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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.

### 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

### 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

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Rob Johnson

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Rob Johnson

### 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