Feeling insecure, vulnerable, and quite dramatic, Saddam Hussein appeared on live television on September 17, 1980 and ripped apart the 1975 Algiers Agreement, disclaiming the set Iraqi-Iranian borders. He then launched an attack on Iran on the 22nd, which unleashed chaos within the Middle East for eight miserable years. During the course of the war, terrible offenses such as the use of nuclear weapons took place. The war had grave economic and social consequences, some of which led up to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Historians state that the war was just another phase in the Persian-Arab conflict that had been ruffling for centuries.
This may explain the social rivalry between the two nations. However, the anti-Ba’athist slogans preached by Khomeini are believed to be one of the main triggers of the outbreak. Furthermore, Saddam can be seen to have practiced offensive realism by invading Iran to heighten his party’s stance and secure his survival. The bandwagoning of other Arab states and the United States alongside Iraq might indicate that other Arab states (with some ancient grievances towards the Persians) might have sought out their own survival and security as they intervened in the war against Iran.
This essay intends to analyze the war from a realist perspective, using Mearshiemer’s theories to understand why Saddam Hussein and Khomeini led a spiteful war for eight years, with no obvious victor. Essentially the rivalry between the Arabs and the Persians dates back to archaic times. After the First World War, Britain assigned each of Iraq and Iran, with borders that set states with murky borders that were easier for Iran to accept. Iraq on the other hand, believed that Britain had deliberately given less land to Iraq, not to mention that the land in question was oil-rich.
Later, Iraq and Iran signed the 1975 Algiers Agreement, which meant that both parties legitimized and acknowledged the set borders. It also required Iran to close its borders to Kurdish Refugees. However, on many occasions Iran did not strictly adhere to the agreement, and not only was there an occasional influx of Kurdish refugees on Iranian soil, but Saddam believed that Iran was aiding the PKK with arms and motivation in order to establish an independent Kurdish state. The sum of these issues disrupted Iraq’s sovereignty. This created the first factor leading up to the war.
Saddam’s retaliation with the declaration of war on Iran may be seen as an offensive means of establishing power and authority. According to Weber, “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” is what defines sStatism. When the territories of the state are threatened (or in this case not clearly defined to start with), states are faced with a dominion threat. Initially the 1975 Algiers Agreement was meant to resolve the issue of boundaries and allow the states involved to establish sovereignty.
But as terms of the agreement were violated, Saddam Hussein saw it best to resort to force. Thus, Saddam’s take on the matter arguably complies with Mearshiemer’s classical realist theory, which states that countries are concerned with the sovereignty and survival of the state above all else. Feeling that Iran was a threat to the sovereignty of Iraq, Saddam pulled the trigger on peace. Building on that, not only was Iran viewed to be jeopardizing Iraq’s sovereignty, but Khomeini was also threatening the security of the Ba’athist Party.
Now Mearsheimer will tell us that individual players or the state-actors do not essentially matter in understanding the system, and thus to say that Saddam Hussein used the war as a means of protecting his party would essentially comply more with Morgenthau’s views on realism (i. e. the inevitable quest of attaining and maintaining power being typical to human nature, and dominates by motives). However, keeping in mind the nature of a dictatorship, it is very difficult to distinguish between the dictator’s motives and the state’s.
In reality, they are one and the same—to maintain a sovereign state you need to have a capable ruler. With a lack of alternatives, Saddam Hussein and his party were the capable rulers of Iraq, and Khomeini’s appeal to the Shiite population of Iraq threatened the party’s legitimacy. Soon Saddam was facing riots and protests, not only from the Kurds, but also from the Shiite population in southern Iraq. Indeed the Ba’athists suppressed the riots, but the root of the problem was Khomeini. The hostility with which he criticized Saddam’s Iraq initiated a verbal war long before the 22nd of September.
Thus, conforming Mearshiemer’s theories of realism, the threatened survival of the Ba’athist party eventually contributed greatly to the outbreak of the war. The initiative to attack and establish unquestionable power would be considered the hand of offensive realism put into play. This is simply because wherever the oil curse is involved, it is essential that we take power maximization into consideration. If the boundaries between Iraq and Iran did not determine how much oil reserves each state held, would the war have broken out? Maybe, due to the other infringing issues of security and survival aforementioned.
But, it would be acute not to consider the fact that Saddam had oil on his mind when he declared war. In fact, as oil comes into the equation the war may even be rendered inevitable. As a military dictator, Saddam Hussein had dedicated a lot of the Iraq’s GDP to building what might have been the most powerful military force in the region, then. After the White Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, Saddam was presented with the ideal opportunity to define Iraq as the authoritative figure in the set region, and expand Iraq’s wealth.
Thus, clearly Hussein had intentions of maximizing power (which comes with holding more oil reserves) when he invaded Iran. Following through with the prior argument, the relative states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United States were involved in the war too, each with their own realist purposes. The involvement of the Arab states was believed to be due to the Arab-Persian rivalry, yet Mearsheimer and I would disagree, as “[i. “In] a world where no international authority reigns above states, great powers invariably seek to gain power at each other’s expense and to establish themselves as the dominant state. 
Without doubt taking into consideration the anti-Persian sentiment, none of the states aforementioned states got became involved in the war purely for the sake of Arab brotherhood. They all clearly, like the United States, saw that the formation of a new Islamic republic ruled by a Shiite extremist would jeopardize their security and economic wellbeing. They also saw that getting involved directly would cost too much in money and blood, thus Iraq was fighting a war they all felt needed to be fought without dirtying their hands.
Evidently, this self-interest-and-survival-thrives-all-else is ypical of offensive realism. Albeit they only fought the war indirectly through loans and some arms support, the fact that they conceded to the offensive resolution of the Iranian dilemma makes them just as responsible as Iraq. In politics there is no black and white. There are only various shades of grey. Thus, although the majority of the war would easily lend itself to Mearshiemer’s theories, it is very difficult to disregard Morgenthau. Morgenthau probably would tell us that Saddam’s resort to war was typical to human nature since it is of nature to aspire to gain and maintain power above all else.
He would call into question some of the Ba’athist’s motives. Yet the war was initiated as a response to Khomeini’s threat of disrupting the structure. Khomeini was a great orator who came along and had little regard for Iraq’s sovereignty or borders; he also threatened to disrupt the wellbeing of other neighboring countries as well as the US. This created a security dilemma that led to the lengthy bloody war. Also, Saddam had ample military power, and more likely wanted to add to that by means of acquiring some of Iran’s (or what is believed to have been Iraq’s before British borders) land.