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A Historian’s Reflection: Guns, Letters, and National Borders

March 2, 2017


The Iran-Iraq border city Mehran, in the Iranian province of Ilam, witnessed artillery fire into Iraq and its own soil on 10 February 1974.[1] The shooting in February which lasted until March, saw some 42 Iranians and 39 Iraqis perish.[2] The Mehran operation was part of a larger conflict which entangled the contemporary regions of Iran and Iraq chronologically since the era of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires. Those empires unsuccessfully bridged the issues of the Arvund Rud (a 80-mile stretch of river where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet and pour into the Persian Gulf) and west-central Mesopotamian borders (about 130 miles of tight terrain along the Zagros mountain range) with the first modern territorial treaty ratified by Middle East states, the 1639 Treaty of Zohab.[3] Flash forward to the twentieth century, and the ley-lines of the Iran-Iraq border remain a contentious issue for the Iraqi Al-Sharif monarchs and the Qajar dynasty of Iran. Despite sporadic skirmishes, the two monarchies observed the 1911 Tehran and the 1913 Constantinople Protocols which emphasized cooperation, transparent enforcement of land borders established in 1847, and mutually unimpeded navigation rights on the Arvund Rud.[4]

However, following Muhammad Reza Shah’s Pahlavi state-building policy inclinations, and the 1958 Al-Sharif overthrow and installation of the Baathist government in Iraq, the contests along the Iran-Iraq border resumed and became destructive as both governments flaunted their NATO and Soviet arsenals respectively.[5] Moreover, in the 1960s, population expulsions of Iranian nationals from Iraq reached the tens of thousands. During the build-up to the 10 February 1974 events, the Pahlavi and the Baathist regimes routinely accused one another of subversion and hostility, via a series of letters sent to the UN Security Council (UNSC). Each cited border scuffles, aiding separatist groups, and military posturing.[6] Finally, via UN recommendation and bilateral agreement during an OPEC meeting, Iran and Iraq resolved for peace along their borders. The UNSC’s resolution 348 and the Algiers Accord (1975) confirmed the termination of hostilities and were truly hopeful efforts by the two states.[7] However, as history would have it, within five years the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) would begin, claim nearly two million lives, and cost Iran $636 billion and Iraq $376 billion.[8]

In my opinion, today, on 10 February 2017 borders once again seem contentious places. In the United States, we are debating the implementation of a wall and rigid border security along the Mexico-U.S. boundary and we are debating the legality of executive orders restricting immigration from seven countries. The lifting of sanctions against Iran represents space for its participation in the international arena, another sort of boundary momentarily toppled. Elsewhere, the tragedy in Syria has destroyed borders and people alike. To be sure, the violence at Mehran was not the spearhead of the brutal Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein was not dealing with Muhamad Reza Shah, rather the young government established by Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries. However, the stream of history is fluid, once in its current seldom does something surface and absolve itself, more often it is swept up and subtly directs the river toward providence or something less laudable.    




[1] Mir M. Hosseini, “February, 10, 1974 A.D.: Iran Iraq Forces Clash at Mehran Border,”

[2] “Iran: Oil, Grandeur and a Challenge to the West.” Time, 2 November 1974.

[3] Hossein Askari, Conflict in the Persian Gulf: Origins and Evolution, New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2013), 95.

[4] Hossein Askari, 96-97.

[5] “Iran: Oil, Grandeur and a Challenge to the West.” Time, 2 November 1974.

[6] Hossein Askari, 98-99.

[7] Hussein Sirriyeh, “Development of the Iraqi-Iranian Dispute, 1847-1975,” Journal of Contemporary History vol. 20 no. 3 (July 1985): 488;  

[8] Hossein Askari, 140.






Askari, Hossein. Conflict in the Persian Gulf: Origins and Evolution. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.

Hosseini, Mir M. “February, 10, 1974 A.D.: Iran Iraq Forces Clash at Mehran Border.” (accessed 7 February 2017).

“Iran: Oil, Grandeur and a Challenge to the West.” Time, 2 November 1974.,33009,945047-1,00.html (accessed 7 February 2017).

Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Sirriyeh, Hussein. “Development of the Iraqi-Iranian Dispute, 1847-1975.” Journal of Contemporary History vol. 20 no. 3 (July 1985): 483-492. (accessed 8 February 2017).

UN Security Council. 1974. Security Council Resolution 348 (1974) on the situation between Iran and Iraq (28 May 1974). In UN Dag Hammarskjöld Library. (accessed 7 February 2017).

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