THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR
As of June 1987, the major events of the war could generally be divided into six overlapping phases: the original Iraqi offensive, Iranian mobilization and resistance, the Iranian counteroffensive, the war of attrition, Iraqi internationalization of the war, and the surge in superpower involvement. In addition, there was the tanker war in the Persian Gulf, which extended over several of these phases.
The Original Iraqi Offensive
Baghdad originally planned a quick victory over Tehran. On September 22, 1980, Iraqi fighter aircraft attacked ten air bases in Iran. Their aim was to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground -- a lesson learned from the Arab-Israeli June 1967 War. They succeeded in destroying runways and fuel and ammunition depots, but much of Iran's aircraft inventory was left intact. Simultaneously, six Iraqi army divisions entered Iran on three fronts in an initially successful surprise attack. On the northern front, an Iraqi mountain infantry division captured Qasr-e Shirin, a border town in Bakhtaran (formerly known as Kermanshahan) Province, and occupied territory thirty kilometers eastward to the base of the Zagros Mountains. This area was strategically significant because the main Baghdad-Tehran highway traversed it. On the central front, Iraqi forces captured Mehran, on the western plain of the Zagros Mountains in Ilam Province, and pushed eastward to the mountain base.
Mehran occupied an important position on the major north-south road, close to the border on the Iranian side. The main thrust of the attack, however, was in the >south. Iraqi armored units easily crossed the Shatt al Arab waterway and entered the Iranian province of Khuzestan. While some divisions headed toward Khorramshahr and Abadan, others moved toward Ahvaz, the provincial capital and site of an air base. Supported by heavy artillery fire, the troops made a rapid and significant advance -- almost eighty kilometers in the first few days. In the battle for Dezful in Khuzestan, where a major air base is located, the local Iranian army commander requested air support in order to avoid a defeat. President Bani Sadr, therefore, authorized the release from jail of many pilots, some of whom were suspected of still being loyal to the shah. With the increased use of the Iranian air force, the Iraqi progress was somewhat curtailed.
The last major Iraqi territorial gain took place in early November 1980. On November 3, Iraqi forces reached Abadan but were repulsed by a Pasdaran unit. Even though they surrounded Abadan on three sides and occupied a portion of the city, the Iraqis could not overcome the stiff resistance; sections of the city still under Iranian control were resupplied by boat at night. On November 10, Iraq captured Khorramshahr after a bloody house-to-house fight. The price of this victory was high for both sides, approximately 6,000 casualties for Iraq and even more for Iran.
Iranian Mobilization and Resistance
Iran may have prevented a quick Iraqi victory by a rapid mobilization of volunteers and deployment of loyal Pasdaran forces to the front. Besides enlisting the Iranian pilots, the new revolutionary regime also recalled veterans of the old imperial army, although many experienced officers, most of whom had been trained in the United States, had been purged. Furthermore, the Pasdaran and Basij (what Khomeini called the "Army of Twenty Million" or People's Militia) recruited at least 100,000 volunteers. Approximately 200,000 soldiers were sent to the front by the end of November 1980. They were ideologically committed troops (some members even carried their own shrouds to the front in the expectation of martyrdom) that fought bravely despite inadequate armor support. For example, on November 7 commando units played a significant role, with the navy and air force, in an assault on Iraqi oil export terminals at Mina al Bakr and Al Faw. Iran hoped to diminish Iraq's financial resources by reducing its oil revenues. Iran also attacked the northern pipeline in the early days of the war and persuaded Syria to close the Iraqi pipeline that crossed its territory.
Iran's resistance at the outset of the Iraqi invasion was unexpectedly strong, but it was neither well organized nor equally successful on all fronts. Iraq easily advanced in the northern and central sections and crushed the Pasdaran's scattered resistance there. Iraqi troops, however, faced untiring resistance in Khuzestan. President Saddam Husayn of Iraq may have thought that the approximately 3 million Arabs of Khuzestan would join the Iraqis against Tehran. Instead, many allied with Iran's regular and irregular armed forces and fought in the battles at Dezful, Khorramshahr, and Abadan. Soon after capturing Khorramshahr, the Iraqi troops lost their initiative and began to dig in along their line of advance.
The Iranian Counteroffensive
Iran had created the SDC in 1980 to undertake what the Iranians called Jange Tahmili, or the imposed war. Iran launched a counteroffensive in January 1981. Both the volunteers and the regular armed forces were eager to fight, the latter seeing an opportunity to regain prestige lost because of their association with the shah's regime. Iran's first major counterattack failed, however, for political and military reasons. President Bani Sadr was engaged in a power struggle with key religious figures and eager to gain political support among the armed forces by direct involvement in military operations. Lacking military expertise, he initiated a premature attack by three regular armored regiments without the assistance of the Pasdaran units. He also failed to take into account that the ground near Susangerd, muddied by the preceding rainy season, would make resupply difficult. As a result of his tactical decision making, the Iranian forces were surrounded on three sides. In a long exchange of fire, many Iranian armored vehicles were destroyed or had to be abandoned because they were either stuck in the mud or needed minor repairs. Fortunately for Iran, however, the Iraqi forces failed to follow up with another attack.
After Bani Sadr was ousted as president and commander in chief, Iran gained its first major victory, when, as a result of Khomeini's initiative, the army and Pasdaran suppressed their rivalry and cooperated to force Baghdad to lift its long siege of Abadan in September 1981. Iranian forces also defeated Iraq in the Qasr-e Shirin area in December 1981 and January 1982. The Iraqi armed forces were hampered by their unwillingness to sustain a high casualty rate and therefore refused to initiate a new offensive.
In March 1982, Tehran launched a major offensive called "Undeniable Victory." Its forces broke the Iraqi line near Susangerd, separating Iraqi units in northern and southern Khuzestan. Within a week, they succeeded in destroying a large part of three Iraqi divisions. This operation, another combined effort of the army, Pasdaran, and Basij, was a turning point in the war because the strategic initiative shifted from Iraq to Iran. In May 1982, Iranian units finally regained Khorramshahr, but with high casualties. After this victory, the Iranians maintained the pressure on the remaining Iraqi forces, and President Saddam Husayn announced that the Iraqi units would withdraw from Iranian territory.
The War of Attrition
The "war of attrition" began after the Iranian high command passed from regular military leaders to clergy in mid-1982. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy used "human-wave" attacks by the Pasdaran and Basij against the city's defenses, apparently waiting for a coup to topple Saddam Husayn. All such assaults faced Iraqi artillery fire and received heavy casualties.
Throughout 1983 both sides demonstrated their ability to absorb and to inflict severe losses. Iraq, in particular, proved adroit at constructing defensive strong points and flooding lowland areas to stymie the Iranian thrusts, hampering the advance of mechanized units. Both sides also experienced difficulties in effectively utilizing their armor. Rather than maneuver their armor, they tended to dig in tanks and use them as artillery pieces. Furthermore, both sides failed to master tank gunsights and fire controls, making themselves vulnerable to antitank weapons.
Internationalization of the War
Beginning in 1984, Baghdad's military goal changed from controlling Iranian territory to denying Tehran any major gain inside Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq tried to force Iran to the negotiating table by various means. First, President Saddam Husayn sought to increase the war's manpower and economic cost to Iran. For this purpose, Iraq purchased new weapons, mainly from the Soviet Union and France. Iraq also completed the construction of what came to be known as "killing zones" (which consisted primarily of artificially flooded areas near Basra) to stop Iranian units. In addition, according to Jane's Defence Weekly and other sources, Baghdad used chemical weapons against Iranian troop concentrations and launched attacks on many economic centers. Despite Iraqi determination to halt further Iranian progress, Iranian units in March 1984 captured parts of the Majnun Islands, whose oil fields had economic as well as strategic value.
Second, Iraq turned to diplomatic and political means. In April 1984, Saddam Husayn proposed to meet Khomeini personally in a neutral location to discuss peace negotiations. But Tehran rejected this offer and restated its refusal to negotiate with President Husayn.
Third, Iraq sought to involve the superpowers as a means of ending the war. The Iraqis believed this objective could be achieved by attacking Iranian shipping. Initially, Baghdad used borrowed French Super Etendard aircraft armed with Exocets. In 1984 Iraq returned these airplanes to France and purchased approximately thirty Mirage F-1 fighters equipped with Exocet missiles. Iraq launched a new series of attacks on shipping on February 1, 1984.
Gradual Superpower Involvement
In early 1987, both superpowers indicated their interest in the security of the region. Soviet deputy foreign minister Vladimir Petrovsky made a Middle East tour expressing his country's concern over the effects of the Iran-Iraq War. In May 1987, United States assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy also toured the Gulf emphasizing to friendly Arab states the United States commitment in the region, a commitment which had become suspect as a result of Washington's transfer of arms to the Iranians, officially as an incentive for them to assist in freeing American hostages held in Lebanon. In another diplomatic effort, both superpowers supported the UN Security Council resolutions seeking an end to the war.
The war appeared to be entering a new phase in which the superpowers were becoming more involved. For instance, the Soviet Union, which had ended military supplies to both Iran and Iraq in 1980, resumed large-scale arms shipments to Iraq in 1982 after Iran banned the Tudeh and tried and executed most of its leaders. Subsequently, despite its professed neutrality, the Soviet Union became the major supplier of sophisticated arms to Iraq. In 1985 the United States began clandestine direct and indirect negotiations with Iranian officials that resulted in several arms shipments to Iran.
Iranian military gains inside Iraq after 1984 were a major reason for increased superpower involvement in the war. In February 1986, Iranian units captured the port of Al Faw, which had oil facilities and was one of Iraq's major oil-exporting ports before the war.
By late 1986, rumors of a final Iranian offensive against Basra proliferated. On January 8, Operation Karbala Five began, with Iranian units pushing westward between Fish Lake and the Shatt al Arab. They captured the town of Duayji and inflicted 20,000 casualties on Iraq, but at the cost of 65,000 Iranian casualties. In this intensive operation, Baghdad also lost forty-five airplanes. Attempting to capture Basra, Tehran launched several attacks, some of them well-disguised diversion assaults such as Operation Karbala Six and Operation Karbala Seven. Iran finally aborted Operation Karbala Five on February 26.
In late May 1987, just when the war seemed to have reached a complete stalemate on the southern front, reports from Iran indicated that the conflict was intensifying on Iraq's northern front. This assault, Operation Karbala Ten, was a joint effort by Iranian units and Iraqi Kurdish rebels. They surrounded the garrison at Mawat, endangering Iraq's oil fields near Kirkuk and the northern oil pipeline to Turkey.
By late spring of 1987, the superpowers became more directly involved because they feared that the fall of Basra might lead to a pro-Iranian Islamic republic in largely Shia-populated southern Iraq. They were also concerned about the intensified tanker war. During the first four months of 1987, Iran attacked twenty ships and Iraq assaulted fifteen. Kuwaiti ships were favorite targets because Iran strongly objected to Kuwait's close relationship with the Baghdad regime. Kuwait turned to the superpowers, partly to protect oil exports but largely to seek an end to the war through superpower intervention. Moscow leased three tankers to Kuwait, and by June the United States had reflagged half of Kuwait's fleet of twenty-two tankers. Finally, direct attacks on the superpowers' ships drew them into the conflict. On May 6, for the first time, a Soviet freighter was attacked in the southern Gulf region, hit by rockets from Iranian gunboats. Ten days later, a Soviet tanker was damaged by a mine allegedly placed by Iranians near the Kuwait coast. More shocking to the United States was the May 17 accidental Iraqi air attack on the U.S.S Stark in which thirty-seven sailors died. The attack highlighted the danger to international shipping in the Gulf.
The Tanker War
The tanker war seemed likely to precipitate a major international incident for two reasons. First, some 70 percent of Japanese, 50 percent of West European, and 7 percent of American oil imports came from the Persian Gulf in the early 1980s. Second, the assault on tankers involved neutral shipping as well as ships of the belligerent states.
The tanker war had two phases. The relatively obscure first phase began in 1981, and the well-publicized second phase began in 1984. As early as May 1981, Baghdad had unilaterally declared a war zone and had officially warned all ships heading to or returning from Iranian ports in the northern zone of the Gulf to stay >away or, if they entered, to proceed at their own risk. The main targets in this phase were the ports of Bandar-e Khomeini and Bandar-e Mashur; very few ships were hit outside this zone. Despite the proximity of these ports to Iraq, the Iraqi navy did not play an important role in the operations. Instead, Baghdad used Super Frelon helicopters equipped with Exocet missiles or Mirage F-1s and MiG-23s to hit its targets.
In March 1984, the tanker war entered its second phase when an Iraqi Super Etendard fired an Exocet missile at a Greek tanker south of Khark Island. Until the March assault, Iran had not intentionally attacked civilian ships in the Gulf. The new wave of Iraqi assaults, however, led Iran to reciprocate. In April 1984, Tehran launched its first attack against civilian commercial shipping by shelling an Indian freighter. Most observers considered that Iraqi attacks, however, outnumbered Iranian assaults by three to one.
Iran's retaliatory attacks were largely ineffective because a limited number of aircraft equipped with long-range antiship missiles and ships with long-range surface-to-surface missiles were deployed. Moreover, despite repeated Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, Iran itself depended on the sea-lanes for vital oil exports. Nonetheless, by late 1987 Iran's mine-laying activities and attacks on ships had drawn a large fleet of Western naval vessels to the Gulf to ensure that the sea-lanes were kept open.
Role of the Air Force
Despite Iraqi success in causing major damage to exposed Iranian ammunition
and fuel dumps in the early days of the war, the Iranian air force prevailed
initially in the air war. One reason was that Iranian airplanes could carry two
or three times more bombs or rockets than their Iraqi counterparts. Moreover,
Iranian pilots demonstrated considerable expertise. For example, the Iranian air force
attacked Baghdad and key Iraqi air bases as early as the first few weeks
of the war, seeking to destroy supply and support systems. The attack on Iraq's oil field
complex and air base at Al Walid, the base for T-22 and Il-28 bombers,
was a well-coordinated assault. The targets were more than 800 kilometers
from Iran's closest air base at Urumiyeh, so the F-4s had to refuel in
midair for the mission. Iran's air force relied on F-4s and F-5s for assaults and a few F-14s
for reconnaissance. Although Iran used its Maverick missiles effectively
against ground targets, lack of airplane spare parts forced Iran to substitute helicopters
for close air support. Helicopters served not only as gunships and troop
carriers but also as emergency supply transports. In the mountainous area near Mehran, helicopters
proved advantageous in finding and destroying targets and maneuvering against
In confronting the Iraqi air defense, Iran soon discovered that a low-flying group of two, three, or four F-4s could hit targets almost anywhere in Iraq. Iranian pilots overcame Iraqi SA-2 and SA-3 antiaircraft missiles, using American tactics developed in Vietnam; they were less successful against Iraqi SA-6s. Iran's Western-made air defense system seemed more effective than Iraq's Soviet-made counterpart. Nevertheless, Iran experienced difficulty in operating and maintaining Hawk, Rapier, and Tigercat missiles and instead used antiaircraft guns and man-portable missiles.
As the war continued, however, Iran was increasingly short of spare parts for damaged airplanes and had lost a large number of airplanes in combat. As a result, by late 1987 Iran had become less able to mount an effective defense against the resupplied Iraqi air force, let alone stage aerial counterattacks.;
Role of the Navy
In late 1987, an accurate estimate of Iranian naval capability was difficult. In the November 1980 offensive against Iraqi ports and oil facilities, Iran lost at least two corvettes and two missile boats. Nevertheless, the Iranian navy was able to supply Abadan by night (with food and arms for the armed forces and the remaining civilians) until late 1981, when Iranian forces regained the city.
Lacking parts and qualified personnel, few Iranian ships were deployed outside limited coastal areas, where their main functions were patrol and search missions. The Iranian navy stopped and searched hundreds of ships suspected of carrying military equipment destined for Iraq. Beginning in 1984, some Iranian military elements such as the Pasdaran also assaulted ships in the Persian Gulf. In May 1987, reliable sources reported that a Soviet ship was assaulted by a Pasdaran unit speedboat; such Pasdaran raids were largely ineffective, however, because of the weapons used -- machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies