ICE Case Studies



TED Conflict Studies

Iran-Iraq War and Waterway Claims

CASE NUMBER: 21
CASE MNEMONIC: IRANIRAQ
CASE NAME: Iran-Iraq War and Waterway Claims
CASE AUTHOR: Brad Martsching, May 1998










I. CASE BACKGROUND

1. Abstract

In 1980 war erupted between Iran and Iraq. This war resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and a tremedous loss of oil revenues for both countries The war eventually ended in 1988 but anomosities have persisted. While the causes of the conflict were numerous and varied, one of the principals was access to, and control of, the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Control of the waterway and its use as a border have been a source of contention between various states since The Peace Treaty of 1639. Ambiguities in this agreement (between the Persians and the Ottoman Empire) led to continual disputes that have not been resolved to this day. See maps of Iraq and Iran respectively below.

Issues


















2. Description

The descriptive portion of this case study has been divided into a number of sub-sections in an attempt to provide a logical flow of information. The first of these is an historical background that examines both the the social origins of the conflict, and the peace treaties that preceded the initiation of hostilities. The second section focuses on the economic impacts of the conflict.

Historical Background

Social Origins

As mentioned above, the dispute over the Shatt-al-Arab is only one of the causes that precipitated war to occur between Iran and Iraq.
(1) While some have argued that this event alone would have sufficed,(2) they are in the minority. This section will first examine some of the social elements that contributed to the war, and then briefly describe a number of the treaties that preceded the opening shots.

Iran and Iraq have a number of longstanding enmities that actually precede the formation of either country. The first of these is Iran is the inheritor of the Persian empire while Iraq is the inheritor of the Babylonian Empire. This is significant if for no other reason than it means Iranians identify themselves as Persians while Iraqis identify themselves as Arabs. Consequently the majority of Iranians speak Persian dialects while the vast majority of the Iraqi population speaks Arabic. These differences are further highlighted when one examines differences in religion.

While both countries are Islamic, the government of Iran is of the Shi'a sect while Iraq is of the Sunni. Furthermore the Iraqi ruling party, the Ba'th regime, is secular while the Iranian government is fundamentalist. This is further complicated by the fact that although the Iraqi government is Sunni, the population is from 60%-65% Shi'a. The Iranians attempted to capitalize on this fact by embarking on a campaign designed to enflame the Shi'a population of Iraq and subvert the Iraqi government in 1979-80. The Iraqi's responded by increasing their military readiness posture thus starting a conflict spiral that eventually resulted in the outbreak of hostilities.

Throughout the conflict both sides played upon the differences outlined above to maintain the support of the domestic population and elicit the support of foreign governments. Neither country was very effective in the latter.

Peace Treaties Related to the Shatt-al-Arab

The first recorded treaty that involved the Shatt-al-Arab was The Peace Treaty of 1639 between the Persian and Ottoman Empires. This treaty established a border lacking in detail and conforming in large part to tribal loyalties. While this arrangement proved sufficient in most areas, this was not the case in the Shatt-al-Arab region. From the Persian perspective the waterway served as a natural border. However, the tribes on both sides were Arabs and thus the Turks viewed the entire area (both sides) as belonging to them. This led to the outbreak of hostilities in the 1800s and eventually yielded The Second Erzerum Treaty of 1847.

This treaty also had problems and "suffered from a central weakness: it remained largely nebulous in its working and was unclear about the course of the border in the Shatt-al-Arab region, thus leaving unresolved the question of territorial responsibility for the eastern bank of the river."(3) Not surprisingly this treaty also proved insufficient and led to The Constantinople Protocol of 1913. This treaty established a commission to mark the border but this work was ended with the outbreak of WWI and prevented recognition of the border.

It was in the aftermath of WWI (and the subsequent border deliniations on the part of the British) that the dispute was first placed in an Iran-Iraq context. This resulted in a treaty between the two countries in 1937 and a commission to determine the border in 1938. This met with many of the problems mentioned earlier and little progress was made until the 1950s. However, just as it appeared that a lasting agreement might be reached, a revolution occurred in Iraq and the situation deteriorated. A number of armed clashes took place along the border but these were fairly minor.

By 1969 the situation in the region had changed such that Iran was vastly superior (in military terms) to Iraq. This was due in part to the fact that the Ba'th party had recently taken power and was tied up domestically ensuring its power base within the country. Reportedly the Iranians supported the Kurdish uprising in the northern sector of the country and brought the countries to the verge of open warfare again. This was averted by The Algiers Agreement of March 1975 which was forced on the Iraqi's due to their inferior military position. This agreement established the border along the thalweg principle (mid-river) and was later rejected by Iraq. This set the stage for conflict that would erupt in 1980. (In regards to navigation rights, Iraq wanted access to the full width of the river as it is crucial to its exports. However the Iranians preferred a delineation along the aforementioned thalweg principle.)

Economic Impact

Iraq, which relies primarily on oil exports to generate foreign exchange earnings, suffered severe losses during the war. This was due not only to the "massive expenditures"required to finance the war, but damage to oil export facilities.(4) Both sides specifically targeted these facilities in an attempt to reduce dramatically the others ability to wage war. The Iraqi losses alone are estimated to be at least $100 billion.(5)

With the cessation of hostilities in 1988 the Iraqi economy began improving steadily as oil export facilities were rebuilt and new pipelines constructed. This ended shortly after the invasion of Kuwait with the introduction of an international embargo and military action soon after. Today oil exports remain at approximately 5% of their previous level and living standards have deteriorated.(6) For example, the latest economic figures available (1996) estimates Iraq's GDP at $42 billion and Iran's at $352 billion (both in U.S. dollars). Likewise per capita GDP was estimated at $2000 for Iraq and $5300 for Iran. For a more detailed examination of the impact of sanctions on Iraq see Iraq Sanctions.

In regards to the river the economic impact is immense. In the words of one author, "there is no doubt at all that for the Iraqis unopposed usage of the Shatt waterway and of the small stretch of Iraqi territory debouching on the Gulf is seen, in economic and security terms, as vital."(7) This is because the river and this small stretch of land is the Iraqis only outlet to the Persian Gulf and thus the shipping lanes needed to exports it primary resource, oil. Once again this arrangement is a result of direct British influence as they served as a hegemon for the region through the end of WWII.)

3. Duration: 1980-88

4. Location

Continent: Africa
Region: Middle East
Country: Iran


5. Actors: Iran, Iraq, and the United Nations

The United Nations made numerous attempts to intervene in the conflict and end the hostilities but all attempts failed.

II. ENVIRONMENTAL ASPECTS

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Water

While the potential for environmental damage remained high throughout the course of the conflict, apparently little took place. There are some allegations that Iranian access to water resources was restricted during the period of Iraqi occupation, but no concrete evidence has been produced. Transportation along the Shatt-al-Arab was however restricted throughout the duration of the conflict.

The Shatt itself is important for a number of reasons. The first is that it allows for agricultural production in an area with a dry, humid climate. The waterway then serves as a means of transportation for moving agricultural and other products both within the country and to ports for export. This last part is of strategic importance to Iraq which is land-locked except for the narrow strip which runs along the Shatt. Furthermore, the majority of that strip of land is swamps and therefore not conducive to a large number of highways or railroads without a significant expenditure of economic resources.

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site                Harm Site

Iran-Iraq border        Iran-Iraq border

Example

Potential restrictions to water resources
(See bottom right of map.)


III. CONFLICT ASPECTS

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute:

While there is no one definitive estimate, several have been made with nearly all placing the number of casualties well over 100,000 (on each side).

IV. ENVIRONMENT AND CONFLICT OVERLAP

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct

In this case there is a direct link between the environment and the conflict. In the words of one author, "there is no doubt at all that for the Iraqis unopposed usage of the Shatt waterway and of the small stretch of Iraqi territory debouching on the Gulf is seen, in economic and security terms, as vital."(7) While there were a number of additional factors that contributed to the conflict, the importance of the waterway cannot be overstated.

==> historical claims ==> CONFLICT

==> power imbalance ==> CONFLICT

==> resource demand, water ==> CONFLICT

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: Draw

The Iran-Iraq war ended at the end of eight years with neither country having gained a clear advantage. Iraq's initial invasion met with a good deal of success but eventually became bogged down and was unable to capitalize on its early successes. (This was due in part to withdraw of support by the U.S.S.R. which had not been informed prior to the invasion.) While each side made significant gains from time to time, neither was able to sustain the combat power needed to reach the other's center of gravity and achieve decisive victory. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1990 but they "are still trying to work out written agreements settling outstanding disputes."(8) Iraq also has a dispute with Turkey over water development plans for the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Update: Relations between the two countries have recently been warming and could lead to an agreement. They have also started to exchange prisoners of war from the conflict with over 5500 being exchanged in April.(9)

V. RELATED INFORMATION AND SOURCES

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The Economic and Environmental Impact of the Gulf War on Kuwait and the Persian Gulf

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Itaipu Dam and Environment

Environment and Russian Nuclear Trade

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The Yalu River

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Endnotes

(1)For example, "Among the complaints lodged by Iraq and Iran with the United Nations before September 21, 1980, the issue of the river frontier is markedly absent." See Ford Foundation Conference Report, The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, New York: Ford Foundation, 1987, p. 11.

(2)See Daniel Pipes, "A Border Adrift: Origins of the Conflict," in The Iran-Iraq War, as quoted in W. Thom Workman, The Social Origins of the Iran-Iraq War, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publisher, Inc., 1994, p. 23.

(3)See Peter Hunseler, "The Historical Antecedents of the Shatt al-Arab Dispute," ed. M.S. El Azhary, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984, p. 11.

(4)See the CIA website, "The World Factbook on Iraq," p. 4 of 7. Downloaded on January 5, 1998 from: http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/

(5)Ibid.

(6)Ibid.

(7)See Glen Balfour-Paul, "The Prospects for Peace," in The Iran-Iraq War: An Historical, Economic and Political Analysis, ed. M.S. El Azhary, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984, p. 129.

(8)Found on the CIA website, "The World Factbook on Iraq," p. 1 of 7. Downloaded on January 5, 1998 from: http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/

(9)See Doug Struck, "POW's Story a Reminder Of the Brutal Iran-Iraq War,"in The Washington Post, April 12, 1998. p. A22, and Douglas Jehl, "Iran and Iraq Begin Big Trade of P.O.W.'s," in The New York Times, April 7, 1998. p. A3.

Relevant Literature

Balfour-Paul, Glen. "The Prospects for Peace," in The Iran-Iraq War: An Historical, Economic and Political Analysis, ed. M.S. El Azhary, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Blake, Gerald H. and Richard Schofield. eds. Boundaries and State Territory in the Middle East and North Africa. Cambridgeshire: Middle East and North African Studies Press Ltd., 1987.

Bulloch, John and Adel Darwish. Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East. London: Victor Gollancz, 1993.

Ford Foundation Conference Report. The United Nations and the Iran-Iraq War, New York: Ford Foundation, 1987.

Hunseler, Peter. "The Historical Antecedents of the Shatt al-Arab Dispute," ed. M.S. El Azhary, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Jehl, Douglas. "Iran and Iraq Begin Big Trade of P.O.W.'s," in The New York Times, April 7, 1998. p. A3.

Kaikobad, Kaiyan Homi. The Shatt-al-Arab Boundary Question: A Legal Reappraisal, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Khadduri, Majid. The Gulf War: The Origins and Implications of the Iraq-Iran Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Pipes, Daniel. "A Border Adrift: Origins of the Conflict," in The Iran-Iraq War, as quoted in W. Thom Workman, The Social Origins of the Iran-Iraq War, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publisher, Inc., 1994.

Roberts, Ann Milne. "Water Wars of Water Laws," in the Financial Times, August 28, 1997. pp. 12-13.

Schofield, Richard N. Evolution of the Shatt Al-' Arab Boundary Dispute. Cambridgeshire: Middle East and North African Studies Press Ltd., 1986.

Struck, Doug. "POW's Story a Reminder Of the Brutal Iran-Iraq War,"in The Washington Post, April 12, 1998. p. A22.

Relevant Web Sites

CIA Homepage

Iranian Cultural & Information Center

Interactive Map of Iran

Arab Net

Iraq's WWW sites


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May, 1998