Impact of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88
The first major threat to the security of the Persian Gulf states
followed the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq in 1980. The
war began after a period of deteriorating relations between these
two historic rivals, dating from the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah
Pahlavi in 1979 and his replacement as Iranian leader by Ayatollah
Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. Full-scale warfare erupted in
September 1980 as Iraqi military units swept across the Shatt
al Arab waterway--which forms the confluence of the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers--into the province of Khuzestan, Iran's richest
oil-producing area. Iraqi president Saddam Husayn hoped to overthrow
Khomeini, who had been overtly attempting to spread his Islamist
(also seen as fundamentalist) revolution into Iraq, where the
minority regime of Sunni (see Glossary) Muslims ruled over a majority
population of Shia Muslims.
By November 1980, the Iraqi offensive had lost its momentum.
Rejecting an Iraqi offer to negotiate, Khomeini launched a series
of counteroffensives in 1982, in 1983, and in 1984 that resulted
in the recapture of the Iranian cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan.
The destruction of huge oil facilities caused both belligerents
sharp declines in oil revenues. Iraq was able to obtain substantial
financial aid from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. In early
1986, an Iranian offensive across the Shatt al Arab resulted in
the fall of the Iraqi oil-loading port of Faw and the occupation
of much of the Faw Peninsula almost to the Kuwait border. But
the Iranians could not break out of the peninsula to threaten
Basra, and their last great offensive, which began in December
1986, was ultimately repelled with heavy losses. In the spring
of 1988, the freshly equipped Iraqi ground and air forces succeeded
in retaking the Faw Peninsula and, through a succession of frontal
assaults, continued into Iran. Iranian battlefield losses, combined
with Iraqi air and missile attacks on Iranian cities, forced Khomeini
to accept a ceasefire , which took effect in August 1988.
Initially, the fighting between Iran and Iraq only peripherallyaffected
the Persian Gulf states. In May 1981, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia, and the UAE banded together in the GCC to protect
their interests and, if necessary, to defend themselves (see Collective
Security under the Gulf Cooperation Council , this ch.). In 1984
Iran reacted to Iraqi air attacks on Iran's main oil terminal
on the island of Khark by attacking ships destined for ports in
gulf countries that assisted Iraq's war effort. Iranian links
with a coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981, Shia terrorist activity
in Kuwait, and Iranianinspired violence in Mecca underscored the
conviction of the Arab states of the gulf that Iran was the primary
threat to their security.
Iran stepped up the tanker warfare in early 1987 by introducing
high-speed small craft armed with Italian Sea Killer missiles.
Kuwait had already sought the protection of United States naval
escorts through the gulf for reflagged Kuwaiti vessels. Determined
to protect the flow of oil, the United States approved and began
tanker convoys in May 1987. Eleven Kuwaiti ships--one-half of
the Kuwaiti tanker fleet--were placed under the United States
flag. Other Kuwaiti tankers sailed under Soviet and British flags.
Although United States escorts were involved in a number of clashes
with Iranian forces and one tanker was damaged by a mine, Iran
generally avoided interfering with Kuwaiti ships sailing under
United States protection.
Data as of January 1993