The Tension between Iran and Iraq

“Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator is a ruthless despot who has brought enormous misery on his own people. It is a pity he remains in power…” (Finley ).

The tension between Iran and Iraq had deep roots. Long-standing major problems included rivalries between the minority Sunni Muslims who dominated Iraq and the majority Shiites and disputes over borders that confined Iraq to its narrow access to the Persian Gulf by way of the Shatt al Arab waterway. In 1969, when Britain announced its intent to withdraw from the Gulf, Iran and Iraq already seemed ready for war. That year there was a small confrontation over the boundary along the Gulf, and disputes flared in the 1970s as well, once when Iran occupied three Gulf islands in 1971 and several times later over the border. Most of those differences appeared to have been put to rest by the Algiers Treaty in 1975. This agreement settled the border dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway in Iran’s favor. At the same time, Iraq renounced a long-standing claim to the southwestern portion of Iran; an area called Arabistan by Iraq and Khuzestan by Iran, and recognized Iranian control of the disputed Gulf Islands.

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Saddam Hussein took over the presidency in 1979. When the Iranian monarchy was overthrown, Iraq denounced the Algiers Treaty and demanded restoration of the eastern bank of the Shatt al Arab as the border. After a period of mutual sporadic border violations and skirmishes, Iraq attacked its neighbor in the summer of 1980. Iran appeared weak and disorganized and the Iraqi president thought he could easily win. The Ronald W Reagan administration took office in 1981 when the war between Iran and Iraq was only a few months old and it built on the Carter Doctrine. Regan indicated his readiness to keep open the Strait of Hormuz in the event that Iran tried to close the Persian Gulf to shipping Reagan’s military plans for Gulf security were more ambitious than those of his predecessor. The Reagan administration regarded the lack of an actual American military presence as a tacit invitation to Soviet intervention. The refusal of the Persian Gulf States to accept American military forces frustrated the Reagan government, so the new administration strengthened the rapid deployment concept with significant expenditures for military construction in the Middle East and nearby areas. In the first Reagan administration, the United States spent nearly $1 billion on construction and support facilities, in Morocco, at Lajes Field in the Azores, and on the Indian Ocean Island base of Diego Garcia. Reagan also made the first official assignment of forces to the rapid deployment force on the 24th April 1981 and gave it a prominent place in the defense establishment. While the Carter administration had buried the rapid deployment force within the U.S. Army Readiness Command, Reagan gave it visibility and prominence. In October 1981, the connection to the Readiness Command ended, and the task force became a separate command reporting directly to the secretary of defense through the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One month later, Exercise BRIGHT STAR 82 showed the growth of plans and forces, testing a broad range of tactical and logistical capabilities. On January 1,1983, the force became one of six U.S. multi-service commands. It was renamed The United States Central Command, its specified theater of operations included Southwest Asia and northeast Africa. Its commander was given charge of nearly All-American military activity in that part of the world. Its total deployment potential stood at 300,000.Despite the increase in the size and capability of the deployable force, there were limits to the American ability to move its forces overseas. The United States still needed bases and facilities in the Persian Gulf, and although alone the West could contribute significantly to the defense of the Gulf, it could not transfer a large combat force on short notice.

Throughout the 1980s, Central Command planners emphasized helping friendly nations in the Middle East defend themselves through training, arms sales, and military liaison as well as joint maneuvers. The force reassured countries like Saudi Arabia, which rejected an overt American presence but needed to know that support was available in an emergency. War started between Iran and Iraq in 1980 and the Arab states around the Gulf generally backed Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were particularly outspoken in their support. Both contributed substantially to the $40 to $50 billion that all the Gulf States provided Iraq. In addition, both allowed Iraq to use their ports for arms shipments and sold oil on behalf of Iraq. Saudi Arabia also allowed Iraq to build and use a pipeline through its territory. Although Kuwait was among the most generous contributors to the Iraqi cause, there were some things the country would not agree to. Early in the war, Iraq renewed a proposal it had made in 1975 for 99-year leases on the islands of Bubiyan and Warbah. Kuwait refused. In 1984, Saddam Hussein scaled down his request to a 20-year lease in exchange for an agreement to a definitive border. Once more Kuwait declined. Despite their open support of Iraq during the early stages of the war, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia understood that Iraq was a possible threat to their security. With this threat in mind, they led the effort to create the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional defense alliance that was established in May 1981. Iraq, which in 1974 had proclaimed itself “the most important and advanced Arab country in the area” and consequently protector of the Gulf “against dangers and encroachments,” sought membership, but was denied. While Iran and Iraq fought it out, the Gulf Cooperation Council progressed toward its goal of creating an effective regional security structure. Despite the blatant rejection of the Iraqi application, the members continued to view fundamentalist Iran as the more immediate threat and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait continued to provide material aid to Iraq. The council expressed interest in cooperation with the United States but still wanted to keep actual forces at arm’s length. They did not agree with the United States regarding the nature of the threat to regional stability. The United States worried about the Soviet threat and the council worried more about its powerful neighbors and Israel. During the 1980’s, confusion in American policy caused a crisis in relations with the Gulf States. In 1984, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Iraq, after a seventeen-year break because they were concerned that Iran might win the war and become a long-range menace to the supply of oil. In 1988, when Kuwait responded to Iranian attacks on its shipping by asking the superpowers for protection, the United States was eager to provide assistance and reassurance of its support. To restore its position in the Gulf, the United States agreed to re-flag and convoy Kuwaiti ships. Protection of the flow of oil was in any case still a paramount American interest, and President Reagan affirmed his commitment to safeguard Gulf exports. Along with the re-flagging, went a major American naval deployment to protect the tankers. The United States and Saudi Arabia maintained their close military relationship throughout the Iran-Iraq war, although the official Saudi position was that both superpowers should keep their forces out of the Persian Gulf. The Saudis, however, never objected to the American naval contingent in Bahrain and other periodic displays of American might in threatening situations. Limited American deployments, among them minesweepers, operational aircraft, and the AWACS, were acceptable. Reinforcement by U.S. forces in an emergency was always a basic component of Saudi defense planning, although only in the event of a clear and immediate threat.

The Iran-lraq war ended in August 1988, with both sides exhausted and Iraq claiming victory. But Iraq did not succeed in achieving control of the Shatt al Arab. The United States and the Gulf States continued to support Iraq, with American policy in the Persian Gulf trying to moderate Iraqi behavior through closer economic ties. Despite human rights abuses and the continuing development of chemical and nuclear weapons, Iraq’s secular leadership seemed less threatening than Iran’s religious zealots. In spite of the continued support of Iraq, there was a growing perception in the United States that the major threats to the states of the southern Persian Gulf and to Western oil supplies came not from the Soviet Union, but from the Gulf region itself. The Saudis knew that the border with Iraq was ideal for armor operations and that the entire Arabian Peninsula was vulnerable to attacks from the northeast. Major Saudi oil facilities were only 200 miles away. King Khalid Military City, with its two armored brigades, provided limited security, and other Gulf Cooperation Council members had no military forces of consequence. Any assault on Kuwait might easily become the first stage of a two-phase attack on the rest of the peninsula. The United States shared Saudi Arabia’s concerns. Kuwait was the door to the entire oil-producing region and it was very vulnerable. Threats to its stability, either from external or internal pressures, would have wide ramifications, endangering the flow of oil and the economic health of the industrial West. In the two years after the fighting between Iran and Iraq ended, Iraq increased its pressure on Kuwait. Iraq turned its attention to the border that it shared with Kuwait. In addition to demands for compensation for revenues allegedly lost due to Kuwaiti oil sales in excess of OPEC quotas and for oil pumped from oil fields claimed by Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s government renewed its interest in Bubiyan and Warbah islands. He cleared the way for action by beginning negotiations for a final settlement with Iran, massing troops on the Kuwaiti border, and sounding out the American reaction to a possible military move into Kuwait. Saddam appeared to ignore the restatement of the Carter Doctrine by the administration of President Bush in National Security Directive 26 of October 1989,warning that the United States would defend its vital interests by force if necessary. Meanwhile, Kuwait struggled to find a counterbalance to the increasing Iraqi threat. Kuwait accepted American construction support and air defense missiles but stopped short of inviting an American presence in support of its own defense. That refusal, grounded in strong feelings of national pride, race, and religion, reflected an unrealistic assessment of its situation. During the first seven months of 1990, Iraqi troop movements and presidential babble foreshadowed the impending crisis. However, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the United States did not recognize the imminence of the Iraqi threat until it was too late. On 2 August 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled through Kuwait to the Saudi border and Saddam Hussein’s government declared that Kuwait no longer existed as an independent country, perceptions quickly changed. President Bush quickly decided to uphold the Carter Doctrine and commit the United States to direct military action. With a large majority of the nations of the world opposed to the invasion of Kuwait, President Bush built a broad-based coalition in support of intervention. The United States, which took the lead in developing and coordinating opposition to Iraq, achieved a diplomatic triumph of great magnitude and far-reaching consequence. Urged forward by the United States, the United Nations General Assembly imposed an embargo on Iraq, and the Security Council voted to condemn the invasion. Almost immediately, coalition forces moved toward Southwest Asia. By far the largest contributor to the force, the United States honored commitments to Saudi Arabia first made by President Truman. The result was Operation Desert Shield, which before it was over became the Desert Storm.

Iraq was rather thoroughly trounced in the very short war, and under U.N. resolutions was required to destroy weapons of mass destruction, comply with a no-fly zone as proscribed by the coalition forces in order to protect Kurdish refugees, and to ensure response time, should Iraqi ever again make efforts to invade Kuwait. Several years of testing provided coalition opportunities to remind Saddam Hussein to curb his military adventures, with the latest being in September of 1996 when the U.S. Launched Operation Desert Strike, in order to further extend the No Fly Zone to protect the Kurds in Southern Iraq and partially in response to an attack by Iraqi military against helpless refugee camps and the town of Irabli.

The conflict between Iraq and Iran continues to this day. Mid-September, 1997, Iraq and Iran exchanged a little air-to-air action, however the activity was short lived as both sides fled from U.S. aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq. The U.S. made clear statements to the Iranian government about cruising around in the no fly zone, since U.S. aircraft are missioned with permitting NO flights, regardless of which country. The Iran-Iraq war was proven to provide a large amount of Middle Eastern historical significance, as it led to many more conflicts, such as the Persian Gulf War, which created mass tensions in the Middle East and around the globe.

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The Tension between Iran and Iraq. (2018, Jul 02). Retrieved from