By: Jamie Layne
Quick! Let’s test your Trivial Pursuit knowledge: Which war was the longest conventional war of the 20th century?
If you’re like me, you might have had to look up the answer. But, correct! It’s the Iran-Iraq War which began on this day in 1980.
The Iran-Iraq war lasted eight years and there is a LOT of information on this subject. Instead of writing a novel about it, I’m going to provide the necessary information in understanding this conflict. (You’re welcome)
In the years prior to the war, Iran and Iraq had unstable diplomatic relations due to disputes regarding water and land privileges, in addition to economic, ethical and religious disagreements. By 1980, tensions were high because of these affairs and, on September 22, 1980, then-president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, decided to attack the Iranian border. Hussein justified Iraq’s bombing of the Iranian airfield as an act of retaliation, as Iran had attacked the Iraqi border two weeks prior with shelling.
This declaration of war caught the Iranians by surprise. At first, Iraqi troops gained ground in Iran. Within a couple months, however, Iran began to push back and eventually forced Iraqi troops to withdraw from the invaded territory. By 1982, Hussein began to look for a peace agreement, but Iran’s former president, Ruhollah Khomeini, refused. Upon refusal, Khomeini began to go on the offensive into Iraq with the intention of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. For the next several years the war remained in a stalemate just on the inside of the Iraqi border.
Some of the war tactics used by both parties included the use of chemical weapons, mines, gunboats, shore launch missiles, in addition to sporadic air and missile attacks on nearby cities, oil refineries and military bases.
At this point, you might have asked yourself, “Where does the U.S. fit into all of this?” Well, your question is finally being answered.
During this time, the U.S. government continued to plead neutrality although this was not the case. The administration of President Ronald Reagan was providing resources to both the Iraqis and Iranians. Shortly after taking office in 1981, Reagan decided to allow Israel to ship several billion dollars’ worth of American-made weapons to Iran. In 1982, the Reagan administration provided highly classified intelligence to Iraq and permitted the sale of U.S. made arms to Baghdad. Throughout the majority of the war, the U.S. covertly shipped American-made weapons to Iraq so they could defend themselves from being overthrown by Iran. Eventually, officials from the Reagan administration acknowledged that providing intelligence and weapons helped Iraq avert defeat and help them gain regional power that would eventually lead to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
In August of 1988 United Nations Resolution 598 went into effect, which called for a ceasefire between the two neighbors. Amid international pressure, both leaders abided by the treaty. However, the subsequent talks in Geneva did not result in a peace agreement. Most historians today believe that the war ended in an uneasy stalemate between the two countries. This uncertain ending left uneven ground for future problems and conflicts to arise- the Persian Gulf War of 1990 and regional problems of the present.
What’s so important about this war besides the fact that it was longer than any other war in the 20th century?
Here are some important facts to note: around 650,000 people perished on both sides, over 228 billion dollars were spent and there was more than 400 billion dollars of damage inflicted. The worst part? The war was inconsequential. Neither side gained much during those eight years, it only led to death and uncertainty for the future.
Jamie Layne is an executive office intern for the EastWest Institute. She recently graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in History and Political Science. She is currently applying to graduate schools to obtain her master’s in International Affairs.