17.03.23 Review

Dictator at War: Lessons from the Protracted Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s

As the Russian-Ukrainian war morphs into a war of attrition, analysts have been looking for analogues of such conflicts to understand the possible scenarios for the development of the conflict and the logic of a protracted war. The Iran-Iraq war was one of the longest wars of the 20th century: the eight-year conflict resulted in some 700,000 deaths and approximately $1 trillion in losses and barely reshaped the borders between the neighbouring countries. Saddam Hussein thrust the country into conflict after a decade of petrol-fuelled prosperity, which he used to bolster his personalist dictatorship. But, not even the enormous human and economic toll and lack of tangible results that the war brought could undermine Hussein's regime, instead consolidating it further.

Journalist Leonid Bershidsky, in his op-ed for Bloomberg, identifies similarities between Iraq's aggression against Iran and Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Saddam Hussein, who initiated the war, justified his actions as a desire to prevent the spread of the Islamic Revolution from Iran to the Shiite community in Iraq. This means that the war was justified as pre-emptive. Saddam loved to compare himself to other great historical figures, particularly the ancient Arab general Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, who defeated the Persians and Babylonians. Likewise, Vladimir Putin has been attempting to project his own historical role as the ‘return’ of the empire onto figures such as Peter the Great or Catherine the Great.

Hussein was banking on a blitzkrieg, and did not anticipate any significant resistance from the new post-revolutionary Iran, as he believed the Iranian army was unfit for war. The professional and ostensibly well-coordinated Iraqi army invaded Iran on a broad front and occupied many villages and towns. But Iraq was unable to eliminate Iranian military aviation, while Iranian popular militias and volunteers, inspired by the gains made by the Islamic Revolution, proved capable of resisting the professional Iraqi army. As the author of one of the most detailed monographs on the war has written, Iraqi generals were aware that their army was unprepared for such a confrontation, but they were hesitant to communicate this openly to the dictator. Hussein, for his part, personally meddled in the planning of military operations, much to the chagrin of Iraq's military commanders.

Like Vladimir Putin, Hussein conceived the war as a limited ‘military operation’ which would not disrupt the life of ordinary Iraqis in major cities, and as Bershidsky writes, he demanded that life in Baghdad should not look at all like the country was at war. This is also a core part of the domestic policy in today’s Russia, the goal of which is to ensure that broad segments of the population remain loyal to the regime. As the casualties mounted, Hussein purchased the loyalty of the citizens who had been directly affected by the war through the allocation of free cars, plots of land, and interest-free loans for property development. Much like today in Russia, where families of the fallen are being promised substantial payments, cars, and free groceries.

Murtaza Hussein, correspondent for The Intercept and national security expert, considers the experience of the Iran-Iraq war to be very relevant in our analyses of the conflict in Ukraine. Originally conceived as a small victorious campaign, it was an economic catastrophe for Iraq. Although Saddam launched it in large part to secure a better position in the Persian Gulf oil industry, Iraq lost a total of $340bn over the eight years of war, increasing its foreign debt by $110bn. Iran meanwhile lost about $645 billion.

Iran and Iraq GDP trends, 1970-2021, constant 2015 US dollars per capita

The journalist observes that during the eight years of the war, the sides would find themselves approaching an end to the conflict, then again would suddenly become embroiled in protracted positional and trench warfare. Saddam Hussein was not prepared to make concessions because he was unsure of what he could pass off as a victory in the war he had started. Iran, a victim of its neighbour's military aggression and a budding religious dictatorship, was not about to concede on territorial issues or lose its influence in the region.

Moreover, the protracted nature of the conflict was largely the result of inadequate self-assessment by both sides. For example, having defeated Iraq's initial invading faction and launched its own offensive, Iran's Islamic leaders hoped that Hussein's regime would promptly collapse. It took several more years of confrontation and a new Iraqi offensive for them to realise these hopes were in vain.

Today's Ukraine is nothing like the Islamist Iran of the 1980s, but both sides' overestimation of their own capabilities is a key factor in this protracted conflict, RAND Corporation experts noted in a recent report. Murtaza Hussein believes that there are currently no points or events in the Russian-Ukrainian war that could serve as a catalyst for the end of the conflict. Currently, neither side has sufficient potential to achieve a decisive military victory, while diplomatic tools are seen as a concession that nobody is currently prepared to make. Moreover, the further the war progresses, and the more crimes the Russian army commits, the less Ukraine is willing to forgive, and the lower the chances are that the conflict will end soon.

It is worth noting further similarities relating to the internal political aspects of the conflicts. Saddam Hussein plunged Iraq into this war after an extraordinarily successful decade for the country economically. These successes were facilitated primarily by the oil boom of the 1970s. But, in Iraq's domestic politics, this oil boom had predominantly benefited President Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakra and his main associate, Vice-President Saddam Hussein. By purchasing popular loyalty and eliminating all their opponents and relatively independent actors, they were able to form a sustainable personalist dictatorship with a consolidated and intimidated elite that feared repression. 

In 1979 Saddam Hussein ousted his patron and became the sole ruler of Iraq. The small victorious war was intended to substantially expand Iraq's oil production and establish it as the regional superpower, cementing the historical role of the country's new leader. Similarly, the resource-based Russian prosperity of the 2010s led to the eventual consolidation of power and the rallying of the nationalist elites around Vladimir Putin. This also culminated in plans for a victorious blitzkrieg that turned out to be a disaster for the country.

A further unfortunate paradox of the Iran-Iraq war is that its failures served to strengthen the dictatorial regime rather than weakened it. This proved true for both Iraq and Iran, with the young revolutionary Islamist regime using the war to consolidate its elites and people. A dictatorship can force the populace to bear the burden of enormous costs without complaint. At the end of the eight-year war, Saddam Hussein almost instantly began preparing for a new invasion: the invasion of Kuwait which he undertook in 1990. But even Iraq's defeat in the second war, delivered by an international coalition led by the US, did not bring about the downfall of his political regime. This, recalls Bershidsky, required the direct invasion of the US ground forces.

However, as is well known, history teaches us many things but it never repeats itself.