(PERSIAN GULF WARS to 1991 – continued)

home | 1945-21st century

PERSIAN GULF WARS to 1991 (2 of 8)

previous | next

Saddam Hussein against Iran, to 1990

Saddam Hussein was playing the anti-Communist West against the Soviet Union. He was buying weapons from the Soviet Union, while the West was hoping to lure him away from the Soviet Union and was also selling him weapons.

With the fall of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Hussein saw opportunity. The Shah had been friendly with the US and was considered a great power in the Middle East. The rise to power of the Shi'a mullahs in Iran was a concern for Saddam Hussein. The Iranians were largely of the Shiite branch of Islam, in conflict with Sunni Muslims. Iraq had a large population of Shi'a and Sunni. Saddam was on the Sunni side and, it is said, he feared Iran's influence in Iraq. Iran and Iraq accused each other of interference in each other's internal affairs. Saddam went to several Middle East nations that had Sunni Muslim heads-of-state to gain approval for an invasion of Iran. In Jordan he met with King Hussein, and there, it is believed, he met with three senior CIA agents – Jordan having been a base of operations for the CIA in the Muslim world and the CIA representing US hostility to Iran's revolution. Saddam Hussein was also seeking more weapons, and in this he had an advantage over Iran, which had only Libya and Syria for allies.

Iranian soldiers and an Iraqi tank

Iranian soldiers and an Iraqi tank

Iranian soldiers


In September 1980, Saddam Hussein's government declared Iraq's 1975 agreement with Iran null and void, On 22 September Saddam launched a land and air invasion into Iran, claiming that Iran had been shelling Iraqi towns. He said he would be in Teheran, Iran's capital, in three days. His forces advanced along a broad front into Khuzestan province. They captured the city of Khorramshahr, but they failed to capture the oil-refining center at Abadan.

Publicly the United States was neutral regarding the Iran-Iraq war but in fact it was supporting Iraq. US foreign policy strategists did not want Iran to gain control over Iraq's oil fields. The United States had opposed any UN Security Council move to condemn Saddam's invasion of Iran. The US removed Iraq's name from its list of nations supporting terrorism. It sent more arms to Iraq, including strains of anthrax for chemical weaponry. France supplied Iraq with more high-tech weaponry, and the Soviet Union continued to supply the Iraqis with weapons.

In June 1981, Israel's air force destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction 17 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear bomb capability. The attack was denounced around the world, including in the United States. The Reagan administration was divided in approval of the strike and settled for denouncing it with others in the United Nations. A New York Times editorial called "Israel's sneak attack ... an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression."

The Israelis were selling weapons to Iran. The United States was trying to win favor from moderates in Iran and trying to keep Saddam Hussein friendly. In 1984 the Reagan administration again applied trade sanctions against Iran, and in late 1986 the Iranians leaked information about US arms dealing produced the Iran-Contra scandal in the United States and sent the US tilting more toward Iraq. The United States saw its relations with the Sunni Muslim states as more important than its relations with Iran. The US remained afraid of Soviet gains with the Sunni Muslim states.

Iran and Iraq attacked each other's oil industry. That Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians – a weapon abhorred in the West since World War I – created little stir in the West. But Iran's attacks on oil tankers prompted the United States and other Western European nations to station warships in the Persian Gulf. Iran's ability to obtain arms declined. The war was in stalemate while as number of war deaths continued and wealth was being lost. Iraq was acquiring a huge debt. In 1988 Saddam Hussein agreed to a cease-fire mediated by the United Nations.

Into 1990 a permanent peace treaty had not yet been created between Iran and Iraq. Accusations were made that Saddam was making nuclear bombs. On March 16, Iraq denied this but admitted to having chemical weapons, and it threatened to use them against Israel if it were attacked. Relations between the US and Iraq were deteriorating. On 10 April 1990 the US canceled an aerospace trade mission to Iraq. But for the sake of civility and influence, the administration George Herbert Walker Bush wanted to maintain good relations with Saddam.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.