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."
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.
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.
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