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.