The Iran-Iraq War and the Lessons for Ukraine
Wars are much like Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s unhappy families. They are each wars in their own way. Historical comparisons can be simplistic and lead to false assumptions resulting from myopic thinking. There is no seamlessly transferrable model, but it would be foolish to discard history entirely. If probed carefully, history raises important questions for policymakers about past failures and can help them to successfully manage present or future crises. Analogies and applied history can be powerful tools in contemporary strategy formulation and can prevent repeated policy mistakes.
In the 11 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, many have compared the conflict to historical wars to gain insight on how to effectively manage the current crisis. Trench warfare in Ukraine inspired comparisons to World War I, and some have also cited the Korean War, the Napoleonic Wars, and World War II as analogous. However, there is a lesser-mentioned conflict that could provide lessons on both the tactical and strategic levels: the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, a hugely destructive conflict that led to an estimated one million deaths, extensive use of chemical weapons, and the destabilization of the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq War shares several characteristics with the conflict in Ukraine, and a deeper understanding of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of his neighbor and the international response to it could help policymakers address Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault.
A Tale of Two Conflicts
There is a clear parallel between the early stages of these two conflicts on the ground: Both were defined by quick offensives and counteroffensives to capture land. Iraq initially captured swathes of territory up and down its border with Iran in 1980, taking locations such as Marivan and Mehran and almost reaching Ahwaz over 50 miles into Iran in the first days of combat. Yet Iranian defenses strengthened in the first months of 1981 and were pushing back Iraqi offensives by March of the following year. After Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, they also carried out swift advances, reaching almost as far as Kyiv within a few days. However, like Saddam Hussein’s forces, Putin’s army faced Ukrainian counteroffensives by September and October. After the preliminary stages of both conflicts, combat shifted to a more static, attritional style with an emphasis on trench warfare.
The Iran-Iraq War would become characterized by long lines of trenches, barbed wire, and heavy use of artillery, at the time drawing comparisons to World War I. In 2022, both Ukraine and Russia have similarly built up vast networks of trenches stretching across the battlefront in the south and east of Ukraine, with artillery favored over largely impotent tanks. Iraqi and Iranian missile attacks on civilians across the two countries in the “War of the Cities,” as well as the targeting of oil exports in the Strait of Hormuz during the “Tanker War,” are also of reminiscent the current crisis. Russia has attempted to demoralize Ukrainian citizens by shelling cities and towns and disable the nation’s capabilities through targeted attacks on its energy infrastructure.
The two conflicts also possess similarities on a broader geo-strategic level. Both conflicts were hugely significant to the wider international landscape of their times and were key flash points monitored closely by third-party nations. States on both sides of the Cold War divide became involved in the conflict in the 1980s, and many countries sent arms to either Iran and Iraq — or both, as in the case of the United States and the United Kingdom. The current war in Eastern Europe is similarly at the top of the world’s foreign policy agenda. Ukraine has seen large amounts of support from a variety of sources, as Western states have been keen to support their defense against the Russian incursion. Russia has seen lower levels of military and political assistance, mostly from Iran, and support from its international partners has started to wane. The knock-on effects of both wars in terms of the global economy and energy industry are also comparable. Both conflicts led to soaring energy prices and other economic effects felt around the world.
Like the Iran-Iraq War, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine features states fighting over historically significant borders and claims to locations that are central to ideas of national identity. While Putin craves the might of the former Soviet Union and insists that Ukraine has no right to statehood outside of Russia, Iran and Iraq fought over ground that was meaningful to both regimes for national or religious reasons. The Iranian Khuzestan province was crucial to Saddam Hussein because of its large Arab population, while the then-newly established Iranian regime similarly coveted Shiite Islamic holy sites in Iraq, such as Najaf and Karbala. Iran and Iraq’s border disputes had previously played a role in tense relations from before World War I, brewing over into the Shatt al-Arab dispute and the resulting 1975 Algiers Agreement.
Of course, one must consider the limitations of drawing an analogy between the two wars. Technological advancements and the importance of cyber capabilities to the modern battlefield must be considered in any applied military history. Even if large-scale Russian cyber attacks have yet to be effective, technology such as Starlink satellites and drones have been critical to Ukraine’s resistance. Technology has also driven the flourishing of open-source intelligence. The Iraqi and Iranian usage of fighter jets during the war in the Middle East likewise does not have an analogy to the war in Ukraine, either, where neither side has yet gained aerial superiority. Geographical, sociocultural, and political dissimilarities are also prevalent; such is the case when comparing most conflicts. However, because of the parallels between the two wars, it is important to interrogate the policy decisions made during the conflict in the 1980s to seek lessons that could apply to the current crisis.
Patience and Preparation
On a tactical level, the errors of the Iran-Iraq War show the need for smart offensive planning and the dangers that can result from impatience and lack of preparation. After the initial Iraqi invasion was pushed back, Iran launched its own advances, often without the necessary manpower or supplies. These offensives resulted in little tactical gain and had to be repeated multiple times. The impotence of these human wave attacks is unintentionally captured by the way in which they were named: operations like Karbala quickly became Karbala-1, Karbala-2, Karbala-3, and so on. Iraq replicated similar mistakes, launching disastrous, poorly planned and rushed offensives at locations like Majnoon Island and Mehran.
Conversely, Ukraine has so far experienced success with their offensives in the east and around Kherson. Attempts to retake land have been patient and effective. However, to push on unprepared without the required weaponry for future advances, as happened with the many ill-fated Iranian and Iraqi offensives, would be rash. Even with the newly confirmed supply of tanks from the West, Ukraine’s operational capabilities must be carefully assessed. The waves of failed assaults in the Middle East not only cost both sides scores of troops but, more crucially, broke offensive lines and allowed each party to recapture significant land in the aftermath of attacks. Russia could similarly regain a foothold as a result of a poorly planned, failed Ukrainian offensive. Even in the face of a barrage of civilian-targeted attacks, Ukraine will likely find that patience is a virtue.
The Long Haul
A second important lesson comes from the protracted nature of the Iran-Iraq War and the conflict’s eventual slide into a long and bloody stalemate. After the first year of conflict, the pace of fighting slowed until the war finally ceased almost eight years later. It would become one of the longest conventional wars in the 20th century. Though we are less than a year into the conflict in Ukraine, Russia’s own failed invasion, Ukraine’s defense, and the slower pace the war has now taken in the winter months could indicate that this conflict is headed in a similar direction. Though some hoped that the end was in sight when Ukraine retook Kherson, an expected Russian spring offensive that could move around 300,000 new recruits into Ukraine and the recent capture of Soledar seem to indicate the war could continue for years to come.
If the aim is to see Ukraine returned to its pre-invasion borders, policymakers should understand that this war could be lengthy and therefore consider the capacity for extended Western assistance and the political appetite for continued support. Rigorous, fully funded, and long-term contingency plans should be able to deliver military backing and humanitarian aid for as long as necessary. Support should also include help with rebuilding not only of demolished cities and towns but also with the severely weakened Ukrainian economy. The feared “Ukraine fatigue” predicted to dwindle away support has not necessarily materialized yet, but leaders must ensure their governments and populations are prepared to aid Ukraine for the long term, even in the face of domestic economic challenges.
Coherent, Consistent, Clear-sighted
Policymakers should also ensure that such plans include a nuanced vision that prioritizes multilateral unity between allies and remains clear-sighted about the consequences of engaging in Eastern Europe. Western policy towards the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s serves as a case study on how not to manage crises. The response was muddled at best. NATO members such as France and Italy supported Iraq, while the United Kingdom and United States, as mentioned, supplied arms and parts to both sides. The transatlantic partners did throw more considerable support behind Iraq in the latter stages of the conflict but then went to war with the country twice in the following two decades. The United States and the United Kingdom acquired few strategic gains in the Middle East during the 1980s and only damaged their long-term interests.
While NATO strategy in Ukraine is unlikely to become this incoherent, political leaders must ensure that their policy remains collectively consistent, assertive, and rational. The United Kingdom has maintained strong support for Ukraine despite two changes of prime minister since September, while the United States under President Joe Biden has provided almost $25 billion worth of support despite growing Republican dissent. However, unity between other NATO members has not been as steadfast. Germany’s support has been hesitant despite promises that Zeitenwende would see increased military spending, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a Putin-friendly thorn in Europe’s side, and Turkey’s role has flip-flopped between Russia appeaser and useful interlocutor.
Some recent developments have hinted at harmony, however. France’s decision to send armored vehicles appears to have impelled Britain to send a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks and around 30 self-propelled howitzers, while a host of other European countries also pledged further assistance. Even tentative Germany under Chancellor Olaf Scholz has finally agreed to send Leopard 2 tanks alongside the American commitment of M1 Abrams. There are still legitimate concerns over the possibility of supplies falling into the wrong hands and the blowback that these moves could entail, but NATO should ensure that their efforts continue to be cohesive if the bloc is to avoid another strategic mishap. History shows that inconsistency between allies would not only be costly to Ukraine but also for NATO itself.
The Gravest Danger
A comparison that cannot yet be made between the two conflicts concerns the use of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein’s considerable use of mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin and tabun against Iranian forces has not been replicated in combat since. While Russia is yet to launch a strike with weapons of mass destruction, the threat of either a tactical or large-scale deployment of nuclear weapons has increased since February 2022. Thinly veiled threats of “severe consequences” and nuclear forces on high alert have once again brought atomic issues to the fore for Western political and military leadership. The taboo on nuclear weapons remains in place, but we should also consider that Iraq primarily used chemical weapons only when Iran had turned the tide and launched offensives into Iraqi territory. Saddam Hussein only resorted to weapons of mass destruction when red lines were crossed and there was a perceived existential threat to his nation.
This should raise concerns about Putin’s own red lines. The likelihood of Ukraine moving into Russia is small, but a move to retake Crimea, territory occupied by Russia since 2014, could be viewed by the Kremlin as an attempt on its territory. The consequences could be catastrophic. Russia has already indicated that the four Ukrainian territories it recently annexed are “under its nuclear protection,” and a move to enter Crimea would only be another step up the escalation ladder. There have been appeals to “go slow” on recapturing the peninsula despite calls from Ukraine to take back land they have a rightful claim to. A slower approach, one which does not push Putin too far, too fast, may be the safer option. The Iran-Iraq War demonstrates the risks involved when waging war with tyrants armed with weapons of mass destruction.
Analogizing between conflicts is never a straightforward exercise. The differences between conflicts almost always dwarf the similarities, and to become trapped in contracted comparisons only leads to false expectations. However, such comparisons can be useful for policy formation when made shrewdly. The Iran-Iraq War is by no means the only comparison that can be made to the current war in Ukraine, but it does offer clear tactical and strategic insights and raises important questions about planning, support, and operations. Such insights could help policymakers decide how to continue to respond to the crisis and help them avoid costly mistakes. History has a lot to teach — if only you ask the right questions.
Ronan P. Mainprize is a Ph.D. candidate and senior graduate teaching assistant at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. His thesis research focuses on the role of the CIA in American strategy and conflicts during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. He can be found on Twitter at @RonanMainprize.
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