After Iraq’s Defeat in Kuwait

In the period from the 1988 ceasefire to the end of the Kuwait war, Iran- Iraq relations improved and were stable, if not especially friendly. With the end of the Kuwait misadventure, the bi-lateral relationship vacillated. At its worst, the two neighbors would regress to the familiar of mutual hostility.

To those Iranians with a more revolutionary inclination, the end of the Kuwait war looked like an opportunity for the long suffering Shi’a majority in Iraq to finally remove their weakened oppressor. Iranian sponsored broadcasts encouraged their Iraqi brothers and sisters to take up arms and oust Hussein. The ensuing uprising failed, but the damage was done. Hussein responded by increasing Iraq’s support for the MEK, which began launching raids into Iran. Iran responded in 1992 with an air attack on an MEK base in Iraq, even as Baghdad sent its own aircraft to intercept the Iranians (Hiro 2001, p. 200).

The war in Kuwait had also created a new arena of disagreement between Tehran and Baghdad. Just prior to the US coalition’s attack, Iraq flew more than 100 planes and jets across the Iranian border for safekeeping. Iraq now wanted them back. Iran declined, conveniently citing the UN arms embargo.

Despite these new problems, both sides were able to manage the antagonisms, keeping them below a level where they might escalate and become a cause for a renewed, kinetic conflict. Spokespeople on both sides said the right things, trade increased and cross-border smuggling continued (Baram 2002, pp. 209-10).

The disagreements were tempered not only by a fear of escalation, but also by a fundamental shift in Iranian-Iraqi relations. By 1992, for both countries, there were other foreign policy concerns that simply mattered more. For Iraq, defeat on the battlefield, continued military pressure by British and American forces, and the ongoing UN oil-for-food program meant that Hussein had other issues to occupy his time. For Iran, the end of the Soviet Union now meant that the old principle of “neither East nor

West” was less important than looking North and South, for example, to the former countries of the Soviet Union near its border. Iran also had to respond to increasing tension caused by its occupation of the Gulf islands (Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb), about which there was renewed controversy and ill-feeling beginning in 1992. Finally, Tehran was eyeing the US—an unconstrained superpower, with forces all over the region and an increasingly hostile attitude toward the Islamic Republic. For the remainder of Rafsanjani’s term, these issues, rather than Iraq, would require attention (Marchall 2003, pp. 119, 121-34).

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