While most of us have completely forgotten the events of the Middle East war that took place during the 1980s, the war is still front of mind in Iran, particularly during this time of conflict with the United States and the West in general.
Let's open with this map showing the point of conflict that started the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran:
The key and most disputed body of water in this map is the Shatt al Arab, a river/estuary that is formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and is a body of water that forms Iraq's only access to the Persian Gulf. In 1847, a treaty was signed between Iran and Iraq (then the Ottoman Empire) establishing the Shatt as a boundary between the two nations. Both nations agreed to respect each others' freedom of navigation in the waterway and Iran received control of two cities, Khorramshahr and Abadan. During the British Mandate of Iraq between 1920 and 1932, the boundary between the two nations was drawn along the deepest point of the Shatt (i.e. the thalweg). In 1937, a treaty recognized the low-water mark on the east side of the river which gave control of almost the entire water body to Iraq. This meant that Iranian ships, which comprised most of the shipping traffic on the river, had to pay tolls to Iraq when they used the Shatt. Under the Shah's rule, Iran had a far stronger military presence and argued that the 1937 boundary was unfair; as such, in April 1969, an Iranian tanker accompanied by Iranian warships sailed down the Shatt with no reaction from the weaker Iraqis. Tension and disagreements continued until a new agreement, the Algiers Accord, was signed in 1975 after a number of border skirmishes which determined that the thalweg of the Shatt was the boundary between Iran and Iraq as shown here:
The demarcation of the boundary between Iraq and Iran was defined using a very complex series of straight lines that followed the median waterline of the Shatt examples of which are shown here:
Here is one of the maps that outlines the frontier between the two nations along the Shatt al Arab:
In September 1980, Saddam Hussein unilaterally abrogated the 1975 treaty and claimed the entire Shatt waterway as Iraqi territory. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran by moving his military across the waterway, launching the first battle of a war that lasted until 1988. At the time, Saddam Hussein charged that Iran had not withdrawn its troops from Iraqi territory in the Shatt, obliging Iran to take the territory by force. Saddam Hussein's strategy was very clear; with Iran still undergoing massive unrest due to the ongoing revolution, Iraq was taking advantage of Iran's weakened state. Here is a quote from a Washington Post news article from September 1980:
"Iraq has become increasingly assertive on the border issue over the last year, apparently taking advantage of Iran's weakened position. The Iranian armed forces are generally regarded to be in a state of disarray following 18 months of revolution, purges and a total break with the United States, which provided the bulk of Iran's arms prior to the shah's fall in February 1979.
Saddam Hussein's statement followed several weeks of fighting between Iranian and Iraqi forces at various points along their common border, including the key, disputed Shatt-al-Arab estuary leading into the Persian Gulf and separating the two countries in the south.
Both countries lay claim to the waterway but, under the Algiers agreement, the two agreed to fix the border down the center. Saddam Hussein said in his speech that the Shatt "should return to its former status, namely Iraqi and Arab . . . and be under total Iraqi sovereignty."
It was not only the Shatt al Arab that Iraq wanted to control. The region bordering the two nations at the head of the Persian Gulf is also a key part of Iran's oil resource as shown on this map:
According to this 1970s CIA analysis of the situation in Iran, Khuzestan held nearly all of Iran's natural gas reserves, was responsible for 70 percent of the nation's oil production and was Iran's Achilles heel:
By December 1980, Saddam Hussein's troops had advanced 50 to 75 kilometres into Iranian territory, capturing the city or Khorramshahr but had bogged down after meeting stronger than anticipated resistance from Iran's Revolutionary Guards and its regular armed forces. Iran forced Iraqi troops back and recaptured Khorramshahr in 1982. In late 1982, Iraq withdrew all of its forces from Iranian territory and sought peace with Iran, however, by that time, Iran's leadership had decided that it would attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The war dragged on with a series of deadly skirmishes with Iraq's war effort being supported by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United States and the Soviet Union while Iran's efforts were supported by Syria and Libya. In August 1988, Iran was compelled to accept a United Nations cease-fire, largely because its economy was deteriorating and Iraq's war efforts were increasingly successful.
Let's go back to the beginning of the war in 1980 and examine what the world had to say about the Iraqi invasion of its sovereign nation, an invasion that ultimately led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqis and 750,000 Iranians. This is what the United Nations had to say to both Iran and Iraq on September 23, 1980, the day after Iraq invaded Iran:
Even though it was very clear that Iraq had unilaterally invaded Iranian sovereign territory, under Resolution 479 (1980), the United Nations chose to blame both nations for the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State". This sent a message to Iran that they were on their own against Saddam Hussein.
This relatively recent event has shown Iran's leadership that they must be prepared to defend themselves from outside attacks. Despite the proclamation by the United Nations, member states including the United States continued to back the aggressor, Saddam Hussein, in the lengthy battle against Iran, a war that cost hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives. Is it any wonder that Iran seeks to protect itself through the development of advanced weaponry? Iranians learned a very painful and costly lesson about who they could count on to defend their sovereignty during the 1980s.
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