Iran Iraq War/Middle East
Iran Iraq War - Roots of Malice - Middle East

Iran Iraq War - Roots of Malice

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on


When the Ottomans had been dethroned from their empire, in the aftermaths of WW1, and their land broken down into several states including Iraq - neighboring Iran was still under the dynastic rule of the Qajar.

Persia had been part of the Great Game since the Russo-Persian War of 1722, at that time the Safavid dynasty ruled Persia. Russia ceded from at its south, Persian territories of the Caucasus, decisively in 1813. In 1881 Russia annexed Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and in the 1890s it seized the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara, which were both dependencies of Persia at the time. On their west, the Persians had made the Treaty of Kerden, since 1746, with the Ottomans, agreeing on borders between them.

The two hundred years between 1772 and the Islamic Revolution, are chalked by Persia’s wrangling between Russian and British intrigues and even though ruled by their own kings, by no means was Persia sovereign over its matters in all this time. Both Russia and Britain wrestled for control over Persia. In this tug-of-war, because of the Soviet’s direct presence on its borders and having territorial wars with it, Persia always took Russia as its real enemy in comparison with Britain. Yet Britain proved time and again to be only a fair-weather friend.

At the time of the 1813 Russo-Persian War, Fath Ali Shah was in an allegiance pact with the British against the Russians for an annual subsidy of 120,000 pounds. But in the wake of Napoleon’s invasions that were threating Britain’s home-ground, the British befriended the Russians, choosing not to assist the Persians against the Russian attack.

Britain’s reason for seeking Persian allegiance had only been one, that Persia should not try to take over Afghanistan, destroying the buffer between Britain and Russia, nor should it allow Russia to use its own soil as a route to India.

Russia and Britain both had their Permanent Residents in the Shah’s court, and forced the Shah to remain embroiled in the tug-of-war between the two super-powers. In 1855, with Russian approval, Persia eventually took over Herat, which they considered to be part of their empire.  In reaction the British waged the Anglo-Persian War upon them, inflicting a conclusive defeat upon them in the case of Afghanistan.

Almost two centuries of interventions and intrigues in the Persian court by the Russians and the British, left Persia exhausted with wars and the extensive trade concessions exacted upon them. Some of these were the Reuters Concessions, which would give the British-Jewish Banker control over Persian roads, telegraphs, mills, factories, extraction of resources, and other public works – the establishment of the Imperial Bank of Persia – and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company working in Khuzestan, the province of the Bakhtiari Tribes, since 1908. This widespread monopoly over the economy of Persia had left Persia bankrupt and morally broke, at the wake of WW1.

When WW1 erupted, the threat of Germany looming upon both Russia and Britain, joined both of them in the Anglo-Russian Alliance once again, just like they had made against Napoleon. In this alliance they divided Persia into three zones of influence, the south zone to be controlled by Britain, the north zone by the Russians and the central buffer zone. During the War Iran was ‘occupied’, with foreign garrisons everywhere.

At the final stages of the War, the Bolshevik Revolution broke Russia from inside and it withdrew its forces from Iran, letting Britain make Iran a solely British protectorate. In 1921 the British allowed Reza Shah Pahalvi, commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade to take over Tehran and end the Qajar rule. Reza had made goodwill with the British and with him the British would find a strong ruler who could stop the Bolshevik advance into Persia. But with time he proved to be indifferent to British interests too, especially posing a threat to the British oil concern in Iran.

Being deeply suspicious of the British, Reza started seeking German technical assistance in economic, industrial, and military projects. When WW2 broke out, the British demanded Reza to expel all the Germans from Persia, which the Shah failed to do. As a result Anglo-Soviet forces once again invaded Persia in August 1941, only to withdraw five years later in 1946. First thing the British did was to abdicate the Shah and instate in his place his young son Mohammad Reza Shah. In 1951, parliamentarian Muhammad Mossedeq was elected Prime Minister. With foreign troops withdrawn, Mossedeq attempted the daring feat of nationalizing the oil industry – this proved suicidal for him.

In August 1953, the CIA and MI6 jointly managed a coup, ousting him and replacing him with General Fazlollah Zahedi. And now the oil revenues had to be shared equally with the Americans. This ultimate power of the British and the US over Iran’s affairs made the Shah a permanent stooge of the west, at least in the public’s eye. Under British and US influence Iran entered the Baghdad Pact, provoking Soviet enmity again, and opening the door for western arms supplies into Iran. In particular, the Shah launched the White Revolution of reforms and westernization in 1963, this instigated protests around the country. Ruh’ullah Khomeini was one of the leaders of the protests and he was exile in 1964.

The founding of OPEC in 1960 at the Baghdad Conference, by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela was also a game-changer event. Becoming a cartel gave these nations a new sense of control. Yet it only added to the intrigues of the intervening powers, who were well-verse with the art of changing sides when or even before the hour should demand.

With the inception of the OPEC there was a boom in revenues from the Persian oil in the 70’s, profits jumped from $1billion in 1970 to 21billion in 1977. In addition to technological advances, this also brought consumerism, and the rich-poor gap widened, increasing anti-Shah sentiments and protests. In January the Shah went into exile and in Feb. 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran, welcomed by a crowd of an estimated five million people. Khomeini ended the monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Khomeini dismissed all western interests, including the oil concessions, at once. Without the oil the British naval presence in the Persian Gulf had to be called back, and Persia was no more in the UK/US camp, nor was it with the Soviets, whom they had constantly been denied the drilling rights of oil in the north due to their armed presence in some northern territories. In the same year Russia had invaded Afghanistan, entering a ten-year unfruitful war.

And only one year later, Iraq imposed a war upon Khomeini’s Iran in 1980.


Before WW1, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had ensured that in case of Allied victory and the dismantling of the Ottomans, Syria, Lebanon and North Iraq were to be given to France – and Jordan, South Iraq and Palestine to Britain, but after the War, the whole of Iraq went into the British sway.

Immediately with these occupations each of these states started their struggles for independence. Iraq, like all the Ottoman lands that had taken part in the Great Arab Revolt, did so to rid itself of the centuries old yolk of Ottoman control – not to be thrown into the laps of their age-old civilizational rivals of the West. All these lands from Iraq to Egypt aspired for an Arab Nationalism, and dreamed of an Arab Union in place of the union under the Ottomans. But this dream was smashed very soon after each of these states gained their independence; Egypt, Syria and Yemen shortly joined together as the United Arab Republic, but were soon disappointed with the unity. Jordan and Iraq were successfully made to remain aloof of such a unity from the beginning by instating the two sons of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Bin Ali, Abdullah and Feisal as kings of Jordan and Iraq respectively, tilting them towards the British bloc.

But the sentiments for Arab unity kept smoldering.

The Ba’ath Party was a socialist front with the slogan of Arab Nationalism and Pan-Arabism. The Ba’ath Party had branches in several Arab states but its main branches were in Syria and Iraq. These were controlled by a central committee under Michel Aflaq (a Christian), Salah al-Din al-Bitar (a Sunni Muslim) and Zaki al-Arsuzi (an Alawite), since its creation in 1947.

The Hashemite Monarchy of Iraq was overthrown by Brigadier Abd al-Karīm Qāsim in a 1958 coup. Following that was the Ba’athist coup led by Hassan al-Bakr in 1963 and in 1979, Saddam Hussein another leading Ba’athist forced al-Bakr to resign in his favor.

Under Hassan al-Bakr, Iraq executed a military campaign against the Kurds in 1963, this campaign was successfully repelled by Mustafa Barzani’s organized militia, who had returned in 1958 after eleven years in Russia. In 1967 Iraq took part in the unsuccessful Six Day War, which was a severe blow to Arab unity. In 1969, the Ba’athist government made yet another war on the Kurds, inflicting wide-spread massacre upon them. The Kurds got support from two directions, one the Iranians, who wanted to use them as a proxy that would engage the Iraqi’s from within and as a card to safeguard their border issues with Iraq and also help protect Shia interests in the country. The other direction of military aid and training was the US, UK, France conduit. Reportedly in 1972, at request of Shah of Iran, Pres. Nixon agreed to help arm the Kurds in Iraq. This was in concert with Iraq’s decision to nationalize its oil and the US placing it in the list of terror-supporting states.

In October 1973, Iraq was again engaged in a united front against Israel, in the Yom Kippur War. This war was basically aimed against Nasser’s military buildup aided by the Soviet Union. This was the time when the Shah of Iran, in his desire to strengthen Iran’s position in the OPEC, was trying to come in agreement with other Arab states including Iraq. To please Iraq the Shah cuts off supplies to the Kurds and Iraq was able to defeat them. In response Iraq agreed to share control of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway with Iran too.

With the end of WW2 and the start of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to build new alliances against the US, and the anti-Israel Arab states were a perfect group that dreadfully needed its help. Among others Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen became major recipients of Soviet arms. While with Iran the Soviets would only mend their ways after the ousting of the pro-western Shah, with Iraq the relations had been revived with the ousting of the Hashemite in 1958, and especially with the Ba’ath regime that needed to arm itself for its Pan-Arabism dream.

So at the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq had fortified with Soviet weapons and Iran had a luxuriant previous supply of US and UK arms. But with Khomeini’s arrival Iran faced the crisis of spare-parts and depletion, and had to again look to the Soviets, the Chinese and the Black Market for replenishments.

Geopolitics has as many standpoints as you chose to stand. From the US-Israel standpoint, the only way the newly carved Israel would survive in a hostile Arab neighborhood, that was unceasing waging one war after another upon it, could only be a very weak and un-united Arab world. The Arabs states had created out of the fragmented Ottomans, and the British had smashed the Ottoman only with their own Revolt based on Arab Nationalism – so as long as the dream of Arab Nationalism was alive, Israel would not be able to sleep in peace. And pitching the Arabs in their own wars, would be the only guarantee for Israeli peace.

From the Russian standpoint, this very force of Arab Nationalism could be harbored to broaden the Soviet bloc. The friend of the Arabs enemy was Russia’s biggest foe too. All this made Iraq a natural ally of the Soviets. Nevertheless Soviet relations with Iran were also to change now, especially because of the Afghan War, wherein Iranian support was most desired, whom they hoped could help build a pro-Russia Northern Alliance with its Shi’ite population. Furthermore the newly exacted US sanctions would tilt Iran to do more business with the Soviet bloc, a mutually beneficial way forward.

From Libya and Syria’s standpoint, who had had their failed experiment of an Arab unity and furthermore had developed a long-standing grudge against Jordan and Iraq for their Hashemite factor. For these reasons they were not ready for a Greater Iraq in their premise - so in case of war they would rather see Iran winning the war.

But Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and Turkey, who were all in the US bloc would give full assistance to Iraq. During the war, Egypt, sent troops, tanks and heavy artillery to Iraq and Turkey sends troops to fight rebels in Iraqi Kurdistan, freeing Iraq's army to concentrate on fighting Iran.  And surprisingly of all Israel supplied arms to Iran, apparently just so the war could be prolong and an Arab state weakened. Britain, though outwardly supplying arms to Iraq, made indirect deals with Iran too, supplying it via Greece.

It seems that the moral of this war was to reap all possible arms deals and on both sides of the war if you get the chance to.

From the ideological perspective too, the fear of Khomeini-inspired Islamic Revolution was not an unreasonable one. It was as real as the Bolshevik revolutions, and had its adherents in the Shi’ite communities that lived in Iraq and on the east and south of the Arabian Peninsula. Most of Khomeini’s exile years had been in Iraq, and Iraq had not had a pleasing experience with him. He supported the banned Shi’ite al-Daʿwa Party (Nouri al Maliki was a top leader of this party) and his supporters vilified the Ba’ath regime as anti-Islamic and a US-puppet. Increasing support for Khomeini forced the Iraqi government to make political activity illegal in May 1978 and he was forced to exile from Iraq to France in October 1978.  

So fear and lust both prompted Saddam to act militarily. Though 80% of Iraq’s population is Arab but 51% is also Shia, which gives it a slight majority over the Sunnis. And if this Shia population decided to stand with Khomeini that would be an utter disaster for Saddam’s Iraq. This war could also become the opportunity for Saddam to reassert Iraq’s complete suzerainty on the Shatt al Arab waterway. And in return for Iran’s long time support to the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam could attempt to snatch away Khuzestan, the oil rich province. This goal was also not new, Iraq had publically been supporting the liberation of this province by the name of Arabestan since long.  

So before and during the war Iraq have fully supported by the US and UK, to the limit of receiving inhuman biological weapons. The Independent issued a report in 1998 declaring how the US company ATCC and British Porton Down were involved in the supply and shipment of strains of Anthrax to Iraq. This and other weapon grade chemicals supplied were used against Iranians and at the end of the war on the Kurds.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy writing in his memo mentions that during the Iran Iraq War, Reagan/Bush were influenced by two kinds of lobbies, ‘one bloc, which included the national-security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, and two members of his national Security Council staff, Howard Teicher and Oliver North, argued in favor of arming Iran’ and a ‘pro-Iraq faction, led by Secretary of Defense Weinberger, of State George Shultz, and Assistant Secretary Richard Murphy’. And it is interesting how the same people provided weapons to both sides of the war, after all wars are sites of the most lucrative business.

The Pentagon and CIA provided Iraq with satellite and AWACS intelligence and Special Forces to train Iraqi commandos. US sold $20billion worth weapons to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who funneled those to Iraq. The Thatcher administration allowed the Astra Company to sell weapons illegally to Iraq. The EXIM Bank was used bank for large scale financing of US exports to Iraq. The Soviets supplied weapons of an estimated $10Billion, while France provided over worth 5billion.

On the other hand British MI6 tied up with Iranian born Jamshid Hashemi, for illicit arms trade to Iran. British-made motorboats, reinforced to carry heavy machine guns, exported to Iran via Greece, were one of Hashemi’s deals. Oliver Norton arranged to deal with Iranian arms broker Manucher Ghorbanifar – through him over 2500 TOW missiles and 250 Hawks were delivered to Iran in one deal. The money from this deal was diverted to the Contra Rebels who were fighting against the pro-Soviet Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Later known as Iran-Contra Affair, this was double ploy from the US side, wherein two wars were fueled.

The US also allowed brokers in the Afghan mujahedeen network to sell US made arms to the Iranians. But foremost of all Israel was given the free-ticket to Iran. In the Shah’s time Israel had been a major arms dealer to Iran, with Khomeini this relationship had tottered, now in the wake of the war, Iran made the "Jews for arms" deal in Paris, wherein Jews would be allowed to emigrate in return for spare parts for Chieftain Tanks and F-4 Phantom aircraft. Ya'acov Nimrodi was the intermediary, TOW missiles, Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, 155 mm mortars and ammunition were delivered. The London Observer estimated that Israel's arms sales to Iran total $500 million annually, which would make an estimate of $4.5billion in the 9years war.

In June 1981, Israel attacked and destroyed the Osirak, Iraq’s nuclear facility bought from and maintained by France, being developed for peaceful energy purposes.

The war ended in 1988, total causalities on both sides are estimated between 150,000 and 1million and an economic loss of over 500billion at each side. Peace talks continued till early 1991, when the Iraqi military finally withdrew.

In this time Iraq faced another deadly episode with Kuwait in August 1990. If the Gulf War is seen as an extension of the Iran-Iraq War, one can conclude that once the war was over the British and US needed to immediately change sides, making Iraq the enemy so as to ensure that Arab states would not come out of own-wars ever, nor be able to stand against Israel again.

Though remaining a strong conduit for arms and aid to Iraq throughout the War, one should reckon that Kuwait’s support for Iraq was not on the basis of Arabism or any like phenomenon, but simply in fulfillment of US policy. One should remember that while Iraq got its independence in 1936, Kuwait and other coastal cities like Bahrain and Qatar, that were originally part of Ottoman provinces, were carved apart and remained under British occupation till the 60’s. And it was ensured that these would not rejoin their motherlands when independent, but would rather serve as forward stations for propagating US and British interests in the Middle East permanently.

Immediately after the Iran Iraq War, Kuwait started tapping oil from inside the Iraqi border, and doubled its oil production to over 2 million barrels a day, resulting in what Saddam called ‘an economic warfare against Iraq’. For these reasons Saddam was forced to recall the fact that Kuwait was historically Iraqi land and it should be reclaimed. Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and with a few months the US alone amassed 700,000 US troops around Kuwait, with further coalition of about 200,000 troops. Operation Desert Storm completely devastated Iraq’s military capability and severely damaged it infrastructure.

Meanwhile Iran started heavily rearming by purchases from USSR and China. In the wake of a strong Iran and a potential invasion by the US, Saddam wrote to Rafsanjani stating that Iraq recognized Iranian rights over the eastern half of the Shatt al-Arab, and would accept Iran's demands and withdraw Iraq's military from the disputed territories.

Though Saddam was able to stop the Islamic Revolution at its frontiers, but the war left both countries devastated. Just after the end of this war, the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan too, in 1989, and Iran slowly moved into the Russian camp, but Iraq and Saddam were to be left without friends.

Until it would be re-invaded by the US/NATO, a decade and a half later, in 2003. And what happened between Saddam, the US, UK and the UN in all this time, and how in the span of time, Iran moved from isolation to regional strength, is another story to be told…