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The Iran-Iraq War


Relations with Iran grew increasingly strained after the shah was overthrown in 1979. Iraq recognized Iran's new Shi'ite Islamic government, but the Iranian leaders would have nothing to do with the Ba'th regime, which they denounced as secular. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, proclaimed his policy of "exporting the revolution," and Iraq was high on the list of countries whose governments were to be overthrown and replaced by a replica of the Islamic regime in Iran. In addition, Iran still occupied three small pieces of territory along the Iran-Iraq border that were supposed to be returned to Iraq under the treaty of 1975.

In 1979 and 1980, border clashes occurred frequently. Saddam Hussein announced on Sept. 17, 1980, that he was abrogating the 1975 agreements because they had been violated by Iran. On Sept. 21-22, 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran; at the same time, Iraq bombed Iranian air bases and other strategic targets. On September 28 the UN Security Council called for a cease-fire and appealed to Iran and Iraq to "settle their dispute by peaceful means." Saddam Hussein replied, saying that Iraq would accept a cease-fire provided Iran also did so. Iran's response, however, was negative. Further attempts at mediation in 1980 and 1981 also were rejected by Iran. The war thus continued and in succeeding years was extended to the gulf area, leading to foreign intervention. It has been aptly called the Gulf War.

The Iraqi advance into Iran was stopped in November 1980. There followed a stalemate that continued until September 1981, when Iran began a series of successful offensives. By May 1982 the Iraqis had been driven from most of the captured territory. Iranian forces began to penetrate into Basra province. During 1983-86 they occupied Majnun Island, threatened the city of Basra, and occupied the Fao peninsula. In the northeastern provinces Iranian forces, in cooperation with Iraqi Kurds, threatened the area from Kirkuk to the Turkish border and penetrated to the towns of Hajj 'Umran and Halabjah. They met with stiff resistance in the north, however. Using chemical weapons, Iraqi forces inflicted heavy casualties on the Kurds. The Iranian attacks on Basra were repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. Iraq countered in the so-called tanker war by bombing Iranian oil terminals in the gulf, especially on Kharg Island. Iran's occupation of Majnun Island and the Fao peninsula and its threats to Basra continued to be of great concern to Iraq.

In 1987 the military equation began to favour Iraq. Iraq obtained additional arms from France and the Soviet Union, which considerably improved its military position, and it improved relations with several Western countries, notably the United States; diplomatic relations with the United States had resumed in 1984. In 1987 the United States agreed to reflag 11 Kuwaiti tankers and escort them in international waters through the Strait of Hormuz. Britain and France also escorted tankers carrying their own flags. Despite the incident of the Stark, a U.S. destroyer that was inadvertently attacked by an Iraqi bomber on May 17, 1987, the United States supported Iraq, both diplomatically at the United Nations and militarily by providing information about Iranian military movements in the gulf area. In October 1987 and April 1988 U.S. forces attacked Iranian ships and oil platforms.

On July 20, 1987, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 598, urging Iraq and Iran to accept a cease-fire, withdraw their forces to internationally recognized boundaries, and settle their frontier disputes by negotiations held under the auspices of the United Nations. Iraq agreed to abide by the terms of the resolution if Iran would also do so. Iran, however, neither accepted nor rejected the resolution but demanded amendments condemning Iraq as the aggressor in the war and calling on all foreign navies to leave the gulf.

Military operations in the gulf resumed, and Iraq recaptured the Fao peninsula and the districts of Salamcha and Majnun. It became clear that Iran's military position in the gulf had become untenable. Fearing an internal uprising, Iranian leaders impressed on Khomeini the necessity of accepting the cease-fire in order to save the regime from collapse. Iran formally declared its acceptance of Resolution 598 on Aug. 20, 1988.

When the foreign ministers of Iraq and Iran met for the first time in Geneva in August 1988 and later in 1989, there was no progress on how Resolution 598 was to be implemented. Iraq demanded the full exchange of prisoners as the first step, while Iran insisted that withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Iran should precede the exchange of prisoners. It was not until 1990 that both Iraq and Iran finally agreed to settle their differences on the basis of the 1975 agreement and carry out the terms of UN Resolution 598.


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