In 1980, foreign policy pundits were still reeling from Iran's Islamic revolution. No one had predicted that Iran, widely regarded as one of the most progressive and Westernized countries in the region, would implement its own strict version of Islamic law… and no one had predicted the hostage crisis and subsequent American humiliation. Many feared a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism would sweep through the Middle East, toppling other regimes and plunging the region into chaos.
Iraq's new leader, Sadaam Hussein had even more to lose from the Iranian Revolution than America did. His Baathist part was aggresively pan-Arabist and secular. What's more, Hussein and his cronies were Sunni Moslems ruling over a population which, like Iran, was majority Shi'ite. And so many breathed a sigh of relief when Hussein used a long-standing border dispute with Iran as the pretext for a major offensive. The Iraqis were vastly superior in size and training, and equipped with the best the Soviet Union could provide. The Iranian Army, on the other hand, was dealing with widespread civil conflict, with an officer's corps decimated by executions and imprisonment. In their place were the mullahs, who were long on religious fervor but short on actual knowledge. Most observers figured Iraq would make short work of the Iranian Army.
Alas, the pundits were once again caught off guard. The Iranian Army battled back from early defeats with the help of the Pasdaran and Basij, People's Militia units which engaged in human wave attacks, sacrificing themselves en masse to clear minefields and overrun fortifications. The Iraqis found themselves unable to hold any of their gains, and soon both sides were bogged down in a nasty stalemate, locked in the kind of "meat grinder" combat that had not been seen since World War I.
Faced with a long war of attrition, the Iraqis resorted to a World War I solution - poison gas. As early as 1980 there were reports of Iraqi shells containing tabun (a nerve gas) and mustard gas (a blistering agent) used on Iranian troops. At first US sources claimed that there was no evidence that the Iraqis were using anything stronger than tear gas: later, they tried to claim the Iranians were actually behind the chemical attacks… despite the fact that there is no evidence that Iran has ever introduced chemical weapons into combat. Later, the Center for Disease Control and the American Type Culture Collection sent Iraq samples of anthrax, botulism bacteria, gas gangrene bacteria, and West Nile Virus, among others. The official claim was that Iraq was using these for "medical research" … but as early as 1982 wounded Iranians being treated in the West were showing symptoms of exposure to anthrax.
While the United States certainly supplied Iraq with at least some of the material it would later use to build biological and chemical weaponry, we weren't the only suppliers - or even the primary ones. The Soviets had a long and close relationship with Iraq and with Hussein's socialist Baath party. The French also supplied Iraq with Mirage fighters and with raw materials that could be used to make insecticides - or chemical weaponry; so did chemical firms in Switzerland and Germany. All were well aware that Hussein was a brutal dictator who had started the war … but saw him as the "lesser of two evils" in the battle with Iran.
The United States actually saw the Iran-Iraq conflict as a win/win situation: it kept both the Iraqis and the Iranians occupied, thereby neutralizing two potential threats to the region. In 1983 Donald Rumsfeld, then Middle East envoy for President Reagan and today Secretary of Defense, met with Sadaam Hussein in Baghdad. Meanwhile, we were making transfers of weaponry to Iran via Israel, playing both ends against the middle and ensuring continuing slaughter. At the same time we were providing weaponry to Afghani rebels who were fighting the Soviet Union, despite their adherence to a particularly militant and uncompromising variety of Islam. At the time it probably seemed like extremely clever realpolitik… at least until we discovered that Sadaam Hussein was using chemical weapons in genocidal attacks against Kurdish villages. By 1988 the two sides had achieved an uneasy truce: in 1990 Hussein would turn his attention, and his now battle-hardened army, toward Kuwait.
Much has been made of the "blowback" caused by our arming of the Muhajjadin in Afghanistan: in reality, the blowback from the Iran-Iraq war was considerably worse. The long struggle left Hussein's government deep in debt, forcing it to seek greater funding by annexing the rich oil fields of Kuwait. Meanwhile, the "human wave" suicide attacks popularized by the Iranian forces provided inspiration for others throughout the region. The suicide truck-bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Lebanon would be the first shot across the bow: later, the practice of suicide bombing would become famous among Palestinian guerrillas fighting Israel.