Between the wars: Iran’s relations with Iraq in the 1970s

by Paul Iddon

For a brief period, the second half of the 1970s, Iran and Iraq went through a thaw in their hitherto antagonistic relationship. After having reached an agreement to settle a major border dispute, they seemed to have also settled other fundamental differences and were ready for a new relationship. History shows that this was just the calm before the storm.

Overview of Boats on Shatt-al-Arab River in 1968 (Photo: Dean Conger / Corbis via Getty Images).

Overview of Boats on Shatt-al-Arab River in 1968 (Photo: Dean Conger / Corbis via Getty Images).

A cold war almost becomes hot (1969-75)
The dispute over the status of the 200km long Shatt-al-Arab/Arvand Rud waterway, formed by the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was the primary issue between the two countries. Iraq, citing the 1937 Tehran Treaty, claimed sovereignty over the entire river, arguing that this should demarcate the official border between the two countries. Iran, on his part, claimed sovereignty up to its deepest channel, or thalweg. In April 1969, Iraq sought to impose sovereignty over the entire river, demanding that no ships passing through it fly the Iranian flag or else it would block shipping to Iranian ports. Baghdad threatened to use force if Tehran did not comply with these conditions. Iran responded by abrogating the 1937 treaty and tensions mounted. Both countries had artillery guns pointed at each other across the waterway.

In an apparent show of force, Tehran launched in April 1969 the Joint Operation Arvand. An Iranian freighter, the Ebne Sina, flying the Iranian flag and carrying a cargo of steel beams, was escorted by the Iranian Navy, backed by a squadron of Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom IIs jet fighter-bombers, down the waterway under the nose of the Iraqis, who did nothing (“Iranian Ship Challenges Iraq Estuary”, AP, April 27, 1969). Three days later, Iran escorted another one of its freighters through the river without any repercussions. This was a humiliation for the Iraqis, whose threats were rendered meaningless by its far more powerful neighbour.

When then Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein forced approximately 60,000 Iraqis of Iranian descent, some of whom had lived in Iraq for generations, out of the country in 1971, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, visited the Iraqi border and lambasted Iraqi leaders, declaring that: “They are dying of envy at our progress and the things we have accomplished in Iran.” (Andrew Scott Cooper, “The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East“, Oneworld Publications, 2011, p. 155). In September 1973, during his revealing interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, Pahlavi did not mince words when asked which neighbour was his worst: “Iraq is ruled by a group of crazy, bloodthirsty savages and… do you know they force our people to cross the minefields along the frontier on foot? That’s right. Iranians wishing to come home because they’re persecuted in Iraq have to cross our minefields on foot. Dozens of armless and legless people are in hospital.” (Oriana Fallaci, “The Shah of Iran: An Interview with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi”, The New Republic, December 1, 1973)

In the mid-1970s the Shah’s Iran, along with Israel and the United States, oversaw a covert war against Iraq by supporting the Kurdish revolt there. Documents declassified from that time show that the Shah wanted to use the Kurds in order to keep the Iraqi Army bogged down inside its borders, an interest he shared with Israel which also feared the Ba’athist Iraq becoming a regional military power. When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in the October 1973 war, Israel even asked the Iraqi Kurds to mount an offensive operation against Iraq in order to keep it from joining in that war. Upon consulting with the U.S.-Americans, who then consulted with the Shah, about this request, the Kurds were convinced not to do so and to instead retain a defensive posture inside Kurdistan. (Roham Alvandi, “Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War“, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 99).

Nevertheless, the Shah did not want the Kurds to prevail since he opposed Kurdish independence anywhere in the region, fearing it would inspire Iran’s Kurdish minority to revolt and secede, as they had done in Mahabad in 1946. Ironically, the Kurdish leader the Shah was supporting against Saddam Hussein, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, was a key figure in the short-lived Republic of Mahabad.

Kurdish Peshmerga in 1974 during the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War (1974-75). Photo from the "Photo Library of Kurdistan".

Kurdish Peshmerga in 1974 during the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War (1974-75). Photo from the “Photo Library of Kurdistan“.

This covert war almost became hot. Through Iran, Israel supplied the Kurdish Peshmerga with portable anti-air and anti-tank missiles, captured Soviet-made 9K32 Strela-2s and 9M14 Malyutkas, to give them an edge over the Iraqi Army. Iranian artillery units deployed inside Kurdistan killed several Iraqi troops and destroyed a vast amount of Iraqi military equipment. This support from the Iranian military, which at that time was twice as large as Iraq’s, proved key to the continued success of the Kurdish revolt. However, the Shah ultimately used the Kurdish revolt to make a deal with Iraq over the Shatt-al-Arab, avoiding a potential Iran-Iraq War from breaking out in the 1970s.

Saddam Hussein, clearly the country’s strongman, offered to resolve the Shatt-al-Arab dispute in Tehran’s favour, relinquishing Iraq’s claim to the eastern part of the river. In return, in a classic trade-off, he wanted Iran to withdraw its support for the Iraqi Kurds. The Shah agreed. Consequently, on March 6, 1975, the Shah met with Iraq’s strongman in Algiers and signed the Algiers Agreement. Mere hours later, Iranian forces withdrew across the border, taking their heavy weapons with them. The Kurds were left on their own and Baghdad was able to crush any remaining resistance promptly. Over 200,000 Kurds fled to Iran. (see also George S. Harris, “Ethnic Conflict and the Kurds“, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 433, no. 1, 1977: 121).

Upon learning that the Shah had struck a deal with Saddam and was pulling Iranian forces out of Kurdistan, a furious Mullah Mustafa asked an Iranian SAVAK intelligence commander: “How can you trust Saddam, who once he gets rid of the Kurdish revolution will be stronger and then change his mind? You will regret this. (Jonathan C. Randall, “After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters with Kurdistan”, Routledge, 2019, p.169).

The Shah frantically sought to justify his action as a necessary one, invariably arguing that it had been Iran doing the fighting in Kurdistan. Saddam Hussein echoed this view, telling one journalist a mere month after signing the Algiers Agreement that: “The only thing that kept Barzani going in the past was Iranian intervention on his behalf.” (C.L. Sulzberger, “His Kurds, and Why”, The New York Times, March 29, 1975). Also, according to the Shah Saddam Hussein confided to him during their meeting in Algiers that “your unsparing sword cut down the flower of Iraqi youth.” (Alvandi, p. 114).

Meeting in Algiers, March, 1975: The Shah of Iran (left) with Algeria's President Houri Boumedienne (centre) and Saddam Hussein (right).

Meeting in Algiers, March, 1975: The Shah of Iran (left) with Algeria’s President Houri Boumedienne (centre) and Saddam Hussein (right).

Years later, Saddam Hussein revealed what he said was his real reason for making this huge territorial concession to Iran in a meeting with his advisers. He recalled that the Iraqi Army had only enough artillery shells to keep fighting for just one more day, and the Soviet Union had refused to resupply it. Since Iran had artillery units in Iraqi Kurdistan that could outgun the Iraqis, Saddam Hussein knew he had little choice. If the Iran-Iraq war had started at that time, Iraq would have been in a less advantageous position and could have suffered a major defeat. It was out of this strategic necessity that he chose to make this concession. More importantly, he knew he could crush the Kurdish resistance if they lost the support of the Iranian military, which is precisely what happened. (Amatzia Baram, “Deterrence Lessons From Iraq“, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012).

Thaw (1975-79)
Israeli Professor Amatzia Baram, who has studied Saddam Hussein’s regime very closely for decades, once summed up Iran-Iraq relations in the late 1970s as “good, no less than good – quite a lot of trust amazingly. These two dictators seemed to like each other in a bizarre way.”

In one November 1976 interview, the Shah was asked why he continued to pursue a large military build-up at a time when the U.S. anticipated that Iran had enough military power to deal with any confrontation with Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. “Well, it is a little immature to say that when you know the Iraqis have a special defensive agreement with the Soviets,” the Iranian autocrat replied, referring to the 1972 Iraq-Soviet Friendship Agreement. Upon being asked if he believed that the Soviets would come to Iraq’s aid in the event of a war with his country, the Shah said: “the rescue of Iraq in any such given conflict – that’s a question I would like to ask myself. But there is a treaty.” Despite any worries he had about such an outcome, the Shah nevertheless summed up relations with Iraq at that time as “very good.” (“Iran Will Support 15 Pct. Hike In Oil”, UPI, November 22, 1976).

Newspaper reports in that period also highlighted Iraq’s seeming new moderation in the region, which analysts and reporters alike often attributed to the new oil boom in the country and the increasing standard of living that came with it. After Algiers, Baghdad stopped trying to undermine Tehran through propaganda calling for Iran’s Arab-majority western frontier province of Khuzestan, which it called Arabistan, to be separated from Iran. It also stopped broadcasting radio signals to Saudi Arabia calling for the overthrow of the royal family there. Iranian Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda visited Iraq, and Saddam Hussein visited Iran. This was described as an “unprecedented coming together of Iran and Iraq” at the time. “If Iran and Iraq’s new friendship holds, the face of the Middle East could be changed,” anticipated one May 1975 newspaper article (Gavin Young, “Shah wants big Powers out of Gulf”, The Observer, May 4, 1975).

“Iran is our neighbour, and you cannot change your neighbours – it is one hundred times better to have good relations with your neighbour than bad,” said Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s then information minister, at the time. (Eric Pacer, “Irans Vast Purchases of Weaponry Strain Ability of Country to Absorb It All“, January 5, 1977).

Ayatollah Khomeini, living in exile, sits in his garden at Pontchartrain, near Paris, in October, 1978.

Ayatollah Khomeini, living in exile, sits in his garden at Pontchartrain, near Paris, in October, 1978.

Another telling sign of the fundamental changes that were afoot in those years took place in a security conference in Muscat, Oman in 1978. Iraq essentially conceded from the get-go that Iran was the foremost power in the Persian Gulf. Ironically, the entire conference failed to make any headway because Iraq and Saudi Arabia feuded over which one of them should take “the number-two position” after Iran. “Iraq believed that the Arab states should have a minority status vis-à-vis Iran within the common security arrangement, and that Iraq should be the dominant voice within that minority,” was how one historical account summed up that conference. (Trita Parsi, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States“, 2007, p. 60)

In July 1977, six bilateral agreements were signed between Iran and Iraq which covered “trade and cultural relations, freedom of movement by Iranians in visiting Shi’it[e] holy places in Iraq, agriculture and fishing, railway systems linkages, and co-ordination of activities concerning the movement of ‘subversive elements.'” (S. H. Amin, “The Iran-Iraq Conflict: Legal Implications“, International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 1, January 1982, p. 167–88). It seemed, from the perspective of many observers at the time, that Iran-Iraq relations had truly turned a new page.

Opponents of the Shah in Iran used this thaw to visit Iraq and meet with the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who lived in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf after the Shah exiled him in 1963, to plan the Shah’s overthrow. As Richard Helms, the U.S. ambassador to Iran in those years, noted in retrospect: “People knew about Khomeini. This was particularly true after the Algiers Agreement of 1975, when Iranian pilgrims were again permitted to visit the holy shrines in Iraq at Karbala and Najaf. Some pilgrims brought tapes back from Khomeini, and one began to hear reports of their being played in mosques and circulated clandestinely. So that as a political factor, people were aware of him.” (Cooper, p.239).

In 1977, Saddam Hussein offered to kill Khomeini, who he described as that “meddlesome priest”, for the Shah. The Iranian monarch declined the offer, reasoning that if Khomeini was made a martyr that would have created more problems than it would solve. (Abbas Milani, “The Shah“, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012, p.390). Saddam Hussein instead opted to exile the ayatollah. As a result, Khomeini relocated to France, where he quickly gained access to the Western press and used it to denounce the Shah’s regime and organize his return to Iran to become its new ruler.

Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran for the first time after years in exile.

Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran for the first time after years in exile.

Revolution and eve of war (1979-80)
In October 1978, Farah Diba, wife of the Shah and Empress of Iran, visited Najaf to meet Abu al-Qasim Al-Khoei, one of the most influential scholars of Shiism. While Al-Khoei criticized the Shah’s response to protesters in Tehran, he never expressed any support or opposition to the revolution in Iran. (Patrick Cockburn, “Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shia Insurgency in Iraq“, Faber and Faber, 2001, p.62)

In January 1979, the Shah fled Iran. The following month Khomeini made his victorious return to the country on the chartered Air France plane and began establishing a new regime in Iran. Saddam Hussein consolidated his power in Iraq the same year by infamously conducting a televised purge of his opponents in the Ba’ath Party in July and became Iraq’s undisputed ruler. He feared Khomeini would carry out his expressed desire to export the Iranian Revolution. Iraq is a Shi’ite-majority country and was then ruled by an elite within the country’s Sunni minority. Saddam Hussein was prepared to do anything to prevent Khomeini from fomenting revolution among Iraq’s Shiite majority against his regime.

In September 1979, the Iraqi dictator attended a non-aligned conference in Cuba with the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations Salah Omar al-Ali. They both met an Iranian delegation and discussed the status of the Shatt al-Arab. The Iranians seemed agreeable. Al-Ali was delighted, thinking that war had been avoided. “We are neighbours,” he told Saddam Hussein. “We don’t need another war. We need to rebuild our countries, not tear them down.”

Saddam Hussein, however, interpreted the Iranians desire to retain the status quo as a sign of weakness on their part, which he was all too eager to exploit. “How should we solve our problems with Iran?” he asked his ambassador as he smoked his characteristically big Cuban cigar. “Iran took our lands. They are controlling the Shatt-al-Arab, our big river. How can meetings and discussions solve a problem like this? Do you know why they decided to meet with us here, Salah? They are weak is why they are talking with us. If they were strong there would be no need to talk. So this gives us an opportunity, an opportunity that only comes along once in a century. We have an opportunity here to recapture our territories and regain control of our river.” (Mark Bowden, “Tales of the Tyrant“, The Atlantic, May 2002)

Iranian posing on a wrecked Iraqi T-62 tank in Khuzestan in Iran, just across the border from Iraq.

Iranian posing on a wrecked Iraqi T-62 tank in Khuzestan in Iran, just across the border from Iraq.

It was clear, war was on Saddam Hussein’s mind. He calculated that Khomeini’s purges against the Shah’s generals, and the U.S. embargo on spare parts for Iranian military hardware, meant that Iran’s armed forces had been, for the most part, rendered ineffective.

Mullah Mustafa Barzani died of cancer in exile in Washington on March 1, 1979. “We do not want to be anybody’s pawns,” he said in the only interview he gave before his death. “We are an ancient people. We want our autonomy. We want sarbasti – freedom. I do not know who will take my place one day. But they cannot crush us.” (William Safire, “Of Kurds and Conscience”, The New York Times, December 13, 1976). Shortly after his father drew his last breath, Masoud Barzani staunchly declared, “we’ve got to get back to Iraq to fight again.” (Smith Hempstone, “Memories of the Barzanis”, The Post Star, April 6, 1984).

In a meeting with his senior advisers in November 1979, the same month Islamist students took U.S.-Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Saddam Hussein expressed his belief that it was the U.S. who had orchestrated the Iranian Revolution. “They [the Americans] are involved in the events of Iran, including the removal of the shah, which is completely an American decision,” he said. (Kevin M. Woods, “The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001“, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.22).

In April 1980, members of the Iran-supported Islamic Dawa Party in Iraq attempted to assassinate Tariq Aziz in Baghdad. Then it also tried to assassinate the Iraqi Minister of Culture and Information. Baghdad responded by deporting thousands of Iraqi Shiites to Iran and rounding up several Dawa members and supporters. (“Iran-Iraq War Timeline”, Wilson Center, September 1, 1982).

Iraqi troops watching the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, over the horizon across the Shatt al-Arab, burn early in the Iran-Iraq War (Photo: Francoise De Mulder).

Iraqi troops watching the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, over the horizon across the Shatt al-Arab, burn early in the Iran-Iraq War (Photo: Francoise De Mulder).

In December 1979, journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak reported from the Iraqi border with Iran where they found Iraqi military personnel to be breathtakingly cocky and confident that they would prevail at ease if war broke out. “The men in those border posts still love their shahinshah,” Iraqi Col. Mahir al-Raschid told Evans and Novak. “The gendarmerie always has. They will not fight for Khomeini.” (Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Iraq’s imaginary war”, Syndicated piece, December 19, 1979).

On September 22, 1980, Iraq bombed several targets across Iran and simultaneously launched an enormous invasion of its Khuzestan province, sparking a war that raged for eight years. It was the longest conventional war of the 20th century and left at least a million dead on both sides. Iran and Iraq went from the promise of a major thaw in the late 1970s to, in a shockingly short time, one of the bloodiest modern conflicts the Middle East has ever seen in the 1980s.

This entry was posted in English, History, International, Iran, Iraq, Paul Iddon, Security Policy.

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