Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Charles Tripp, University of London

Iran-Iraq relations are built upon the shaky foundations of mutual mistrust and recent fierce enmity. The eight year war between these two states has left its mark at all levels of the population. This does not necessarily determine relations between Iran and Iraq, but it has created a reserve of bitterness and hostility that can be drawn upon by their respective governments when crises erupt. In between these crises, the two states have found a modus vivendi, facilitated to a large degree by the severity of Iraq's isolation for the past decade under international sanctions.

  However, there are a number of salient issues which play a large part in shaping relations between the two states. Some remain as complicating features in the background and some are capable of generating severe tensions.


  None of the issues emerging from the war have yet been resolved. The boundary between the two states along the Shatt al-Arab waterway in particular has not been demarcated. This boundary—an ostensible casus belli in 1980—was settled in the Algiers Agreement of 1975 between Iran and Iraq. In 1980, Saddam Hussein (one of the signatories) tore it up in public and repudiated it. He promised to recognise it once more in 1990 during the Kuwait crisis, but no formal move was forthcoming. As a result, the border remains undetermined and sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab potentially in dispute. Given the present blockade of Basra and the condition of maritime trade at the head of the Gulf, this is not a burning issue at present, but it is highly charged in symbolic terms. Saddam Hussein for obvious reasons but also the Iranian government attach considerable importance to this manifestation of sovereignty and each is unwilling to yield to the other.

  Another major legacy of the war—the payment of reparations claimed by both sides—is also unresolved. Each side accuses the other of having initiated the war, although there can be little doubt that Iraq invaded Iran. Fortunately for Iraq, the supine attitude of the UN Security Council at the time has left this question open, allowing Iraq to refute Iran's claims for war reparations by asserting that it was the injured party. As in the case of the Shatt al-Arab dispute, this is not an issue that is pressed with much vigour by either side. Iraq's financial plight and the heavy reparations that it is beginning to pay out under UN auspices to Kuwait have pushed this aside. Nevertheless, it has symbolic significance and is tied up with the authority and prestige of both governments.

  The issue of Prisoners of War (chiefly of Iraqis languishing in Iran) is one which continues to have relevance, although one might have imagined that it would have been resolved long before. The majority of the 60,000 or so Iraqis captured by Iran during the war have returned to Iraq, although a substantial number chose to stay in Iran, initially at least to join the Iraqi Shi'i resistance organisation, SCIRI. Nevertheless, small batches of prisoners have been released periodically by Iran and, in fact, this has been an area in which Iraqi and Iranian officials have been intermittently active in negotiations during the past few years. The fact that a trickle of POWs comes out of Iran (and a smaller number go the other way) all of these years after the ending of the war has kept the issue alive among both populations. The thousands of men listed as "missing" on both sides may well be dead, but live on in the imaginations of their families, unjustly incarcerated in the prisons of the enemy.


  The security concerns which characterise each side's view of the other are not simply due to the experience of eight years of war. In some senses, they antedate that war (and may have contributed to the tensions which led to it) and they are also due to the opportunities created by the war and by the subsequent 10 years of developments in the Gulf.

  The Iraqi government has always been fearful of the weight and power of Iran (a population of nearly 50 million, as against Iraq's 18 million or so). Until the opportunities (and incentives) for war that seemed to be created by the Iranian revolution, this had led to marked caution in Iraq's policies towards Iran. Saddam Hussein thought that he could counteract the strategic weight of Iran by developing a massive capability in Iraq—both of conventional weapons and of weapons of mass destruction.

  It is the latter that cause Iran the greatest concern now. Iran had experience of Iraq's use of chemical weapons against its forces and of missiles against its cities. The fact that the international community failed to prevent Iraq from using these weapons in the 1980s undoubtedly accelerated Iran's determination to develop its own weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the use of missiles against Iraqi cities in relation for Iraqi attacks had an immediate and—for the Iranians—welcome effect.

  The sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990 and the programme of weapons inspection and destruction carried out by UNSCOM from 1990-98 have clearly damaged Iraq's actual capabilities in both the conventional and unconventional fields. Nevertheless, they have not removed the threat which the introduction of such weapons into the region represents for Iran. The Iranian government is only too well aware of Iraq's highly developed smuggling operations for evading sanctions. It also suspects, like many others, that despite eight years of intrusive weapons inspections, the Iraqi authorities have succeeded in concealing key components of chemical and biological weapons from the UN (and has, of course, been free of all such inspections for the past two years). More importantly, Iran suspects that the logic which led to Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction is still present and that it would not be difficult for Iraq to produce them again, once sanctions are lifted. As the one state against which Iraq has used weapons of mass destruction, it is not surprising that this concern should be a pressing one for Iran.

  There is another, subsidiary but nevertheless sharply felt aspect to security which is capable of troubling relations between the two states. This relates to the refuge given by each government to the internal opponents of the other. Iraq has long given sanctuary and support to the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MKO), a radical Islamo-socialist organisation, bitterly opposed to the Iranian government. For its part, Iran hosts and sponsors the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) a Shi'i based Islamic organisation, pledged to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein. Neither organisation would be capable in fact of overthrowing the governments of Iran and Iraq, respectively. Nevertheless, the MKO does organise assassinations and bombings of targets associated with the government of Iran. SCIRI is equally responsible for sporadic attacks on government buildings in Iraq and for the assassination of Ba "thist officials, mostly in the largely Shi'i south of the country. MKO activities have provoked the Iranian armed forces to retaliate several times during the past few years, bombing sites within Iraq where the suspect the MKO is based. The Iraqi government has also retaliated for SCIRI attacks, but usually by way of reprisals amongst its own Shi'i population—although the rhetorical barrage against Iran may be maintained at the same time.

  This has been at its sharpest when there has been evidence of Iranian intervention in the northern Kurdish region, presently under the Kurdish Regional Government and out of the control of Baghdad. The Kurdish parties have long cultivated relations with Iran—a logical source of support and refuge, given the shared border in the mountains and the history of Iran-Iraq emnity. Given the condition of Kurdish politics, divided against themselves and dominated by the two major parties—the KDP and the PUK—there has been plenty of scope for the Iranian government to exercise its influence in the region. For some years, it has had particularly close links with the PUK, the party which dominates the area of Kurdistan up against the Iranian border. In 1996 so great was the assistance being given by Iran that it upset the delicate balance of power in Kurdistan and the PUK's rivals, the KDP, called upon the Iraqi army to intervene on its behalf to drive the PUK out of Irbil, the "capital" of the Kurdish region. Saddam Hussein was only too happy to comply, with disastrous results for the PUK, their Iranian allies and all those Iraqis who had sought refuge in the area. The Iraqi forces eventually withdrew, but since that time, there have been periodic rumours of impending military intervention whenever it seemed that the PUK was getting the upper hand, possibly assisted by Iran.


  Iran-Iraq emnity is deep-seated and is always ready to surface at moments of crisis—and is capable of generating those crises of course. However, this does not mean that Iran-Iraq relations are characterised by perpetual conflict. On the contrary, the two sides have found a number of issues over which to co-operate. Under the US-led policy of "dual containment" which has been in force since 1990, there has been good reason for pragmatic co-operation. During the Kuwait crisis and war, Iran did not give Iraq the kind of assistance which Saddam Hussein rather unrealistically seemed to have expected. Nevertheless, once the war was over, Iran and Iraq saw considerable mutual benefit in co-operating against sanctions.

  In this way, during the 1990s, Iran became a major route for Iraqi trade seeking to evade the UN sanctions enforcement agencies; substantial quantities of Iraqi oil were smuggled down the Gulf, to be passed off as Iranian oil; meanwhile the long and porous land border with Iran allowed Iraq to set up a lucrative import trade. For Iraq, the benefits were obvious. For Iran, there was the leverage it could hope to exert by controlling these routes in and out of Iraq. A useful measure of the deterioration of Iraq-Iran relations in other spheres, or of Iran's determination to show who was dependent on whom has been the Iranian navy's occasional "discovery" and seizure of shipments of Iraqi oil travelling down the Gulf.

  With the weakening of "dual containment" and the possible thaw in Iran-US relations, the Iranian government has less incentive to help Iraq evade the sanctions. Oil smuggling continues, but Iraq has returned to the market legitimately as a major oil producer under the UN's "oil for food" resolutions. Inevitably, this has given Iran and Iraq a shared interest in the price and production of oil as substantial members of OPEC. Whilst this does not necessarily breed harmony, it injects into the relationship the complex alliances and coalitions which characterise intra-OPEC politics in which the condition of the market can bring states together which otherwise have a record of historical emnity.


  Underpinned by mistrust and characterised by a number of potential flash-points. Iran-Iraq relations nevertheless have demonstrated a remarkable stability during the past decade. Mutual vituperation and recrimination have remained at a largely rhetorical level. Even when the emnity seems at its sharpest, it can give way with disconcerting speed to expressions of solidarity and even a limited amount of pragmatic co-operation. This may be because neither side feels that they can reach a conclusive agreement on any of the outstanding issues between them as long as the present situation of deteriorating "dual containment" and punitive sanctions on Iraq continues. For this reason, the principal impression is one of "unfinished business" against a background of security fears and potential menace. The fact that Iran and Iraq have nevertheless succeeded in reaching a modus vivendi—with only occasional lapses—may be more encouraging than the depth of their emnity would suggest.

29 September 2000

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