The Iran-Iraq rivalry is one of the most complex and long-standing conflicts in the Middle East, with its roots reaching back to ancient civilizations. From territorial disputes and ideological differences to the significant eight-year war between the two nations, understanding the historical context is essential for grasping the depth of their relationship.
Ancient Rivalries: Persia vs. Mesopotamia
The regions that now comprise modern-day Iran and Iraq were once home to two of the world’s oldest civilizations: the Persians in Iran and the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Over millennia, these empires rose, fell, and frequently clashed over territorial and cultural dominance in the region.
Colonial Impositions and Border Disputes
During World War I, with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Britain occupied Mesopotamia and shaped its future as the modern state of Iraq. At the same time, Iran, then known as Persia, faced interventions from both Russia and Britain. Post-WWI agreements led to arbitrary borders that ignored ethnic and tribal allegiances. The 1913 Constantinople Protocol, for instance, demarcated the border between Iran and the Ottoman Empire but sowed the seeds for later disputes, especially over the Shatt al-Arab waterway.
The Rise of Secular Nationalism
The 20th century witnessed the rise of secular nationalism in both countries. In Iraq, a series of coups eventually led to the emergence of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein. In Iran, the secularizing efforts of Reza Shah Pahlavi and then his son Mohammad Reza Shah led to tensions with religious groups, culminating in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ideological Divide: Secular Ba’athism vs. Islamic Republic
Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, relations between the two nations soured considerably. Iraq’s secular Ba’athist regime, led by Saddam Hussein, viewed the new Islamic Republic, with Ayatollah Khomeini at its helm, as a threat. Khomeini’s call for Islamic revolutions across the Muslim world, especially in countries with oppressed Shia populations like Iraq, alarmed Saddam.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, triggering a brutal eight-year conflict known as the Iran-Iraq War. Several reasons motivated this attack, including border disputes, fears of Shia insurgency in Iraq inspired by Iran, and control over the oil-rich Shatt al-Arab region. The war resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and ended in 1988 with a UN-brokered ceasefire. However, the conflict solidified the animosity between the two nations.
Post-war Tensions and Shifting Dynamics
After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the power dynamics in Iraq shifted, with the Shia majority gaining significant political influence. This change brought Iraq closer to Iran in terms of religious and political alliances, transforming the nature of their relationship from open hostility to cautious cooperation.
The historical struggle between Iran and Iraq is a tapestry of ancient rivalries, colonial legacies, ideological differences, and modern geopolitical challenges. While the overt hostilities of the 1980s have subsided, the scars of past conflicts and the ever-evolving political landscape of the Middle East ensure that the relationship between these two nations remains a focal point of regional and global attention.