1 Million May Have Died: Why the Iran-Iraq War Was Brutal

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Middle East expert and internal defense expert Maya Carlin on why the Iran-Iraq war was so terrible: When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, President Saddam Hussein expected to take control of his country’s neighbor within weeks. After the Shah’s fall and the resulting Iranian revolution in 1979, Iraqi officials assumed that the ongoing domestic unrest had left Iran fragile and weakened its defense capabilities.

The war dragged on eight yearsmaking it the longest conventional conflict of the 20th centuryth Century. The use of chemical weapons, martyrdom missions, and asymmetric warfare tactics made the Iran-Iraq War particularly devastating. Iran lost at least a quarter of a million soldiers, some of whom died in Iraq’s chemical weapons campaign.

Iran-Iraq War: Why?

Religious and ideological differences are at the root of the Iran-Iraq war. While both nations are Muslim, Iraq remains a Sunni-majority state while Iran is a Shia-majority state. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Shah projected a pro-Western and anti-socialist agenda. In contrast, the ruling Ba’ath Party in Iraq projected a pro-Soviet and socialist agenda. After the revolution, the Ba’athist leadership led by Saddam Hussein placed great emphasis on preventing the Iranian revolution from being exported to Iraq, as the Shia factor could threaten Saddam and his Sunni-dominated party.

Almost ten months after fall After the shah, a group of Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 US diplomats and civilians hostage. Known as the Iranian hostage crisis, this event drew international condemnation and further isolated the regime. The hostage crisis, coupled with the regime’s anti-Western ambitions, prompted US policy to gravitate towards Baghdad during the war. In addition, a subsequent US arms embargo imposed on Iran after the hostage crisis limited the regime’s arms flow.

Birth of the Basij

On September 22, 1980, Iraqi forces launched a series of surprise airstrikes on the Iranian Air Force’s arsenal. While the barrage did some damage, most of the Iranian fleet survived the attack. Within 24 hours Iraq started a ground invasion in three simultaneous attacks. Iraq’s offensive actions were expected to throw the newly installed Iranian regime into a tailspin. However, Iran’s rapid counterattacks prolonged the warfare.

Reverence for the Iranian regime led to the creation of the Basij militia a few months after the war began. The Basij was a volunteer militia open to Iranian men between the ages of 18 and 45. It was founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who above all declared that Iran could never be destroyed if it had a 20-million-man militia. During the war, thousands of volunteers joined the Basij and helped shape the outcome of the conflict. The untrained and poorly armed volunteer force conducted human wave attacks during the war, which reportedly helped clear mines for the professionally trained and equipped Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ultimately, Iran’s larger population and general zeal provided an impressive counterpoint to Iraq’s more sophisticated attacks.

The self-sacrifice of Basij Units promised martyrdom upon death, along with the smaller Iraqi force, resulted in a turnaround in warfare. After two years of fighting, the Iraqi military was crumbling. Its forces fell from 210,000 to 150,000 troops, and Iran had captured more than 450 tanks and armored personnel carriers. By 1981, the Iraqi Air Force had only 100 intact fighter-bombers and interceptors.

Because of its shaky position, Iraq withdrew from the Iranian Territory they seized early in the war and proposed a ceasefire in 1982. Khomeini refused to accept and vowed to continue the struggle until the Ba’ath Party was replaced by an Islamic republic, formally including the export of the Iranian revolution to his republic’s military objectives.

Iran-Iraq War – Terrible escalation

An onslaught of Iranian advances and declining military power prompted Hussein’s regime to consider a change in tactics. In the early 1980s, Iraq benefited from technical cooperation with Egypt, which had used chemical weapons against Yemen a few decades earlier. Deployed to Iraq in 1983 chemical arms against Iranian troops for the first time and justified this horrific escalation by saying that Iran was the first to use the tactic. During the 1983 Val Fajr II campaign near Haj Umran, US intelligence reports indicate that mustard agents were used by Iraqi forces.

Iraq used mustard drugs in various other battles, resulting in approximately 100,000 casualties. This number does not include civilian casualties, nor does it take into account the long-term health consequences that affected Iran’s border population. according to a Science Nearly 56,000 survivors of chemical weapons attacks in Iraq are reportedly still seeking medical treatment decades later.

While Iraq and some US officials have accused Iran of using chemical weapons, there has been no evidence to support this claim. A 1987 UN report closed that “Iraqi forces were adversely affected by mustard gas and a pulmonary element, possibly phosgene. In the absence of conclusive evidence on the weapons used, it has not been possible to determine how the injuries were caused.” As the Iran-Iraq war evolved into the “tanker war” in the mid-1980s, the UN became more involved in the conflict. In 1987 she called for an immediate ceasefire between the combatants. Iran initially refused, but a year later Tehran agreed to stop the war.

Iranian poses on top of an Iraqi T-62 tank in Khorramshahr, Khuzestan in Iran, just across the border with Iraq.

Iran-Iraq War: A Pointless Conflict?

In the end, despite eight years of brutal fighting, neither Iraq nor Iran could claim victory. Hussein’s Baath Party and the authoritarian Iranian regime remained in power, and all border disputes remained unresolved. While the exact number is unknown, experts assert that nearly 500,000 to 1 million people died during the war and about 1 to 2 million were injured. In addition, both countries fell into economic turbulence. Iraq’s use of chemical warfare and sophisticated weapons in the conflict likely influenced Iran’s increasing prioritization for developing its own weapons of mass destruction and cultivating proxy groups across the region.

Maya Carlin is Defense Middle East Editor at 19FortyFive. She is also an Analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has bylines in many publications including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.

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