Ten years after the Iranian revolution swept the Shah from power, and contrary to innumerable prophecies of its demise, the Islamic Republic endures. Many of the revolution’s original leaders remain in power and many of their goals, although not yet fulfilled, continue to be policy objectives.

The survival of the Islamic Republic is all the more remarkable considering the various Iranian and international efforts to undermine or overthrow it. The most serious internal challenge was the armed uprising initiated in June 1981 by the Mojahedin-e Khalq organization and later joined by several small leftist parties. During the next 18 months, an estimated 10,000 Iranians, mostly young men between 18 and 30, died violently as the government launched a virtual reign of terror to suppress this rebellion.

The major external counterrevolutionary threat came from Iraq. The eight years from September 1980 until mid-August 1988 was a period of total war. When Iraq invaded Iran, both Iranian and foreign opponents of the Islamic Republic expected the war would hasten the overthrow of the revolutionary regime. The invasion instead stimulated an outpouring of nationalist fervor that, at least during the first two years, transcended the sharp ethnic and ideological cleavages which the revolution had opened up and helped the theocratic regime to consolidate itself. A ceasefire supervised by a specially recruited United Nations peacekeeping force known as the UN Iran-Iraq Military Observer Group (UNIIMOG) has been in effect along the two countries’ 730-mile common border since August 20, 1988. Still, the legacy of the fighting continues to preoccupy Iranians. Both politicians and citizens are concerned about the lack of progress at the UN-mediated peace talks in Geneva. Many Iranians fear that if these negotiations become prolonged and fail to produce any substantive agreements, even on such preliminary issues as an exchange of prisoners of war, then a resumption of the conflict is likely.

Yet war weariness is pervasive, and Iraqi intransigence alone will be insufficient, at least in the near future, to provoke renewed hostilities. More immediate and more pressing is the need to deal with the consequences of the war — an estimated $450 billion in property destruction and the absence of most social welfare programs promised by the revolution. The leaders themselves have stated publicly that now is the time for the Islamic government to listen to the demands of the people, and they have warned with surprising bluntness that continued postponement of action on reconstruction can jeopardize the regime. Thus, as the revolution turns ten, Iran is preparing to turn its energies to the mammoth task of rebuilding the agricultural, commercial, cultural, industrial and social infrastructure destroyed during eight years of war.

Behind the Ceasefire

Iran’s July 1988 announcement that it would accept UN Security Council Resolution 598 caught many outsiders totally by surprise. Most US policymakers and media pundits saw this as a sudden volte-face, ignoring all the diplomatic efforts that had transpired between 1980 and 1987, and they attributed it mainly to the US military intervention of 1987-1988. Actually, Tehran’s acceptance of UN Resolution 598 was a culmination of years of patient diplomatic efforts involving various third parties, mainly non-Western countries and organizations. These initiatives were ignored or denigrated in Washington and reported only superficially, if at all, in the media. But comprehending how Iran used diplomacy in tandem with its military strategy is essential in order to understand why Iran was ready for a ceasefire in 1988 and what its attitudes toward peace are now.

Iran was militarily unprepared for a major war when Saddam Hussein ordered Iraq’s armed forces across the border in 1980. Baghdad was convinced that the Islamic Republic, isolated internationally on account of the hostage crisis with the United States and rife with internal, post-revolutionary political conflicts, could not offer effective resistance. The Iraqi political command anticipated a short and successful campaign, following which a humiliated Iran would acquiesce to the Iraqi goal of hegemony in the Persian Gulf. The illusory assurances of assorted Iranian exiles that the regime in Tehran would collapse in the face of invasion also seduced Hussein into thinking he could precipitate a counterrevolutionary putsch and remove the Islamic Republic. Hussein’s confidence led him to reject the first UN ceasefire resolution (September 28, 1980). He said Iraq would continue fighting until “every inch of usurped land was restored to Arab control,” referring to the Shatt al-Arab waterway, three small Iranian-occupied islands in the southern end of the Gulf, and the possible annexation of Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan, which Hussein referred to as “Arabistan.” [1]

Iran’s primary objectives during the initial phase of the war (September 1980-July 1982) were to contain the Iraqi advance and obtain diplomatic pressure on Baghdad to withdraw its troops from Iranian territory. Within two months, Iranian forces were able to halt the Iraqis and in early 1981, much to the surprise of both Baghdad and Western military analysts, launched the first of several successful offensives that, over the next 16 months, freed most of the occupied territory. Simultaneously, Tehran welcomed mediation delegations from the Islamic Conference Organization, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the UN, but none of these succeeded in drafting a mutually satisfactory ceasefire proposal.

Algeria probably came closest to formulating a mutually acceptable agreement. Because of its central role in mediating the hostage affair with the US, Algeria enjoyed unprecedented respect among Iran’s political leaders and was able to use its influence to coax compromises that others could never get. The Algerians invested considerable effort shuttling between Baghdad and Tehran, and by the spring of 1982, they seemed on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough. Sources familiar with the Iranian position said that Tehran was prepared to accept a ceasefire on terms that would have involved a complete Iraqi withdrawal, a reinstatement of the 1975 boundary treaty (the Algiers accord) that Saddam Hussein had unilaterally abrogated days before invading Iran, repatriation of several thousand Iraqi nationals expelled to Iran, and monetary compensation for war damage to non-military property. [2]

Any prospects for an early cessation of hostilities were short-circuited on May 4, 1982, when Foreign Minister Muhammad Ben Yahia and his entire team of Algerian negotiators were killed in a plane crash en route from Baghdad to Tehran. The circumstances of this crash have never been explained, although Iran was quick to accuse Iraq of having shot down the plane with missiles. Lost with the Algerians was more than a year’s experience of dealing with the emotional, legal and political issues that fueled the war. Convinced of Iraqi responsibility, Iran hardened its attitudes toward Iraq, and in particular toward Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party, and Tehran began to call openly for an invasion of Iraq.

The next phase of the war began in July 1982. Iran, having forced most of the occupying army to retreat back across the border, rejected the UN’s second ceasefire resolution and sent its own troops into Iraqi territory.

Although Iran retained the military advantage, it did not achieve a decisive victory in this summer offensive. Nevertheless, advocates of a military solution were confident of ultimately defeating Iraq, and for the next two years Tehran did not accord diplomatic efforts serious attention. In November 1982, President Ali Khamenei became the first Iranian leader to call openly for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a goal subsequently embraced by Khomeini and other leaders. Hussein’s removal, however, never became a major war objective. As early as January 1983, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati stated in a press conference that “the overthrow of Saddam Hussein never was a main condition for peace negotiations with Iraq.” [3] He and other leaders reiterated this position publicly on many occasions in subsequent years. But outside Iran these official policy statements counted for little against reports of sermons urging the people of Iraq to overthrow Hussein. [4]

In 1983 and 1984, Iran undertook major offensives that increased marginally the small area of Iraqi land it occupied, but failed to achieve decisive victories. [5] As the fighting continued inconclusively with mounting casualties on both sides, popular Iranian support for the war began to erode.

The transition from the second to the third phase of the war occurred in the winter of 1984-1985, as political leaders sensitive to a growing war weariness began to reconsider possibilities for a face-saving, diplomatic solution that would permit Iran to extricate itself from the conflict. These leaders interpreted the results of the major offensives since mid-1982 — all of which had cost many lives, brought only very limited territorial gains, and collectively failed to blunt Iraq’s capacity to wage war — as evidence that the war was stalemated and unlikely to be won by military means. As part of its renewed diplomatic strategy, Tehran once again welcomed mediation delegations, including ones from India and the UN. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar accepted an invitation to visit Iran in April 1985 to discuss his eight-point step-by-step proposal for ending hostilities. But Tehran and Baghdad remained irreconcilably divided over two issues: whether the first step should be a ceasefire in place — a position favorable to Iran, which occupied small but strategic parcels of Iraqi territory — or a ceasefire and simultaneous withdrawal of all forces to international borders; and Iran’s insistence that Iraq accept responsibility for starting the war.

Tehran also made friendly overtures to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, all of which professed neutrality but generally were sympathetic to Iraq. A major diplomatic breakthrough was achieved in May 1985, when the Saudi foreign minister made an official state visit to Iran. There were other high-level exchanges of visits with Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Tehran tried to cultivate better relations with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, especially Oman and Saudi Arabia. It was also in 1985 that the government, apparently with the full knowledge and blessing of Khomeini, agreed to the series of secret contacts with American officials that led to US arms sales and the May 1986 visit to Tehran of a delegation headed by Reagan’s former national security adviser Robert McFarlane.

Even as the Foreign Ministry was pursuing diplomatic approaches for ending the war, other Iranian leaders continued to believe that one more “final offensive” would bring military victory. Iran’s capture of the Faw Peninsula in February 1986, following one of the most successful campaigns of the conflict, seemed to justify such hopes. But after absorbing the initial loss, Iraq succeeded in containing the Iranian advance. Thus the Faw victory ended up persuading even more leaders of the need to find a non-military solution to the war. Anti-war sentiment was becoming more apparent, particularly among youth. Graffiti opposing the war had begun to appear in public places, and young men openly discussed the propriety of “legal” means to avoid the draft. By deliberately failing high school exams, for instance, young men would have to repeat their senior year, thereby securing for another year special cards exempting them from military service.

Between War and Peace

By the end of the 1986, Velayati and his supporters were ready to ask Perez de Cuellar to revive his peace plan. Their resolve was strengthened by the lack of any tangible success from yet another major offensive on the outskirts of Basra in the winter of 1986-1987. They argued that the futility of such military campaigns justified a reappraisal of the secretary-general’s 1985 proposal, and secured approval to approach him, albeit quietly, since public debate of the war was still taboo. None of the participants in the discussions that took place at the UN and elsewhere in early 1987 have yet disclosed details of the negotiations, but there is consensus that Iranian diplomats had accepted the idea of an eight-step peace resolution that would begin with a ceasefire in place.

Then, in May 1987, just when a draft document was on the verge of being finalized, developments in the war zone derailed these efforts. An Iraqi warplane attacked the destroyer USS Stark in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 American sailors. Iraq apologized for the “accident” to Washington. The United States responded by blaming Iran and escalating its de facto alliance with Iraq. [6] Washington was determined to pressure the Islamic Republic into stopping the fighting on terms favorable to Iraq, and more especially to Baghdad’s Arab allies who had been alarmed by the 1986 revelations of secret American arms sales to Tehran. The US introduced its own ceasefire resolution in the UN Security Council, resisted UN efforts to make revisions acceptable to Iran, and persuaded the Security Council to pass it in July 1988. Resolution 598 called for a ceasefire and immediate withdrawal of all military forces to international frontiers, a position advantageous to Iraq, which wanted no Iranian occupation of its territory during peace negotiations. The resolution was not simply a call for a ceasefire, but contained provisions to be implemented in steps, for a comprehensive peace. More significantly, this was a binding resolution with a mechanism for imposing sanctions on the belligerent who rejected it. [7]

The US diplomatic and military intervention, which infuriated the Iranians, marks the fourth phase of the Iran-Iraq war (July 1987-July 1988) — an additional year of fighting that could have been avoided if the intervention had not occurred. The Iranians believed the language of Resolution 598 betrayed the good faith they had shown, in negotiations during the winter and spring. This made it politically difficult to accept 598, but to reject it outright risked providing Washington with the leverage to secure UN sanctions against Iran from the Security Council. Despite their anger, Iran’s leaders decided that the best course would be to try to outwit Washington by temporizing — that is, by neither accepting nor rejecting the resolution. Instead, they expressed interest in discussing with the secretary-general how the resolution could be modified to be less biased against Iran.

The Iranians perceived the American naval presence in the Persian Gulf as a serious threat, and realized the country was neither militarily nor psychologically prepared for a major confrontation with the US. Tehran’s policy was to avoid clashes between its forces and the Americans, though this was not openly articulated. This policy in effect left Iran with little more than rhetoric with which to respond to US challenges. From an Iranian perspective, the most provocative US practice was using its naval armada — ostensibly in the Gulf to protect neutral shipping — to provide Iraq with a shield behind which it could bomb with virtual impunity neutral ships trading with Iran. The Iranians also resented the US silence throughout the first half of 1988 as Iraq escalated its use of chemical weapons and bombarded Tehran and other cities with hundreds of Soviet-made missiles. Under these circumstances, political leaders in the capital could not always control the anger and frustration of forces stationed in the Persian Gulf, and Revolutionary Guards directly engaged American ships in minor clashes that left several Iranians dead. Following one of these incidents on July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes mistook an Iranair civilian passenger plane for an attacking jet and downed it, killing all 290 persons on board.

This disaster occurred when political leaders were debating seriously how Iran should finally respond to Resolution 598. In the year since its passage, Tehran had failed to line up Security Council support even to modify the order of implementation of its provisions. During this same year popular exhaustion with the war and its attendant privations had increased dramatically and had begun to affect the performance of conscripts at the front. Discussions after July 1987 focused more and more on the domestic implications of the war. The unexpected military reverses in the spring of 1988 caused further anxiety. By June, a majority of top leaders, including President Ali Khamenei, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Speaker of the Majlis Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had become convinced that continuation of the war posed a serious threat to the stability, even survival, of the Islamic Republic. Other leaders, including Khomeini, were not ready to concede that the situation was quite so grave. The shootdown provided a dramatic incident that proponents of the ceasefire seized upon to argue the case for accepting Resolution 598. Future developments were entirely unpredictable if US involvement in the war expanded, they argued to their colleagues, convincing them that a UN supervised cessation of hostilities was the best course to follow so that Iran could put aside the war and get moving again on its internal revolutionary agenda. On July 18, 1988, Tehran notified Perez de Cuellar that it accepted the Security Council’s document without reservations. Subsequently, Iran’s leaders persuaded Khomeini himself to sanction their decision publicly.

Toll of War

Since August 1988 Iran has turned its attention to the enormous task of reconstruction. The Islamic Republic’s success in this effort will determine whether and in what form the revolution survives. In many respects this challenge is far more formidable than was waging the war.

All of the country’s top leaders have indicated that they recognize reconstruction does not mean simply the repair of war damages, but also must include government programs designed to satisfy some of the popular aspirations for greater economic and social justice. These were the very issues that originally helped to mobilize mass support for the revolution. For eight years the war had served to justify the failure to initiate any redistributive policies.

In order to understand the tremendous cost of reconstruction, it is useful to review the impact of the war. First, there is the human toll. The regime is committed to paying benefits to disabled veterans, widows and orphans. In September the government released preliminary statistics that indicated 160,000, including 11,000 civilians, had died in the war. While this figure is nearly half the 300,000 estimate commonly cited in the Western media, it is still significant — slightly higher on a per capita basis than the 405,000 American war deaths in 1941-1945. There is yet no official tally for the number of Iranians maimed in the war; estimates vary from 400,000 to 700,000, and at least one half of the wounded are believed to be permanently disabled. Approximately 1.6 million became homeless, most in 1980-1981 when the Iraqi invasion devastated much of Khuzestan province. (In addition to its own war refugees, Iran has hosted some 360,000 dissident Iraqis and 2.3 million Afghan refugees.)

The economic toll includes the destruction of factories, homes, hospitals, schools, bridges, dams, electric power stations, irrigation networks, oil installations, ports and railroads. [8] The four provinces that border Iraq — from north to south, Kurdistan, Bakhtaran (Kermanshahan), Ham and Khuzestan — bore the brunt of the war. Parts of all these provinces were occupied by Iraqi forces at the outset of the war, and their cities, towns, and villages continued to be primary targets of Iraqi bombardment right up to the ceasefire. The destruction in Khuzistan had especially serious repercussions because the province’s agricultural products, petroleum resources, industrial goods, and international trade connections all had key roles in the national economy.

The early loss of the port city of Khorramshahr (pre-war pop. of 163,000), about 20 miles downstream from Basra on the Shatt al-Arab was a severe blow. It was Iran’s largest and most important harbor; none of the smaller Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman ports possessed the roads and railways that connected Khorramshahr to the rest of the country. Khorramshahr was recaptured in 1982, but its port remained unusable. All the other harbors combined, despite considerable investments over the past eight years, have not been able to replace its position in terms of the volume of goods offloaded and trans-shipped to inland population centers.

On a small island in the Shatt al-Arab, adjacent to Khorramshahr, is Abadan (pre-war pop. of 304,000). In 1980 Abadan had one of the oldest and largest oil refineries in the world, producing an average of 700,000 barrels per day of petroleum products. During the 12-month siege of the city, Iraqi shelling heavily damaged the refinery complex, rendering it inoperable. Even though Iran eventually broke the siege, Iraqi bombardment of Abadan continued right up to August 1988. Although Iran has six smaller refineries dispersed around the country — and all of these were also bombed during the course of the war — their combined production could not meet domestic demand for petroleum products. Thus Iran, a major oil exporter, has imported products such as kerosene and aviation fuel since 1981, at an average cost of $3 billion per year. [9] In October 1988, the minister of petroleum announced plans to begin immediately the rebuilding of Abadan refinery, with an initial capacity of 380,000 b/d.

In the two other major industrial centers of Khuzestan, the provincial capital of Ahvaz (pre-war pop. of 369,000) and the transportation hub of Dezful (pre-war pop. of 125,000), over 50 percent of all buildings were destroyed by Iraqi bombardment and shelling. The important oil-producing city of Masjid-e Suleiman (pre-war pop. 85,000), several smaller cities, including Bebahan, Shustar and Bandar-e Khomeini (all under 50,000 pop.), were bombed repeatedly and sustained heavy damage. Towns such as Susangerd and hundreds of villages were reduced to rubble.

Even more extensive destruction occurred in the predominantly rural province of Ham, northwest of Khuzestan. The only three urban centers, the trade and administrative towns of Dehloran, Ham and Mehran, were devastated. A similar fate befell the border towns of Qasr-e Shirin in Bakhtaran province and Marivan in Kurdistan. The important industrial center of Bakhtaran city (formerly Kermanshah, pre-war pop. of 325,000) was the target of numerous bomb and missile attacks. In these four provinces, a total of 4,000 villages were severely or completely destroyed, and 14 cities and towns suffered extensive war damage.

Iranians living in other provinces were not spared. More than 50 cities and towns, primarily in the west, were bombed and/or hit with missiles during the conflict. Iraq struck civilian and industrial targets more than 350 miles from the border, reaching as far north as Rasht on the Caspian Sea, as far east as Isfahan and as far south as Shiraz. Of Iran’s 15 largest cities, only Mashhad in eastern Iran, near the border with Afghanistan, escaped bombardment. Tehran, and to a lesser extent Isfahan and Qom, were targets of intense missile attacks in the spring of 1988. More than 200 missiles fell randomly on Tehran in a six-week period, prompting as many as 4 million residents — almost half the population — to abandon the city for more distant small towns and villages. [10]

Politics of Reconstruction

The magnitude of the effort has renewed a major political debate over the respective roles of government and private enterprise in rebuilding the country. This debate is really a continuation of the ideological struggle that has divided the leadership since the earliest days of the Islamic Republic. A minority of leaders can be found at one of two ends of the spectrum, advocating on the one hand broad governmental regulation of the national economy, including control over major industrial projects and foreign trade, or on the other hand no government intervention at all in economic affairs. A majority of leaders preferred to support compromise policies that seemed to work as long as Iran had adequate oil revenues, but these compromises have contributed to the progressively worsening economic problems of the past three years. [11]

The interventionists’ influence has been strongest in the government of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been prime minister since 1981, while the laissez-faire proponents include leading businessmen and some senior clergy. The first two Majlises (1980-1984 and 1984-1988) served as forums for debating major policy differences and legislation containing elements acceptable to both factions was fashioned. The Third Majlis continues to approach economic issues cautiously. It is hardly dominated by “radicals,” despite media reports to that effect. It may be even more conservative than its predecessors, since it rejected Mousavi’s initial nominations for the key ministries of agriculture and commerce.

The reconstruction debate began even before the ceasefire came into force. Mousavi initiated discussion by saying in several public addresses that there should be only a limited role for the private sector, at least for industrial reconstruction. Mousavi and the “activist” camp have consistently urged greater control over industrial policies, arguing that it is the duty of an Islamic state to ensure that the country’s manufactures serve the needs of society and are not frivolous or shoddy items made simply to earn high profits for a few.

The main “opposition” paper, Resalat, responded with editorials denouncing the government’s anti-private enterprise attitudes and calling for the participation of all groups in reconstruction. President Khamenei, who has been described both as a “red mullah” allied to Mousavi (by some Iranian exiles and those journalists dependent upon them as sources) and as one of Mousavi’s major political antagonists (by other exiles and journalists), subsequently tried to calm the rhetoric by advising in his weekly Friday sermons that the government could not be successful in its reconstruction efforts without the assistance of the private sector. Khamenei chose Mousavi to be prime minister after both of his elections to the presidency, and the two men have been both political and personal friends since before the revolution. Khamenei often has used his influence to moderate potentially contentious policies and to diminish criticisms of Mousavi’s government.

But Khamenei’s term expires in the summer of 1989, and under the constitution he can not run for a third term. Although the political elite has yet to reach a consensus on who should be presidential candidates, the views of the next president, and especially those whom he chooses to head the government, will affect how reconstruction is undertaken. Consequently, the current debate over reconstruction has less to do with immediate policies and more with future political decisions about the overall economic role of the government.

How to finance reconstruction may be the most critical issue for the immediate future, whether it is the government, the private sector, or both in partnership that take charge. Billions of dollars will be required for this effort. Private institutions and individuals in Iran do not have such resources. The funds the government can make available depend upon oil revenues, which account for 90 percent of its budget. If international crude oil prices, generally depressed since the end of 1985, remain low, the government will not have adequate money. During 1988, Iran, the only OPEC country not producing above its assigned production quota, filled an average of 2.3 million barrels per day with oil and exported an average of 1.7 million barrels. Because of overproduction by other OPEC members, an international oil glut brought the price of crude oil down from a posted price of $17.50 per barrel at the beginning of the year to less than $10 in October. At such low prices, Iran’s oil revenues averaged less than $10 billion for the year. A sustained low price of around $10/b for 1989 would earn Iran barely $7 billion — less than half the $20 billion in oil revenues which Iran earned in 1984. The OPEC production quota agreement of late November 1988, if implemented, could result in revenues of $13 to $15 billion next year.

While winding down the war will mean that funds earmarked for military imports can be diverted to reconstruction, Iran still has to import such essential goods as food and refined petroleum products, expected to cost at least $5 billion in 1988 and 1989. This is at least half of total government revenues. Still other funds must be reserved for current government expenses. Consequently, unless there is a dramatic rise in the international price of crude oil, the government will not have sufficient resources to finance an ambitious reconstruction program. Such a situation is likely to intensify the debate between those who advocate close governmental monitoring to insure that the most essential needs are met first and those who insist that economic constraints require the government to be even more friendly toward private enterprise.

Some political leaders have proposed foreign involvement in reconstruction. There has been no lack of foreign interest in such possibilities. A large number of foreign delegations, from both Eastern and Western Europe as well as from Asia, came to Tehran in the late summer looking for lucrative contracts. Petroleum Minister Gholam Reza Agazadeh, himself on a state visit to Turkey trying to solicit proposals, complained that some countries were presenting “dubious plans for reconstruction that were quite absurd and illogical.” [12] This foreign reconstruction role had become part of the political debate as early as September 1988. Some ideologues believe that Iran should avoid any outside assistance. The prevailing view is probably that put forth by Khamenei in sermons during August and September: Iran should not incur foreign debts in its reconstruction efforts because debts bring foreign dependence and domination, but the country should welcome foreign technical expertise. Other leaders argue that reconstruction is such a top priority that the government should explore all options, including international loans.


The debate over reconstruction is closely intertwined with a debate over national reconciliation. Leaders such as Majlis Speaker Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister Velayati believe that Iran should not just reach out to other countries with which the Islamic Republic has had differences, but also to those Iranians who have been opponents of the regime, in order to encourage them to contribute their talents in rebuilding the country.

After the ceasefire, the newly-appointed Iranian ambassador in Paris contacted several prominent dissidents associated with Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister appointed by the Shah, and Ahmad Madani, a leading republican activist who was a candidate in the 1980 presidential election but subsequently incurred the wrath of influential clerics and fled Iran. The ambassador conveyed to them an offer of amnesty if they wanted to return to Iran. Several monarchists even accepted invitations to an embassy function, where presumably they discussed their own prospects for amnesty. (Despite the new regime’s profound hatred for the last shah, leaders have said on several occasions that his son is free to return to Iran to live as a private citizen.) Abol Hasan Bani Sadr, the Islamic Republic’s first president who was impeached and fled the country in 1981, reportedly has been contacted as well, although he has denied this. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini as faqih, or supreme spiritual guide, has long advocated a more conciliatory attitude toward secular Iranians and most likely supports Rafsanjani’s efforts.

There is one Iranian group that will probably remain beyond the pale as far as reconciliation is concerned. This is the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an anti-government movement that most Iranians regard as traitorous on account of its collaboration with Iraq. Immediately after the revolution, the Mojahedin had wide popular appeal among religious Shi‘i youth, but most of the committed followers were killed in 1981-1982 when the organization staged an unsuccessful armed uprising. The Mojahedin earned considerable sympathy on account of the brutality of government repression that resulted in at least 8,000 of their cadre being executed in 18 months, but this rapidly dissipated after Mojahed leader Masoud Rajavi began cooperating openly with Saddam in 1986.

An incident in July 1988 indicates how far out of touch the organization had become with Iranian sentiment. Accompanying Iraqi forces on their offensives into Iran after Tehran had announced its acceptance of Resolution 598, several hundred Mojahed remained behind to occupy the town of Islamabad in Bakhtaran province. The Mojahedin had predicted a popular uprising against the Islamic Republic. Instead, the local population turned upon their “liberators” and assisted Revolutionary Guards and vigilantes in slaughtering hundreds of Mojahed fighters, including many women. It seems that most Iranians, whether they are fanatical supporters of the Islamic Republic, indifferent to politics or even opposed to the regime, including monarchists and leftists, consider the actions of the Mojahedin as unforgivable treason.

On its tenth anniversary, the Islamic Republic is at a major crossroads. The decision to accept the UN ceasefire resolution was a popular one, but in the subsequent months no major decisions dealing with important issues of reconstruction have been made. Consequently there are yet few tangible results from the ceasefire and initial public relief has given way to apprehension. The political continuity of the past decade may or may not help the regime make the transition from war to peace. Ayatollah Khomeini is still the undisputed leader of the revolution, although he is aged and frail. Two of his principal lieutenants in Iran during the revolution, Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi-Ardebili, the present chief justice, have become powerful leaders. Men such as Khamenei, Mousavi and Montazeri, who played key roles in mobilizing the crowds so effectively in 1978-1979, also remain influential members of the revolutionary political elite.

These leaders have demonstrated political astuteness in surviving the major counterrevolutionary challenge of the decade, the war with Iraq. But the legacy of that war, enormous destruction of industrial and social infrastructure and the forced postponement of most of the revolution’s promises of greater economic and social justice, must now be addressed. Whether the Islamic Republic survives into its second decade and beyond will depend on whether these political leaders can demonstrate the same adroitness in leading Iranian society to reconstruction that they exhibited in defending the country from foreign aggression.

This may prove to be an even greater challenge, since many of the lingering issues of the revolution remain to be resolved. These issues include accommodating the large number of secular Iranians who are indifferent to or even alienated from the theocratic regime, and satisfying the demands of the disillusioned lower classes. Both of these issues are potentially explosive. Influential leaders such as Rafsanjani, Montazeri and Ayatollah Meshkini, chair of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for choosing Khomeini’s successor, have publicly called for greater political tolerance. But liberalization carries an inherent risk that disaffected secular Iranians would use it to demand more cultural freedoms. Warning secular Iranians not to expect social changes to accompany political openness, Chief Justice Ardebili in October said, “The old way of life is not here…. The television doesn’t broadcast the same films it used to. There are neither seaside beaches nor evening parties…. Those un-Islamic things no longer exist…. The old ways will never return to Iran.” [13]

If there is any political liberalization, it can be expected to encounter opposition from among the religious ideologues of the regime. They hold influential positions in some of the ministries and in the revolutionary organizations such as the Revolutionary Guards and komitehs. In a major sermon, Rafsanjani singled out the ideologues for criticism, saying their “excesses and crudities…are now harmful to the revolution…[and] they should turn their devotion to reconstructing the country.” [14] It remains to be seen if their zealotry can be successfully channelled into the more productive efforts of reconstruction. Dealing with social inequities will be more problematical for the Islamic Republic. These are the very issues that have threatened, and may yet lead to, divisive political splits among Iran’s ruling elite.


[1] Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), September 29, 1980.
[2] Iran Times, April 30 and May 7, 1982.
[3] FBIS, January 19, 1983.
[4] See, for example, Washington Post, May 18, 1985.
[5] For details on Iran’s offensives in Iraq in 1982-1984, see Dilip Hiro, “Chronicle of the Gulf War,” MERIP Reports 125/126 (July-September 1984), pp. 8-12.
[6] See Joe Stork, “Reagan Re-Flags the Gulf,” Middle East Report 148 (September-October 1987), pp. 2-5.
[7] The diplomatic maneuvering prior to passage of Resolution 598 is described by Gary Sick in “The Internationalization of the Iran-Iraq War: The Events of 1987,” in Nikki Keddie and Mark Gasiorowski, eds., Iran, the US and the USSR (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, forthcoming).
[8] For a detailed analysis of war destruction through 1985, see Houshang Amirahmadi, "War Damage and Reconstruction in the Islamic Republic of Iran," in H. Amirahmadi and Manuchehr Parvin, eds., Post-Revolutionary Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988), pp 126-149.
[9] Iran Times, September 9, 1988.
[10] The impact of the 1988 missile attacks is covered in Iran Times, April 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29, 1988.
[11] The persistent factional debates over economic policies are analyzed in my article, "Iran and the Gulf War," Middle East Report 148 (September-October 1987), pp. 14-15.
[12] Kayhan, August 26, 1988.
[13] Iran Times, October 28, 1988.
[14] Iran Times, October 21, 1988.

How to cite this article:

Eric Hooglund "The Islamic Republic at War and Peace," Middle East Report 156 (January/February 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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