Though fought with modern-day weaponry, the conflict resembled nothing so much as the World War I Western Front.
In his satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five author Kurt Vonnegut places the protagonist, a soldier named Billy Pilgrim, “unstuck in time.” Pilgrim travels in seemingly random sequence through past, present and future, and at moments it is tough for the reader to discern just which time Billy is in.
“Unstuck in time” may be a good way to frame the Iran-Iraq War. Historians date the conflict 1980–88, but in retrospect it can be hard to tell. On the surface it was a regional war of the sort the world has seen repeatedly since 1945, with tanks, aircraft and missiles, in which any modern commander would have felt right at home. With battles featuring barbed wire, trenches and poison gas, however, the whole thing looked more like World War I.
But why stop there? One of the adversaries was in the throes of a violent and radical revolution, a situation that can’t help but remind Westerners of the bloody upheaval in France in 1789. And the use of an ancient faith to mobilize the Iranian people harks back to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries or, further still, to the Crusades. Surveying the slaughter in this long, bloody and fruitless conflict, the bewildered observer might well ask, “Just which century is this, anyway?”
Saddam Hussein’s military forces invaded Iran in September 1980. The Iraqi dictator apparently believed that the chaos of the Iranian Revolution, which had overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi the previous year, would prevent Tehran from mounting much of a defense. Even a cursory reading of history, however —especially of the French or Russian revolutions—would suggest otherwise. Revolutions tend to tap previously unknown springs of enthusiasm and fanaticism, and revolutionary armed forces often give a good accounting of themselves in battle.
To be fair, Saddam was not looking to crush the entire Iranian army or to conquer Iran. He had limited aims, envisioning a quick strike to seize long-disputed border districts and towns: Khorramshahr, Abadan, Ahvaz and Dezful, and especially the Shatt al Arab, the confluence of the great Tigris-Euphrates river system. But the very idea of waging a limited war against a revolutionary state flies in the face of history. Having overthrown the old order and only just established themselves, revolutionary leaders must treat any war as a test of their legitimacy, their very fitness to rule, and are therefore unlikely to view any conflict as a limited one.
Saddam opened the war with an Israeli-style pre-emptive air strike on Iranian airfields, followed the next day by a ground offensive. The former was a disappointment, falling victim to poor pilot training, second-rate Soviet avionics and sloppy targeting. The land campaign started more favorably. Hussein committed half of the Iraqi army’s 12 divisions in the initial operation. The main effort was in the south, with three armored divisions and one mechanized division invading the province of Khuzistan against sporadic opposition. Of the four, two armored divisions drove on Dezful and Ahvaz, while farther south the third armored division and the mechanized division, supported by special forces, drove on Khorramshahr and Abadan, striking at the heart of the Iranian oil industry.
The Iranian army was hard-pressed to respond. Like the Red Army in the mid- 1930s, it had just endured an ideological purge at the hands of fanatical revolutionaries. More than one-third of the army’s field-grade officers were gone— arrested, imprisoned, exiled or killed. Others deserted. Those who remained did so under the watchful eyes of “spiritual guidance officers,” something akin to the old Soviet political commissars. The mullahs ruling Iran had little use for staff officers, modern planning or professional armies, relying instead on Koranic exhortations and promises that Allah would provide for his people. Iran was in the process of building a new paramilitary force, the Pasdaran (aka Revolutionary Guards), but equipment was lacking, and many units were armed with little more than small arms and Molotov cocktails.
As a result just four understrength Iranian divisions faced the initial Iraqi invasion. From north to south they included an infantry division at Urmia, another at Sanandaj and an armored division at Kermanshah. A lone understrength armored division at Ahvaz defended the critical southern province of Khuzistan. Nowhere was there a concentration of force, an arrangement in depth or any prepared defensive line.
Despite the clear advantage presented to concentrated Iraqi divisions moving against a skeleton force, Saddam’s initial attacks bogged down just a few miles inside Iran. Iraqi tactics emphasized deliberate infantry assaults backed by massed artillery fire. Iraqi tanks tended to probe tentatively, and armor-infantry cooperation was abysmal. Though the Iraqis reached all four objective cities (Khorramshahr, Abadan, Ahvaz and Dezful), they failed to take any of them in the first rush, and most of Khuzistan remained in Iranian hands.
Khorramshahr was the scene of particularly heavy fighting. An Iraqi armored division reached the city’s outskirts in the first days of the invasion, then paused to allow its artillery to close up. When it finally did break into the city on September 30, it ran into an inferno: regular Iranian forces, Pasdaran and, according to some reports, an aroused populace in full revolutionary fervor, armed with Molotov cocktails and rocket launchers, ready to die as martyrs and willing to destroy their own city rather than see it fall to the invader. For Iraqi units expecting a quick occupation, Khorramshahr soon became Khuninshahr—the “City of Blood.” All month the combatants clashed, the Iranians hanging tough and the Iraqis having to root them out block by block, building by building. Not until early November did the Iraqis declare the city secure. The fighting had claimed some 13,000 casualties.
In terms of materiel, the street fighting in Khorramshahr also cost Iraq more than 100 tanks, and their loss stalled the Iraqi drive on the much larger oil city of Abadan for two critical weeks. In a sense, while the Iranians lost Khorramshahr, the heroic fight for the “City of Blood” guaranteed the survival of the Iranian Revolution.
The second phase of the war saw a rejuvenated Iran on the offensive, launching vigorous attacks to drive the Iraqi invaders out of the country. By then Iranian forces were filled with a new confidence, as officers and men alike had adapted to the rigors of the field. Operation Samenol-A’emeh in September 1981 was a good example. A combined-arms force of 30,000 men supported by tanks launched the assault in Khuzistan, infiltrating down the Karun River and taking the Iraqi forces besieging the eastern side of Abadan in the rear. The Iraqis were caught by surprise, and as the Iranian garrison in Abadan joined in the attack, the defenders panicked. Five full Iraqi brigades melted away, abandoning the battlefield along with a mountain of equipment.
But the revival of Iran’s military was not the whole story. Nationalist and religious fervor bolstered what the Islamic regime was calling the “Imposed War” or the “Holy Defense.” Exploiting their decisive advantage in manpower, the Iranians turned to massed infantry assaults (aka human-wave attacks). Leading the way were the Pasdaran and the Basij-e Mostaz’afin (“Mobilization of the Oppressed”), a volunteer militia originally formed to defend against a potential U.S. attack. Iran rolled out the new tactic during Operation Undeniable Victory, its March 1982 offensive in northern Khuzistan, near Dezful and Shush. Like something out of a bygone age, massed waves of Pasdaran and Basij advanced in echelons of 1,000 men, at intervals of 200 to 500 yards, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “It’s horrifying,” one stunned Iraqi officer said at the time. “They swarm at you like roaches.” The shock of the assault drove the Iraqis back 24 miles, almost hurling them from Khuzistan altogether. Iranian commanders exulted at the result, one officer of the 21st Division brashly declaring it was time for Iran to write its own tactical manuals, which “the Americans, British and French can study at their staff colleges.”
In May the Iranian human wave hit Khorramshahr, smashed the defending Iraqi forces and seized the city within 48 hours. Two Iraqi army brigades surrendered, along with three brigades of the Popular Army (the Ba’ath party militia). The Iranians took nearly 20,000 prisoners. As at Dezful-Shush, the Pasdaran sustained heavy casualties against the dug-in Iraqi tanks and artillery batteries but were still able to saturate and overrun the defenders, and their pursuit drove the Iraqis back across the border in that sector. Saddam executed the responsible commanders. It was the low point of the war for Iraq.
The war had now come full circle. Saddam actually sought a cease-fire at this point. Iran responded by invading Iraq in July 1982. By then the Islamic republic was thinking big, stating publicly that its goal was “regime change” and labeling Saddam Hussein an outlaw.
Iran’s first objective was the great Iraqi oil city of Basra. Iraqi defenses in this sector—a network of trenches, machinegun nests and fortified artillery emplacements dubbed the “Iron Ring”—were formidable enough. Even so, a human wave of 100,000 Pasdaran and Basij supported by five Iranian divisions smashed through, penetrating into Iraq and advancing to within 10 miles of the city. Facing defeat, the Iraqis launched four divisions—a major commitment of their reserve—in a counterattack. With neither side particularly well trained, the fighting was indecisive but bloody. Historians often call the fight for Basra the greatest infantry battle since World War II, but what it most resembled was the trench warfare of World War I. Like the European armies back in the day, each side sent its infantry directly into the teeth of enemy firepower. In the end, the Iraqis held Basra, but at a heavy cost: nearly 30,000 Iranian and 7,000 Iraqi lives.
Increasingly, Iran seemed content to fight a war of attrition, which it believed would end in its favor. There was just one problem: Fear of Iran’s Islamic revolution was leading much of the world to support Saddam Hussein—a surprising development, since he was the aggressor. Modern arms (tanks, aircraft, spare parts) began to flow into Iraq. Consider a few numbers: Iraq began the war with 2,750 main battle tanks—older Soviet models like the T-54, T-55 and T-62, plus a handful of the newer T-72s. By 1985, however, that number had more than doubled to 6,000 tanks, mainly Soviet models but including 1,500 Chinese Type 59s and Type 69-IIs. Auxiliary arms also benefited. A fleet of heavy Japanese earthmovers played a key role in Iraqi battlefield engineering, and German tank transporters greatly improved the strategic mobility of Iraqi armor. By contrast, Iran began the war with 1,700 main battle tanks, but by 1985 that number had shrunk to 1,000. In other words, a strategy of attrition was favoring Iraq.
As stalemate set in on the battlefield, each side continued to launch large-scale operations that yielded few strategic gains but kept casualties rising. In February 1986 an Iranian amphibious operation overran the al Faw Peninsula on the Shatt al Arab. A flotilla of transport craft carried a division of Iranian infantry across the waterway at six points along a 25-mile front, an operation the Iranians had rehearsed carefully on the lakes and rivers of northern Iran. Defending the peninsula was an entire Iraqi corps, but its reaction was sluggish, one analyst describing its commander as “extraordinarily incompetent.” Within a few days the Iranians had advanced from their beachheads and overrun the peninsula. Iranian forces were now a stone’s throw from Basra and—apparently heedless of the number of casualties they suffered— seemed unstoppable.
In a curious way, however, al Faw was a turning point of the war. For the first time the regime in Baghdad called upon popular support. With the homeland threatened, the war became popular in Iraq for the first time. Saddam closed all universities in the country and drafted the male students. The Republican Guard, which comprised seven brigades in 1986, grew to 25 brigades within a year. Compulsion was a factor, of course, but patriotism among Iraqi youth was also at work. Trained by Iraq’s best professional officers, the new brigades underwent rigorous combined-arms training in 1986–87 and were soon taking the lead role in Iraqi operations.
Although Iraq finally seemed to be waking up, the Iranians were still riding high. Their brutal infantry assaults had long before gained them moral dominance over the Iraqis. In 1986 Iran also managed to procure weapons from abroad, including spare parts that soon doubled the size of its airworthy F-14 fleet (to 24 planes). Planning was already underway for new attacks, and indeed, the regime had already promised Iran’s war-weary population a series of “final offensives” that would end the war by the New Year.
In January 1987 the Iranians launched Operation Karbala-5, an all-out effort to seize Basra. Pasdaran and Basij fighters supported by six Iranian infantry divisions attacked across Fish Lake, an artificial water barrier constructed by the Iraqis, part of the “Iron Ring” around Basra. Once again the Iranians came by assault boats across the lake, landing on the western shore, forming up and driving toward the Shatt al Arab. Iraq’s Republican Guards met the assault, however, and stopped it cold. Attempts to flank the Iraqi position also came to naught, stalling in the face of tough Iraqi opposition (Republican Guards and Border Guards) and a formidable network of earthen berms. As the massed Iranian infantry crammed into these choke points, hemmed in by the sand berms, Iraqi artillery had a field day. Some 70,000 of the Iranian troops committed to the fight for Basra were casualties by February. The Iranians had driven to within seven miles of the city but would get no closer.
Though Basra had not fallen, it had been a close call. To many observers Iran still seemed to have the upper hand against an outmanned Iraq, and the result was increasing international support for Saddam. In March 1987 the United States agreed to reregister Kuwaiti tankers under the U.S. flag to forestall threatened Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf, and it sent a sizable naval presence to safeguard their passage. (The policy survived an accidental Iraqi missile strike on the guided missile frigate USS Stark that killed 37 American crewmen.) Other reflagged tankers struck Iranian mines, which only reinforced the image of Iran as international outlaw, a fact hammered home to Tehran by the lack of international outcry when the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian jetliner in July 1988, killing 290 civilians.
Backed by the international community, Iraq went back on the offensive in 1988. In April a Republican Guard offensive first smashed Iranian defenses on the al Faw Peninsula. Next Iraq launched its Tawakalna ala Allah (“Trust in God”) Operations. An attack at Fish Lake in May featured a straight-ahead drive by massed Iraqi armor, driving the exhausted Iranians back from Basra. Then, in July, an Iraqi push north to Dehloran smashed the Iranian defensive line, advancing nearly 30 miles into Iran on a front some 80 miles wide. The Iraqis took thousands of prisoners and massive amounts of equipment. And while the Republican Guards were advancing on the ground, a flurry of missile attacks on Iranian cities in early 1988 terrified the civilian population. Iranian morale collapsed. More than 1 million people fled Tehran during that period.
Increasingly isolated, with the world’s superpowers opposing it and its manpower reserves finally running dry, Iran had no choice but to accept a negotiated cease-fire in July 1988. It was a bitter pill for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who announced publicly the decision was “more deadly than taking poison.” International pressure forced Saddam to accept the brokered ceasefire in August. The long war was over.
Despite the epic nature of the Iran-Iraq War, which spanned a front of some 700 miles and killed or wounded more than 1 million people, it is hard to glean any operational lessons from the conflict, in which modern weaponry mingled uneasily with the older traditions of trench warfare. The Iranians launched poorly trained infantry in human-wave attacks, and the Iraqis countered with artillery and gas attacks. Both sides fielded tanks, missiles, jet fighters and helicopters—the full arsenal of modern warfare—but neither used them effectively. Victory or defeat rested on the infantry, which bore the brunt of the fighting and endured conditions not seen since the Western Front in 1916.
Yet for all the ways the Iran-Iraq War was a throwback to the past—various pasts, in fact—it also pointed the way to the future, setting the table for the current uncertain situation in the Middle East. Consider the U.S. tilt toward Iraq. It helped Iraq win the war, yes, but it also cemented the hostility between revolutionary Iran and the United States that had been brewing over U.S. support of the Shah, the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the hostage crisis that followed. In a classic example of blowback, the war also created a well-armed monster in Saddam Hussein, whose postwar army bulged with modern Western weaponry. Iraq emerged from the war with the fourth largest army in the world, boasting a reputation among Western analysts as a “first-class fighting institution” and an “incredible military machine.”
Even in victory, however, eight years of total war left Iraq teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 arose in part as a way of paying back wartime loans. The Gulf War, the September 11 attacks, the Iraq War and the long insurgency all followed. As easy as it may be for Westerners to scoff at the primitive nature of the Iran-Iraq War, it continues to haunt us all in the 21st century.
For further reading Rob Citino suggests The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum, by Stephen C. Pelletiere; The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict, by Dilip Hiro; and The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, edited by Efraim Karsh.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.