Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War (1979 – 1988)
The 1979 revolution was a populist, nationalist, and to some extent Shi'a Islamist reaction against the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a secular but autocratic pro-Western ruler. The Revolution itself involved many different groups, including the Communist Tudeh Party and the secular nationalist National Front, which both had the broadest range of support among urban Iranians, to the Islamists following the line of Khomeini, whose base of support was mostly in the rural sector.
Starting in late 1977, protests began to build. By December 1978 millions of Iranians were in the streets and the country's economy was paralyzed. The Shah left the country in mid-January 1979 and two weeks later the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had emerged as the leader of the Revolution after the murder of Dr. Ali Shariati in England, returned from exile to crowds of supporters. The final collapse of the old regime came on February 11 when royal troops were defeated by guerillas and rebel troops in armed street fighting. Iran officially became an Islamic Republic on April 1st after Iranians overwhelmingly approved a national referendum declaring the country so. Khomeini and his supporters worked to implement his vision of an Islamic state with sharia, or conservative Islamic laws, and clerical rule. Iran's unique new theocratic constitution included the post of Supreme Leader for Khomeini and his successors, and other bodies of clerics to veto new laws and vet candidates for public office.
The Iranian Revolution replaced the Shah's close relationship with America and the West with a deeply antagonistic one. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students seized US embassy personnel labeling the embassy a "den of spies" and accused its personnel of being CIA agents plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government, as the CIA had done to Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Khomeini did not stop the students from holding embassy employees hostage and instead supported the embassy takeover. Women, African Americans and one hostage diagnosed with multiple sclerosis were soon released, the remaining 52 were held for 444 days. The students demanded the handover of the shah in exchange for the hostages, and following the Shah's death in the summer of 1980, that the hostages be put on trial for espionage. Subsequently attempts by the U.S. administration to negotiate or rescue the remaining hostages through such methods as Operation Eagle Claw, were unsuccessful until January 1981 when the Algiers declaration was agreed upon. The U.S. promised (among other things) in the accord to release Iranian assets that had been frozen, but as of 2007 those assets still remain frozen.
Main article: Iran-Iraq War
Meanwhile, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decided to take advantage of what he perceived to be disorder in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and its unpopularity with Western governments. The once-strong Iranian military had been disbanded during the revolution, and with the Shah ousted, Hussein had ambitions to position himself as the new strong man of the Middle East. He also sought to expand Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf by acquiring territories that Iraq had claimed earlier from Iran during the Shah's rule. Of chief importance to Iraq was Khuzestan which not only boasted a substantial Arab population, but rich oil fields as well. On the unilateral behalf of the United Arab Emirates, the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs became objectives as well. With these ambitions in mind, Hussein planned a full-scale assault on Iran, boasting that his forces could reach the capital within three days. On September 22, 1980 the Iraqi army invaded Iran at Khuzestan, precipitating the Iran-Iraq War known as Saddâm's Qâdisiyyah in Iraq and the Imposed War in Iran. The attack took revolutionary Iran completely by surprise.
Although Saddam Hussein's forces made several early advances, by 1982, Iranian forces managed to push the Iraqi army back into Iraq. Khomeini refused a cease-fire from Iraq, demanding huge reparation payments, an end to Saddam's rule, and that he be tried for crimes against humanity. Khomeini also sought to export his Islamic revolution westward into Iraq, especially on the majority Shi'a Arabs living in the country. The war then continued for six more years until 1988, when Khomeini, in his words, "drank the cup of poison" and accepted a truce mediated by the United Nations.
Tens of thousands of Iranian civilians and military personnel were killed when Iraq used chemical weapons in its warfare. Iraq was financially backed by Egypt, the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact states, the United States (beginning in 1983), France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, and the People's Republic of China (which also sold weapons to Iran). All of these countries provided intelligence, agents for chemical weapons as well as other forms of military assistance to Saddam Hussein. Iran's principal allies during the war were Syria, Libya, and North Korea.
With more than 100,000 Iranian victims of Iraq's chemical weapons during the eight-year war, Iran is the world's second-most afflicted country by weapons of mass destruction, second only to Japan. The total Iranian casualties of the war were estimated to be anywhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000. Almost all relevant international agencies have confirmed that Saddam engaged in chemical warfare to blunt Iranian human wave attacks, while unanimously announcing that Iran never used chemical weapons during the war.