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Iran-Iraq War Summary Analysis Essay

The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History

Williamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 343 pp., with maps, tables, appendices, index.

Reviewed by Jason U. Manosevitz

In October 1980, the CIA briefed then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan on the impact of the Iran-Iraq War in the Middle East.[1] It is doubtful at the time that anyone realized the one-month old conflict would become one of the longest, bloodiest wars of the 20th century (September 1980–August 1988) or a key national security issue for the Reagan administration.

Several excellent works have examined aspects of the Iran-Iraq War, including the US’s Iran-Contra affair.[2] Most highlight Saddam Hussein’s ruthlessness as a dictator and the horrific combat of the war. The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History goes far beyond these themes, taking a unique look at Saddam’s decisionmaking throughout the war. The authors used a treasure trove of original, Iraqi documents (some 600,000) captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom and thousands of hours of interviews with former Iraqi military officials kept at the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center.

The coauthors are accomplished military scholars. Murray is an adjunct professor at the US Marine Corps University, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute, and a professor emeritus at Ohio State University. Woods is a historian and researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses, where he served as the project manager for the Iraqi Perspectives Project, the US military-sponsored research project aimed at exploiting the captured records, with immediate exploitation conducted of documents pertaining to Iraq’s putative involvement in global terrorism—the first report, Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents was classified but a declassified version was released nine months after the classified version was delivered in January 2007.

The Iran-Iraq War’sfront matter explains that it is the last of three formally published works to appear as a result of this project,[3] although the Iraqi documents remain available for further research. These papers have already  formed the basis of other revealing work on pre-2003 Iraq, including an examination published in this journal of the Saddam regime’s understanding of the Iranian nuclear program.[4]

I have no hesitation in saying that today’s intelligence analysts will want to add this work of Murray and Woods to their collection of case studies on conflict. In particular, they will benefit from reading the book because it offers insights on extended, multi-year conflicts, the importance of strategic objectives, and intelligence collection.

Murray and Woods start with a rich overview of the modern political and military development of each state leading up to the Iran-Iraq war. They thoroughly review the rise of Iraq’s Saddam and Iran’s Khomeini, the sweeping changes in Baghdad and Teheran’s military institutions that followed, the shifting military balance between the two, and the respective orders of battle on the eve of the war. Successive chapters cover the conflict’s major developments—Iraq’s initial invasion of Iran, the stalemate that followed, Iran’s counter invasion of Iraq, the grinding war of attrition, use of chemical weapons, missile attacks on each other’s cities, the tanker war in the Gulf, lumbering moves to find an end to the war, and eventually the cessation of hostilities. Key battles and tactics are reviewed, including Iran’s use of human wave attacks.

Along the way, Murray and Woods also unravel a lingering mystery surrounding Iraq’s inadvertent attack on the USS Stark in 1987. Despite generally cooperating with the US investigation into the incident, the Iraqis oddly refused to allow US officials to interview the pilot responsible for the attack. The Iraqis, it turns out, had modified some of their aircraft to increase their range to permit them to fly longer, safer attack routes into Iran over the Gulf and they feared Iran would learn how they were able to carry out such attacks if they revealed their secret to the United States. (306–307)

The Iran-Iraq War is a good example of long-arc analysis, applicable to this era’s circumstances as so many of today’s crises are shaping up to be multi-year conflicts. Murray and Woods expertly show how the pace of  battle ebbed and flowed, how the momentum shifted, and how both  innovated on the battlefield. The authors also review the efforts of both sides to obtain international aid and take note of how prospects for peace came and went.

The book will help analysts think about how best to focus analytic narratives that provide context on the nature of warfare, give warning about dangers, and point out opportunities for policymakers. These questions revolve around what motivates soldiers to fight, military leadership, command and control, operational planning, the use of  regular and irregular forces, and of course force generation, training, military procurement, technology, and foreign support. These are, of course, all enduring questions about conflict, but the book’s great strength is that it addresses them from a non-western point of view.

Although the authors are quick to point out that the “conflict may have little to offer in the way of strategic lessons or battlefield accomplishments” (7) they gives us a rare glimpse into the principle leaders’ views on one side about their strategic objectives and wartime intelligence, which analysts would do well to consider for their own work.

Saddam’s strategic objective was to become the Arab world’s leader. He judged that Egypt had abdicated its traditional regional role by making peace with Israel and that Saudi Arabia lacked the character needed to lead the Arab world. In Saddam’s view, this left Iraq as the sole Arab state qualified to lead the region, particularly since ties with Syria had frayed (28–30). Saddam believed war would unify the Arab world behind Iraq and believed Iran would crumble after a few quick blows. (48–49, 87)  The problems were that the military professionals who survived Saddam’s political purges before the conflict struggled to translate Saddam’s aim to lead the Arab world into operational military plans and Saddam did not understand his own military capabilities.

Indeed, almost as quickly as Saddam started the war, he looked to end it. As Murray and Woods show, Saddam consistently overestimated his military’s ability to deliver as poor planning and a lack of training dogged the Iraqis from day one. For example, Iraq had to make last minute changes to its opening offensive, which interestingly was an air strike modeled on Israel’s stunning preemptive air attack against Egypt during the 1967 Six Day War. When base commanders learned the details of the operation just 24 hours before it was to start, they quickly saw that Baghdad’s planners miscalculated the mission requirements and that without a reduction in bomb loads, Iraq’s bombers would not have enough fuel to complete the mission and return to base. (100–102) Needless to say, the air strike did not deliver the punch Saddam had hoped for. In another example, the authors shockingly point out that three years into the war, as the Iraqis cycled troops off the front lines for retraining, Iraqi soldiers were tutored in the most basic military principles, such as following commands, holding fire until targets could be identified, and to not run when the enemy attacked. (216)

Iraq’s intelligence collection, capabilities, and analysis certainly fed into Saddam’s worldview for achieving his strategic goal but it was poorly aligned to achieve his aims. At the start of the war, Iraq’s General Military Intelligence Division (GMID) had only three officers gathering military intelligence on Iran, leaving the Iraqis knowing “almost nothing about Iran’s military potential outside of the fact that it had a large population and was equipped with western weapons.” (70) Moreover, what human intelligence the GMID and Iraq’s other services had came mostly from disgruntled Iranian officers fleeing the new Islamic Republic and spinning stories of a rapidly weakening Iranian military. The shoddy analytic tradecraft explains why in 1980 the GMID reported Iran’s army, air force, and navy were quickly declining in the wake of the Islamic revolution, a 180-degree shift from their 1979 assessment that Iran’s military was steadily improving. (75–77)

Murray and Woods show that for most of the war the Iraqis had robust tactical signals intelligence on Iran, in stark contrast to HUMINT sources and much more than previously thought. This proved to be a doubled-edged sword, however. In 1982 during the Ahvaz Battle, Iraqi signals intelligence provided “detailed advanced warning of the time and location” of Iranian attacks that allowed Iraqi units to successfully defend their positions. (180–182). But biases set in and by 1985 the Iraqis judged Iran was incapable of conducting a deception campaign and believed they would attack Basra as they had done during the previous three years, dismissing reports indicating Iran was preparing to attack the Fao Peninsula. This miscalculation led to a great victory for Tehran. So firm was the Iraqi bias that Saddam refused to believe that Fao was the Iranians’ main point of attack, even as one of his divisions there was collapsing. (266–68) A key problem for Iraq’s intelligence was that Saddam saw himself as his own chief intelligence officer, telling his ministers that “my job is to absorb, collect intelligence, and make conclusions, and relay it to others to analyze and predict, then examine the details gathered from everybody and extract a historic cognitive conclusion for the correct direction.” (24)

Even though Baghdad and Tehran are now cooperating to fight Sunni Islamic extremists, and many of today’s conflicts elsewhere center around insurgencies or some hybrid of counterinsurgency warfare, Murray and Woods’ work can help Intelligence Community analysts think about stages of analysis during the course of long conflicts and the connection between strategic objectives and the ability of actors to achieve them. The lesson of analytic biases and reliance on single streams of reporting should resonate too.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this journal are those of the authors. Nothing in any of the articles should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of their factual statements and interpretations. Articles by non-US government employees are copyrighted.

Posted: Jul 10, 2015 11:30 AM

Last Updated: Jul 10, 2015 11:30 AM

Hostilities and border clashes occurred between Iraqi and Iranian forces before the 22nd of September 1980;[1] however, this date marks the official start of an eight year war that has in many ways become the most destructive and the bloodiest conflict since World War Two.[2] On that date the Iraqi government initiated synchronised strikes against Iranian airfields located within the range of its bombers, while Iraqi ground forces advanced into the Iranian province of Khuzistan.[3] Numerous explanations of causality and attempts to identify the origins of the conflict have been put forward, ranging from geopolitics and territorial disputes, to the attribution of the outbreak of war to the religious and ethnic divide that has separated Persians and Arabs, to grand design theory and finally to explanations claiming that this conflict is merely a continuation of an age-old rivalry between Arabs and Persians.[4] The aim of this essay is to look at the Iran-Iraq War through the lens of Realism and more specifically through that of the Security Dilemma with the intention of identifying the major causes of the conflict.  In dealing with a causal question such as that above, one ultimately works with independent variables (IV) and a dependent variable (DV); the IV’s being those that cause the DV. For the purposes here, the DV is the Iran-Iraq War, and the IV’s are (i) perception, (ii) offense vs. defense and (iii) opportunity. The IVs identified here are the three components of the Security Dilemma, hence the abovementioned emphasis on the Security Dilemma as the primary tool in providing a causal analysis of the conflict.[5] This essay will provide an understanding of the Realist paradigm to ensure conceptual clarity. The Security Dilemma will be applied to the case of Iraq with the aim of identifying the IVs mentioned above towards the aim of establishing causality and finally will provide criticism of Security Dilemma and the Realist paradigm.


The Realist paradigm as a theoretical approach to the study of international relations was born in the inter war period of 1919-39 and served primarily as an ideological rival to Idealism.[6] The theoretical approaches arising from within the Realist tradition aim to provide an explanation of politics as it occurs in reality, as opposed to normative paradigms which aim only provide recommendations and instructions for political behaviour and activity as it should ideally be.[7] The Realist approaches tend to focus on the enduring nature of historical experience and are somewhat doubtful of efforts and attempts to transcend the competitive character of political life in the international realm.[8] It has been mentioned that a number of theoretical perspectives arise from within the Realist family, yet despite this, these numerous denominations all subscribe to same fundamental assumptions underlying the Realist tradition, namely, statism, survival and self help.[9]

With regards to the principle of statism, Realists argue that “territorially organized entities”[10] namely, modern states and city-states, are the principal actors in international relations and world politics. Primarily due to the fact that states are the principal actors in the international system and because no state recognizes the authority of another over its own, the realm in which states act, the international system, is seen to be lacking an overarching authoritative figure.[11] Precisely due to the lack of a central authority, the purpose of which is to govern and regulate global affairs, the international system is characterised by a state of anarchy.[12] Furthermore, due to the fact that the international system lacks any central authority and is populated by sovereign states, provides an explanation for the perceived insecurities, threats and dangers to state survival.[13] Finally, within this anarchic international system, states will increasingly compete for markets, security and influence, with the result that states are constantly engaged in a competitive struggle over power, the accumulation of which, provides for states the currency by which the survival of the state is ensured and maintained[14]

Within the Realist tradition, the principle of survival is critically important, and like that of statism, is a fundamental assumption to which all Realists subscribe. This is because in the international system, survival, meaning the survival of the state, is the primary objective of the state itself.[15] Survival is believed to be a necessary precondition for the achievement of all other objectives, and beyond the goal of survival, the scope of states’ objectives are broad and varied.[16] Towards the end of ensuring and maintaining survival, the state can opt to take one of two paths – security or power maximising, identifying two branches within the broad Realist approach, namely, offensive and defensive realism. [17] In terms of defensive realism, states perceive security as their fundamental interest, and as a result only aim to acquire the minimum amount of power necessary to ensure the survival of the state.[18] On the other hand, the argument underlying offensive realism is that the ultimate objective of all states is the achievement of hegemonic status in the international system. Towards this end, states are locked in a continuous quest for power, and are prepared, should the opportunity arise, to alter the current distribution of power or status quo.[19] With regards to survival, defensive realism holds that the presence of status quo powers in the international system reduces the struggle for power, whereas offensive realism argues that competition is acute due to the fact that would-be hegemons and revisionist states are constantly prepared to undertake risks towards the goal of an improved standing in the international system.[20]

The final core assumption of Realism, self-help, is conceptualized within the context of an international system in which a central authority is absent. Due to the anarchical nature of the international system, states are compelled to provide for their own security because quite simply put, no one else will.[21] Security and ultimately the survival of the state can therefore only be ensured and maintained through self-help, as Waltz[22] argues that the principle of action must necessarily be self-help in an anarchic system. However, in the process of providing for its own security, the state in question will inadvertently stimulate the insecurity of other states. This spiral of insecurity gives rise to a central notion within the Realist paradigm, known as the Security Dilemma. The Security Dilemma exists when the means employed by one state towards the end of security, decreases the security of other states.[23] The Security Dilemma originates when military armament undertaken by one state produces an irresolvable and vague perception as to whether the action undertaken is for offensive or defensive purposes.[24] The problem lies in that military arms build-up by one state is very likely to be matched by its neighbours due to their ambiguous perceptions regarding the actions of the first state, with the ironic conclusion that states generally see themselves as no more secure than when initial action was undertaken to enhance security.[25]

For the purposes here and as mentioned above, I have identified the IVs of the causal question as being three components which make up the Security Dilemma, namely (i) perception, (ii) offense vs. defense and (iii) opportunity. With regards to perception, this refers to “perceived external threats”[26] which may either be real or imagined but which nonetheless generates a feeling of insecurity within a target state which believes such threats to be directed at itself. Perception will be treated as consisting of three components of its own, namely, history, symbolic action and geography. History will mean to refer to and will examine historical interactions between the two parties to the conflict; symbolic action refers to actions and behaviour undertaken by either side that is interpreted as symbolic, and finally, geography will serve to refer to what can be known as an “encirclement complex”.[27] The second component of the Security Dilemma, offense vs. defense, refers to the Realist belief that there lies a significant advantage in striking first. [28] Military organizations stress the significance of taking the initiative and furthermore, statesmen seldom believe that permitting an adversary to move first is advantageous; and finally, if the outbreak of war is perceived as inevitable, decision-makers could be lead to reduce psychological pain by coming to the conclusion that striking first presented a substantial likelihood of limiting damage.[29] Finally, opportunity simply refers to a window of opportunity to attack the other side. Although opportunity is highly case specific and must be seen in the context of a particular case, a window of opportunity generally exists when the adversary is vulnerable or weak, and especially when attacking involves a low risk and a high reward.[30]

A final notion that is central within Realism, and is to some extent a product of the anarchic nature of the international system and the principle of self-help, is the balance of power.[31] In an anarchical system populated by sovereign states, the aim of each to ensure and maintain its survival, it is inescapable that alliances will be formed that will aim to restrict and balance power against threatening or aggressive states.[32] It must be noted however, that the balance of power is not a natural characteristic of the international system, and therefore must be established. The balance of power mechanism aims to ensure and maintain an equilibrium of power, and to prevent a situation where a coalition of states or any one state is in such a position so as to dominate all others.[33]


As mentioned above, the Iran-Iraq War officially started on 22 September 1980 with an Iraqi ground force invasion into the Iranian Khuzistan province and simultaneous air strikes against Iranian airfields.[34] Due to that and for the purpose of analysis here, Iraq will be treated as the aggressor. Therefore, the analysis will revolve around Iraqi behaviour and the Security Dilemma as discussed above will be applied to Iraq with the aim of indentifying the IVs (see above), towards the ends of establishing causality as to the outbreak of the war. With regards to the first component of the Security Dilemma, namely perception, as above I have further broken this concept down into three parts, those being (i) history, (ii) symbolic action and (iii) geography.

Iran’s path to regional hegemony in the Persian Gulf over the period stretching from 1968-1975, was a manifestation of that country as the most powerful and largest of the Gulf states, furthermore, Iran saw itself has having a historical, geopolitical and moral obligation to safeguard stability in the region. [35] The Shah saw Iran as the guardian of the region, a belief which manifested itself in a significant expansion of Iranian military capability which turned Iran into the Gulf’s most powerful state.[36] However, the most prominent manifestation of the Shah’s growing hegemonic ambitions was the mounting pressure on his neighbour Iraq. Iraq was evidently less powerful than Iran, but nevertheless presented the only potential hurdle on Iran’s path to military dominance in the Gulf.[37] Furthermore, in 1969 Iran was implicated in an unsuccessful coup plot to topple the Baath regime in Baghdad and during the same year Iran moved to challenge the existing status quo by abrogating the 1937 boundary agreement regarding the navigation rule of the Shatt al-Arab.[38] What followed was a series of Iranian actions early in the 1970s that further served to exacerbate Iranian and Iraqi relations which finally resulted in violence as intense border clashes broke out between the two states in 1974. [39] With Iraq unable to curb an “insurgency that imposed an intolerable burden on its domestic system”,[40] Baghdad had little other choice but to seek some form of agreement with Tehran that would result in the cessation of Iranian support for Iraqi Kurds. The result was the Algiers Agreement of 1975, which embodied significant territorial concessions on Iraq’s part.[41] This shows, that for some time before the outbreak of war in 1980, Iran and Iraq were engaged in hostile relations, and furthermore, that Iraq was forced to make territorial concessions in the face of the Shah’s ambition. As regards history, although there are strong periods of cooperation between the two countries[42] it is evident that within the decade before the war officially started there is clear animosity and hostility between Iran and Iraq.

The Iranian Revolution provided a significant concern for Baghdad with regards to the stability of the Baath regime.[43] The Islamic regime in Tehran openly declared its ambitions to export the Islamic revolution to neighbouring Iraq[44], and it certainly entertained hopes that Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population would heed the revolutionary call and rise up against its ‘oppressors’.[45] It is understandable that the Iraqi rulers experience the threat of a Shi’ite rebellion as Shi’ite muslims account for 60% of the Iraqi population, and the ruling Sunni Arabs make up only 20% of the population, furthermore, the Islamic revolution in Iran, primarily Shi’ite in character imposed a threat to the Sunni elite.[46] Shi’ite muslims in both Iran and Iraq regard the Ayatollah Khomeini as their principal religious and political leader, who since his rise to power in 1979 has not only actively supported the overthrow of the Baath regime, but has also advocated establishing a true Islamic republic in Iraq.[47] To this end the revolutionary regime resumed Iranian support for the Kurds, provided underground Shi’ite movements, especially the Da’wa Party, operating in Iraq with aid and initiated attacks on high ranking Iraqi officials, including a botched attempt on the life of the Iraqi deputy premier, Tariq Aziz.[48] With regards to the above, one can see that there is clearly symbolic behaviour undertaken by the Islamic regime in an attempt to overthrow the Iraqi government. The behaviour is symbolic in that Tehran does not carry out its ambitions to topple the Baath regime in any overt manner, but undertakes action to bring down the government from within its own borders, by its own people, but more importantly, along ethnic and ideological lines.[49]

For the recently established state of Iraq (1921) geography presented an existential crisis.[50] Effectively landlocked, Iraq’s Gulf coastline stretches a mere 15 kilometres, and is surrounded by no less than four countries, two of which – Iran and Turkey – are irredentist and larger – as a result, Iraq has subsequently endured an inherent perception of insecurity since the beginning of its statehood.[51] Iraq’s “encirclement complex”[52] is understandable in two contexts, first, as it is not able to export its primary source of income, oil, without the goodwill of neighbouring states Turkey and Syria, or without coming into such close proximity of Iranian territory that is impossible for Iraq to enjoy protective security for its “principal means of survival”[53] to any extent. Secondly, as one of the heirs to the Ottoman Empire, Iraq inherited a number of Ottoman entitlements – significantly beneficial border agreements – however, simultaneously lacking the imperial stature or power to maintain these gains.[54] Thus, in terms of geography, Iraq is a highly vulnerable state as its principal means of survival, the export of oil relies heavily on the goodwill of neighbouring states. One can see from the above, that in the context of Iran prior to the war, the conditions necessary for the IV of perception, namely history, symbolic action and geography are all present, and that ultimately with regards to perception, the Iraqi regime perceived what have been shown to be real threats directed towards itself from Iran, illustrating that the first IV discussed above is in fact present.

The Iraqi regime faced what it perceived as an imminent threat to itself in the face of increasing calls from Tehran to export the Islamic revolution to Iraq, which caused the Iraqi government to draw the conclusion that domestic unrest had been instigated by Iran.[55] The Hussein regime came to the conclusion that war was inevitable, as a continuation of the status quo would only mean continued efforts by Iran to fuel revolution against it, unless change occurred in Tehran.[56] The Baghdad was also faced with the concern that Iran was not overtly opposing it, but as mentioned above, aimed to bring down the secular Iraqi regime from within. Furthermore, Iraq stood to gain substantial benefits from a short and immediate military victory against Iran – a reverse of the Algiers Agreement of 1975 and consolidation of Iraq as the leader of the Arab world. [57] As discussed above, the decision to strike first is based on a number of things, firstly, the belief that war is inevitable. With regards to Iraq, one sees this as clearly the case as the leadership was faced the option to go to war or face continued subversion by the Iranian government.[58] The belief that it is not beneficial to allow the adversary to strike first holds true in this regard, however, it is possible that the Iran would never have attacked Iraq overtly. Finally, the Iraqi government aimed to limit psychological damage by emphasising the gains of a quick and short military victory over Iran, which it argued was highly probable in the event that it should strike first.[59] Thus, with regards to the second IV identified above, namely offense vs. defense, the above shows that striking first, which Iraq ultimately did, would have placed the advantage firmly in the hands of the Iraqi regime and as a result, the presence of this variable goes some distance in establishing causality of the conflict

Iran, having recently experienced revolution, and the Islamic regime having yet to solidify itself in Tehran, provided what could be perceived as a relatively weak state by an adversary. [60] Furthermore, one of Khomeini’s first acts once he had taken control in Iran was to order a purge of the Iranian armed forces,[61] this coupled with the fact that the Iranian armed forces were still heavily demoralized and badly disorganized as a result of the revolution[62] compounded the Iraqi belief that the Iranian military was incapable of opposing a determined military assault.[63] Furthermore, in terms of a power cycles assessment, Parasiliti[64] concludes that Iraq, at the time of going to war with Iran had peaked in power relative to its adversary. The abovementioned factors provide for Iraq the window of opportunity to attack which is discussed above in terms of the IV of opportunity. The gains which Iraq attached to a quick and short military victory over its adversary, namely restoration of Shatt al Arab to fall under Iraqi sovereignty as well as Iraq’s rise to become the Gulf hegemon, provided the low risk – high reward situation in terms of opportunity.[65] This was compounded by the fact that the Iranian regime had alienated its superpower ally – US-Iranian relations were virtually stretched to breaking point in the aftermath of a hostage situation at the American Embassy in Tehran.[66] The belief that the United States would not enter the war on the side of Iran added to the Iraqi belief that this was indeed a low risk – high reward situation, as it would not have to deal militarily with one of the world’s superpowers. Thus, in combination, a depleted and demoralized Iranian army, as well as specific and easily achievable goals provided for Iraq the needed window of opportunity in order to attack, and for the purposes here indicates the presence of the third IV and component of the Security Dilemma.

The presence of all three the IVs, namely perception, offense vs. defense and opportunity allows one to draw conclusions regarding the causality of the Iran-Iraq War. Efraim[67] finds that the Iraqi war decision of 1980 was not based on the objective of achieving regional hegemony in the Gulf, but rather, a last resort undertaken only when the Baath regime had realized that all other attempts to curb and halt the Iranian threat had been exhausted. Although the move to engage in war was pre-emptive, it was taken only once Baghdad had realized that it could no longer tolerate the status quo as Iranian superiority in the Gulf became a direct threat to the survival of the Baath regime.[68] Similarly, Gause III[69] concludes that regime security considerations formed the primary driving force behind Iraq’s decision to go to war with Iran, and that striking at the Islamic regime provided the only means by which Baghdad could put a stop to threats against its domestic security.[70] I have demonstrated the presence of the IVs with regards to the case if Iraq, and as mentioned above, the presence of all the three the components of the Security Dilemma allows one to establish causality for the outbreak of war. As is evidenced above, the Iraqi war decision is based on an acute perception of threats to its security, which although occur domestically, are instigated and supported by an external actor, Iran.[71] Secondly, Iraq perceived that striking first would provide it with a substantial advantage in the war as it would hold the initiative. Furthermore, the rationale to strike first was justified by the belief that Iraq could win a short and immediate war against Iran.[72] Finally, the Iranian military was heavily demoralized and disorganized due the Islamic revolution and Baghdad believed that it would not be able to withstand a decisive military advance. This coupled with relative gains that Iran would win from a short war, plus the belief that America would not enter the war on the side of its adversary provided a window of opportunity and what has been referred to as a low risk – high reward situation.[73]


One of the principal criticisms against the security dilemma is that to a large extent, insecurities and threats are based on perception.[74] Here, the argument is that it is very hard if not virtually impossible to measure perception and to gain a true understanding of perception from the minds of the actors themselves. Furthermore, one can only judge the accuracy of a perceived threat after the fact, or rather, once the threat has materialized. With regards to this, whether or not a threat is real or imagined is not the point, as Cerny[75] points out that it is the perception of an external threat, whether imagined or real, that fuels insecurity. Furthermore, if states were to allow threats to progress, in other words to allow threats to materialize into action or behaviour taken against it, the state may in fact by not acting, undertaking behaviour that could prove detrimental to its own survival.[76]

A further criticism, but which is levelled more at the Realist paradigm as a whole is that it does not enquire about domestic content but rather treats the state as indivisible. With regards to the case of the Iran-Iraq, a principal source of threats to the Iraqi regime’s security originated within the country itself.[77] It was Baghdad’s belief that the Iranian government was responsible for instigating and supporting domestic unrest amongst the Iraqi Kurds as well as amongst that country’s majority Shi’ite population that drove Iraq to act against Iran.[78] A final criticism of realism and ultimately of the Security Dilemma is that the paradigm is not able explain all that it claims.[79] With regards to this, Realism is unable to explain why some countries would voluntarily choose sacrifice. Offensive realists argue that states will always be power maximisers[80] and to that end sacrifice is necessary in order to advance the ambitions of the state. However, for the purposes of this case, one sees that due to the Iraqi perception of the inevitability of war, sacrifice is justified towards the end of state survival. Inaction and the inability to risk war and sustain sacrifice presents an existential threat to the state itself and in this light sacrifice is seen as the lesser of two evils.[81]


In the search for the causes of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980, my analysis has focused on Iraq, for as mentioned above; the war officially began in September 1980 with an Iraqi invasion of Iran. I have applied the Security Dilemma to the case and used three variables, with my aim here to identify the variables in the case and establish causality for the outbreak of the war. The IVs identified under the Security Dilemma were perception, offense vs. defense and opportunity. In terms of perception, I have shown that the Iraqi regime perceived what were acute threats to regime security, which although originated domestically were instigated and promoted by Iran.[82] Secondly, with regards to offense vs. defense, the belief that the advantage of striking first would rest with Iraq is evidenced by the fact that Iraq thought it could win a short war with Iran, and more importantly by the fact that Baghdad believed war to be inevitable.[83] Finally, in terms of the third IV, opportunity, Iran’s decimation of its military, and the fact that it had recently experienced revolution led Iraq to believe that the former state would not be able to sustain a military advance, furthermore, possible gains of restoration of the Shatt al-Arab and the projection of Iraq to the status of Gulf hegemon compounded by Iran’s relations with the U.S. provided for Iraq both a window of opportunity to attack as well as a low risk – high reward scenario.[84] The above provides substantive evidence to a theoretical analysis of the causes of the Iran-Iraq War from a Realist perspective and furthermore, the criticisms raised in the above section regarding the Security Dilemma and the Realist paradigm have been dealt with satisfactorily.




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Tags: International Politics, international relations, Iran, Iraq, political theory, politics, realism, Saddam Hussein, War

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