The hardness of reality compels me thus to act.
— Virgil, Aeneid, Book I, 563–4
The revolutionary Islamic regime in Teheran had been in office for less than eighteen months when Saddam Hussein launched a surprise attack on Iran. The Iranian armed forces had been demoralized by the mullahs’ execution of scores of their top commanders. The Iraqi dictator ordered his air force to bomb Teheran, his army to seize the Iranian oilfields and his small boat navy to interdict the movement of tankers carrying oil from Kharg Island.
Saddam hoped to seize—or destroy—the Iranian oilfields and win control of both sides of the Shatt el Arab waterway, Iraq’s only outlet to the sea. He was also motivated by a desire to punish Iran for its longstanding support for the Kurds in northern Iraq and its new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, for his religious evangelism among the oppressed majority Shiites in central and southern Iraq.
At first all went well for the Iraqis. They had the advantage of surprise. The U.S., Britain and France had also halted the supply of western military equipment to the Islamic regime in Teheran.
In the south, the Iraqi armed forces crossed the Shatt el Arab, ferried their tanks across the Karun River and captured Khorramshar. Six days of ferocious fighting cost the invaders twenty four thousand and the defenders twenty eight thousand casualties. Abadan was severely bombed and most of the refinery destroyed but the Iranians’ fierce resistance saved the city.
On the central front, Saddam’s infantry pushed through the mountains to seize several Iranian towns and bombard the city of Dezful, a