Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988

Dr. Ali Ansari

You can basically divide the Iran-Iraq war into two sort of phases, two larger phases.  There are other sub-phases, of course.  Two larger phases, and that is the time where the Iranian strategic defensive, i.e., when they were trying to eject Iraqis from Iranian territory, that’s from 1980 to 1982 – and from 1982 to 1988, you then get the Iranians turning the tables on Iraq and seeking much broader war aims – the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, something incidentally that the Americans did some years later, some would say in cahoots with the Iranians, but that’s a conspiracy theory too far.  And those following six years, really the war settling into sort of a war of attrition, as the Iraqis were on the offensive and fought very hard to protect their own territory.  And there were different aspects, and other very serious large offensives that took place between 1982 and 1988.  The war became popularized, I think, in the – oh, when I say popularized I mean became popular in sort of the imagination as being almost a rerun of the First World War, trench war – the human wave assaults. And then of course, there’s the involvement of Western powers through the Tonka War, which continued, by the way, as I – so two sort of significant distinctions that really take place apart from the land war that’s going on intermittently are the extension of the war into the Persian Gulf, the Iraqis decided that the way to really bring Iran to its knees was to hit their oil supplies that they had to ship out through the Persian Gulf, so they started to hit Iranian tankers – the Iranians, of course, retaliated, and they started to retaliate not only against Iraqis but against who they felt to be essentially the – the Arab supporters of the Iraqis.  So, the Kuwaitis and others.  The Kuwaitis then got on the nice idea of re-flagging their ships, and they wanted to re-flag them under American colors – the Americans were very resistant to this – so they then threatened to reflag their ships under Soviet colors, with the prospect of Soviet ships entering in to the Persian Gulf to protect these ships.  That raised alarm bells in Washington, so Washington then enters – essentially enters the Iran-Iraq war on the side, basically, of these Arab states to protect the tankers, but in many ways, the United States, really from 1983 onward, as a natural fact, after Rumsfeld went to visit Saddam Hussein, the United States basically took – was more sympathetic, I think, was the best way of putting it, but certainly in some way supportive of the Iraqi regime, in order to ensure that the Iraqi regime did not lose – I mean, what they didn’t want was the Iraqis to lose.  Henry Kissinger made the immortal comment that, actually, this was a war in which we wanted neither side to win.  So that was basically – the point was in a sense to prolong it, keep them busy, but make sure nobody really wins.  And that’s really, in effect, what happened.  But the other aspect of it, of course, was the War of the Cities – Saddam Hussein decided that one of the things he wanted to do, maybe to break the will of the Iranians, was to launch attacks on Iranian cities using SCUD missiles  missile attacks.  There was some worrying indication that he might even launch a chemical attack on Tehran.  These missiles were largely inaccurate, has to be said, but they did a lot of damage.  They did a lot of psychological damage; they in some ways increased the resistance – it’s a bit like bombing in the Second World War, and what it did to the civilian population.  This was Iran’s first total war – in fact, it was Iran’s first modern war, to be perfectly honest, but it was the closest that it got to a total war.  It had a profound impact upon the way in which Iranian society worked; the Iranians saw themselves – in some ways, it encouraged them to feel very self-sufficient, that they handled themselves quite well.

The Iran-Iraq War and the American Hostage Crisis

Dilip Hiro

Jimmy Carter was very anxious to get the hostages back who were there since November 1979. And he and his advisers had a scenario in mind that if Iraq attacks Iran and because Iran’s weapons, all advanced weapons and other weapons are US-made, so they will run out of spare parts and they will come to us to give them spare parts and we will refuse until and unless they release the hostages. So therefore they encouraged and in fact Jimmy Carter sent one of his advisers, Hamilton Jordan, to go clandestinely to Baghdad and, you know, talk to Saddam Hussein. …, that of course did not worked out because as their fighting was going on, as Iran was using its aircraft and so on and so forth, they needed more spare parts and they were getting it from Vietnam. And also through the agents in Singapore, they were able to get these, you know, indirectly because these Iranian embassies in those countries were setting up agents to buy things for them. And the US knew what was going on. They closed their eyes because Reagan administration wanted the two unlikeable regimes to keep on fighting. You know, Reagan did not like Saddam Hussein, because Saddam Hussein— the Ba’aht party regime in Iraq had broken off relations with the diplomatic relations with America in 1967, the Six-Day war, June ’67.  So there was no diplomatic relations, you know, and therefore, you know, US, for them, the Iraq regime was, you know, unlikeable regime and then of course they hated the Iranian regime. So the policy of the Reagan administration early on was, “Okay they are buying these things, so as long as they keep fighting it’s like two bad, two bad guys beating up each other, that’s alright with us. We don’t mind.” But when Iran became in the column of state-supporting international terrorism, then they have to be very careful.

Dr. Judith Yaphe

This is the early to mid-1980s, the Iran-Iraq War is on, of course, but Iran is also involved in a number of bad activities, lots of terrorism going on, and by terrorism, international acts of terror against civilians.  There was a pretty good definition at the time, it was not about military operations, but they were especially targeting westerners, the United States for different reasons.  These were supporters, if not surrogates, of Iran. And it was a high-agenda item for the U.S. government.  When the hostages were taken in Lebanon, that was an extremely high visibility issue, maybe visibility isn’t the right word ’cause nobody knew who – you know, we were not known as to who was working on this.  But the point I wanted to make is it had the attention of the president, President Reagan, and nobody, I think, really understood how deeply he was affected by that. And that took us into Iran – Iran-gate, you know, we never buy hostages or pay terrorists, yes, we do.  And that turned into Iran-Contra.

A Change in Air Power Tactics

Dr. Michael Axworthy

Through the period of the war the Iranians in addition became much better at infantry infiltration tactics  especially in difficult areas where armored vehicles found it difficult to operate like marsh areas.  In addition, there’s an added complication of air power because sometimes being somewhat, I think, misunderstood what actually happened in the Iraq war, Iran/Iraq war and the nature of the use of air power. Initially the Iraqis attempted to carry out a strike that would destroy most of the Iranian air force on the ground at the outbreak of war in September 1980.  But for a variety of reasons, partly because their aircraft were operating often at the limit of their range, partly because for political reasons because their pilots had not been allowed out of Iraq to go and train in Warsaw pact countries or in the Soviet Union in the way that Iranian air force personnel had been allowed to go to the United States under the Shah to train in the American defense facilities.  For a variety of reasons, the Iraqi strikes were not very effective. And the Iranian’s were able to retaliate with much more effective strikes against Iraqi air fields within a matter of hours according to plans which had been set up during the Shah’s time.  On top of which the Iranian capabilities at that stage were probably somewhat better than the Iraqi ones that the Iranian aircraft probably had a technical edge as well.  And that is all notwithstanding the fact that quite a lot of Iranian air force pilots and commanders and so on had been put in prison as I said before.  Within a few months, quite a few of those imprisoned personnel, particularly the really key people like pilots, were released in order to fight the Iraqis including some people who had been under death sentences.  So the Iranians were able to strike back at the Iraqis but, and to help to stabilize the situation, I think probably an under researched and under-appreciated aspect of the first months of the Iran/Iraq war is the degree to which Iranian air power was actually quite important in slowing and eventually halting the Iraqi advances.  Notwithstanding all of that, neither the Iraqis nor the Iranians really used their air power to full effect.  Western strategic tactical doctrine in the use of air power, very much follows the thinking of total war and of the model of the second World War and to some extent of the wars fought by the Israelis against Arabs –that air power should be used to maximum effect in strikes using full capability, as early as possible, as rapidly as possible in order to damage the enemy as much as possible and permit the advancement of ground forces and a quick victory.  In the Iran/Iraq war neither side could really engage air power in that way or at any rate had reservations about doing so because air power was at least as important as a deterrent and in defensive terms as it was in aggressive terms.  And in particular, air power is important for the defense of oil infrastructure  because if the oil infrastructure was severely damaged or destroyed in a anything like a total way for either side, that would have meant the end of the war.  They couldn’t have carried on fighting.

The Decision to Restart the Nuclear Program

Alex Vatanka

When Khomeini comes to power in ’79, one of the first actions that they take in this regard is to close down the Bushehr nuclear plant, which the Shah had commissioned and the Germans were working on, but Khomeini’s people said this is unIslamic. Now, when the Iranians learned that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear program, I’m sure they took that into account as they looked to restart the same nuclear program as they had deemed unIslamic.  But because Iran was isolated they certainly couldn’t turn to the Americans or the Germans to restart their nuclear program so they looked elsewhere.  When they looked at the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy organization, there was no help coming their way from that institution. So they’re forced to basically look to the international nuclear black markets to revive this nuclear program, and one of the very few countries out there that is nearby and a willing supplier turns out to be Pakistan and that’s exactly what happens.  Now, it was never official, it was never government to government relationship.  As early as ’86, Iran and Pakistan sign an agreement to trade nuclear technologies but they got a lot more than that later one as we discovered.  They actually got centrifuges that the Pakistanis themselves had gathered here and there, oftentimes through illicit means, and now that they had their own nuclear program in place they were willing to cash on this program and Iran was one of those countries that the famous A. Q. Khan network would tap into as a potential market and these Pakistani centrifuges ended up being exported to the Iranians.