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About this book

The Iran-Iraq War was personified by the determination and ambition of the key leaders, Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini, and characterised by mass casualties, the repression of the civilian populations and chemical warfare. Fought with lucrative oil money, it left the belligerents with crippling debts.

In this important reappraisal, Rob Johnson explores the major issues surrounding the war, offers a fresh analysis of the military aspects and assesses the far-reaching consequences for the wider world. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the ensuing conflicts in the reqion, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Table of Contents

The Causes and Context of the Conflict

Frontmatter

1. Introduction

Abstract
The invasion of Iraq in 2003, led by the United States, was an illustration of the overwhelming conventional military power of the Western world. In just three weeks, Iraqi forces had been swept aside and the Coalition had occupied Baghdad. Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, the Iraqi President, was a fugitive in his own country and there were scenes of celebration at his demise. Yet soon after the invasion, the Americans announced that Iraq was to be de-Ba’athised, ordering that all members of the Ba’ath Party, who were implicated in the crimes committed by Saddam, were to be removed from positions of power. In addition, it was declared that the Iraqi armed forces were to be dismantled, temporarily depriving thousands of their income. These announcements, coupled with a fear that the Americans might re-engineer the entire country contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, had the effect of generating resistance from Basra to Baghdad. Ba’ath Party loyalists believed they could never be reconciled to the occupation forces and chose to fight on.1 Some Iraqis fought in the hope of forcing the Americans out of their country, while others hoped for material gain.2 Fears that the Shia majority might take power and persecute the Sunnis led to sectarian violence. The fighting, by groups with different if sometimes overlapping agendas, escalated into an insurgency.
Rob Johnson

2. Iran’s Revolution and Iraq’s Ambitions

Abstract
Samir was a fourteen-year-old Basiji fighter for the Iranian republic who later explained how he had been swept along by the panoply of patriotism and propaganda. He had taken part in mass demonstrations that supported the war effort and he wore his red headband that announced his status as a warrior with pride. Around his neck he sported a yellow key, the standard issue to all fighters of his age to denote automatic entry to paradise if they were martyred on the battlefield, and a piece of white cloth to represent his shroud. He admitted he had no idea what patriotism and martyrdom really meant, but he and his fellow boy soldiers enjoyed the attention and the sense of excitement their status bestowed on them. On the battlefield, his instructions were to run at the enemy, regardless of minefields or enemy fire. Shouting ‘Allah’u akbar’ at the top of their voices, they swarmed towards Iraqi positions and they were cut down in swathes. Many were killed or maimed as they detonated mines, but fresh waves stepped over their comrades and pushed on. With only an elementary training in military skills and unaware of the broader tactical situation, those who managed to cross the battlefield simply sought out Iraqis in close-quarter battle and, when positions were overrun, they tended to remain where they were, exhausted and without any sense of what subsequent actions were required of them. Samir was captured in an Iraqi counter-attack, but he was fortunate that, despite being a mere cog in this human battering ram, he survived the war. Perhaps more than any other aspect of the war, the motivations that lay behind these practically suicidal charges remain an enigma.
Rob Johnson

The Early Operations

Frontmatter

3. The Iraqi Offensive of September 1980 and the Failure of Saddam’s ‘Limited War’

Abstract
The direction of the first Iraqi offensive was in the south-east, aiming to seize the Shatt al Arab, Khorramshahr and Abadan, and then to take Ahwaz as the capital of Khuzestan, and also Dezful. The concept of operations was to replicate the Israeli opening of the 1967 war — a lightning strike with air power to knock out the Iranian air force while it was still on the ground, followed by a swift land operation led by armoured formations. This approach would give the Iraqis air supremacy, enable them to overwhelm the Iranian resistance on the borders and create a psychological effect that would encourage the anti-Iranian government resistance and cause the collapse of the regime in Tehran. The Iraqi strategy also had to block any possible Iranian move in the north against its oilfields, and it had to safeguard all the approaches to Baghdad. In the south it had to cover the strategic ports and Basra. Success would therefore depend on a decisive result within the first few weeks and then negotiations could be opened from a position of strength. Saddam had no intention of pushing into the depths of Iran or of reaching Tehran; his calculation was that such risks would not be necessary.
Rob Johnson

4. Human Waves: Iran’s Counter-Offensives into Iraq

Abstract
The decision by Iran to take the war into Iraq was not a simple one. Operations had already been carried over the border, but, despite the offensives of September 1981 to March 1982, the Iranians had not yet recovered all of their own territory. The Supreme Defence Council in Tehran carefully weighed up the limitations of Iran’s armed forces and the risks inherent on any attacks deeper into Iraq. The senior officers of the regular armed forces argued that Iran simply lacked the hardware, particularly armour, artillery and fighter aircraft, to defeat the Iraqis on their own soil. Moreover, logistical arrangements were inadequate, the country having barely managed the crisis of defence in 1981. Diplomatically, they risked squandering any sympathy they possessed against Iraq, which could mean the Libyans and Syrians might cut off existing and much needed supply of arms and ammunition. The ideologues on the council nevertheless argued that Iranian revolutionary zeal had already produced battlefield successes contrary to professional military advice. They believed, wrongly, that the Shia population in Iraq was on the verge of revolt against Saddam. Iraq, they reasoned, would be crippled by insurrection. Moreover, they argued that Iran need only occupy some of Iraq’s oil fields to create a diplomatic advantage at the negotiating table.
Rob Johnson

5. Escalation: Operations Wa al Fajr and Khaibar, 1984

Abstract
On 7 February 1983, the Iranians launched yet another massive offensive. Entitled Wa al Fajr (By the Dawn), the offensive was directed towards Amara on the Basra–Baghdad road from the Fakeh region of Khuzestan. Six Iranian divisions, a total of 100,000 men, poured across the border line, with the first 40,000 striking along two axes. Rafsanjani described the attack as ‘the final move towards ending the war’. Expectations were high.
Rob Johnson

6. Foreign Intervention, 1980–84

Abstract
Saddam Hussein had been aware that Iran had isolated itself diplomatically prior to the outbreak of the war. Iran had condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and had taken hostages from the American Embassy, thereby breaking international protocols and alienating the two superpowers. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the superpowers were officially neutral. The United States had no embassy in Iraq, but its interests were represented by the Belgian Embassy in Baghdad. The Iranians, perhaps predictably, argued that they had evidence of collusion between Iraq and the United States through transcripts of meetings between Iraqi, American, French and Israeli officials with dissident Iranian officers. It was further alleged that the United States had passed on information to Iraq that emphasised Iranian military weakness and therefore encouraged an invasion. The internal assessment was, apparently, that Iran would require spare parts within three weeks of the outbreak of war for its largely American-manufactured munitions, planes and equipment, and these could be swapped for the American hostages. If this was the calculation, then it misfired as the Iranians looked initially to Vietnam to supply former American spare parts, albeit ones that were already obsolete in most cases.
Rob Johnson

The Search for a Decisive Result

Frontmatter

7. Turning Point: Operations Badr and Fao, 1985–86

Abstract
The Iraqis used the lull in the Iranian attacks in 1984, thanks to the flooding of the western and southern portions of the marshes, to build up a stronger network of defences around Qurna and along the axis of the Basra–Baghdad road. To speed up command and control in the new vulnerable sector, a separate East Tigris chain of command was established, followed by the creation of a distinct Shatt al-Arab Command in May 1984. By the autumn, the system of defence was a formidable mass of entrenchments, barbed wire, concrete emplacements and killing zones. The defensive belts were organised in four layers in depth. A vast number of guns, situated on higher ground, had registered all their likely targets. To assault such a position, the Iranians would have to cross a lake 8 miles (13 km) long and 2–7 miles (3–11 km) wide, or risk fighting through waterlogged terrain to the south, which was dominated by a mass of concrete pill boxes. The Iraqi army was also much larger than before. The regular army was composed of 22 divisions, totalling 500,000 men; in other words, twice the size of the force that had gone to war in 1980. The Popular Army had also expanded to 560,000 and its tasks ranged from internal security to battlefield police in the rear areas of the front lines. Saddam wanted more of these men and authorised the forcible conscription of university students, and implemented man-hunts in residential areas. To equip these new forces, Iraq imported $7.7 billion worth of arms and ammunition that year alone.
Rob Johnson

8. War of the Cities, Home Fronts, Internal Security and Insurgency

Abstract
Both Iran and Iraq went to considerable lengths to sustain the war effort. First, they had to establish their ability to fight, in terms of national revenue and in the willingness of the populace to endure the conflict. This necessitated measures to protect the economy, to sustain the people’s motivation to fight, and the suppression of opposition groups. Saddam was particularly concerned about public morale and the threat of Kurdish or Shia subversion. He tried to use the economy as a prop to the war effort, and for months hoped to shield the Iraqis from the full blast of a costly war. He also assumed that Iran faced similar problems and so he sought to terrorise or demoralise the Iranian public to such an extent they would turn on their government. The result was the ‘war of the cities’, an air and missile offensive against major Iranian urban areas. However, the Kurdish insurgency continued to develop through the war and threatened to overrun the strategic oil facilities of the north. As a result, Saddam had to intensify his efforts on the home front. The Iranians did, indeed, face several internal crises caused by the crippling economic effects of the war, but, despite severe losses, Iranian morale remained intact. Nevertheless, both sides were forced to introduce more draconian measures in 1986 and 1987. This chapter traces these developments in order to give a more rounded perspective on the history of the war behind the front lines.
Rob Johnson

Breaking the Impasse

Frontmatter

9. The Tanker War, the Arms Trade and International Intervention, 1985–87

Abstract
On 18 February 1984, Iran and Iraq agreed to UN terms that there should not be attacks on urban population centres. Saddam, therefore, immediately ordered air attacks to be made against Iranian oil facilities, ships and ports. By 1 March, Iraq claimed to have hit seven Iranian vessels in the Gulf and announced that Kharg Island was ‘under siege’, which was a statement designed to deter foreign powers from purchasing Iranian oil. On 27 March, Iraq made use of French-made Exocet missiles to attack two small tankers south-west of the strategic island. In April, a tanker from Panama was struck; then a Saudi Arabian vessel carrying Iranian oil bound for France. The strategic aim was clear, to reduce Iranian revenue and isolate Tehran by waging an economic war in the Gulf. By these means, it was thought Iraq’s air power would compel Iran to negotiate. The Iraqis may also have intended to internationalise the war, bringing the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), Europe and the United States into the conflict against Iran. Believing that any threat to the developed world’s oil resources would elicit a rapid and belligerent response, Baghdad expected greater support at the very least, if not outright participation.
Rob Johnson

10. The Failure of Strategy: Iranian Offensives and Iraqi Counter-offensives, 1987–88

Abstract
Saddam ordered renewed efforts to retake the Fao Peninsular in April 1986 when the landscape had begun to dry out, but the army still could not dislodge the Iranian troops. There were attacks on Iranian refineries at Tehran and Isfahan that spring which interrupted two-thirds of Iranian output and gave Saddam a propaganda victory. However, what the Iraqis wanted was a decisive victory in the land war. On 17 May 1986, four Iraqi divisions made an assault on the central front and took Mehran, a town in Iran. The Iranian garrison, numbering no more than 5,000, fought as best they could but suffered heavy casualties. The achievement was exaggerated for the purposes of propaganda. Saddam announced the attack represented a new strategy of ‘dynamic defence’ and a ‘daring expression of the Iraqi leadership’s political decision to force the Iranian leaders to yield, [thus] preparing the way for peace’.1 The Iranian leaders appeared to be in no mood to negotiate after the loss of Mehran. Instead, the old suspicions about the army resurfaced and the Revolutionary Guards were the favoured focus of a new recruitment drive. Targets of an extra 300,000 recruits were established, to be distributed across all branches of the armed forces and the Basiji militia.
Rob Johnson

11. Fuelling the Flames: Gulf Operations, 1987–88

Abstract
Both Iran and Iraq relied on oil revenue to fuel the war, and both had suffered when oil prices fell from $28 a barrel to $11 a barrel in late 1985. The costs of the war were such that even though OPEC cut production to restore the price rose to $18 barrel a year later, both Iraq and Iran were finding the economic costs crippling.1 The critical importance of oil and the stalemate on the battlefield made attacks on enemy oil exports a tempting strategic option. The risk, however, was of alienating foreign support that was just as vital for the continued flow of arms. This strategic dilemma was not easily resolved. Foreign intervention made a significant difference to the protagonists’ ability and willingness to attack tankers and oil installations. Indeed, these attacks on the oil supply of the world made Western intervention inevitable, and it is interesting to see how both sides attempted to manage the strategic problems they faced.
Rob Johnson

Consequences and Conclusions

Frontmatter

12. The Iran-Iraq War in Retrospect

Abstract
On the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saddam Hussein convinced the Western powers, particularly those of the UNSC, that Iraq was a bulwark against Islamic extremism in the Middle East. His precipitate, if limited invasion exposed him to an Iranian counter-offensive, but this reinforced Western fears that Iran was the greater threat to the international order in this strategically sensitive region of the world. Both belligerents were to a large extent reliant on external sources of arms and munitions, especially aircraft, but Iraq was the favoured recipient for aid. The prospect of revolutionary Iran acting as a magnet for radical Islamist groups, and supporting those groups in the export of terror, meant that, surprisingly, both the USA and USSR supported Baghdad. France had important financial reasons to back Iraq, while Egypt, Brazil, Spain and Britain saw commercial opportunities in the region. However, Iran was not without its own backers. Libya, Syria and North Korea sided with Iran because, in part, they believed they too lay outside of the international system. Other countries sold arms, including China, Taiwan, Argentina, South Africa, Pakistan and Switzerland, with the most surprising contributions from Israel.
Rob Johnson
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