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 leader, Ayatollah Baqer Sadr, was secretly executed in an Iraqi prison. There have been acts of sabotage and attempts on the life of Saddam Hussein’s aide, Tariq Aziz, and the Iraqis have blamed some of these acts on a militant Shi’ite movement known as al-Da’wa, or the Call. They suspect the Iranians of inflaming the Shi’ite community in Iraq.

The Iranians in turn have suspected Saddam Hussein of stirring up the Arab-speaking community of Sunni Muslims in Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan. The Arab-speaking community has been resentful of Tehran’s refusal to meet its demands for local autonomy. During the early months after the Iranian revolution, there were clashes between the Arabs in Khuzestan and the revolutionary guards, the military. organization which has provided most of the regime’s security forces. Since late last year, the religious leader of Khuzestan’s Arabs, Sheikh Shubair Khaqani, has been under house arrest, probably in Qum. There have been repeated acts of sabotage against oil installations in Khuzestan, which Iran has blamed on Iraqi instigation.

It was against this background that Saddam Hussein in mid-September tore up the frontier agreement of 1975 that he himself had negotiated and went to war to enforce his demands that Iraqi sovereignty over the entire Shatt al-Arab be recognized, and that the land border be shifted in Iraq’s favor. He no doubt hoped to humiliate, if not to unseat, the Khomeini government, to enhance his standing among his own countrymen, and to make good his ambition to be a centrally important leader among the Persian Gulf states and in the Arab world. Trying to appear as a defender of Arab rights, he demanded, as one of his peace terms, the return to “Arab sovereignty” of three islands in the Persian Gulf now under Iranian control. The islands—the two Tunbs and Abu Musa—to which Iran had long asserted a claim, were acquired by the former Shah through “purchase” and outright seizure from the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms who at that time exercised sovereignty over them.


Saddam Hussein evidently expected an early military victory because of his assessment of conditions prevailing inside Iran. He believed that the Arab-speaking population of Khuzestan would rise in revolt and go over to the Iraqi side; that a general disaffection with the Islamic republic would impair the Iranian will to resist; and that the Iranian army, weakened by nearly two years of revolutionary upheaval, would crumble under the Iraqi attack. Saddam’s reading of the Iranian situation may have been reinforced by royalist Iranian generals in exile, with whom the Iraqi leader has been in contact.

But these have proven to be grave miscalculations. The Arab-speaking population of Khuzestan has not so far shown any separatist tendencies. In the rest of Iran, the Iraqi invasion has rekindled revolutionary fervor and has increased feelings of Iranian nationalism. Differences dividing various Iranian political groups have not been resolved; but they have been submerged in a common determination to resist a foreign enemy.

Moreover, the Iranian army has shown itself to be more resourceful, and its air force more prepared for combat, than most military analysts anticipated. Volunteers have put up strong resistance in house-to-house fighting in Khorramshahr. Iran’s planes have been flying over Iraq with impunity. The outskirts of Baghdad have been repeatedly bombed. And while severe damage has been inflicted on Iranian oil and industrial installations, much of Iraq’s petrochemical industry also lies in ruins, as do the cement plant at Mosul, the Kirkuk oil fields, and port facilities on the Shatt al-Arab.

Iraqi ground forces, though facing only irregular volunteer units and an army much diminished in its fire power and logistic support, have made only slow progress. Repeatedly, there have been reports of the “fall” of Iranian cities which, in fact, have remained in Iranian hands. In view of this performance, Saddam’s claims to leadership in the Arab world must ring a little hollow.

Moreover, by failing to achieve a rapid victory, Iraq has permitted the Iranian army to pull itself together. A call-up has been announced. Officers seem to be finding their way back to their barracks. President Bani-Sadr succeeded in securing the release of a number of air force pilots and other officers imprisoned earlier for alleged counterrevolutionary activities. The gradual introduction into the battle by the Iranians of some Chieftain tanks, helicopter gunships, and even F-14 aircraft suggests that the scramble to locate spare parts, move armaments, and put together army units has met with some success. Some military equipment has been acquired by shopping abroad, from North Korea, for example. All this does not necessarily mean that Iran will be able to launch a major counter-offensive; but it has stiffened Iranian resistance.

Saddam Hussein probably misreads the temper of the revolutionary regime in Iran if he believes that the occupying of Iranian territory and the destroying of Iranian cities will force acquiescence to his demands. There are types of pressure to which Ayatollah Khomeini is immune; he has been hardened by adversity. He has already ruled out any compromise with the Iraqi leader, whom he has described as an infidel and an enemy of Islam. The Iranian prime minister, Ali Raja’i, has said Iran will fight with rifles and down to the last man if necessary. And the president, Bani-Sadr, talks of defeating Saddam Hussein.

This is not just empty rhetoric; or rather it is a rhetoric that speaks powerfully to an Iranian sensibility formed both by religious experience and the experience of the recent revolution. The image of the heroic martyr, of the beleagured but ultimately victorious nation, is ingrained in revolutionary mythology. Members of the Islamic Republic Party have even said a long war will be better for Iran than a short one, because it will test and stiffen the revolutionary spirit. Khomeini has described a war to defend Islam as “not a misfortune but a blessing.”

This means that while Saddam Hussein badly needs some concrete concessions in order to extricate himself from his Iranian adventure, he is unlikely to get such concessions, no matter what his victories in the field, unless catastrophic events take place—a complete shutdown of Iranian oil, an upheaval in Tehran, and a nation on its knees. And these outcomes do not seem likely, although great havoc is being wreaked on Iranian cities.

Saddam is thus in trouble. A long war will be costly for Iraq in men, munitions, and troop morale. Long and vulnerable supply lines will be required. There is no guarantee that either the Shi’ite community or the Kurds in Iraq will remain quiescent during a long conflict. Saddam’s communist opponents at home are already attacking him for making war against another Muslim state rather than Israel. His people may begin to wonder whether the price of the war was worth the waging of it.


The war also affects the situation inside Iran. It has greatly enhanced the position of the army. Identified as an instrument of the Shah’s repression, the army was a principal object of revolutionary justice in the days following the revolution. Hundreds of officers were executed by the revolutionary courts. Between 7,000 and 8,000 officers were purged from the service. Many were sent to prison. As late as August this year, nearly 100 men, mostly army officers, were executed for participation in an alleged counterrevolutionary plot.

The war with Iraq has permitted the army to emerge once again as a public and patriotic organization. Because of the coordination required by the war effort, the army may also be emerging as an instrument of centralization in a country where, since the revolution, power has been greatly fragmented. President Bani-Sadr has been attempting to use the supreme defense council, which was convened in mid-October and which he heads, to centralize the war effort. He is also trying to end Iran’s diplomatic isolation. His own standing in the country as the organizer of the defense against Iraq seems strengthened, and he enjoys the support of the military commanders.

But in revolutionary Iran, for every current there seems to be a counter-current. If the war has strengthened tendencies toward centralization, it has also encouraged the splintering of authority. The activities of the revolutionary guards, who are patrolling cities and enforcing blackouts, are expanding. The volunteer forces defending cities like Khorramshahr are by their nature not subject to central control. The heavy shelling of Iranian cities in Khuzestan may turn them into war zones reminiscent of Beirut, ideal breeding grounds for paramilitary armies and make-shift administration.

Moreover, despite the unity encouraged by the war, councils in Tehran are still divided about its conduct. The newspaper of the Islamic Republic Party, which speaks for the Muslim fundamentalists, has been arguing that the success of the war effort so far is owed primarily to the paramilitary revolutionary guards rather than the regular army. Bani-Sadr secured Khomeini’s approval for convening the supreme defense council partly to give him more control over the revolutionary guards and to coordinate more closely their efforts with those of the regular armed forces. The left-wing guerrilla groups, the Mujahedin and the Fadayan, have been attacked by the fundamentalists for staying away from the fighting against the Iraqis—although they all deny this. The minister of national guidance has opposed Bani-Sadr’s wish to permit more foreign correspondents into the country to report the war from the Iranian side.

Although all the Iranian factions seem agreed that there can be no negotiation before the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Iranian territory, Bani-Sadr was able only after much discussion to win approval for the decision to have Iran participate in the Security Council debate on the Iran-Iraq war. Hardliners in the regime remain hostile to the Security Council for its vote calling on Iran to release the American hostages. It may well be, therefore, that these internal differences and the underlying power struggle they reflect will have to be resolved before any serious discussion of the issues between Iran and Iraq is possible.

Iran is no longer isolated among the Arab states. No other Arab country has joined Jordan in extending full support to Iraq, possibly because they take seriously Iran’s threat of retaliation. Arab rivalries have given Iran, allies. Libya has declared for Iran, and the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has said that it is the Arab “duty to fight on the side of the Muslims in Iran.” But divisions in the Arab camp, while advantageous to Iran, will make a settlement more, not less, difficult.

Nor is the United States in a position to bring about peace. Bani-Sadr actually seems to believe that the United States is behind the Iraqi attack on Iran, although no evidence has been produced for this view. He appears convinced that the American government finds the Iranian revolution so threatening to its interests that it is determined to destroy it. The Iranian state radio has been attacking what it alleges to be the United States role in the Gulf war in long commentaries. So long as this view prevails, the American government is therefore also unlikely to become a mediator. The Soviet Union has the advantage of good relations both with Iran’s enemy—Iraq—and the enemy of Iran’s enemy—Syria. Indeed, the Russians must be taking satisfaction in the increasing turmoil in the Persian Gulf region. But they are also deeply distrusted in Iran by Bani-Sadr, by the outgoing foreign minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, and by Ayatollah Khomeini. It is going to be a long war.

October 15

This Issue

November 20, 1980