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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V29 N1 (Jan - Mar 2003) > The Iran ­ Iraq (1980 ­ 88) War ­ An Examination of War Termination Theories

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The Iran ­ Iraq
(1980 ­ 88) War
­ An Examination of War Termination Theories

by MAJ Dexter Teo Kian Hwee


The Iran-Iraq War started on 22 September 1980. Initially, most countries treated this war as nothing more than border skirmishes between two neighbouring countries and were also quick to label Iran as the aggressor then (not surprising after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979). After eight long years of fighting, the war finally ended when both Iraq and Iran accepted UN Resolution 598 in August 1988. This ended the eight-year Gulf War, the longest and bloodiest conflict between two Third World states in the post-1945 era. Iraq was eventually criticised for breaching international security and peace and was also accused of aggression against Iran.1

From border skirmishes to the use of chemical weapons, the involvement of Superpowers and the enormous loss of resources, this Iran-Iraq war was terminated without any clear winner and loser. So why did the war stop? This paper will examine some key events or opportunities during the war period which Iraq or Iran could have used to end the war earlier. Thereafter the paper will also discuss why the war did not end earlier despite the opportunities, before we proceed to discuss the War Termination Theories.

Definition of Terms

The term "termination of war", in simple terms, refers to the end of fighting. In general, there are four common ways of terminating a war and they are: ceasefire or suspension of arms, armistice, capitulation, and unconditional surrender. While there were opportunities for this Iraq-Iran War to end earlier, it did not happen.

Key Events that Might Have Terminated the War Earlier

In the following paragraphs, we will discuss three significant events or opportunities that might have allowed Iran or Iraq to seek to an early end to the war.

First, both Iran and Iraq agreed to a ceasefire agreement on attacks on civilian targets on 18 February 1984. But neither Iran nor Iraq used this agreement to extend the ceasefire to permanently terminating the war. Instead, there was an escalation of war in February ­ May 1984, when Iraq introduced and made extensive use of chemical weapons and attacked Iranian oil export facilities in Kharg Island and tankers to temporarily cut much of Iran's oil exports. Iraq then immediately sought a ceasefire. However, it was not surprising that Iran refused and vowed to fight back despite the further economic setback. Iran retaliated by attacking ships and tankers in the Southern Gulf waters. With this, all earlier agreed ceasefires ceased.

Next, the crash in oil prices severely limited the cash which Iran required for essential military and civilian needs in the winter of 1985-86. The situation was so severe that the Islamic Republic considered it prudent to cease fighting. At this point in time, it was generally believed that the new Iranian system had become so established that it could absorb a dramatic reversal of war policy. Overall, the conflict had provided Khomeini with an opportunity to consolidate the Islamic Revolution, but he also was quick to realise that ordinary Iranians were becoming war-weary. He realised that imposing further economic austerity on the people, combined with a measure of coercion to prosecute the war effectively would erode the mass base that his regime enjoyed. With this, he reckoned that a stage had been reached when continuing hostilities would damage the revolution rather than strengthen it.2 He therefore accepted a truce. However, the truce did not last long and the "elusive" termination of this war never had a chance at all. Having emerged from the war more united and cohesive than before, Iraq raided Kharg Island again in September ­ October 1986 and attacked Iran's Larak oil terminal in November 1986 to temporarily cut Iran's oil export again. Now, despite the further economic setback, Iran was determined to fight back, and before long, the "war of cities" resumed.3

Finally, there were the battles at Iraq's Fao Peninsula. The surprise attack on Fao by Iranian troops in February 1986 and the successful repulsion of Iraqi counter-attacks marked one of the major turning points in the war. Fao raised serious doubts in the region, as well as in Moscow and Washington, about Iraq's ability to use its qualitative military superiority effectively. Besides having a population three times more than Iraq, the less well-equipped Iranian forces also appeared to be much more highly motivated than those of Iraq. The breakthrough at Fao only seemed to confirm that an Iranian victory was possible and was a matter of time. However, Iran's subsequent attacks did not make much headway after Fao, and in April 1988, the Iranian forces were in turn driven out of Fao. Until then, Iraq had always deliberately sought to avoid high casualty rates for fear of undermining the already tepid popular support for the war.4 But in Fao in 1988, the Ba'th regime signalled the change in its commitment and Iraq seemed ready and committed to continue this war further.

Why the War Did Not End Earlier

Having noted that there were opportunities for the war to end earlier, one might wonder why it did not happen then. In reality, there were other factors that might have prolonged the war intentionally or unintentionally. These factors included achieving the war aims, the behaviour of the state leaders during the period, the support of the populace and the military capabilities then and, finally, the external factors. We shall now examine and discuss these factors accordingly.

First, neither Iran nor Iraq was close to achieving their war aims during the eight-year war. Iraq's war aim was simply to destabilise and overthrow the Iranian regime through the invasion,5 while Iran's war aim was to destroy the Iraqi war machine and the removal of the Ba'th regime in Baghdad with the hope that this war would become a prime instrument for exporting the Islamic revolution.6 During the war, none of the countries had achieved decisive victory that would threaten the other country to surrender or agreed to a peace settlement. For example, none of the countries had captured or gone as far as to threaten the capitals Baghdad or Tehran itself. All the fighting only happened around the border regions. In fact, if the war aims were not achieved, it would be disastrous for either country's leaders to answer to their long-suffering populace for ending the war.

Second, the continued in-power of the two most strong-headed and aggressive leaders Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran would imply that to achieve peace was never going to be easy. To these two leaders, anything short of victory would be unimaginable and tantamount to political suicide. From the start of the war till the end in 1988, these two leaders remained in power. If it was not for other reasons, which we would discuss later, the war might have continued for many more years.

Next, there was the involvement of the superpowers in the Gulf from the onset. While none of the superpowers had actually sent any troops to participate in this war, they had nevertheless exerted a significant influence on the course of the conflict. Although both the United States and the Soviet Union had different agendas, they had nevertheless provided financial support, necessary weapons and war materials to Iraq at critical times. For the United States, apart from its main reason being its hostility towards the Islamic Revolution in Iran, supporting Iraq in the war meant that the United States and its Gulf allies had also succeeded in breaching the special relationship between Baghdad and Moscow.7 As for the Soviet Union, ensuring that Iran would not win the war would ensure that Iran's Islamic influence and the spread of Muslim fundamentalism would not reach the southern Soviet republics. With these external factors, immediate ceasefire was not going to be any sooner.

The War Finally Ended

This war is known to be a bloody and an expensive conflict. Towards the end of the war, both Iran and Iraq were feeling the effects of this prolonged war. When the war eventually ended in August 1988, both countries had suffered the following. On the number of casualties, it was estimated that the total war dead was 262 000 Iranians and 105 000 Iraqis. With another 700 000 injured, this summed up to a total of over one million casualties for the two countries.8 On the direct monetary costs, Iraq spent between US$74-US$91 billion on the conduct of the war and another £41.94 billion on military imports, whereas Iran's costs were US$94-US$112 billion and £11.26 billion respectively. As for the indirect cost due to the loss of income from oil and agricultural produce, it was estimated that the sums were US$561 billion and US$627 billion for Iraq and Iran respectively.

In mid-1987, there were several indications that the Iranian leaders were at least reassessing their approach to the war. First, Iran's willingness to tolerate the superpowers' decision to escort Kuwaiti shipping suggested that Iran somehow welcomed the diversion in a sideshow of the war rather than concentrate on the serious prosecution of the war on land. Second, Iran's unwillingness to reject the Security Council Resolution of July 1987 outright but sought modifications was also indicative of a change in attitude. Third, Iran's still ambiguous war aims had nonetheless been modified over previous months; the demand for the removal of Saddam Hussein still stood, but the insistence on the removal of the Ba'th regime, reparations, and the installation of an Islamic republic had disappeared. And finally, the stream of volunteers for the front had dwindled and Iran's leaders, notably Rafsanjani, had begun to talk publicly in mid-1987 of terminating the war unless it began to interfere with the political administration of its society.9 Eventually, two sets of events catalysed Iran into the decision to seek a quick ceasefire in mid-1988; first, Iraqi's intensive use of long-range missiles on Iranian cities, and chemical weapons especially on 28 March 1988 when 5 000 Iranians were killed in Halabja; and second, a change in the balance of power on the ground particularly in the loss of Fao to Iraq in April 1988 which shattered the morale of Iranian forces.

Also, towards the end of the war, Iran's vast demographic advantage of 3:1 was not much in evidence at the battlefield. While Iraq was able to increase its manpower by some 150 000 men and expand and reorganise its forces from 30 to 39 infantry divisions between 1986 and 1988, Iran's manpower, on the other hand, had fallen by 100 000 men in the same period. A declining pool of volunteers in Iran resulted in greater reliance on conscripts, but they could not match the former in zeal. Coupled with difficulties in getting logistical support, ceasefire seemed like a possible option to Iran now, especially after losing the psychological belief that its mass manpower superiority could fight an attrition war.

Since June 1982, Iraq had declared truces and ceasefires a few times, and on occasions unilaterally, hoping to end the war early. These happened mainly after realising that they were not going to achieve the expected swift victory, and Iraq would face serious economic problems should the war prolong, something which they had not anticipated.10 Finally in early 1988, Iraqi sought to end the war through an escalation of war effort. To achieve this, the Iraqi used chemical weapons on Halabja, recaptured the Fao peninsula and drove the Iranian forces out of Majnoon islands. Suddenly the Iraqis seemed "alive and rejuvenated" to continue the war effort when the Iranians seemed to have lost their initial zest. And when Iran accepted the UN Resolution 598 in July 1988, Iraq readily agreed to the ceasefire and abided to the resolution accordingly.

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the UN Security Council (UNSC) had always wanted this war to terminate. In particular the GCC, if it had its way, would never have allowed this war to happen in the first place. Oil exportation through the Gulf faced too much risk when the two "superpowers" of Middle East locked horns. The answer of the GCC states seemed to be that Iraq must be pressed towards compromise while Iran must be reintegrated into the region. To achieve this, GCC would use all means including financing any war damage claims by both Iran and Iraq, in order to ensure termination of the war. This offer provided both Iran and Iraq good "excuses" to end the war without having to admit defeat and yet have the money to reconstruct their countries.11

Having discussed the events that might have ended the war earlier and the eventual end of the war, we will now examine the four termination of war theories vis-à-vis the eventual end of the war.

Theory on Cost Benefit Explanations

This theory states that the warring countries will only terminate a war when their leaders calculate that the costs of continuing exceed the value of their war aims.

Both Iran and Iraq had suffered enormously in terms of casualties and monetarily. As discussed earlier, this war was known to be a most bloody and expensive war. Both countries had a total of over one million casualties12 and monetary wise, the eight-year war had cost both Iraq and Iran in excess of US$700 billion each. It was definitely a very high price to pay in trying to achieve one's war aim.

Iraq's war aim was simply to destabilise and overthrow the Iranian regime through the invasion.13 However, instead of achieving victory swiftly as expected, Iraq was dragged into a prolonged war with Iran. One might say that Iraq had "forsaken" its war aim since June 1982 when it first declared its unilateral withdrawal from Iranian territory. Alas, the war continued for eight long years during which Iraq faced serious economic problems that had not been anticipated. Finally in 1988, Iraq hoped that through escalation of its war effort, it could force Iran to negotiate an end to the war. On this count, one might say that the main motivation for Iraq to seek a quick end to this war was the high cost associated with it.

As for Iran, although its announced war aim was to destroy the Iraqi war machine and the removal of the Ba'th regime in Baghdad, it had also always hoped to use this war as a prime instrument to exporting the revolution.14 However, Iran's ill-equipped military was always going to face much difficulty against the formidable military forces of Iraq. With the war prolonged beyond anyone's expectation, Iran's economy was largely devastated and the civilian population had suffered and were severely exhausted. As the war went on, the gap between Iran's military needs and its political aims widened. Eventually, Khomeini realised that the war had reached a stage that continuing hostilities would damage the revolution rather than strengthen it. Khomeini had therefore reckoned that the cost in continuing the war had far exceeded the benefit in achieving its war aim.

Winners and Losers Theory

This theory postulates that war ends when one state wins the war and the other state is defeated, i.e. there is a clear-cut victor and loser. In this instance, the loser is defeated and no longer poses a military threat as its war fighting capabilities are destroyed.

This war did not weaken the Iraq military. Iraq had in fact emerged from the eight-year conflict a far stronger power: its ground forces grew from 200 000 troops (12 divisions employing 2 750 tanks) in 1980 to some 955 000 troops (50 divisions and 6 000 tanks) in 1988. The Iraqi Air Force had also been increased during the same period from 322 fighting aircraft to 500. This formidable force was far better equipped than in 1980 and had also acquired substantial operational experience.15

As for Iran, its ground forces growth was "caught up" by the Iraqis, despite its superior manpower mass. Although Iran had an eventual strength of one million in 1988 as compared to 240 000 in 1980, it had suffered heavy losses of tanks and combat aircraft. During the war, it lost 600 tanks and 320 aircraft. Iran's final figures stood at 1 150 tanks and 118 aircraft accordingly.16 Despite the losses, Iran had however not lost its overall military capabilities and threatened to continue the war with Iraq if necessary. For the stoical populace of the Islamic republic, hardship and other privations such as fuel rationing and electricity cuts were tolerable in the cause of victory, not otherwise.

Hence with both countries still capable of continuing the war if required, the Winners and Losers Theory did not explain the end of Iran-Iraq War as expected.

Hawks and Doves Theory

In this theory, the proposition explains that if the "hawkish" fraction, who started the war, is replaced by the "dovish" fraction, the "dovish" fraction will seek to terminate the war. And it is generally believed that military leaders are concerned with victory and thus more prone to use force than the civilian leaders. For the Iran-Iraq War, we will attempt to identify the hard-line and the "moderate" group who might affect Iranian policy only, since Iraq did not have any change in its political leaders in this period.17

When Mohammad Ali Khomeini took over the Iranian Presidency in August 1981, the change in leadership did not end the war there and then. On the contrary, the Iranians were even more determined to fight in view of Khomeini's perceived spiritual leadership. The specific character of Khomeini's Islamic Revolution constituted a powerful moral asset in repelling the Iraqi attack.18 Even till the day that Iran accepted the ceasefire in the war, Khomeini had warned the regions' governments that, "All of you be partners in the adventurism and crimes created by the USA. We have not yet engaged in any action that would engulf the entire region in blood and fire, making it totally unstable. You can be sure that you will be the losers in this new chapter."19 Clearly, Khomeini was a "hawkish" leader and with him assuming power in Iran then, the Iran-Iraq War was not going to end any sooner. Hence it is not necessarily true that a civilian leader is less prone to use military force to resolve conflicts.

On 3 July 1988, a fortnight before accepting a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, the powerful speaker of parliament (since July 1980) and military Commander-in-Chief (since Jun 1988) Hashemi Rafsanjani said that Iran's new priority was to break out of international isolation. He had long believed that the major casualty of this war had been the creditability of the Islamic Republic among its own rank and file. He believed that the longer the war prolonged, the more Iran could no longer effectively call upon its populace for crusades and sacrifices. It was for this reason that Rafsanjani had indulged in pre-emptive self-criticism of past policies long before the final ceasefire call in 1988.20 As a "dovish" leader, Rafsanjani had taken a calculated but avoidable risk in persuading the "hawkish" Khomeini to accept the ceasefire.

In this Iran-Iraq War, there was no classic case of a "dovish" leader taking over from a "hawkish" leader in both countries to "facilitate" the termination of this war. We had however witnessed a "dovish" leader trying to end the war earlier although this took him a few years to achieve. In this respect, this theory did not explain the end of this war satisfactorily.

Second Order Change Theory

This theory states that when leaders admit to themselves that the future consequences of their war course threaten other values which they hold dear, they will decide to seek an end to the war.21 In essence, these leaders have undergone a psychological process, which forces them to see the problem from a higher or second order paradigm.

During this war, there was no clear incident to show that the Iranian and Iraqi leaders had a paradigm shift in their values, such as Japan's decision to surrender after the atomic bombs in World War II. The closest this war had in term of a dramatic policy change among the leaders was that of the Iranian spiritual leader, Khomeini's decision to end the war eventually.

In the initial years, economic hardship and other privations such as fuel rationing and electricity cuts were tolerable by the stoical populace of the Islamic Republic only in the cause of victory and not otherwise. Ending the war without achieving the war aim was unthinkable at that point in time. However, by 1988, there was little optimism about this goal. There were indicators that Iran's soldiers were unwilling and unable to continue the fight, and had lost a string of military battles in Fao, Shalamcheh, Mehran and Majnoon. Coupled with a sense of isolation and confrontation not only with Iraq but also with the whole world, this only hastened Iran's decision to end the war then.22 Finally in July 1988, realising that Iran was not going to win the war, and continuing hostilities would damage the revolution rather than strengthen it, Khomeini decided to end the war. However to end the war without admitting defeat, Khomeini only accepted the ceasefire after changing the war slogan from "exporting the revolution" to that of "saving the revolution". With this change, Khomeini effectively prepared his people for the ceasefire and avoiding repercussions from his stoical populace.

In this respect, the Second Order Change theory failed to explain the termination of this war, as none of the Iranian and Iraqi leaders had undergone any psychological process that forced them to see the problem from a higher or second order paradigm. In reality, Khomeini's change of policy was more likely an attempt to "save" himself from the repercussions of ending the war without victory.


To Iran, the war was the main means of rallying popular support behind the regime. The sudden announcement by Tehran that it was accepting the ceasefire was greeted with astonishment in the outside world but a resigned bewilderment within Iran. In contrast to Iran's subdued reaction to the ceasefire, Iraq loudly praised this development. The Theory of Cost Benefit had explained the termination of this Iran-Iraq War best. After all, the persistence of the war for nearly a decade despite its exorbitant costs and against tremendous odds could hardly be considered a demonstration of moderation. The prolonged and painful process of disillusionment undergone by the Iranian society and its political system during these demanding years eventually culminated in the ceasefire in the summer of 1988.23

This was submitted as a Commandant's Research Paper during the 33rd Command and Staff Course.


1 Farhang Rajee, Iranian Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), p. 3.

2 Dilip Hiro, The longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict, (London: Grafton Books, 1989), p. 259.

3 Ibid., p. 264-265.

4 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 16.

5 Ibid., p. 2.

6 Dilip Hiro, The longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict, (London: Grafton Books, 1989), p. 264-265.

7 Ibid., p. 265.

8 Ibid., p. 250.

9 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 20.

10 John Bulloch, The Gulf War: Its Origins, History and Consequences, (London: Methuen, 1989), p. 169.

11 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 130-132.

12 Dilip Hiro, The longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict, (London: Grafton Books, 1989), p. 250.

13 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 2.

14 Dilip Hiro, The longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict, (London: Grafton Books, 1989), p. 264-265.

15 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 10.

16 Hanns Maull, The Gulf War: Regional and International Dimensions, (London: Pinter, 1989), p. 86.

17 Joseph A Engelbregcht Jr, "War Termination: Why does a state decide to stop fighting?", PhD Thesis, Columbia University, (Ann Arbour: UMI Dissertation Services, 1993), p. 71-74.

18 Hanns Maull, The Gulf War: Regional and International Dimensions, (London: Pinter, 1989), p. 67.

19 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 130.

20 Hanns Maull, The Gulf War: Regional and International Dimensions, (London: Pinter, 1989), p. 15.

21 Joseph A Engelbregcht Jr, "War Termination: Why does a state decide to stop fighting?", PhD Thesis, Columbia University, (Ann Arbour: UMI Dissertation Services, 1993), p. 75-76.

22 Efraim Karsh, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989), p. 23.

23 Ibid., p. 2.


Bulloch, John, The Gulf War: Its Origins, History and Consequences, (London: Methuen, 1989).

Creighton, John, Oil On Troubled Waters: Gulf Wars, 1980-91, (London: Echoes, 1992).

Hiro, Dilip, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Conflict, (London: Grafton Books, 1989).

Karsh, Efraim, The Iran-Iraq War: A Military Analysis, Adelphi Papers 220, Spring 1987, (London: IISS, 1987).

Karsh, Efraim, The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications, (London: MacMillan Press, 1989).

Maull, Hanns, The Gulf War: Regional and International Dimensions, (London: Pinter, 1989).

Rajee, Farhang, Iranian Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997).

Engelbregcht Jr, Joseph A, War Termination: "Why does a state decide to stop fighting?", Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University, (Ann Arbour: UMI Dissertation Services, 1993).

Ikle, Fred Charles, Every War Must End, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

MAJ Teo Kian Hwee Dexter is currently a Planning Officer in G3 Army. An Field Engineer Officer by vocation, he previously held the appointments of a Section Head in HQ Singapore Combat Engineers (SCE) and S3 of a SCE Battalion. He attended the 2nd Defence Technology & Systems Course and 33rd Command and Staff Course in 2002. MAJ Teo obtained a BSc (Information System and Technology) from NUS in 1992.

Last updated: 03-Jul-2006






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