Since the Ottoman–Persian Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, Iran (known as Persia prior to 1935) and Iraq fought over full control of the Arvand Roud/Shatt al-Arab waterway. Historically, the waterway (called Arvand Roud in Iran and Shatt al-Arab in Iraq) and Khuzestan Province were all that remained of Iran's prior holdings in Mesopotamia, which had been lost to Turkey centuries earlier.Saadabad Pact, and relations between the two states remained good for decades afterwards.
Saadabad Pact, (The Treaty of Saadabad (or the Saadabad Pact) was a non-aggression
pact signed by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan on July 8, 1937. This
treaty lasted for five years. The treaty was signed in Tehran's Saadabad Palace and was part of an initiative
for greater Middle Eastern-Oriental relations spearheaded by King Mohammed Zahir
Shah of Afghanistan. Ratifications were exchanged in Tehran on June 25, 1938
and it became effective on the same day. It was registered in League of
Nations Treaty Series on July 19, 1938) and relations between the two states remained good for decades afterwards.
The 1937 treaty recognised the Iran-Iraq border to be along the low-water
mark on the Shatt's eastern side, except at Abadan and Khorramshahr, where the frontier ran along the
deep water line (thalweg). This
gave Iraq control of most of waterway and required Iran to pay tolls whenever
its ships used it.
In 1955, both nations joined the Baghdad Pact. However, the overthrow of the Hashemites in Iraq in 1958 brought a nationalist
government to power which promptly abandoned the pact. On 18 December 1959,
Iraq's new leader, General Abdul Karim Qassim, declared: "We do not
wish to refer to the history of Arab tribes residing in al-Ahwaz and Mohammareh [Khorramshahr]. The
Ottomans handed over Mohammareh, which was part of Iraqi territory, to Iran."
The Iraqi government's dissatisfaction with Iran's possession of the oil-rich
Khuzestan province (which the Iraqis called Arabistan) that had a large
Arabic-speaking population was not limited to rhetorical statements. Iraq began
supporting secessionist movements
in Khuzestan, and raised the issue of its territorial claims at an Arab League meeting, though
Iraq showed reluctance in fulfilling existing agreements with Iran—especially
after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's death in 1970 and the
Party's rise which took power in a 1968 coup, leading Iraq to take on the
self-appointed role of "leader of the Arab world". At the same time, by the late 1960s,
the build-up of Iranian power under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had gone
on a military spending spree, led Iran to take a more assertive stance in the
In April 1969, Iran abrogated the 1937 treaty over the
Arvand Roud, and as such, ceased paying tolls to Iraq when its ships used the
Shah justified his move by arguing that almost all river borders around the
world ran along the thalweg, and by claiming that because most of the
ships that used the waterway were Iranian, the 1937 treaty was unfair to
Iran. Iraq threatened war over the Iranian
move, but when, on 24 April 1969, an Iranian tanker escorted by Iranian warships
sailed down the river, Iraq—being the militarily weaker state—did nothing.
Iran's abrogation of the treaty marked the beginning of a period of acute
Iraqi-Iranian tension that was to last until the Algiers
Accords of 1975. In
1969, Saddam Hussein,
Iraq's deputy prime minister, stated: "Iraq's dispute with Iran is in connection
with Khuzestan, which is part of Iraq's soil and was annexed to Iran during
foreign rule." Soon,
Iraqi radio stations began exclusively broadcasting into "Arabistan",
encouraging Arabs living in Iran and even Balūchīs to revolt against the Shah's
government. Basra TV stations began showing Iran's
Khuzestan province as part of Iraq's new province Nasiriyyah, renaming
all its cities with Arabic names.
In 1971, Iraq (now under Saddam's effective rule) broke diplomatic relations
with Iran after claiming sovereignty rights over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater
Tunb, and Lesser Tunb in the Persian Gulf following the withdrawal of the
retaliation for Iraq's claims to Khuzestan, Iran became the main patron of
Iraq's Kurdish rebels in
the early 1970s, giving the Iraqi Kurds bases in Iran and arming the Kurdish
addition to Iraq fomenting separatism in Iran's Khuzestan and Balochistan provinces, both states
encouraged separatist activities by Kurdish nationalists in the other state.
From March 1974 to March 1975, Iran and Iraq fought border wars over Iran's
support of Iraqi Kurds. In 1975,
the Iraqis launched an offensive into Iran using tanks, though the Iranians defeated them. Several
other attacks took place; however, Iran had the world's fifth most powerful
military at the time and easily defeated the Iraqis with their air force. As a
result, Iraq decided against continuing the war, choosing instead to make
concessions to Tehran to end the Kurdish
Peshmerga, who were defeated by Iraq's government in
a short campaign that claimed 20,000 lives. The British journalist Patrick
Brogan wrote that "...the Iraqis celebrated their victory in the usual manner,
by executing as many of the rebels as they could lay their hands on."
The relationship between the governments of Iran and Iraq briefly improved in
1978, when Iranian agents in Iraq discovered plans for a pro-Soviet coup d'état
against Iraq's government. When informed of this plot, Saddam ordered the
execution of dozens of his army's officers and in a sign of reconciliation,
Khomeini, an exiled leader of clerical opposition to the Shah, from Iraq.
Despite that, Saddam merely considered the Algiers Agreement to be a truce,
rather than a definite settlement and waited for the opportunity to contest it.