The Iran-Iraq War: A Retrospective

Note: This is not an overview of every aspect of the conflict. It is focused on tactical and strategic lessons of the war as well as tracing the development of the Iranian armed forces to the present day. The geopolitics will only be mentioned when directly necessary to elucidate information on the tactical and/or operational actions of the belligerents

Brief Background:

Tensions over territory go as far back as 1922 with both sides claiming the Shatt al-Arab, an important waterway between the nations. The Treaty of Saadabad in 1937 delineated the national boundaries of the water way and relations fluctuated from good to cool until the 1968 Ba’athist coup in Iraq. The Iraqi Ba’ath Party’s Pan-Arab ideology, reluctance to adhere to previous treaties and Iran’s growing power in the region put the two at odds. Iran unilaterally abrogated the Treaty of Saadabad and refused to pay tolls to to Iraq for use of the river. They launched a show of force in 1969 called Joint Operation Arvand. The Iraqis backed down.

The Shatt al-Arab on the Iran–Iraq border

The next flashpoint in Iran-Iraqi tension was the 2nd Kurdish Uprising in 1974. The Kurds were supplied by Iran and although the Kurds were outgunned, the Iraqi government negotiated with Iran to end their involvement. They signed the Algiers Agreement in 1975 to end Iranian support for the uprising. The Agreement also stipulated a new, more balanced, dividing line for the Shatt al-Arab. There would a series of smaller treaties signed in 1975 to finalize border disputes.

All of this changed with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The fall of the Shah was initially seen as a positive by the Iraqi government but and the replacement of with the new, theocratic and Pan-Islamist government was at ideological odds with the Ba’ath Party’s Pan-Arabism. The ideological tension quickly turned into border skirmishes, (mostly instigated by Iran) and icy relations. Ayatollah Khomeini openly called for Iraqi Shias to overthrow the now Sunni-led Ba’ath Party. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it did trigger some Shia to revolt and the Ba’ath Party briefly lost control of some areas of the country.

The same year Iraq had a leadership change. Saddam Hussein had been the de facto ruler since 1976. The aging and ailing al-Bakr was making moves for political unification with Syria (also led by a Ba’athist Party) but Saddam struck first. He forced al-Bakr to resign and assumed control over the party. Five days later he convened a party conference and purged it of “disloyal” elements, followed by further purges over the next month, liquidating hundreds of high ranking members.

In March of 1980 the two countries severed diplomatic ties and Iraq expelled tens of thousands of citizens supposedly of Iranian origin, most of which were likely Shia citizens considered disloyal by the regime. In September the Iraqi government abrogated the Algiers agreement and invaded with the goal of annexing oil-rich Khuzestan Province and toppling the “weak” Iranian regime.

Khuzestan Province

Organization of Forces:

The Iraqi Army (IA) was established by the British in the early 1930s but the origins of the army that would face Iran is goes back to the 1950s. The United Kingdom (UK) provided most equipment and instruction for the IA until the 1958 coup against the Hashemite Monarchy. The new Republic of Iraq established relations with the USSR. Two more coups in 1963, Iraq reestablished close relations with the UK and continued to purchase arms but following the Six Day War in 1967 Iraq decided to double the size of their military. A combination of high prices, British support for Israel, and reluctance to sell everything Iraq wanted stymied expansion efforts.

Iraq turned to the USSR and Czechoslovakia with massive requests for arms of every kind. They were chosen mostly because of the pricing, speed of delivery and amount of arms, although the USSR was hopeful Iraq could be used an “anti-imperialist” force in the region like Nasser’s Egypt. The arms purchases allowed for an expansion of 4 divisions (numbered 7 to 10) and three Corps composed of three divisions including one special forces brigade, one air reconnaissance brigade, and one aircraft battalion. Between 1975 and 1978 Iraq would raise two additional divisions (11 and 12).

The IA entered into the war with Iran with a plethora of equipment and approximately 200,000 men under arms organized 12 divisions (organized on the British model), each consisting of four brigades and usual support elements-including recon, engineering, artillery, and air defense. They also had a number of independent brigades. The most famous being the 10th Armored Brigade and the Republican Guards Brigade. They were established as elite intervention forces, both equipped with brand new T-72 MBTs though the latter was an unusual composition in so far that it consisted of one battalion of tanks, commandos, self-propelled artillery, and multiple-rocket launchers only.

Originally established in the 1920s the Iranian Army grew into a relatively potent force of 10 divisions by the time it entered closer cooperation with the US military in the late 1960s. The 1970s saw it completely reorganized several times on a near constant basis. The biggest reason for this situation was that-flush with oil revenue and with close ties with the USA-the government became insistent on developing their military along the latest experiences from battlefields all around the globe and acquiring modern weapon systems.

By 1978 the Imperial Iranian Ground Forces (IIGF) had approximately 160,000 officers, non-com officers, and others ranks organized into three corps commands, with three armored brigades, one recon regiment and several indirect fire support groups. They also had four independent brigades that acted as rapid strike forces.

The equipment at all levels was a hodgepodge of British and American armament. Most of their armored forces were modern tanks of US origin with a decent compliment of light British tanks. The only part of their ground forces that lagged behind was their artillery branch, still mostly composed of towed pieces. Their air-force was large and modern. Over 1,000 aircraft and helicopters had been acquired making it the largest air-force in the ME region. It’s helicopter wing in particular would distinguish itself in the coming conflict.

However, the Iranian Revolution had a massive effect on the Army. The Ayatollah’s government carried out a systematic purge of the office cadre at all levels. By the beginning of September, the government had purged 10,000+ officers. Desertion became endemic. Their most highly skilled technicians and officers were executed, imprisoned, exiled, or fled the country. The Army never recovered from the brain drain.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)was a recent paramilitary force created as a counterweight to the less-loyal Army. The IRGC was only trained as a paramilitary/regime police force but circumstance would force it to become a regular army force during the war. It’s rivalry and and distrust of the IA would severely hamper Iranian efforts in the beginning. The IRGC would be supplemented by the Basji force. The Basji was a government militia officially for people between 14–45 (during the war it employed children as young as 12 and men as old as 80). The Basji provided rudimentary training to it’s members and manpower to the IRGC.

Two members of the Basji Militia. Notice the age differential.

Sanctions would severely hamper resupply efforts, especially spare parts for vehicles. The Army still had a large stockpile of armored vehicles and aircraft but would have to cannibalize in the beginning to stay in the fight. Iran would have to fight alternative arms suppliers after the conflict started.

First Blood: Surprise and Failure

*Iraqi Units will be in bold*
*Iranian Units will be in italics*

The Iraqis struck first on September 22nd 1980. They had prepared for seizing the border cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan along the Shatt al-Arab followed by a push to secure the rest of Khuzestan Province, with primary objectives being Dezful in the north and Ahvaz in the south. The start of this operation was a series of air sorties striking Iranian airbases within range to disrupt and the Iranian Air Force as much as possible. Contrary to popular belief, the Iraqis were not trying to replicate Israel’s success in the Six-Day War. They had a realistic assessment of their capabilities and enough intelligence on Iranian airbases to dismiss that as a possibility. Their real plan was to prevent Iranian air response for 48 hours while ground forces (seven of their best divisions) struck into Khuzestan. They failed on every level.

Fighting during the Battle of Khorramshahr

Although the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) was mobilized in a rush, it hit back the following morning and then continued raiding into Iraqi territory, putting the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) on the defensive.The IrAF attempted to provide close-air support (CAS) to ground formations but was unable to do much in the face of IRIAF superiority. For several weeks the IrAF was busy evacuating aircraft out of the range of Iranian strike range and was often late in scrambling interceptors for Iranian sorties that were regularly hitting vital installations throughout Iraq. Although they took losses from Iraqi air defenses, the IRIAF ran an effective air campaign against Iraqi oil facilities in October and November. The bombings triggered a fuel shortage in Iraq and forced a halt of their advance.

Meanwhile the ground war was being fought between two completely different foes. The Iraqis had gone into battle fully deployed and with the advantage of surprise. The Islamic Republic of Iran Army (IRIA) was still in tatters from the purges and desertion. On paper the IRIA was the same strength as it had been before the Revolution but only 60% of it’s units actually existed and even less were combat capable. The major units in Khuzestan-the 92nd Armored Division and the 37th Armored Brigade-could only deploy company sized task forces (TFs) to the frontlines.

Despite these disadvantages the Iranians fought back fiercely. TF37 was the first armored formation to confront an Iraqi advance of two armored divisions and one mechanized division. TF37 had six M47Ms (two non-operational) and five M60A1s (one non-operational) and still knocked out eighteen Iraqi ranks during the fighting near Fakkeh in the afternoon of September 22nd. By the next morning TF37 was down to three operational tanks but knocked out an additional 15 Iraqi tanks and evacuated all eight of the tanks damaged the previous day. TF37 continued for weeks. Thanks to plentiful CAS, skillful maneuvering, repeated counter attacks into Iraqi flanks, and sporadic reinforcements from the 92nd Armored Division, it stopped the Iraqi advance to Dezful in October.

How did the local Iranian forces, outnumbered and outgunned (on the ground) perform so well? The reason is twofold. The first was the grave miscalculation that Saddam had made in attacking the Iran directly. He believed that the “weak” regime would topple from the pressure of invasion and internal strife. He made the same classic blunder as the Germans in 1941. Whatever internal divisions existed within the new regime were immediately forced to come together against the foreign invader. The Ayatollah was able to draw upon the patriotism of the country to strengthen his hold and rally against Iraq. The fighting tenacity of the IRIA in those first months is exemplary of the phenomenon. The invasion hardened national will instead of breaking it.

The second is problems with the Iraqi Army itself. IA doctrine was an updated (but not modernized) version of their hand-me-down from the British in 1941. It’s emphasis on “advance by firepower” dramatically slowed down the potential of Iraqi forces as units refused to move out of range of divisional artillery range and lacked the general spirit of elan. The IA rarely sent out reconnaissance forces, instead moving in large blocks making themselves susceptible to ambushes and counter attacks. When facing Iranian resistance they would saturate targets with full firepower. This could overwhelm what Iranian defenders were caught but it slowed their advance to a crawl and wasted ammunition on dead targets or empty ground when the Iranian forces slipped away. There is not a single known instance of Iraqi units attempting to flank an Iranian formation at any point during the war.

Still, with weight of numbers and firepower the Iraqis advanced, capturing Khorramshahr after a month long battle and made it to the outskirts of Defzul and Ahvaz before running out of fuel in late October. After this, the war turned into a battle of attrition. There several Iranian counterattacks in 1981 but none were particularly successful, mostly because the IRIA was in the process of re-establishing itself.

The Middle Years: Retreat and Reorganization

During the attrition phase of 1981 and winter of 1982 Iran planned for a series of offensives to push out Iraqi forces in the Spring of 1982. The Iraqis had dug in with static fortifications and mine fields but withering, well-planned assaults forced them out. The Iranians repeatedly outflanked Iraqi forces and destroyed several Iraqi divisions in the process. Saddam was forced to order a withdrawal back to the border to avoid certain defeat.

Iraq Reorganizes:

The defeat forced Iraq to launch a large-scale reorganization of it’s military. They depoliticized their officer corp (to an extent) and introduced merit-based promotions and established new formations with a corresponding rearmament process. The most important was the establishment of IV Corp to reinforce III Corps’s overstretched line to the south. Later, V Corp was established in Mosul to cover the northern lines. III Corp was split into two subdivisions, VI Corps and VII Corps, to cover the Howeizeh Marshes and the Faw Peninsula respectively. Furthermore Iraq began the process for establishing thirty more divisions and the gradual expansion of the Republican Guard (RG). The RG expansion would continue through the entire war (and after) growing into nine full divisions (three Armored) at it’s highest strength.

Simultaneously they expanded the Iraqi National Guard (ING). The ING was created in 1974 as a reservist force that operated in battalion-sized units. They manned specific installation inside Iraq and were deployed for garrison duty inside occupied Iran. Most of these units were withdrawn in 1981 when they performed unreliably in combat. They were subsequently reorganized, adding them to experienced cadres of regular army units to create new formations. For example the 14th Infantry Division was formed from remnants of the 60th Armored Brigade infused with miscellany ING battalions.

For the rearmament process the principle suppliers were the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Some high-tech equipment came from the USA and Britain but small arms, tanks, armored vehicles were principally of Eastern Bloc origin. Despite this influx of Soviet equipment, Iraqi divisions remained organized along the British model. Doctrine remained unchanged.

Iran Shifts:

On the other side, the IRIA, IRIAA, and the IRIAF were fully mobilized by 1982. Because of the lack of skilled commanders with higher ranks-all top generals were purged following the revolution-the Army tended to assign relatively large numbers of brigades, battalions, and support units to single divisions. For example, the 21st Mechanized Division (formed from the disbanded 1st Infantry Division) consisted of one armored and four infantry brigades, one field artillery, two air defense battalions, and one engineer battalion. However, many newly created units lacked manpower and equipment. A pre-revolution plan to expand the 88th Armored Brigade into a “full” 88th Armored Division was carried out but only received half of its “full” strength compliment of tanks and two thirds of it’s infantry before it was rushed to the front.

Perhaps the most important development in the middle years was the growth of a new player in the conflict and Iran’s internal politics. The IRGC had now grown past it’s status as a paramilitary force meant to safeguard the revolution and operated as a full militarized wing (much in the same vein as the Waffen-SS). Although numbering only 30,000 strong with no military experience at the start of the war, jealousy at the Army’s prestige in liberating Khuzestan and flush with lobbied funds and captured Iraqi equipment, the IRGC created serious military formation in 1982. By 1985 the IRGC would command 10 divisions (including two fully equipped armored divisions) and 10 independent brigades. They organized into six military branches under their command: Ground Forces, Air Force, Navy, Special Forces, the Quds Force(IRGC-GF), and the Basji Force. The latter large para-military organization supposedly could mobilize up to one million combatants, primarily as light infantry, though at their height only 100,000 were operating on the front at a time.

Arms supply was an issue. Iran’s revolutionary government had made both an enemy out of both superpowers at it’s birth. It’s primary supplies would be China and Syria, with the transactions being carried out through North Korea as a middleman. There was some (illegal) arms supply from the US and USSR as well (the superpowers supplied both belligerents in the war but favored Iraq overall. Henry Kissinger remarked, “it’s a shame they can’t both lose.” This sentiment was shared by his Soviet counterparts). As such, Iranian and Iraqi equipment was mirrored.

Big Pushes 1984–1987:

Iran continued ever larger offensives into Iraqi territory. While usually organized by joint HQs including officers from branches of the regular Iranian military and the IRGC, they saw an ever increasing involvement from the IRGC and Basji formations. The reasons for this were multiple: the regular military had exhausted its stocks of US and British made arms and needed to conserve assets; the IRGC continued on insisting on receiving priority in re-armament and continued to grow as as the dominant military force of the Islamic Republic of Iran; and finally, the government in Tehran insisted that that religious zeal can overcome any kind of obstacles, including a superior military. While Iran was increasingly isolated on the international scene and despite a UN-imposed arms embargo, Iraq continued to maintain close military ties to France, Soviet Union, China, Brazil and a number of other countries that provided large amounts of new arms. Iraq never experienced a shortage of arms.

Iraqi Trenches

Iran’s “Dawn Offensives” first targeted Basra but were repulsed. They then targeted the Howeizeh Marshes to cut off Basra from it’s lines of communication with Baghdad. The closest Iran came to victory was in February of 1986 when they launched a surprise attack on the Faw Peninsula and the northern sector near Kirkuk at the same time. The stress nearly broke the Iraqi command structure but lack of heavy equipment for Iran and copious gas use by the Iraqis stalled the Iranian attack.

In the course of these offensives the Iranians developed a series of tactics that enabled them to overcome even the heaviest Iraqi defenses. Contrary to the usual reports about “human wave attacks” the IRGC and Basji Units became experts in infiltration tactics. Even in the featureless terrain of western Khuzestan and south-eastern Iraq, they repeatedly managed to insert infantry units (in some cases, entire divisions ) among the Iraqi defenders, creating chaos before the main attack. Through careful recon by the IRIAF and ground patrols, they found weak points in Iraqi lines and planned operations accordingly. From 1985 onward, the Iraqis found no solution but the deployment of chemical weapons in response.

As Donald Zacher explains, “In order to appreciate the skill and effectiveness of the Iranian fighting force it is necessary to explain it in greater detail. Night attacks, which are always the most difficult and require the most detailed planning, staff work, rehearsal, training and leadership, were routine throughout this campaign. Units, which were frequently out of contact, acted with initiative and elan. For example, small detachments of infantry were trained to attack specific Iraqi positions, suppress the strong point to mask the armored penetration, and assure a breakthrough. Not only is the effectiveness, aggressiveness and skill of the army demonstrated by its victory in these difficult and complex night operations, but also in the high ratios of enemy to friendly dead.”

Iranian soldier in gas mask

Different Iranian and Iraqi Army units showed different levels of coherence. While ING units tended to collapse rapidly when attacked, they sometimes showed remarkable steadfastness on the level of the Republican Guards. Among the examples that stand out are the 104th Infantry Brigade which became famous during the Faw Campign of 1986. Despite suffering 50 percent losses-a rate that would render it combat ineffective by any standard-it refused to withdraw and continued the fight. The situation was similar on the other side. The 21st Infantry Division of the Iranian Army earned the nickname “junkies.” It repeatedly showed such courage and skill that the Iraqis misidentified it as an IRGC unit.

Furthermore it was not just the Basji units that earned the grudging respect of the Iraqis. A single T-55 MBT deployed by the 30th Armored Brigade IRGC managed to hold up counterattacks by several Iraqi brigades, for four days, during one of the Iraqi offensives in 1987. Continuously replenished by ammo and replacement crews brought in by APC, the tank was disabled only after it’s cannon barrel exploded from overheating.

Despite the heroics, in the final stages of the war, Iraqi material advantage proved insurmountable. Iranian morale and material support was exhausted by the repeated offensives and lost initiative. The combination of overwhelming firepower, chemical weapons, and increasing air power was too much for the Iranians to resist, especially as the prolonged front lines had made their positions vulnerable. The Tawakalna ala Allah Operations devastated the Iranian forces and the Iraqis began advancing into Iranian territory again. Iran accepted the UN ceasefire in July of 1988.

Post-war developments: Lessons learned and not learned

In the aftermath of the war both sides analyzed what went wrong but only one made significant organizational changes.

Iraq had learned (or perhaps relearned) the importance of depoliticizing military command and allowing for some meritocracy in the junior ranks. They gained some insights in to the recon, deception, and the deployment of chemical weapons. However, at the end of the war the Iraqi Army, including the Republican Guard, still had the same over-reliance on massed firepower and frontal assaults. They had become more adept at combined arms coordination, utilizing armor and infantry properly supported by artillery and air CAS but this was just a refined version of the same (ineffective) tactics they had used at the start.

One place that Saddam did have a pressing desire to change was Iraq’s reliance on the Syrian controlled oil pipelines that forced him into debt with the hated Gulf States. Syria had nearly brought the Iraqi economy to it’s knees in the early war by shutting this vital finance line. Saddam decided he needed access to more oil wealth and independent oil export lines that could not be turned off. In addition, he was indebted to the Gulf states in the tens of billions. Kuwait would be a two-birds-one-stone situation as the oil wealth and gold could be used to pay back the loans and grant greater access to the Persian Gulf. Following the deterioration of Kuwaiti relations Iraq invaded in what would become the Gulf War.

The resulting conflict exposed that the Iraqi Army had not absorbed their most pressing lessons and relied on the same ineffective combination of static defenses and brute force. It could not secure victory against an enemy when they possessed a distinct material advantage and they crumpled in record time against an advanced, professional military.

The Iranian military was politically hampered from the start of the war and was effectively crippled by the end of it. Although the Iranian Army has tried to make meaningful reforms it’s been politically sidelined in favor of the IRGC.
Much of the Army’s experienced officer cadre has been lost due to demobilization, emigration, or recruitment into the IRGC. In the few counter-insurgency campaigns fought near the Iranian borders with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan the Army has had minimal involvement making it difficult to analyze how much they have learned since the war.

The IRGC has become Iran’s de facto military force. It is responsible for internal security and Iranian power projection in the region. The ascendancy of the IRGC and the high cost of the war has shifted Iranian military priorities away from conventional large scale operations and towards asymmetric warfare adapted to local circumstances. They use proxies and small support units to inflict maximum damage with minimal cost throughout the region.

In response to threats from the Israeli Air Force (which they cannot match on a technological or training level) they developed and deploy large amounts of surface-to-surface missiles for retaliation strikes. These weapons are relatively cheap and easy to operate. They have reorganized their proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Houthis in Yemen, etc.) along similar lines.

Hamas rocket team. These low-cost, maximum pain tactics would be developed out of necessity during the Iran-Iraq War.

The IRGC is a competent force that has had great success in organizing “high-low” forces around the region. Most recently in Syria on behalf of the Assad government, where Iranian reorganization of the Syrian military and the deployment of some IRGC units turned the war to the government’s favor.

A large degree of that competency comes from it’s lessons in the Iran-Iraq War, most especially the emergence of “warriors”-commanders that proved themselves in battle. While publicly, these men are depicted as pious and deeply religious (perhaps they are) the leaders in question are deeply nationalistic, dedicated, aggressive, skilled improvisers, and highly competent organizers. However, this may be a double-edged sword. While those men have proven their worth in blood, recent events like the high profile slaying of Commander Qasem Soleimani, and leadership deaths from Covid seems to have shaken the IRGC. They have lost momentum and have not been able to replicate their recent success. It remains to be seen if this is an inherent weakness in their highly leadership driven system or this is just a speed bump for an organized institution with true long-term capacity.


“Strategic and Operational Implications of Iranian Military Operations in the Iran-Iraq War” -Donald H. Zacherl

“The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum” -Stephen C. PelletiEre

“Modern War” -Issue #48

“A History of Iraq”-Charles Tripp


Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store