University Of Tasmania

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Power, policy and war : explaining the Iran-Iraq War

posted on 2023-05-26, 20:36 authored by Donovan, JD
The failure of traditional analytical tools in successfully predicting the end of the Cold War has seen a series of competing methods seeking to explain the dynamics of conflict. Yet despite the relative abundance of new analytical tools on offer for political scientists, we continue to be confronted by the question of why wars happen. The central question driving this research project is: why does war occur? More specifically the thesis seeks to discover why the Iran-Iraq War, as the 20th Century's longest conventional conflict between two states, happened when it did. To answer this question, I apply two leading methods for explaining wars' causes ‚ÄövÑvÆ foreign policy reciprocity and power transition theory ‚ÄövÑvÆ to an empirical assessment of material and political factors at play in the lead-up to the Iran-Iraq War. Viewed through the prism of foreign policy reciprocity, Iran-Iraq relations prior to the conflict (from 1969 to 1975, and again after 1977) were indeed characterized by a distinct pattern of reciprocal escalation that eventually led to war in 1980. However, the thesis reveals foreign policy reciprocity to be problematic as a way to understand causation and war in this case. In particular, the assumption by theorists favoring such an approach that reciprocal escalation evolves organically to war is not borne out by a close examination of Iran-Iraq relations from 1969-1975. The fact that Iran-Iraq relations had reached the precipice of war in 1975, but underwent an abrupt policy reversal from conflict to cooperation (and then back again after a period of detente) leads the thesis to consider alternative ways to conceptualize this war's causes. This discourse then subsequently considers the utility of power transition theory in explaining the Iran-Iraq conflict, as a dynamic method of assessing power shifts over time. This approach was not only found to provide an explanation for the puzzling policy reversals in Iran-Iraq relations, but also confirms the long established relationship between power capabilities and war. This finding reinforces the correlation between power and permissive conditions whereby conflict might take place. Despite this positive result, however, the thesis concomitantly illustrates the limitations of power transition theory in providing a rich contextual background regarding the rationale behind the decision to go to war. In overcoming this difficult impasse, I demonstrate that neither approach offers a completely satisfactory explanation for the causes of this conflict. However, it becomes clear both foreign policy reciprocity and power transition theory can be used to understand the Iran-Iraq War. While I do not advocate a formal synthesis between the two approaches, my findings suggest that researchers ask themselves two important questions, rather than one, when seeking to explain the causes of war: (i) what are the contextual features of dyadic relationships which describe the evolution of conflict to war? and (ii) what are the permissive or constraining features that allow this conflict to evolve into war? These questions offer future research a platform from which to evaluate other conflicts, and reinforce the utility of reconciling different approaches to the analysis of war causation.


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Copyright 2008 the author Thesis (PhD)--University of Tasmania, 2008. Includes bibliographical references. Ch. 1. Introduction: understanding the roles of power and policy in illuminating the causes of war -- Ch. 2. Alternative explanations for war: forign policy analysis and power transitions -- Ch. 3. Foreign policy reciprocity (FPR) and the Iran-Iraq War -- Ch. 4. Power transitions and the Iran-Iraq War -- Ch. 5. Using FPR and power transitions to explain conflict and policy reversals: a way forward in explaining the Iran-Iraq War -- Ch. 6. Conclusions: explaining the Iran-Iraq War

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