The Iran-Iraq war has several features that make it a uniquely devastating modern conflict, the most notable being the fact that it is the longest conventional war of the 20th century. The war which lasted from 1980 to 1988 was fought by arguably two of the most influential states in the Middle East at the time. The outcome of this war would shape the contemporary geopolitics Middle East. Hence it is shocking to observe the limited Western academic literature on the causes, consequences and modern-day implications of this war. The purpose of this essay is to consider the question: What caused the Iran-Iraq war? Going against the conventional narratives of the academic literature that are limited to structural theories, this paper will argue that the Iraq-Iran war was caused by Saddam Hussein’s opportunistic decision to launch a surprise invasion of Iran. This argument acknowledges the hostile relations that had existed between Iran and Iraq for several decades. However, it suggests that given the international regime’s prohibition on wars of expansion or wars as a means to resolve inter-state conflicts, codified in the legally binding charter of the United Nations, Saddam Hussein’s illegal decision to invade Iran was the catalyst that led to outbreak a war. First, the paper will analyze and critique the historiography of this particular conflict. Proceeding, it will offer a brief overview of Iraqi-Iranian relations leading up to the conflict and summarize the of major domestic events that shaped each state’s foreign relations. Lastly, it will offer an examination of Saddam Hussein’s leadership style, to demonstrate that a different leader would have sought alternative methods to address the existing tensions between Iran and Iraq.
Historiography of the Iran-Iraq war
Much of the literature concerning the causes of the Iran-Iraq war have been overshadowed by the more recent conflicts that Iraq has been involved in over the last four decades, the First Gulf War (1990-91) and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This itself sheds light on a tendency of Western historians to overlook the intricacies of wars fought primarily between countries of the Global South. Though even when analyzing these wars there is an inclination to overemphasize the contributions and roles of countries in the Global North. For example, one popular theory states that the Iran-Iraq war was caused by the USA’s foreign policy towards the new Iranian regime, which provided Iraq with the necessary political, military and economic support and incentive to launch an attack against its neighbour. Although the USA played a significant role in arming both countries during the war, their foreign policy prior to the war was not concerned about the intricacies of Iraq-Iranian relations. To put simply, the argument that the USA caused the Iran-Iraq war misconstrues the nuances of political hostilities that had been in existence for several years.
Other theories regarding the causes of the Iran-Iraq war rely heavily on structural causal mechanisms, suggesting that the outbreak of conflict between the two states was inevitable because the states were left with very few options when addressing issues of territory, conflicting ideologies and political ambitions. As demonstrated by Fredrick Logevall this form of causal hierarchy is at times rudimentary because it relies on a hindsight bias to claim that certain historical events were predictable given the international and domestic political systems in which they took place. Although structural explanations of historical events are fundamental to our understanding of the past, an over-reliance on this approach can limit our understanding of certain events to an oversimplified laundry list of causes, thereby imposing deterministic notions and revoking the role of individual agents in shaping the past.
Consider Dilip Hiro’s popular structural argument that the Iran-Iraq war was caused due to a clash of conflicting ideologies between Iraq’s Arab nationalism movement and the Islamic Republics of Iran’s ambition to spread its religious ideologies. This argument relies on the presumption that due to the anarchic structure of global governance this clash of ideology was determined to result in an armed conflict. Though it is important to reflect on how this argument neglects the intricate actions of social entrepreneurs (community leaders who held considerable influence over people) who often control the outcomes of events in non-predictable manners. The existence of tension between states or groups is not a guarantor of the cause of wars, the best-known example being the Cold War. During this period there existed a great tension between the USSR and USA, which was instigated by clashing ideologies as well as political and economic rivalries. Despite this fact, the two states never engaged in a conventional war even though there were several structural factors that would have suggested that all-out war between the two was inevitable. In light of the Iran-Iraq war, this comparison demonstrates the extent to which existing historiography is limited by their emphasis on the role of structures and states of the Global North.
On September 22nd, 1980, the Iraqi military began a bombing campaign in various strategic locations across South-West Iran, including military bases and several civilian infrastructures. The next day Iraqi troops crossed the Iranian border from three separate locations. This marked the beginning of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that took the lives of an estimated 535,000 soldiers and 18,000 civilians. Iraq had justified its invasion citing that it was a pre-emptive strike to defend its sovereignty from Iran’s export of radical Shia ideology and to liberate the Arab minority population located in the Iranian province of Khuzestan. According to several historians, the decision to invade Iran in 1980 was motivated by the desire to take advantage of the ensuing chaos of post-revolution Iran. Preoccupied with the formation of a new system of governance after the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the Western-friendly Shah, the Iranian regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini was in vulnerable position. This provided Iraqi government, an optimal opportunity to obtain oil-rich disputed territories, that had caused tensions in the past but also to consolidate Iraq as the regional hegemon.
The poor relations between Iran and Iraq can be traced all the way back to the age of empires when rivalries existed between Persia (modern day Iran) and the Ottoman Empire. In 1937, the newly independent state of Iraq and their neighbours Iran signed the Sabbad Treaty to settle all remaining territorial disputes. This treaty confirmed that the Iran–Iraq border would be along the eastern side of the Shatt al-Arab river, with two major exceptions at Abadan and Khorramshahr. This gave Iraq majority control territory of this important waterway, and Iran was required to pay a toll when using the river. Iraqi sentiments towards this treaty were negative because they believed that it was the Ottomans and British who granted the oil-rich and Arab speaking provinces Khuzestan and the city of Khorramshahr to Iran. In the July of 1958, Iraq witnessed a sudden shift in government. The Hashemite monarchy which had ruled over Iraq from 1921, was ousted in coup d’état lead by right-leaning fundamentalists who developed the Arab nationalist movement that dominated Iraq’s political culture until 2003. The coup resulted in the formation of the Iraqi Republic, and Abd al-Karim Qasim one of the leaders of the coup became Iraq’s first Prime Minister. The politics in Iraq however were far from stable, in the periods from 1960 to 1970 Iraq sustained another coup d’état in 1963 that saw the assignation of Qasim and a revolution in 1968 that put in power the ultra-right wing nationalist Ba’ath Party, led by Saddam Hussein and Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr the first President Ba’athist Iraq. During this period the concept of Arab Unification or Pan-Arabism, the belief of unification of all Arab speaking states in North Africa and the Middle East, had gained tremendous traction. Much of the instability in Iraq has been attributed to domestic political disagreement on this topic. With the rise of nationalist movement, the Iraqi government became reluctant to fulfilling its 1937 agreement with Iran. The various Iraqi governments from 1958 to 1968 took issue with Iran’s growing military capabilities that were possible due to close American-Iranian relations under the Shah. Iran’s expanding military and economic power allowed it to take a more assertive role as the central power. In a display of its newfound power, Iran unanimously withdrew its treaty obligations to Iraq and refused to pay for its use of the Shatt al-Arab river. The Shah claimed that the treaty was unfair as it put Iran’s economy at a severe disadvantage. Iraq who at the time was a military weaker state was unable to respond to this show of force. Though Iran’s influence in the region did not last for long.
In the 1970s Iran began dealing with its own domestic issues that arose from dissatisfaction with the Shah’s regime. Critiques of the government were unsatisfied with the Shah’s disregard for religious traditions, lack of certain basic rights and large economic disparities between those in urban and rural areas. They were also frustrated over the Shah’s policy towards western governments, which granted foreign company’s control over Iran’s abundant oil resources. This resulted in a series of revolts, that established the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Shah was forced to abdicate his throne and fled to the United States. This event came as a shock to the rest of the world, and threatened all neighbouring countries who either had opposing ideologies or were also monarchies. The Iranian regime blamed Iran’s problems on the United States and the United Kingdoms, relations became worse when Iranian students and followers of Iran’s Supreme Leader stormed the American Embassy taking 49 hostages. In the wake of this Iran soon became isolated from the rest of the world. With very few trading partner, domestic political turmoil and stagnant economy Iran was in no place to engage in a war.
Iraq launched its invasion of Iran expecting weak resistance, however, their understanding of Iran’s military capabilities was grossly misconstrued. By 1982 Iran regained all its annexed territories, though it did not stop there. This was had offered Khomeini an opportunity to unify the Iranian people and solidify the Islamic Republic, for the next remaining six years Iran led an offensive capturing large portions of Eastern Iraq. Eventually, the costs of the total war persuaded both sides to accept a cease-fire that was developed by the United Nations Security Council in 1988. Though hostilities between the countries remained after several failed peace talks. Today Iran and Iraq share a close relationship after the US overthrow of Saddam Hussien’s Ba’ath party and the establishment of Shia majority democracy.
Saddam Hussein’s Arab Nationalism
Reviewing the historical analysis above it is very easy to make the accretion that Iran and Iraq were bound to engage in conflict over their contentious history. However, these assertions assume that what is sufficient is also necessary, meaning that they perceive the existence of tensions as a structural indicator of war. Applying a voluntarist methodology, which highlights the choices of various agents (states, individuals and groups) enables us to recognize the significant role of political leaders in causing this war. The Ba’athist government of Iraq is classified as a dictatorship because power is distrusted among a small group of elites. During his time as leader, Saddam held total control of the military and Ba’ath party. Thus as Commander of Iraq’s military and government, it was his decision to invade Iran that caused the war. Three reasons justify this claim. Firstly, there is a clear logical correlation that demonstrates how this decision directly resulted in the Iran-Iraq war. Secondly, the decision was unconstrained, meaning that Saddam was not forced to make this judgement. Like his predecessors before him, Saddam could have chosen to rely on diplomacy and political coercion to attain his nationalistic results. Lastly, there existed several plausible alternatives, the outcome that occurred was contingent on an individual who had Saddam’s sense of rationality. According to James Fearon’s bargaining theory, war is only rational when the rewards gained from engaging in war surpass the cost of a compromised bargain or a potential military defeat. Saddam’s declaration of war was influenced by several factors, prominently by the perception that Iran’s military was unable to repel an Iraqi attack. Throughout his political career Saddam demonstrates this risky form of rational, in his rise to power he relied on these characteristics to consolidate his government. These factors are also further supported when one considers Saddam’s decision in 1990 to invade neighbouring Kuwait, causing the First Gulf War. Since rationality is predominantly subjective we can argue that under a different leadership, Iraq would most likely not have engaged in a war so carelessly. The opportunistic and controversial behaviours of Saddam were key components of his leadership style.
In considering the question: what caused the Iran-Iraq war, this essay concludes that the war was primarily a product of Saddam’s decision to attack Iran. A historical review of Iraqi-Iranian relations indicates several tensions that were a result of various domestic and global systems. Nevertheless, these systems themselves did not ignite a war. In justifying this argument, the essay also invited the reader to consider how contemporary historiography is hindered by its limited analysis of conflicts in the global south, an over-reliance on structural causal theories and a Eurocentric bias. The statements made in this paper are not novel, but they voice to the sentiments of countless other scholars who strongly recommend a review of this literature.
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