he watched as the machinations of Western powers seemingly directed all policy within his country. These included the 1953 deposition of nationalist Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq by a joint CIA and British government operation.[4]

Born into a clerical family, he was always dedicated to Islam. However, he was not always politically active or a revolutionary. His philosophy of an Islam-based government developed over a long period of time due to his growing frustration with the shah’s Westernization policies, which diminished the clergy’s power. Initially Khomeini called for reform within the monarchy, but after an inflammatory speech against the shah in 1963, he was arrested and finally exiled in November 1964. During his period of exile, Khomeini continued to teach Iranians who traveled to al-Najaf, Iraq, to learn from him. These students returned to Iran with tape-recorded lectures and sermons that then circulated throughout the population. It was during this time that he ceased seeking to reform the monarchy and began to call for a gradual change to an Islamic government.

His vision was not just of the future of Iran; he called for a revolution extending throughout the entire Islamic world that would erase all existing borders. Governed by the clergy, his proposed state would unite all Muslims as one nation and lead the people in a righteous utopian society devoid of materialism or corruption. The Iranian people were drawn to his message that combined the comforting familiarity of traditional values plus prosperity. Some joined in the movement primarily to remove the shah as an obstacle to their own agendas. The result was a broad-based movement of people with different end goals uniting under the common cause. Khomeini acquired a broad power base that propelled him to power in the spring of 1979. The question became how this diverse group of bazaaris,[5] clergy, soldiers, communists, and women’s rights activists would remain united after the shah was gone or whether they would splinter and squabble for power as their goals diverged.

Once both of these men were in power, their pursuit of power beyond their own borders pitted them against each other. Their advisors perpetuated the illusion that their dreams were attainable. The largest threat to Khomeini’s power was the revolution’s collapse. His hope was to turn the Iranian people’s attention outward rather than to focus on internal problems. He dismantled the royal armed forces to preclude a military coup and organized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, the Pasdaran), to protect the revolution within the country and counterbalance the residual conventional army. He also continued the pan-Islamic rhetoric to maintain the revolution’s fever pitch. Iraq was an ideal target for expansion because of its large Shi’a population. Khomeini assumed they would rally to his cause. The new Islamic Republic sponsored anti-Ba’th propaganda, and Khomeini openly claimed his stewardship over the world’s Shi’a population.

Saddam Hussein did not discount these threats. Saddam feared that the Shi’a population might rise up against him. He attempted diplomatic approaches to the new Islamic Republic; however, Iran also offered enticing new possibilities. Iran, which once dominated the region, was in trouble. Its once-mighty army was in shambles and its all-important ties with Western powers severed. Saddam, who had always responded to threats with force, believed he could supplant the weakened Iran as the regional leader with a minimal amount of effort. If the Shi’a in Iraq might be loyal to Iranian clerics, then the Arabs in the Iranian southwest might be loyal to Arab Iraq. The timing seemed right to correct past injustices and claim Iraq’s place as leader of the “Arabian Gulf” and protector of the Arab world.

In spite of the Iraqi government’s attempts to improve relations with the revolutionary regime, Iranian ideologues continued eying the Gulf in their bid for Islamic supremacy. Iran’s public support for Shi’a subversion in Iraq pushed relations between the two countries to a breaking point, and the situation continued to deteriorate until border clashes broke out in September 1980.

Artillery and ground clashes occurred sporadically until Iraq captured and claimed ownership of areas along the border near Mehran and Qasr-i Shirin according to the Algiers Accords between Iran and Iraq, which defined their borders. Due to the reported state of the Iranian armed forces and their failure to offer meaningful resistance on the ground, Saddam was convinced that the time was right to attack his belligerent neighbor. His thinking was aided by intelligence, which assured Saddam that a quick Iraqi military attack would polarize the forces of the Iranian Revolution.[6] Along with redrawing the border, Saddam’s other goals included seizure of the Shatt al-Arab, liberation of the Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province, and restraint of the ayatollah’s pan-Islamic views for the Gulf and, more imminently, the Shi’a population in Iraq. 

Military Ineptitude: Iraq’s 1980 Invasion

The first phase of the Iran-Iraq War began on the morning of September 22, 1980, with Iraq’s armored thrust into Iranian territory. This coincided with an Iraqi air offensive, inspired by Israel’s performance in the Six Day War, against Iran’s major airfields. The ground invasion consisted of a four-pronged armored spearhead into Iran’s southwestern province, Khuzestan, and central Iran on axes toward the areas of Qasr-i Shirin, Mehran, Dehloran, and Khorramshahr. Most initial ground thrusts reached their objectives within two weeks and units took up blocking positions at critical road junctures, villages, and the outskirts of cities including Ahvaz, Dezful, Shush, and Ilam.

On September 28, 1980, Saddam announced that his territorial goals were met and that he was ready to negotiate peace from his new position of strength.[8]  However, it took the first two weeks just to launch the attack on Khorramshahr while Iraq strengthened its bridgehead and transported equipment across the Shatt al-Arab in preparation for the attack. The delayed attack on Khorramshahr met heavy resistance and, on October 11, Iraqi forces moved north of the city to cross the Karun River and lay siege to Abadan, a city directly adjacent to Khorramshahr and connected to it by several bridges.  The siege cut off Iranian ground communication with the two cities.

However, Iraq was unable to secure the southern marshy areas of the Abadan Island, accessible by Iranian boats, hovercraft, and helicopters. Iran used this area to reinforce its hold on Abadan, preventing its capture. On October 24, 1980, the Iraqi army finally took Khorramshahr but suffered heavy casualties.  Abadan was still under Iranian control. After the fall of Khorramshahr, Saddam ordered resumption of the offensive. However, Saddam’s forces now faced greater Iranian resistance and did not advance far before the beginning of the November rainy season, which brought the war to a standstill.[9]

Performance on the Ground/ Surprises in the Air: Results of the Air Offensive

While Saddam expected to steamroll into Khuzestan and realize his objectives in two weeks, his offensive took far longer and achieved far less for a variety of reasons. Saddam’s strategy had been based on faulty assumptions. The Khuzestani Arabs did not greet the Iraqis as liberators. Instead they acted “lethargic and suspicious” of Iraq’s presence and would even be scouts for Iranian troops during 1981 and 1982.[10]  Second, Saddam’s limited conflict was incapable of producing the desired reaction by the Iranian regime, as Saddam underestimated the inability of the revolutionary regime to wage or even comprehend a limited war.[11]  This was reinforced by Iraqi reference to the invasion as a “preventive incursion” that would not last long.[12]Saddam assumed that his invasion of Iran would cause the regime to fracture, while it actually did the opposite.  His short thrust and subsequent halt, followed by a call for negotiations, only gave the unintimidated Iranian regime time to react. By presenting no real threat to the regime itself, the invasion only acted as a lightning rod for Khomeini.

Miscalculations aside, Iraqi battlefield performance would have negated the best of strategies. The structure and tactics of the Iraqi forces confined them to a tedious and rigid style of war-fighting incongruous with the mobile warfare that the invasion required. Centralized control and the inherent communications delay between Baghdad and tactical commanders, arbitrary orders to halt, and extreme caution to avoid casualties all led to an exceedingly slow advance and lowered morale among Iraqi troops. Iraq failed to secure critical population centers and to destroy or capture Iranian military assets, which were either absent from the front or made a fighting withdrawal to urban areas. Massive Iraqi artillery strikes, followed by large-scale armored advances, were only marginally effective due to Iran’s use of urban areas for defense and its effective use of light infantry.

While Iraqi forces effectively pushed through open areas, where there was little ground resistance, Iraqi forces eventually found themselves hamstrung between the choice of attacking urban areas or bypassing them. The capture of Khorramshahr proved difficult, so Iraq bypassed most urban areas. These bypasses, combined with Iraq’s limited ability to secure its flanks and rear areas, also proved costly. When Iraqi forces captured Susangerd, they failed to garrison the town due to their lack of infantry and continued their advance. Soon Iranian forces had garrisoned the city, which now lay behind Iraqi lines. The Iraqi decision to bypass and establish loose sieges on major urban centers like Ahvaz and Dezful, at the limits of the advance, prevented the destruction of most of Iran’s existing military units and aided in the organization of Iran’s defense.

Another critical factor aided Iran’s defense: Iran’s geography. The province of Khuzestan is a vast plain bordered by the Zagros mountain range, which runs from the northwestern border with Iraq, on a southeasterly axis ending at the Strait of Hurmuz. The Khuzestani plain is riddled with rivers and marshes near the border. In the rainy winter months, the area is virtually impassible by vehicles. Major mountain passes, urban centers, and military bases were outside of the Iraqi limit of advance. This saved many Iranian units from destruction and gave Iranian forces points at which to rally and take the fight to the Iraqis, who were confined to small tracts of land by the rain. Many Iraqi units were in untenable defensive positions as their armor-heavy units were now static and exposed to air, artillery, and light infantry attacks. Iran had the decisive advantage, relying on light infantry tactics that exploited the advantages of terrain and the weaknesses of Iraqi armor-based defenses.

In addition to strategy, tactics, and geography, force composition contributed to Iraq’s failures. The Iraqi army lacked the infantry to take urban areas or garrison them once captured. Further, the Iraqis failed to compensate for this lack of infantry by making the rapid armored movements required in Saddam’s “plan.”[13]  In the vast open areas of Khuzestan, Iraqi armored units were vulnerable to Iranian aircraft and had to slow their pace to await reinforcements by SAM-6 and ZSU 23-4 air defense units, which could not keep pace with their initial advances. In addition, when they were finally deployed, these ground-based systems became Iraq’s sole protection against the deadly IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force), but in most cases the debilitating losses to Iraq’s armored formations had already occurred. Iraqi anti-aircraft systems were not coordinated with ground and air forces and often committed fratricide.

The Iraqi Air Force (IqAF) had detailed information about Iran’s air defense network from U.S. sources and Iranian defectors, but their initial air strikes failed.[14]  The IqAF lacked the technology, training, and logistics for such a complex operation. Moreover, most countries, including Iran, had prepared to defend against such a preemptive air strike after the Six Day War.[15]  Furthermore, Saddam, exercising rigid centralized control, had ordered all strikes to crater runways, ignoring exposed planes on nearby tarmac. Within days, if not hours, these runways were repaired, and Iran launched 60 sorties a day, including deep strikes into Iraq.[16]

In response to the sudden appearance of the IRIAF over the battlefield, Saddam sheltered many of his planes in neighboring Arab countries, ceding battlefield air supremacy to the IRIAF. The IRIAF’s performance was a decisive factor in slowing and in many cases stopping the Iraqi armored advance. By November 1980, the Iraqis had lost hundreds of armored vehicles to IRIAF Cobra helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers. The IRIAF had also succeeded to stop the Iraqi advance in many areas. The IqAF, on the other hand, operated almost independently from the Iraqi Army, mostly penetrating Iranian airspace for deep strikes but offering little ground support. The IqAF also offered little resistance to the IRIAF. With top cover provided by F-14s and their potent AWG-9 radar, fighter-bombers and AH-1 Huey Cobra helicopters were able to provide limited close air support to Iranian troops with little threat from the IqAF.[17] The IRIAF also provided a critical air bridge to the front using C-130s and civilian passenger aircraft to move thousands of troops and tons of supplies to the front while also providing casualty evacuation.

Saddam launched an invasion with political motives that were insufficient to motivate an army to go to war.  His paltry efforts soon locked him into a conflict against an ideology that thought nothing of sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives to end Saddam’s political war, as well as Saddam’s entire regime. A war with poor motivation and planning is a poor case for men to risk their lives in a foreign country. The will of Saddam’s troops would show to be as frail as Saddam’s battle plan against a stubborn and cunning enemy.

Standoff and Counter-Offensive

By the end of 1980, Iraq had captured over 4,000 square miles of Iranian territory, but the advance had stopped. Iranian President Abol Hasan Bani Sadr began reorganization and redeployment of the Iranian armed forces. The president’s actions were effective in reinforcing Khuzestan with ground forces and securing the release of jailed Iranian pilots from the shah’s air force for the IRIAF to provide critical air support.[18] In October 1980, Iran organized the Strategic Defense Council (SDC) to manage the war centrally.

Upon Khomeini’s insistence, Bani Sadr hastily organized an armored attack on the Karkeh plains near Susangerd in January 1981. The attack momentarily broke the stalemate and began the Iranian counter-offensive phase. The attack was a debacle and resulted in the loss of at least two Iranian armored brigades to an Iraqi double envelopment. Road-bound Iranian armored columns tried to punch through Iraqi lines. The Iraqi lines flexed, however, and they enveloped the Iranian forces, which had no space to maneuver.  The Iranians abandoned many of their vehicles in the mire. Iran repeated the same attack three times with the same disastrous results. The loss was a temporary setback to Iranian forces, but its effects on the Iranian army would be felt for the rest of the war. Iranian forces continued the counter-offensive making considerable gains by the end of 1981, including the recapture of Bostan in Operation Tariq al-Quds (Jerusalem Way) and lifting the Iraqi siege of Abadan.

In November 1981, during Operation Tariq al-Quds, Iran launched its first human wave attack. Flawed Iraqi defensive tactics, including widely dispersed strong points, lack of reconnaissance forward of fighting positions, and lack of defensive depth contributed to their inability to react to Iran’s tactics of infiltration, frontal infantry attacks, and intermittent combined arms support that Iran had been developing since their failure at Susangerd.[19] Iranian attacks took place at night and targeted weak areas between Iraqi strong points, which were manned by the less-trained Iraqi Popular Army. As Iranian infantry penetrated these gaps, Iraqi strong points were surrounded and overwhelmed. They were ordered not to withdraw and thus were cut off from support.

Iranian forces also conducted guerrilla raids involving deep infiltration on foot or by helicopter in order to destroy Iraqi armor, artillery, and command elements.[20] Iraqi forces lost what little initiative they had, and their morale began to crumble as they faced waves of hardcore Iranian attackers. Iraqi troops began to desert and surrender as entire units were overwhelmed by human wave attacks.[21] Calls for reinforcements, including additional anti-air and artillery were often denied by higher commanders far removed from the battlefield. The commanders viewed these requests as a loss of morale and initiative, and the reports of Iranian success as exaggerations.[22] The reports to Saddam Hussein by high level generals were often full of wishful thinking, if not completely falsified.[23] Saddam had an incorrect picture of the battlefield and a desire for a limited war that prevented units on the front from receiving proper support.

Momentum continued to build and Iran launched a string of offensives in 1982 that eventually led to Saddam’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal of Iraqi troops. In March of that year, Iran launched Operation Fat’h al-Mobin (Undeniable Victory) in the Shush area northeast of Bostan, which liberated most of northern Khuzestan. Iraq then concentrated most of its forces in the Khorramshahr area. In the months of April and May 1982, Operation Bayt al-Moqadas succeeded in liberating Khorramshahr. Saddam withdrew most of his troops from Iran, keeping six small pockets of a little less than 400 square miles around Qasr-i Shirin, Naft-e Shah, Sumar, Mandali, Mehran, and Musian. Saddam claimed these were originally Iraqi territory.[24]

The Rise of the IRGC

It was during this counter-offensive stage that the IRGC gained in reputation and became the primary fighting arm of the Iranian forces. The IRGC developed their own tactics, a combination of guerrilla warfare and flamboyant frontal attacks with little regard for the conventional military or its doctrine. The IRGC conducted operations with the army and IRIAF in support roles that allowed for rudimentary combined arms operations. However, members of the IRGC were constantly butting heads with other SDC members and military commanders. On the battlefield, the only place where the IRGC was subject to military control, orders from outside the IRGC were often questioned or ignored.

While their fanaticism gave them their edge, the IRGC would occasionally launch a frontal attack at the behest of a vocal mullah, disregarding any previous plans. President Bani Sadr (soon to be impeached) and other moderate military and government leaders had pushed for conventional forces and tactics to prosecute the war. With the exception of the IRIAF, Iran’s regular armed forces were not ready, as evidenced by the initial failed counter-attack near Susangerd. This failure assured the IRGC’s role as Iran’s primary offensive force. The SDC was in charge of coordinating efforts between the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the regular army. The two had become, in fact, separate armies.[25]

Hardline leaders not only discounted conventional warfighting, but they also thought that the IRGC should be the only military force in Iran and should eventually absorb the conventional military.[26]  This sentiment, a reflection of Khomeini’s reliance on religious institutions and the IRGC, assured that there would never be full military cooperation.[27]  Neither of the two forces could operate alone, but this divide resulted in uncoordinated operations, lack of consistent support and logistics, and wavering between the two strategies of attrition (a war of incremental small gains) and of decisive victory (the use of large human wave attacks to defeat the Iraqi military decisively) for the entire course of the war.

Regardless of this conflict, Khomeini and the SDC pushed for battlefield cooperation between Iran’s two armies. The IRGC was effective in most operations in Khuzestan, as the numerically superior Iranians overcame technologically superior Iraqi forces at the cost of heavy casualties that the zealous IRGC troops were willing to accept. Cooperation between the IRGC and regular army improved, as did tactics and operational expertise, eventually manifesting itself in the lifting of the Abadan siege.[28]

Military Ineptitude: Iran’s 1982 Invasion

By June 1982, the invasion and counter-offensive phases of the war had ended. Iranian military morale was at an all time high, while Iraqi domestic unrest increased. Saddam launched military and political purges while trying to overcome the political fallout of the failed invasion. While the political conditions in Iraq were tenuous, Saddam was making positive changes in the military that would prepare it to counter Iran’s next move. For once in the war, the centralized leadership and strong personality of Saddam held the Iraqi army together.[29]

Despite internal opposition, Iran decided to launch its invasion of Iraq in July 1982. Ignoring a proposed UN ceasefire and internal calls for moderation, Khomeini decided to pursue his goals by force, including the toppling of the Ba’th regime, restitution for the war, and overall supremacy in the Gulf. The proposed UN ceasefire did not address any of these demands, and it seemed that they could not be realized without further conflict. While Iranian “hawks,” including clerical members of the SDC and Speaker of the Parliament Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chomped at the bit, conservative military leaders opposed an all-out invasion. The IRGC launched a full-scale invasion of Iraq without securing the full support of the conventional military. In the minds of the clerics, large numbers and revolutionary spirit would be enough to overcome the Iraqis.

Initial Operations and Standstill

The Iranian invasion of Iraq began with Operation Ramadan on July 13, 1982. Khomeini initially targeted Basra, hoping that this move would inspire a Shi’a uprising in Iraq that would topple the Ba’th regime. He also sought restitution for the war and the resettlement of Shi’a refugees in Iran.  Iranian forces launched numerous human wave assaults against Iraq’s defenses with tens of thousands of IRGC taking large numbers of casualties. The attacks failed to make decisive gains, and operations stalled in the south. Iran then began operations on the central front, launching Operation Muslim Ibn Aqil in October 1982 to retake Iranian territory and open a route to Baghdad in the Mandali sector. In November 1982, Iran launched Operation Muharram al-Harram, taking border oil fields and liberating more Iranian territory south of Dehloran. Then the rains began, and Iraq had time to strengthen its defenses as Iranian operations slowed. Iraq had survived the first onslaught, and Iran made meager gains compared to its losses incurred in human wave attacks.

In 1983, hardline members of the regime continued pushing for large-scale operations to finish the war quickly. In February 1983, Iran launched Operation Val Fajr, deemed by Speaker Rafsanjani as a “final move towards ending the war.”[30]  The operation began in the Hawiza marsh area, focused on Fakkeh, and included conventional armor support. This operation made little headway and lowered the morale and reputation of Iran’s conventional forces when the armor attack failed due to lack of IRGC infantry support. After deliberations in the Iranian SDC, Iran launched operations Val Fajr-2 in the Haj Omran area, and Val Fajr-3 in the Mehran area in July 1983. By August, these operations were over, and Iran claimed small gains on the border.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq was gaining new life along the Iraqi-Turkish border, diverting much-needed resources away from the eastern front and causing civil unrest within Turkey. This prompted an agreement between Iraq and Turkey that would allow Turkey to police both sides of the border. The threat of a possible Turkish-Iraqi alliance, beyond patrolling the common border, grabbed the attention of Iran and prompted them to ally with the KDP against their common enemy.

In October 1983, Iran launched operation Val Fajr-4, with the aid of KDP Peshmerga. They liberated about 300 square miles of territory, pushing into Iraq and putting pressure on Penjwin and the Kurdish areas, capturing many small villages. This forced rival PUK forces farther into the heart of Iraq. In November 1983, Baghdad entered into negotiations for autonomy with the PUK in exchange for their assistance on the battlefield. Nothing came from the negotiations, however, and the brief alliance collapsed in early 1985.

In February 1984, Iran launched operations Val Fajr-5 and 6 in the Mehran and Dehloran areas in order to draw Iraqi reserves from the south, where Iran planned its next operation, Operation Kheiber. Using all manner of airships and air mobile assaults behind Iraqi lines, Iran poured through the Hawiza marshes in a large, three-pronged attack. The operation ended in March with Iranian defeat, but they had captured most of the oil-rich Majnun islands. Iran launched operation Val Fajr-7 in October 1984 in the Mehran area in the last major operation of 1984.

Iran launched its next large operation, Operation Badr, in the marshes in March of 1985. It was designed to cut off the Baghdad-Basra road, using the marshy terrain. After initial gains, Iran fell back into the marshes by the end of March. After the failure of such resource-intensive operations, Iran ceased major operations for the rest of 1985. Artillery skirmishes, commando, and light infantry attacks continued, but the situation remained stalemated. Iran had secured numerous footholds near the border, but all had come at a great price. The staunch Iraqi defenders managed to keep the Iranians at bay and it seemed that they were nowhere near the large breakthrough they desired.

Iranian Performance during the Invasion

Khomeini’s invasion plan, like Saddam’s in 1980, was riddled with strategic miscalculations. He had counted on the support of Iraq’s Shi’a population. However, this support never materialized. He had also underestimated the strength of Saddam’s regime and military. While it seemed as though the Iraqi military folded easily in Iran, it was now fighting on its own turf and for its country’s survival. Upon withdrawal from Iran, Saddam instituted military reforms and began construction of massive defenses from the Shatt-al Arab all the way to the central front, which left the Iraqi forces in a relatively good position to absorb an attack.

Iraqi defenses were much more effective than they had been in Khuzestan. Defensive plans were well prepared, and military doctrine was followed much more closely than before. Infantry forces would be stationed in initial defensive “screens,” protected by wire obstacles, mines, and artillery kill zones. Forces in these screens would provide early warning, call in artillery, and withdraw to secondary positions before they were overwhelmed.[31] The main forces, including armor and special operations and any other units attached to the division, were emplaced behind the infantry to act as a mobile reserve.  Combined arms support was provided within each division.[32]

Iranian forces were not militarily prepared for the invasion but had become “intoxicated” by their latest victories.[33] Due to the schisms in Iran’s military, the IRGC had insufficient support to wage the war effectively. This large expanse between military capabilities and strategic aims deprived Khomeini of the decisive victory that he desired. While they often had great success taking the tactical initiative in the rough terrain of the marshes and mountains, they lacked the support, doctrine, and capability to fight on the open ground beyond these areas. A sudden violent surprise attack was often all that was needed to route Iraqi units in Khuzestan. However, the tactical initiative was not enough to defeat Iraq’s strong defenses and to extend operations in depth, especially without combined arms support. In battle, the IRGC overextended their supply lines and lacked effective logistics to move men and supplies to critical points in order to maintain momentum. Additionally, the advantage of surprise was lost as the Iranians were required to stage larger operations in order to overcome Iraq’s strong defenses. Such preparations were usually detected by U.S.-supplied imagery intelligence, Iraqi MIG-25R reconnaissance plane flights, and ground based RASIT radar.  On the other hand, Iraqi forces hastily organized armored and aerial attacks, which easily attacked Iranian flanks using their superior mobility. One of Iran’s key elements on the battlefield, the superior IRIAF, had difficulty keeping up with the high wear on equipment and was further threatened by a new, foreign-built air defense network.

In 1984, the SDC reviewed its tactics and decided to change its strategy to a war of attrition and limited aims. With a decisive victory out of the question, Iranian commanders believed that they could wear down the Iraqi forces, which had about 60 percent of Iraq’s workforce in active service.  Iraq also had a much smaller population than Iran from which to draw.[34] IRGC divisions deployed all along the 700-mile front to keep constant pressure on Iraqi forces and wear them down. Iran attempted to improve coordination between the IRGC and the regular military and to transform the IRGC into a more professional fighting force. They moved away from the costly frontal assault in favor of better planned and executed attacks with input and command from regular military leaders. This approach, while improving Iran’s fighting ability, was not enough to break out from the stalemate.

Meanwhile, Iraq reorganized its troops, creating mobile brigades that would deploy to the Iraqi divisions based on their needs at the front. Iraq continued creating new Republican Guard units, trained in urban combat and equipped with T-72 tanks. They corrected deficiencies in force structure that had ailed the Iraqi army from the start. Iraqi weapons imports, primarily fighter aircraft, began to have a greater effect on the battlefield. In addition, Iraqi widespread use of chemical weapons munitions began to take its toll on Iranian human wave attacks.

Geopolitical Influences

At the start of the war, both countries found themselves in a relatively isolated conflict. The United States and the Soviet Union both ended support for their previous allies, Iran and Iraq respectively.[35] As the war continued, international support increased to both sides as countries promoted their various individual interests through arms sales and economic support. The result was to reinforce the military parity between the two countries and led to a stalemate, prolonging the war.

The Gulf Arabs feared the expansion of Iran’s revolution, which threatened to overthrow the “heretical” regimes of the Gulf. Iraq was the first line of defense against this threat and thus received large amounts of economic aid and assistance. Iraq also received extensive arms and military support from France, the Soviet Union, China, and others. The United States supported Iraq in practice, removing it from its list of “state sponsors of terror” and providing economic and intelligence support.[36]

Iran’s situation was bleaker than Iraq’s.  It had to scrounge the world for new sources of arms, finding suppliers in China, North Korea, Libya, Syria, and others.  Iran’s infantry-heavy forces made due with the eclectic supply of arms, but the IRIAF had no suitable or steady supply for its planes. Iran relied on international smuggling, covert arms acquisitions, and domestic ingenuity to keep the IRIAF air worthy.  Israel became a major source of black-market U.S. aircraft parts for Iran, as well as an avenue for covert arms shipments to Iran during the years of the Iran-Contra Affair.[37]

While tilted toward Iraq, international support did not give it a decisive advantage. In many ways it just managed to keep Iraq afloat. Arms sales allowed Iraq to maintain its armored forces, many of which had been decimated after the failed invasion. This was essential since Iraq could not field sufficient infantry forces to engage in a war of attrition with Iran, and they needed the armored divisions to establish heavy mobile defenses along Iraq’s 700-mile frontier.
[38] The arms sales enabled them to restock and upgrade their air force, which had suffered against Iran’s superior air force.

In the first two years of the war, the IRIAF was a decisive factor in expelling Iraq from Iran. Iran’s other advantages during the defensive stage included infiltration and light infantry operations. These provided greater mobility in Iran, where the terrain was marshy and difficult for armor, and where Iraqi defenses were ill prepared. However, none of these factors were present in the invasion of Iraq.  The IRIAF was not equipped to support the invasion, and the large preparations necessary to break Iraq’s defenses were easily detected by U.S.-supplied intelligence. Even when they made a breakthrough, they could not exploit it as they relied on infantry forces that were less mobile than Iraqi armor and that no longer had air superiority.

This military balance of equipment and ineptitude on the ground prevented a decisive breakthrough by either side for most of the war. Support favored Iraq, but Iran was able to carry on the war because of its initially superior air force and its reliance on infantry forces drawn from Iran’s larger population. Eventually, international support enabled Iraq to bring an end to the war as Iran became isolated and could not continue to field its vast infantry forces or oppose Iraq’s growing air force. Tanks and aircraft could be replaced; however, human beings and the will to walk into Iraq’s fierce defenses could not.

International diplomacy did not fare any better in bringing the war to an end. Both superpowers declared “neutrality” at the beginning of the war only eventually to restore relations with Iraq. Both superpowers jockeyed for
 a position in the Gulf in support of Iraq, including the advent of the Carter Doctrine, the presence of the U.S. rapid deployment force, and Soviet and U.S. proposals to reflag Kuwaiti tankers.
[39] Tehran, however, was left in the cold as suppression of the Tudeh party in Iran and the exposure of the Iran-Contra affair pushed the superpowers closer to Iraq. The UN was feckless in its actions to bring about peace. Until Resolution 598, no
 settlement was even marginally palatable to both sides.
[40] Further, UN and U.S. tacit support of Iraqi chemical weapons use and tanker strikes in the Gulf afforded these “equalizers” to Iraq. This helped Iraq to repel Iranian ground attacks and prevent a decisive breakthrough as well as to launch long range strikes against Iranian economic targets.

The Tanker War and the War of the Cities

During the middle years of the war, Iraqi strategy focused on defense.  However, Iraq was not anxious to fight a war of attrition and searched for a swift end to hostilities.  With a smaller population pool to draw on, Saddam knew that he could not maintain a high casualty rate for long. Even with casualties reaching three to one in Iraq’s favor at times, Saddam was not pleased with the prospect of a protracted ground war. Up to this point, it seemed as though Iran possessed an infinite supply of manpower and the will to wage a long-term, costly ground war. In order to maximize the destruction of Iran’s resources and minimize his own losses, Saddam frequently ordered strikes against civilian areas or Iranian infrastructure instead of the battlefield.[41] Saddam began launching air strikes against major population centers. His first SCUD surface-to-surface missile attack against civilian areas was in October 1983. Iran responded in kind. The “War of the Cities” would continue intermittently for the entire war but initially had little effect on Iran’s resolve. These strikes, which were virtually divorced from either country’s ground strategy, provided an outlet for some kind of action after the ground situation stalemated.

Another way in which Saddam sought to tip the cost-to-benefit ratio in Iraq’s favor was through the use of chemical weapons. Both countries had acceded to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibits the use of chemical or biological weapons in war, but the capability to exact mass casualties with minimal effort was critical to Iraq’s defensive efforts. Iran made unofficial reports of Iraqi chemical attacks early in the war, but the first official report to the Security Council was not filed until 1983, when Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations reported that Iraqi chemical bombs were dropped during Operation Val Fajr-2. Reports continued throughout the year and increased in frequency. However, Iraq maintained its innocence and denied all allegations. Despite Iraq’s proclaimed innocence, Iraqi use of mustard gas was confirmed by a team of UN experts sent to Iran in March 1984. The Secretary General of the United Nations issued a reprimand for the violation of the Geneva Protocol; yet Iraqi use of chemical weapons continued. The Security Council confirmed the continued use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers in April 1985, but Iraq sidestepped the issue in public statements and repeated its desire to end hostilities. Iranian accusations and Iraqi rebuttals volleyed back and forth, and by 1985 it seemed as though the Iranians were using the chemical weapons issue as a platform for propaganda against the Iraqis. Iraq, in turn, launched its own publicity campaign, playing the peace-loving victim invaded by Iran without provocation. Overall international preference for an Iraqi victory was evident by their failure to react to blatant violations of the 1925 Geneva Accord.  Iraq’s chemical weapons program was allowed to flourish and battlefield chemical weapons use continued.

In a bid to undermine each other’s stamina, both sides targeted the other’s oil infrastructure. However, neither side’s strikes achieved a decisive result. By 1982, Iran had inflicted heavy damage on Iraqi oil facilities, including its pipeline shipments to Turkey, and had convinced Syria to cut off Iraqi oil transiting its country; but Iraq devised other means of oil exportation, such as constructing a pipeline to Saudi Arabia. When oil revenue could not cover expenses, Iraq had no trouble in securing aid from Arab neighbors. Infrastructure strikes expanded into the Gulf against international shipping and oil terminals, where targets were more lucrative and air defense assets scarce. This became known as “The Tanker War.”

Although they damaged or destroyed many tankers, Iraq’s strikes against shipping and the Khark terminal were highly inaccurate, did little to slow Iranian export, and often resulted in the loss of Iraqi aircraft. Over time, Iraq’s strikes increased in effectiveness, especially with the advent of Exocet missiles mounted on Etendard and Mirage aircraft. Iran had little tactical recourse to those attacks. Iran attempted to protect foreign consumers by limiting their need to enter the Gulf. Iran set up alternative oil export facilities on the Sirri and Larak islands and provided shuttle services to the Strait of Hurmuz to keep foreign ships well outside Saddam’s naval exclusion zone.

In addition to the obvious economic impact, attacks on tankers in the Gulf and Saddam’s extension of the naval exclusion zone provoked Iranian retaliation and encouraged international interest in ending the war. Iraqi strikes on shipping and Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hurmuz worried international oil consumers and producers. Iran began ship-boarding operations in the Gulf and began tanker strikes of its own. This resulted in the deployment of international naval task forces to the Gulf and Indian Ocean, including forces of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Their presence played into Iraq’s hands as the United States supported Iraq with intelligence from satellite imagery, from airborne warning and control system (AWACS) stationed in the Saudi kingdom, and from U.S. Navy ship-borne sensors. The United States tacitly approved Iraq’s strikes in the Gulf while Iran found the Gulf to be a crowded, hostile place.[42] By 1986, Iran was more and more isolated. While it could not retaliate against Iraq’s deep strikes, Iran still placed its hope in a decisive victory on the ground.

Iran’s Big Break?

Even though moderate leaders convinced Khomeini to switch to a war of attrition, this could never deliver the decisive victory that Khomeini wanted. At the beginning of 1986, this became apparent to the Iranian leadership, and they reversed course back to a strategy of large-scale frontal attacks in an attempt to end the war. On February 10, 1986, Iran launched a surprise attack on the Faw peninsula–Operation Val Fajr-8. Simultaneously, Iran launched two diversionary attacks further north, in the marsh areas near Basra, and Operation Val Fajr-9, near Sulaymania. Saddam was deceived into thinking that Iran was targeting Amara or Basra, where Iranian diversionary attacks focused, and al-Faw was left only lightly defended for two days by an inadequately small force.

By February 12, 1986, Saddam had sent three brigade columns to attack Iranian forces on the peninsula.  Three of Saddam’s most illustrious generals led the attacks, but poor weather slowed movement and prevented effective air support. By the time they arrived, Iran had moved about 30,000 troops onto the peninsula and created a dense defensive network backed by small, dispersed teams armed with TOW missiles, SA-7 MANPADS, and U.S.-made HAWK surface-to-air missile systems close to the front. Iraqi armored counter-attacks were mostly restricted to the three routes of approach to the peninsula, making them easy targets for Iran’s TOW and antitank teams. Iraqi counter-attacks were repulsed and incurred large losses.

Al-Faw was firmly in Iranian control; however, Iran’s attempts to capitalize on its gains fell flat as it lacked armor and sufficient logistics and had only sporadic air support despite the IRIAF’s best efforts.[43] After several weeks of Iraqi counter-attacks and an attempt to break out of the peninsula, Iran was stalemated by Iraqi air and artillery strikes and the use of chemical weapons.[44] In spite of this, Iran had made one of the largest operational breakthroughs of the war and sent shockwaves through the Iraqi regime.

Meanwhile, conditions in the north were turning in Iran’s favor.  By 1986, the KDP had control of the Iraqi-Turkish border, which was of great importance because the oil pipeline running between the countries was a major revenue source for Iraq and one of the primary energy sources for Turkey. Tension between the KDP and the PUK had gradually eased, and they were eventually able to put their differences aside enough to cooperate alongside Iranian forces against Iraq. Iranian Operation Val Fajr-9 continued in the north, and Iranian and Kurdish forces reached the outskirts of Sulaymania for the first time.

Iraqi Response

While the capture of al-Faw was a shock to the Iraqi leadership, it actually benefited Iraq because it forced Baghdad to alter its mistaken military policies. Saddam, in an attempt to distance himself from failure and to maintain solidarity within his general officer corps, began to hand off more responsibility to his generals. This eventually resulted in Iraqi success on the battlefield for the rest of the war. Commanders used their initiative rather than blindly following strict orders from above. Generals no longer balanced political image with military success but focused on winning the war.

Saddam attempted to redirect attention from the loss of al-Faw in May 1986, by capturing Mehran and renewing strikes on Iranian cities and infrastructure. However, Iraqi forces went to the defensive, attempting to use the capture of Mehran as a “Dowry” for Al-Faw.[45] Iran launched Operation Karbala-1, which recaptured most of the area.

With the Kurds threatening the oil pipeline in the north and the Iranian victory in al-Faw to the south, the Kurdish problem could no longer be ignored or left in the hands of Turkish border patrols. Saddam implemented Operation Anfal to finally rid himself of the Kurdish problem. Operation Anfal designated certain areas in Iraqi Kurdistan as off limits for security reasons. Iraq declared these areas to be a stronghold of traitors who had allied with the Iranians. All inhabitants were to be relocated, and the military had permission to fire on any person or animal found within its borders after June 21, 1987. Those who were captured and were between the ages of 17 and 70 were questioned and then executed. To further discourage people from returning to the area, the air force randomly bombed the area and killed remaining inhabitants. This heavy-handed response was indicative of the difficulty Kurdistan presented to Iraq. Kurdistan’s mountains were favorable to Iran’s light infantry and guerilla tactics. The northern front would soon be the focal point of Iran’s campaign.

Iran’s Last Push

Although Iranian success at al-Faw was won mainly through surprise, the success encouraged Iran to continue costly large-scale operations. Iran continued its Karbala campaign, launching Karbala-2 in the Haj Omran area and Karbala-3 against the Iraqi al-Omaya and al-Bakr platforms in the Gulf.[46] Iraq’s forces responded adequately, however, and Iran made little gains in these operations.[47] In spite of years of operational experience, Iran reverted to the same tactics that had failed to produce results. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to complete the war by March of 1987, continuing to push for a quick end to the war. In light of this, on December 24, 1986, Iran launched Operation Karbala-4, planned by Rafsanjani himself against the Um al-Rassas in the Shatt al-Arab in another bid for a decisive victory; however, this operation too was repelled with heavy casualties. There were rumors that Iranian insiders had tipped off Iraqi commanders about the attack, causing Iranian forces to walk into a trap. This was a sign of the isolation, paranoia, and weariness from which Iranian leaders began to suffer after continually failing in large operations.

Iranian forces continued their campaign in response to Khomeini’s orders, launching operation Karbala-5 on January 9, 1987. The attack was launched directly against Basra across the artificially created “Fish Lake” east of Basra. By this time, Basra’s extensive fortifications included five separate defensive arcs surrounded by barbed wire, sensors, and electrified water barriers in the lake area.[48] By late February, over 100,000 Iranian troops attacked Iraqi defenses only to be stopped six miles short of Basra. Iranian leaders continued their Karbala campaign at various points along the frontier, launching further small offensives from the end of 1986 until early 1987. However, a major change occurred in the Iranian strategy as they began to move forces and supplies north. Iranian forces had historically experienced much greater success in the area due to the mountainous terrain, the lack of heavy Iraqi defenses, and Kurdish support.

Iranian Failure in the South

Operation Karbala-5 failed to achieve its objectives and was a demoralizing and resource-draining failure for the Iranian military. By January 27, 1987, heavy Iraqi defenses and the mobility of Iraq’s jet fighters, helicopters, and tanks had overwhelmed Iran’s massive human wave assaults. The flexibility of Iraqi commanders was also a key factor in Iraq’s success in the battle that became known as “the great harvest.”[49] Due to the lack of an integrated air defense and the inability of the IRIAF to keep up a high sortie rate, Iranian forces were vulnerable to IqAF air strikes, including chemical weapons. Karbala-5 was the final blow to Iran’s strategy of total victory and pushed Iran to consider ending the war. Seven years of brutal human wave attacks had sapped Iran’s willpower. The Commander of the IRGC, Mohsen Rezai, took responsibility for the losses on the battlefield and Speaker Rafsanjani became commander-in-chief of the armed forces. However, his efforts to continue the war in the face of mounting internal problems (including low recruitment levels, falling morale, and economic hardship) were not enough to bring about a favorable end to the war. Rafsanjani himself became one of the voices of moderation attempting to convince Khomeini to end the war.

Iranian forces continued operations in March 1988 in the north. Attacks toward the Darbindikhan dam, the Kirkuk oilfields, Sulaymania, Halabja, and other areas in Kurdistan made substantial gains. These gains made Iranian leaders overconfident of their forces’ performance and advantages in the war. They had become accustomed to dictating the tempo of the war with offensive operations and always having the initiative.  However, Iraq began to consolidate and halted Iranian advances in the north. Large foreign shipments of arms and heavy recruitment in recent years allowed Iraq to form over 50 divisions.[50] This allowed Iraqi forces to repel Iranian offensives, and they were now in a position to launch offensive operations for the first time in years.

Iran’s Increasing Isolation

As Iraq’s attacks in the Gulf and against cities became more intense and effective, Iran gradually discarded the caution it exercised in the Gulf in the first six years of the war. Iran tried to retaliate with air and Scud strikes, but it could not match Iraq’s pace and could not replace aircraft losses.

Iraqi chemical weapons attacks had also increased in intensity, with little repercussion. Diplomacy seemed to have gotten Iran nowhere in deterring Iraq from deploying chemical weapons against Iranian troops, and they began alluding to developing their own chemical weapons program if the international community could do no better than issue statements. In 1987, fact-finding missions sent by the Security Council reported that Iraqi soldiers were suffering from the effects of exposure. Although the international community never formally charged Iran with chemical attacks, most assume that Iran retaliated in kind. Reports of Iranian use of chemical weapons increased that year. By the end of the war, Speaker Rafsanjani announced over Radio Tehran that they too were capable of producing both “offensive and defensive” chemical weapons.

Iran also retaliated against shipping, resulting in Kuwait petitioning the superpowers to escort their ships through the dangerous Gulf waters. The United States accepted, and reflagged Kuwaiti ships began shipping under U.S. protection in 1987. At the same time, Iraq continued its attacks with the tacit approval of the United States. Iran avoided direct contact with the U.S. Navy, but it was inevitable as they began mining international shipping lanes and continued aerial attacks on shipping–while denying responsibility.

Iraq Prepares to Change the Course of the War

Saddam was well aware of the disintegrating situation in Iran and the shift of the strategic balance in his favor. Iran’s increasing international isolation, failure to make headway in the ground war, and the international community’s tacit approval for Saddam’s means of pursuing the war sounded a death knell for Iran. Khomeini remained fully dedicated to winning the war, even refusing the ceasefire proposal of Security Council Resolution 598 in 1987. However, support was beginning to waver, especially within the ranks of the regular army and even within the IRGC. In the late years of the war, Iran began to experience a shortage of recruits and volunteers as war-weariness took hold.
[51] Economic hardship, vast amounts of casualties, and increasing strikes on Iranian civilian areas broke the spirit of Iran’s citizens.

Saddam seized this moment, launching a series of large offensive operations that would gain the initiative in the war.[52] Prepared in secret and preceded by large deception campaigns, Saddam’s final offensives took advantage of the strategic Iranian shift to the northern front. Iraq’s first move was to launch operation “Blessed Ramadan” on April 17, 1988 to retake the Faw peninsula. By that time, it was only defended by around 6,000 men. By the second day, Iraqi forces had driven the defenders from the peninsula. On May 25, Iraq launched another attack east of Basra, preceded by large artillery and chemical attacks. The attack cleared out another area of Iranian forces. This resulted in the full retreat of Iranian forces from the area. They abandoned most of their weapons and equipment while moving toward Khorramshahr. Iraq took the border post at Shalamcheh and regained most of the captured land around Fish Lake.

Iranian forces attempted to regroup and even attempted to launch counter-attacks, but their forces crumbled under Iraq’s advances. Iraqi forces continued pressing their offensives and took Mehran in late June, and by the end of June, they had liberated the Majnun islands.[53] Iranian resolve continued to crack and by mid-July, Iraq had regained virtually all territory that Iran had captured since the invasion. Iran could no longer resist Iraq’s offensives and agreed to pull its forces from the Haj Omran area under the threat of Iraqi incursions into Iran.

By July 17, 1988, Iran’s president Khamene’i sent a letter to the UN secretary general accepting Resolution 598. Saddam, however, thought that Iran’s acceptance of the resolution was too tepid and demanded Khomeini’s public acceptance as well as face-to-face talks. Iraq continued bombing Iran and made another incursion into Iran on the central front. Saddam’s attempt was to capture Iranian troops and arms to be used as a bargaining tool before UN and foreign diplomatic intervention pushed both sides into a ceasefire on August 6, 1988. On August 8, 1988, the details of Resolution 598 were formalized, and the truce began on August 20.

Final Factors

The causes for Iran’s failure on the battlefield in the latter years of the war were numerous. IRGC and regular army schisms constantly contributed to poor performance on the battlefield. As the IRGC increased in size and prestige, they constantly demanded better equipment and larger roles on the battlefield, downplaying the army’s role and preventing the army’s reconstitution with new men and equipment. Without the support of the army, the IRGC was not prepared to make the decisive break that Khomeini required, and the large human wave attacks could only be carried out as long as the manpower and will was available. The battlefield tenacity and religious motivation that drove the IRGC to the heights of sacrifice throughout the war eventually cracked after operation Karbala-5. They had neither the weapons, or in place of that, the revolutionary spirit to overcome the Iraqi army.

The final blow to Iran’s morale came with the rapid fall of the Faw peninsula, which was intensified by direct U.S. intervention in the Gulf, expanded Iraqi strikes on civilian areas, and the loss of the initiative on the battlefield. The IRGC failed to mount effective counter-attacks as Iraq pushed into Iran, and the IRIAF–finally overwhelmed after years of IqAF modernization–decided to store their planes in hardened shelters instead of risk total annihilation. The motivation that enabled Iranian troops to overcome the invasion was only useful in the immediate defense of Iran.  However, no matter how strong that motivation was, it was not harnessed with a successful ground strategy to invade Iraq.  At the same time, Iraqi motivation came from the immediate threat to their homeland. Saddam coupled this motivation with military reform which enabled him to stall and then push back Iranian forces at the end of the war. Members of the Iranian regime, including Commander-in-Chief Rafsanjani, pleaded with Khomeini to end the war, alluding to the imperialist threats manifesting in the Gulf to destroy the revolution. Faced with foreign and domestic isolation, Khomeini decided to drink from the “poison chalice” as the war shifted from spreading the revolution to defending the revolution itself.


The Iran-Iraq War ended after eight years and over one million casualties on both sides. Due to military ineptitude, ideological and political influences, and geopolitical factors, the war was one of the longest conventional wars of the twentieth century. The initial Iraqi invasion was militarily unsound and resulted in failure. Khomeini then decided to invade Iraq with an equally flawed plan. The Iranian military could never achieve more than a modicum of effectiveness due to the schism between the IRGC and the regular military and their inability to combine their religious zeal with an effective military strategy. With only minor changes in tactics and operational design throughout the invasion years, the Iranian forces helped to bring about their own demise. Revolutionary spirit could only propel the Iranian population so far before war deaths and economic problems brought them back to reality. Both countries failed an essential task when choosing to wage war: They did not know themselves.  Both countries had incredible strengths, and also incredible weaknesses. Neither side effectively harnessed these strengths or weaknesses with an effective strategy to defeat their enemy.  A die hard fanatic is of no use if a leader allows him to throw his life away.  At the same time, the most modern army is useless without the will to fight, and a worthy cause for which to fight.

The Iraqi army was able to recover from its failed invasion. With the help of foreign economic aid and arms sales, it was able to establish effective defenses and reconstitute its forces. What resulted was a military balance on the ground in which Iraq was able to stem Iran’s advance, causing a stalemate for most of the war. After six years seemingly on the brink of defeat, the Iraqi army had transformed from its original rigid structure under the direct control of Saddam Hussein. It became a more mobile and combined arms-capable force led by competent, experienced generals who had adequate authority to complete their tasks. With capable commanders and an abundance of foreign arms, Saddam was able to equip over 40 divisions, many of them elite Republican Guard.[54] In 1988, they were able to return to the offensive, as a more effective fighting force, to help seal Iran’s decision to end the war.

Militarily, the conflict ended with a series of Iraqi victories. However, from the standpoint of achieving objectives, neither force was able to claim victory. Iran’s terms of peace–the removal of the Ba’th party and payment of war reparations–were not granted in the ceasefire agreement. The ayatollah never gained the decisive military victory that would vindicate him or prove the divine sanction of his revolution. In fact, failure on the battlefield effectively halted the advance of the Islamic Revolution, and at last he had to be content with what “advances” he had made inside Iran.

Although Iraq was successful at building an army that would strike fear into the hearts of all in the region, Saddam also fell far short of his goals. The territory he so coveted at the outset of the war reverted to Iran, and rights to the Shatt al-Arab returned to pre-war conditions. In addition, Iraq had taken loans from so many foreign countries that any leverage Saddam might gain through his formidable army was offset by Iraq’s enormous debt. Allies were just as elusive as cash; Iraq became a pariah among her fellow Arab nations due to the Ba’th regime’s expansionist policy.

Although both Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini began the war with an eye toward glory and absolute regional domination, by the end of the war they had little to show for their efforts beyond millions of widows, empty coffers, and the wary distrust of all who would come in contact with them. 

*Joana Dodds is a Farsi linguist and Iran analyst who works with the Foreign Military Studies Office.

*Ben Wilson is an Arabic linguist and Middle East analyst who works with the Foreign Military Studies Office.  He is currently serving on active duty as a U.S. Army NCO.  He has served a combat tour in Iraq.


[1] The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army.

[2] Iraqis do not have family names in the Western sense but take on the name of the tribe or city they were born to.  Saddam Hussein was from Tikrit, and he took the last name al-Tikriti.  Some high-ranking Ba’th officials after the coup in 1963 who were related by tribe or blood to Saddam Hussein included Hardan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s cousin and brother-in-law Adnan Khairallah, and Saddam’s cousin Ahmad al-Bakr. 

[3] The Constitutional Revolution occurred at the turn of the twentieth century.  Its goals “were to loosen the shackles of foreign domination, to save the country from bankruptcy, to put an end to lawlessness, and to limit the arbitrary power of the king.”   The movement was the result of an alliance between the religious leaders, the bazaaris, and intelligentsia of the country, but the groups were unable to maintain cooperation long after the shah signed the constitution.  One Shi’a leader, Ayatollah Nuri, soon opined that the Koran was sufficient to rule the country and any laws written by laypersons, especially those inspired by the unbelieving West, were inferior and unnecessary.  He was later “praised by Khomeini and the Islamic Republic as a hero.” Mohsen M. Milani, The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy to Islamic Republic (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988) pp. 51-54.

[4] Dr. Muhammad Mossadeq was prime minister of Iran until a coup organized by the CIA and supported by the British deposed him in 1953.  The coup nearly failed when the shah fled but ultimately succeeded in toppling Dr. Mossadeq.  The coup earned the shah a reputation as “an American puppet” and increased the people’s resentment of foreign interference. Milani, The Making of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, pp. 74-76.

[5] The bazaaris, or “people of the bazaar,” compose the merchant class in Iran.

[6] Raad Majid al-Hamdani, Memoir (Baghdad: 2003), p. 22.

[7] Most movement was to continue, but heavy pressure from the Iranian Air Force, as well as the gradual reinforcement of cities, caused movement to slow and stall. In addition, most Iraqi units were content to place a partial siege around major cities and begin shelling with tanks and artillery.

[8] Chaim Herzog, “A Military-Strategic Overview,” in Efraim Karsh (ed.), The Iran-Iraq War (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 261.

[9] Artillery and air strikes became the main exchange between the forces. The Iranians began to launch numerous patrols and infiltrations to determine the Iraqis positions.

[10] Edgar O’Ballance, The Gulf War (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1988), p. 36.

[11] The war only strengthened the regime, providing for national solidarity against an external threat and an opportunity to snuff out internal resistance. Shi’a revolutionary ideals, including martyrdom and sacrifice, also played a critical part in Iran’s refusal to be swayed by a limited conflict.

[12] Many ground commanders expected a short war and did not properly prepare defensive plans or positions once units had reached their blocking positions. This left them highly vulnerable to artillery and air attacks as most armor was left in the open. Al-Hamdani, Memoir, p. 31.

[13] Saddam’s “plan” was drawn up by his chief of staff in the months preceding the war, but it was largely based on a British led military exercise from the 1940s. Shahram Chubin, “Iran and the War: From Stalemate to Ceasefire,” in Karsh (ed.), The Iran-Iraq War, p.  16.

[14] Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, Iran-Iraq War in the Air, 1980-1988 (Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2003), p. 88.

[15] Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War: Volume 2: The Iran-Iraq War (Boulder: Westview, 1990), http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/9005lessonsiraniraqii-toc.pdf (accessed June 25, 2007).

[16] Cooper and Bishop, Iran-Iraq War in the Air, p. 88.

[17] Ibid., p. 101.

[18] The Iranian military had been badly drained as a result of distrust and resulting purges by Khomeini’s government.  The Iranian army was short 100,000 soldiers, including half its officer corps, due to purges and desertions, while the IRIAF was missing half of its pilots. Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988, p. 19.

[19] It was not strictly the human wave that broke Iraqi defenses, though an effective human wave could cut off Iraqi positions until they expended their ammunition. It was often infiltration under cover of night, followed by a large human wave attack that broke Iraqi resistance. Ineffective or nonexistent Iraqi reconnaissance or observation posts allowed Iranian troops literally to walk into Iraqi armored formations and wreak havoc in the ranks.

[20] Harmony document database available on U.S. Army SIPR net. The Harmony documents database is a collection of documents captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Included in these documents are first-hand accounts of the war by both sides.

[21] An interesting first hand account of this can be found in harmony documents in the authors’ possession. It is available on the U.S. Army SIPR net.

[22] Al-Hamdani, Memoir, p. 28.

[23] Harmony document database available on U.S. Army SIPR net.  RCC meetings.

[24] O’Ballance, The Gulf War, p. 97.

[25] The IRGC, consisting of Pasdaran and Basij volunteers, was originally created as a counterweight to the armed forces for internal enforcement of Khomeini’s policies. They eventually became a separate fighting force on the battlefield, taking most of the infantry roles and only coming under joint military control on the battlefield. The regular army dealt with support roles, including transportation, logistics, and operation of heavy equipment.

[26] They could not do away with the regular military, but they did their best to separate themselves and become self-sufficient. The increased recruitment of Pasdaran and the lesser trained Basij components of the IRGC provided great numbers of manpower. At the same time, the creation of an IRGC ministry in 1982 and the acquisition of heavy weapons, including aircraft, supported the clerics’ goals of an independent force.

[27] Fred Halliday, “Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr: ‘I Defeated the Ideology of the Regime,’” MERIP Reports, No. 104 (1982), pp. 5-8, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0047-7265%28198203%2F04%290%3A104%3C5%3AAB%22DTI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S (accessed May 24, 2007).

[28] The IRGC served as the infantry on the battlefield with the support and leadership of regular army commanders. Off the battlefield, the IRGC and military were separate entities.

[29] Al-Hamdani, Memoir, p. 42.

[30] O’Ballance, The Gulf War, p. 115.

[31] Harmony document database available on U.S. Army SIPR net, “1.”

[32] Al-Hamdani, Memoir, p. 43.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 48.

[35] Barry Rubin, Cauldron of Turmoil: America in the Middle East (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992), p. 62, http://gloria.idc.ac.il/publications/books/cauldron.pdf> (accessed July 15, 2007).

[36] Rubin, Cauldron of Turmoil, p. 79.

[37] See Cooper sand Bishop, War in the Air for a detailed account of Iranian arms acquisitions.

[38] In order to do this, Iraq imported over 6,000 tanks from various countries throughout the war. “Arms Transfers Database,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, October 19, 2007, http://www.sipri.org/contents/armstrad/.

[39] Rubin, Cauldron of Turmoil, p. 70.

[40] Stephen Shalom, The United States and the Iran-Iraq War (1990), http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/ShalomIranIraq.html (accessed October 10, 2007).

[41] O’Ballance, The Gulf War, p. 156.

[42] Iraq was often provided intelligence about the location of IRIAF interceptors in the Gulf. Iraqi planes were allowed passage, while Iranian planes were often challenged by U.S. and Saudi interceptors.

[43] Iranian placement of HAWK SAMs and SA7 MANPADS in close proximity to the front also significantly deprived Iraq of airpower.

[44] U.S.-supplied TOW missiles were especially effective against Iraqi armored forces which counterattacked along well-defined roads into the peninsula.

[45] “Mehran” being derived from the Arabic word for dowry.

[46] These platforms served as critical Iraqi early warning and ELINT stations in the Gulf.

[47] Saddam sent a letter in August seeking peace with Iran.  It was refused. He then stepped up strategic strikes trying to put pressure on the Iranian regime by attacking its civilians.

[48] O’Ballance, The Gulf War, p. 191.

[49] Al-Hamdani, Memoir, p. 84.

[50] Years of Iraqi acquisition had reached a superiority of 4:1 in tanks, 10:1 in aircraft, and 3:1 in artillery by 1988. Chubin, “Iran and the War,” p. 18.

[51] Between 1986 and 1988 Iraq had increased its military by 150,000 men through various conscription measures, while Iran’s force levels fell by 100,000. Iran’s new conscripts lacked the fervor that had given them their previous advantage on the battlefield. Ibid.

[52] Since Iraq’s failure in the invasion of Iran, Iraq began retraining its forces, concentrating on the creation of elite Republican Guard and special forces units to make up for the initial downfalls in force composition and training.

[53] Iraq was demonstrating much higher competency in combined arms and conducted rehearsals involving scale mockups in preparation for operations.

[54] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1987-88 (London: IISS, 1987), pp. 98-100.