– Iraq War And U.S. Policy Essay, Research Paper
November 30, 1999
United States Policy and the Iran & Iraq War
Brief History of Iran and Iraq
The current borders of Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait were established by the British after World
War II. In an attempt to limit the power of Iraq, the British established boundaries that limited
Iraq’s coastal access to the Persian Gulf. In addition, the nation of Kuwait was granted
independence by Britain in 1961, which Iraq vehemently argued had been separated from Iraq
illegitimately. A portion of Iraq was also placed under the control of the Iranian Government. It
was this portion placed under Iranian control that was the catalyst for the Iran/Iraq War, while the
other portion taken would later result in the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.
The ousting of the Shah of Iran (Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, 1941-1979) in January of
1979 by followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a conservative Muslim clergyman, came as a
complete surprise to U.S. oil companies, the CIA, and the Pentagon, which relied heavily on the
Shah to play the role of pro-U.S. policeman of the Persian Gulf region. The new regime headed by
Ayatollah Khomeini ended the countries close relationship with the United States, and subsequently
executed many supporters of the Shah. “In November 1979, after the shah had been allowed into
the United States for medical care, militant Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 66
American hostages. Thirteen were soon released, but for the other fifty-three, Iran demanded a U.S.
apology for acts committed in support of the Shah, they wanted the Shah returned to Iran to face
trial ( a moot point after his death in July 1980), and the return of billions of dollars that he was
said to have hoarded abroad” (Encarta). The hostage dispute dragged on, but the hostages were
finally released unconditionally in January 1981.
In July 1979 General Saddam Hussein of the Arab Baath Socialist Party became president of
Iraq. Mutual distrust increased between Iraq and Iran during 1979-1980, due in part to the
relatively new leadership of both states, and historical ideological differences added fuel to the
flame. “Hussein also wanted to put an end to religious propaganda directed against Iraq’s secular
regime by the Islamic government of Iran. . . . [and] Hussein feared that the propaganda would
undermine the loyalty of Iraqi Shiites, who comprised about sixty-percent of his country’s
population” (Encarta). Hussein believed that an invasion of Iran could be successfully
accomplished that would: (a) recover land that was viewed as historical; and (b) to acquire the
wealth of oil fields on this land.
U.S. Policy and Pre-War Iran
Throughout the 1970’s, U.S. policy was to provide support for Saudi Arabia and Iran, and
urged cooperation between the two countries in gathering the support of other states in the region
to establish a stronger unified security in the Gulf region. This all changed when the Shah was
ousted from power and two problems emerged for the United States as a result of this change in
Iran’s leadership. The first problem was the new revolutionary regime in Teheran appealed and
attracted many fundamentalists throughout the region, and the second problem was the specific call
by Iran for the overthrow of all pro-west regimes in the region. Naturally this was of great concern
to the west, so when it received intelligence reports indicating a probable invasion of Iran by Iraq,
the United States did little to stop it. In addition, the taking of the American hostages chilled
relations even further. Relations with Iran in all likelihood would have returned to normal after the
“revolution” in Iran “but for three diplomatic errors of major proportion. The first two errors were
made by the United States and the third by Iran” (Tarock 54)
The first mistake was that the United States declined to accept the legitimacy of the
new Islamic government and consistently refused to approach . . . the Ayatollah
Khomeini. But the second error was of much greater proportion. It was the
admission of the Shah into the United States on 22 October 1979 which was the
most catastrophic miscalculation of all U.S. policy toward revolutionary Iran. The
revolutionaries saw this as an attempt by the U.S. to repeat the 1953 CIA coup. The
third error, the Iranian error, was when the United States refused Iran’s demand to
expel and hand over the Shah to Iranians, a group of militants took over the
American embassy in Teheran on 22 October 1979 and held more than fifty-two
Americans hostage for almost fifteen months (Tarock 54-55).
Relations between the United States and Iran after the revolution, and before the Iran and Iraq war,
can best be described as one of mutual distrust and open hostility. Rhetoric was spewed by both
sides openly and regularly. Because of geography, primarily Iran’s shared border with the Soviet
Union, and Iran’s access to the Persian Gulf, it should be pointed out that the threat from the
Soviets was no less than it was from the U.S., both viewed Iran as a geopolitical hotbed. Economic
concerns, primarily that of oil, was also a great concern to the superpowers, who could not allow
either Iraq or Iran control the sum of the oil from both countries.
U.S. and Pre-War Iraq
During this same period of time the United States and Iraq had little if any diplomatic
relations, but there was no open hostility either. Relations that Iraq had with the United States were
broken off after the 1967 by the Arif Government in Iraq after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day war, and no
official diplomatic channels were available. “By the early 1970’s Iraq was expressing an increased
desire in playing a leading role in the Gulf region, and supported a creation of an alliance with
seven emirates, Qatar and Bahrain to protect the Persian Gulf from imperialism” (Tarock 47). This
was presumably a reference to Iran’s (and the Shah’s) increased status in the Gulf region with the
perceived cooperation of the United States. A threat analysis by the United States on the Persian
Gulf indicated Iraq posed two threats:
The first is that Iraq is an ideal location for an expansion of Soviet influence that
could serve as a base, staging facility, or flank support of a direct Soviet attack on
Kuwait or Saudi Arabia oil fields or to forge a land bridge to Africa and the Indian
Ocean basin. The second threat was one in which Iraq itself would attack Kuwait or
Saudi Arabia. To frustrate Iraq’s ambitions and its perceived destabilizing policy in
the Gulf, Washington came up with the idea of encouraging cooperation between
Iran and Saudi Arabia (Tarock 47-48).
By the end of the 1970’s the United States and Iraqi relations had relaxed to the point that
unofficial communications were resumed. The U.S. had gathered intelligence and satellite reports
indicating that Iran would fall quickly if attacked, and made this information available to Iraq
through Saudi Arabia. At the very least this shows that the United States knew of an imminent
invasion of Iran, by Iraq, and did nothing to stop it. At most, it could be argued that the United
States was encouraging Iraq to invade Iran.
Causes of the Iran-Iraq War
The causes of this conflict have been shrouded in confusion and suspicion from the onset.
Aside from the obvious territorial claims, what are the apparent causes of the Iran-Iraq war? Some
historians have argued that the origins of the Iran-Iraq war date back hundreds of years and is part
of a “historical, national and cultural conflict” noting that Arab-Persian conflicts are nothing new.
While this may explain the historical roots of the ideological animosity between Arabs and Persians,
it seems unlikely that this conflict was a result of these differences. “It could be argued that the
roots of this conflict can be found in modern history by looking at five factors” (Tarock 57).
(1)The revolution in Iran, which had worldwide ramifications; (2)Saddam Hussein’s
opportunism and ambitions to become an Arab hero . . . [and to become] the
guardian or the gendarme of the Persian Gulf; (3)U.S.-Soviet perception of the
revolutionary Iran as a threat to the peace and security of the region; (4)The
collapse of the detente (which Hussein declared null and void) in the late 1970’s
which intensified the superpowers’ rivalry in the Third World; (5)The unprecedented
hostility which had developed, following the hostage crises, between Teheran and
Washington. (Tarock 57)
The last two of these reasons deeply concerned both superpowers, which would ultimately shape
policy in the Gulf region, and would later directly effect the war. Though not a direct cause of the
war, policy in the region almost certainly set the stage. After all, neutrality by either the U.S. or the
Soviet Union after the war began would open the door to the other superpower to establish their
own objectives in this strategically important region at the expense of the other. Neither
superpower was prepared to idly stand by and let that happen.
On September 22, 1980, Hussein invaded Iran believing that it would be an easy victory. He
underestimated Iran’s military strength assuming it had become badly compromised the previous
year during the Iranian revolution. “In the early stages of the war, [the superpowers’] involvement
was marked by confusion and vacillation in decision-making vis-a-vis Iran and Iraq” (Tarock 59).
Early in the war both the United States and Soviet Union had “publicly” declared neutrality (as
opposed to behind the scenes efforts) to avoid a possible direct confrontation between them in the
Persian Gulf. “However, within twenty-four hours of the administration’s declaration of neutrality,
Saudi Arabia requested U.S. military assistance against possible Iranian attack” (Turock 61). A few
days later, and only eight days after the beginning of the war the U.S. sent AWACS (Airborne
Warning and Control Systems) and their ground support systems to Saudi Arabia to protect “friends
in the region.” This is important because it implies direct “involvement” in the war in support of
Iraq by the United States. Also because Saudi Arabia, who sided with Iraq, may not have invited the
U.S. had they been hostile toward Iraq. Meanwhile the United States and Iran were on a collision
course over the hostage situation, which by its nature would benefit Iraq.
Iran on the other hand rightfully perceived this move as a threat. Iran suspected that the
U.S. was passing along military intelligence about Iranian troop movements acquired from the
AWACS, and satellites flying over the area to Iraq through the Saudi Arabia government. The U.S.
countered that they were only in the region should Teheran or Moscow attempt to disrupt the flow
of oil through the Persian Gulf. Further indicating the U.S. sided with Iraq was the lack of mention
about Iraq’s potential to interrupt the flow of oil. “Although Iraqi forces won early successes, Iran
rallied, held the invaders, formed new armies, and took the offensive. By 1982 Iraqi troops had
been cleared from most of Iran. However, Iran rejected the possibility of peace and pursued the
war. Iran’s only clear objectives were to punish Iraq and overthrow Hussein” (Encarta).
The Soviets faced a dilemma with the development of the war because they had relations
with both Iraq and Iran. While Iraq was an important ally of the Soviet Union, they also reveled in
Iran’s antagonistic attitude toward the United States. Consequently the Soviets balked on taking
sides definitively in favor of one side or the other because both Iraq and Iran were very important
to Soviet interests in the region. “Not long after the Reagan administration took office, it decided
that America’s interest in the region would be seriously harmed if Iraq were to collapse. Among the
first steps taken to assist Iraq was to urge the Gulf states to increase their support for Iraq” (Tarock
67). The U.S. focus was on the perceived military threats of an Iranian and/or Soviet invasion of
Persian Gulf states while the war was in progress. It should be noted here that as a result of the
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the revolution the previous year in Iran, the American navel
force already had a presence in close proximity to the region. Once the Iran-Iraq war started they
further reinforced this naval task force. This was done presumably to protect Persian Gulf states
from the perceived Iranian threat of attack, or the potential threat of a Soviet attack on states in the
Gulf, or even an invasion of Iran itself by the Soviets. The United States ‘public’ stance was it would
become directly involved militarily only if Iran attempted to block the Straits of Hormuz. The
reason for this policy was to maintain a presence in the area, and to exert its influence on unfolding
events of the region.
It became clear to the Soviets in 1982 that Iraq could possibly lose the war, “but it clearly
did not consider an Iranian military victory to be in its own interest. It was therefore imperative
that the Soviet Union should ensure that Iraq had overwhelming superiority in military hardware, if
its ground forces were to survive the mass assaults of the highly motivated Iranian forces” (Chubin
193). The U.S. also observed that Iraqi existence was being threatened and lost little time in
increasing diplomatic relations with Iraq. By the end of 1982, Iraq was removed from the U.S.
Government’s list of states that supported terrorism, which was followed by further relations and
“increased trade” with Iraq. This trade was not so much military in nature as it was in suppling
equipment such as “transport planes, vehicles, and helicopters” in addition to American technology.
After the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the U.S. placed Iran on the list
of Government states who supported terrorism. “[But by] now the war was in its fifth year . . . and
the newly reelected Reagan Administration, chastened by its experience in Beirut, was no longer
confident of a policy of unrelenting pressure . . . [and] for their part, Iran’s leaders no longer felt as
insecure as before, but neither did they feel as militant nor as confident of their ability to win the
war without new sources of arms supplies. The basis for a possible ‘deal’ could be glimpsed at this
juncture. But the tone had changed” (Chubin 210). The U.S. State Department was now putting
pressure on Iraq to stop the relentless assaults on Iran’s “economic infrastructure” and condemned
Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran. As a result of this move, and as a gesture of goodwill,
Iran opened relations with other Persian Gulf states, and even sent a Foreign Minister to Saudi
Arabia for the first time to reassure the Saudi Government that Iran was not a threat to Saudi
Arabia. In addition to this, the U.S. was now giving Iran intelligence on Soviet troops movements
near its borders. Iran’s position in the war had seriously deteriorated as a result of the constant
attacks by Iraq, and sought to renew relations with the U.S..
As President Reagan was to put it subsequently, the U.S. interest in opening a
channel of communication to Iran was (1) to establish contacts with moderates in
Tehran, (2) to gain leverage in Iran to prevent a completely open field for the Soviet
Union in that country, and (3) possibly to assist in the freeing of U.S. citizens
kidnaped and held as hostages by groups subjected to Iran’s influence. Iran’s
interest in new contacts was evident: (1) to gain access to weapons systems and
spare parts, usually referred to as the ‘return of Iran’s assets’ (i.e., weapons bought
and paid for but impounded by the U.S. during the hostage crises and the war); (2)
to increase its room for manoeuver vis-a-vis the USSR; (3) to gain some reduction in
the flow of aid to Iraq; and (4) to obtain recognition of the revolution as a historical
fact (Chubin 211).
Iran suspected the United States was pushing for a stalemate to the war (or as Iranians called it
‘peace without justice’) by using ‘neutrality’ as a cover, but they appear to be indifferent about this
now. Most likely this would be the result of the heavy costs endured both economically and
militarily. Because of the arms embargo, Iran was unable too resupply its military equipment and
arms, therefore, Iran deliberately sent a message through Israel to the U.S. stating that unless Iran
found a way too resupply its weapons, Iran could develop into a “Lebanon-type anarchy” or even
worse, become a satellite state of the Soviet Union.
A Lebanese magazine reported in November of 1986 that the United States had negotiated
an arms deal with Iran (popularly referred to as the Iran-Contra Affair), at the urging of the Israeli
government. Iran’s motives were simple, that of obtaining arms to fight a war it was falling behind
in. For the U.S. the motives were mostly to achieve the release of its kidnaped American hostages,
and to improve relations with Iran and to ensure future influence in the region that could thwart
Soviet interests. “By making arms the currency of the dialogue, the U.S. raised a host of questions
about its intentions, its judgements, and its firmness when it came to dealing with ‘terrorist’ states.
For our purposes it is sufficient to note that the direct supply of U.S. arms appears to have included
some 2,000 TOW (antitank missiles) and some 235 HAWK (air defense, SAM) missiles . . . and did
not come from Iran’s confiscated assets. They were delivered on three installments in June 1985,
July 1986, and October 1986.” (Chubin 211).
Iraq on the other hand was under no U.S. or Soviet arms embargo, and could replenish their
military continually, while Iran was subject to regular and frequent attacks by Iraq without hope of
improvement as long as the arms embargo was in place. Although the three shipments of arms to
Iran from the United States helped to keep balance in the war, it ended in disaster, and rocked the
Reagan administration like no other foreign policy debacle. It also proved to be a major
embarrassment for the United States who secretly supplied arms to Iran in direct violation of
existing United States laws. As a consequence the United States lost credibility with all the players
in the region. Another consequence of this ‘deal’ being revealed was increased “animosity and
hostility between Washington and Teheran” and an increased desire for the U.S. to see that Iran
would lose the war. “There are strong reasons to argue that had the arms deal [fully] succeeded . . .
it would have almost certainly enhanced the military capability of the Iranian forces in the war and
would have very likely resulted in an Iranian victory. It would have also ensured better diplomatic
relations with the United States in the future” (Tarock 95).
The United States by early 1987 began to express concern over the threat posed by Iran, as
well as the safe navigation of the Persian Gulf when Iran acquired Silkworm anti-ship missiles. The
catalyst for this concern was Kuwait’s request to the U.S. to reflag twelve of its oil tankers and
provide them with naval protection. When the U.S.S. Stark was inadvertently bombed, it served to
reinforce these perceived threats to the safe navigation of the Gulf. “The U.S. decision to become
directly involved in the Gulf stemmed from several overlapping and not wholly compatible
considerations: (1) a desire . . . to reassure the Gulf states (especially Kuwait); (2) to pre-empt any
Soviet role in the Gulf; (3) and to serve notice of concern about the safety of navigation [in the
Persian Gulf]” (Chubin 214).
The direct presence in the gulf by U.S. reflagged Kuwaiti tankers would serve to deter
Iranian attacks on them, but it did nothing to stop Iraq’s air assaults of Iranian tankers and oil
platforms. It also did not address the increase of Iraqi air assaults on Iran’s oil trade capabilities.
Although Iran took precautions not to confront the U.S. directly, they did attack oil installations,
and offshore platforms of third parties in retaliation of the Iraqi assaults. This could be viewed as
another example of the United States clearly siding with Iraq with a new twist. It appears that the
U.S. is getting closer to fighting the war for Iraq. Clashes and near-misses between Iran and the
United States continued in the Persian Gulf for a good portion of 1987 in what is referred to as the
Attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf indirectly brought other countries into the conflict,
including the U.S.. “By 1988 Iran had lost the will to continue the war. Iraq forces resumed the
offensive, but with economic development in both Iran and Iraq at a standstill due to reduced oil
exporting capabilities, an agreement for a cease-fire was reached in August 1988 with the help of
the United Nations” (Encarta). Final peace between Iran and Iraq was delayed for nearly two years,
but Iran and Iraq resumed formal diplomatic relations in 1990 and divided control over the Shatt al
Arab waterway. By 1991 Iraqi troops were withdrawn from Iranian soil and prisoners of war were
exchanged. The Iran-Iraq war was now over but Iraq would soon set its sights on its neighbor to
the south. Hussein would invade Kuwait leading to another war for Iraq, this time against the
In many ways the Iran-Iraq war was the culmination of, and epitomizes the Cold War.
Never before had the two superpowers taken such a great interest in two third world countries who
were at war. There is also enough evidence to suggest that had the superpowers not supplied Iran
and Iraq with arms during the 1970’s (and resupply after the war began) this conflict might have
remained a simple border dispute lasting a few months, rather than escalating to full war that
lasted eight years. Certainly the Persian Gulf region (particularly Iran, and Iraq to a lesser degree)
was geopolitically important for both superpowers. For the Soviets, Iran meant access to the “warm
waters of the Indian Ocean,” and for the United States, Iran meant 1200 miles of shared borders
with the Soviet Union which expanded by 530 miles in 1985 because of the occupation of
Afghanistan. To both superpowers, the unrestrained flow of oil was important in regards to the
world-economy, as well as their individual interests. The catastrophic outcome of superpower
involvement in this conflict left two third-world countries in economic ruins. It also resulted in
1.7million wounded, and one million dead in one of the bloodiest wars ever fought.
Chubin, Shahram & Charles Tripp. Iran and Iraq at War. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1988.
Persian Gulf War, Iran, Iraq. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 99. CD-Rom. Redmond, WA:
Microsoft Corporation, 1999.
Turock, Adam. The Superpowers’ Involvement in the Iran-Iraq War. Commack, New York:
Nova Science Publishers Inc., 1998