Implications of the Iraq-Iran War

An Iranian jeep.

On U.S. Army maps the area of Iraq and Iran on either side of the Shatt al Arab River is shown in white, indicating uninhabited marsh and swamp. A warning indicates that "border demarcations are subject to international dispute." It was here, at the tip of the Gulf, variously called Persian or Arabian, that a British expeditionary force first landed in 1914 to drive the Turks from Mesopotamia, and to establish ultimately the independent state of Iraq as it is known today. The expedition's political adviser, Sir Percy Cox, warned his superiors that "the position of our ships in the [river], from an international point of view, is undoubtedly a weak one."

Cox's warning echoes ironically through more than 60 years of disputes between Iraq and Iran, together with Turkey, the European powers, the United States and the United Nations, all of which have been involved in the contention. For in this inhospitable part of the world, neither geography nor international law permits any power to feel secure. So long as that has been the case, military conflict was bound to recur-with ever-increasing seriousness as the oil became more precious and the military forces on each side of the Shatt al Arab grew more potent.

Iraqi maps of the region show Iraqi territory in pale gray and Iran in dark gray. But a large zone, corresponding roughly to the Iranian province of Khuzistan (or Arabistan as it is termed in Iraq), is marked out separately in alternating shades of gray. With a population of ethnic (and linguistic) Arab stock that has coexisted uneasily with the Iranian majority of the country, the area has been a battleground for ambitious regional potentates since ancient times. The Shatt al Arab river is both a natural border line for Khuzistan, between modern Iraq and Iran, and a strategically vital means of access for the cities on both sides.

For Iraq, the Shatt al Arab is only one of its geographic vulnerabilities in the area. Another feature

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