Gulf Wars Forever

Iran-Iraq War memento. Disabled T-72, 2004.

Iran’s geopolitical position justifies its significance, even without the importance of oil. Iran sits at the conjunction of the Asian and Arab world and is athwart vital petroleum trade routes.

A 500-mile radius of her borders, reachable by modern combat aircraft, includes virtually all of the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Oman, Kuwait, the smaller Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and ports.

In addition, Iran borders on Iraq, Turkey, Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and controls the Persian Gulf islands astride the traffic lanes for oil tankers. Should Iran achieve sufficient military power and motive, its impact would be enormous.

Terrain and the presence of resources are not relevant unless the policies of the powers in the region are taken into account. The region is of particular and acute interest to both the superpowers. Iran in high among Soviet extranational priorities and is an area of historical Russian strategic interest.

Premier Brezhnev listed the Persian Gulf as among the Soviet Union’s two highest extranational priorities. The Soviet Union has had, since 1921, a “treaty of friendship” which requires Iran to prevent “anti-Soviet” activities in Iran in exchange for a promise of non-intervention.

The USSR has supported separatist movements in Iran, is involved in the Tudeh (Masses) party. Additionally, the Soviet Union recently began a program designed to increase her power projection into the region.

Additionally, Iran is specifically covered by the Carter doctrine, which established the region as an area of vital US interests. It is an area of specific contingency operations by US CENTCOM (US Central Command) and USREDCOM (US Readiness Command.) The US has responded to threats to close the Gulf by military reinforcement and a promise to keep the Gulf open and free to traffic.

Finally, the current government in Iran is largely unaffected by attempts to modify its foreign policy. Its open hostility to the “Great Satan” (the US) and the “Lesser Satan” (the USSR) has meant that it owes no allegiance to either superpower.

Further its position as an energy supplier gives it more economic flexibility than its neighbours and allows it relative economic independence. Iran’s support of terrorism and refusal to act in concert with other regional nations has further isolated it politically. In sum, its foreign policy, regionally and globally, is relatively encumbered and unpredictable.

The danger is that the Persian Gulf region. which is vital to both the superpowers, is in danger of domination by a hostile nation that is largely beyond their influence.

The Iran-Iraq War is significant for policy and professional reasons. First, the strong Iranian resistance and subsequent stunning successes were completely unexpected, as was earlier related. Additionally, the tactical, operational, and strategic aspects are not well known or understood. Until Iranian military power and the Iran-Iraq War is more adequately understood, reliable estimates are unachievable. As a result, policy regarding Iran is likely to be ineffective.

Second, the war is, or ought to be, of intense professional interest. It is a major, modern, sustained mid-to-high intensity conflict which has included repetitive, sequential, multi-division operations, and tactical innovation. It included the heavy use of chemical weapons and strategic rockets, and conventional strikes on nuclear targets.

Further, the lessons of the war are untainted by superpower logistical sponsorship, unlike the Arab-Israeli wars, and is a better harbinger of future conflicts of this type. Additionally, it allows an insight into the Iranian and Islamic military tradition, the Islamic revolution and the Iranian military leader.

Given Iran’s potential as an aggressive, militant, and well-resourced force, a real understanding of the war is essential. A new army, and a new leadership, born in revolution, fired by religious zeal, and tempered by war, is rising. The forces that have shaped and are shaping this potential military power in one of the most volatile and vital areas of superpower interest are of global importance.

Formed in the revolution and forged on the battlefield, the Iranian army developed a new legitimacy and professional ethic, outside of personal loyalties and political involvement, but founded in duty to Allah and the defence of Iran. The army became in law and in fact the genuine defender of the people and servant of the government.

The Iranian army is not only stronger and more resilient than its predecessors, it is arguably more powerful than its Persian Gulf neighbours. It has beaten back a determined and well-equipped invader and has since carried the war into Iraqi territory over strong enemy opposition, without a reliable ally or logistical support, and with very limited airpower or high-technology assets.

This occurred while the quality and quantity of Iran’s equipment was eroding. Iran did so when Iraq had both monetary and manpower support from the other Arab nations, overwhelming air superiority, and reliable logistical support. Iran was able to do so because the army was fundamentally strengthened by the Islamic revolution.

After six years of the most brutal warfare since World War I, Iran shows no sign of flagging in its resolve and continues to prosecute the war. Iran gained the initiative and has not relinquished it since the first months of the war. It has, in fact, just recently renewed the offensive.

In the early months of 1986, Iran successfully attacked in two areas; the strategically vital Al-Faw peninsula, and in Kurdistan. At the time of this writing (April 1986), the front has again stabilised, apparently at
Iran’s choice, since Iraq appears unable to make any substantial reduction in the Iranian gains.

The Regional Impact of the War

The Iran-Iraq War has had a long term stabilising effect on the region. As a direct result of the Islamic revolution and the war, the Persian Gulf was moved to the forefront of US strategic interests. Additionally, the war has also accelerated the development of regional collective security, thereby stabilising the Gulf internally.

Through the Gulf Cooperation Council (begun in response to the war and to fears of the destabilising effect of the Islamic revolution), the nations of the Gulf have now conducted joint defence exercises and other collective security actions. They have the apparent intent of countering Iran and keeping the superpowers out of the Gulf. These developments would not have occurred without the Iran-Iran war as a unifying focus.

Finally, it has also caused a diffusion of the oil outlets in the region, reducing the vulnerability of the Gulf’s oil LOC’s to interdiction. The war has caused Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to build new oil pipelines from the oil fields to ports on the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and below the Straits of Hormuz; all outside the Gulf.

It has also made defence of the oil ports inside the Gulf of vital importance in the planning new facilities and the defence and restructuring old ones. This construction is difficult and expensive at a time when oil revenues are falling, and would not have taken place without the manifest threat of war.

This is likely to have a long term stabilizing effect on the export of oil from the region; far more than would have occurred without the Iran-Iraq War.

On the other hand, the end of the war will likely destabilise the region. When the war ends, the Iranian Army, which is committed to the extension of the revolution, trained in battle, and supported by a largely unencumbered policy of state terrorism, will be free to meddle wherever it chooses.

As was noted, Khomeini can carry a grudge a long time and is unlikely to forget that the Persian Gulf nations, without exception, supported Iraq. Should the war end without a change in Iranian policies, the Iranian Armed Forces, ideologically committed and hardened to war, could have a destabilising effect on the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and in other areas of Iranian interest.

To this must be added the influence of Iranian threats and the perception of power outside of direct military action. The Gulf nations have learned Iran is an implacable, determined enemy. Post-war Iranian threats will have tremendous credibility and resultant influence on the Gulf States.

Adapted from Strategic and Operational Implications of Iranian Military Operations in the Iran-Iraq War, by Donald H. Zacherl. Photograph courtesy of Hamed Saber. Published under a Creative Commons license.