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.