Small Wars Journal

How the International Community’s “Blind-Eye” Towards the Iran-Iraq War Paved the Way for Violence and Conflict in the Region

Wed, 07/13/2016 - 11:06am

How the International Community’s “Blind-Eye” Towards the Iran-Iraq War Paved the Way for Violence and Conflict in the Region

Christopher Knight

SWJ Note: The following article has been taken from a 65 page thesis on the same topic discussed below.  Naturally a decent amount of material needed to be removed in order to allow for a reasonable sized article for publication.  While a good portion of the research and background information has been removed, what remains is what, hopefully, will present the facts and data necessary to show the connection between the International Community’s actions and responses in the face of the Iran-Iraq War and the current state of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.  Since the audience of this journal most likely would already have a detailed understanding of the Iran-Iraq War as well as the current situation in the Middle East following the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the focus of this article is more the intermediary time period from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.


For years it has been said that the violence in the Middle East is based on historical religious and ethnic differences between the many groups that inhabit the region.  This is true…to a point.  Historical differences and perceived differences have led to conflict in regions across the globe for as long as history can remember.  But is that the only reason?  There are many other factors that can lead to violence and conflict in regions, even where it has been a historical norm.  The Middle East is one of these regions.  The Iran-Iraq War played a major role in the violence we see today and it is time to recognize just how much of an impact this conflict actually had in the 30 years since.

The Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War began in mid-1980, and lasted for eight years, coming to a close in mid-1988.  It is considered to be one of the longest and most destructive wars of the 20th Century.  The final death toll of the conflict is estimated to have been over 500,000 Iraqis killed and upwards of 750,000 Iranians killed totaling over 1.25 million deaths (Kurzman 2013).  Additionally, the Iran-Iraq War saw the first use of chemical weapons in combat since World War I, 70 years earlier (Gause 2012, pg. 68). 

Due to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many in the international community supported the Iraqi Government in the hopes that they could prevent the spread of Iranian influence in the region (Takeyh 2010, pg. 366).  Iraq was supplied with arms, intelligence, and funds by many different nations including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States.  Iran, on the other hand, only obtained aid from Syria and North Korea (Takeyh 2010, pg. 367).  No one, however, attempted to step in and mediate an end to the war.  Supporters of Iraq were hoping for an Iranian defeat to end their spreading influence in the region and prevent further revolutions from occurring in other Middle Eastern countries.  Even though these states knew that Iraq could be a dangerous entity, they felt that Saddam Hussein was more moderate and more easily controlled than Ayatollah Khomeini would be if he was able to control the region (Gause 2012, pg. 51). 

By 1983 the war had been in a state of stalemate for slightly over a year and a half.  Iran still held small amounts of territory within Iraq but could not push any further into the country.  In August 1983, Saddam Hussein ordered the use of mustard gas and other nerve agents against Kurdish and Iranian forces in northern Iraq (Russell 2005, pg. 189).  This marked Iraq’s first use of chemical weapons in the conflict.  Soon chemical weapon attacks were taking place against many Iranian strongholds.  Iran, in response, asked the United Nations on multiple occasions to intervene (Stone 2002, 1111).  While the United Nations did investigate these attacks, they did not issue any resolutions or actions to punish Iraq or prevent future use of the weapons, possibly due to Soviet and US influence (Fredman 2012, pg. 538). 

Aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War

In 1988, after eight brutal years of war, a ceasefire was signed by both Iran and Iraq that led to the formal end to the conflict.  The high number of casualties, continued use of chemical weapons by Iraq, and lack of resources for Iran, all contributed to the acceptance by both sides (Takeyh 2010, pg. 380).  In addition, the United States had begun moving troops into Kuwait in 1988 as a precaution to protect US interests in Kuwait from a spillover of the conflict.  Iran, however, saw this as an effort by the United States, to possibly provide military aid to Iraq.  This marked the first time that an outside country had used any form or threat of military action in the region during the war and it led to an almost immediate cessation of hostilities.              

In March 1988 Iraq launched a chemical attack against the village of Halajba, a Kurdish village in Northern Iraq (Fredman 2012).  The attack killed over 1,000 civilians, many of whom were women and children.  Images soon became public through news reports and the international community finally began to condemn Iraq’s actions.  Later, in September of 1988, Iraq again launched a chemical weapon attack against a Kurdish village, Anfal, in which many more civilians were killed.  After this action, the international community and the United Nations publically condemned Iraq’s actions and US officials told Iraq that in order for diplomatic relations to continue Iraq would need to end their chemical weapons program (Fredman 2012). 

Aside from the condemnation of the Iraqi chemical weapons program, which had largely been ignored for almost a decade, Iraq fell into an economic depression.  The war had cost billions of dollars and had a negative impact on their oil industry, the largest source of income in Iraq (Alnaswari 2001, pg. 3).  Iraq had also mounted large debt to neighboring countries during the war.  Kuwait alone was owed over 14 Billion US Dollars, and additional money was owed to Saudi Arabia (Dodds & Wilson 2009, pg. 89).  Added to this was the fact the US government finally decided to implement sanctions on Iraq pushing a resolution that cut off around 700 Million US Dollars in guaranteed loans to Iraq (Fredman 2012, pg. 548).  The condemnation of chemical weapons, economic depression in Iraq, and the mounting war debts all took a toll on the country and this would eventually be reflected in the rest of the region.

How the International Community Failed to Intervene in the Iran-Iraq War

Had the international community stepped in, there could have been potential for Iran to have accepted Iraqi terms for a ceasefire in 1980 and end the war quickly.  Iran was only backed by Syria and North Korea and, had outside states sent in military forces or even international peace keeping forces it is possible Iran would have backed down.  In fact, one of the main reasons Iran agreed to a ceasefire in 1988 was due to the US sending troops into Kuwait to protect US interests (Takeyh 2010, pg. 379).  Feeling that this might be a lead-up to the US joining the fight, Iran seemed much more eager to accept a ceasefire and end hostilities. 

In regards to chemical weapons, this was another missed opportunity to end the war quicker.  Following Iraq’s initial use of chemical weapons in 1983 Iran tried to push the UN to condemn the acts and punish Iraq.  However, since this had to go through the UN Security Council, states such as the US, the UK, and the Soviet Union, all of whom were backing Iraq, were able to prevent any UN actions from being taken.  After the subsequent use of chemical weapons by Iraq, the rest of the world still stood by while Iraq was able to use these weapons at will with no repercussions.  Considering that fact that Iraq relied on supplies, equipment, and monetary aid from the international community to fight the war, if they had been punished through sanctions or UN resolutions, the war might have been forced to end sooner due to lack of funds or fighting ability on the part of Iraq. 

How the Lack of Intervention Led to the Invasion of Kuwait and Gulf War

The Iran-Iraq War and its aftermath began to lay the ground work for the Gulf War of 1990-1991.  Saddam Hussein celebrated the war as a victory for Iraq since, according to his stance, they prevented Iranian aggression, protected the Arab population of the Middle East, and prevented a Kurdish rebellion and separation in the north (Takeyh 2010, pg. 381).  Because of his idea that Iraq was victorious and proved their strength and might, Saddam Hussein also gained the confidence to be slightly more aggressive in the region.  His aggression, as well as the economic despair, both contributed to his 1990 decision to invade neighboring Kuwait.     

Within the first year of the Iran-Iraq War alone, Iraq’s oil revenue dropped by an estimated 60% (Alnasrawi 2001, pg. 4).  As the war continued on over the next seven years their economy continued to crumble.  In fact, by the end of the war a majority of the national revenue was from profit shares sent to them by other OPEC countries as well as aid packages from the Soviet Union (Alnaswari 2001, pg. 4).  In addition to the crippled economy, Iraq owed large sums of many to other states.  By 1987, the United States had already sent over $652 Million in aid and loans (Takeyh 2010, pg. 379).  In addition to this, Iraq had accumulated a debt of over $14 Billion to Kuwait (Dodds & Wilson 2009, pg. 89).  In total estimates suggest that following the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s total debt to other states was somewhere between $80-$100 Billion (Yetiv 1992, pg. 198).  Iraq officials soon estimated that it would take roughly two decades, in ideal economic conditions, for Iraq to regain their economic strength and be able to move forward (Yetiv 1992, pg. 198).  In order to try to help Iraq, OPEC decided to price oil at around $20 per barrel in 1988.  However, Kuwait began to increase oil production and as a result oil prices were driven down by about a third of the price.  Iraqi economists estimated that this would in turn cost Iraq roughly $6 Billion a year in revenue (Alnasrawi 2001, pg. 6). 

Kuwait was not the only state, however, that had a negative impact on Iraq’s economy.  In 1990 the United States, due in large part to a strong push by Congress, placed sanctions on them, included cutting off $700 Million in aid that was sorely needed to help boost the economy (Fredman 2012, pg. 548).  Six days after the US informed Iraq that this aid package would not be provided, Iraq invaded Kuwait (Fredman 2012, pg. 549). 

While the official stance of the Iraqi government was that Kuwait had been engaging in slant-drilling operations in order to steal Iraqi oil near the border, documents reveal this was not necessarily the case.  Iraqi officials considered that the invasion would not only prevent Kuwaiti oil production but would also give them access to more oil fields than before.  As Alnaswari states, “This policy decision was articulated by the deputy prime minister for the economy who stated that Iraq would be able to pay its debt in less than five years.” (Alnaswari 2001, pg. 6)  This shows that the decision to invade Kuwait was related to stabilizing and increasing their economic power more than anything.

How the Gulf War led to an Increase in Terrorism and Violence

When Iraq did finally invade Kuwait, the larger and more powerful Iraqi Army quickly gained control of the region.  This action sparked outrage in the rest of the world, especially in Western states who had a close relationship with Kuwait.  Soon an international coalition, led by the United States, began to amass in Saudi Arabia with the intent of entering Kuwait and driving the Iraqi forces from the country.  This triggered the violent actions of Al Qaida to begin.

During the period of Soviet war and occupation in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden gained fame in the region as a hero in helping to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.  He was personally responsible for providing arms, funds, training, and even combat roles in the war and was considered a great leader by those around him.  His family, having come from Saudi Arabia, was very close with the Saudi Royal family.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait and Saudi Arabia began to lead the charge urging the international community to respond, Bin Laden offered his help.  He offered Saudi Arabia over 100,000 Mujahedeen fighters who had served with him in the war against the Soviet Union, as well as arms, equipment, and money to help defend Saudi Arabia as well as drive the Iraqi forces from Kuwait (Lesch 2002, pg. 85).  In Bin Laden’s offer he explained to the Saudi Royals that if the US were allowed to establish a base of operations in the Middle East they would never leave.

King Fahd rejected Bin Laden’s offer; instead, he allowed the US to set up forces in Saudi Arabia to prepare for their liberation of Kuwait.  Bin Laden’s already existing hatred of the West was only intensified by this action (Lesch 2002, pg. 87).  The decision of the Saudi Royals, with whom Bin Laden had been close, to accept US help and reject his offer, fueled Bin Laden’s hatred even further.  In addition to his distrust of the west, he began to distrust the Saudi Government.  Bin Laden then traveled to the Sudan where he began to preach anti-Western and anti-Saudi rhetoric as well as begin training groups to carry out attacks against Western forces in the Middle East and governments in the region who supported them (Gould 2010). 

Following the end of the Gulf War the United States remained in the region stationing troops in both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia just as Bin Laden had predicted.  In addition to this, Bin Laden felt that the continuing sanctions against Iraq over the next few years were too harsh and only served to harm the civilians of Iraq and not Saddam Hussein’s government (Lesch 2002, pg. 89).  His mission to drive out the US forces in the region soon gave rise to his increased acts of terrorism such as the attack on the USS Cole in the Persian Gulf.  By 1995 he also began to target other Western powers in the region as well as the Saudi Government, whom he saw as being the ones who allowed the west to enter and occupy the region.  Attacks such as the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and the attacks on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 showed his desire to not just drive out US Military forces, but also any presence of the US or western powers in the region.  Originally focusing his attacks on driving these powers out of the Middle East he soon began to launch attacks across the globe, such as the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

This also led to the rise of mimic groups and groups inspired by Al Qaida’s teachings.  For example, in the early 1990s, Al Qaida influenced and trained groups in Somalia, began launching attacks against US forces in the Horn of Africa (Cragin 2008, pg. 1059).  Had the Gulf War not occurred it is very plausible to think that the rise of terrorism might not have been as quick or even happened.  Without Western forces present in the region there would have been no need to lead to the call to arms against them by individuals such as Osama Bin Laden. 

Concluding Remarks           

Since 1988 violence and instability has increased in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region.  Current analysis attributes this increase to many factors including ethnic differences, religious differences, and economic instability.  However, one factor that does not seem to garner the attention it should has been the lack of international intervention during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988.  This war dragged on for eight long years ultimately ending in a stalemate with neither side achieving their objectives.  While the war dragged on, the international community sat back and watched.  While some states provided equipment, arms, supplies, and monetary aid to the sides, none stepped in and made a serious effort to end the war before the 1988 ceasefire.  This lack of intervention contributed greatly to the environment of increased violence and instability in the region.

The length of the war and the devastation it caused within Iraq led to an economic depression that was compounded by the debt it incurred on the hands of other states such as the United States and Kuwait.  This debt has been shown to have been a driving force in the 1990 decision by Iraq to invade Kuwait.  This invasion, and subsequent Gulf War, led to an increased western presence in the region that was responded to by an increase in terrorist attacks against western forces and Middle Eastern governments who supported and housed western forces.  The Gulf War then led to an environment of fear towards Iraq due to their aggression and unpredictable nature in the eyes of the outside world.  The continued aggressive threat that they posed led other states to begin feeling that the removal of Saddam Hussein from power would be beneficial to the region as a whole. 

In addition, Iraq’s ability to use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War unchallenged by the international community, led to an eventual distrust of Iraq and a questioning of whether or not they still maintained chemical weapons and production ability to create more.  Because of this fear, it was eventually decided by the United States and a coalition of other states that an invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power would ensure safety in the region.  The removal of Saddam Hussein, however, led to a surge of violence within Iraq that has spread across the Middle East.


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About the Author(s)

Christopher Knight is currently a Sergeant serving in the United States Army Reserve’s Intelligence Community.  He has a Master’s of Arts in International Relations with a concentration on Transnational Security Issues from American Military University where he graduated with Honors.