Since Iran and Iraq emerged from outright British domination in the 1950s, they have been the biggest powers in the Gulf, a region which holds more than half the world’s oil reserves. In 1973-4 the increasing clout and autonomy of the local powers was shown when they participated in the creation of an effective cartel of oil-exporting states which raised the price of oil from $2 to $12 a barrel, bringing vast revenues to the local ruling classes.
In Iraq, the pro-British monarchy had been overthrown by Arab nationalists in 1958. A CIA-backed coup in 1963 put paid to the more radical strands in the new regime, and then Saddam Hussein seized power in a new coup in 1968. He ran a heavily state-controlled economy, with close links to the USSR, but also did business with the West.
The prime allies of the big Western powers were Saudi Arabia — an extremely rich state, but sparsely populated, and ruled by an Islamic-fundamentalist family dynasty — and, more importantly, Iran, then ruled by a pro-Western king, the Shah.
The Shah’s Iran acted as a “sub-imperialism” to police the area, sending troops, for example, to help British forces suppress radical-nationalist rebels in Oman.
In 1979 the Shah was overthrown by a huge revolutionary uprising. Muslim clerics quickly seized control and started building a sort of clerical-fascistic state, even more repressive internally than the Shah’s regime but a “rogue state” internationally. Saddam saw a chance to gain hegemony in the region, and to grab important territory from Iran; he invaded Iran in September 1980.
Iran’s resistance and counter-attack proved fiercer than he expected. Saddam survived the immense death and destruction of the eight-year war only thanks to tacit assistance from the USA, which sent militarily important supplies. The USA wanted a stand-off, rather than an outright victory for either side which might make the victor-power dangerous to deal with, and towards the end of the war they sent US ships to the Gulf to help ensure that outcome.
Saddam Hussein followed up by nerve-gassing areas of Iraq occupied by its Kurdish minority (one third of the whole population). This brought no protest or economic sanctions from the big powers.
Politically, war measures had made Iraq into a fully-organised police-terror totalitarian state. Militarily, its forces were intact and battle-hardened. Economically, it was drained and desperate. So Saddam invaded the neighbouring state of Kuwait, small but oil-rich, on 2 August 1990. The immediate spoils of conquest would satisfy the military. Saddam had hopes, unfulfilled but not ridiculous, of provoking an anti-Western Islamicist uprising in Saudi Arabia which he could utilise to take control of the whole Arabian peninsula — and the major part of the world’s oil reserves.
Retaliation was swift and crushing because the collapse of the USSR allowed the USA quickly to command the support of almost all the world’s states for a counter-attack: five and a half weeks of intensive bombing, followed by four days of land war.
US President George Bush had talked openly of going on from the reconquest of Kuwait to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad. In fact, a US-run military government was briefly set up for southern Iraq; but the USA left Saddam in power.
They calculated that no stooge regime they could install would be strong enough to deal with the uprising of Iraq’s most oppressed people — the Shi’a Muslims of the south, and the Kurds in the north-east — which rapidly followed. Better to keep Saddam — who would ruthlessly suppress the risings and keep the Iraqi state intact — than see the state break up and rebellions sparked across the Middle East, many of whose borders are arbitrary legacies of British and French colonialism.