The Iraq Report: 40 years on, the Iran-Iraq feud remains

Iranians gather in the northeastern city of Mashhad on January 5, 2020 to pay homage to top general Qasem Soleimani and others after they were killed in a US strike in Baghdad [Getty Images]
7 min read
22 September, 2021
Whilst the main protagonists of the Iran-Iraq War have long departed, the seeds sowed by the conflict continue to have rippling effects for the region today. With Iranian soft power at unprecedented levels, what will the future hold for Iraq?

In response to what the Baathists claimed were ongoing Iranian provocations, attempted assassination attempts of officials, support for separatist groups, and the shelling of border villages, the Iraqi armed forces launched a ground invasion of Iran 41 years ago, plunging both countries into a grinding war that lasted almost eight years.

However, despite the war finishing almost half a century ago, its effects still run deep and have irrevocably shaped not only relations between Iraq and Iran, but the modern Middle East as we know it.

Occurring almost immediately after the Shia Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, who overthrew the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty and inaugurated a new era of Islamic republican rule, the Iran-Iraq War set the stage for the sectarianism that racks the region today, as well as the use of proxy forces to settle scores between regional and international rivals.

"Regionally, Iran exerts influence across key geostrategic territories commonly known as the “Shia Crescent”. This crescent extends from Iran itself, through to Iraq, Syria, and beyond to Lebanon, where the Lebanese Hezbollah group is a dominating force both militarily and politically"

Modern Iraq is still a reflection of the war

While the US-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 were arguably far more destructive, they did nothing to erase the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War for the two countries who fought it.

It has been argued by many experts and analysts that the main winner of the US- and UK-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 was not the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” – as former President George W Bush branded his alliance to invade Iraq – but was in fact neighbouring Iran, the modern Iraqi state’s oldest adversary.

Since Iraq and Iran achieved at least nominal independence from colonial rule in the aftermath of the First World War, they have had a series of disputes which usually left Tehran in a superior position to Baghdad.

These ranged from conflicts over control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iranian support for Kurdish separatists, and the Pahlavi dynasty’s military occupation of three Persian Gulf islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates.

The Iran-Iraq War Memorial in Baghdad, Iraq [Getty Images]
Iraq's memorial of the Iran-Iraq War, pictured here in Baghdad. Whilst the figures of total casualties remain uncertain, estimates suggest there were at least 500,000 deaths [Getty Images]

Hostilities between the two nations pre-dates Iraq’s declaration of war against the State of Israel, a diplomatic condition that has not changed since 1948. Even after the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, the successor states to these monarchies inherited the geopolitical conflict of their predecessors.

Through using Kurdish separatist militants, Pahlavi Iran managed to bleed Iraq’s armed forces and browbeat the young Baathist Iraqi government into conceding half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which was previously under the sole sovereignty of Baghdad.

The Algiers Accords of 1975 was brokered, granting Tehran control of half the navigation rights of the Shatt with access to the Persian Gulf in exchange for a cessation of Iranian support to Kurdish rebels. With the deal sealed, and not for the first or last time in history, the Kurds were sold out by their Iranian benefactors and were suppressed by the Iraqi state.

While outright war never broke out between Iraq and Iran in the early to middle 20th century, that state of simmering tensions over Iraqi bitterness over loss of half of the Shatt, as well as the depletion of its military’s manpower, would soon explode into one of the most brutal wars of the century.

The Iran-Iraq War ground on for the better part of a decade, causing millions of casualties and billions in infrastructure and economic damage. While Iraq was on the defensive for much of the war, its offensives in 1987 and 1988 ended the war in Iraq’s favour, one of the first and only times Baghdad forced Tehran into conceding, as Khomeini had previously refused all attempts at a ceasefire.

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Four decades on, and following the Iraq war of 2003, Iran has established itself as the key powerbroker of Iraqi affairs. All the main political blocs participating in the Iraqi political experiment have some sort of ties with Tehran, and a branch of the Iraqi armed forces, the Popular Mobilisation Force, is currently being groomed as an Iraqi version of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Modern day Iraqi politicians like the Shia Islamist Hadi al-Amiri, who controls the Badr Organisation and has held senior ministerial positions, enjoy prominence in Iraq today that is primarily facilitated by Iranian backing. Tehran has backed Amiri as he has been one of their most loyal lieutenants, even fighting alongside Iran against Iraq in the 1980s.

Organisations like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now known by their modern rebranded name of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, also found their origins in the Iran-Iraq War. Indeed, Amiri’s Badr Organisation is an offshoot of this group which was led by prominent Shia cleric Ammar al-Hakim before he created a further offshoot in 2017 called the Wisdom Movement.

The Iraqi political and military landscape is also dominated by notorious groups such as Asaib Ahl ul-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, all fairly recent creations but with strong links to Iran and who have been designated as terrorist organisations by the United States and others.

"Should the Iranian economy no longer be under the grip of crippling sanctions, then Tehran will be one step closer to realising its ambitions first laid out by Khomeini many years ago when the Iran-Iraq War first exploded"

By becoming patrons to these Iraqi Shia Islamist dissident groups in their formative years, and often having a hand in their creation through links forged in the crucible of the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran’s proxies in Iraq are not mere puppets, but are viewed as long-time friends and allies.

That feeling is reciprocated, with frequent pronouncements of loyalty and friendship to Iran from senior Iraqi players who view Khomeini’s Islamist revolution as a watershed event that needs to be fully implemented and replicated across the region, starting with Iraq.

The Iran-Iraq War and the region

In effect, while the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, it is arguable that Khomeini’s objective of exporting his revolution has at least, for now, succeeded decades on.

Regionally, Iran exerts influence across key geostrategic territories commonly known as the “Shia Crescent”. This crescent extends from Iran itself, through to Iraq, Syria, and beyond to Lebanon, where the Lebanese Hezbollah group is a dominating force both militarily and politically.

With US foreign policy pivoting away from the Middle East, will Iran and its proxies be able to capitalise? [Getty Images]
With US foreign policy pivoting away from the Middle East, will Iran and its proxies be able to capitalise? [Getty Images]

The idea behind the crescent is for Tehran to build a land bridge from Iran itself to the Mediterranean Sea, establishing the Shia Islamist republic as a regional hegemon with significant leverage, forcing engagement from historical foes such as the United States.

However, Tehran also has sway amongst dissident Shia groups in Bahrain, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and has been known to arm and supply the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been at war not only with the UN-recognised government, but also Tehran’s enemies holding court in Riyadh.

During the Iran-Iraq War, many of the wealthy oil-rich Sunni Arab monarchies – including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others – feared Khomeini’s stated intent to export his revolution into their dominions. To that end, they loaned Iraq billions of dollars to finance the Iraqi war effort, an initiative that went some way into containing Iranian ambitions.

However, and with the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship, Iran has been able to not only strategically encircle Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers, but it is also able to agitate their Shia minorities (or majority, as in Bahrain’s case).

Perspectives

This represents one of the greater concerns of these monarchies manifesting itself, with Saudi Arabia in particular increasingly feeling distant from its traditional protector, the United States. This is arguably the reasoning behind Riyadh adopting a more muscular foreign and military policy since the Arab Spring, as the ruling family do not feel as assured as they once did of Washington’s support.

Nevertheless, and despite adopting a more assertive stance, that has largely led from one disaster to the next, with Saudi Arabia now stuck in the Yemeni quagmire, unable to defeat a well-entrenched and supplied Iranian proxy in the form of the Houthis. Again, this has left Iran in a dominant position regionally, with its foes left wondering what else they can do.

Despite extensive Saudi lobbying to ensure the Iran nuclear deal remains dead after former President Donald Trump unceremoniously and unilaterally abandoned the 2015 accord struck by his predecessor Barack Obama, it seems Obama’s ideological successor and former running mate, incumbent Joe Biden, is keen to revive the nuclear deal.

Should that happen, and should the Iranian economy no longer be under the grip of crippling sanctions, then Tehran will be one step closer to realising its ambitions first laid out by Khomeini many years ago when the Iran-Iraq War first exploded – Iran will finally be able to cow its opponents in the region and set about exporting its revolution all but unopposed.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal