Amid all the hysterical rhetoric surrounding Iran and its nuclear program (some of which The Buzz has previously highlighted), it is refreshing to see a sober, historically grounded look at the subject. This is precisely what Brookings’ Bruce Riedel provides in a sharp piece at the Daily Beast titled “The Last Time We Fought Iran.” Riedel’s article takes a look back at the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, not well remembered in the United States but still hugely important for Iran and the region.
Riedel’s addresses the impact that the war had on the Islamic Republic and its national consciousness. Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the war was critical in shaping the identity and consciousness of the new regime. In Riedel’s words, Iranians “consolidated their revolution by successfully portraying the war as a David and Goliath struggle, started by the U.S. and its allies. The country was mobilized to defend the revolution.”
This continued to be true even as the costs and casualties of the war rose dramatically. Despite an estimated death toll of 1 million on the Iranian side, the Iranians kept fighting. As Riedel says, Iran was not “easily intimidated by America. . . . Even when our navy had sunk most of theirs, Iran kept fighting, and the Iranian people rallied behind Ayatollah Khomeini.”
Riedel reminds us that ending the war was no easy matter. Iran “sued for a cease-fire only after catastrophic defeat on the ground by Iraq and when Saddam was threatening to fire chemical warheads into Iranian cities.” He wisely concludes that should we find ourselves at war with Iran again, “we should not expect Iran to back down easily if history is a guide. A few air strikes will not be the end of it.”
This piece is a welcome rejoinder to those who have argued that the consequences of a preventive U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities today could be easily mitigated. To be sure, history is not destiny. But the historical record provides much more support for caution than recklessness—a reality that Riedel’s smart essay does well to highlight.