Two Accounts of the Outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War: The Economist vs. TIME

As I’ve mentioned before, courses on Iran at Penn were hard to come by.  Finally, in my final semester as an undergrad, Professor Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet–an Iranian expat and historian–offered NELC282: Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.  Given her historical background, the course was a bit more historical than I would have liked.  Much of the work revolved around analyzing primary source documents from British explorers long since dead.

Each student presented on a different book each week in this seminar, so I felt right at home towards the end of the semester when I got to “guest lecture” on The International Relations of the Persian Gulf by F. Gregory Gause, III (now THERE’S a name…).

This is my term paper for the class, the prompt of which was to (1) choose a pivotal moment from the Iran-Iraq War; (2) choose two comparable publications’ coverage of the event, and (3) compare and contrast the accounts with one another.


In 1979, the Middle East as the world knew it changed forever and irrevocably.  While in exile, Ayatollah Khomeini fomented popular revolution against the Shah of Iran, and within months the Pahlavi Dynasty was dismantled.  No sooner had one of America’s Twin Pillars in the region collapsed than Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded the newly minted Islamic Republic of Iran, setting in motion a war that would last eight years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.  Meanwhile, the Cold War raged on, and the international community watched cautiously as these two rivals ravaged each other.

This paper will analyze news coverage of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War from two sources: five articles from TIME Magazine and five articles from The Economist.  As will be discussed, it is fitting that one British source and one America source are consulted.  Both Great Britain and America share a history of influence in the Middle East, and with these two countries in particular.  This period in particular was a time of transition in which Great Britain was reducing its role as international hegemon and America was filling that void.

In the pages that follow, the author will first contextualize the Iran-Iraq War by cataloguing the history leading up to the war’s outbreak.  Next, this paper will go on to introduce and analyze the articles chronologically, in an attempt to compare and contrast the perspectives and narratives of each source.  Finally, this paper will summarize the findings and conclude with some broader generalizations about what this specific case study can teach historians about analyzing historical sources.

Context Leading up to the Iran-Iraq War

In order to properly understand the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s, one must first go back to the time period when the regional map was being redrawn, namely, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the years following World War I.  At this time, Great Britain served the role of proctor nation over much of the Persian Gulf, including the Gulf Monarchies of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  Great Britain was also very influential in Iran, through its control of the Anglo-Iranian Petroleum Company.  Lord Curzon reveals the primary motivation behind British involvement in the Persian Gulf: its colonial goals for India.[1]  The Persian Gulf region was hugely important to trade and shipping both to and from India, and ensuring the cooperation of the sheikhs and governments along the shipping lanes was paramount in the eyes of the British.  But as the Ottoman Empire fell, Great Britain was tasked with a challenge never truly accomplished before: solidifying national boundaries around the Persian Gulf.

Some of the earliest and most robust accounts of travelers to the region underscore the difficulty of establishing finite boundaries.[2]  Arnold T. Wilson recounts the importance of the pearling industry and trade for the regional economy, and emphasizes that the various ethnicities on either side of the Gulf were oriented towards one another (as opposed to any government further inland).[3]  He also takes care to describe the decentralized tribal system and the overlapping of ethnicities and religious identities, which produced unclear boundaries at best and disputes at worst.

Moving along from the 19th century into the middle of the 20th, a brief discussion of security theory and international relations is merited.  The relevant time period of this paper was the Cold War, during which the two superpowers—America and the Soviet Union—waged an ideological battle, with capitalism and democracy in one corner and socialism and communism in the other.  The rest of the world was left to take sides or, in later decades, join a small but determined group of “Non-aligned Nations.”  Each region of the world, therefore, was in some respects a proxy battleground, which is to say that localized conflicts served as surrogates for direct superpower confrontation.  The Vietnam and Korean Wars are the two most prominent examples of this proxy struggle.

Gause contends that this region of the Persian Gulf serves as its own such unit within the realm of international relations,[4] much in the way that Wilson described the interconnectedness of the Gulf’s trade-centric economy from one shore to the other.  However Gause’s argument isn’t economic: it focuses instead on security theory.  Gause describes the Persian Gulf as a tri-polar system in which Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are the dominant actors.  Each of these three countries crafts policies that are high reactive to the other two, respectively.  Specifically, Gause highlights transnational communities—religious, ethnic, tribal, etc.—as the most important pressure point in the region from a security perspective.  In other words, when one country wishes to increase pressure on another, they will support one of the ethnic minorities so as to weaken the government’s control (e.g. Kurds in northern Iraq).  Take note, however, of the double-edged nature of transnational identities: all three countries can use them to their advantage but are also susceptible to them.  And while during the previous century the region was dominated by the pearling industry, these countries today (and in the time period of the Iran-Iraq War) are intimately involved in the oil industry.  Ironically, it was the decision of the British Navy to favor engine-powered ships over steam or sail that contributed most heavily to global demand for petroleum.

But after the British granted autonomy to India in 1947, so too did they withdraw their various forms of influence and protection in the Persian Gulf.  After all, British policy towards the Gulf was centered on its ability to secure the Indian colony and its trade.  Not only was that motivation now gone, but Britain also had to accept the reality of its declining empire in the years after World War II, as America and the Soviet Union grew to dominate the international stage.

As Cold War politics would suggest, America’s involvement in the region grew primarily out of a desire to maintain the status quo, since the majority of the governments in the region weren’t communist.  But America’s entanglement in the Vietnam War meant that unlike the British, they couldn’t make similar military commitments to the region.  Instead, they worked hard to ally with Saudi Arabia and Iran, who would then serve as regional hegemons in the United States’ stead.  This became known as the Twin Pillars Policy, and it was pioneered by President Nixon.

But supporting the Shah would prove to have dire consequences for the United States and American interests in the Persian Gulf.  In 1979, the religious cleric Ayatollah Khomeini successfully orchestrated a popular revolution against the Shah in a campaign that was pointedly anti-America.  This aggressively negative sentiment against the West was used as a political tool to solidify Khomeini’s hold on power in the months following the Revolution.  He in fact spoke frequently of “exporting the Revolution,” calling upon Shi’as in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia to rise up.  It is widely theorized that this was one of the reasons that Saddam Hussein decided to attack Iran in the aftermath of its revolution.

Analysis of Articles

The first of the two publications in this study to consider the possibility of war between Iran and Iraq was The Economist, in a May 10, 1980 article entitled “Drumbeats of War.”  TIME, on the other hand, didn’t publish an article about the conflict between the two countries until October 6 of that year, weeks after the war had actually begun.  That the British source was more prescient than its American counterpart is perhaps unsurprising, considering Britain’s history of involvement in the region, as outlined above.  Great Britain, therefore, was more familiar than America with the Iran-Iraq rivalry, and thus The Economist was better equipped to predict the outbreak of the war in the first place.

This article portrays Iraq as the more aggressive of the two, citing Iraq’s attempts to urge ethnic Arabs in the Iranian province of Khuzestan to “struggle against Persian domination.”[5]  In addition to viewing the conflict through the lens of oil, the article further demonstrates a well-rounded understanding of the region and its fault lines in mentioning the lingering border ambiguities that surrounded several of the small islands in the Strait of Hormuz.  From there, the article goes on to list some of the more dominant ethnic groups inside territorial Iran (i.e., Sunnis, Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmen, and Shi’a Azerbaijanis) which might serve as additional pressure on the Islamic Republic, assuming Iraq’s campaign of “Arabizing” Khuzestan proved to be a model of success and went on to inspire other ethnic groups rising up against the Persians.

TIME’s first piece of coverage, on the other hand, was highly American-centric, analyzing the conflict through the Cold War lens.  Iraq is immediately characterized as “a Soviet client,” while Iran is introduced by reminding the reader that 52 American hostages are still being held.[6]  The article goes on to outline the various ways that the war is damaging to US prestige and influence over the region and elsewhere in international politics, and it consistently probed into ways the Soviet Union was therefore benefitting from the war.  Paramount throughout the article is America’s need to maintain secure shipping lanes for oil tankers moving in and out of the Strait of Hormuz.  This article in many ways reflects America’s changing attitude towards the Persian Gulf, embodied by President Carter’s “Carter Doctrine” in the State of the Union Address in that same year.  This newfound approach was meant to replace the Twin Pillars policy, and it stated that the United States would act in any way—including militarily—to defend and protect American interests in the Persian Gulf region.

In that same issue of TIME, two more articles discuss the Iran-Iraq War.  This first article focuses rather exclusively on the issue of oil.[7]  It expands its analysis to the Gulf as a whole, including Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, but this article is limited in that it only considers these actors for the oil they produce, not for any other role they might be playing as actors within the region.  The second article is considerably less American-centric; however it still analyzes the war from the macroscopic point of view of the international community.[8]  It too hypothesizes about the dangerous implications that the war holds for the global supply of oil, and about the ways that either an Iraqi or an Iranian victory could destabilize the region and the other countries that border the Gulf.  Additionally, this article notes the Shah of Iran’s legacy of support for the Kurds in the north of Iraq.  Here, finally, some attention is being paid to one of the defining characteristics of the Gulf and therefore the Iran-Iraq War: transnational identities.  The article also notes the longtime Iran-Iraq rivalry, citing Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and subsequent attack on Iran as an attempt to stake a claim to the role previously played by the Shah: strongman of the Persian Gulf.

Moving back to The Economist now, their second article about the Iran-Iraq War was published in late September, just days after the fighting broke out.  The article essentially summarizes America’s neutrality, citing Cold War politics, oil, and the hostage crisis as variables at play, albeit to varying degrees of severity.[9]  But once again, The Economist proves to be the more informed of the two publications being analyzed here: the final portion of this article contemplates the ramifications that the Iran-Iraq War will have on Saudi Arabia, the third major player that to that point hadn’t been discussed by TIME.

The next article from The Economist continues this trend of broadening the scope of analysis to consider the impact of the Iran-Iraq War on the other countries of the Gulf.[10]  And, as Gause characterized in his book, the transnational identities of Arab and Persian were deemed by this article to be the dominant factor.  The article quotes to Qatari foreign minister as saying, “We stand by Iraq in its conflict with Iran on the ground that we are Arab brothers.”  Oil also proved to be an important point of contention for the third parties in the Gulf, many of them fearing Iranian reprisal (in the form of attacks on their oil fields) for their not-so-subtle support of Iraq.  The article also underscores the question of the Shi’a transnational identity as a potential tool to be used by Iran to incite popular uprisings in many of the Gulf monarchies like Bahrain, where a Shi’a majority population lives under an oppressive Sunni minority government.  Still, the article points out, the evidence at the time suggested that ethnic ties overrode religious ones, as indicated by Shi’as in southern Iraq decidedly not supporting Iran, choosing instead to align with their identity as Iraqi Arabs.

TIME’s next article came a week later, on October 13th.  The article doesn’t contain much analysis of the conflict, so much as it is a summary of the war’s tactical back-and-forth between Iran and Iraq.[11]  It mentions the initial attempts at peace: a resolution from the United Nations Security Council, President Hussein’s unilateral ceasefire, and Pakistani President Mohammed Zi ul-Haq’s appeal on behalf of the 42-country Islamic Conference to end hostilities.  These peace plans were all rejected by Tehran, who at the time was still occupied by Iraq military forces at various points along the border.  The article also discusses the possibility of the violence spilling over to oil fields of the other monarchies in the Gulf.  And, for the first time for either publication, this article describes the turning point in the war, as Khomeini successfully rallies his nation to respond to the surprise attack and essentially halt the Iraqi offensive.  One of the Iraqi missteps was its over-reliance on transnational identities.  Saddam predicted that the roughly two million Arabs living in Khuzestan (Iran’s southern province on the Gulf) would identify as Arabs first and join his forces.  But their true alliance proved to belong to the government in Tehran, being that they were Shi’a Muslims.  In fact, the article points out that Khomeini and his government established a new organization called the “Islamic Revolutions of Iraq,” with the sole purpose of inciting rebellion against Saddam Hussein and the Baathist government in Baghdad.

The Economist’s next article takes that analysis one step further.  Rather than merely describing the “fault-lines” in the Persian Gulf region, this article charts their change over time as a result of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War.[12]  In other words, the war entrenched both alliances and animosities on either the side of Iraq or that of Iran.  But those fault-lines didn’t always match up with transnational identities (e.g. Algeria backed Iran for political reasons after Iraq refused to join the anti-Israel Rejection Front).  One counterexample that proves the point, however, is Syria’s staunch support for Iran along religious lines.  This article from The Economist also introduces two new changes within the Arab bloc.  First, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) blatantly sided with Iran, for similar reasons as Algeria.  The second development is the notable silence from some of the Arabian countries who, despite ethnic ties to Iraq and a rivalry with Iran, don’t want Saddam Hussein to become the next strongman of the Middle East.  Their experience with President Nasser in Egypt apparently left a bad taste in their mouths.

In another TIME article from the October 13th issue (and the final TIME article being analyzed for this paper), these very same alliances are also discussed.  It is interesting, however, that this article doesn’t approach the subject matter with a similar degree of nuance.  Whereas The Economist appreciated the delicate decision-making processes of each of the Arab countries in the weeks following the outbreak of the war, this TIME article hastily paints the Arab countries as a unified bloc, neatly falling in line along ethnic ties to being Arab: “…the other Arab states were rooting for an Iraqi victory, almost like so many partisan soccer fans…against the Persians, who, though Muslim, are ancient foes of the Arabs.”[13]  That being said, the article does do well to note the transnational Shi’a identity, and the pressure being put on Gulf monarchies by Khomeini’s desires to export the revolution and galvanize those Shi’as into rising up against their Sunni rulers.  But unlike the article from The Economist, in which each country was considered individually, this TIME article gives them all a sort of cursory treatment in a catch-all paragraph.  The one exception is the coverage of Syria, which is actually analyzed more than it is in The Economist article: this TIME article discusses Syrian President Hafez Assad’s deep-seated paranoia that “dissident elements within his country are packed by Saudia Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq.”[14]

And lastly, the final article from The Economist to be analyzed was published on October 25th.  Perhaps ironically, given its coverage to this point in time, this particular article focuses in on America’s position in the broader Middle East as a result of the Iran-Iraq War.  The article begins by detailing the possibility of trading military resources to the Iranian government in exchange for the release of hostages (captured in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution).[15]  While America was worried that arming Iran would anger the Arab countries tacitly allied with Iraq, the Arabs were apparently understanding of America’s predicament, and confident that such a move would not damage relations.  In fact, this Economist article predicts that America’s position “as protector of the Gulf has been enhanced by the Iran-Iraq War,”[16] in many ways ushering the United States closer to replacing the role previously played by Great Britain.  Saudi Arabia is identified as the nation most inclined to applaud increased American involvement in the Gulf; the article cites several arms negotiations for the defense of Saudi Arabia should Iran make good on its promises to bomb oil refineries on the Arab side of the Gulf.  But beyond mere arms transfers, the article discusses in detail several future means of military cooperation being explored by the two governments, including joint military operations, access to Saudi military bases, and weapons storage.  But the article clarifies that such transparent cooperation with America would hardly be welcomed by other Gulf nations (who are also weighing the benefits of American protection against the image of foreign meddling), most notably the staunchly anti-American regime in Tehran.


Overall, the coverage of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War from The Economist is much more analytical and more sensitive to the intrinsic issues of the conflict.  Given Britain’s longstanding history in the Middle East, this is perhaps unsurprising.  TIME Magazine, on the other hand, began its coverage from a highly American-centric perspective.  Gradually, it became more focused on the transnational identities at the heart of the matter.  And, to be fair, there is certainly a role for TIME’s coverage.  After all, the geopolitics of the Cold War put a premium on America’s foreign policy responses to world events, which means that the American point of view was (and is) highly relevant.  That being said, for a historian trying to appreciate the subtleties of the region and the Iran-Iraq War, The Economist proves to be a more well-rounded source.

It is also important to note that, given the nature of military conflicts, this reporting largely looked over the impact of the war on daily life in the Persian Gulf.  Beyond being labeled as belonging to one religion or ethnicity or another, the people comprising this region—be they Iranian or Iraqi combatants or anxious observers—are not covered at all by these articles.  This too is important for a historian to take into account: the coverage of a security crisis will necessarily gloss over the kinds of culture, music, and customs of the very people most impacted by the conflict.

[1] Lord Curzon, Persia and the Persian Problem, Vol. 2.

[2] See Major Rawlinson, “Notes on a March from Zohab, at the Foot of Sabros, along the Mountains to Khuzistan (Susiana), and from Thence Through the Province of Luristan to Kirmanshah, in the Year 1836,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 9, (1839).

[3] Wilson, Arnold T., Persian Gulf: An Historical Sketch from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Centery. With a foreword by L. S. Amery.

[4] Gause III, F. Gregory, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf.

[5] “Drumbeats of War,” The Economist, 10 May 1980, 34.

[6] Church, George J., Christopher Odgen, and Roberto Suro, “Losing: Whoever Wins The Gulf Conflict Offers the U.S. Scant Room for Action – Or Optimism,” TIME Magazine, 6 October 1980.

[7] Palmer, Jay, Richard Hornik, and Janice Simpson, “The Threat to the Oil Flow: No Shortages Yet, but a Closure of the Strait Could Be Catastrophic,” TIME Magazine, 6 October 1980.

[8] Davidson, Spencer, William Drozdiak, and William Stewart, “War in the Persian Gulf Seeking Power and Revenge, Iraq Attacks Iran along Crucial Oil Artery.” TIME Magazine, 6 October 1980.

[9] “Neutral on the Winner’s Side,” The Economist. 27 September 1980.

[10] “And the Feelers Stretching Beyond,” The Economist, 4 October, 1980.

[11] Johnson, Marguerite, William Stewart, Wilton Wynn, “The Blitz Bogs Down: Iran Halts the Iraqi Advance and Turns the War into a Punishing Stalemate,” TIME Magazine, 13 October 1980.

[12] “The Deepening Fault-Lines in the Arab World,” The Economist, 18 October, 1980.

[13] Palmer, Jay, William Drozdiak, Gregory H. Wierzynski, “On the Fretful Sidelines: The Gulf States: Caught in a Crossfire of Conflicting Allegiances,” TIME Magazine, 13 October 1980.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Come Closer, But Not Too Close,” The Economist, 25 October 1980.

[16] Ibid.