The Iran-Iraq War: Strategy of Stalemate
SUBJECT AREA History
WAR SINCE 1945 SEMINAR
The Iran-Iraq War:
Strategy of Stalemate
Major Robert E. Sonnenberg, USMC
1 Apri1 1985
Marine Corps Command and Staff College
Marine Corps Development and Education Command
Quantico, Virginia 22134
Author: Sonnenberg, Robert E., Major USMC
Title: The Iran-Iraq War: Strategy of Stalemate
Date: 1 April 1925
On September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, starting a war that
continues to devastate both countries. Over one million
casualties have been reported. The interest shown in this
conventional war had been low due to superpower noninvolvement and
restrictions on foreign press agents in the war zone. Yet,
because of oil resources, Southwest Asia has been determined to be
of vital interest to the United States. The stability of the
entire region is jeopardized by this war.
This paper began as an analysis of this lengthy war during
the period 1983 to 1984. However, such an approach seemed to lack
a comprehensive understanding of the causes of the conflict and
the reasons the war has lasted as long as it has. To properly
understand the Iran-Iraq war, it is necessary to examine the many
facets that have contributed to the calamity from the beginning.
Chapter 1 is a historical perspective of Iran and Iraq, examining
the religious and ethnic aspects of the two warring nations. The
political and military development of both nations is also
considered, along with their relations prior to the war.
The war itself is covered in Chapter 2. A detailed analysis
of battles is purposely avoided, since the reader can find such
analyses in other sources. But the progression of the three
phases of the war is examined to demonstrate how the strategy of
stalemate has evolved.
An analysis of the conflict is covered in Chapter 3. The
strategies of both countries, and their leaders, is considered,
along with the tactics involved, weaponry used, and the problems
created for the entire region. These problems include superpower
involvement and, specifically, the problems encountered by the
United States interests in the war and its outcome.
Finally, the last chapter examines possible outcomes, U.S.
policy in the war, and considersations for the U.S. military. The
question of 'what next?' in this seemingly endless war is also
asked and a speculative answer is provided.
No primary sources were used for this paper due to the
paucity of information available from such sources. However,
several papers, articles and books have been written on the war
and contain excellent viewpoints, though somewhat biased towards
the West. These sources provided valuable information for an
understanding of what has taken place. This paper is written as a
comprehensive study of the entire Iran-Iraq war that will enable
the reader to basically understand a conflict that is very
involved and complicated. If this understanding is achieved, and
questions concerning U.S. involvement are raised, then the intent
of the author has been achieved.
Though this war is still ongoing, with major events taking
place during March 1985, this paper is limited to events that have
occurred through the first part of February 1985. It would appear
that yet another phase in the fighting is beginning, but due to
time limitations, these events will not be addressed.
Chapter 1. Historical Perspective 3
Ethnic Makeup 5
Development of Iraq 6
Development of Iran 12
Iran-Iraq Relations Before the War 18
Chapter 1 - Footnotes 19
Chapter 2. The War 22
Phase I - The Iraqi Offensive, Sept - Nov 1980 23
Phase II - Stalemate, Nov 1980 - May 1981 29
Phase III - Iranian Counteroffensive 32
Breaking the Stalemate 39
The Air War 43
The Naval War 46
Chapter 2 - Footnotes 46
Chapter 3. Analysis of the War 49
Iraqi Strategy 49
Iranian Strategy 55
The Regional Problem 62
Superpower Involvement 62
United States Interest 64
Chapter 3 - Footnotes 65
Chapter 4. Conclusions 67
Possible Outcomes 68
United States Policy 69
Considerations for the U.S. Military 71
What Next 75
Chapter 4 - Footnotes 76
Annotated Bibliography 77
LIST OF FIGURES AND TABLES
1. Gulf War - Theatre of Operations 26
2. Khorramshar and Abadan 27
3. Extent of Iraqi Invasion, 1980 30
4. Antagoni Incident 40
5. The Persian Gulf Area 72
1. Opposing Forces, 1980 24
2. Gulf War Power Balance, 1984 42
September 22, 1980. Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq,
executes his decision to invade neighboring Iran. Several
divisions attack at three places along the 733 mile Iran-Iraq
border in an effort to rapidly overcome any Iranian defenses. The
result of this invasion is war between two ancient enemies -- a
war that most observers thought might be over in 2-4 weeks. Now,
after more than 52 months of fighting, the war continues with no
end in sight. Both sides are fatigued from continual combat and
the two nations are weary with death and destruction, costing over
180,000 killed and some 900,000 casualties. Even though this
region is important to the entire world because of vast oil
resources, little attention seems to have been paid to the war.
This is partly because of restrictions on foreign news services in
the area and, partly, because of other world events that have kept
the war in the shadows. Additionally, neither superpower seems
able to intervene on either side, nor do they want to risk a wider
regional conflict. The Iran-Iraq war has become a war of
attrition; each side practices the strategy of stalemate.
The conflict itself is fairly easy to follow. But the
reasons for war and its continuation are complex and rife with
intrigue. As each side makes a move, the precarious balance of
the Middle-East shifts, requiring the other side to contravene.
To properly understand the war, the backgrounds of the warring
nations must be examined as well as the economic, political,
religious, and military conditions existing on both sides.
This paper will explain how and why the war started in 1980,
the military aspects of the fighting, the changing conditions
brought on by extended warfare, and lessons that can be learned
from an outside observer's limited and unclassified perception.
The lessons may be of particular significance to U.S. CENTCOM
forces since they are deeply interested in the military aspects of
the entire Southwest Asian region.
The current conflict between Iran and Iraq can be considered
another phase in a regional struggle that has been going on for
hundreds of years. To properly understand this struggle, it is
necessary to investigate the religious and ethnic differences that
have contributed to the unique stresses afflicting the two
countries, as well as how the current governments came into power.
Coupled with the rise of the leaders involved, a review of the
military growth of each country is necessary to understand all
that has happened during the war.
Islam has been the dominant religion in the area, though
Judaism and Christianity have some roots in the region. Islam was
the last of the three to be established when Mohammed emerged in
610 A.D. to "preach the truth concerning God, Allah". Differences
of opinion concerning who was the rightful successor of Mohanmed
led to the creation of rival Shiite and Sunni factions of Islam.
The Shiite Moslems believe that successors of Mohammed
descend from Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law. These descendants are
known as Imams and are considered the infallible teachers and sole
source of religious guidance. Every aspect of the Shiite's life
is governed by his belief in the Imam's infallible guidance. The
Shiites are still awaiting the return of the Twelfth Imam, who
disappeared in 940 A.D. without leaving an heir. The Twelfth Imam
is to re-emerge from hiding at the right moment to establish a
purified Islamic government of justice. To carry on the line,
Imams have been designated and the faithful must believe in all
Imams, especially any current ruler.1
Sunni (orthodox) Moslems believe that the line from Mohammed
passed to his daughter Fatima, wife of Ali. The Sunnis discount
the Imams, choosing instead to honor a caliph, or successor,2
their ruler. The caliph is not necessarily the religious leader.
The Sunnis, thus, do not consider an Imam infallible, but rely on
the caliph for guidance and instruction.
Sunnis accept the legitimacy of an authorized leader no
matter how his position is obtained; Shiites only acknowledge a
ruler as legitimate if he is a descendant of Ali. His authority
is accepted as long as he abides by the Shiite guidance in
following the laws and rules governing the Moslem lifestyle, the
Sharia. Modern Sunni religious leaders are paid by the state and
have no intermediary between them and God. The Shiite religious
leaders owe no allegiance to the state and are maintained by their
The concept of 'jihad', or Holy War, must also be explained.
The jihad requires believers of Islam to spread the teachings of
Mohammed to pagans who do not worship a god. Other Moslems,
Christians, and Jews, are exempt from the jihad. If a jihad is
declared the responsibility to wage Holy War falls upon all
Moslems; Sunni and Shiite. A caliph or Imam has the power to
declare the jihad.4
Iran has historically been the bastion of the Shiites while
Iraq has been predominantly oriented to the Sunni branch.5
Sunnis account for more than 80% of the world's 750 million
Moslems. The Shiites predominate in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.6
Of course, a mix of Shiites and Sunnis exists in both countries
and they coexist with Jews and Christians, as well. The important
point is that the ruling class of each country is oriented toward
different religious beliefs. This difference, combined with the
ancient ethnic differences between Persians and Arabs, creates
unstable political situations.
Iran has historically been the center of Shiite opposition to
Sunni caliphs. The Ayatollah Khomeini's Shiite Islamic
Revolution, his jihad, is an attempt to use the religious
differences in the region to advantage. His actions have
threatened the stability of the entire region.
The Iranian plateau is considered the core of Persian
civilization. To the west lies Iraq, encompassing the
Tigris-Euphrates river basin. The basin has been governed
predominantly by both Arab and Turkish rulers.7 Conflicts in
the region date back to the third century when Sassanid rulers
attempted to reestablish a centralized government.8
A cultural divide has separated Arabs and Persians since the
seventh century when Arab armies conquered Persians east of the
Zagros Mountains in western Iran.9
Another group of people who bear on the state of affairs in
both Iran and Iraq are the Kurds. These ancient people present
ethnic problems for both governments, as they have been seeking to
establish a nation state for some time.10 Kurdish people are
spread across the border between Iran and Iraq in the northern
regions of both countries and spill into Turkey. Each country has
had to deal with the rebellious Kurds, which has resulted in
continuing intrigue, bloodshed, and antipathy.
Development of Iraq
Iraq was encompassed by the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire
until the Empire was defeated by Iran in 1823 when the Treaty of
Erzerum was established. Iran was then anxious about an invasion
of Afghanistan by the Russians, and ceded territory to the Turks
in the treaty, thus creating 'friendly' relations with them in
case an alliance was needed.
By 1842, border hostilities between Iran and Turkey again
created the possibility of war. Great Britain and Russia had met
in Erzerum to clearly define the 733 mile border between Iran and
what is now Iraq since this question had not been resolved in
1823. The Second Treaty of Erzerum was signed in 1847 to
demarcate the border.
Iraq is essentially land-locked except for a 40 mile
coastline on the Persian Gulf.11 Access to the Persian Gulf
from the second largest city of Basra is extremely important to
the economy of the country. Basra is accessed by ship via only
one river -- the Shatt al-Arab.
One issue addressed in the 1847 Erzerum Treaty was the Shatt
al-Arab waterway. The Shatt al-Arab is formed by the confluence
of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and proceeds south for 130
miles where it empties into the Persian Gulf. A total of 55 miles
of the Shatt forms a common border between Iran and Iraq. Iran
was given freedom of navigation of the river by this second
treaty. 12 Navigational rights and ownership of the Shatt
al-Arab have been sources of controversy ever since because the
river is an important artery for both countries and affects their
During the latter stages of World War I, the British
conquered that backward province of the Ottoman Empire called
Iraq. On January 6, 1921, an Iraqi Army was established by the
British, who also set up Amir Faisal ibn Husein as King Faisal I
of independent Iraq.
The new army was composed mostly of Arabs, organized into
volunteer battalions. In 1935, military service was made
obligatory and by 1940, there were four divisions and several
independent regiments numbering 36,000 troops. The British
continued to run the army, covertly supplying arms while training
promising officers in India and Britain. The British also
maintained two airbases. One was near Baghdad; the other near the
In 1936, a coup was attempted by a Kurdish general who was
subsequently assassinated. Discontentment with British influence
continued to grow. A few Iraqi officers contacted the German
government for aid. In 1941, some nationalist officers overthrew
the existing government and refused the British the right to free
passage -- a right guaranteed by treaty. The British then
attacked Iraq and quickly restored a more accomodating government.
This one lasted until the end of World War II.
Resentment toward a privileged elite surrounding the British
implemented monarchy continued to grow, especially when more Iraqi
officers began to be drawn from the lower middle classes. Iraqi
forces saw action in northern Israel in 1948. That Arab defeat
contributed to new uprisings in Iraq. These were squelched and
King Faisal II continued in power.
The army mounted a another coup in 1958 killing the king, the
prince, and the prime minister. Iraq then broke with the West,
and turned toward the Soviet Union. The USSR became a principal
arms supplier for Iraq.
Ten years of turbulent rule followed since the new president
could not consolidate power completely. Hostility towards Arab
neighbors, purges of political opponents, discoveries of real or
imagined coup attempts, and increasing dependence on the Soviet
Union marked the period. By 1963, the Iraqi army had increased to
President Kassem was assassinated in 1963 by army officers,
and Colonel 'Abd as-Salam Arif became president. He was killed in
1966 in a plane crash and the presidency passed to his brother.
Serious economic crises and continual struggle with Kurdish
dissidents weakened the regime. By the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the
army numbered some 80,000 men.
On JuLy 17, 1968, Baath party officers staged a bloodless
coup, ushering in what is currently the Baathist regime in Iraq.
The Baath party, or Arab Socialist Renaissance party, rules two
Arab countries overtly -- Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, the party has
both civilian and military wings and is dedicated to pan-Arabism,
anticolonialism, the destruction of Israel, and a socialist
The Revolutionary Command Council, made up of military
officers, ruled the country. In 1969, the Council was expanded to
15 members and included civilians. In 1971, an obscure civilian,
Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, became vice-chairman of the Council.
By 1979, the civilian arm of the Baath party, led by Hussein,
exerted predominance over the military arm. Military members had
been gradually removed or assassinated, clearing the way for
Saddam Hussein to become president when President Bakr stepped
down for health reasons. Hussein had considered it prudent to
accept an honorary appointment to lieutenant general in 1976.
Nonetheless, in 1979, for the first time in twenty years, Iraq was
ruled by a true civilian, Saddam Hussein. 13
Prior to the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqis had gained combat
experience in endless campaigns with the Kurds. Nearly 20 percent
of the Iraqi population is Kurd, about 2 million, and the Kurdish
search for self-rule has primarily occurred in Iraq, though
Kurdistan includes areas of Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The pattern of fighting in each campaign was roughly the
same. The Kurds would rebel, isolating army garrisons in the
mountains, and either starve or overrun them. The Kurds would
then attack oil fields near Kirkuk. Army forces would
counterattack, driving the Kurds back into the mountains, relying
on overwhelming air power, artillery, and tanks. The difficult
terrain would eventually blunt the attack, and a ceasefire would
result. This pattern was repeated again and again.
Iraqi forces also had limited participation in the
Arab-IsraeLi War of 1973. Two armored divisions and three
infantry brigades, about 60,000 troops and 700 tanks, were sent to
the front. Many of the tanks were forced to travel to Golan,
about 1200 kilometers, under their own power because of the lack
of tank transporters. Due to breakdowns enroute, only 300 tanks
were able to take part in the fighting, degrading the effect of
the Iraqi armored forces in the battle.
The Iraqi combat role was brief and had no real impact on the
outcome. It was, however, Iraq's first experience in modern
conventional warfare. The Iraqi performance was scrutinized
closely and deficiencies were corrected. Actions taken included
acquisition of tank transporters and logistics vehicles to
facilitate more rapid movement of armored forces. Reconnaisance,
anti-tank, and air defense capabilities were also improved.
The seven years between 1973 and 1980 witnessed dynamic
military growth. The Iraqi army became the second largest Arab
army behind the Egyptians, more than doubling in size. More
modern Soviet equipment was procurred and the ground forces were
transformed into a conventional armored force. Training,
maintenance, and logistics were improved. Baghdad vowed to match
the Iranian arms buidup man for man, and tank for tank. A contest
for power was clearly in the making and Iraq planned on playing a
large role in any future Arab-Israeli confrontations.
The 1973 oil embargo and subsequent price hikes provided
Baghdad with the funds necessary to pursue this buildup, as well
as increase the standard of living throughout Iraq. Such measures
tended to underwrite the Baathist government and demonstrated to
the Iraqi people that Saddam Hussein was a great leader, looking
out for the welfare of his country. Building up the military was
a natural consequence to safeguard the popular government.
Using oil revenues, Baghdad increased salaries and improved
facilities for the military. Nearly all eligible males were
drafted. Service was encouraged to develop a sense of national
identity. About 85 percent of the army is now composed of
two-year conscripts. Kurds and Shiites, composing some 70 percent
of the population, make up the lower ranks of the army. Sunni
Moslems are heavily represented in the NCO ranks and the senior
and middle officer level. Senior officers are carefully selected
for their loyalty to Hussein and are all members of the Baathist
dominated by a corps headquarters. The regions correspond to the
three major types of terrain and the various force structures
reflect this terrain. To the north are mountains, suitable for
infantry forces. In the center are plains, ideal for armor. To
the south are marshlands, suitable for mechanized
operations.14 The 210,000 man army consisted of twelve
divisions designed around Soviet and British models as the recent
Saddam Hussein, as Commander-in-Chief, exercises very tight
control of his forces. Field commanders achieve exactly what is
dictated from the headquarters in Baghdad. It would appear that
delegation of authority to prosecute the war at the field level
has been withheld for political reasons, nullifying the positive
effect and initiative a field commander might have during
prosecution of battle.15
Development of Iran
Examining the evolution of the Iranian Army is no simple
matter and required an examination of sociocultural developments
affecting the Iranian military tradition.
The spiritual father of the Iranian Army is Cyrus the Great,
founder of the Achaemenid Empire. He was able to unify tribal
contingents into effective fighting forces. The Achaemenians
placed a high social value on military service, and service was
marked by a regimen designed to strengthen the soldier both
physically and psychologically. Training began at an early age
during which pride was cultivated, and service was 'owed' for most
The concept of elitist units was also established by Cyrus.
Supposedly, a force of 10,000 'elite' soldiers, better than
run-of-the-mill, would be attached directly to whomever held the
throne in order to secure and consolidate the ruler's
Throughout the centuries, there were continual attempts to
organize armies from tribal contingents and to centralize
government. None were particularly successful until 1730, when
Shah Nadir Quli revamped the army and reestablished the calvary as
an elite unit. He then successfully waged war on India and
Bahrain, but was assassinated in 1747.
The pattern of rise and fall of governments within Iran
continued. The British began to exert influence in the entire
area because of their interest in the Suez. The Russians, another
world power of the ninteenth century, were concerned about their
southern flank and had expansionist leanings in the area.17
The first two decades of the 20th century can be called
Iran's nadir. The British, in the south, and the Russians in the
north, kept the political aspirations of those in the middle well
in check. World War I saw Turkish and German forces intevening in
the region. By 1920, with the Soviets battling counterrevolution,
the USSR stepped up pressure on Iran. A treaty averted open war
but triggered a coup d'etat in February 1921 which ushered in
The principal actor in Iran far the next 20 years was Reza
Khan. He became Shah in 1925 and hastened to modernize his
country. Military modernization was his major focus. He did much
to strengthen the army, including standardization of uniforms and
arms, establishment of schools for training, and formulation of a
Reza Khan is considered the father of the current Iranian
Army. His efforts helped convince Iranians that their army is the
real foundation of the throne. This factor, of course, goes back
centuries. Essentially, the army was the only organization upon
which the Shah could rely. This dependency leads to inordinate
concern for loyalty, which is focused upon the man in power.
Thus, loyalty often superceded competence when promotions and
assignments were made. The loyalty factor tended to make the army
the Shah's army, not the nation's.
Additionally, Reza Khan's army became a socializing
mechanism. Illiterate conscripts were taught to read; developed a
sense of nationalism and loyalty; and got the opportunity to
operate increasingly complex weapons and machinery. This resulted
in strengthening the army, as well as strengthening the nation.
World War II halted Reza's developments. He abdicated in
favor of his son, Muhammed Reza, and retired to South America.
At the end of the war, Iran's oil became an important factor
in area politics. The Soviet Union began to interfere in Iran,
but by mid-1946, had retreated. The United States, sensitive to
what was happening, decided to strengthen Iran by selling arms and
providing advisors. This occurred in 1948.
An assassination attempt was made on the Shah in 1949.
During 1951-1953, revolution was threatened. These events led to
an even closer alliance of the Shah and his army and made him very
suspicious of political opposition. From the mid-1950's until
1979, The Shah ruled Iran and, it appears, wrote the final chapter
to Iran's imperial history.19
There are two aspects of the military worth mentioning. The
first is that personalism plays a great part. Though there are
classes in Iran, they are not distinct since one is always moving
to a higher class. Many times, this is accomplished by buying a
position. As has already been said, service in the army of Iran
was considered prestigious service. It was inevitable that
positions, and rank, would be bought to advance personal
interests. This tends to create an atmosphere of mistrust.
Mistrust is manifested by unwillingness to delegate authority. A
simple example would be 'scrambling' a flight of three airplanes.
Two take off because the third is locked and because the crew
chief, who is on leave, has the key. Ramifications of this
mistrust are easy to contemplate.
The military and the population, in general, is addicted to
paperwork. Nothing gets done unless it is written down. And, if
something is written down, it is gospel. An example: No one could
figure out what to do with 14 'gun tubes'. Inspection revealed
that these tubes were actually steel poles. However, the supply
document said 'gun tubes' and no one would refute the written
These things lead to the idea that one simply cannot be wrong
once something is stated in writing. To manintain a position, one
must do nothing wrong. One must receive praise for doing the
right thing. If the wrong thing is done, no blame can be placed
on a person who had no knowledge because the information was not
written down. Leaders tend to do the safe thing. A perfect
example is using a great number of guards for security in areas
where there is little, if any, risk.20
The Shah believed that the Soviet Union and Iraq were his
greatest threats. His military organization was designed to meet
these external threats, rather than possible domestic disturbance.
When the revolution broke out, the military could not effectively
handle the situation. Disproportionate force was used which only
served to increase the violence and put the regular army in bad
stead with the revolutionaries.
The Shah had counted on the military, with his handpicked
loyal generals, to maintain him in power. But the generals were
unable to cope with the situation because the Shah was not around
to issue the customary detailed, written orders to which they were
The lower ranks of the army, mostly conscripts, turned to the
religious revolution when it became apparent that they had no
leadership. Besides, the revolutionaries were from the same class
of society as the soldiers, the lower and middle classes, and they
had no strong bonds with upperclass leaders.22
By purging the military, Khomeini opened the way for younger
officers to rise in position. These younger men also became
supporters of the Ayatollah, eventually resulting in an armed
force that backed the revolution. Though the army was Khomeini's,
distrust continued for some time and army units were not allowed
to operate without Revolutionary Guards to ensure accomplishment
of assigned missions.
In 1979, the Revolutionary Council decreed that the entire
Iranian nation would become soldiers of the revolution. During
the hostage crisis, Khomeini emphasized this theme and called for
the creation of an "Army of Twenty Million".23 This resulted
in development of a huge staff for mobilization and widespread
weapons training courses. The creation of a vast pool of
semi-trained soldiers meant that the regular army could be
maintained at its present size, eliminating possible power
struggles or coup attempts.
In the wake of the Iranian revolution, decimation of the
Iranian army seemed natural. The Shah's army was considered
counterrevolutionary and purges could be expected. By the fall of
1980, 10,000 military personnel had been dismissed, imprisoned, or
executed.24 Western trained officers were eliminated and
Shiite clergy were installed at each base and at each level of
One method of countering the armed forces potential threat
was to create a separate paramilitary force (the 'elite' guard)
loyal to the regime. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards were
fanatically loyal to the Ayatollah and his revolution. Though
they lacked military training they assumed the duties of the
regular armed forces.25
When the war started, it appeared that two separate Iranian
armies were fighting. The Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran, bore
the brunt of the early fighting which helped to strengthen their
place in the Iranian military picture. They fought with fervor
and intensity that surprised not only the Iraqis, but many Western
observers as well.
Iran-Iraq Relations Before the War
The Shah believed that the Soviet Union and Iraq were the
primary threats to Iran.26 In an effort to keep Iraqi forces
occupied so that they could not mass on the border, the Shah
encouraged Kurdish rebellion and supplied the Kurds in northern
Iraq with material to wage limited warfare and keep the Iraqis in
When civil war threatened Iraq in 1975, Hussein was forced to
do something to stop it. The 1975 Algiers Accord was signed
wherein the Shah agreed to stop backing the Kurds in exchange for
setting the thalweg, or center, of the Shatt al-Arab as the
boundary between the two countries.
The Ayatollah Khomeini was exiled to Iraq for anti-Shah
activities during a period of rapproachment between the two
countries. To placate the Shah, Hussein placed Khomeini under
house arrest in 1975. Three years later, Hussein expelled the
Ayatollah, who fled to France.27
In 1977, one of the Ayatollah's sons was mysteriously
murdered in Iraq. One of Iraq's leading Shiite clerics was
executed to quell the Islamic fundamentalist movement that was
brewing. The execution was personally ordered by Hussein.28
When Khomeini came to power in 1979, he immediately declared
that Iraq "belongs in the dustbin of history."29 Asked who
his enemies were, the Ayatollah replied, "First the Shah, then the
American Satan, then Saddam Hussein and his infidel Baath
Party."30 The feeling between the leaders of the two warring
nations was, and is, quite bitter.
Chapter 1 - Footnotes
1Martin J. Martinson, "The Iran-Iraq War: Struggle
Without End," Research Paper, Marine Corps Command and Staff
College (Quantico, Virginia, 1984), pp. 5-6.
2Thomas M. Daly, "The Not Too Forgotten War," Naval
Institute Proceedings, June 1984, p. 39.
3Ibid, p. 41.
4Martinson, "The Iran-Iraq War: Struggle Without End,"
5Stephen R. Grummon, "The Iran-Iraq War; Islam
Embattled," The Center for Strategic and International Studies,
(Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 1982), p. 2.
6"Shi'ites: A Feared Minority," Time, July 26, 1982, p.
7Grummon, "The Iran-Iraq War; Islam Embattled," pp. 1-2.
8Richard A. Gabriel, Fighting Armies, Antagonists in the
Middle East, A Combat Assessment (Westport Connecticut; Greenwood
Press, 1983), p. 86.
9William O. Staudenmaier, "A Strategic Analysis of the
Gulf War," (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War
College, 1982), p. 2.
11David Evans and Richard Campany, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody
Tomorrows," Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1985, p. 34.
12Daly, "The Not Too Forgotten War," pp. 41-42.
13Gabriel, Fighting Armies, pp. 63-67.
15Ibid., p. 77.
16Ibid., p. 78.
17Ibid., pp. 85-86.
18Ibid., p. 89.
19Ibid., p. 91.
20Ibid., p. 93.
21William F. Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian
Army, 1982 (Washington, D.C., The Brookings Institution, 1982), p.
22Ibid., p. 7.
23Ibid., p. 13.
24Ibid., p. 16.
25Ibid., p. 1.
26Lbid., p. 3.
27"Personal Power, Personal Hate," Time, July 26, 1982,
28Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 33.
30"Personal Power, Personal Hate," p. 25.
Saddam Hussein had to justify the invasion of Iran in
September 1980. He outlined his initial aims by demanding that
1) Recognize Iraq's legitimate and sovereign rights over its
land and waters, particularly the Shatt al-Arab.
2) Refrain from interfering in Iraq's internal affairs.
3) Adhere to the principle of good neighborly relations.
4) Return the Iranian occupied islands in the Persian Gulf to
the United Arab Emirates.1
However, there were other objectives that were not so clearly
and officially stated.
+ Iraq wanted to secure its Baathist government from
Khomeini's stated intent to overthrow it.
+ To secure Iraq's borders, especially near Qasr e-Shirin and
Mehran, which cover the main Iranian approach to Baghdad.
+ To demonstrate that Iraq, not Iran, was the dominant power
in the Gulf, and to enhance Iraqi status in the Arab world.
+ To destroy Iranian military power while Iran was weakened
by its revolution and cut off from U.S. supplies and support.
+ To create conditions to facilitate the overthrow of
+ To 'liberate' Arab Khuzistan and secure Iraqi access to the
+ To demonstrate to all Gulf nations that Iraq was strong and
able to lead the Arab states.2
Hussein was ready to fight. The size of each force and
primary weaponry of both nations is shown for comparison purposes
in Table 1.
Phase I - The Iraqi Offensive
22 Sept 1980 - November 1980
The attack on Iran began with a three pronged invasion. To
the north, the Iranian border town of Qasr e-Sherin, on the main
highway between Baghdad and Teheran, was seized in a night
flanking attack with part of a mountain division. Advancing some
15 miles into the foothills of the Zagros mountains, the division
effectively blocked an obvious Iranian counteroffensive route.
On the central front, the other main counterattack route
through Mehran was blocked with the remainder of the mountain
division. Both attacks were tactically sound. Terrain west of
these towns was relatively flat and undulating, suitable for
armored movement. To the east, only a few miles within Iran, the
mountainous country prevented vehicular maneuver.4
These attacks were to support a main thrust to the south.
The Iranian province of Khuzistan contained 80 percent of Iranian
oil installations. The Iraqis considered Khuzistan an Arab
province, since 2 million of the 3.5 million inhabitants were
Click here to view image
Arab. They believed the province should have been part of Iraq
when the Ottoman Empire was carved up after World War I.
Six Iraqi armored columns, each about battalion size, headed
into the open country for towns like Ahwaz, Dezful and Susangerd
in the south of Iran. The province of Khuzistan contains the
industrial and residential complexes of Khorramshar and Abadan.
The map in figure 1 shows the theatre of operations.
Khorramshar and Abadan border the Shatt al-Arab and are
adjacent to the Persian Gulf. Abadan is on an 'island' formed by
the Shatt, the Gulf, the Bahamsheer River on the east, and the
Karun River to the north. The Karun River separates Khorramshar
from Abadan. The Iraqis intended to take Khorramshar, then
Abadan, securing the Shatt al-Arab, the only outlet from the
oilport of Basra to the Gulf. The successful capture of these
areas would be a strategic victory for Iraq. Figure 2 shows this
area in detail.
Three Iraqi armored regiments were ferried across the Shatt
to the north of Khorramshar and promptly attacked. However,
fighting in this built-up area proved to be a deathtrap for the
armored units. Small groups staged ambushes using only rifles,
grenades and home-made bombs and successfully ensnarled the Iraqis
in the network of narrow streets filled with obstacles. The
Iranians renamed Khorramshar after the battle honoring the fierce
fighting. They now call it Khuninshar, or "City of Blood".7
Each of the Iranian services displayed a total lack of
coordination when Iraq invaded. They each planned and conducted
Click here to view image
Figure 2. Khorramshar and Abadan6
their own operations against the enemy. The Iranian army did not
play a major role in the fighting. Small units were stationed in
Khuzistan, but the initial defense was the responsibility of the
Pasdaran and local militias. With no coordination and bitter
rivalries, chaos prevailed.8 Units could not be mixed
because troops would not follow orders if the commander was not
one of their own. That the Iranians were able to defend at all
was probably due to nationalism and revolutionary fervor.9
The Iraqis expected Iranian resistance to be light. But
Pasdars fought with fanatical bravery. Fifteen days and 5000
casualties were required to occupy Khorramshar. The Iraqis then
halted for three weeks as other special units were trained in
From the Iraqi side of the Shatt, artillery fire had set oil
tanks on fire in Abadan. In late October, infantry forces crossed
the Karun River to advance on Abadan. The Bahansheer River halted
flanking movements to the east. Two of the three bridges across
the Karun were seized and by mid-November, once rains had halted
large scale troop movement, Abadan was totally besieged.
In the northern sector of Khuzistan, armored columns moved
unopposed across dry salt flats. They had expected to be welcomed
by the Arab inhabitants as liberators, but the Iranian Arabs
remained passive. Armored columns made disjointed spurts in the
area but failed to seize key objectives like Susangerd and Ahwaz.
The Iraqis failed to take advantage of tactical surprise to
overwhelm a small defensive force.
The tactical keys to this sector were the town of Dezful and
its air force base. But Iraqi units stopped at the Karkheh River,
giving President Bani-Sadr, of Iran, the opportunity to set up
forward headquarters at Dezful. Hussein was apparently not
willing to accept high casualty rates by taking the cities.10
Within days, thousands of Iranian troops had been moved into
Khuzistan. Iraqi tank formations could not move without integral
infantry. Concern about the rear precluded an Iraqi opportunity
to thrust forward into Dezful.
During November, rains quickly turned the salt flats into
quagmires, preventing vehicular traffic across country. The front
lines straggled 200 miles across the plain. Iraqis began to
construct flood control banks and a network of all-weather roads
for logistical support. The first phase of the war, which was to
have been over within weeks, ended as the weather precluded
further heavy fighting.11 Figure 3 shows the extent of the
invasion at the time.
Phase II - Stalemate
November 1980 - May 1981
The war slowed down because both sides wanted to conserve
ammunition, weapons, and vehicles. Small infantry patrol
skirmishes and firing of missiles and shells at each other were
the only actions noted. A steady stream of casualties began to
mount. The jugular was not found.
The Soviet Union stopped supplying arms to Iraq when the war
started, presumably because they had not been consulted. Hussein
had refused to grant increased port facilities to the Soviets in
exchange for arms, but since Soviet weapons performance was at
stake on the battlefield, spare parts and ammunition were soon
forwarded. Eventually, weapons and vehicles were replaced on a
one-for-one basis. Conservation and caution on the battlefield
became important to the Iraqis. During this period, the Iraqis
purchased about 2 billion dollars worth of weapons from
Click here to view image
Significant changes took place during this period, improving
the effectiveness of the Iranian military. The regular army had
been redeployed to Khuzistan to assume responsibility for the
fighting. Little effort was made to conduct coordinated
operations with the Pasdaran or local militia. Political games
were played in Teheran and mistrust between the forces continued.
Positioning the Pasdaran behind regular troops on the line,
presumably to prevent withdrawal or desertion, caused hard
Pressure on Bani-Sadr continued. He had promised a
counter-offensive, but was unable to combine his forces into an
effective army. He launched the promised counteroffensive anyway.
This resulted in a January 1981 battle near Dezful in which
Iranian forces were severely battered in fierce tank
The offensive began on January 5, 1981. Three small armored
regiments advanced between Ahwaz and Susangerd. The Iraqis were
alerted to this movement and feigned a withdrawal. Iraqi forces
formed three armored regiments into a three-sided box ambush. The
Iranians blundered into the ambush and the two tank forces battled
for four days in a sea of mud.
The Iranians withdrew, leaving many tanks stuck in the mud,
or, because of logistical misplanning, out of fuel and ammunition.
The condition of the terrain prevented a clean break from the
battle and did not allow the Iraqi forces to pursue what was left
of the Iranian force. Over 100 captured Iranian tanks were
displayed in Iraq, though Iran only admitted to losing 88.
Bani-Sadr insisted that the Iraqis had lost twice as many.
No major spring offensive occurred since the Iraqis were so
spread out along the front and the Iranians were still trying to
organize their forces. Bani-Sadr was reforming his army with a
new set of handpicked colonels.15
Bani-Sadr eventually was dismissed by the Ayatollah, partly
because of his failure in January. During the next phase of the
war, the reconstituted military seized the initiative and finally
emerged as an effective fighting force. Major factors
contributing to this revival were, 1) elimination of conflicting
guidance from Teheran due to the elimination of the power
struggle, 2) resolution of differences between the army and
Pasdaran, 3) allowing increased cooperation and joint operations,
and 4) improved tactics, intelligence and planning on the part of
the military.16 The effectiveness of this rejuvenated force
was demonstrated when the siege of Abadan was lifted in September
May 1981-October 1983
On September 2, 1981, Iranian armor, artillery and infantry
moved to strike at selected points of the Iraqi frontline. The
Iraqis were pushed back at several places. There was an
indication by Western journalists (who for the first time were
allowed to visit the combat zone) that the Iranian army was
apparently coming back to life.
The objective of this Iranian offensive was the relief of
Abadan. On the 26th, five infantry regiments pushed armor and
artillery across the Bahamsheer River and attacked the Iraqis in
the flank and rear. The Iraqis fell back across the Karun River
and settled into Khorramshar during three days of heavy fighting.
By the 29th, the Iranians claimed a victory, restoring morale to
its forces, since Abadan had been besieged for a year. Hussein's
hope of dominating the Shatt were spoiled, perhaps for the long
Four military leaders who had led the Iranian attack were
tragically killed in an airplane crash while returning to Teheran.
The victory at Abadan had surprised Teheran, and the joint-service
capability of the services almost alarmed them. Everyone was
suspicious of a military coup.
Limited aerial activity followed. Oil installations in Iraq
were bombed, as well as two oil facilities in Kuwait. The
bombings of Kuwait were indications that the war was being
extended slightly, and proved to be a warning to Kuwait. Kuwait
had been providing refined petroleum products to Iraq and was a
main route for supplies flowing into Iraq.17
Operation "Undeniable Victory", March 1982
On March 21, 1982, the Iranians launched a multi-division
operation, code named "Undeniable Victory". It aimed at cutting
the communications lines between Iraqi forces in the north and
those in Khuzistan. The week long operation changed the pattern
and tempo of the war.
Improved relations and better planning allowed the Iranian
military to gain a clear initiative. Major offensives could be
planned using regular forces, Pasdaran, and the "Army of Twenty
Million". During "Undeniable Victory", combined arms were
effectively blended with the tactic of human wave assaults. The
Iranians demonstrated that they had finally developed into an
efficient shock force.18
Iran did not, however, have the logistical power to sustain
the attack and crush surprised Iraqi forces. Nonetheless, over
15,000 Iraqi troops were captured.19 The strategic
initiative had shifted to Iran.20
Operation "Jerusalem", April 1982
Iran gave Iraq little time to recover from the defeat. On
April 29th and 30th, Iran launched another attack, Operation
"Jerusalem", or "Holy City". The attack focused on Khuzistan and
was conducted in three main thrusts. The northern attack was just
south of Susangerd. The center attack was against Hamid, the
major rail and road route from Khorramshar to Ahvaz. The primary
effort was against Khorramshar, to recover that city.
Night infantry attacks led off the assault. Major armored
thrusts as well as fighter and helicopter attacks quickly
followed. The initial attack regained 309 square miles of Iranian
territory. The Iraqis made good use of defensive positions, but
were unable to stop the advance.
Iran cut the highway that was the major Iraqi line of
communication to Ahvaz. Iranian positions across the Karun River
were reinforced, and the defensive positions around Khorramshar
On May 3, Iraq counterattacked, making heavy use of
helicopters and aircraft. The Iranians were pushed back somewhat,
but replied with helicopter attacks on Fuka, about 200 miles south
of Baghdad, to halt resupply of Iraqi forces.
By May 9, 1982, Iran seemed to have scored a major victory,
though both sides characteristically exaggerated casualty claims
and territorial gains/losses. Fighting continued apace as Iranian
forces seemed positioned to claim total victory.21 In late
June, Saddam Hussein announced that he was ready to withdraw all
Iraqi forces from Iran, an admission that the war was
Operation "Ramadan", July 1982
Khomeini was not interested in peace except on his own terms.
By early August, Iran had launched three major drives directed at
cutting off Basra from Iraqi forces in the south. The first
attack was on July 13th, and drove ten miles into Iraq before
Iranian forces were ambushed and checked with heavy losses.
Another Iranian attempt on July 21st was also stopped. The
Iranians apparently lacked the command and control, air power, and
logistics to sustain an attack.
The third major assault occurred on July 28th. The attack
gained nothing. The lives of large numbers of teenagers, who had
filled the ranks of infantry, were expended. Plastic keys to
paradise were found clutched in cold hands and bodies cloaked in
battle jackets bore stenciled signs that proclaimed that the
wearer had the Imam Khomeini's permission to enter heaven.23
These offensives raised the human cost of the war to at least
80,000 killed, 200,000 wounded, and 45,000 captured.24
The attacks gained Iran a strip of territory 10 miles long by
two miles deep. The strategically worthless strip was in a swampy
area near Basra, where it was reported that 25,000 Iranian zealots
had been slaughtered.25 Iran had shown that better
leadership, equipment and logistics were needed for sustained
attack, and that human wave attacks, even in a hi-tech war, were
still effective. Iraqi forces showed that they would fight much
more determinedly for their own territory.
Fall 1982 Iranian Offensive
September 30, 1982, witnessed another Iranian attack, this
time against Baghdad. They drove on the town of Mandali, south of
the Iraqi defended border town of Qasr e-shirin. Fighting was
intense and, again, the Iranians lacked enough armor and air to
punch through Iraqi defenses. Human wave tactics were again used
as both sides incurred heavy casualties. The fighting raged until
October 10th, with no significant outcome.
Both sides were hurt by this continual fighting which had
devolved into a war of attrition. The Iranians had a heavy
manpower advantage and seemed to tolerate high losses politically.
Iraq had the advantage of strong defensive positions, but was
being sapped economically. Hussein realized that continued losses
were dangerous to his regime.
The Iraqis attempted to counter by threatening, and then
conducting, air attacks on tankers and facilities at Kharg Island,
and by launching air-to-surface missiles at Iranian cities.
However, no serious military damage was done. Iraqi MiG and
Mirage fighters lacked range, accuracy, and accurate stand-off
munitions capable of inflicting sufficiently serious damage to
heavily defended facilities at Kharg Island.
Iran launched another offensive on November 2, 1982, aiming
this time for Fakah in Iraq. Fakah lies just across the border,
between Baghdad and Basra, 280 miles to the south. Iranian
infantry, followed by M-60 and Chieftan tanks, attacked at night
to minimize the effects of Iraqi air and artillery. Iran came
within artillery range of main roads linking Baghdad and Basra and
scored some minor successes. Iraq lost another 240 square miles
of Iranian territory and had to use its last reserves to fortify
The offensive ended in what has by now become a familiar
pattern. Political squabbling continues in both countries. Iran
demonstrated it could not sustain offensives and suffered further
casualties and loss of equipment. Iraqi forces remained locked in
static defensive positions. They lacked the leadership and
tactics to conduct effective counteroffensives with their reserves
and did not take advantage of air superiority.
By January 1983, both sides remained locked in awkward
positions. Iraq continued to attempt to interrupt Iranian oil
flow by attacking tankers and facilities in the Gulf. But the
attacks were relatively ineffective. Air defenses and covered
facilites kept the oil flowing. Meanwhile, Iran was gearing up
for further offensives.26
Operation "Before Dawn", February 1983
Operaton "Before Dawn" was launched on February 6, 1983. It
was directed at the Iraqi city of Al Amarah, west of Fakah. Iran
boasted that it was, "the final military operation that will
determine the final destiny of the region."27
The main forces were six Iranian divisions. It was clearly
intended to be decisive. The upshot was that Iran recovered 120
square miles of territory, but was again unable to score a major
breakthrough. Terrain contributed to the problem since it was a
difficult area in which to fight. The Iraqi's had three dug in
lines ranging from low hills to the edge of marshes, forming a
semi-circle around Al Amarah. The Iranians were forced to attack
across the wetlands, or attack Iraqi positions on ridges and low
hills, across a relatively open plain.
Iraq was able to use its air superiority effectively, as the
pilots were finally learning how to fly low with increased
accuracy. Iraq also used attack helicopters with considerable
effect, compensating for tanks used in a static defense rather
than as maneuver elements.
The results were characteristic. Iran could not sustain a
penetration against heavily defended positions. Iraq could not
mount a counteroffensive to weaken or destroy the Iranian army.
The massive war of attrition has continued. It was becoming
increasingly clear that the war would not be won or lost
militarily, but would end only when one side collapsed
economically or politically.28
In August of 1983, a small battle took place in the rugged
Zagros mountains in northern Iran. Iranian troops were pursuing
Kurdish rebels who had raided Iranian outposts. This was the
largest action thus far in the war in this rugged terrain of
Kurdistan, but was considered a diversionary tactic. An imminent
attack was expected on the central front, just 80 miles from
Breaking the Stalemate
During 1984, Iraq began looking for a way to break the
stalemate of the war. Initially, Hussein attempted to raise the
human cost of continued fighting by using chemical weapons, which
reportedly had been employed as early as August 1981.30 Iraq
also purchased millions of dollars of new armaments and began
constructing extensive fortifications to channel Iranian assaults
into preplanned killing zones.
During February 1984, a new round of violence began when
Iraqi aircraft launched missile and rocket attacks against Iranian
towns, killing innocent civilians. Iran retaliated with artillery
shelling of Iraqi border settlements and an air attack against
Baquba, 30 miles southeast of Baghdad. The shellings and bombings
were a prelude to an expected huge infantry assault across the
border west of Baghdad.31
The Iraqis had also been trying to induce other nations to
join in the conflict against Iran by increasing their air attacks
on tankers and Iranian oil-producing facilities. In November
1983, an Exocet missile was used to sink the Greek tanker Antagoni
near Kharg Island. Figure 4 shows the location of the incident.
This was an attempt to halt the flow of Iranian oil through the
Persian Gulf, but it also had the effect of slowing oil flow from
other Persian Gulf countries from which Iraq was receiving
Click here to view image
By June 1984, attacks on shipping in the Gulf had increased
alarmingly. But Iraq was concerned about rumors that half a
million Iranian soldiers were poised to launch an attack in the
southern province. This gigantic offensive has not yet occured,
though there is little doubt that should Khomeini so order, it
will take place.33
Meanwhile, peace initiatives are continually advanced. Saudi
Arabia, Turkey, and Algiers have all attempted to start peace
talks to no avail. Hussein will not talk as long as Khomeini
insists on toppling the Baathist Iraqi government.34 But by
July, West German diplomats were indicating that the Iranians may
be ready to talk. They are economically drained and need
artillery, spare parts and protective gear from chemical attacks
if they are to continue the war.35
Hussein offered to meet personally with Khomeini at some
neutral location. Teheran adamantly opposed any such meeting and
instead attacked Majnun Island. In answer to Iraq's use of
chemical weapons, including 'yellow rain', Iran imported a Swedish
chemical plant to provide chemical weapons. Iraq threatened to
bomb the site if construction was not halted. There were also
reports that Iran was attempting to develop nuclear
By October, Iran was announcing yet another offensive against
Baghdad, though this was not the long expected major offensive.
Iraq announced that the Iranians had been driven back. Iraq seems
to have gained some advantage by stifling the Iranian economy
through air attacks on shipping in the Gulf. In the mean time,
Iraq has rearmed and is reported to have a 6 to 1 advantage in
fighter aircraft, 5 to 1 in tanks, and 4 to 1 in heavy guns.
Table 2 shows the power balance in 1984. The Iraqis are unlikely
Click here to view image
to attack Iran, but should the major Iranian offensive be
launched, the Iraqis are well prepared to repel it.37
On January 31, 1985, the Iraqis launched a corps-sized
offensive against Iranian positions in the Qasr e-Shirin area.
Caught by surprise, the Iranians suffered many casualties and lost
large quantities of arms and equipment. The attack was the first
Iraqi offensive in 17 months and was designed to disrupt any
Iranians plans for a major offensive. Though this was a
significant offensive, it has not been publicized in the United
States and is indicative of a lack of interest by the American
people for military actions in Southwest Asia. The offensive
could, however, signal a new phase in the prolonged war in which
Iraq might regain the larger initiative.39
The Air War
Preemptive air strikes were conducted against ten airfields
in Iran when the war began. Though surprise was achieved, little
destruction was accomplished.40 The Shah had made
considerable effort to strengthen defenses at the airfields.
Iraqi pilots dropped bombs on the runways, forsaking the better
targets of aircraft in the open. Damage was easily repaired. The
mistargetted Iraqi attacks had been essentially useless and were
On the second day of the war, Iranian planes surprised Iraq
by conducting strikes against Basra and Baghdad. Iraq had
dispersed many airplanes to neighboring Arab countries, thus
protecting its air assets.
Neither air force has been used to provide decisive advantage
to one side or the other. Both sides seem to want to avoid
conflict in the air. The weak pattern of air warfare was set
during the first weeks of the war. Each side conducts deep
strikes into the interior of the other country, seeking out
high-visibility economic and psychological targets. These attacks
are conducted by two to four aircraft that are able to proceed
unimpeded because of ineffective air defense systems.
Although some close air support was provided during the early
part of the war, the sortie rates have been very ineffective for
both sides. Helicopter gunships have been used effectively and
have scored some tank kills using heat-seeking missiles. Iran's
performance has been hampered by poor maintenance and lack of
trained pilots. Iraqi performance must be attributed to poor
pilot performance, though Hussein insists that he has poor Soviet
Iran has been able to use its air force to exert influence on
other nations in the Gulf region. At the beginning of the war,
overt support for Iraq was more evident than it is now. As
previously mentioned, Iraqi aircraft had been dispersed to other
Arab states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab
Emirates, North Yemen, and Kuwait.41 As a warning, Iranian
fighters attacked Kuwait, which had been transshipping goods to
Basra by land. This warning caused other nations to reevaluate
support for Iraq, since it was now evident that Iranian fighters
could seriously disrupt economies by hitting oil installations.
Iraqi planes were forced to return to Iraq and these other
countries became less overt in supporting Iraq. Saudi Arabia
requested support in protecting the oil fields and the U.S.
answered with AWACS aircraft in 1981.42
Neither side has been able to use its anti-air defense
weapons successfully. This is probably because of faulty
maintenance and lack of training. Iraq's ZSU-23-4's do not use
radar to track a target. Instead, fire is massed at a point in
the air in hopes that a plane or helicopter will fly into it.
When Iraq decided to interdict shipping in the Gulf, it was
readily apparent that Iraqi pilots did not have adequate training
to conduct such attacks. Weapons were unsuitable for long-range
stand-off attacks. To correct the situation, Iraq acquired five
Super-Etenard fighters with Exocet missiles from France in
This formidable shift in air power caused serious reactions
to the perceived threat. It appeared that Hussein was willing to
escalate the war by interdicting Iranian shipping in the Gulf.
Khomeini then stated that if Iranian oil installations were
seriously damaged, Iran would prevent ships from entering or
leaving the Gulf by closing the Strait of Hormuz. This, of
course, would have had a serious impact on the rest of the world
and would have threatened vital interests of the West.43
The Naval War
The war at sea began simultaneously with the land war.
Patrol craft of both navies fought from September to November
1980. Iranian vessels attacked Basra and the two oil terminals
near the Iraqi city of Fao. Iran supposedly lost 56 percent of
its naval assetts compared to Iraq's 66 percent. In any case, the
Iranian navy prevailed and has been able to maintain it's naval
Iran blockaded Iraq from the first day of the war and 69
ships remain trapped in the war zone. The navy could not blockade
other ports on the Gulf through which supplies could reach Iraq.
For all practical purposes, little has resulted from naval
Chapter 2 - Footnotes
1Grummon, "The Iran-Iraq War; Islam embattled," p. 15.
2Anthony H. Cordesman, "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War:
The First Round," Armed Forces Journal International, April 1982,
3Ibid., p.42. Adapted from The Military Balance,
4Edgar O'Ballance, "The Iran-Iraq War," Marine Corps
Gazette, February 1982, p. 44.
5Staudenmaier, "A Strategic Analysis of the Gulf War,"
6O'Ballance, "The Iran-Iraq War," p. 47.
7Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 37.
8Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army," p. 20.
9Ibid., p. 13.
10Ibid., p. 20.
11O'Ballance, "The Iran-Iraq War," pp. 44-47.
12Anthony H. Cordesman, "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War:
Part Two, Tactics, Technology, and Training," Armed Forces Journal
International, June 1982, p. 72.
13Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 37.
14Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army, p. 23.
15O'Ballance, "The Iran-Iraq War," pp. 47-49.
16Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army, p. 26.
17O'Ballance, "The Iran-Iraq War," p. 50.
18Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army, p. 30.
19Staudenmaier, "Military Policy and Strategy in the
Gulf War,"Parameters, Volume XII, June 1982, p. 30.
20Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 38.
21Cordesman, "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War: Part Two,"
22Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 38.
24Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Iran-Iraq War: Attrition
Now, Chaos Later," Aarmed Forces Journal International, May 1983,
25Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 38.
26Cordesman, "The Iran-Iraq War: Attrition Now, Chaos
Later," p. 41.
29"Counterthreats," Time, August 8, 1983, p. 42.
30Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 38.
31Quiet War: Iran and Iraq Go Full Tilt," Time,
February 27, 1984, p. 63.
32"Unsafe Passage," Time, December 5, 1983, p. 58.
33"Fight to the Finish," Time, June 11, 1984, p. 36
35"Finally a Crack in the Door," Time, August 6, 1984,
36Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 38.
37"Situation Stalemate," Time, October 29, 1984, p. 59.
38Charles Doe, "U.S. Restraint in Persian Gulf Seen
Paying Off," Army Times, September 17, 1984, p. 18. Source:
Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
39Article from Arab newspaper Alwatan, February 1, 1985,
translated by Ltcol. Abdul Wahab Al-Anzi, Army of Kuwait.
40Staudenmaier, "Military Policy and Strategy in the
Gulf War," p. 31.
41Ibid., p. 32.
43James Kelly, "Battling for Advantage," Time, October
24, 1983, p. 35.
44Staudenmaier, "Military Policy and Strategy in the
Gulf War," p. 31.
ANALYSIS OF THE WAR
Wars are not normally started at the whims of those in power.
Usually, there is some calculated decision made to launch an
attack on another country, based upon intelligence that provides
the aggressor with suitable confidence that he will be successful
in his endeavor.
Such was the case in the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein had
determined clear political objectives well prior to September
1980. These objectives were stated earlier in this paper. But,
Hussein had to have indications on when the best time for an
attack would occur.
In 1979, Iran was in the midst of revolution, led by the
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This fundamentalist Islamic revolt
posed a threat to Iraq by promising to encourage the Shiite
majority to rebel against the Sunni led govenment. The turbulence
of the young revolution also indicated to Hussein that the
Iranians would be disorganized and far too concerned about
internal affairs to contend with an attack from another country.
From his past dealings with Khomeini, Hussein also knew that the
Ayatollah had a score to settle.1
Khomeini injected further bad feelings into the fray when he
rejected the 1975 Algiers Accord, claiming the entire Shatt
al-Arab belonged to Iran. Hussein could not sit idly by and
acquiesce, since the Shatt provides single access to the Gulf from
Basra, Iraq's major port and most vital to Iraqi oil flow.
Hussein countered by denouncing the Algiers Accord himself and
again claimed the important waterway.
Hussein grasped the opportunity to energe as leader of the
Arab world by buffering the contagion of the Islamic revolution to
other Arab states. No single country had emerged to take over
from the Egyptians, who were viewed as having sold out the Arab
world at Camp David. Hussein, in a quick trounce of Iran, could
become leader of the Arab nations, could promote pan-Arabism, and
could, at the same time, unite the Arab armies for a final
confrontation with Israel. A conference of non-aligned nations
was to be held in Baghdad in 1982, and if Hussein could first
defeat Iran, he would possess enhanced influence at that
conference.2 Both situations were in line with stated
Since 1973, oil prices had helped Iraq, and Iran, develop a
strong economy. Hussein was certainly able to use oil income to
improve the standards of life throughout Iraq, showing the Iraqi
people the success of socialism, another Baathist objective.
Hussein also calculated that he could increase Iraqi oil income by
taking the southern Iranian province of Khuzistan, and, at the
same time, liberate the Arabs in the province.3
All of these factors contributed to making Hussein and his
advisors overly confident. They also considered that Khomeini was
not firmly entrenched in power and that Iranian society would
probably not support Khomeini. The Kurds in northern Iran were
also taking advantage of the revolution by insisting on autonomy.
The armed forces of Iran were in a shambles and probably would
lack leadership, the highest of whom had all been purged, to wage
an effective defense against an invasion. And lastly, the United
States, who had supplied Iran with most of her arms and military
supplies, had embargoed the flow of spare parts because of the
hostage crisis. Thus, the Iraqis guessed that most of the Iranian
war machine was inoperative.4
Saddam Hussein, therefore, had very good indications that
Iran was ripe for attack. He also knew he had to launch the
assault before the rainy season started in November, since this
would bog him down and allow Iran to reorganize. Of course,
Hussein, as well as most Western analysts, did not think the war
would last more than a few weeks.
Hindsight is a wonderful teacher. It is easy to see what
went wrong for the Iraqis. But at the time, Hussein could not
have guessed that he would fail. He had planned well, but
Clausewitz's 'friction of war' would disrupt his plans.
Iraqi forces quickly conquered the border. Two attacks in
the central and northern regions were supporting attacks to the
main blow designed for Khuzistan. The supporting attacks were
tactically sound, blocking any route of advance from Iran to
Baghdad. The mountainous area in the north had few avenues
through which an army could pass and could be secured relatively
To the south the Iraqi army found that the Iranians were much
more tenacious than would have been thought. Elements of the
Regular Army, the Pasdaran, and the "Army of Twenty Million" put
up a tremendous fight. But the Iraqis managed to move forward.
They eventually seized Khorramshar, but stopped short of seizing
Dezful and Ahvaz, since Hussein did not want to expend Iraqi
lives. Using tanks in built up areas was proving disastrous.
Therefore, laying siege to these cities, and to Abadan, seemed to
be appropriate. By November, the Iraqis had advanced as far as
they were going to, and dug in to wait out the rainy season. This
loss of momentum was to be Iraq's downfall. By stopping, Iran
would have time to reorganize and reequip it's forces.
Strategically, Iraq had to secure all of Khuzistan if they
hoped to insure the integrity of the Shatt al-Arab. The main
Iraqi port of Basra lies within artillery range of Iran and if
Iraq expected to keep its economy alive, control of the Shatt all
the way to Basra was extremely important.
Iraq never concentrated forces on the most critical front.
Forces were diverted to Abadan when they should have been
attacking Ahvaz and the airbase at Dezful, where the enemy forces
were. This strategy violated a considered must of combat:
concentrate on defeating the enemy s military force.5
In Khuzistan, Hussein was surprised that the local Arab
population did not rise up to help the Iraqis 'liberate' them. It
would seem that fighting for one's homeland is sometimes more
important than fighting for ethnic or religious beliefs.
Saddam Hussein erred grossly in judging the enemy. He was
not prepared to wage a long war since he had to maintain a guard
against not only Iran, but his hated enemy Syria to the west.
Also, he had to be continually concerned with the Kurds. Fighting
along a 733 mile border would be difficult enough, but adding
other fronts would make the war impossible to fight. Hussein
faced a conundrum indeed.
So Hussein found himself in a precarious position in November
of 1980. He had not won a quick, decisive victory. The prospect
of continued war was very real and he would be fighting a
religious fanatic who had professed the rise of Shiite Moslems to
overthrow their Sunni leaders. Would the Iraqi Army, led by
Sunnis, but composed mostly of Shiites, continue to fight? Yet,
Hussein had started the war well, but he could not lose face now
by pulling out with no gain. He would have to reevaluate his
strategy to determine the next move.
In June 1982, Hussein made peace overtures. He could not
continue to fight with limited manpower. The population had grown
weary of war. Iraqi offensives had all faltered and Iran seemed
to have the initiative.
When Khomeini refused to talk, Hussein had no choice but to
hunker down in defensive positions and hope to destroy any Iranian
offensives. While waiting for inevitable attacks, he could rearm,
but to rearm meant he would have to increase oil sales and affect
other regional economies.
During 1982, Syria had cut-off the Iraqi pipeline to the
Mediterranean. Saudi Arabia had agreed to build a pipeline from
Iraq to the Red Sea, but this would take four years to
complete.6 Iranian special forces units had also cut the oil
pipeline through Turkey.7
Hussein was caught in a tough situation. He could not stop
the war he had started without losing power. And, he could not
continue the war without weapons. The Iranians seemed to have
unlimited manpower that they were willing to waste in human-wave
assaults. Iraq did not. The Iranians had shown resiliency and
the ability to organize their forces for offensives.
While he continued to rely on other Gulf states for financial
support, particularly Saudi Arabia, Hussein decided the only way
he could hurt Iran was by stopping their oil flow. To do this he
would use his air assets to attack shipping in the Gulf. He knew
Iran was also suffering from the war, and if he could interdict
the oil flow, he might still have a chance.
France boosted Hussein's prospects by supplying Super-Etenard
fighters and Exocet missiles in November of 1983. This allowed
Hussein to attack Gulf shipping, and Kharg Island, with relative
impunity. To date, the most accurate figures available show 75
attacks have been made on merchant ships, 46 of them
These attacks have not seriously interrupted Iran's oil flow.
But they have given Iraq time to rearm and rebuild defensive
positions. By the last half of 1984, Iraq seemed to have the
advantage in weaponry and was prepared to continue the war.
Hussein had dug himself into a precarious position, but had
not been ousted. His attempts to end the war seem to have put him
in good stead with the population and showed the world that he
could accept peace. Yet, he could not end it by stepping down and
admitting total failure. By continuing the conflict, he has
stopped the Islamic revolution from spreading. Saddam Hussein, in
1985, is sitting exactly where he wants. All he has to do is hold
off a massive Iranian offensive and wait for the unstable
situation in Iran to develop. The strategy of stalemate is alive
Iraq's attack on Iran served to strengthen the Iranian
revolution, rather than demoralize it. The tenacity of
revolutionary movements should not be underestimated. Khomeini
was able to use the invasion to his advantage and consolidate his
position of power.
The attack was not a surprise to Khomeini. His hatred of
Hussein and his desire to broadcast Islamic fundamentalism
threatened Iraq and he knew it. Bani-Sadr had been informed
throught the summer of 1980 that the Iraqis were massing forces on
the border, a strong indication that something was about to
Yet Iran had big problems of their own. The U.S. hostage
crisis was still occupying the country's time and Iran feared
attempts to free the hostages, or, even more serious, an invasion
by U.S. forces. Khomeini also had thrown out the Soviets, yet he
was vulnerable in the north from the Soviet Union and from the
east in Afghanistan where war was raging. At the time, he
probably would have been content to continue his rise to power
isolated from all the threats in the region.
Once the war started, the Iranians, though disorganized, put
up a tenacious fight. The Pasdaran, in the south, fought with
amazing revolutionary zeal for promised martyrdom in service to
their country. Many young boys and old men, though poorly
trained, fought heroically in the cities of Khorramshar, Dezful,
Susangerd, and Ahvaz. Their efforts stopped the Iraqi army.
The Iranians then had to decide what to do about the war.
They successfully blockaded the Shatt al-Arab, a move that could
potentially strangle the Iraqi economy. They also began to
reorganize their forces, reestablishing a command structure and
combining the efforts of the Pasdaran and the regular army. This
was most difficult, given the distrust of the Pasdaran for the
army that existed prior to the war.
The most obvious move was to drive the invading army out of
Iran. Coupled with this objective, Khomeini calculated he could
drive to Baghdad and ensure the downfall of Hussein and his
Baathist government by liberating the Shiite majority.
Accordingly, President Bani-Sadr began to plan for the first
The first Iranian offensive in January 1981 proved to be a
failure. Coordination of all forces was notably lacking. Iran
stumbled into an ambush that cost them dearly. Yet, Khomeini was
now able to claim the initiative. As the Islamic revolution
progressed, he bacame more powerful by fighting the invading
devils of Iraq.
Khomeini fired Bani-Sadr, the only other legitimate power
broker in Iran, and further consolidated his power. The military
resolved their problems and finally became an effective fighting
force. Successful battles were waged from 1981 to 1983, using
human-wave assaults, that proved Khomeini could fight the war
successfully. But he could not sustain the drive necessary to end
the war. Logistically, he was in serious trouble. Every attempt
to break through Iraqi lines and continue the attack had failed.
Khomeini was uninspired by the negotiating table. His
revolution had shown real power and he had grander designs for the
whole region. Personal hatred of Hussein prohibited discussions
of peace. He continued the fight and attempted to restore
By 1984, however, his lack of success in defeating Iraq was
beginning to take its toll. Iranians were beginning to question
human-wave tactics and the terrible loss of life that was
occurring. Though the Imam claimed to be strong, he could not end
the war. He had massed a half million soldiers on the border,
ready to pursue the final offensive, yet he had not ordered it.
Perhaps he was beginning to fall out of favor with the population
and did not want to risk defeat or annihilation of his forces.
For whatever reason, Khomeini has practiced the strategy of
stalemate as well as Saddam Hussein has.
Despite a sizeable armored Iraqi force used in the initial
southern attack, Iraq failed to concentrate the tanks and
consistently lost time and space advantages. Despite Soviet
doctrine of 'daring thrusts', Iraq used World War II tank tactics
and hesitated after each tactical success. This was particularly
true at Dezful and Ahvaz, where they should have aggressively
attacked while defenses were still relatively weak.
Problems were compounded by using tanks to attack built-up
areas, without infantry support. This resulted in continual
losses of the tanks and an inability to mass artillery fires.
Thus, the towns were not secured, but a siege was imposed.
Both sides made good use of terrain and defensive position.
Channeling the enemy into killing zones has worked well, but shows
the inability of opposing forces to use maneuver warfare to
outflank the defenses. At those times when penetrations of
defensive positions have been made, the Iraqis have shown an
inability to redeploy or use their reserves effectively.10
The sophisticated weaponry possessed by both sides has not
been used as intended. For instance, tank gun sights and fire
controls are not used well because of a lack of training and
understanding. Tanks tend to shoot from 200-300 yards, making
them particularly vulnerable. Because of this, the tanks have
come to be used more as mobile artillery. They are dug in to
reduce vulnerability, but lose manueverability.
Another problem with the armor was the inability to resupply.
Many tanks were abandoned on the battlefield because of shortages,
and it is indicative of a poorly trained and commanded army.
Both sides have demonstrated poor battlefield tactics with
armor. But Iraq has used the lesson of the 1973 Israeli War to
advantage. Behind the lines, they have been able to move armor
using tank transporters procured after 1973. These transporters
save wear and tear on the tanks and AFV's and allow faster
movement. This is a factor which Western armies might
Both sides have shown an inability to use combined arms
effectively. This is indicated by a lack of integration of armor
and infantry, as previously mentioned. But it is also evident in
the use of artillery. Artillery is used primarily on area
targets, such as suspected enemy positions, or to blast enemy
positions when armor is advancing or digging in. Shifting and
massing of fires to support maneuver is characteristically
lacking, as is counter-battery fire.12
The infantry on both sides have fought bravely, even with
poor training and lack of supporting arms. They have adapted
rapidly to the terrain and are able to use the terrain to their
advantage, especially in defensive positions. Any invading force
should recognize the potential tenacity of untrained troops
fighting for their homeland and their ability to use terrain to
their advantage in the defense.
Leadership has also been questionable for both sides. The
political entities of both countries tend to distrust military men
and are always concerned with possible coup attempts. This
results in inflexibility in combat operations since commanders
will probably not be trusted should they attempt to demonstrate
initiative and take advantage of tactical situations. Lack of
initiative and inability to operate independently pervades even to
NCO ranks and accounts for some of the combat failures suffered on
both sides. This is not surprising given the traditional lack of
trust deriving from personalism. Lack of initiative results in
fear of failure.
Logistics has also caused the combat arms to suffer. Lines
of communication are extremely long and subject to interdiction by
artillery and air. Several offensives by Iran have failed because
of lack of logistical support. Iraq seems to have maintained
LOC's relatively well, though logistical resupply suffers without
At the beginning of the war, both sides had been armed
heavily after years of trading with the superpowers. Iran, under
the Shah, had purchased U.S. weapons. Iraq, though beginning to
diversify in 1979, had purchased mainly Soviet weaponry. Both
countries relied on superpower assistance to provide spare parts
and provide advisors for training and operations.
The day the war started, the Soviet Union stopped further
sales of arms to Iraq as a kind of retribution for not being
informed of Iraqi plans to invade Iran. Iran, of course, had been
cut off from U.S. assistance since the hostage crisis had begun.
As the war progressed, resupply of weapons and spare parts
became essential. Oil revenues could, of course, be used to
purchase weapons. There were many countries throughout the world
willing to act as suppliers since big money was involved.
Money is a powerful tool in third world countries. Advanced
technology weapons are highly sought after and appear readily
available, even though the arms suppliers operate beyond the
bounds of "normal" international relations.13
The Iraqis soon obtained weapons from Warsaw Pact nations,
China, Egypt, North Korea, the Soviet Union and, most notably,
France. France has reportedly supplied Iraq with over 9 billion
dollars of quality weaponry.14
This situation emphasizes the need for a short war between
nations without an industrial base to manufacture their own
instruments of war. To continue such a war, nations will
necessarily rely on more powerful nations for resupply. And this,
of course, is contingent on the ability to pay.
As it turns out, the Arab saying, "The enemy of my enemy is
my friend," has been applied to the Iran-Iraq war. Israel,
worried about Iraq and the Arab world, began supplying Iran with
U.S. manufactured weaponry and spare parts. It was in Israel's
best interest to distract Iraq, who has a stated Baathist
objective of defeating the Israelis. Syria, in an effort to
discredit Iraq and assume the role as the most powerful Baathist
state, also began supplying Iran with Soviet made weaponry.15
The Regional Problem
Fears of an expanded war have been intense in other Gulf
states. Given the stated intent of Khomeini's revolution to be a
holy crusade throughout the Islamic world, the other Gulf states
do not want to become drawn into the war, since it would obviously
destroy their economies. Overt support for either side is also
out of the question, as taking sides could have serious reprisal
implications should the other side win.
Yet, it would seem that the Gulf states might have supported
Iraq before Iran. In fact, Saudi Arabia underwrites a great
portion of the Iraqi war expense. Kuwait openly supported Iraq
until they were bombed by Iran, a warning not only to Kuwait but
to all other regional onlookers.
To support each other and provide some semblance of security,
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in 1981. It
has worked very well by expressing political solidarity. The six
member nations are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates,
Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.16
Both superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union,
were caught off-guard by the start of the war. The United States,
of course, had been attempting to solve the hostage crisis since
before the war started and was not on friendly terms with Iran.
And, the U.S. had not had diplomatic relations with Soviet backed
Iraq since 1968. The Soviets had not been welcomed in Iran by the
Shah, and were tied down in Afghanistan. Khomeini, a religious
fanatic, was definitely not willing to deal with the Soviets.
When Iraq invaded, the Soviets immediately stopped supplying
weapons since Iraq had not consulted them concerning the attack.
The Soviet Union did, however, sign a treaty of 'peace and
friendship' with Iraq after the war began and has been supplying
weaponry ever since.
It would seem that neither superpower has any desire to see
either side win the war. The balance of power in the region is at
stake and a decision remains delicately poised. When the war
started, both superpowers calculated that it would be over
quickly, at which time they could influence the winners and
losers. A wait-and-see attitude prevailed, and, as the world
waited, the war continued with less and less chance of superpower
Both superpowers are, of course, interested in the outcome of
the war. But intervention is ruled out because of potential
escalation and confrontation. The wait-and-see attitude will most
likely continue until there is an end to the fighting, at which
time both the U.S. and the Soviet Union could be expected to make
United States Interest
The most important U.S. concern in the Gulf is oil, though
this is not the sole concern. In 1973, Western Europe derived 60
percent of its oil, and Japan 90 percent, from Gulf suppliers. In
1984, these figures were about 40 and 60 percent respectively.
The U.S. gets only about 3 percent of its oil from the Persian
Gulf.18 Because of this heavy supply of oil to allied
countries, keeping the oil flowing has become a vital interest to
the United States.
Of primary concern, then, is keeping the Strait of Hormuz
open to shipping. Khomeini threatened closure of the Strait when
Iraq started shooting at tankers, but has not yet attempted this
drastic step. Oil production seems to have continued at a
relatively even pace with no serious degradation since the war
began. Though Iraq has continued to shoot at tankers in the Gulf,
driving insurance rates up, there is no shortage of vessels and
voluntary crews to transit the Strait.19
The U.S. has three major policy objectives with respect to
the current Gulf crisis. One is to prevent disruption of oil
shipments that would cause serious hardship for Western economies.
Another is to ensure the security of oil-producing governments in
the area that have been friendly to the West and have resisted
Soviet expansionism in the Gulf. And lastly, the U.S. would like
to ensure that whatever the outcome of the war, the Soviet Union
would not have a dominant position in either country.20
The Carter Doctrine of 1980 addressed the stated intention of
the U.S. to intervene militarily in the region if the shipment of
oil was halted or curtailed.21 President Reagan, in a
February 22, 1984 press conference, also said that the U.S. is
committed to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open.22 Keeping
friends in the area is vitally important for the prosecution of a
military campaign. And, the U.S. is taking steps to defuse Soviet
influence in Iraq; diplomatic relations were renewed with the
opening of embassies in both countries in December 1984.23
Iraq had been removed from the "anti-terrorist" list in early
1982, opening the way for renewed relations.24
Chapter 3 - Footnotes
1Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 33.
2Staudenmaier, "Military Policy and Strategy in the
Gulf," p. 28.
3Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 34.
4Ibid., p. 36.
5Cordesman, "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War: The First
Round," p. 47.
6Kelly, "Battling for the Advantage," p. 35.
7Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 37.
8Drew Middleton, "Will Iran's 'Vietnam' Be Khomeini's
Downfall," Navy Times, February 11, 1985, p. 23.
9Hickman, Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army, p. 18.
l0Cordesman, "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War: Part Two,"
11Ibid., p. 74.
13Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 40.
15William E. Smith, "A Quest for Vengeance," Time, July
26, 1982, p. 21.
16Michael Sterner, "The Iran-Iraq War," Foreign Affairs,
Fall 1984, p. 141.
17"Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 40.
18Sterner, "The Iran-Iraq War," p. 138.
19Ibid., p. 139.
20Ibid., p. 140.
21Grummon, "The Iran-Iraq War: Islam Embattled," p. 88
22Daly, "The Not-too Forgotten War," p. 38.
23Don Oberdorfer, "U.S., Iraq Resume Diplomatic Ties,"
Washington Post, November 27, 1984.
Each year the war continues, analysts predict an imminent end
within months. However, this writer believes that the Iran-Iraq
war will not end until the leaders of one government, Hussein or
Khomeini, are overthrown or die, naturally or unnaturally. The
war has now sputtered since September 1980. With each passing
month, hatreds become entrenched. The devastation has been
immense and both sides appear tired.
Hussein first made overtures for peace in June 1982. But
Khomeini still refuses to talk. Iran did not start the war and
the Ayatollah will not consider peace until Hussein is executed;
his Baathist party toppled from power; and an Islamic republic
emerges to pay reparations for the devastation of Iranian
Of course, Hussein will not agree to these terms. If he
admits failure and steps down, he will have weakened Iraq and the
roots of his Baathist party. He is willing to withdraw, so long
as the Shatt al-Arab dispute is settled. Finally, Iraq does not
have $100 billion to pay reparations. So the war continues, if
only to the extent that shipping is being attacked in the Gulf.
The most likely outcome is that the restoration of Iraq's oil
income and rebuilt force will enable her to wait out the Iranian
It is wise for U.S. analysts to consider different outcomes
of the war in order to steer U.S. policy. Some suggested outcomes
are detailed below.
Suppose the Iraqis stage a mass air attack on Iran that
fails. The Iraqis certainly have the resources to stage such an
attack, but it would probably fail if it would be aimed at the oil
production capabilities at Kharg Island and Bandar Khomeini. This
would not shut down Iran's larger economy and could result in
weakening the Baathist government since any failure in a perceived
last-ditch effort might cause Hussein to lose his grip on the
Iraqi nation. Iran could emerge as too powerful in the Gulf and
could coerce other Gulf states. This Iranian victory would
subject other Arab nations to the prospect of exported Islamic
The second possibility would be for Iran to launch its
long-awaited massive offensive, including broadening the war by
attacking Iraq's Gulf neighbors. Such an attack would be a
bloody, three front war in which Iranian forces might simply
overrun Iraqi positions with manpower. Cost in human lives would
be tremendous. Results of the attack, however, given past
performance of Iraqi troops in defensive positions, would not be
certain. At best, the Iranians would be able to bring down
Hussein. But the high human cost of victory could put Khomeini in
jeopardy and might lead to his downfall. If Khomeini wanted to
escalate the war to other Gulf states, he would probably attempt
to close the Strait of Hormuz, drawing the U.S. into the action.
If the U.S. gets involved, there is a good possibility that the
Soviet Union would respond. Escalation is a real possibility with
Iran becoming a battleground for the superpowers. The stakes seem
The third major possibility is that a negotiated settlement
might be reached between the warring nations. This is, of course,
highly unlikely, but must be considered. If a cease-fire could be
reached, it would probably be very tenuous. Both sides would have
time to rebuild and rearm to await further combat. Through
rearming, Iran and Iraq would maintain their status as the most
powerful states in the Gulf, with trained, experienced armies. If
they were to ignore each other, they would probably attempt to
wage war somehere else, given their stated political objectives.
Iraq could go after Syria or even mount an Arab attack against
Israel. Iran could go after the other Gulf states in the name of
the Islamic revolution. In any event, stability in the region
would still be tenuous, as long as the current leaders are in
United States Policy
Iran is clearly the more valuable strategic prize in the
region.6 Although wounds are still festering after the
overthrow of the Shah and the subsequent hostage crisis, the U.S.
must keep channels open to Iran to ensure Soviet interference is
The religious leader Khomeini, however, despises the United
States. It is unlikely that relations can be implemented while he
is in power. Given the apparently strong position of Iran in the
war, the U.S. must take precautions to ensure the Islamic
revolution does not spread. If it did, Iran would control the
entire Persian Gulf and oil prices, or embargoes, could hurt
Western economies. Given past U.S. performance in dealing with
complex religious issues in this part of the world, actions
favorable to the U.S. may be difficult to ascertain.
While claiming strict neutrality, the U.S. has taken steps to
ensure a strong blocking position against Iran. Diplomatic
relations have been reopened with Iraq. Support for the GCC
member nations has been ensured. U.S. arms sales continue to
Saudi Arabia as well as participation in the AWACS program. The
U.S. must ensure the GCC that they are willing to support them in
the face of escalation, but should insist on GCC suppport for U.S.
forces should the occasion for intervention arise. Such is not
now the case.
Arab states tend to be somewhat leery of the U.S., given the
U.S. policy of supporting Israel. Past U.S. diplomacy in dealing
with the Arabs has not been stellar. No Arab state wants to be
put into such a precarious position of dependence on the U.S. that
it cannot support other Arab nations, particularly with regard to
the Arab-Israeli problems that have existed for years.8
The U.S., then, must ensure that its policies are
middle-of-the-road and attempt not to alienate any of the nations
involved. This is a very complex issueand a difficult position in
which to be, but necessary if influence in the area is to be
Considerations for the U.S. Military
The U.S. Central Command is charged with the military
responsibility of Iran and Iraq. By studying the Iran-Iraq war,
some lessons can be learned to enhance U.S. forces success should
military intervention ever be required. Before listing those
lessons, though, the U.S. military should determine where and how
they could intervene.
Iran is the most likely target for hostile military
intervention, given its control of the Strait of Hormuz, the choke
point to Persian Gulf oil. There are essentially three routes
into Iran that could be pursued with amphibious assault, air
assault, or ground assault. Any one, or a combination of all
three methods, could be conducted. Figure 5 details the area in
An amphibious assault could probably only be executed
southeast of the Strait of Hormuz since any amphibious task force
would be at high risk attempting to enter the Persian Gulf through
the Strait. Thus, that portion of Iran on the Gulf of Oman would
seem to be the most likely route from the sea.
An air assault, though very difficult, could be conducted
from friendly countries on the western side of the Persian Gulf,
across the Gulf, into Iran. The UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are
candidates for staging areas. An air assault would be very risky
since the forces would have to be light to get into Iran. Lines
of communcicaton would be extended and open to interdiction. Any
air assault would probably have to be performed in support of an
Click here to view image
A ground assault could come from Pakistan or through Turkey.
Both of these operations would risk direct confrontation with the
Soviet Union given the proximity of Soviet units in Afghanistan
and the USSR respectively. The narrow border between Turkey and
Iran could pose problems, as well as the rugged terrain of the
Zagros mountains. From Pakistan, ground forces would have to move
great distances to get to the strategic objective of the Strait of
Hormuz, creating line of commmunications problems and
vulnerability of the force.
These alternatives must be considered in terms of the
strategic objective of any military action. The most obvious
strategic objective, given the stated U.S. policy of keeping the
oil flowing, is the Strait of Hormuz. It is unlikely that an
objective of toppling the government in Teheran would be
contemplated, though the Iranians would have to be kept from
interdicting oilers transiting the Gulf.
Whatever the strategic objectives are, the tactical
objectives must fit the situation, a lesson Hussein learned too
late. U.S. forces would necessarily have to occupy controlling
terrain, but should also concentrate on destroying the enemy
military machine. And, once the objectives have been achieved,
the U.S. should plan on how to get out of the region. A
prolonged war would probably be avoided.
The Iran-Iraq war, in some ways very similar to conventional
warfare as fought in World Wars I and II, has demonstrated
considerations of modern mid-intensity warfare that must be taken
into account. The lessons of the war should be learned by the
U.S. military as they apply to this type of conflict.
Even though armed with high-technology weapons, both Iran and
Iraq demonstrated that they could not use them effectively.
Training is essential if these weapons are to be used as intended.
Spare parts must also be available, as well as fuel and
ammunition, to keep weapons working. The U.S. military should
never plan that a confrontation will be short-lived and therefore
not require considerable logistical support.
The U.S. should not discount the enemy's lack of training and
inability to use modern weaponry. The enemy can still wreak havoc
when he is fighting tenaciously for his homeland or for a
religious cause. The fanatic enemy may also consider use of
chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons if he believes all
is lost. Never underestimate the enemy.
The Iran-Iraq war has also shown that it is vitally important
to be able to use coordinated arms attacks to be successful. The
U.S. stresses the importance of offensive maneuver warfare.
Boldness, speed in the attack, coordinated use of all weapons, and
combined arms operations are all important aspects of
doctrine.10 U.S. commanders must ensure that this doctrine
is adhered to, and they must be given the latitude to exploit the
enemy weaknesses by applying doctrine as required. Using all
available assets to win the battle as quickly as possible should
be the primary concern of the on-site commander.
Should the U.S. ever have to intervene in Iran, there are
other considerations to take into account. The terrain is very
important. Depending on where attacks will be made, terrain will
have an impact on the composition of forces. The region is not
all flat desert, suitable for mechanized operations. Fighting in
marshlands or mountains must also be considered. Combat in
built-up areas should be avoided, but if required, troops should
know how to conduct this type of battle.
The weather is also a prime consideration. The rainy season
runs from November to February, during which movement is severely
curtailed. The cold in the winter can be devastating, as well as
the extreme heat during the summer months. Dust storms can create
severe problems, limiting visibility and permeating everything
with which it comes in contact. The extreme weather can have
disastrous effects on men and machinery and non-combat losses can
be expected to be heavy unless proper precautions are taken.
Disease is also a concern in the area. Diseases carried by
mosquitoes and sand flies often reach epidemic proportions.
Non-combat losses from sickness must be considered.
These lessons from the Iran-Iraq war should be heeded by the
U.S. military forces assigned to CENTCOM. It is unlikely that
military intervention will be required as long as the war
continues. But planning for the intervention should proceed at
high pace. The stability in the region has been suspect for some
time, and will probably continue to be so.
In this writer's opinion, the Iran-Iraq war will continue as
long as Hussein and Khomeini are in power. The U.S., and the
Soviet Union, will continue to remain neutral, though covertly
trying to influence events in the region. Iran, the strategic
prize for both superpowers, will not be touched by either side
until Khomeini is removed. At that time, it would seem prudent
for the U.S. to attempt to bring Iran back into the fold.
Something like injecting the Shah's exiled son into power would
serve the U.S. well. Whatever happens, though, the U.S. must be
ready to intervene militarily in the region to ensure the
currently thriving economies of the Western nations continue.
Chapter 4 - Footnotes
1Evans, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody Tomorrows," p. 43.
2Anthony H. Cordesman, "The Iran-Iraq War in 1984: An
Escalating Threat to the Gulf and the West," Armed Forces Journal
International, March 1984, p. 30.
5William J. Olson, "The Iran-Iraq War and the Future of
the Persian Gulf," Military Review, March 1984, volume 64, p. 18.
6Grummon, "The Iran-Iraq War: Islam Embattled," p. 57.
7Smith, "A Quest for Vengeance," p. 45.
8Sterner, "The Iran-Iraq War," p. 143.
9Daly, "The Not-too Forgotten War," p. 40.
10Staudenmaier, "Military Policy and Strategy in the
Gulf War," p. 30.
There are no primary sources used in this paper.
Gabriel, Richard A., Fighting Armies, Antagonists in the Middle
East, A Combat Assessment. Westport Connecticut: Green
wood Press, 1983. A comprehensive analysis of the
histories of many mid-East armed forces.
Grummon, Stephen R., The Iran-Iraq War, Islam Embattled.
Georgetown University, 1982. A very good synopsis of
the war through 1982.
Hickman, William F., Ravaged and Reborn: The Iranian Army,
1982. The Brookings Institution, 1982. An excellent
history of the Iranian armed forces.
Theses and Research Papers
Martinson, Martin J., "The Iran-Iraq War: Struggle Without
End," Quantico, Virginia, Marine Corps Command and
Staff College, 1984. Covers the first three years
of the war.
Radwan, Ann B., "Iraq-Iran and the Gulf: The Regional
Dynamic," Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Army War College, 1982.
Staudenmaier, William O., "A Strategic Analysis of the
Gulf War," Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Army War College, 1982. Well written paper cover-
ing all aspects of the war.
Journals and Periodicals
Beck, Melinda and James Pringle, "The Point of No
Return," Newsweek, 11 June 1984, p. 50.
Brelis, Dean, "In Jordan: An Interview with King
Hussein," Time, 26 July 1982, pp. 22-23.
Brelis, Dean, "Massacre at Fish Lake," Time, 2 Aug-
ust 1982, p. 27.
Cordesman, Anthony H., "The Iraq-Iran War: Attrition
Now, Chaos Later," Armed Forces Journal Inter-
national, May 1983, pp. 36-44+. All of Cordesman's
articles are extremely informative, well written, and
superb analyses of the war.
Cordesman, Anthony H., "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War:
Part Two, Tactics, Technology, and Training," Armed
Forces Journal International, June 1982, pp. 68-85.
Cordesman, Anthony H., "Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War:
The First Round," Armed Forces Journal International,
April 1982, pp. 32-47.
Cordesman, Anthony H., "The Iran-Iraq War in 1984: An
Escalating Threat to the Gulf and the West," Armed
Forces Journal International, March 1984, pp. 22-30+.
Cook, Nick, "Iraq-Iran: The Air War," International
Defense Review, 1984, Volume 17, No. 11, pp. 1605-1607.
Cottam, Richard, "The Iran-Iraq War," Current History,
January 1984, pp.9-12+.
Daly, Thomas M., "The Not-too Forgotten War," Naval
Institute Proceedings, June 1984, pp.38-45.
Deming, Angus and Ray Wilkinson, "The Gulf War:
Raising the Stakes," Newsweek, 5 December 1983,
Doe, Charles, "U.S. Restraint in Persian Gulf Seen
Paying Off," Army Times, 17 September 1984, p. 18.
Drozdiak, William, "Drums Along the Border," Time,
19 July 1982, pp.44-45.
Drozdiak, William, "Death Struggle in the Desert,"
Time, 9 August 1982, p. 26.
Ellis, William S., "Iraq at War: The New Face of
Baghdad," National Geographic, Volume 167, No. 1,
January 1985, pp. 80-109.
Evans, David and Richard Campany, "Iran-Iraq: Bloody
Tomorrows," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings,
January 1985, pp. 33-43. A very good article.
Hillenbrand, Barry, "A Way to Distract the Enemy,"
Time, 13 August 1984, p. 36.
Horton, Bob, "Khomeini's Iran: A Turn Toward Moder-
ation?," U.S. News and World Report, 22 October
1984, pp. 39-40.
Howarth, H.M.F., "The Impact of the Iraq-Iran War on
Military Requirements in the Gulf States," Inter-
national Defense Review, 1983, No. 10, pp. 1405-1409.
Kelly, James, "Battling for the Advantage," Time,
24 October 1983, pp. 34-36.
Kohan, John, "Iraq Deals Death at Sea," Time, 9 July
1984, p. 57.
Kohan, John, "Finally, A Crack in the Door," Time,
6 August 1984, p. 42.
Liner, Bennice L., "Iran-Iraq:An Overview," Naval War
College Review, July-August 1984, pp.97-102.
Medina, Sarah C., "A Costly, Bloody Stalemate," Time,
29 November 1982, p. 42.
Middleton, Drew, "Will Iran's 'Vietnam' be Khomeini's
Downfall," Navy Times, 11 February 1985, pp. 23-24.
O'Ballance, Edgar, "The Iran-Iraq War," The Marine
Corps Gazette, February 1982, pp. 44-50.
Olson, William J., "The Iran-Iraq War and the Future
of the Persian Gulf," Military Review, March 1984,
Vol. 64, pp. 17-29.
Sciolino, Elaine, "A War Without End," Newsweek, 15 August
1983, pp. 33-34.
Sciolino, Elaine, "A Strategy of Terror," Newsweek, 27 Feb-
ruary 1984, pp. 49-50.
Smardz, Zofia, "Iraq's Nerve-Gas Factory," Newsweek,
27 August 1984, p. 47.
Smith, William E., "A Quest for Vengeance," Time,
26 July 1982, pp.18-25.
Smith, William E., "Sand, Flies and Corpses," Time,
2 August 1982, pp.26-27.
Smith, William E., "Fight to the Finish," Time,
11 June 1984, p. 36.
Staudenmaier, William O., "Military Policy and Strategy
in the Gulf War," Parameters, Volume XII, No. 2,
June 1982, pp. 25-35. A rehash of his paper.
Stengel, Richard, "Arming a Quiet Bystander," Time,
2 July 1984, p. 23.
Sterner, Michael, "The Iran-Iraq War," Foreign Affairs,
Fall 1984, pp.128-143.
Trimble, Jeff, "Report From the Gulf: Bracing for War,"
U.S. News and World Report, 11 June 1984, pp. 35-36.
Utting, Gerald, "Arming Iran and Iraq", World Press Review,
June 1984, pp.49-50.
"Shi'ites: A Feared Minority," Time, 26 July 1982, p. 24.
"Personal Power, Personal Hate," Time, 26 July 1982, p. 25.
"Multiple Mission: Iraq Wins Some Support," Time,
24 January 1983, p. 42.
"The Last Blow: Iran's Latest Offensive Founders,"
Time, 21 February 1983, p. 46.
"Counterthreats: Iran's Diversionary Tactics," Time,
8 August 1983, p. 42.
"Nowhere to Hide: Civilians are Often Targets," Time,
7 November 1983, p. 75.
"Unsafe Passage: The Last Voyage of the Antigoni,"
Time, 5 December 1983, p. 58.
"Quiet War: Iran and Iraq Go Full Tilt," Time,
27 February 1984, p. 63.
"Bomblets Away: A Chilean-Iraqi Connection," Time,
27 August 1984, p. 34.
"Situation: Stalemate," Time, 29 October 1984, p. 59.
"Making Up: The U.S. and Iraq Renew Ties," Time,
26 November 1984, p. 75.
Alwatan, Arab newspaper from Kuwait, 1 February 1985,
translated by LtCol. Abdul Wahab Al-Anzi, Army of Kuwait.
Oberdorfer, Don, "Iraqi Hails Peace Bid," Washington
Post, 7 October 1984, p. A21+.
Oberdorfer, Don, "U.S., Iraq Resume Diplomatic Ties,"
Washington Post, 27 November 1984.
"Iran Takes Range in Iraq; Baghdad Says Invasion
Halted," Washington Post, 21 October 1984, p. A28.
"Iran Hints at Easier Stance On Ending War with Iraq,"
Washington Post, AP, 28 October 1984, p. A35.
"Iraqi Warplanes Attack Greek Supertanker in Gulf,"
Washington Post, 16 December 1984, p. A28.
"Iraq Says It Downed Two Iranian F4s," Washington Post,
30 December 1984, p. A16.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list