Iranian Prisoners Of War From The Iran-Iraq War (3)

Iranian Prisoners of War. [Conflict Iran]

[This post is based on “Iranian Casualties in the Iran-Iraq War: A Reappraisal,” by H. W. Beuttel, originally published in the December 1997 edition of the International TNDM Newsletter.]

Posts in this series:
Iranian Casualties in the Iran-Iraq War: A Reappraisal
Iranian Missing In Action From The Iran-Iraq War
Iranian Prisoners of War From The Iran-Iraq War
The “Missing” Iranian Prisoners of War From The Iran-Iraq War
Iranian Killed And Died Of Wounds In The Iran-Iraq War
Iranian Wounded In Action In The Iran-Iraq War
Iranian Chemical Casualties In The Iran-Iraq War
Iranian Civil Casualties In The Iran-Iraq War
A Summary Estimate Of Iranian Casualties In The Iran-Iraq War

Actual Numbers of PoWs and Missing in Action

By January 1982 Iran held some 28,423 Iraqi PoWs to Iraq’s 5,285 Iranian captives.[29] In early 1984 Iran held 50,000 Iraqis to Iraq’s 7,300 Iranian PoWs.[30] In August 1986 Iran claimed to hold some 52,000 Iraqi PoWs.[31] Just before the cease-fire in 1988 the International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated 49,285 Iraqi PoWs in fifteen Iranian camps and 12,747 Iranians in ten Iraqi camps.[32]

On 9 August 1988 the ICRC count was 50,182 Iraqi PoWs held in Iran to 13,526 Iranians in Iraqi captivity.[33] Iran had at least 8,500 captured in the final Iraqi offensives oi July 1988 and another 700 on 23 August 1988 immediately after the cease-fire went into effect.[34] PoW release had begun long before the war ended. In August 1986 Iran had released 200 Iraqi PoWs and had unilaterally released some 620-650 previously.[35] By 18 October 1988 Iran and Iraq had agreed to begin PoW exchanges. Beginning 30 October 1988 each side exchanged 25 PoWs. Eight of the 25 Iranians were civilian internees captured early in the war.[36]

On 10 November Iran and Iraq agreed again to the exchange of 1,118 Iraqi and 411 Iranian PoWs who were badly wounded or ill.[37] However, after 156 Iraqis and only 57 Iranians had been released the exchange broke down by 27 November over 63 Iraqis who refused repatriation.[38] In January 1989 Iran released 131 sick and wounded Iraqis and Iraq reciprocated by releasing 124 Iranians.[39] In February Iran offered to release another 260 ill Iraqi PoWs. One hundred fifty-eight were released, but 27 refused to return.[40] In March 1989 the more or less official count of PoWs was 50,000 Iraqi to 18,902 Iranians.[41] Iran, on 10 April, released 70 disabled and sick Iraqi PoWs and on 23 May a further 49 plus 15 other PoWs of varied nationalities who fought for Iraq.[42] No further activity occurred until December when Iran proposed more sick and disabled PoWs be exchanged and suggested that a substantial number of Egyptian nationals were among the PoWs it held.[43] Eventually on 14 March 1990 Iran released twenty Egyptians captured fighting for Iraq.[44]

Post-Desert Storm PoW Exchanges

It was not until after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait that the PoW issue came alive again. On 15 August 1990 Saddam Hussein offered to release all Iranian PoWs. He further allowed 17,000 Iranian nationals in Kuwait to return home. By 23 August PoW exchanges were running at 6,000 a day and some 21,000 Iraqi and Iranian PoWs had been repatriated.[45] By 4 September 23,798 Iranian and 24,250 Iraqis had been released.[46] On 16 November the two countries agreed to another exchange of 100 PoWs a day and a group of200 Iraqis was released on 4 December, another group of 200 on 10 December 1990.[47] There is no record of Iranian PoW releases by Iraq in this time period. However, a total of 39,043 Iranian PoWs were eventually released.[48]

On 1 June 1991 Iran claimed Iraq was still holding at least 5,000 Iranian PoWs, an assertion Iraq denied. When Iran repeated the claim in October, Iraq admitted it had 400 who refused repatriation.[49] During the 1991-92 time frame another 64 Iranian soldiers became PoWs during fighting with the NLA [National Liberation Army of Iran] and Kurdish groups supported by Iraq.[50]

Then in early 1991 some 5,000 Iraqi soldiers crossed into Iran to evade coalition forces in the Desert Storm War. Beginning in November 1992 Iran released 400, followed by releases of 1,000 (April 1993), 400 (May 1993), 450 (June 1993) and 459 (July 1993). Eventually 4,115 were released in fourteen intervals with the last known release bringing the total to 4,574.[51] At the same time Iran released 100 Iraqi PoWs from the War of Sacred Defense in May 1993.[52]

At that time the ICRC claimed to have had overseen the repatriation of over 80,000 PoWs held by both Iran and Iraq.[53] This figure is not borne out by the published numbers. At this time the maximum number of Iranian and Iraqi PoWs released from both the Iran-Iraq and Desert Storm wars stood at about 92,267, a discrepancy of 12,000. Some of the 17,000 repatriated civilian internees of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait may have been counted. The ICRC still had some 19,000 Iraqis and 4,000 Iranians on its books as active PoWs.[54]

By July 1992 the only exchanges were those of 101 MIA bodies.[55] In December 1993 Iran complained Iraq was still holding 8,000 Iranian PoWs. The proof was that 26 Iranian civilian internees from the war had escaped and made it back to Iran that same month.[56]

In January 1994 Iran conceded that many of the personnel it listed as PoWs may have been KIA/MIA.[57] Then in July 1994 Iran accused Iraq of holding 16,000 Iranian PoWs.[58] According to the Red Cross Iran continued to hold as many as 19,000 Iraqi PoWs as of 1994.[59] In 1994 the ICRC calculated 4,168 confirmed Iranian PoWs still in Iraq and some 475 other unaccounted for Iranian PoWs.[60]

In August 1995 the Iraqis complained Iran still held 7,000 of their PoWs.[61] That same month Iran released 100 PoWs. The ICRC claimed at that time it had overseen the repatriation of 82,000 of 100,000 known PoWs of the war.[62] MIA exchanges continued with Iraq returning 144 dead and Iran 200 in June 1996.[63] Since then Iran released 150 of Iraqi PoWs as late as 28 October and 724 on 27 December 1996 making a total of 974 that year.[64] Iraq insisted there were still 20,000 Iraqis captive in Iran.[65]

“Not even a single Iranian PoW has been released by the Iraqi regime in the past five years.”

In January 1997 the two nations exchanged 60 Iranian and 70 Iraqi MIA remains, but Iraq again insisted Iran held 17,000 of its PoWs.[66] In August 1997 Saddam Hussein claimed Iran still held 20,000 (1997 ICRC figures about 13,000) Iraqi PoWs. He also claimed that all 39,000 Iranian PoWs held by Iraq had been freed except for a pilot downed during the early part of the war who was still being held as proof Iran started the whole thing.[67] The Iranians countered that 5,000 Iraqi PoWs had requested and been granted asylum in Iran which more or less agrees with 1994 ICRC figures for total remaining Iraqi PoWs (19,000-5,000 = 14,000).[68] In September 1997 47 more Iraqi PoWs were released.[69] In total Iran has released some 48,650 Iraqi PoWs.[70] In November 1997 Iran approved release of another 500 Iraqi PoWs.[71]

Speaking in September 1997 Brigadier General Abdullah Najafi, chairman of the Iranian PoW commission, stated that “not even a single Iranian PoW has been released by the Iraqi regime in the past five years.”[72] This suggests that some may have been released as late as 1992, but this author can find no record of this. The cold fact remains that since 1990 (or 1992 at the latest), no known living Iranian PoW has been recovered. 27,000 remains of MIAs have with another 39,000 estimated. A chronology of this confusing and somewhat contradictory chain of events is given below.

This author’s figures (admittedly incomplete) indicate the release of 92,267 PoWs (plus 547 more Iraqis as of November 1997) by both sides resulting from the Iran-Iraq and Desert Storm conflicts. If ICRC figures for “PoWs” (which seems to include PoWs and CIs from both conflicts) are correct 18,000 are still unreleased. Their own figures list 13,000 Iraqis and 5,000 Iranians still unreleased which makes up the difference.

Mr Beuttel, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, was employed as a military analyst by Boeing Research & Development at the time of original publication. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Boeing Company.


[29] Edgar O’Ballance, The Gulf War, London: Brassey’s, 1988, p. 104,

[30] Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict, London: Paladin Books, 1990, p. 106.

[31] Anthony Cordesman, The Lessons of Modern War Volume II: The Iran-Iraq War. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1990, p. 266, n. 58.

[32] Cordesman, The Lessons of Modem War Volume II, p. 398.

[33] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO: For Your Eyes Only, No. 195, 15 August 1988, p. 195-4.

[34] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 195, 15 August 1988, p. 195-4; “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 195, 12 September 1988, p. 197-3.

[35] Cordesman, The Lessons of Modem War Volume II, p. 266, n. 58.

[36] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 201, 7 November 1988, p, 201-4.

[37] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 202, 21 November 1988, p, 202-6,

[38] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 203, 5 December 1988, p. 203-3.

[39] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 206, 6 February 1989, p. 206-3,

[40] “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 207, 20 February 1989, p. 207-5; “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 208, 6 March 1989, p, 208-3,

[41] “Persian Gulf War”, FYEO, NO. 209, 20 March 1989, p, 209-3,

[42] “Persian Gulf War Aftermath,” FYEO, NO. 211, 17 April 1989, p. 211-3; “Persian Gulf War, FYEO, NO. 214, 29 May 1989, p. 214-5; “Persian Gulf War Aftermath,” FYEO, NO. 215, 12 June 1989, p. 215-9.

[43] “Persian Gulf“, FYEO, NO. 229, 25 December 1989, p. 229-4. The reports indicated 13,000-20,000 Egyptians held, but this figure seems incredible.

[44] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, N0. 236, 2 April 1990, p. 236-4,

[45] “Persian Gulf Crisis,” FYEO, No. 246, 20 August 1990, p. 246-3; “Persian Gulf Crisis,” FYEO, N0. 247, 3 September 1990, p. 247-1.

[46] “Persian Gulf Crisis,” FYEO, No. 248, 17 September 1990, p. 248-1.

[47] “Persian Gulf Crisis,” FYEO, No. 253, 26 November 1990, p. 253-2; “Persian Gulf Crisis,” FYEO, N0. 254, 10 December 1990, p. 254-1, 254-2; “Persian Gulf Crisis,” FYEO, No. 255, 24 December 1990, p. 255-1.

[48] “Iran Calls on Iraq to Release Prisoners of War,” Iran News, 18 August 1997.

[49] “War in the Gulf: Chronology of Events,” FYEO, No, 267, 10 June 1991, p. 267-2; “War in the Gulf: Chronology of Events,” FYEO, No. 277, 28 October 1991, p. 277-4.

[50] “Iran and Iraq,” International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) Annual Report 1996, 1 June 1997.

[51] “1,000 Iraqi Military Men to Return to Iraq,” 1, 17 February 1993; “Iran Releases More Iraqi PoWs,” IRNA, 22 April 1993; “Iran Frees Another Group of Iraqi Army Personnel,” IRNA, 19 May 1993; “450 Iraqi Military Men to Return Home Tomorrow,” IRNA, 22 June 1993; “Iran to Set Free 459 Iraqis Tomorrow,” IRNA, 13 July 1993.

[52] “Iran to Release More Iraqi PoWs,” IRNA, 26 May 1993.

[53] “Iran-Iraq Conflict: Repatriation Process May Resume,” ICRC Press Release, 96/40, 28 December 1996,

[54] “Aftermath of the Iran/Iraq War,” ICRC Annual Report 1994, 30 May 1995

[55] “Gulf War Aftermath: Chronology of Events,” FYEO, No. 297, 3 August 1992, p. 297-3.

[56] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No, 333, 20 December 1993, p. 333-3: “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 324, 10 January 1994, p. 324-3.

[57] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 335, 24 January 1994, p. 335-3.

[58] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 348, 25 July 1994, p. 348-21

[59] “Aftermath of the Iran/Iraq War,” ICRC Annual Report 1994, 30 May 1995

[60] “Aftermath of the Iran/Iraq War,” ICRC Annual Report 1994, 30 May 1995

[61] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 376, 21 August 1995, p. 376-41

[62] “Iran: 100 Iraqi Prisoners of War Set Free,” ICRC News 34, 23 August 1995.

[63] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 399, 8 July 1996, p. 399-4.

[64] “Iran Releases 150 Iraqi PoWs,” Compass Middle East News Wire, 28 October 1996; “General Najafi: Iran Continues to Release Remaining PoWs,” Tehran Times, 13 March 1997; “724 Iraqi Prisoners of War Freed Unilaterally,” Iran Review, No 2 (January 1997).

[65] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 412, 6 January 1997, p. 412-4.

[66] “Persian Gulf,” FYEO, No. 413, 20 January 1997, p. 413-3.

[67] “Iraq – Saddam Hits at Iran Over Jets, PoWs,” USNI Daily Defense News Capsules, 8 August 1997.

[68] “Issue of Iranian PoWs Should Be Publicized More,” IRNA, 18 August 1997.

[69] “Iran Releases More Iraqi PoWs Unilaterally,” IRNA, 25 September 1997.

[70] “Iran Calls on Iraq to Release Prisoners of War,” Iran News, 18 August 1997.

[71] “Iran to Unilaterally Release 500 Iraqi PoWs,” IRNA, 26 November 1997; “Leader Approves Release of Iraqi PoWs,” IRNA, 26 November 1997.

[72] “Iran Releases More Iraqi PoWs Unilaterally,” IRNA, 25 September 1997.

Share this:
Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

Articles: 302


  1. Seems that Hussein made two fundamental mistakes: 1.)The misjudgment that the western nations will stand idle and accept the annexation of Kuwait. 2.) He underestimated the Iranian capacity to wage war.

    • Good points. It would appear that Hussein chronically misjudged all of his foreign opponents.

      It also seems appropriate to note in current circumstances the willingness of the Iranians to pay a high human cost to defend their sovereignty.

      • Iraq was politically isolated and did not offer the advantages of a Vietnamese jungle or the hills of Afghanistan, when the Gulf war emerged.

        The interesting part however is the role of Syria: It served as an ally against Hussein, yet was morally on the same level if not worse. If anything, Syria which probably aspired to become a more important actor in the Arabian hierarchy used this as a smokescreen to conceal its true nature.

        I wonder if it was any different, if the conflict was a Shia/Shia confrontation instead of a Sunni/Shia one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *