Iran



Iran under the Shah

After the 1953 coup to overthrow Prime Minister Mosaddegh, the Shah of Iran became increasingly autocratic, and Iran entered a phase of close relations with the United States, modernization, and secularization – all of which contributed to the Shah’s overthrow in 1979.

Learning Objectives

Describe Iran’s political climate under the governance of the Shah

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1941, following an Anglo- Soviet invasion of Iran, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Pahlavi; subsequently, Iran became a major conduit for British and American aid to the Soviet Union until the end of the ongoing war.
  • Mohammad Mosaddegh, elected as the prime minister in 1951, became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized its petroleum industry and oil reserves.
  • He was deposed in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, which was supported by the American and British intelligence agencies (CIA and MI6), thereby increasing the Shah’s power.
  • After the coup, the Shah became increasingly autocratic and sultanistic, and Iran entered a phase of decades-long, controversial close relations with the United States and other foreign governments.
  • While the Shah increasingly modernized Iran and claimed to retain it as a fully secular state, arbitrary arrests and torture by his secret police, the SAVAK, were used to crush all forms of political opposition.
  • Mohammad Reza also introduced the White Revolution, a series of economic, social, and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing certain industries and granting women suffrage.
  • Several factors contributed to strong opposition to the Shah among certain groups within Iran, the most significant of which were U.S. and UK support for his regime and clashes with Islamists and increased communist activity. By 1979, political unrest had transformed into a revolution which on January 17 forced him to leave Iran.

Key Terms

  • White Revolution: A far-reaching series of reforms in Iran launched in 1963 by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and lasting until 1978. Mohammad Reza Shah’s reform program was built especially to weaken those classes that supported the traditional system. It consisted of several elements, including land reform, sale of some state-owned factories to finance this land reform, enfranchisement of women, nationalization of forests and pastures, formation of a literacy corps, and institution of profit-sharing schemes for workers in industry.
  • Tudeh Party: An Iranian communist party  formed in 1941, with Soleiman Mohsen Eskandari as its head. It had considerable influence in its early years and played an important role during Mohammad Mosaddegh’s campaign to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and his term as prime minister. The crackdown that followed the 1953 coup against Mosaddeq is said to have “destroyed” the party, although it continued.
  • Shah: A title given to the emperors, kings, princes, and lords of Iran (historically known as Persia).

The Shah of Iran

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the Shah of Iran from September 16, 1941, until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on February 11, 1979. He came to power during World War II after an Anglo-Soviet invasion forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah. During Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign, the Iranian oil industry was briefly nationalized under the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized its petroleum industry and oil reserves. He was deposed in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, an Anglo-American covert operation that marked the first time the United States had overthrown a foreign government during the Cold War.

Under Mohammad Reza’s reign, Iran marked the anniversary of 2,500 years of continuous monarchy since the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great. Concurrent with this celebration, Mohammad Reza changed the benchmark of the Iranian calendar from the hegira (the migration of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in the year 622) to the beginning of the Persian Empire, measured from Cyrus the Great’s coronation. Mohammad Reza also introduced the White Revolution, a series of economic, social, and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing certain industries and granting women suffrage. The core of this program was land reform. Modernization and economic growth proceeded at an unprecedented rate, fueled by Iran’s vast petroleum reserves, the third-largest in the world.

A secular Muslim, Mohammad Reza gradually lost support from the Shi’a clergy of Iran as well as the working class, particularly due to his strong policy of modernization and secularization, conflict with the traditional class of merchants known as bazaari, relations with Israel, and corruption issues surrounding himself, his family, and the ruling elite. Various additional controversial policies were enacted, including the banning of the communist Tudeh Party and a general suppression of political dissent by Iran’s intelligence agency, SAVAK. According to official statistics, Iran had as many as 2,200 political prisoners in 1978, a number that multiplied rapidly as a result of the revolution.

Other factors contributed to strong opposition to the Shah among certain groups within Iran, most significantly U.S. and UK support for his regime, clashes with Islamists, and increased communist activity. By 1979, political unrest transformed into a revolution which on January 17 forced him to leave Iran. Soon thereafter, the Iranian monarchy was formally abolished, and Iran was declared an Islamic republic led by Ruhollah Khomeini. Facing likely execution should he return to Iran, he died in exile in Egypt, whose President, Anwar Sadat, had granted him asylum. Due to his status as the last de facto Shah of Iran, he is often known as simply “the Shah.”

Explanations for why Mohammad Reza was overthrown include his status as a dictator put in place by a non-Muslim Western power, the United States, whose foreign culture was seen as influencing that of Iran. Additional contributing factors included reports of oppression, brutality, corruption, and extravagance. Basic functional failures of the regime have also been blamed: economic bottlenecks, shortages, and inflation; the regime’s over-ambitious economic program; the failure of its security forces to deal with protest and demonstration; and the overly centralized royal power structure. International policies pursued by the Shah to supplement national income with remarkable increases of oil prices through his leading role in the Organization of the Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) have been stressed as a major cause of a shift of Western interests and priorities. This was reflected in Western politicians and media, especially the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, questioning human rights in Iran, as well as in strengthened economic ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

Relations with the United States

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi maintained close ties with the United States during most of his reign. He pursued a Westernizing, modernizing economic policy and a strongly pro-Western foreign policy; he also made a number of visits to America, where he was regarded as a friend. The Shah’s diplomatic foundation was the U.S.’ guarantee that they would protect him, which enabled him to stand up to larger enemies. While the arrangement did not preclude other partnerships and treaties, it provided a somewhat stable environment in which Pahlavi could implement his reforms.

Iran’s long border with America’s Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, and its position as the largest, most powerful country in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, made it a “pillar” of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many Iranian students and other citizens resided in the United States, and the country had a positive and welcoming attitude toward Americans.

In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq was overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-organized coup, in what political scientist Mark Gasiorowski called “a crucial turning point both in Iran’s modern history and in U.S. Iran relations.” He explains that many Iranians argue that “the 1953 coup and the extensive U.S. support for the shah in subsequent years were largely responsible for the shah’s arbitrary rule,” which led to the “deeply anti-American character” of the 1979 revolution.

Following the coup, the United States helped build up the Shah’s regime. In the first three weeks, the American government gave Iran $68 million in emergency aid, and an additional $1.2 billion over the next decade. In this era that ensued until the fall of the shah in 1979, Iran was one of the United States’ closest allies.

During his reign, the Shah received significant American support, frequently making state visits to the White House and earning praise from numerous American presidents. The Shah’s close ties to Washington and his Westernization policies soon angered some Iranians, especially the hardline Islamic conservatives.

A photo of the Shah of Iran with John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara in 1962 in a White House office.

Relations with United States: The Shah with John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara in 1962. During the Shah’s rule, the United States and Iran were close allies. In 1953, the United States helped overthrow the Prime Minister in favor of increasing the Shah’s power.

The Iranian Revolution

The Iranian Revolution refers to events involving the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States, and its eventual replacement with an Islamic republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, supported by various leftist and Islamist organizations and Iranian student movements.

Learning Objectives

Examine the reasons for the Iranian Revolution

Key Takeaways

Key Terms

  • Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: An Iranian Shia Muslim religious leader, revolutionary, and politician. He was the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Following the revolution, he became the country’s Supreme Leader, a position created in the constitution of the Islamic Republic as the highest-ranking political and religious authority of the nation, which he held until his death.
  • Gharbzadegi: A pejorative Persian term variously translated as “Westoxification,” “Westitis,” “Euromania,” or “Occidentosis.” It is used to refer to the loss of Iranian cultural identity through the adoption and imitation of Western models and Western criteria in education, the arts, and culture and the subsequent transformation of Iran into a passive market for Western goods and a pawn in Western geopolitics.
  • Islamic Jurists: Experts in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic Law, the human understanding of the Sharia (believed by Muslims to represent divine law as revealed in the Quran and the Sunnah (the teachings and practices of the Islamic prophet Muhammad).

The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution, was the revolution that transformed Iran from an absolute monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, one of the leaders of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic. It began in January 1978 with the first major demonstrations and concluded with the approval of the new theocratic Constitution—whereby Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country—in December 1979.

Demonstrations against the Shah commenced in October 1977, developing into a campaign of civil resistance that included both secular and religious elements and intensified in January 1978. Between August and December 1978, strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country. The Shah left Iran for exile on January 16, 1979, as the last Persian monarch, leaving his duties to a regency council and an opposition-based prime minister. Ayatollah Khomeini was invited back to Iran by the government, and returned to Tehran to a greeting by several million Iranians. The royal reign collapsed shortly after on February 11, when guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting, bringing Khomeini to official power. Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979, and approved a new theocratic-republican constitution whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country in December 1979.

The revolution was unusual for the surprise it created throughout the world: it lacked many of the customary causes of revolution (defeat at war, a financial crisis, peasant rebellion, or disgruntled military), occurred in a nation that was enjoying relative prosperity, produced profound change at great speed, was massively popular, resulted in the exile of many Iranians, and replaced a pro-Western semi-absolute monarchy with an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy based on the concept of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists (or velayat-e faqih). It was a relatively non-violent revolution and helped to redefine modern revolutions although there was violence in its aftermath.

Photo of a mass demonstration in Tehran, 1979. The streets are completely filled with people, many carrying posters, and one man standing above them all on a platform.

Iranian Revolution: The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, left the country for exile in January 1979 after strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country, and on February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran to a greeting of several million Iranians.

Causes of the Revolution

Reasons advanced for the occurrence of the revolution and its populist, nationalist and, later, Shi’a Islamic character include a conservative backlash against the Westernizing and secularizing efforts of the Western-backed Shah, a liberal backlash to social injustice, a rise in expectations created by the 1973 oil revenue windfall and an overly ambitious economic program, anger over a short, sharp economic contraction in 1977–78, and other shortcomings of the previous regime.

The Shah’s regime became increasingly oppressive, brutal, corrupt, and extravagant. It also suffered from basic functional failures that brought economic bottlenecks, shortages, and inflation. The Shah was perceived by many as beholden to – if not a puppet of – a non-Muslim Western power (the United States) whose culture was affecting that of Iran. At the same time, support for the Shah may have waned among Western politicians and media – especially under the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter – as a result of the Shah’s support for OPEC petroleum price increases earlier in the decade. When President Carter enacted a policy that countries guilty of human rights violations would be deprived of American arms or aid, some Iranians gathered the courage to post open letters and petitions in the hope that the repression by the government might subside.

That the revolution replaced the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi with Islamism and Khomeini, rather than with another leader and ideology, is credited in part to the spread of the Shia version of the Islamic revival that opposed Westernization and saw Ayatollah Khomeini as following in the footsteps of the Shi’a Imam Husayn ibn Ali and the Shah in the role of Husayn’s foe, the hated tyrant Yazid I. Other factors include the underestimation of Khomeini’s Islamist movement by both the Shah’s reign – who considered them a minor threat compared to the Marxists and Islamic socialists – and by the secularist, opponents of the government, who thought the Khomeinists could be sidelined.

Ayatollah Khomeini and the Ideology of the Revolution

The post-revolutionary leader – Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – first came to political prominence in 1963 when he led opposition to the Shah and his White Revolution. Khomeini was arrested in 1963 after declaring the Shah a “wretched miserable man” who had “embarked on the [path toward] destruction of Islam in Iran.” Three days of major riots throughout Iran followed, with 15,000 dead from police fire as reported by opposition sources. However, anti-revolutionary sources conjectured that just 32 were killed. Khomeini was released after eight months of house arrest and continued his agitation, condemning Iran’s close cooperation with Israel and its capitulations and extension of diplomatic immunity to American government personnel in Iran. In November 1964, Khomeini was rearrested and sent into exile where he remained for 15 years, until the revolution.

In this interim period of “disaffected calm,” the budding Iranian revival began to undermine the idea of Westernization as progress that had been the basis of the Shah’s secular reign and form the ideology of the 1979 revolution. Jalal Al-e-Ahmad’s idea of Gharbzadegi – that Western culture was a plague or an intoxication to be eliminated – spread through the nation, along with Ali Shariati’s vision of Islam as the one true liberator of the Third World from oppressive colonialism, neo-colonialism, and capitalism and Morteza Motahhari’s popularized retellings of the Shia faith.

Most importantly, Khomeini preached that revolt and especially martyrdom, against injustice and tyranny was part of Shia Islam, and that Muslims should reject the influence of both liberal capitalism and communism, ideas that inspired the revolutionary slogan “Neither East, nor West – Islamic Republic!”

Away from public view, Khomeini developed the ideology of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) as government, that Muslims – in fact everyone – required “guardianship,” in the form of rule or supervision by the leading Islamic jurist or jurists. Such rule was ultimately “more necessary even than prayer and fasting” in Islam, as it would protect Islam from deviation from traditional sharia law and in so doing eliminate poverty, injustice, and the “plundering” of Muslim land by foreign non-believers.

A photo portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Ayatollah Khomeini: The post-revolutionary leader – Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – first came to political prominence in 1963 when he led opposition to the Shah and his White Revolution. After the revolution, Khomeini told questioners that “the religious dignitaries do not want to rule.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Shah’s pro-Western, autocratic monarchy was replaced by an Islamic Republic based on the principle of rule by Islamic jurists, which reversed most of the modernization and secularization of the prior regime.

Learning Objectives

Compare the Islamic Republic with the government under the Shah

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1979 Iranian Revolution brought about the Islamic Republic of Iran, marking a major shift in the country’s political structure, foreign policy, legal system, and culture.
  • The leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was Iran’s supreme leader until his death in 1989; this era was dominated by the consolidation of the revolution into a theocratic republic under Khomeini and by the costly and bloody war with Iraq.
  • While the revolution brought about some re-Islamization of Iran, particularly in terms of personal appearance—beards, hijab—it has not prompted a reversal of all modernization or a return to traditional patterns of family life.
  • The new government began purging itself of the non-Islamist political opposition and of those Islamists who were not considered radical enough.
  • The Leader of the Revolution (“Supreme Leader”), who is as much a religious leader as a political one, is responsible for delineation and supervision of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • On November 4, 1979, a group of Muslim students seized the United States Embassy and took 52 personnel and citizens hostage after the United States refused to return Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Iran to face trial in the court of the new regime and all but certain execution. This event, known as the Iran hostage crisis, lasted 444 days.

Key Terms

  • Islamic Republic: The name given to several states in countries ruled by Islamic laws. Despite the similar name, their governments and laws substantially differ. The term “Islamic republic” has come to mean several different things, some contradictory. To some Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East and Africa who advocate it, this type of state is under a particular Islamic form of government. They see it as a compromise between a purely Islamic caliphate and secular nationalism and republicanism. In their conception, the penal code of the state must be compatible with some or all laws of Sharia, and the state may not be a monarchy as many Middle Eastern states are presently.
  • Iran hostage crisis: A diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States in which 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, after a group of Iranian students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, who supported the Iranian Revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It is the longest hostage crisis in recorded history.
  • theocratic: A form of government in which a deity is the source from which all authority derives. The civil leader is believed to have a personal connection with the civilization’s religion or belief.

Impact and Aftermath of the Revolution

One of the most dramatic changes in government in Iran’s history was seen with the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and replaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Autocratic monarchy was replaced by an Islamic Republic based on the principle of rule by Islamic jurists, (or “Velayat-e faqih”), where clerics serve as head of state and in many powerful governmental roles. A pro-Western, pro-American foreign policy was exchanged for one of “neither east nor west,” but rather radically Islamist. A rapidly modernizing, capitalist economy was replaced by populist economy and Islamic culture.

The leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was Iran’s supreme leader until his death in 1989. He was followed by Ali Khamenei. This era was dominated by the consolidation of the revolution into a theocratic republic under Khomeini, and by the costly and bloody war with Iraq.

The initial impact of the Islamic revolution around the world was tremendous. In the non-Muslim world it has changed the image of Islam, generating much interest in its politics and spirituality of Islam along with fear and mistrust. In the Mideast and Muslim world, particularly in its early years, it triggered enormous enthusiasm and redoubled opposition to western intervention and influence. Islamist insurgents rose in Saudi Arabia (the 1979 week-long takeover of the Grand Mosque), Egypt (the 1981 machine-gunning of the Egyptian President Sadat), Syria (the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama), and Lebanon (the 1983 bombing of the American Embassy and French and American peace-keeping troops).

The immediate nationwide uprisings against the new government began by the 1979 Kurdish rebellion with the Khuzestan uprisings, along with the uprisings in Sistan and Baluchestan Province and other areas. Over the next several years, these were violently subdued by the new Islamic government. The new government began purging itself of non-Islamist political opposition, as well as of those Islamists who were not considered radical enough. Although both nationalists and Marxists initially joined with Islamists to overthrow the Shah, tens of thousands were executed by the new regime afterward.

On November 4, 1979, a group of Muslim students seized the United States Embassy and took 52 personnel and citizens hostage after the United States refused to return Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Iran to face trial in the court of the new regime and all but certain execution. This 444-day event was known as the Iran hostage crisis. Attempts by the Jimmy Carter administration to negotiate for the release of the hostages, and a failed rescue attempt, helped force Carter out of office and brought Ronald Reagan to power. On Jimmy Carter’s final day in office, the last hostages were finally set free as a result of the Algiers Accords.

Photo of the US hostages being released after 444 in captivity in Iran.

Iran Hostage Crisis: A group photograph of the fifty-two U.S. hostages in a hospital where they spent a few days after their release. The hostages were released after 444 days of detention in Tehran.

The Cultural Revolution began in 1980 with a three-year closure of universities for inspection and cleanup in the cultural policy of the education and training system.

The Islamic revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini dramatically reversed the pro-Western foreign policy of the regime it overthrew. Since then, Iran has oscillated between the two opposing tendencies of revolutionary ardor (promoting the Islamic revolution and struggling against non-Muslim tendencies abroad) and moves towards pragmatism (economic development and normalization of foreign relations). Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa call for the killing of British citizen Salman Rushdie for his allegedly blasphemous book, The Satanic Verses, demonstrated the willingness of the Islamic revolutionaries to sacrifice trade and other ties with western countries to threaten an individual citizen living thousands of miles away.

On the other hand, Khomeini’s death in 1989 led to more pragmatic policies, with Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami leading the charge for stable relations with the west and its own non-Revolutionary-Islamic neighbors such asSaudi Arabia. Following the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran has returned to more a more hardline stance, frequently antagonizing the west and its neighbors while battling for control over the region.

While the revolution brought about some re-Islamization of Iran, particularly in terms of personal appearance—beards, hijab—it has not prompted a total reversal modernization or a return to traditional patterns of family life, such as polygamy and the extended family with numerous children). Despite the lowering of the legal age of marriage for women to 9 and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s support for early marriage for females, the actual average age of marriage for women rose to 22 by 1996.

Government and Politics

The political system of the Islamic Republic is based on the 1979 Constitution and comprises several intricately connected governing bodies. The Leader of the Revolution (“Supreme Leader”) is responsible for delineation and supervision of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, controls the military intelligence and security operations, and has sole power to declare war or peace. The heads of the judiciary, state radio and television networks, the commanders of the police and military forces, and six of the twelve members of the Guardian Council are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Assembly of Experts elects and dismisses the Supreme Leader on the basis of qualifications and popular esteem.

According to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the powers of government in the Islamic Republic of Iran are vested in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive powers, functioning under the supervision of the “Absolute Guardianship and the Leadership of the Ummah,” which refers to the Supreme Leader of Iran.

After the Supreme Leader, the Constitution defines the President of Iran as the highest state authority. The President is elected by universal suffrage for a term of four years and can only be re-elected for one term. Presidential candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council before running to ensure their allegiance to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution. The President is responsible for the implementation of the Constitution and the exercise of executive powers, except for matters directly related to the Supreme Leader.

While the revolution did not dismantle the Pahlavi judiciary in its entirety, it replaced, according to historian Ervand Abrahamian, secular-trained jurists “with seminary-educated ones, and codified more features of the sharia into state laws – especially the Law of Retribution.” Women judges were also removed. Between 1979 and 1982, the entire pre-Revolutionary judiciary was purged, and their duties replaced by “Revolutionary Tribunals” set up in every town. These tribunals ruled on “Islamic law,” but were in practice unfair and biased, with inexperienced and often incompetent judges. Many people were executed or given harsh punishments for both political and criminal acts. There were no appeals, and trials often lasted just minutes. In 1982, the regular court system was reinstated, but with the judges now trained in Islamic law.

The Iran-Iraq War

On September 22, 1980, the Iraqi army invaded the Iranian Khuzestan and the Iran–Iraq War began. This conflict is often compared to World War I for its similar fighting tactics and brutality.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the reasons for the Iran-Iraq War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Shortly after the success of the revolution, revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini began calling for Islamic revolutions across the Muslim world, including Iran’s Arab neighbor Iraq, the one large state besides Iran in the Gulf with a Shia Muslim majority population.
  • The war began with Iraq’s invasion of Iran in an attempt by Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein to take advantage of the perceived post-revolutionary chaos and military weakness, as well as the Revolution’s unpopularity with Western governments.
  • The Iraqis used weapons of mass destruction, most notably mustard gas, against Iranian soldiers.
  • Although the forces of Saddam Hussein made several early advances, by mid-1982 Iranian forces successfully managed to drive the Iraqi army back into Iraq.
  • In July 1982, with Iraq thrown on the defensive, Iran invaded Iraq and conducted countless offensives in a bid to conquer territory and capture cities, such as Basra.
  • The war continued until 1988 when the Iraqi army defeated the Iranian forces inside Iraq and pushed the remaining Iranian troops back across the border.
  • Subsequently, Khomeini accepted a truce mediated by the UN.
  • An estimated 200,000-240,000 Iranians and 105,000–200,000 Iraqis were killed during the war.

Key Terms

  • sulfur mustard: Commonly known as mustard gas, this cytotoxic and vesicant chemical warfare agent forms large blisters on exposed skin and in the lungs.
  • Kurds: An ethnic group in the Middle East, mostly inhabiting a contiguous area spanning adjacent parts of eastern and southeastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), western Iran (Eastern or Iranian Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern or Iraqi Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan or Rojava). They are culturally and linguistically closely related to the Iranian peoples and are thus often classified as Iranian.
  • weapons of mass destruction: Nuclear, radiological, chemical, biological or other weapons that can kill and bring significant harm to a large number of humans or cause great damage to human-made structures (e.g. buildings), natural structures (e.g. mountains), or the biosphere. The scope and usage of the term has evolved and been disputed, often signifying more politically than technically. It was originally coined in reference to aerial bombing with chemical explosives.

The Iran–Iraq War was an armed conflict between Iran and Iraq lasting from September 22, 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, to August 1988. The war followed a long history of border disputes and was motivated by fears that the Iranian Revolution in 1979 would inspire insurgency among Iraq’s long-suppressed Shi’i majority, as well as Iraq’s desire to replace Iran as the dominant Persian Gulf state.

Although Iraq hoped to take advantage of Iran’s revolutionary chaos and attacked without formal warning, it made only limited progress into Iran and was quickly repelled. Iran regained virtually all lost territory by June 1982. For the next six years, Iran was on the offensive. A number of proxy forces participated in the war, most notably the Iranian People’s Mujahedin of Iran siding with Ba’athist Iraq and Iraqi Kurdish militias of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan siding with Iran—all suffering a major blow by the end of the conflict.

Despite United Nations Security Council calls for a ceasefire, hostilities continued until August 20, 1988. The war finally ended with United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, a UN-brokered ceasefire accepted by both sides. At the war’s conclusion, it took several weeks for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran to evacuate Iraqi territory and honor prewar international borders set by the 1975 Algiers Agreement. The last prisoners of war were exchanged in 2003.

The war cost both sides in lives and economic damage: about half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and an equivalent number of civilians died, with many more injured; however, the war brought neither reparations nor changes in borders. The conflict has been compared to World War I in terms of the tactics used, including large-scale trench warfare with barbed wire stretched across trenches, manned machine gun posts, bayonet charges, human wave attacks across a no man’s land, and extensive use of chemical weapons such as sulfur mustard by the Iraqi government against Iranian troops, civilians, and Kurds. The world powers United States and the Soviet Union, together with many Western and Arab countries, provided military, intelligence, economic, and political support for Iraq.

At the time of the conflict, the United Nations Security Council issued statements that “chemical weapons had been used in the war.” UN statements never clarified that only Iraq was using chemical weapons, and according to retrospective authors “the international community remained silent as Iraq used weapons of mass destruction against Iranian[s] as well as Iraqi Kurds.” The Security Council did not identify Iraq as the aggressor of the war until December 11, 1991, 12 years after Iraq invaded Iran and 16 months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

A photo collage of the Iran-Iraq War. Participation of child soldiers on Iranian front (top left); Bodies of Iranian civilians killed in the Iraqi invasion (top right); Port quarter view of USS Stark listing to port after being mistakenly struck by an Iraqi warplane (middle left); Pro-Iraq PMOI forces killed in Operation Mersad (middle right); Iraqi prisoners of war after the re-capture of Khorramshahr by Iranians (below left); ZU-23-2 being used by the Iranian Army (below right).

Iran-Iraq War: Participation of child soldiers on Iranian front (top left); Bodies of Iranian civilians killed in the Iraqi invasion (top right); Port quarter view of USS Stark listing to port after being mistakenly struck by an Iraqi warplane (middle left); Pro-Iraq PMOI forces killed in Operation Mersad (middle right); Iraqi prisoners of war after the re-capture of Khorramshahr by Iranians (below left); ZU-23-2 being used by the Iranian Army (below right).

Origins

Since the Ottoman–Persian Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, Iran (known as “Persia” prior to 1935) and the Ottomans fought over Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia) and full control of the Shatt al-Arab until the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab in 1639, which established the final borders between the two countries. The Shatt al-Arab was considered an important channel for both states’ oil exports, and in 1937, Iran and the newly independent Iraq signed a treaty to settle the dispute. In the same year, Iran and Iraq both joined the Treaty of Saadabad, and relations between the two states remained good for decades afterwards.

In April 1969, Iran abrogated the 1937 treaty over the Shatt al-Arab river, and as such ceased paying tolls to Iraq when its ships used the waterway. The Shah justified his move by arguing that almost all river borders around the world ran along the thalweg and claiming that because most of the ships that used the waterway were Iranian, the 1937 treaty was unfair to Iran. Iraq threatened war over the Iranian move, but when on April 24 1969, an Iranian tanker escorted by Iranian warships sailed down the river, Iraq—the militarily weaker state—did nothing. Iran’s abrogation of the treaty marked the beginning of a period of acute Iraqi-Iranian tension that was to last until the 1975 Algiers Agreement.

In the 1975 Algiers Agreement, Iraq made territorial concessions—including the Shatt al-Arab waterway—in exchange for normalized relations. In return for Iraq recognizing that the frontier on the waterway ran along the entire thalweg, Iran ended its support of Iraq’s Kurdish guerrillas. Iraqis viewed the Algiers Agreement as humiliating.

Tensions between Iraq and Iran were fueled by Iran’s Islamic revolution and its appearance of being a Pan-Islamic force in contrast to Iraq’s Arab nationalism. Despite Iraq’s goals of regaining the Shatt al-Arab, the Iraqi government seemed to initially welcome Iran’s Revolution, which overthrew Iran’s Shah, seen as a common enemy. It is difficult to pinpoint when tensions began to build.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on Iraqis to overthrow the Ba’ath government, which was received with considerable anger in Baghdad. On July 17, 1979, despite Khomeini’s call, Saddam gave a speech praising the Iranian Revolution and called for an Iraqi-Iranian friendship based on non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. When Khomeini rejected Saddam’s overture by calling for Islamic revolution in Iraq, Saddam was alarmed. Iran’s new Islamic administration was regarded in Baghdad as an irrational, existential threat to the Ba’ath government, especially because the secular Ba’ath party discriminated against and posed a threat to the Shia movement in Iraq, whose clerics were Iran’s allies within Iraq and whom Khomeini saw as oppressed.

Saddam’s primary interest in war may have also stemmed from his desire to right the supposed “wrong” of the Algiers Agreement, in addition to finally achieving his desire of annexing Khuzestan and becoming the regional superpower. Saddam’s goal was to replace Egypt as the “leader of the Arab world” and achieve hegemony over the Persian Gulf. He saw Iran’s increased weakness due to revolution, sanctions, and international isolation.

A successful invasion of Iran would enlarge its petroleum reserves and make it the region’s dominant power. With Iran engulfed in chaos, an opportunity for Iraq to annex the oil-rich Khuzestan Province materialized. In addition, Khuzestan’s large ethnic Arab population would allow Saddam to pose as a liberator for Arabs from Persian rule. Fellow Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (despite being hostile to Iraq) encouraged Iraq to attack, as they feared that an Islamic revolution would take place within their own borders.