What Happened During The Iran-Iraq War? (And What Caused It?)

Revisiting the deadly conflict

Grant Piper

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(Public domain)

On September 22nd, 1980, Iraq launched a surprise attack on their neighbor Iran. Aircraft went screaming over the border, and explosions tore up strategic airfields. The initial bombings were the prelude to a broad attack across a 400 mile front. Iraqi troops poured into Iran, starting a war that would last far longer than anyone envisioned and kill hundreds of thousands. The Iran-Iraq War would last nearly eight years and become one of the bloodiest and most protracted wars in the post-WWII era.

What caused the Iran-Iraq War? Why does no one seem to remember the conflict in any great detail? Why did the war spiral into a year’s long struggle?

Against a backdrop of chaos in the Middle East and with the specter of a regional war rising once more, it is prudent to look back on the Iran-Iraq War. The last time a major regional war broke out in the Middle East, it left hundreds of thousands dead and laid the groundwork for future conflicts and continued instability.

Causes of The War

(Public domain)

In 1979, Iran was rocked by an Islamic revolution that toppled the ruling Shah’s dynasty. The populist movement swept the old autocracy from power and replaced it with a strict theocracy. The revolution was spearheaded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, who was “the face of Shia Islam.” The revolution greatly alarmed Sadaam Hussein, who had also come into power in 1979. He saw the Iranian Revolution as a threat to Iraq.

Hussein was ruling Iraq as the head of a secularist party that was filled with devout Sunni Muslims. Hussein was afraid that the populist movement in Iran would spread to Iraq and cause anti-Sunni Iraqis to rise up in support of the new Shia regime that had sprung up nearby in the most uproarious fashion. Even in 1979, Iraq was an uneasy patchwork of religious and tribal interests with grief and connections stretching back to World War I and World War II. A disruptive force like an Islamic Revolution could have easily swept through Iraq, as it had through Iran, and it…

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Grant Piper

Professional writer. Amateur historian. Husband, father, Christian.