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  • James Houser

September 22, 1980 - The Iran-Iraq War Begins

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 22, 1980. Saddam Hussein wants a short, victorious war. He plans to dive into this weaker country, seize some territory that will give him control over the Gulf oil fields, and call it good. Should be simple, right? No, the date isn’t wrong. I’m not talking about Kuwait, or Desert Storm. On this date in history, Iraq invaded Iran, starting the last symmetrical total war of the 20th Century, and one of the most forgotten: the Iran-Iraq War.

Before 1979, Iraq and Iran had been two stable – if not friendly – neighbors. They were not without their arguments, though, the main one being the territorial dispute over the Shatt al-Arab. The Shatt al-Arab is the main watercourse that connects Iraq’s main port of Basra to the Persian Gulf, which makes it basically Iraq’s only pathway to the sea. Without the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq would be landlocked.

The Shatt al-Arab, though, also flowed past Abadan, Iran’s largest port and the key center for the oil-producing province of Khuzestan. The eastern course of the Shatt al-Arab is literally the border between Iraq and Iran. So both Iraq and Iran had overwhelming interest in this region, and there had been diplomatic disputes and war scares over it throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

But the two rulers of Iraq and Iran were, if not GOOD men by a long shot, reasonable men. The Shah of Iran was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was a corrupt, autocratic monarch backed by the West, which made him the target of liberals and socialists (for his dictatorial ways) and the religious conservatives (who hated his alliance with the West). Reza Shah’s Iran – with its vast Shi’a Muslim majority - was the regional hegemon in the Middle East: it is three times larger and three times more populous than Iraq, and has a far greater stretch of coastline on the outside world. Iran was and is by every index far more powerful than Iraq, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s it had been the threat against Iraq, rather than the other way around.

The leader of Iraq you know very well. His name was Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s legacy to this day is influenced by the Iraq War, and for some reason a number of people see him as a victim. The later fate of Saddam, and Iraq, at the hands of Americans has tended to overshadow the fact that Saddam Hussein was an absolutely ruthless dictator. His Ba’ath Party was backed by the minority Sunni Arab population in the north and west of the country, and his secret police were the absolute terror of the majority Shi’a Arabs and the Shi’a Kurds in the north. Saddam was one of the seven or eight most wicked dictators of the 20th Century – but he wasn’t irrational.

What is important here is that both Reza Shah and Saddam were secular autocrats, rather than overly motivated by religion. In fact, they lived in breathless fear of religious radicalism. Saddam was an Arab nationalist of the kind that had been on the rise since the 1930s, and was always looking to enhance his position among the other Sunni Arab powers – hence his half-hearted participation in the wars against Israel. Reza Shah ran a modern, refined regime that was well-respected by the West and foreign backers, but utterly despised by most of his own people. Both Saddam and Reza were propelled by self-interest and self-preservation, not a divine mission.

Unfortunately for both countries, the new ruler of Iran would be motivated by a divine mission. In January 1979 the Iranian Revolution broke out, forcing the Shah to flee. His replacement as the Supreme Leader of Iran would be the fundamentalist radical Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who returned from exile to steer the Revolution in a reactionary direction. He declared Iran to be an Islamic Republic, and began asserting power ruthlessly. Trials and executions of opponents and subversives followed, and despite women’s marches and ethnic revolts by the Kurds, soon Khomeini’s regime had pulled out ahead of the other revolutionary factions – though the liberals and socialists in particular did not go out without a fight.

Khomeini broke Iranian relations with the West and the rest of the Islamic world, as every other Middle Eastern nation looked at Iran with frank alarm. Saddam, the Saudis, the Egyptians, everyone, all looked at Iran and said “Holy shit, that could happen to us.” And Iran’s subsequent behavior gave them reason to fear.

Khomeini promoted a militant religious doctrine rejecting not only the long-standing secular political order of the Middle East, but also the whole international system and its complex of great powers. He believed that the territorial nation-state needed to be transcended by a broader pan-Islamic identity, and that Iran would be the springboard for the worldwide dissemination of this radical message. Khomeini claimed that “we will export our revolution throughout the world.”

To me, this sounds familiar – this sounds like an Islamic Vladimir Lenin or Leon Trotsky. Khomeini’s revolutionary Islam did, and does, have a LOT in common with Marxist-Leninist vanguardism. And he engendered the same reaction. Whether you were capitalist, communist, a monarchy like the Saudis or a right-wing dictatorship like Saddam, this was a very sudden and very real threat.

Khomeini’s proclamations soon bore fruit. There were riots by Shi’a minorities in some of Saudi Arabia’s rich oil-producing provinces. Similar disturbances occurred in Bahrain and Kuwait, all backed by Iranian operatives and subversives. The first target of Khomeini’s world revolution, though, obviously had to be Iraq, where a Sunni minority ruling class held the Shi’ites under their thumb. Iraq was also Iran’s largest obstacle in its quest for military hegemony over the Gulf, and some of the new Iranian leadership outright stated that Saddam was their biggest threat.

By June 1979, the new Iranian regime was publicly urging the Iraqis to overthrow Saddam, sending arms and money to the Iraqi Kurds, fostering underground Shi’ite movements in Iraq, and initiating terror attacks on Iraqi officials. Several key ministers barely escaped assassination. Saddam was shocked; at first, he had viewed the Revolution as a possible ally against the Saudis or the West and had been openly friendly to them. Instead, he now began to look at military solutions to the Iranian provocations. In fact, he thought, he could turn this crisis into an opportunity: a chance to seize the coveted Khuzestan Province, center of Iran’s oil production, and secure the Shatt al-Arab. Since Iran was an international pariah, who would stop him?

So Saddam began gearing up the Iraqi Army for a short, victorious war. His plan was to quickly seize the main portions of Khuzestan in a lightning strike, then either use this as a bargaining chip to force Iran to the table, or annex them outright. He expected that the Arab population of Khuzestan would rise up to support him, and that a swift show of military force would case the Revolutionary government to cave. Saddam saw a war as the solution to his problems: a patriotic struggle to rally his diverse, divided country behind him, a way to settle the long-standing territorial dispute, total dominance over the Gulf oil market during the heyday of OPEC, and a preemptive strike against the threatening Revolutionary regime in Iran. Throughout the summer of 1980, border clashes began, and soon war was on the horizon. It was not a question of if but when.

On September 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army thundered over the border into southwest Iran. This was bad terrain for an attack, with multiple river crossings, boggy ground, and dense urban areas, but at first the Iraqi troops found it easy going. The reason for this was that the Iranian military was in bad, bad shape. Until 1979, the Shah’s army, navy and air force had been the most powerful in the Middle East. When the Revolutionaries took over, though, they purged the upper ranks of the Shah’s loyalists, resulting in most of the officer corps being removed on the brink of war. To further neuter the army, Khomeini had introduced the highly motivated but poorly trained Revolutionary Guards as a rival paramilitary force. The crippled military command, and the enthusiastic but hapless Guards, seemed like no match for even a third-rate military like the Iraqi army.

Within days, though, the Iraqis faced heavy resistance. The poorly trained and ill-equipped Guards fought with surprising tenacity and courage, making the Iraqi army pay a heavy price in urban areas. A particularly ferocious battle raged for Khorramshahr throughout early October – a city that would change hands four times in the war. Each side suffered about 7,000 casualties, and the Iraqis lost over 100 armored vehicles. By the time the Iraqis had overrun Khorramshahr on October 24, it was referred to on both sides as the “city of blood.”

What saved Iran was not its military resistance, though, but Saddam’s limited objectives. Saddam had not made the decision to go to war easily, and only wanted to exploit a temporary opportunity created by the revolutionary chaos in Iran to gain a buffer zone and some border territories. Instead of trying to deal his Iranian foes a mortal blow in an all-or-nothing war, Saddam restricted his army’s goals and targets. The invasion was only carried out by half of his 12-division army, and once they had secured the Shatt al-Arab and certain portions of southern Khuzestan he ordered his army to halt and dig in. The expected Arab uprising had not materialized, and the people of Khuzestan remained conspicuously indifferent.

Saddam expected that a limited but decisive campaign would force Iran to the bargaining table and indicate that he wanted a settlement, not total conquest. He badly miscalculated. Much like the French Revolution coming under attack in 1793, or the United States being attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the sudden shock of foreign invasion caused Iran to suddenly unite in patriotic fervor. The Ayatollah may well have been toppled after a while if the war had not come – but since it did, the nation fell in behind him to defend their homeland. A revolutionary regime under attack is all the more likely to respond with commitment and vehemence, since it stands much more to lose in terms of legitimacy; the Ayatollah channeled both patriotic and religious commitment into the defense of the nation.

Instead of seeking peace, the clerics in Teheran used the Iraqi invasion as a tool to consolidate the regime, defeat their opposition, and solidify their role. Instead of causing his enemies to cave, Saddam made them stronger – and by not going for a killing blow when he had the advantage, Saddam gave them time to prepare.

Iran’s leadership reacted quickly, conscripting massive numbers of men into the Guards, returning many officers to service with the army, and flooding large areas of Khuzestan to deny them to the Iraqis. Saved from a decisive defeat in the early war, Iran was able to draw all their forces from their various borders and turn their larger population and economy to their aid. By October, the Iranian Air Force was bombing Baghdad, and soon both sides were routinely blasting each other’s capitals. The war was coming home to the civilian population. Soon Saddam realized his mistake, and tried to advance further into Iran, but what was within grasp in September was heavily defended in November. Saddam had sought a quick, successful war – but now he was stuck in a quagmire that only threatened to get worse.

By 1981, Iran began counteroffensives of its own, with its units hammering away at Iraqi positions. Ayatollah Khomeini ignored Saddam’s offers for a ceasefire and continued his relentless attacks. At first, these attacks failed, as the human wave assaults of the Revolutionary Guards were blown apart by Iraqi tanks, airstrikes, and artillery. Soon, though, the Iranians were figuring out how to use their paramilitary in tandem with the regular army units. Saddam went from proposing peace to begging for it, by early 1982 stating his readiness to pull out from Iran completely. The war was already taking too long, becoming too expensive, and had not been the miracle he wanted. Now he was stuck in it, and Iran refused to hear any offer of peace.

In 1982, Iran launched serious offensives, starting with Operation Undeniable Victory in March. The largest campaign of the war thus far, it involved 100,000 troops on each side. Both forces undertook high-stakes, high-powered, conventional warfare with armor, artillery, helicopters, close air support and infantry in heavy combat for weeks. The Iranian attack began with a surprise assault by armored units, followed by suicidal human-wave assaults from the Guards. These attacks depleted the Iraqi ammunition, overwhelmed multiple positions, and were even used as human mine detectors in a terrifyingly ruthless abuse of human life. By the end of the campaign, the Iranians had encircled and destroyed two entire Iraqi divisions, and Khorramshahr fell once again.

In one of his wisest decisions, Saddam made the difficult decision to withdraw his crumbling army from Iran entirely and reform behind the international border. He once again suggested peace, pointing to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and offering his foes the chance to stop fighting and help their fellow Shi’ites against the hated Israelis instead. This move, however, failed to appease Iran. They declared their new war aims: the overthrow of Saddam, massive reparations, and the restoration of Shi’ite rights and privileges in Iraq. Saddam could not possibly accept these terms, and even the wailing of the UN did nothing to end the war. Now Iran was invading Iraq, and the war would be fought on their turf.

I will leave off the detailed narrative here. The Iran-Iraq War soon degenerated into one of the most costly and futile conflicts in Middle Eastern history. It would last almost eight years until Iran accepted a UN-imposed ceasefire, but only after Iraq was finally able to resume the offensive in 1988 and placed enough pressure on Iran to end the conflict. Both sides had used multiple proxy and guerrilla forces on each other’s territory throughout the war, and this only exacerbated the long-simmering ethnic tensions and turmoil in both states. Saddam singled out the Kurds for particular ire, since he felt they had betrayed him by siding with Iran. This did not begin the long-term Iraqi Arab/Kurdish antipathy, but it certainly lit it on fire.

The Iraq-Iran struggle resembled World War I more than any other conflict. Massive trench lines, parapets, and bunker complexes faced each other for years, with costly Iranian human wave attacks countered by Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Soon the whole area between Basra and Khuzestan was a moonlike landscape of craters, ditches, dead men and debris as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was locked into the struggle it started but no longer wanted, and Revolutionary Iran pressed the war it had not started but would not quit. Both nations suffered catastrophic human losses approaching 500,000 military dead on both sides, and around 100,000 civilian dead total. It was a true total war, since both sides committed their full economic and military power to the total overthrow of the other by the end – although neither side would achieve this. The peace resulted in nothing but status quo.

Internationally, most nations had stood aloof at first – not wanting to support an aggressor, but not liking Iran’s new regime. This had changed when Iran looked like it might actually overrun Iraq, and soon the United States and Soviet Union were both rearming Saddam in an effort to keep the Islamic Revolution from spreading. American presence in the Gulf resulted in international incidents with both powers when the “tanker war” began and both Iraq and Iran started targeting each other’s oil pipelines and tankers with aircraft and ships. The Strait of Hormuz became so famously dangerous that it was lampooned in a Far Side cartoon. Whatever the international situation, though, the struggle between Iran and Iraq was a war of their own making. Believe it or not, you really can’t blame the United States for this one. (People try to.)

The agonizing, costly, destructive, and ultimately meaningless Iran-Iraq War finally ended on August 20, 1988. It still reverberates throughout the region today. It cemented the Iranian regime, a regime that still exists and still seeks to expand its Revolution – but really just wants to be a regional hegemon. It frustrated Saddam, who soon began looking for other, easier targets to invade, and we all know where that leads.

Thus ended the 20th Century’s last great total war between real militaries and, so far, the last total war period. I can’t think of a more recent conflict where both powers committed their entire state and people to war for years at a time. But I wouldn’t relax too quickly. The 21st Century’s just getting started, after all.

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