During the Algiers oil conference in 1975, I spoke at length with Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq [He was actually vice president at that time, but by then he had all the power in the regime anyway]. We agreed to bury our differences and succeeded in ending the misunderstandings which colonialist influences had maintained between us.
President Hussein agreed to negotiate the question of the River Chatt-El-Arab [more commonly spelled Shatt al-Arab] according to international law. As in the case of the Arax River, the waters were divided midway between Iraq and Iran. All our land disputes were also settled.
In Principle, I told President Hussein that the happiness and prosperity of Iraq were important to the security of iran.
A little bit more history of this waterway and the dispute can be heard here
The mullahs took over the Iran four years later. Enter the Iraqi version of Khomeini, Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Former CIA agent Bob Baer wrote
Ayatollah Sadr ... is perhaps as responsible as Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for modern, resurgent Shi'a Islam. Sadr founded the Da'wa Party, a violent, secretive organization committed to the creation of an Iraqi Shi'a Islamic republic ... In 1979, Sadr and the Da'wa took the side of the Iranian revolution, sparking demonstrations and unrest across Iraq. After Sadr's Da'wa attempted to assassinate Hussein's longtime foreign minister Tariq Aziz on April 1, 1980, Saddam ... executed Sadr
On his end, according to a 2008 book by Ronen Bergman, Saddam
initiated a broad plan to "liberate" part of Khuzestan, a city in western Iran, and to install a new Iranian government under the patronage of the exiled Shah [not likely, it seemed to be the work of a network of his former military officers, the Shah was too sick in July 1980 to be participating in something this big]. The attempted rebellion was set for July 10, 1980, but the plan was discovered by Khomeini's intelligence and crushed with great brutality. Most of the 250 conspirators who were arrested were executed.
[UPDATE 4/29/10]: Ken Timmerman interviewed then-President of Iran Bani-Sadr, who made more revelations about this event
Sometimes called the "Noget Coup," the plotters belonged to groups still faithful to Shahpour Bakhtiar and the former head of the Shah's Army, General Gholam Ali Oveissi, who organized the coup attempt from their exile in Iraq. Six hundred pro-Bakhtiar officers were arrested at a meeting at the Noget Air base, outside the city of Hamadan, including 270 officers from the only regular Army division then stationed in Khuzistan. Twenty-five pilots were also involved in the conspiracy. Khomeini decreed they all be executed for their opposition to the Islamic regime, but Bani Sadr opposed his decision. Using procedural ruses in the Courts, he managed to delay the executions until the war broke out, at which point he freed most of the officers on condition they returned to active duty (27).
"Before the war broke out, we had unveiled eight major cells, all linked through a central organization. The largest was in the Air Force, but others were active at Army bases in Tehran itself, as well as in Kermanshah, Khuzistan, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan - all along the Iraqi border. Their mission was to paralyze the Army and the Air Force once Iraq launched its attack. It was not a coup d'etat, but an organized Iraqi attack."
The former President claims that the first clue to the conspiracy was discovered by the alert Captain of the Presidential Guard, who received a manuscript letter threatening the regime. Comparing the handwriting to Army files, he traced the letter to a non-commissioned officer named Heydari of the Airmobile helicopter commandos, and gradually unearthed Heydari's co-conspirators.
"The problem was that we didn't know when they intended to act. But we did know that their plan was to give the appearance of a coup d'etat to restore the Shah, while the real aim was to provide a pretext to cover the Iraqi invasion. According to the information we received, the conspirators had set up a military camp in Sulimanieh and planned to ignite a Kurdish revolt and organize demonstrations throughout Iran. Their strategy was simple: internal disorders would first disperse Iranian military forces, so that on the very first day of the Iraqi attack Saddam could occupy the whole Western part of the country."
As Bani Sadr launched his discreet investigation, the details began to check out. A rebel training camp was soon identified near the Iraqi city of Sulimanieh (and destroyed by the Iranian Air Force on the first day of the war), while the Kurdish revolt that was to spearhead the campaign of nationwide unrest erupted in July. As for the Iranian Army division in Khuzistan - the first province the Iraqis attacked - Bani Sadr discovered to his dismay that only 28 tanks (out of a total of 159) were in working order. Only 7 field guns remained. All the rest had been sabotaged.
"Once we had verified our information we took measures to keep the Iraqi plan from coming off. We hit the Kurds hard in July and in September and arrested the plotters. We reorganized the Air Force. By the time of the invasion, all but our ground forces were ready. Still, if Saddam had concentrated his forces in Khuzistan, where we were weakest, there is nothing we could have done to stop him. His big mistake was opening hostilities along the entire border" (28).
But the handwritten letter that eventually led the way to the conspirators was not all. Bani Sadr says he received detailed information on the Iraqi invasion plans from his Foreign Minister, Sadegh Ghotsadegh, who in turn said he had bought the information for $200,000 from someone in Latin America.
"Latin America? It simply didn't make sense. Shortly after receiving this information from Ghotsadegh, our Ambassador to Moscow, Dr Mokri, returned to Tehran to give me the same information. I asked him the source. He said it came from friends in the CNRS in France (a State-sponsored social sciences think tank). I said that was ridiculous. Then a few weeks later, the Soviet Ambassador, Vinogradov, came to see me and I asked him if he wasn't the one behind the whole story. He gave a little laugh, but wouldn't say. "Well instead of making us pay $200,000," I said, "you could have simply given us this information for free."
Bani Sadr's account confirms the Iraqis' worst suspicions: not only did the USSR betray Iraq by not living up to existing weapons contracts, it made active contributions to Iranian military intelligence.
The result was that at the beginning of the war, the Iranian Air force flew a sortie rate that astonished most observers, and certainly took the Iraqis by surprise. In a series of lighting air attacks which Iraqi planning had simply failed to predict, Iran totally destroyed Iraq's oil terminals at Khor al-Amaya and Mina al-Bakr, dealing a blow to Iraq's oil export capacity that would take years to repair. Meanwhile, major naval battles during the first ten days of the war sank a large number of Iraqi vessels and blocked Iraq's access to the Gulf. The Iraqi intelligence failure was devastating. ...
One of the most haunting ironies of the Noget coup would only become apparent many years later. Shahpour Bakhtiar's liason agent with the conspirators in Iran, a private businessman who had thrown his fortune and organization talents into the fray, would enter the international spotlight under different circumstances in November 1986. His name was Manucher Ghorbanifar.
I don't know if Khomeini ever went into the topic in great detail (the invasion seems to have caught him by surprise - his first public reaction was to get on the radio and announce that "Nothing important has happened!"), but Saddam was interrogated on the topic by the FBI while in American custody in 2004.
Hussein was asked whether the decision to go to war against Iran in September, 1980 was based on threats from Iran or whether the war was a means of reclaiming Arab/Iraqi territory, specifically the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway. Hussein stated, "We consider the war as having started on September 4, not September 22, as the Iranians state." Hussein then provided an example of a farmer who is your neighbor next door. Hussein prefers to use farming/rural examples as they have special meaning to him. One day, the neighbor's son beats up your son. The next day, the neighbor's son bothers your cows. Subsequently, the neighbor's son damages your farmland by disturbing the irrigation system. If all these things have occurred, eventually, after enough incidents, you approach your neighbor, tell him each transgression by event and ask him to stop. Usually, a warning or approach to the neighbor is enough to stop this behavior. With Iran, however, this approach by Iraq did not work. Iran, in Hussein's opinion, was in violation of the 1975 "Algiers Agreement" concerning the waterway. Furthermore, Iran was also deemed to have interfered in Iraqi politics, also a violation of the treaty. In Hussein's opinion, this left Iraq no choice but Derive to fight. Thereafter, Iraq fought the war and sacrificed so that interference by Iran in Iraq would end.
Hussein provided some thoughts about the mindset of the Iranian leadership, specifically Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Iranian decision to fight the war. When Khomeini came to power in 1979, he had two things which "interfered" with his mind. One, he was a religious fanatic who thought all leaders were like the Shah of Iran, a person easily toppled. Khomeini thought since he removed the Shah so easily he could do the same elsewhere including Iraq. Second, Khomeini had a "complex" about leaving/being kicked out of Iraq previously in the late 1970s. Khomeini, exiled from Iran, had been a "guest" of Iraq who was "given shelter" in Najaf. While there, he began speaking out against the Shah and the Iranian government. Khomeini, in Hussein's opinion, was not respecting the written agreement (Algiers Agreement) between Iraq and Iran and was interfering in internal Iranian affairs. The Iraqi government informed Khomeini of their position. They also told him "you are our guest, no one can ask you to leave or for you to be handed over." The Shah had, in fact, tried to get Hussein to turn over Khomeini to Iran. In Arab culture, one can not "give up" a guest.
Khomeini refused to cease his activities against the Shah and the Iranian government. Khomeini stated that if his practices were against Iraqi policy, he would leave. Thereafter, he attempted to depart to Kuwait but was refused entry. Iraq allowed him to return for three or four days and complied with his request for assistance in traveling to another country. Khomeini then traveled to Paris, France.
Hussein stated he does not regret Iraq's treatment of Khomeini. When asked whether Khomeini ignored the gratitude of Iraq upon return from Kuwait, a step which could have resulted in Iraq's refusal to admit him and subsequent transfer to Iran, Hussein stated, "No. It would not have changed the situation. The people did not want the Shah." Khomeini became a symbol for the people of Iran after departing Iraq because of his age and because he had been "kicked out" of Iran. Hussein only stated "maybe" when questioned whether Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric executed in Iraq in 1980, may have been such a symbol. Hussein added he himself was a symbol as one could find pictures of Hussein inside houses and elsewhere in Iraq.
Khomeini believed the Shia population in southern Iraq would follow him, especially during the war with Iraq. But, according to Hussein, "They did not welcome him." In fact, the Shia remained loyal to Iraq and fought the Iranians.
Hussein acknowledged that the Iranian military in 1980 was weak and "lacked leadership" as most of the high-ranking officers had been removed upon change of the Iranian leadership from the Shah to Khomeini. This, however, did not impact on the decision to engage in war with Iran at that moment. Hussein stated, "If the Shah's army still existed, we would have defeated them in the first month." Under Khomeini, despite lacking leadership, the Iranian military, including the army and the Revolutionary Guard, "advanced in thousands" against Iraqi forces. The Iraqi army fought bravely, especially at the borders.
Hussein was asked whether assassination attempts against Iraqi government officials prior to the conflict, allegedly at the hands of Iranian-backed groups, including Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and Minister of Culture and Information Latif Nayyif Jasim, affected the decision to go to war with Iran. Hussein stated there were "540 assaults" on Iraq by Iran before the war. 249 of these "assaults" included air incursions or raids. Iraq presented this information to the United Nations. Iran blocked the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway and sank Iraqi and foreign ships. Before September 29, 1980, Iran bombed Iraqi oil refineries in Basra and other cities in southern Iraq. The assassination attempts against Aziz and Jasim, and others, were among the many incidents leading up to war with Iran.
[These event were shown in an Iraq-slanted documentary
The slant is obvious.]
When asked the objective of the war, Hussein replied, "Ask Iran. They began the war. I have explained all the reasons for the war before." Upon repeating the question, Hussein stated the objective was "to have Iran not interfere in our internal affairs." Hussein repeated some information previously provided including the fact that he believed Iran violated the treaty of 1975 (Algiers Agreement) . Iran occupied the entire Shatt-al-Arab Waterway, while the agreement stated their right to only half. Iran did not respond to diplomatic communications regarding these facts.
This is Saddam's account, meaning that it is probably, purposely incomplete.
BBC asked an Iraqi and Iranian veteran for their thoughts. This is what they believed to the reasons for the war:
Khaled Annakshabandi, former officer, Iraqi special forces
I was an officer in the Iraqi army in the Maghaweer - special forces - and I took part in the battles of Sheeb and Teeb and al-Fakka on the border.
I was injured in the leg by a mine blast, and have been disabled since then. I have six brothers - four of us were officers in the Iraqi army.
Who bears responsibility for starting this war?
In my view the war was caused by Iran, despite my intense hatred of Saddam Hussein.
In 1980 my brother Nizar, who was a colonel at the time serving in an Iraqi unit stationed at the border with Iran, told us of skirmishes on the border, and said that Iran was bombing the border villages on the Iraqi side.
He also said that he expected war to break out. My friends from the village of Mandali in the Diala province on the border also said that they had to leave because of Iranian artillery fire, and that was all before the war formally started.
The most significant reason for the outbreak of war was Ayatollah Khomeini and his statements about exporting the revolution, based on his ideological belief in the rule of the clerics.
Even though Iran is responsible for the outbreak of war, Saddam's way of dealing with it was wrong.
He reacted strongly, despite advice to the contrary from all the military leadership and politicians at the time, who advised him to take defensive positions and mobilise reinforcements.
Mohammad Sadeq Javadi-Hesar fought as a soldier in the Iranian army for most of the war
I was a university student in Mashhad, Iran, when the war broke out. I joined the war effort with a group of friends.
Who bears responsibility for starting this war?
No independent official authority has yet issued a verdict about who actually started the war.
But the evidence shows that the Iraqi army did it.
In the run-up to the war, there were random hostilities and battles on the borders between the two countries.
Saddam Hussein claimed Iraq was engaged in the war because of "Iran's interventions". But it is known that the war started officially with an Iraqi air raid.
The Baathist regime in Iraq under Saddam's government had some territorial and legal claims over Iran and was always looking for an opportunity to regain its "trampled rights".
With the chaos in Iran after the Islamic Revolution the civil and military systems were damaged.
Saddam felt that this was a good opportunity to capitalise and at least capture some part of Iran, specifically the Khuzestan province.
I think his international supporters who felt hurt by the Islamic Revolution were influential in provoking him to attack Iran.