Inequitable Mediation: The International Community’s Response to The Iran Iraq War

I wrote “Inequitable Mediation” in November 2009 for a course about conflict resolution.  It examines how the weak international response to Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran in September 1980 and the bias in subsequent mediation efforts prolonged what became the longest interstate war of the 20th century.  I was drawn to study this conflict because, despite the wealth of scholarly work about the Iranian Revolution, very little has been written about the war.  The duration of the war is frequently attributed to religious fanaticism, the will of maniacal dictators, or ancient animosities.  Naturally, irrational causes seem appropriate explanations for such a senseless and destructive war in which the casus belli, the Shatt al-Arab, was quickly rendered unusable by either side and both countries were left shattered.  However, such suggestions do little to explain how this war occurred in the post-Second World War international order, designed to prevent and contain interstate wars.  This paper is an attempt to make sense of the international community’s failure in handling the war.

Dana Alexander Gray, December 14, 2009

Inequitable Mediation

The International Community’s Response to The Iran Iraq War


September 22, 1980, Iraqi warplanes returned from attacking targets deep inside Iran while Iraqi ground forces finished preparations to invade. What began as a border dispute was about to escalate into the longest interstate war of the Twentieth Century. The ensuing conflict returned to the world the horrors of the First World World which it believed long past–muddy trenches assaulted by waves of young men cut down with machine guns, landmines, and poison gas. After eight years of bloody war that left both states economically shattered, neither side achieved its declared objectives and the prewar status quo returned. The treaty that Saddam Hussain declared void at the onset of war was restored on the initiative of the Iraqi president himself two years after the 1988 ceasefire.1 The waterway over which the conflict presumably was fought had become so full of wrecked vessels by the end of the conflict that it was of no use to anyone.2 In sum, the war was an absolute catastrophe for those involved. Yet the war was fought and little was done to prevent it or bring about a resolution.

This paper examines the actions of two actors external to the conflict whose positions provided them the opportunity to take a central role in resolving the Iran-Iraq War. With its mandate to preserve international peace, the United Nations Security Council has an obvious role in the conflict. While much criticism is directed at the United Nations for its inability to adapt to new patterns of conflict, the Security Council was designed to prevent interstate wars involving one state invading another, like the Second World War, like the Iran-Iraq war.3 When member states are unable or unwilling to resolve their disputes peacefully, under Articles 24, 34, and 37 of the UN Charter the Security Council may exercise broad authority to investigate and initiate settlement of disputes between member states. With the end of the Second World War the United States became the preeminent outside power in the Middle East with the greatest freedom of action. Certainly it was the only power with the military might in the Persian Gulf enforce a peace agreement. Yet for eight years neither the United Nations Security Council nor the United States could recommend a settlement acceptable to both parties.

To a lesser extent the Soviet Union could have taken a role in resolving the conflict. It did not have the resources of the United States but it had a friendship treaty with Iraq and supplied Hussain’s army with most of its weapons, so its wishes did carry some weight with the Iraqi government. The Soviet Union however, has not been included in this study because the USSR’s interests in the region was too conflicted to produce clear policy. First, the USSR hoped to gain where the US had lost in Iran, so it did not wish to antagonize Khomeini’s regime. Second, because of it’s growing quagmire in Afghanistan, the USSR could not spare the conflict much of its attention. Finally, the USSR feared for its own security if Iran were to disintegrate because they shared a large border. These three factors balanced against the superpower’s existing relationship with Iraq to keep the USSR from taking sides in the conflict without it actively work towards resolution.4

In 1975 the Algiers Agreement designated the boundary between Iran and Iraq as the midcourse of the Shatt al-Arab waterway rather than at Iran’s bank. During the Kurdish independence struggle of the 1960s and 1970s in Iraq, the Shah had supplied Iraqi Kurdish guerillas with aid and weapons as well as allowing them to take refuge from the Iraqi Army in Iran. But as part of the agreement he tightened border security and ceased his support for the guerrillas. With the border closed Iraq’s Kurds were quickly decimated by the Iraqi Army and sought a cease-fire.5 The agreement stood unchallenged by Saddam Hussein’s government through the revolution and though it alleged violations, it did not lodge a formal complaint until two weeks before the invasion.

Escalating Hostilities Met with Indifference

It did not take long after the Iranian Revolution for friction between the two regimes to emerge. Early in 1980 Iran alleged that Iraq was conducting cross border operations against Kurds and interfering in the Iran’s Southwestern province Khuzestan, which the Iraqis insisted on calling Arabistan for its majority Arab population.6 At the same time, Iraq was accusing Iran of resuming aid to Kurdish guerillas and inciting the Shi’a majority in Iraq to revolt. In March 1980, after Iran’s ambassador publicly called for the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime, Iran and Iraq withdrew their ambassadors.7 Iraq alleged that Iranian agents were behind the attempted assassination of Foreign Minister Aziz on April 1, 1980 and retaliated by expelling Iraqis of Iranian descent. The same month Iraq imprisoned and executed the religious leader of Iraq’s Shi’a, Ayatollah Baqr al-Sadr along with members of his family.8 The situation escalated further when Iranian Arabs, later found to be agents in an Iraqi intelligence operation, took the Iranian embassy staff in London hostage and announced the demands of the “Arab Liberation Front.” Their actions provided Saddam Hussein a pretext to “liberate” Khuzestan, though unfortunately for the Arab Liberation Front all but one of the hostage-takers was killed by the British SAS.9 After the embassy incident, border skirmishes began in June and continued until full scale war broke out three months later.10

To avoid escalating into violent conflict, Iran and Iraq needed to transform the conflict from a military threat into a dispute through non-violent channels. Neither party took advantage of the good offices of the President of Algeria to resolve the dispute which had been offered as part of the Algiers Agreement and should have been the primary conduit for resolving the dispute. In the months leading to the war, neither Iran nor Iraq showed any sign of opening for negotiations and Iraq’s diplomatic campaign seemed directed towards justifying an invasion rather than finding new channels through which to resolve the conflict peacefully.11 The Iraqi foreign minister claimed directly after the invasion that Iraq had exhausted all diplomatic channels and was now conducting a self-defense invasion.12

When parties in disagreement close diplomatic channels, as was the case between Iran and Iraq, it is the natural time for third party mediators to intervene, contact the hostile parties, and move them towards negotiation. Adam Curle identified four consecutive stages of mediation which outline the steps the international community could have pursued to attempt to resolve the conflict before war erupted. First, the mediators must establish communications with and between the parties. Second, the mediators provide information to the parties to reduce uncertainty characteristic of security dilemmas. Third, the mediators befriend the parties to the conflict. When the belligerents trust the mediator they will more likely come to negotiations in good faith. Fourth and finally, the mediator brings the parties together using the trust built by the previous steps to cooperate in negotiations.13 In practice this could have been the Secretary-General of the UN offering his good offices or the Security Council exercising its power under Article 34 to make contact with Iran and Iraq under the auspices of investigating the conflict. The United States, did not have diplomatic relations with Iran at the time, but may have attempted a special envoy or employed an ally with whom Iran still kept relations, like Great Britain.

It must be noted that prevention is conflict resolution’s most urgent task and its ultimate goal. Not only are un-manifest conflicts yet to incur the costs of war, but because they do not have the added suffering brought by war, they are easier to resolve than if left to turn violent. There is never a time when parties fighting out their differences is the only way to resolve the conflict because eventually justice requires accommodating legitimate aspirations and meeting human needs and this can not be accomplished through war.14 Iran and Iraq used the United Nations and other high profile positions to protest each other’s actions the entire year leading up to the war. Experts in the West followed the mounting hostilities and warned of the growing instability in the Gulf. A week before the invasion analysts predicted a war between Iran and Iraq was imminent.15 Yet despite all the warnings nothing was done until September 22, 1980 when the invasion began and Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim offered his good offices. The International Community missed the opportunity to resolve the conflict when it would have been comparatively easier and less costly not out of ignorance, but out of disinterest. The United States declared neutrality and urged restraint, but did not go further. The Americans were too preoccupied with the hostage crisis to take an interest in constraining Iraq’s war plans. The indifference showed by the International Community encouraged the ambitions of Iraqis and their allies among the exiled Iranian monarchists. The invasion moved beyond seizing what Iraq felt due from the nullified Algiers Agreement to “liberating” Khuzestan.16 Iranian exiles believed the Iraqis would create a foothold to rally Iranians against Khomeini and sweep the exiles into power. Hussein cared very little about restoring a strong Iranian state. He believed that he could fight a limited war to gain control of Iranian oil fields and simply let the rest of the country disintegrate.17

Washington had no incentive to end the war at the time of the invasion, nor would it have been easy considering the US did not have diplomatic ties with either country. Oil supplies were not greatly impacted and the war seemed unlikely to spread.18 Five days after Iraqi ground forces crossed the frontier in strength the Security Council issued Resolution 479. The resolution reflected how low international opinion of Iran had sunk following the revolution. It contained no condemnation of the Iraqi invasion and no call to return to internationally recognized borders. It only called on both parties to “refrain immediately from any further use of force.”19 Security Council members’ disposition towards Iran was on the whole negative. France was predisposed to supporting Iraq, it conducted a number of development projects in Iraq and it sold the mirage fighters that made up the Iraqi Air Force.20

Not surprisingly, Iran found the Security Council’s terms unacceptable and refused to enter mediation over the initial dispute until Iraq withdrew to internationally recognized borders. A rejection of the council’s decision was almost inevitable since it was not following the ethical principles of impartiality or consistency in crafting the resolution and any possible resolution that might have followed a vigorous Security Council response was lost. Instead of executing their mission to safeguard international security unprejudiced to the belligerents, the council members’ personal distaste for the Iranian regime led them to inconsistently apply international law.21 That no country ever has the right to invade another over a political dispute is a fundamental tenant of the modern international order but was disregarded in this case. The council members felt no particular urgency to resolve the crisis; they expected the war to be short and Khomeini’s regime to be dealt a humiliating blow that would be just desserts for taking hostages and vilifying the United Nations.22

Unethical work done in the name of conflict resolution presents worse dangers than simply not making progress towards peace. Not only did Resolution 479’s lackluster response to the invasion fail to resolve the conflict, but the Security Council’s conspicuous lack of condemnation for the invasion encouraged Iraq to continue the conflict. When Norway’s ambassador to the UN called for an internationally supervised withdrawal of forces, Iraq rejected, saying that a withdrawal violated Resolution 479.23 When the Security Council considered the war again after two years it added a call to withdrawal to internationally recognized borders24 but any window to resolve the conflict so easily was closed. The fighting had expanded beyond the limited territory to which Hussein thought he could isolate the war and the war had already produced appalling human and economic costs.25

Conflict Expansion: the “Tanker War”

By the beginning of 1983, the war had turned heavily against Iraq’s favor. Iran fought back with more tenacity than anyone predicted and pushed Iraqi forces back to the border and in some cases entered Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s government was bankrupt. Syria had cut off Iraq’s only pipeline, and since Iraq’s only other outlet for oil was the port of Basra on the Persian gulf, then destroyed by Iranian air attacks and artillery, Iraq had no source of income.26 Both Iranian and Iraqi initial predictions for the behavior of minority groups proved false. Hussein believed the Arabs in Iran would welcome his armies and Khomeini believed the Iraqi Shi’a would revolt against the government that repressed them but neither group defected in large numbers. Although their initial hopes for overwhelming victory proved false they continued the war, both sides predicting erroneously that a sufficiently impressive military victory would collapse the other regime and force a favorable peace accord.27 Khomeini’s regime added demands that Hussein be removed from power before there could be peace, fully believing that it could met out retribution against Iraq for imposing the war upon Iran.28

Still believing total victory within his grasp, Saddam Hussein threatened to expand the war to the entire region, saying he would start “World War Three” if necessary.29 The Iraqi regime stood to gain by expanding the conflict since the conservative Arab monarchies along the Gulf were more sympathetic to Iraq in the conflict. To elicit support from the Arab states, Saddam Hussein shifted his rhetoric from the bold claims that his attack on Iran would be the second battle of Qadisiya, in which the Arab Islamic armies defeated the Sassanian Dynasty in the 7th Century and conquered the Iranian Plateau, to claiming that Iraq was holding the line against fanatics who, if left unchecked, would completely upset the order of the Arab world.30 Kuwait and Saudi Arabia opened their coffers to Hussein and advanced Iraq tens of billions of dollars for the war effort.31 Iraq began attacking Iranian oil tanks in 1984, cutting Iranian exports to a quarter of what they had been. Since Iraqi exports through the gulf were closed, to retaliate Iran had to strike the shipping of the gulf countries transporting Iraqi oil and using their oil exports to subsidize Iraq’s war effort.32

Once war has erupted, the international community had to focus on three aspects of containment in order to hasten a resolution: limit the conflict’s intensity, limit its geographic spread, and create a ceasefire.33 Limited to the two countries, the conflict had become a hurting stalemate. After being pushed back to its border, Iraq took defensive positions that Iran could not overwhelm but the war of attrition eroded Iraq’s war effort.34 As it was, if other powers could be kept out of the conflict, conditions appeared ripe for introducing international mediators and finding a ceasefire.35 A year before the war finally ended, the Ford Foundation held a conference to explore a negotiated settlement to the conflict. It produced a recommendation for the Security Council to issue a resolution with three elements to create political space for negotiations. First, since the Secretary-General had already met some success negotiating prisoner of war transfers, protecting shipping, preventing attacks on civilians, and investigating chemical weapons use,36 the recommendation suggested the Security Council direct Waldheim to examine the origins of the war and recommend elements for its successful resolution. Second, since the battle lines at the time were near the internationally recognized borders, it called for a ceasefire but specified that the ceasefire would not prejudice any final border resolution. That is, if Iran controlled territory Iraq regarded as hers, Iraq need not fear that the ceasefire would legitimize Iranian claims on that territory and vise versa. Third, it recommended the Security Council specifically call on member states to cease arms shipments to either Iran or Iraq.37

Unfortunately, it was several years before the Security Council approached the conflict with sufficient impartiality. In all its early resolutions about the war, the Security Council requested all countries to distance themselves from the conflict, but it never used its authority to require countries to remain apart from the conflict. As mentioned before France and the Soviet Union sold weapons to Iraq and Iran received many of its weapons from China.38 In the Summer of 1984 after Iran retaliated against Iraqi attacks on Iranian tankers by targeting the oil shipments of Iraq’s supporters, the Security Council issued Resolution 552 which condemned only the Iranian attacks.39 Iran charged that the council permitted Iraqi aggression by ignoring the attacks that internationalized the conflict.40 By 1987 however, stopping the horrendous war had grown imperative and the council grew more impartial.

The Ford Foundation’s recommendations were incredibly modest by the post Cold War standard of interventions and robust peacekeeping. But it provides an accurate description of what was possible within the limits of the Cold War. It reviewed the limits of security council to avoid idle speculation over potential powers of the Security Council.41 It claimed that its recommendations could realistically be achieved if council members would approach the conflict impartially. The foundation’s recommendations seem to have been incorporated in part into the resolution that Iran finally accepted on August 20, 198842 but by the time of Resolution 598 the major outside actor in the region had taken another approach to the conflict.

The United States claimed to support a policy of free access to the Gulf, but did not condemn the Iraqi attacks either.43 At the same time the United States reaffirmed its neutrality towards the conflict it began its “tilt” policy of political support for Saddam Hussein’s government and aid to Iraq’s war damaged economy that would grow to nearly a trillion dollars by the end of the conflict. Formal relations were resumed between the United States and Iraq in November 1984.44 In 1987 the United States reflagged Kuwaiti tankers without taking any effort to halt Iraqi attacks on Iranian oil exports. When Iranian attacks persisted, the United States Navy began destroying Iranian oil platforms and facilities. Khomeini accepted the ceasefire in part because Iranian leaders feared the United States was entering the war. Their fears seem confirmed when the USS Vincennes recklessly shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 240, and the United States first blamed Iran, then offered a half-hearted apology, then gave the captain who ordered the attack a special medal.45 Six weeks after the incident, Khomeini accepted a ceasefire though it was “more bitter than poison.”

Chemical Weapons: Further Obstacles to Conflict Resolution

Chemical weapons added two complications to the Iran Iraq war. Directly, they made resolving the conflict more difficult because of the terrible damage done to Iranians by the weapons themselves. Indirectly, the impunity with which Saddam Hussein was able to use the weapons caused Iranians to doubt the utility and sincerity of international institutions.

Exposure to of chemical weapons is extremely traumatic and leaves populations with long term psychological disorders: acute helplessness, anxiety, and loss of perceived safety.46 American researchers found that Iranian survivors of chemical warfare had higher levels of PTSD and related disorders than survivors of conventional warfare alone. Iranians still suffer from the long-lasting effects of chemical weapons on their physical and mental health and they create costs for the society.47 The individual and societal costs incurred by chemical warfare must be addressed in the resolution process. When it was clear to Iran that Saddam Hussein would not accept responsibility for using chemical weapons and the international community would not support Iranian allegations against him, Iran became less inclined to resolve the conflict. For the International Community’s standpoint a satisfactory resolution over chemical warfare it difficult to because the costs of medical care are high and it is unlikely anyone will admit to ordering chemical warfare because of the international norms against it.

The second complication is best illustrated by the battle of Halabja. Halabja was a Kurdish village on the Iraqi side of the frontier where Iraq used huge amounts of poison gas in an attack against Iranian troops and Halabja’s inhabitants in March 1988. Iran rushed international reporters to witness ghastly scenes of corpse strewn streets to gain international support for its claims that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed from power. But to divert condemnation of Iraq, the United States claimed that Iran also gassed the town. The Pentagon produced the fabrication in full knowledge that Iraq alone used chemical weapons and the State Department instructed its diplomats to repeat the lie to allied nations without giving evidence. These activities as well as the entire “tilt” towards Iraq were kept secret under National Security Decision Directive 114, issued in 1983.48 The strategy bore fruit and seven weeks later the the UN Security Council condemned the attack using neutral language that condemned the “continued use of chemical weapons” without assigning responsibility for the massacre and called on “both sides to refrain from future use of chemical weapons.”49 Accusing Iran of massacres it did not commit lowered Iran incentive to end the conflict and delayed accepting the ceasefire. It made Iran distrustful of international organizations and international law, as Rafsanjani claimed in 1988, “international laws are only drops of ink on paper.” The deceit surrounding the massacre at Halabja has important reverberations in the current crisis in Iran. Through its actions in 1988, the international community proved to Iran that being in the right offered no protection against power politics and the only true defense against hostile WMDs is an appropriate deterrent.50 With one nuclear armed state in the Middle East growing more belligerent to Iran, the regime in Iran must recall how at a word from the United States, the the international community was unwilling to condemn those responsible for fields of corpses two decades earlier.


Like so many violent conflicts beginning with this period, the Iran-Iraq war never reached formal resolution but subsided when the belligerents were unable to continue the slaughter. In the years following the war observers concluded that morale was low on both sides to resume the conflict.51 Iran and Iraq remember the conflict differently and even in this era of improved relations they have not resolved their narratives, instead preferring to leave the war in the past. Iraqis generally accepted Hussein’s claim that the war was forced on Iraq by Iran and by maintaining the border Iraq won the war.52 Iranian’s version is completely the opposite. In Iran the war is known as either the Imposed War or the Holy Defense, both name are evocative of the general attitude towards the war in Iran.

The extensive damage against the Iraqi military in the 1991 Gulf War and the further restrictions placed upon Iraq by Security Council Resolution 687 did not give Saddam Hussein the option of restarting the conflict had he desired. The ousting of the Ba’ath party government in 2003 and the election of Malaki’s pro-Iran government has made the conflict unimaginable today.53


  1. William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004): 419.
  2. Ali M. Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1921: The Pahlavis and After (London: Pearson Education, 2003): 239.
  3. Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, and Roger A. Coate, The United Nations and Changing World Politics, 4th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004): 105.
  4. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 15.
  5. William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004): 411.
  6. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 7.
  7. Christopher Rundle, “The Iran/Iraq Conflict,” Asian Affairs 17, no. 2 (1986): 129.
  8. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 13.
  9. Ali M. Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1921: The Pahlavis and After, (London: Pearson Education, 2003): 231.
  10. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 8.
  11. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 9.
  12. U. N. Security Council, “Annex to S/14192 {Letter dated 24 September 1980 from the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iraq addressed to the President of the Security Council}” (S/14192), 24 September 1980.
  13. Oliver Ramsbotham Tom Woodhouse and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 52.
  14. Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009): 106-7.
  15. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 9.
  16. Ali M. Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1921: The Pahlavis and After, (London: Pearson Education, 2003): 230-231.
  17. Bahman Fozouni, GOVT 148 lecture, April 29, 2008.
  18. Michael Sterner, “The Iran-Iraq War,” Foreign Affairs 63, no. 1 (1984): 128.
  19. U.N. Security Council, 2248th Meeting, “Resolution 479 (1980) {The situation between Iran and Iraq}”(S/1980/479), 28 September 1980.
  20. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 14.
  21. Oliver Ramsbotham Tom Woodhouse and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 279, 281.
  22. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 15.
  23. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 16.
  24. U.N. Security Council, 2383rd Meeting, “Resolution 512 (1982) {The situation between Iran and Iraq}”(S/1982/512), 12 July 1982.
  25. William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004): 416.
  26. Michael Sterner, “The Iran-Iraq War,” Foreign Affairs 63, no. 1 (1984): 130.
  27. Michael Sterner, “The Iran-Iraq War,” Foreign Affairs 63, no. 1 (1984): 132.
  28. Christopher Rundle, “The Iran/Iraq Conflict,” Asian Affairs 17, no. 2 (1986): 131.
  29. Bahman Fozouni, GOVT 148 lecture, April 29, 2008.
  30. Bahman Fozouni, GOVT 148 lecture, April 29, 2008.
  31. Milton Viorst, “Iraq at War,” Foreign Affairs 65, no. 2 (1986): 350.
  32. Michael Sterner, “The Iran-Iraq War,” Foreign Affairs 63, no. 1 (1984): 134.
  33. Oliver Ramsbotham Tom Woodhouse and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 133.
  34. William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004): 416-417.
  35. Oliver Ramsbotham Tom Woodhouse and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), 166-167.
  36. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 17-21.
  37. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 36.
  38. Milton Viorst, “Iraq at War,” Foreign Affairs 65, no. 2 (1986):350.
  39. U.N. Security Council, 2546th Meeting, “Resolution 552 (1984) {The situation between Iran and Iraq}”(S/1984/552), 1 June 1984.
  40. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 17.
  41. R.P.H. King, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1986, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1987): 11.
  42. Resolution 598 uses significantly stronger language in calling for member states to distance themselves from the conflict, though without directly calling for a ban on arms sales, and directs the Secretary-General to form bodies to establish responsibility (instead of blaming both parties equally) and to find a resolution.
  43. Milton Viorst, “Iraq at War,” Foreign Affairs 65, no. 2 (1986): 362.
  44. Milton Viorst, “Iraq at War,” Foreign Affairs 65, no. 2 (1986): 361.
  45. Ali M. Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1921: The Pahlavis and After, (London: Pearson Education, 2003): 239.
  46. Farnoosh Hashemian et al., “Anxiety, Depression, and Posttraumatic Stress in Iranian Survivors of Chemical Warfare,” JAMA 296, no. 5 (2006): 564.
  47. Farnoosh Hashemian et al., “Anxiety, Depression, and Posttraumatic Stress in Iranian Survivors of Chemical Warfare,” JAMA 296, no. 5 (2006): 566.
  48. Joost R. Hiltermann, “‘Halabja: The Politics of Memory’, Joost Hiltermann in openDemocracy,” International Crisis Group, March 14, 2008,
  49. U.N. Security Council, 2812th Meeting, “Resolution 612 (1988) {The use of chemical weapons in the conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq}”(S/1988/612), 9 May 1988.
  50. Joost R. Hiltermann, “Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War,” Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2005,
  51. John Moberly, “Iraq in the Aftermath of the Gulf War,” Asian Affairs20, no. 3 (1989): 308.
  52. John Moberly, “Iraq in the Aftermath of the Gulf War,” Asian Affairs 20, no. 3 (1989): 306.
  53. Sami Moubayed, “Iraq takes a turn towards Iran,” Asia Times Online, June 17, 2008.
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3 comments on “Inequitable Mediation: The International Community’s Response to The Iran Iraq War
  1. Is it not true that Iraq consented to a 1982 Saudi offer to pay reparations to Iran in exchange for peace? My impression of the conflict has always been this: Saddam invaded Iran because he thought it would be an easy land-grab. Two years later, he realized he was greatly in error, and sued for peace. Iran refused this and insisted on a vengeful path, pushing the war into its six most destructive years.

    Could international mediation have prevented the war? In 1980 it might have. But the determination of both sides to fight should not be underestimated. In addition to seeking an easy land-grab, Saddam probably also believed that conflict was inevitable and felt pressure to strike first. Given Iranian rhetoric and infiltration operations throughout the region, it is easy to imagine a number of other ways that the two countries may have come to blows eventually.

    I would argue that mediation might have also prevented the war in 1982. This still would not have reflected well on the UN, but the Saudi efforts might have shown some fruit if negotiations had been able to move forward. At this point, however, the Iranian regime had become obsessed with revenge, and perhaps understandably so, give the low nature of the blow Saddam had dealt them and perhaps legitimate fears of future conflict if Saddam remained in power.

    It is customary to villify Saddam, and he was indeed a cruel, vain and incompetent ruler. But it should come as little surprise that in such a terrible war each side had some share in the sin which fed the inferno.

  2. Alex says:

    Thanks for reading, Matt. The Iranian negotiators certainly derailed mediation efforts in 1982 by demanding a slew of new conditions, including the removal of Saddam Hussein. However, what has always struck me most about the war is how it could occur and drag on so long in an international system that was designed to prevent and contain interstate wars.
    While I certainly credit Hussein with starting the military invasion, both sides were sending strong signals months before the invasion upon which the international community did not act. To name some of the most severe provocations: the Iranian ambassador to Iraq called for the violent overthrow of the Ba’ath government and Iranian-Arab terrorists under direction of Iraqi intelligence seized the Iranian embassy in London.
    If I intended to vilify anyone, it was the 1980 UNSC. Theirs is not only a story of too little too late, but their initial response perpetuated the war and cost the Security Council any semblance of neutrality to the conflict. With the Security Council “broken” it could not effectively provide information to both sides or make believable guarantees. Had the UNSC been able to fulfill that role, the Iranian leadership in 1982 might not have believed it was so close to victory that it could pile up conditions for peace.

  3. Well, I suppose you are right. Nowadays alot of people, myself included, take the ineffectiveness of the Security Council for granted. The idea that an international body could somehow intervene and get two agressors to back off of a war seems novel, but I guess that is what the Security Council was designed to do, and they have done it in a few cases, right? Was the mediation in the Six Days War and the Yom Kippur War officially by the Security Council or just the US and Russia on their own? This case presents some problems for me… on the one hand, the international community got the fighting to stop and limited the immediate suffering of the peoples involved. On the other hand, preventing these wars from playing out freely has not stopped the suffering of the people over the long run or solved any of the issues underlying the conflict.

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