Why the War Will Get Worse

Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein; drawing by David Levine

On September 17, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein Takriti unilaterally abrogated the Iran-Iraq frontier agreement of 1975. Claiming that he was asserting Iraq’s territorial claims, he sent his troops across the frontier to seize Iranian territory and his bombers to strike at Iranian airfields. While frontier questions are of course at issue in the war Saddam began, other and deeper conflicts divide Iran and Iraq; and more and more countries are being drawn into their quarrel.

In part, the war started because of the threat that the Iranian revolution poses to the stability of the regime in Iraq. It is fueled by Saddam Hussein’s aspirations to regional and Arab leadership. The war will influence, perhaps fundamentally, the internal politics of both Iran and Iraq. The shock and intensity of the war have already caused shifts in the unstable alignment of forces among the Arab states. It is affecting the relations of the United States and the Soviet Union with the governments of the region. It is also a war for which there appears to be no simple solution. The prospects are not for quick settlement but for a drawn-out conflict; and this makes the outcome full of uncertainty.

Formally, at least, the conflict began as a dispute over the Shatt al-Arab, the 120-mile waterway on which are located Iraq’s main commercial and oil terminals around Basra, and Iran’s largest commercial port, at Khorramshahr. Navigation on the waterway was until five years ago regulated by an agreement concluded between the two countries in 1937, when Britain still had a say in such matters. Except for the waters directly surrounding Iranian ports, the agreement gave sovereignty over the entire waterway to Iraq, a cause for Iranian complaints during the years that followed.

In 1975, however, in a treaty concluded between the Shah and Saddam Hussein, Iran, which was then much stronger militarily, was able to secure Iraqi recognition of the “thalweg,” or deep-water line, running roughly halfway down the river, as the frontier between the two countries. In exchange, the Shah agreed to drop his assistance to Iraq’s Kurdish rebellion, which collapsed a few weeks after the Iranians withdrew their support.

Following the Iranian revolution in February last year, small-scale fighting, a feature of the period before 1975, began to occur again along the land frontier between the two countries. But there were other sources of friction. Over half the inhabitants in Iraq—like the Iranians—are Shi’ite Muslims, while political power in Iraq is in the hands of the Sunni Muslim minority. Khomeini’s militant Islamic message exerts a powerful attraction on Iraq’s Shi’ites, raising fears in Baghdad that Iraq’s always fragile balance between different ethnic groups would be upset.

As a result, earlier this year several thousand Iranians were expelled from Iraq and unceremoniously dumped at the Iranian border. Members of the Shi’ite community in Iraq were arrested. In April, a popular Shi’ite religious…

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