The Iran-Iraq War and Sectarianism in the Middle East
by Satgin Hamrah
The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War is often overlooked in current debates surrounding the roots of contemporary sectarian conflict in the Middle East, even as its legacy lives on. The modern Sunni-Shia competition for regional hegemony is rooted in divisions created during the Iran-Iraq War as both sides strategically used their respective Islamic sect to garner support and enhance their regional standing. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran initially put Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia at odds with one another, but events surrounding the Iran-Iraq War created the foundation for ongoing sectarian conflict in the region.
Today, the war continues to have a lasting impact on the Sunni-Shia divide across Iran, Iraq, and the greater Middle East. The sectarianism that emerged during the war not only impacted the battlefield, but also evolved into the entrenched Iran-Saudi Arabia regional power struggle. This rivalry continues to fuel sectarianism across the region, worsening the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and upending the lives of millions as a result.
During the Iran-Iraq War, each side consciously mixed religion and politics to garner internal allegiance and external support. Both Iran and Iraq were eager to stoke the fires of religion and ancient animosities to mobilize followers, while simultaneously promoting a hidden agenda. Each side was guilty of steering rhetoric to fit the framework that was most advantageous to them. For example, understanding the strategic importance of religion, Saddam Hussein’s quest for territorial acquisition and regional hegemony was presented to his people and the international community as an attempt to curb Iran’s Shia revivalist rhetoric and expansionist efforts. This became the internal justification for the use of force against Iran. On the Iranian side, the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini framed the war as not only the defense of Iran’s territorial integrity, but also as the defense of Shia Islam and the Islamic Revolution. This successfully facilitated unity within their respective countries, and enhanced deep fault lines in a region already inflicted with conflict and animosity.
This strategic use of religion was not confined to Iran and Iraq during the war. Other nations also participated in the fight along sectarian lines. Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan tilted towards Iraq. Sunni rulers feared that their Shia minority populations would be receptive and responsive to Iran’s calls for revolutionary action. On the other hand, Syria’s leader, an Alawite Muslim (a sect of Shi’ism) was Iran’s only supporter in the Middle East. Consequently, these strategies further flamed the fires of proxy wars among regional powers.
While the war may have ended in 1988, its legacy lives on in the Sunni versus Shia sectarian conflicts that currently exist in much of the Muslim world. This rivalry set the stage for the cantankerous relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran today, as well as on the battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Similar to the Iran-Iraq War, Shia and Sunni leaders today are taking strategic advantage of sectarian divisions to aggravate existing tensions in the Islamic world since the war. Shia Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the Assad regime in Syria. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni nation, supports Sunni groups in Yemen on behalf of the contested government of President Hadi and Sunni insurgent groups operating in Syria. These conflicts have grown into proxy wars wherein Iran and Saudi Arabia are actively supporting opposing sides and deepening the fault lines between Shia and Sunni communities that were initially forged during the Iran-Iraq War.
Similar to the strategies employed during the war, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also using religion to legitimize and facilitate their proxy wars. It is important to note that these proxy wars are strategic tools used by both nations to thwart the other’s regional influence. These proxy wars have exacerbated the volatile situation in the region, including in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. Since March 2015, more than 2,700 civilians have been killed in Yemen. In Syria, approximately 470,000 people have been killed and more than 6.5 million internally displaced as of March 2016.
The Iran-Iraq War is over, but its legacy continues to live on though the strategic use of sectarianism as an instrument of war for Iran and Saudi Arabia. Similar to the Iran-Iraq War, Saudi Arabia and Iran are using sectarianism to increase their group’s sphere of power, prestige, and influence. This has translated into a wide scale proxy conflict that has destabilized the region. Just as the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War is plagued with violence, hatred, and paranoia, the current conflicts across the region will in all likelihood have similar ripple effects far into the future.
About the Author
Satgin Hamrah has earned a Master of International Relations degree from Boston University and a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California. Satgin is a PhD student in History at Tufts University and is taking short courses at the Naval Postgraduate School and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She is also a PhD Fellow at the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, a Fellow at the South Asia Democratic Forum, an Editor-At-Large at E-International Relations and an Associate Editor at the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy. Satgin is also writing a book on the Iran-Iraq war.