The Long Shadow of the Iran-Iraq War

"No single event has defined Iran’s revolutionary ideology, politics, perspectives on society, and security more than the Iran-Iraq War." 

For a conflict that still captivates much of Iran’s ruling elite, the Iran-Iraq War gets very little attention in the United States. Over the years, we’ve regularly seen events commemorating the August 19, 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Op-Eds on the 1979 Islamic Revolution are always with us. The date September 22, 1980—when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran—hasn’t, however, been compelling for Iran watchers, let alone the general foreign-policy crowd in Washington.

This is a mistake. No single event has defined Iran’s revolutionary ideology, politics, perspectives on society and security more than the Iran-Iraq War. Here are four reasons why that conflict still matters, and why the West ignores its legacy at its own peril.

Iran’s Revolutionary Ideology Marches On

In the intellectual framing of the Iran-Iraq War, the nascent Islamic Republic, led by its founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, believed it was fighting a Holy War. Indeed, in Iran the war has gained the epithet, Defa-e Moqadas, or “the Holy Defense.” For Iran’s leaders, the ideological magnitude of the war helped blur national boundaries, parsimoniously dividing the world into good and evil. Similarly, anti-American themes used against the Shah were later refashioned for Saddam. On the day of the Iraqi invasion, Khomeini declared that, “It is Saddam Hussein who on behalf of America attacked us, and if we respond to him, it will never have anything to do with the Iraqi nation, which is our brother.” These two dimensions, American support for Saddam and the (strategically misguided) belief in Iraqi popular support, would become hallmarks of the war.

Undoubtedly, these notions had policy implications. The late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri—now an icon of the Green Movement—zealously supported the controversial 1982 decision to invade Iraq, hoping to prompt a “coup d’état” there. Interestingly, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani still maintains that “the people of Iraq supported us more during the war” than their Ba’athist leaders. With respect to the United States, Khomeini’s thinking is best echoed by Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who claims that the United States “gave Saddam a green-light” to attack Iran. For Khamenei, American intrigue always remains omnipresent. Sadly, the notion of American support for Iraq would prove correct, but only after the much discussed “tilt toward Iraq,” which only occurred in later, more compartmentalized portions of the war.

Furthermore, Khomeini projected his Islamist notions abroad, telling the Iraqi people to “arise against the person who has now arisen against Islam.” Khomeini’s perception of the Revolutionary experience was not to be limited to Iran. After all, the renowned slogan, “export the revolution” and the birth of Lebanese Hezbollah have their roots in this period. To date, for Iran’s leadership, Khomeini’s ideals live on. In a recent speech, Major General Mohammad-Ali Aziz Jafari, the Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), stated that the mission of the IRGC Quds-Force (IRGC-QF) was “to help Islamic movements, develop the Islamic Revolution, and to help the oppressed resistors across the world.” In short, the Iran-Iraq War paved the way for the globalization of Iran’s Revolution, which had to be both spread and defended by bombs and bullets.

Politics, or the Iran-Iraq War by Other Means

Political and military giants of modern Iran made their names in the battlefields and backrooms of the Iran-Iraq War, drawing tremendous legitimacy from their service. Take, for example, Major General Qassem Soleimani, who is now the Commander of the IRGC-QF. During the war, he was known for his commitment and valor. Or Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who would rise to become Iran’s postwar president (1989-1997). Rafsanjani has published a host of memoirs providing insight into Iran’s questionable prosecution of the war and aiding him in factional infighting which continues to this day. Despite the considerable hype over former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a war veteran himself, virtually every president of the Islamic Republic, with a debatable exception of Mohammad Khatami, played some role in the broader war effort. This certainly holds true for current president Hassan Rouhani, who bore witness to controversial moments during the war, such as the Iraq invasion. Rouhani is particularly noteworthy since he held a host of positions, such as head of Iran’s air defense, and also served on the Supreme Defense Council during the conflict. It is rumored that he served as Rafsanjani’s eyes and ears on the IRGC as well.

While Ayatollah Khomeini may have drunk from “the poisoned chalice” to end the war with Iraq, his doing so would inaugurate a war within Iran. Khomeini’s contentious decision to accept a UNSC ceasefire resolution, coupled with his death a year later, cleft the Islamic Republic’s fractious political elite in two over whether to partake in the existing global order (particularly by way of its oil companies), or to eschew it. A cursory review holds that this divide neatly matches with those in Iran who learned from their wartime errors, and those who continue to insist upon doubling down on them. In one sense, the Iran-Iraq War still rages, as some factions in Iran have replaced their guns with pens, turning on their compatriots over their war-records. Almost daily, the war is referenced in headlines, and new revelations continue to alter the Iranian political mosaic. To date, the dueling narratives and legacies endure, and have real policy implications for the West.

The War’s Social Legacy Remains of Great Import to the Islamic Republic

Iranian officials often view the war era with nostalgia, using the war as a prop and reference point in their conversations. From a regime-centric lens this is understandable, as the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini was alive and able to guide his nation, asking them to bear hardship for the benefit of the Revolution. Concurrently, while united against an external enemy, the Islamic Republic used the war to sequentially decimate a diverse milieu of political opponents at home. A closer look at this period, however, reveals immense human suffering, as total war subsumed Iran, and its population endured tremendous sacrifices. Today, the human brunt of that sacrifice is evident in graveyards like the sprawling Behesht-e Zahra [Paradise of Zahra] cemetery near Tehran. These sacrifices are not only commemorated by fading murals and stamps (which this author doggedly collects), but are actively reinvigorated through tweets from Iranian officials seeking to reinstill a culture of sacrifice and martyrdom in a society that has outgrown it.

The postwar era has proved particularly challenging for this narrative. The revolutionary values that put the Islamic Republic at odds with both East and West during the tail end of the Cold War have yet to be cast aside. Faced with generational changes, Iranian leaders, such as Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Seyyed Hassan Firouzabadi, continue to praise the war, noting that “the Holy Defense, much like the Islamic Revolution, must forever remain alive." Iran has obliged, creating museums that enshrine the sacrifices of those who partook in the war. Cognizant of the diverse and sharply differing views of Iran’s populace, and especially its youth, officials have sought to use the Iran-Iraq War to promote “unity,” while extolling the virtues of knowing the war “for the postwar generation.” It should thus not come as a surprise that the conservative newspaper Kayhan ran the following quote from Commander Ali Fazeli as a headline, “The Holy Defense is the best historical period of the Islamic Republic.”

Even Khamenei has weighed in, saying “While the earthly and spiritual sacrifices of the imposed war were high, the achievements of the nation of Iran in the eight years of Holy Defense, when compared to its sacrifices, were quite great." These accomplishments include successfully turning the war into a “culture,” into something to be lived and wielded at a grassroots level in order to “combat sanctions" or fight threats like a “cultural invasion.”

Iran’s Security Doctrine: Both Holy and Defensive

For Iran, the Iran-Iraq War was full of harsh military lessons. The conflict highlighted Iran’s numerous conventional military deficiencies and command and control issues, and forecasted unresolved civil-military tension. During the war, Iranian onslaughts against Iraqi fortifications crudely epitomized what valor and zeal could wreak against technological superiority. Yet Iran’s limited tactical successes, like taking the Faw peninsula, would be short lived. In near succession, Iran would come up short against Iraqi chemical attacks, Super Étendard jets equipped with Exocet missiles, and the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf.

Despite such battlefield setbacks, Iran touts its war record as having sufficiently frightened and even deterred its enemies, denying them the ability to launch an invasion or strike on the Iranian homeland. This thinking is best exemplified by Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council who said, “If it wasn’t for this eight years of war, ten wars would be imposed on us. And these very same wars that they have commenced in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, they would have created in Iran… And it is the Holy Defense that has made the enemy not dare attack us.” While this may seem like exaggeration, given Iran’s teetering markers of military effectiveness during the war, for the Islamic Republic, the war’s deterrent benefits continue to reap dividends.

From a strategic perspective, the Iran-Iraq War is magnified inside Iran, even being likened to a “third world war.” As time went on, Iran focused obsessively on the war’s lessons, lauding concepts such as “self-sufficiency” as a “great achievement” of the war. In time, Iran moved to invest in a host of unconventional capabilities and asymmetric tools. According to UNSCOM figures, roughly 63 percent of Saddam’s missiles were fired at Iran during the war, prompting it to acquire and create a missile command. To this day, outlets continue to sing the praises of the IRGC officer who had the foresight to “reverse engineer” Scuds, as opposed to firing them all at Iraq. These became the basis for Iran’s missile forces.

Broadly speaking, the timelines for Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs are intermingled, and often overlapped during the war and in the reconstruction era immediately after. Iran’s experiences hardwired into the country’s strategic brain-trust that the world is both unjust and anarchic. Indeed, Iran’s nuclear march is best understood by coupling that thinking with comments by Rafsanjani, who in 1989 said, “international laws are only drops of ink on paper.” Call it a formula for “Islamic-Realism,” if you will.

Indeed, nearly every aspect of Iranian behavior troubling to the United States is rooted in, or underlined by, the war. This is true for terrorism in Lebanon, disdain for Saudi Arabia, speedboats in the Persian Gulf and support for “resistance” against Israel. Today, Iran backs the Assad regime in Syria, since it was Bashar’s father, Hafez, who supported Iran during the war. Furthermore, the war taught the Islamic Republic that who governs Baghdad matters, slating Iran to intervene in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Despite the sharp learning curve, Iranian officials continue to fondly look upon the war, exclaiming that “Eight years of Holy Defense made Iranians experienced.” They are correct, since the experiences of the war provided Iran its current security blueprint.

Revolution Reaffirmed

The Islamic Republic went “all in” on the Iran-Iraq War. In part, Iran’s enduring obsession with “resistance” and sacrifice stems from this cataclysmic event. The war remains a timeless analogy in Iran, the root of many domestic political disputes, and the international case study for both war-making and peacemaking with the Islamic Republic. With the postwar generation yet to come to power, Iran’s leaders today are mostly the same men who fought in that conflict or oversaw it. It was a system that they, and many of their deceased and martyred colleagues fought for in the 1980s, endured despite every possible setback. For many, the war epitomized the ceaseless struggle of “truth against falsehood.” To those soldiers and statesmen, the war was not a prelude to normalization. It was a divine and righteous test to a continuing Islamic Revolution.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/gallery.sajed.ir/CC by-sa 3.0