Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 11. America’s Unprincipled Role in Saddam Hussein’s War on Iran 1980 – 1988

July 22, 2020

Featured Image: E. Ou / ICRC / Getty Images

September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, starting a horrific war marked on both sides by missile attacks and artillery barrages on cities, and by Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. When it ended eight years later, as many as a million combatants and civilians had been killed and hundreds of thousands more wounded and maimed.  

Two big questions. Why did Iraq invade Iran? And, more troubling, why and how did the U.S. help Saddam Hussein finance and fight that war?

Saddam Hussein claimed that Iran provoked the war because it refused to resolve two longstanding border disputes. The first focused on the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which has an ethnic Arab majority – most Iranians are Persian, not Arab – and, Iraq claimed, was unjustly handed over to Iran by the Ottomans. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Iraq supported Arab revolts in Khuzestan against the Shah’s regime, and Iran, in retaliation, armed Kurdish rebels in Iraq.  

The second was the Shatt al-Arab waterway, the “Stream of the Arabs,” which drains the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the Persian Gulf and divides eastern Iraq from western Iran, including Khuzestan.

In 1937, Iraq and Iran signed a treaty setting the low water mark on  the eastern edge of Shatt al-Arab as the border, giving Iraq effective control of waterway and the tolls imposed on shipping traffic.

But in 1969, the Shah abrogated the treaty on the grounds that, almost everywhere in the world, the border on a river between two countries runs along the thalweg, the deepest water channel, and most of the ship traffic on the Shatt al-Arab was Iranian. 

The Shah, Algerian President Boumedienne and Saddam Hussein 1975 at signing of Algiers Accord [Getty Images]

The boundary was formalized by the Algiers Accord of 1975, in which Iraq, in exchange for Iran’s commitment to stop arming Kurdish rebels, reluctantly acknowledged the middle of the deep-water channel as the line of demarcation all the way to the Persian Gulf. At the time, Iran had a much stronger military, so there was nothing Iraq could do about it anyway.

The 1979 Iranian revolution was a game changer. After consolidating his power in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for an Islamic revolution in Iraq and urged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam’s secular Ba’athist government. This was not a hypothetical. In 1979 and early months of 1980, there were violent anti-Ba’ath riots in southern Iraq, where Iraq’s suppressed Shi’a majority, more than 50% of all Iraqis – Saddam and the ruling Ba’athists were Sunni Muslims – were concentrated. 

Saddam decided to get the Iranians before they could get him, he cracked down hard. He expelled the Iranian ambassador, tortured and then hung the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the highest-ranking Shi’a cleric in Iraq, and expropriated the property of 70,000 civilians of Iranian ancestry and expelled them across the border.

Outraged Shi’a militants assassinated 20 Ba’ath officials, and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, later to gain notoriety as Saddam’s mouthpiece during the 1991 Gulf War, barely escaped being one of them. 

After 1975, Saddam had invested heavily in Iraq’s military, buying tanks and aircraft from the Soviets and France, and by 1979 had amassed 2,500 tanks, 2000 armored vehicles, 800 artillery pieces and 350 warplanes.

Meanwhile, Khomeini was purging Iran’s military of “disloyal elements,” 12,000 officers in all, including executing 85 senior generals and forcing the rest, down to the brigade level, into early retirement. By 1980, Iran’s military, under the Shah rated by some analysts as the world’s fifth most powerful, had been gutted, shut out of spare parts for its U.S.-made aircraft and tanks, and with many of its best aviators and army officers in prison or exile, some reduced to driving taxis in Washington, D.C.


On September 22, 1980, confident he held the military upper hand, Saddam repudiated the Algiers Accords and five days later launched a full-scale invasion of Iran. His strategic goals: secure control of the Shatt al-Arab, annex Khuzestan and lure Iran’s Revolutionary Guard out of Tehran to make Khomeini vulnerable to a counter-revolution. He called it “Qadisiyyat Saddam,” the second coming of the pivotal Arab victory over the Persians in 636 A.D. 

Iraqi Russian-made MiG 21s and 23s launched a surprise attack on Iran’s air bases, trying to destroy the Iranian air force on the ground. They hit fuel and ammunition depots and cratered runways, but failed to destroy more than a handful of Iranian planes, protected by hardened hangars.

Within hours, Iran’s U.S.-made F-4 Phantoms took off from the same airfields and hit back at Iraqi targets. To shore up his shorthanded air corps, Khomeini released from prison hundreds of experienced pilots accused of being loyal to the Shah, critical just-in-time reinforcements. Military expediency trumped politics.

Meanwhile, however, Iraqi armored divisions were pouring into Iran on three fronts, taking control of both banks of the Shatt al-Arab and 1,000 square kilometers of Iranian territory, and capturing the Khuzestan port city of Khorramshahr. They surrounded Abadan, nerve center of the Iranian oil fields, but were unable to take it, stopped by units of Pasdaran, the “Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” and tens of thousands of civilian volunteers, the Basij, or “Organization for the Liberation of the Oppressed.” As for the three million or so Arabs in Khuzestan whom Saddam believed would join the Iraqis against Tehran, they did just the opposite. 

At the start, even restive Kurds and resentful Shi’as bought into Saddam’s patriotic self-defense propaganda: 250,000 Kurds joined the Salah al-Din militia keeping Iranian forces at bay in northern Iraqi, and Shi’a made up a majority of battalions in the southeast. Not that it would do them any good; when the war ended, Saddam, the consummate ingrate, brutally crushed Kurdish and Shi’a self-determination movements.  


But Iran, population 40 million to Iraq’s 13 million, had numbers on its side, so Khomeini unleashed suicidal “human wave” assaults by Basij, some only 9 years old, wearing around their necks gold-colored plastic keys to unlock the gates of paradise. 

Taking casualties he could no longer sustain, Saddam withdrew his forces to the pre-war borders and dug in. By early 1982, the conflict had evolved into Verdun-like trench warfare. Saddam offered to negotiate an end to the war, but Khomeini refused unless Saddam abdicated, and in mid-1982 Iran went on the offensive, taking casualties at a rate twice that of Iraq but winning the war of attrition. 

Although the U.S. was ostensibly “neutral,” President Ronald Reagan decided that he would not permit Iran to win the war. A now-declassified November 1983 National Security Directive stated that the U.S. would do “whatever was necessary and legal” and, as it turns out, illegal too, to prevent Iraq from losing the war.

In December 1983 and again in March 1984, Reagan’s special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, later Defense Secretary under George W. Bush, met with Saddam in Bagdad and, grinning that wicked Rumsfeld grin, assured him of U.S support.

Reagan removed Iraq from the “terrorist countries” list and the U.S. sold it sophisticated “dual use” technology, i.e., ostensibly for civilian use but easily converted to military end-use, provided billions in guaranteed U.S. Agriculture Department and Export-Import Bank loans, looked the other way when Iraq purchased tanks, artillery and munitions through false fronts in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, provided satellite photos for targeting Iranian forces, and – jaw-dropper – supplied, both directly and indirectly through German and Italian companies, materials used for the mass production of chemical weapons banned by the Geneva Convention. 

Indeed, by mid-1983, U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz had on his desk intelligence reports that Iraq was using Sarin, Tabun and blister mustard gas, masked by massive artillery barrages and smoke, to stop Iranian human wave assaults. Mustard gas – know it by the smell of garlic, some say lilacs or roses – is especially gruesome, searing lungs and mucus membranes, hideously disfiguring and often blinding; unlike for nerve gas, there is no antidote. And by 1985 the U.S. was also supplying Iraq with “biological” agents, e.g., botulinum toxinand anthrax bacillus. Iran never retaliated with chemical or biological weapons, probably because it didn’t have any.

In 1994, after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the First Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee issued the Riegle Report, confirming that “pathogenic, toxigenic and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq during its war against Iran. Committee chair Donald W. Riegle, Jr. (Dem. Mich.), said at the time: 

“U.N. inspectors had identified many United States manufactured items (from a long list of American companies, e.g., Bechtel, Dow, DuPont, Union Carbide, Honeywell, Data General, etc., and U.S. government agencies and laboratories, e.g., the Department of Defense, CIA, Centers for Disease Control, Lawrence Livermore Labs, etc.) that had been exported from the U.S. to Iraq under licenses issued by the Department of Commerce, and [established] that these items were used to further Iraq’s chemical and nuclear weapons development and missile delivery system development programs. . . . The executive branch of our government approved 771 different export licenses for sale of dual-use technology to Iraq. I think that is a devastating record.”

Colonel Walter “Pat” Lang, a retired senior defense intelligence officer, told the New York Times in 1992 that ”the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern,” because Reagan administration officials ”were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose,” or at least that Iran did not win.  

Henry Kissinger [Harvey Georges / AP]

This was not because the Reagan administration had great affection for Saddam Hussein. Henry Kissinger, house cynic and hypocrite then on Reagan’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, intoned, “It’s a shame there can be only one loser.” Ed Juchnievicz, head of the CIA’s South Asia Operations Group, put it more crassly, “We just wanted them to kick the shit out of each other.” 

Indeed, the White House had been playing both sides of the street all along. In 1985, at same time it was admonishing its European allies not to do business with Iran, the Reagan Administration arranged for Israel to covertly sell to Iran – through an arms dealer named Manucher Ghorbanifar, a former member of the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police – U.S. Tow anti-tank and Hawk anti-aircraft missiles in exchange for Hezbollah, a Tehran proxy, releasing Americans it had kidnapped and was holding hostage in Lebanon. The U.S. then replenished Israel’s missile stocks. Slick.

Israel was only too willing to go along, because at the time it saw Iraq, along with the Soviet Union, as a much greater existential threat than Iran. Realpolitik: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or at least not my enemy. So although Israel bombed Iran’s Orsiak nuclear reactor in 1981 and Tehran mullahs regularly castigated Israel during Friday prayers, in just two years, 1981 – 1983, Israel sold $500 million in military equipment to Iran, most of it paid for in oil. Business, after all, is business. 

This gambit worked so well that in 1986 President Reagan authorized a portion of the Iranian payments to be funneled to the Contras, right wing rebels fighting the leftist Ortega Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a scheme hatched by Lt. Colonel Oliver North and others on Reagan’s National Security Council to get around the Boland Amendment – actually riders to three separate bills between 1982 and 1984 – enacted by Congress for the express purpose of banning aid to the Contras.

The resulting scandal, the Iran – Contra Affair, resulted in perjury and obstruction of justice indictments of North, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, NSA Advisor John Poindexter, and Elliott Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, but no one ever went to jail, the charges were dropped or the malefactors pardoned by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. And although Reagan’s poll numbers took a momentary hit, by 1989 the “Teflon President” had a 64% approval rating, the highest ever for an outgoing President. 

In 1987, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 598 calling for a cease fire. Iran and Iraq agreed, but not before Saddam’s forces, again using chemical weapons, took back the strategic Fao Peninsula abutting Kuwait on the west bank of the Shatt al-Arab, and tried one more time, unsuccessfully, to overrun Khuzestan. Stalemate. In July 1988, the Iraq – Iran war was finally over.

Kurdish graves in Erbil, Northern Iraq  
[Safin Hamed / AFP]

But not Saddam’s war on the Kurds, who in 1983 rebelled against Iraq with the goal of finally bringing their own autonomous country into being. Using US-made Hughes and Bell helicopters fitted out for “crop spraying,” Saddam hit 15 Kurdish villages with poison gas, including Halabja, scene of the now infamous massacre where almost 5,000 were killed in one day. By September 1988, Saddam had crushed the Kurdish resistance, killing 50,000 soldiers and civilians and forcing many tens of thousands more into exile in Iran and Syria. 

Iran and Iraq were both devastated by the war. The economic cost was immense, an estimated $1.2 Trillion. Iran, shut out of loans and relying on less costly tactics, e.g., human wave assaults, came out of the war with relatively little debt, but its oil production facilities and infrastructure were in shambles. Khuzestan was especially ravaged, its rich palm plantations never recovered, Iran’s largest oil refinery in Abadan was destroyed, and a decade later Khorramshahr was still in ruins. 

Financially, Iraq was in much worse shape, owing $40 Billion in loans just to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries, and trying to get out from under these debts would be a prime driver for Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. More about that to come.

The human cost. Casualty numbers are all over the map, but including post-war deaths, the number is more than a million. In a declassified 1991 report, the CIA estimated that Iran suffered more than 50,000 dead or maimed from chemical weapons alone, and that number eventually – the latency period is up to 40 years – would go north of 100,000, including civilians living near the battlefields who developed symptoms years later. 

As far as the Reagan administration was concerned, chemical weapons were, said one CIA official, “just another way of killing people, whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make a difference.” Unless, of course, you are the one being gassed.  

Here’s Robin Wright, Still Haunted by Chemical Weapons Attacks (LA Times, January 20, 2014): 

“Hassan Hassani Sa’di has been dying from chemical weapons for almost 30 years. He still remembers the moment he realized Iraqi warplanes were dropping more than regular bombs. “I knew,” he says, “because of the smell of garlic.” 

“Death from mustard gas is gruesome; so is survival. . . . Sa’di, then 18, . . . survived the Iraqi attack on the strategic Fao Peninsula in 1985, [but] within hours his body was  badly blistered and he had gone blind. ‘The last thing I remember is vomiting green.’ ” 

Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

“Years after the war, Iranian doctors noticed that respiratory diseases with unusual side-symptoms — corneal disintegration, rotting teeth and dementia, a combination synonymous with mustard gas — had started killing off veterans who had not been on the front lines. Civilians were also dying. The pattern was soon diagnosed as secondary contamination to mustard gas.

” ‘We may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. We may not yet have seen the majority of victims,’ one Iranian physician, Farhad Hashemnezhad, said in 2002, ‘At least 20 percent of the current patients are civilians who didn’t think they were close enough to be exposed.’‘ “

Numbers have since soared from the lingering and unanticipated effects of mustard gas. According to Dr. Shahriar Khateri, Iran’s leading expert on chemical weapons victims, 70,000 gas victims have been identified, many from low-dose exposure that would eventually kill them. The final toll of Iraq’s chemical weapons would ultimately surpass the 90,000 who died from toxic gases in World War I. 

“In Tehran, chemical weapons victims often end up at Sasan Hospital, a grim facility that had been the American Hospital of Tehran before the 1979 revolution. Abolfazl Afazali is one of 22 patients struggling for life . . . . ‘One of my wishes,’ he says, ‘is one day to be able to take a deep breath.’ “

The take-away? When Iranians call America the “Great Satan,” from their perspective, they have very good reason. We deposed Mossadegh in 1953, cutting Iranian democracy off at the knees, and put the autocratic Shah on the Peacock Throne for the next 26 years. His infamous CIA-trained Savak tortured and killed thousands of political dissidents. During the Iraq–Iran war, we supplied Iraq with money, arms and, worst of all, materials for chemical and biological weapons that to this day are still crippling and killing ordinary Iranians.

And in 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser, somehow mistaking a Boeing 300 airliner for an Iranian fighter, shot down Iran Air flight 655 in Iranian air space over the Gulf of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board. Although President Reagan expressed “deep regret” and the U.S. eventually paid Iran $61.8 million in damages, we never apologized in so many words to either the Iranian government or the families of the victims.

And we compounded all this suffering with more than 40 years of punitive economic sanctions.

In Iranian shoes, how would we feel?



Robin Wright, Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (2011)



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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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