The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)
Background and causes
1979: Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty
 1979: Iranian Revolution
 1980: Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
 1982: Israeli intervention in the Lebanese
Civil War
Originally the Persian Empire
 Predominantly Shiite Muslim
 Ruled by Shah (king) Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi (1941-79)
 Close ally of the US until the Iranian
Iranian Revolution (1979)
The Shah’s policies became unpopular:
◦ “White Revolution in 1963” favoured wealthy
◦ Heavy reliance on US support
◦ Efforts to secularise Iran
◦ Corruption
Religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini became
a political figure after being exiled by the
Shah in 1963
Khomeini successfully spread his political
ideology and united opposition groups
against the Shah whilst in exile
Demonstrations against the Shah begin in
Climax in December 1978; over 10% of
Iranians demonstrate against the Shah
The Shah is forced to abandon his position in
Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire
 British mandate until 1932
 Arab identity; culturally different from the
 3 distinct demographic blocs
◦ Sunni Muslims (held majority in the
◦ Shiite Muslims
◦ Kurdish minority
Rise of Saddam Hussein
The Hashemite monarchy is overthrown
in a military coup in July 1958
The coup was inspired by the panArabism movement by Nasser and was
discontent with Britain’s heavy influence
in Iraq
Another coup in 1963 established the
Arab Socialist Baath Party in Iraq.
Saddam Hussein was the Party Secretary
at this time.
The Baathists formerly seized power in
a bloodless coup in 1968. Saddam
Hussein is named President Al-Bakr’s
Saddam continued to build his power
base, forcing Al-Bakr to resign in 1979
Shatt al-Arab conflict
The Shatt al-Arab waterway laid at the Iran-Iraq
border and was the confluence of many rivers
that ran through both Iran and Iraq
Economic importance: The waterway was
essential to connect Iraqi and Iranian
cities/oilfields to the Gulf
The waterway was critical for Iraq as it had a
limited access to the Gulf
The ambiguous border and Iranian support for
the Kurds in Iraq led to open conflict in 1974
The conflict was resolved by the 1975 Algiers
Agreement. Iraq agreed to divide the Shatt alArab equally in return for peace with Iran.
Sunni-Shia divide
Early historians of the Iran-Iraq War contend that the
traditional divide between Sunni and Shiite sects
contributed to the outbreak of war
The adoption of Shia Islam as the official state religion
in Persia during the 16th century caused territorial
fragmentation in the Islamic World. Whilst Ottoman
rulers sought to re-establish Islamic unity, Persia,
under Shah Ismail I, sought to separate itself from the
Sunni faith.
The divide caused intense rivalry
Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution can be compared with
Shah Ismail’s doctrine, since both advocated Shia
teachings and traditions, and undermined the
separation of religion and state.
Essentially the war was a re-emergence of this divide
Results of the Iranian Revolution
Ayatollah Khomeini seizes power as the Supreme
Leader of Iran. Under Khomeini, an aggressive and
xenophobic Shiite theocracy is set up.
 Khomeini needed a distraction from domestic
◦ Economic problems inherited from the Shah’s rule
◦ Many who had supported the overthrow of the Shah
now mounted in opposition of Khomeini
Iran began to openly denounce the Iraqi
Government, supporting Iraqi opposition groups
and engaging in border skirmishes
 Saddam Hussein saw this as a violation of the
1975 Algiers Agreement
Results of the Iranian Revolution
Khomeini advocated to “export the
Revolution”. This threatened Iraq, since
many Shiite communities in Iraq were
underdeveloped and discriminated against.
 Iraqi fears of a Shiite rebellion was one of
the motivations of Iraq’s invasion of Iran
in 1980
Iraqi ambitions
Saddam Hussein wanted to “restore Iraqi-Arab
identity” in the region
 Saddam wanted to gain full sovereignty of the
Shatt al-Arab
 Khuzestan in the southwest of Iran became an
important ploy in Saddam’s rhetoric:
◦ Called “Arabistan” during an autonomous period in
the Persian Empire
◦ It had a predominantly Arab population
◦ It was an oil rich region
Saddam also wanted control of oil rich islands in
the Straits of Hormuz
These factors motivated Iraq to invade Iran
Ideological conflict
After Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab
League in 1979, a power vacuum emerged in
the Middle East. Iraq hoped to become the
new leader of the Arab world. Pan-Arabism
became a strong part of Saddam’s rhetoric.
Iran adopted a slightly different doctrine of
“pan-Islamism”. However, the ideal was
skewed, implying the unification of Muslims
under the Shia sect.
These two doctrines both contested for
leadership of the Middle East
Clash of personalities
The egocentric personalities and dogmatic attitudes
of Saddam and Khomeini, contributed to the
outbreak of war
 The fiery rhetoric on both sides intimidated the
◦ Saddam was called a despotic criminal of the Iraqi Shiites
◦ Similar insulting remarks were made about Khomeini
The exaggerated rhetoric misrepresented the
concerns of both countries
 Khomeini intentionally did this to quell domestic
 Saddam intentionally did this to establish his position
in the Arab world
Foreign influence
An arms race was caused by foreign
influence in the region cause by Cold War
◦ US support of Iran during the Shah’s rule
◦ British support of the Iraqi monarchy
◦ Soviet support of the Iraqi Republic (before
The result was a significant stockpile of
arms on both sides before the outbreak
of the war
The spark
Iran and Iraq engaged in tit-for-tat
diplomacy due to the border skirmishes
 Attempted assassination attempt of Iraqi
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is
blamed on Iran
 Iraq invades Iran on 22 September 1980
Majid Khadduri
Iraqi-born historian
Former Iraqi UN delegate
Book: The Gulf War: the Origins and
Implications of the Iraq-Iran Conflict.
Argues that:
◦ The origin of the conflict lies in the Sunni-Shia
◦ Iran disrespected the Algiers Agreement which
represented peace between the two nations
◦ Iraq did it’s best to seek peace regarding border
issues after the Iranian Revolution
◦ The invasion was a justified pre-emptive measure
Behrouz Souresrafil
Exiled Iranian journalist
 Book: The Iran-Iraq War
 Argues that:
◦ Centuries of cultural differences does not
cause wars
◦ Iran-Iraq War a direct result of the Iranian
◦ Iraq feared a Shiite rebellion
◦ Also contends that a clash of personalities
had a part to play
Daniel Pipes
American historian
A conservative political commentator who is highly
critical of Islamic Terrorism
 Book: A Border Adrift: Origins of the Conflict.
 Argues that:
◦ Many observers over-attributed cultural antagonisms as a
cause of the war, due to the surprising nature of the
Iranian Revolution
◦ In the sixteenth century, although at war, Ottoman sultan
wrote literature in Persian, whilst Shah Ismail wrote in
Turkic, highlighting minimal cultural tension
◦ Iraq launched the war to wrest full control of the Shatt alArab waterway and gain the prestige of victory
◦ Iraq didn’t launch war over fear of a Shia rebellion. There
were no major problems with Shia groups in Iraq

The Iran-Iraq War causes