Lasting from 1980 to 1988, the war between Iran and Iraq was the longest inter-state war of the twentieth century. Yet standard narratives of the war, or of Iranian and Iraqi political history, for that matter, barely discuss the war’s legacy for the structure of the two states in question or the war’s effects upon the exercise of political power.

In the Iranian case, the politics of the last three decades are typically studied as emanating from the 1979 revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic. But the war, which commenced a scant 18 months after the Shah fled Tehran, is every bit as important as the revolution, if not more so, for understanding the past 30 years. In Iraq, meanwhile, the series of armed conflicts culminating in the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, as well as the intervening sanctions, have rendered the eight-year war one distant episode among many more immediate and influential events. In both cases, the war is treated as a discrete episode, rather than a complex process of power negotiation and manipulation that took place in multiple theaters off the battlefield in both countries and continued after the ceasefire of 1988.

In Western academic and intellectual circles, the dominant mode of narration focuses on the huge losses of lives and resources, losses that were “senseless” because neither side gained an inch of territory or an obvious advantage in the balance of power. The precise death toll is unknown, but it was certainly massive, including perhaps 400,000 or more Iranians and Iraqis. Perhaps 700,000 more were wounded on both sides, including some 36,000 Iranian soldiers who require long-term treatment for exposure to mustard gas and the other illegal chemical agents that Iraq fired upon them. In most analyses, the states behind this carnage are portrayed as static, two half-blinded giants stubbornly and self-righteously battling to “bloody stalemate” precisely because they would not change. [1] The two regimes helped to propagate this image by invoking the primordial loyalties of ethnicity and religion to rally the respective populations, with Saddam Hussein speaking of a second Qadisiyya, referring to the seventh-century campaign of Muslim Arabs against then non-Muslim Persians, and Iran’s ruling clerics casting the war as the “sacred defense” of the 1979 revolution and its “Islamic” principles. As the Economist commented at the time, “This was a war that should never have been fought…. Neither side gained a thing, except the saving of its own regime. And neither regime was worth the sacrifice.”

While the war was a military stalemate, the political economy that fed upon it, and in turn kept it going, was anything but stale. The two states were transformed — the institutions that composed them, the political cliques that grappled within them and the social strata that served them or were served by them. The reconfiguration was continuous, in concert with developments at the war front. As for oil, the lifeblood of both states, production and exports plummeted as new political alliances formed along the shifting network of oil transport routes. The US and its regional allies pursued a military strategy of dual (though Iraq-“tilted”) containment and attrition, and it appears the concepts of containment and attrition informed these actors’ outlook on oil as well. Indeed, it seems that in Washington and Riyadh the strategic questions of oil and war were almost indistinguishable. Seen from this vantage point, the legacies of the war include a restructuring of relations not only between political elites in Tehran and Baghdad, but also between the state and social actors, well outside the war zone, in both countries.

Dispatching Challengers

When the war began in September 1980, Saddam Hussein was at the outset of his career as the longest-serving president of Iraq. Given Iraq’s tumultuous history of coups and counter-coups, it was far from a foregone conclusion that he would remain on top. In the Tehran capital of his rivals, a monarch had just been toppled by a broad coalition professing diverse ideological and political loyalties. The monopoly on state power eventually acquired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not at all inevitable; the pro-Khomeini forces among the revolutionaries remained preoccupied with a low-level civil war even after the first Iraqi tanks rumbled across the border. At war’s end, the Iranian republic had become unambiguously “Islamic” and Saddam Hussein’s rule was there to stay, to be dislodged only by the might of the world’s sole superpower.

But the war did not so much enable the consolidation of two clearly defined regimes as it delineated the arena of politics in each country, empowering certain actors, discrediting others and defining the contours of legitimate political contestation. Regime consolidation is best understood not as an outcome of the war, as the Economist would have it, but as the process by which the war became a means for each political elite to weaken its strongest challengers, the army in the Iraqi case and non-Khomeinist elements of the 1979 revolution in the Iranian case.

The “imposed war,” as it was initially called by Tehran, allowed the silencing of internal opposition. A year and a half after the mass uprisings, the Khomeinists faced opposition from secular and religious organizations and ideologies that had been essential in mobilizing support against the monarchy. The presence of Iraqi troops on Iranian soil was the verbal weapon deployed by Khomeini and his followers to stigmatize opponents and even more pluralistic allies as “liberals,” “followers of the American line” or simply counter-revolutionaries. These dissenters could then be accused of revealing state secrets to “enemies,” threatening both the revolution and the nation. Citing the exigencies of war, the Khomeinists attacked the first president of the new republic, Abulhassan Bani-Sadr, as well as the Marxist-Islamist militia Mojahedin-e Khalq and an ever expanding list of leftist activists, with thousands eventually driven underground, abroad or to the gallows. Farideh Farhi sums it up best when she writes that “the revolution brought out a multiplicity of voices,” but “the war offered a univocal venue for both crushing domestic opposition to the newly emerging political order.” [2]

When Saddam Hussein took office, there seemed to be several threats to the stability of the regime: the Shi‘i Islamist Da‘wa Party, the Kurdish militias in the north and rivalries within the Baath Party itself. But the only institution that had effected regime change in the modern history of Iraq, whether in 1936, 1958 or the insurrection-filled 1960s, was the army. For Hussein and his clique, therefore, it was important to make themselves “coup-proof.”

Integral to this project was the “depoliticization” of the armed forces. Political affiliation, except with the Baath Party, was forbidden up and down the ranks. This move should not be understood as an attempt at indoctrination, as is often suggested, but rather as almost the opposite, a means by which all potentially contentious political ideas and activities were eliminated. Even officers who were Baathists or had close ties to ruling circles were not exempt from the regime’s scrutiny. The alleged assassination of Saddam Hussein’s cousin and brother-in-law ‘Adnan Khayrallah shortly after the end of the war bespeaks the pragmatic, rather than dogmatic, nature of how things were done. [3]

Most significantly, the coup-proofing of the armed forces included a constant redrafting of organizational charts that tangled the chain of command. For example, civilian and military intelligence units were ordered to monitor each other’s performance, as well as that of the general staff. Everyone was reporting on everyone, or at least was believed to be. High-ranking officers perceived as political threats were dismissed or executed, with others dying under suspicious circumstances. Such incidents occurred as early as 1968, the date of the second and final Baathist coup, continued throughout the 1980s and persisted even in the 1990s, when the army was downsized. Purges and reshuffling also took place within the Baath Party, prominent instances occurring in 1979, when Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency, 1982 and 1986, in a sense duplicating the depoliticization of the armed forces. The party’s paramilitary Popular Army went through several iterations over time, beginning as a backup for the army and winding up in internal surveillance — a task in which it failed miserably in 1991, when southern Iraq was convulsed by an army-led intifada following Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait. It is rumored that the Popular Army was dismantled after this fiasco, only to be reinstated later in the decade. [4]

Such lapses notwithstanding, the absence of successful military coups from 1968 to the US-led invasion of 2003 is remarkable. It is particularly noteworthy given the significant expansion of the regular armed forces during the Iran-Iraq war — from 242,250 in 1980 to approximately 850,000 in 1987 [5] — and the increased investment in military equipment, training and even manufacturing of ammunition. The number of failed coups illustrates the ability of the regime to coup-proof itself. Two famous examples were the attempts by a Baathist faction in 1973 and an elite unit of the Special Republican Guard in 1996, both of which ended very badly for the conspirators.

Redistributing Profits

Despite the weakening of challenges to the regimes in Iraq and Iran, and the fact that popular participation in politics remained severely limited in both countries, the political economies of the two countries were deeply altered. Outside of state institutions, a notable shift in Iraq was the rise of the “contractor bourgeoisie.” Iran and Iraq have long been considered “rentier states” — a term coined to describe states that rely for their income on “rent,” that is, income obtained from non-productive activities such as natural resource extraction, land speculation or transit fees for pipelines or ships. In the Persian Gulf, of course, the “rent” is mostly oil revenue. Arguably, the Iraqi “contractor bourgeois” stratum was a second tier of rentiers below the state itself, as their projects were paid for with government funds that in turn came from oil money or foreign aid. As Isam al-Khafaji has documented, the “contractor bourgeoisie” was composed mostly of families from the Anbar and Salah al-Din provinces, to the north and northwest of Baghdad, who had connections to the power elite of the 1960s and late 1970s. Saddam Hussein offered a glimpse into the relationship between this new stratum and the war in a speech to the contractors in which he urged them to up their donations to the war effort: “You know that there was only a handful of contractors before the revolution [the 1968 coup]… Now, this contractor owns not thousands [of Iraq dinars] but millions…. I was informed that he had donated only a pittance. He did not ask himself, ‘Where did I get this fortune? Isn’t it thanks to these new circumstances?’” In another meeting with the contractors, he warned, “The private sector and owners of relatively big capital are facing a test at this stage…. Extremist thought could come to the fore and say: They have hoarded their money though the homeland has been threatened…. People will see contractors who owned nothing and now own thousands, even millions. How will they behave?” [6]

The circulation of money and resources, and thus the distribution of power, altered course in the late 1980s — when the state, burdened with war-related debt and reduced oil revenues, pursued an aggressive privatization campaign. [7] Some of the state-owned factories that were sold off passed into the hands of the Khawwam family, a Shi‘i clan with origins in Baghdad and the southern province of Maysan, where the patriarch had been a tribal chief and large landowner. [8] Through their business acumen and their strategic marriages of daughters to men close to regime insiders, the Khawwams became fabulously wealthy during the war years. Their wealth only grew under sanctions. Along with relatives, the family scion Riyadh al-Khawwam acquired a share of the al-Huda oil trading company in 2000, in partnership with the Ministries of Oil and Finance. This company was later implicated in the various probes of the UN Oil for Food program, under which Iraq was permitted to sell set amounts of oil and then purchase supplies from a UN-supervised escrow account. The probes found that al-Huda was collecting illegal surcharges on behalf of the Iraqi government. It was also involved in the purchase of smuggled Iraqi oil in one of the largest such operations in the history of Oil for Food, which took place shortly after the US invasion. The Khawwams nevertheless got a stamp of approval from the Coalition Provisional Authority, one of whose officials called them “nationalists and patriots…who wanted to make a buck.” They continue to run lucrative business ventures in Iraq from semi-exile in Amman, where they are reportedly known as “the Shi‘i Rockefellers.”

In Iran, the war years saw a large expansion of the state. The number of public-sector employees more than doubled between 1976 and 1986. A goodly portion of this growth can be correlated with the creation of a war economy, because the bulk of the rise occurred in the first three years after the revolution, and the numbers began to level off at the end of the decade. [9] The state that emerged was huge. In the early 1990s, and excluding the security apparatus, there were 2 million government employees, up from 800,000 in 1977. [10] The war was also an opportunity for the Iranian state to pool economic resources under the control of ministries and regulate trade — for example, through a rationing system and distribution of scarce import licenses and foreign exchange. This degree of centralization helped the fledgling Islamic Republic to manage the fragility of the economy under the extreme pressures of war, international sanctions (due to the US embassy hostage crisis), capital flight and the slack world oil market of the 1980s.

Yet this ballooning state was no omnipotent monolith — for the war also redirected the energies of the highly politicized and mobilized society. Critical in this regard were a collection of new grassroots organizations that would become key stakeholders in the new political order. These “revolutionary organizations,” such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij, Jihad-e Sazandegi, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the various economic foundations (bonyads), were created before the war as a means for pro-Khomeini activists to parallel government ministries that were primarily controlled by a broader segment of the revolutionaries. It was the outbreak of war, however, that animated these “popular” organizations — attracting volunteers, sucking in donations and expanding the groups’ reach nationwide. As Khomeini used the war to demonize political foes, the zealous activists of the revolutionary organizations used their participation in the war effort, whether at the front, in the supply lines or at home, to accumulate a potent type of political and moral capital. At war’s end, what were originally local groups free of Tehran’s control had become vested institutional interests replete with internal hierarchies and social bases that made their rollback infeasible.

The most glaring example of a revolutionary organization that has parlayed its wartime exploits into political and economic power is the IRGC. Fashioned as a praetorian guard for the ruling ayatollahs in the event of rebellion by the standing army, the IRGC became the main military organization fighting at the front and recruiting volunteers to go there. By the end of 1982, the IRGC was independent of its nominal masters, its power so great that it became a separate ministry. While the sacrifices of its fighters on the front were touted incessantly during the war, and have continued to be since, behind the trenches the IRGC wove itself into the social fabric. In the middle of the decade, oil revenue declined and Iran’s international isolation made it expensive to import weapons technology, so domestic production of munitions received a major fillip. The IRGC got a big slice of the pie. In 1983, the post of deputy minister for industries was created in the Ministry of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the man who filled it was put in charge of 13 industrial groups related to arms production. [11]

If war gave the IRGC members their badges of honor, the post-war reconstruction era afforded both senior commanders and junior personnel the opportunity to shift their investments into the civilian economy. The IRGC’s corps of engineers, Khatam ol-Anbia, was established in 1990. Khatam ol-Anbia and other IRGC subsidiaries secured contracts as part of what President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (1989-1997) dubbed the “era of reconstruction,” which combined the necessary post-war renovation with an insistence that state organizations generate independent revenue streams. The IRGC was politically well positioned to win an increasing number of contracts, but lacked the personnel to complete the projects by themselves. Many projects in infrastructure, manufacturing and agriculture were subcontracted to IRGC affiliates and other companies. Just as the wartime expansion of the state role in production and distribution of goods and services blurred the line between public and private, the post-war era nurtured a “subcontractor state” that has built complex alliances among regime insiders, war veterans and private enterprises based as much on the profit motive as ideological affinity. [12]

Building Infrastructure

The policies and institutional arrangements dictated by the war reshaped the state and extended its writ, but not necessarily in a way that concentrated political power at a solitary point. Rather, the socioeconomic geography of Iran and Iraq was forever altered by a concatenation of powerful actors, some of which were state-controlled or had the state’s blessing, but which often worked autonomously and in the peripheral areas of the two countries. The long-term consequences were often unintended.

At first, Iran held numerical superiority on the battlefield, but this advantage began to disappear by 1982. Tehran increasingly resorted to the recruitment of teenage boys, often through the agency of the Basij and other revolutionary organizations, and used more coercive means of conscription. In the mid-1980s, particularly after Iraq’s recapture (with the aid of chemical bombardments) of the Faw peninsula, anti-war sentiment increased in Iran, with young men increasingly using legal loopholes and extra-legal methods to avoid military service. [13] The Iraqi army grew larger as the war ground on, partly due to harsh conscription tactics, and partly because the Iranians decided to invade Iraqi territory rather than stop at reclaiming their own and thus invigorated Iraqi nationalist sentiment. By the end of the war, the two armies were much closer in size, though the more populous Iran always had more men in uniform.

In military technology, however, Iran lagged far behind its hostile neighbor to the west, partly because Baghdad consistently outspent Tehran with the aid of enormous loans from the Arab Gulf monarchies. Part of the Iraqi strategy was to strike and cut the Iranian army’s supply lines from the air. Iran could scarcely retaliate, since its air force was depleted and, until 1985, neither side had access to ballistic missiles that had the range and accuracy to strike the enemy’s core. This Iranian weakness was a major rationale for the notorious “human wave” attacks on the Iraqi front, especially in the south. The major highway that connects Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, to the rest of the country was subjected to constant, if largely ineffective, ground assault. To ensure the safe passage of supply convoys, Iraq built a web of minor highways running further away from the Iranian border. These new roads served as a force multiplier for the Iraqi army in other important ways.

The case of Iraqi Kurdistan is the most obvious example. Throughout the war, Kurdish rebels had harried Baghdad, with one of the twin militias, that of the Kurdish Democratic Party, helping Iran to infiltrate northern Iraq in 1983. But the Kurdish front heated up dramatically around 1985, when the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan also allied itself with Iran and Iran brokered a truce of sorts between the rival Kurdish parties. This alliance brought the war to the Iraqi heartland for the first time, with attacks upon strategic targets launched from inside Iraqi territory. The alliance was also the pretext for the Iraqi regime’s Anfal campaign (1987-1988), which resulted, along with the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988, in the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurdish villagers. A key element of the counterinsurgency effort was to drive Kurds who lived in the fighters’ mountainous strongholds out of their villages. The army depopulated the mountains by asking the Kurds (before Anfal) and then compelling them with targeted chemical attacks and forced marches (during Anfal) to move to government housing along the highways and in large towns. The survivors were relocated to areas within the state’s reach.

While road building in Iraq was tethered to the requirements of war and regime repression, the infrastructural grid in Iran was extended and developed as a means of national integration. The key engine was the Jihad-e Sazandegi (Construction Crusade), an organization founded less than three months before Iraq’s invasion. [14] Jihad-e Sazandegi provided critical logistical support to the war effort — building roads, bridges and trenches; dispatching engineers, volunteers and donations to the front and stringing telephone lines to the rear; and manufacturing and repairing equipment. In acknowledgment of their labors, in October 1986 the government formally exempted Jihad members from military service. [15] While they were at it, the enthusiastic young volunteers transformed rural Iran, supplying electricity to 24,000 villages and piped water to 16,000, and building 36,600 miles of roads in the countryside between 1979 and 1993. [16] These local initiatives, which Tehran funded and acquiesced in but did not control, were accompanied by the construction of health and educational facilities, in many places making modern medical care and schooling available for the first time. [17] The result of all this activity in the countryside was the creation of national markets, as rural Iranians found it easier to sell their produce and labor in distant locales, as well as buy consumer goods such as televisions, refrigerators and motorized vehicles. At the same time, the “war of the cities,” lasting from 1985 to 1987, drove many Tehranis who could afford it to seek shelter outside the city and in some cases purchase homes in the city’s hinterlands. The combined result of this flight and the greater mobility of rural folk was urban sprawl, particularly around the capital, where the surrounding villages were swallowed into a metropolis. As everywhere, the political and social effects of the rapid development were double-edged. On the one hand, these changes expanded the reach of the state and left the rural population more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of national and international markets; on the other hand, increasing numbers of Iranians were integrated into the polity as there were more avenues of engagement between center and periphery. This popular participation, in turn, helped to fuse the Islamic prescriptions of the regime with the secular concept of the Iranian nation. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the roads, power lines, schools and welfare agencies built during the eight-year war amalgamated Iran into a national whole as never before.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the wartime road construction has also been momentous for the country’s political economy. Since the 1990s, as the grip of state institutions weakened under the impact of wars and sanctions, all of Iraq’s borders have been increasingly porous. The elaborate lattice of roads and highways linking the boundary zones to the heartland began to hum with smuggling activity — some of which was sustained by the state and its affiliated bourgeoisie, and some of which was run by small-time operators simply eking out a living. Since the US-led invasion, smuggling has become associated with organized crime as well as insurgency against the US occupation and the new Iraqi government. [18] The UN began reporting organized smuggling and banditry on the roads in the summer of 2003, and the various types of illicit trade boomed as Iraq fell into civil strife in the middle of the decade. As during the Iran-Iraq war, politicians in Baghdad probably have close ties to the gray economy, including the siphoning of Iraq’s oil patrimony out of the country on its highways and byways.

Rerouting Oil

Petroleum, of course, fueled the Iran-Iraq war, not only the military machinery of both sides, but also the interventions of external powers. The first battles raged in the oil-producing regions of both countries, shutting down production and shutting off critical pipelines. Despite the fears of US policymakers that world oil markets would be profoundly disrupted by the war, there was neither a significant increase in prices nor a lasting reduction in supply. In fact, despite an early price spike as 4 million barrels per day of Iraqi and Iranian oil abruptly disappeared from the market, the 1980s are known as a decade of petroleum glut. The oversupply came thanks to Washington’s chief ally in the Persian Gulf, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had begun to pump extra oil in 1978, amidst the mass unrest on the streets of Iranian cities and the strikes in Iranian oilfields that preceded the 1979 revolution. When the war came, the Saudis were prepared to ramp up production further. In April 1981, the Saudi oil minister, Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani, told NBC that the “glut was anticipated by Saudi Arabia and almost done by Saudi Arabia. If we were to reduce our production to the level it was at before we started raising it, there would be no glut at all. We engineered the glut and want to see it in order to stabilize the prices of oil.” [19] One year into the war, Saudi Arabian oil made up 62 percent of all Middle Eastern oil output and brought in 66 percent of the revenues — a jump of over 20 percent in the kingdom’s share from 1978. [20]

The Saudis’ policy ensured the glut (and, thus, prices lower than expected), but it threatened the financial health of Iraq and Iran at a moment when they were spending 40 and 10 percent, respectively, of their annual budgets on the military. Both countries were bleeding money. The foreign reserves of Iraq, for example, fell from $30 billion in 1980 to only $3 billion three years later. [21] With their export capacity greatly reduced, both Iraq and Iran identified Saudi Arabia as the culprit behind their financial woes. Tayih ‘Abd al-Karim, Iraq’s oil minister at the time, stated that Saudi Arabia’s “policy of continuing its high output beyond its needs is suicidal and cannot be explained in any terms other than the desire to harm others…. Were it not for the oil glut, which may have been inspired and planned to prolong the Gulf war and wear down Iraq, the Gulf war would now be over.” [22] At the same time, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries extended substantial financial aid to Iraq. When Iraq lost its oil export outlets, a new pipeline was erected across Saudi deserts. The welter of Saudi measures may seem contradictory, but when exercised in concert they appear consistent with a policy of containment and attrition. As oil prices declined further, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor, commented in 1986: “They [the Saudis] sell oil which belongs to the Muslims and the oppressed, God-given wealth at bargain prices. They pour it into the pockets of the superpowers at cheap prices in order to defeat revolutionary Iran.” [23]

Meanwhile, the US interest in preserving low oil prices at a time of global recession was secured. A US government estimate predicted that, even if Gulf oil exports were halved, there would be no shortages or other basis for price increases, thanks to Saudi excess capacity and willingness to flood the market. In addition, the US feared that a military victory by either side would undercut Saudi Arabia’s pivotal role as the “swing producer” and introduce a new coalition of states that would compete with the kingdom for this title. This threat seemed more pressing after 1982, when Iran drove Iraqi troops out of its territory and appeared on the verge of landing a decisive blow. The possibility that Iran would win the war spread worries in the international oil market. In 1984, two Brookings Institution scholars, Thomas McNaugher and William Quandt, published a report warning that the “gravest threat [to oil market stability] could come not during the war itself but from the outcome of the war…. The oil market could…be decisively changed by an out-and-out Iranian victory, which would make Iran the dominant influence on production…in much of the Gulf region. This could reduce the range of available capacity for world oil supplies in the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s, and make an Iranian-dominated coalition the swing supplier in OPEC.” [24] The authors concluded that the best scenario would be continuation of the war of attrition, leaving the market with minimum disruption, the implication being that production capacity for both countries would be radically reduced and the Saudis’ role unchallenged. Following this logic, the US initiated its “tilt” in favor of Iraq in order to maintain a precarious balance between the two combatants and prolong the war.

While this geostrategic dimension is commonly discussed, there is another equally consequential oil dynamic that was unleashed, namely the remapping of oil flows around new political alliances. When Syria closed the pipeline from Iraq in April 1982, Iraq lost 400,000 barrels per day in exports, approximately one fifth of its total prior to the war. [25] Having lost both the pipeline and access to the Gulf, due to the fighting in the south and Iranian naval patrols, Iraq was left with only one outlet for oil exports: the Turkish pipeline, which had a capacity of 750,000 barrels per day. [26] But the closure of old oil pathways also led to the opening of new ones. The capacity of the Turkish pipeline was doubled, a new pipeline was built from Iraqi oilfields to Saudi Arabia and Iraq started trans-shipping oil by road through Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These developments allowed Iraq to increase its exports above 2 million barrels per day. [27]

The rerouted oil flows saved the state budget during the sanctions period after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. [28] Iraq found itself relying on the smuggling of petroleum across its borders with Jordan, Syria and Turkey (via Kurdistan with Kurdish involvement) in exchange for the goods that were smuggled back. The most significant oil smuggling was conducted under the auspices of inter-state agreements known as “protocols.” According to the UN investigation of the corruption related to the Oil For Food program, by the end of the sanctions period, these protocols alone had generated a total value of $10 billion in goods and cash.

The war had a greater impact on Iran’s oil production than its export capacity. The Iraqi regime staged its invasion in Khuzestan, the oil-rich southwestern province that is home to most of Iran’s Arab population. With the attack on the oilfields and the capture of Khorramshahr, Iran’s largest and most important port, at the outset of the war, 65 percent of Iran’s refining capacity was destroyed. [29] No other Iranian port was similarly well connected by road and rail to Iran’s population centers and industrial cities. In Abadan, Iran’s oldest and largest oil city, refineries were severely damaged, while in the city of Ahvaz, other major industries were also hard hit in the opening years of the war. By 1986, after Iraq upgraded its air force and its refueling capacity, every Iranian oil terminal on the Persian Gulf was at risk. Its port facilities at Bushehr were struck repeatedly. Recognizing the vulnerability, Tehran began to direct seaborne trade further south and even to ports beyond the Gulf. At war’s end, Iran took several steps to reduce its dependence on the port facilities in the northern Gulf. The island of Kish, where the Shah had located a pet luxury tourism project, was redeveloped as a free trade zone. Port and rail facilities at Bandar Abbas and the island of Qeshm — both on the Strait of Hormuz — were enlarged; in 1993, Iran broke ground for a new port at Chabahar on the Indian Ocean, not far from the Pakistani border. While the state has yet to invest the funds required to bring these projects to fruition, the facilities that have been built have contributed to the bustling commerce between Iran and Dubai that has benefited merchants on both sides of the southern Gulf.

Releasing Tigers

A war so long, and so fiercely fought, naturally inflicted tremendous material damage. As with the human toll, the estimates of the losses are perforce inexact, with the subsequent US and allied bombardment of Iraq in 1991 making damages there particularly difficult to gauge. The secrecy of the Iraqi state and its restrictions (since the late 1950s) on independent empirical research add to the difficulty. The Iranian regime was likewise circumspect about the figures, but the relative peace in the country and greater openness of the public sphere made a rough accounting possible. Property damages in Iran ran to at least $450 billion. [30] Several large towns, particularly in Khuzestan in the southwest of the country, were nearly razed to the ground in the fighting. Remarkably, to this day war damages and international sanctions targeting investment have prevented Iran’s oil production from reaching its pre-1980 levels.

The end of the war brought Rafsanjani’s “era of reconstruction,” which channeled Iranian politics in new directions. The impact of reconstruction was particularly visible in the factional splits within the Islamic Republic, the broad contours of which can still be seen today. Rafsanjani and his band of so-called pragmatists, also known as the “modern right,” viewed economic liberalization as a means of both facilitating reconstruction and producing a new social base of capitalists for the regime. Hardline conservatives, to the extent that economics interested them, often remained attached to the model of a mixed economy where populist policies rendered citizens pliable, but did not impinge upon the capital accumulation activities of regime loyalists. Moreover, they responded to the sudden shift in slogans from “war, war, until victory” to “the era of reconstruction” by decrying the increasing shows of wealth on city streets as un-Islamic and deeply disrespectful of the blood of the martyred war dead. Greater wealth in the private sector corresponded to what the social conservatives viewed as shameful laxity in “Islamic” norms of dress, male-female relations and general personal comportment. The hardliners sponsored the creation of paramilitary organizations like Ansar-e Hezbollah in the name of confronting “cultural invasion” and “cleansing” the cities that had lost touch with the “spirit of the front.” In the words of the group’s most infamous member, Masoud Dehnamaki, “Ansar-e Hezbollah did not exist before 1989; the group came together around that time to defend the values [of the revolution] and fight those who betrayed it.” [31] Emerging from this political persuasion was none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president since 2005, who has become the standard bearer for a hardline conservative faction that seeks to reward the loyal military and state security apparatus with oligarchical economic powers, while currying popular favor with short-term handouts from the state treasury. Ironically, to gain their present ascendancy the Iranian culture warriors joined forces with elements in the IRGC, one of the biggest profiteers of the “era of reconstruction.” It is no accident that some of Ahmadinejad’s most vocal critics since 2005 come from the ranks of the “modern right” around Rafsanjani, who was unable to cage the IRGC tiger through institutional checks and procedures engendering greater transparency.

Since the 1990s, the self-proclaimed reformists within the Islamic Republic have sought to fashion a post-war social contract anchored in wider political participation and government accountability. They view these measures not as a way to phase out clerical rule, as some in the West imagine, but as the basis for survival of the regime amidst social harmony. The reformist moment in Iranian politics coincided with a rethinking of the meaning of the Iran-Iraq war and its privileged role in the country’s political economy.

A sharp and occasionally violent debate has ensued. Although many wartime heroes of the IRGC, such as Mohsen Rezaei, Mohammad Qalibaf and Ali Shamkhani, are increasingly sidelined and have become cautious critics of the political status quo, the IRGC’s current leadership continues to defend the organization’s prominence and clout in terms of its bravery on the battlefield. In the manner of right-wing populists everywhere, the IRGC presents the war as a moment of truth in which politicians (including clerics) and bureaucrats doused the revolutionary fire and wasted the sacrifice of countless soldiers by ending the war prematurely. Critics, on the other hand, turn to the war to find examples of IRGC foolhardiness and ineffectiveness. The 1982 decision to continue the war, pursuing the Iraqi army across the border, remains very contentious and is laid at the IRGC’s doorstep. Fingers are also pointed over Iran’s inability to defeat Iraq, despite its demographic advantage, or to capture and hold sizable chunks of territory. Nor have the hardliners’ opponents remained passive as charges are lobbed at them. The best example appeared in October 2007, when Rafsanjani disclosed the existence of previously secret correspondence between IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei and Khomeini in 1988, in which Rezaei advised that the war could not be won. With the publication of this letter, Rafsanjani effectively neutralized the accusations from the IRGC that he had been the sole proponent of the 1988 ceasefire and burnished his nationalist credentials while tarnishing those of the IRGC. During the 2009 presidential election campaign and its tumultuous aftermath, the history of the war was employed to attack both the IRGC and reformist hopeful Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who had served as prime minister in the 1980s. [32]

In Iraq, there was little time or money for an “era of reconstruction” thanks to the invasion of Kuwait, sanctions and what came after. Nonetheless, several of the factors that shape Iraqi politics today can equally be traced to the horrors and disruptions of the 1980-1988 war. The Anfal campaign reinforced the predilection of the Kurdish parties to demand an autonomous zone that could afford them communal security from the central government in Baghdad. It also resulted, indirectly, in the creation of the northern no-fly zone in Iraq, the first step in creating a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in the 1990s. The Kurdish peshmerga, whose military capacity was completely destroyed during the Anfal campaign, was thus brought back to life. The considerable damage of the Iran-Iraq war to Iraqi infrastructure made the impact of the 1990-2003 sanctions more severe than what might have been otherwise. The war imposed for the first time what was to become a permanent economy of privation. Dependence on government subsidies and food rationing systems became more acute during the sanctions period, leading to new means of state control. The liberalization of the 1980s led to the further weakening of labor unions through the introduction of anti-labor laws such as the lifting of minimum wage regulations and the abolition of unions. [33] The latter half of the war decade contrasted sharply with the early 1980s, when the government was pursuing a more egalitarian policy of “guns and butter.” The sanctions period only highlighted disparities that had started to appear during the 1980s, with the emergence of the stratum known in Iraq as the “embargo cats” — those who profited from trade and smuggling deals under the sanctions.

Crossing Over from Yesterday

The immediate legacies of the Iran-Iraq war are etched upon the bodies and psyches of the veterans, as well as their families, the displaced civilians and the entire communities that were caught in the crossfire. In addition to the million or more Iranians who were forced to abandon their homes, some 600,000 Iraqis were deported to Iran on charges of being “Persian.” [34] Some of these Iraqis have returned home under the banner of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Shi‘i Islamist party whose Badr Brigade fought on the Iranian side during the war and whose leaders have been key players in the post-2003 scramble for political power in Baghdad. In view of the Supreme Council’s origins in Iran, many Iraqis regard it with deep suspicion. In 1986, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, having been expelled from Iran by their fellow revolutionaries, established a headquarters in Iraq and joined the battle against Iranian troops. Most Iranians, including those who are critical of the Islamic Republic, view this act as a betrayal. Each society was also confronted with widespread destruction in the border regions, the steep expenses of health care for veterans and the opportunity costs associated with throwing money at war and reconstruction instead of investing in infrastructure or other public goods. The immense war debt incurred by Iraq — untold billions at the time of the ceasefire — is still being repaid. Alone and disliked, revolutionary Iran had no creditors, so it paid for the war with a budget deficit that pushed inflation through the roof, which disproportionately burdened the working class.

The legacies do not end with dislocation, disempowerment and distrust, however. The stalemate on the battlefield unleashed dynamics, intended and unintended, that helped to forge new state institutions, appointed new agents for change (and for the status quo) and quite literally redrew the map of both nation-states, even though neither side gained an inch of the other’s territory. The reconfiguration of civilian-military relations enabled Saddam Hussein to survive not one, but two military humiliations, as well as near-total international isolation after 1990. Iraqi society endured the crippling sanctions of 1990-2003 aided partly by the informal economy on the new highways and the revenue from smuggled oil, as well as that exported legally in the new pipelines. The Islamic Republic attacked the challenges of reconstruction armed with two double-edged swords: the expertise housed in the IRGC, which grew far more powerful than envisioned, and an increasingly integrated, capable Iranian society, which grew ever more demanding of power.

These slowly accreted results of the war have been masked by the seemingly sudden ruptures that bookended the fighting. The year 1979 ushered in both the Islamic Republic and the strongman rule of Saddam Hussein, while the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent US-led war with Iraq dominate the historical field of vision, hiding the preceding Iran-Iraq war from view. One regrettable result is that a preoccupation with the personalities of Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini has replaced an analysis of the gradual but dramatic shifts in political economy that remade both countries behind the implacable authoritarian facades. Given the breakneck pace of events, and the pall of fear under which they continue to live, Iraqi and Iranian citizens have had fewer opportunities than historians to dwell on these matters. It is refreshing that, in Iran, the legacy of the war is increasingly contested. [35] In Iraq, where subsequent events have been far crueler, this sort of reflection has not yet begun, but it still may. In Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been more stable than the rest of the country since the early 1990s, conversations about the war have a place in the public realm, including discussions about the wisdom of the Kurdish leadership’s decision to liberate Halabja — an event that sparked the Iraqi use of chemical weapons there. [36] One perhaps salutary — and entirely unintended — consequence of the US invasion of Iraq is that, today, Iranians and Iraqis once again have the opportunity to remember and to converse as they cross the war fronts of yesterday.


[1] Lawrence Potter and Gary Sick, “Introduction,” in Potter and Sick, eds., Iran, Iraq and the Legacies of War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 2.
[2] Farideh Farhi, “The Antinomies of Iran’s War Generation,” in ibid., p. 104.
[3] Ahmed Hashim, “Saddam Husayn and Civil-Military Relations in Iraq: The Quest for Legitimacy and Power,” Middle East Journal 57/1 (Winter 2003), p. 27.
[4] Ibid., pp. 23-24.
[5] Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), p. 294.
[6] Quoted in Isam al-Khafaji, “State Incubation of Iraqi Capitalism,” Middle East Report 142 (September-October 1986), p. 4.
[7] Kiren Chaudhry, “Economic Liberalization and the Lineages of the Rentier State,” Comparative Politics 27/3 (October 1994).
[8] Paul McGeough, “Both Sides of the Iraqi Street,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 14, 2005.
[9] Kaveh Ehsani, “The Urban Provincial Periphery in Iran: Revolution and War in Ramhormuz,” in Ali Gheissari, ed., Contemporary Iran: Economy, Society, Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 45-46.
[10] Kaveh Ehsani, “Tilt, But Don’t Spill: Iran’s Development and Reconstruction Dilemma,” Middle East Report 191 (November-December 1994), p. 21.
[11] Chubin and Tripp, p. 129.
[12] See, for example, Arang Keshavarzian, Bazaar and State in Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Kevan Harris, “Pseudo-Privatization in the Islamic Republic: Beyond the Headlines on Iran’s Economic Transformation,” Muftah, October 15, 2010.
[12] Eric Hooglund, “The Islamic Republic at War and Peace,” Middle East Report 156 (January-February 1989), p. 6.
[14] See Emad Ferdows, “The Reconstruction Crusade and Class Conflict in Iran,” MERIP Reports 117 (March-April 1983).
[15] Asghar Schirazi, Islamic Development Policy: The Agrarian Question in Iran (trans. P. J. Ziess-Lawrence) (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993), p. 159.
[16] Kaveh Ehsani, “Rural Society and Agricultural Development in Post-Revolution Iran: The First Two Decades,” Critique 15/1 (Spring 2006), p. 89.
[17] See Eric Hooglund, “Thirty Years of Islamic Revolution in Rural Iran,” Middle East Report 250 (Spring 2009).
[18] See Christopher Parker and Pete W. Moore, “The War Economy of Iraq,” Middle East Report 243 (Summer 2007).
[19] Quoted in Abbas Alnasrawi, “Economic Consequences of the Iraq-Iran War,” Third World Quarterly 8/3 (1986), p. 890.
[20] Ibid., p. 889.
[21] Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 235.
[22] Quoted in Alnasrawi, p. 890.
[23] Quoted in Chubin and Tripp, p. 173.
[24] The report, published by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, is excerpted in MERIP Reports 125/126 (July-September 1984), p. 40.
[25] Alnasrawi, p. 876.
[26] Michael Sterner, “The Iran-Iraq War,” Foreign Affairs (Fall 1984), p. 132.
[27] David Segal, “The Iran-Iraq War: A Military Analysis,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1988), p. 960.
[28] Nida Alahmad, “The Politics of Oil and State Survival in Iraq (1991-2003): Beyond the Rentier Thesis,” Constellations 14/4 (2007).
[29] Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1990), p. 128.
[30] Hooglund, “War and Peace,” p. 4.
[31] Quoted in Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Memory, Mourning, Memorializing: On the Victims of Iran-Iraq War, 1980-Present,” Radical History Review 105 (Fall 2009), p. 111.
[32] See Farideh Farhi, “New Hardships Intensify Debate Over Iran-Iraq War,” Inter Press Service, August 3, 2010, and Rasool Nafisi, “The Khomeini Letter: Is Rafsanjani Warning the Hardliners?”, October 11, 2006.
[33] See Chaudhry, op cit.
[34] Hooshang Amirahmadi, Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), p. 45.
[35] See, for instance, Goftogu 23 (Spring 1999) and Farhi, “Antinomies.”
[36] Joost Hiltermann, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 106-107.

How to cite this article:

Nida Alahmad, Arang Keshavarzian "A War on Multiple Fronts," Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).

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