Williamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods, The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
For supporters of the Islamic Republic, it is the Iran-Iraq war, and not the 1979 revolution, that evokes the true spirit of the Islamic Republic. In 1979, the plethora of political groups that poured into the streets was united in the desire to get rid of the US-backed Shah, but divided as to the shape of post-revolutionary society. Only after the outbreak of the “imposed war” with Iraq (1980-1988) were Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his fellow clerics able to consolidate the Islamic Republic as a state. The war allowed the regime to imprison the opposition for reasons of “national security” and to mobilize the population in defense of the revolution as the regime defined it.
Iraq is a country of 15.5 million people living in an area somewhat larger than the state of California. Most of its land is a plain descending from mountains in the north to desert in the southwest. The area near the Gulf is marshy. This plain includes the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, between which the ancient Mesopotamian civilization arose. Iraq’s people are 75 percent Arab and 15 percent Kurdish, with a small Turkish minority. The population is 55 percent Shi‘i Muslim, 40 percent Sunni Muslim and 5 percent Christian.
September marks the seventh anniversary of the war between Iran and Iraq. It now ranks as the longest inter-state military conflict in the Middle East in this century. It has also been the most costly in terms of human lives lost, property destroyed and numbers of people uprooted from their homes. Although there are few accurate statistics on the destructive effects of the war, estimated deaths include some 300,000 Iranians and about 100,000 Iraqis, and at least an equal number wounded. The destruction of homes, factories and critical infrastructure in southeastern Iraq and southwestern Iran exceeds $400 billion. At least 1.5 million persons have fled their homes since 1980, mostly Iranians from the cities of Khuzestan. More recently, thousands of Iraqis have left the Basra area.
The box-office hit Argo brings back long-faded memories of the Iran hostage crisis for many Americans.
News in November 1979 that US diplomats had been taken hostage in Tehran shocked the United States. Students stormed the US embassy, blindfolding 52 Americans and threatening them at gunpoint. The hostages, held captive for 444 days, immediately became the nation’s top news story and dogged President Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful reelection campaign.
It was February 1987, at the front lines near Khorramshahr, in the south of Iran along the Iraqi border. We had been engaged in heavy battles for over a week. Our troops had penetrated fortified Iraqi positions, and the Iraqis were making us pay: Artillery and mortar shells rained down on us with a vengeance, as did bombs from Iraqi planes.
The Iran-Iraq war was fought entirely within the boundaries of the two combatant nations, but it was nonetheless a regional war. The war machine of Saddam Hussein’s regime was lubricated with billions of dollars in loans from the Arab oil monarchies, which were anxious to see the revolutionary state in Tehran defeated, or at least bloodied. Iraqi warplanes harried ships seeking to load Iranian oil at the Kharg island terminal and points south on the Persian Gulf coast. In 1987, the US Navy intervened to protect tankers and other commercial traffic from Iranian reprisals. These heated entanglements presaged the degree to which the war was to transform the political economies of many countries in the vicinity.
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.
The seeds of future war are sown even as parties fight and, depleted or on the verge of defeat, sue for peace. The outcome is rarely stable and may be barely tolerable to one side or the other. This rule holds true for the two belligerents no less than for their respective sponsors, keen to protect their strategic interests. Ambitions thwarted are merely delayed, not abandoned; new traumas incurred are entered into the ledger for the settlement of what is hoped one day will be the final bill.
Beating their chests and wearing black, a procession of young men and women filed toward the gates of Tehran’s Amir Kabir Polytechnic University on February 23. The mourners — drawn primarily from the ranks of the Basij militia and unaffiliated hardline Islamist vigilantes — were carrying the remains of five unknown soldiers, martyred during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, to campus, where they intended to rebury them. Inside the gates, a gathering of angry students had assembled to protest what they saw as a blatant show of state force, and when the procession crossed onto campus, a confrontation ensued. Students claimed the fight pitted 1,500 protesters against a smaller group of mourners, most of whom were armed with clubs, knives and martial arts weapons.
On October 19, 2005, in a former presidential palace that had been hastily refurbished to resemble a respectable courtroom, Saddam Hussein went on trial.
In waging war on Iraq, one of the points the Bush administration sought to prove was that President Bill Clinton’s policy of dual containment had failed — that despite a decade of threats, sanctions, military action and UN-led disarmament, Iraq had continued to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Iraq, of course, was not the only target of dual containment. So was neighboring Iran, which likewise was suspected of having secret programs for building weapons of mass destruction and was seen as a destabilizing force hostile to US interests.
Saddam Hussein's regime has long been one of the world's worst human rights violators. But the international community largely ignored Iraq's record of human rights abuse — brutal repression of internal dissent, atrocities during the eight-year war with Iran — until after Hussein crossed the red line by sending his forces into Kuwait. Even since 1990, evidence of human rights violations has been marshaled solely to score political points or justify military action, and not to hold a vicious regime accountable for its crimes.
In June 1986, we wrote that the situation in which Iraq found itself “underlines the vital need for the establishment of democracy…however broadly this may be defined.” Four years later, this plea has become more urgent; the regime has become even more powerful and repressive and has now extended its rule to Kuwait, initiating a crisis whose possible consequences for the region, if not the world, are fearful to contemplate.
A largely ignored byproduct of the Iranian revolution and the Gulf war has been the large influx of refugees into Turkey. The economic benefits of Turkish neutrality during the Gulf war led Ankara to downplay the problem, but the recent arrival of Kurdish refugees has strained regional ties and clouded Turkish hopes for lucrative post-war reconstruction deals. The large Iranian refugee population of a million or more is also causing worries, as struggles among Iranian political groups spill over into Turkey.
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 wars are winding down. The streets are heating up.” This was how Baltimore radio commentator Sean Connolly led off his “minimalist news” broadcast one day in mid-September. It is hard to find a more succinct way
to describe the state of the world, the Middle East included, on the cusp of transition from the Reagan years.
Reagan came to office very much in the slipstream of the Iranian revolution, a pivotal political moment decided in the streets but consolidated in the counter-revolutionary war launched by Iraq. That revolution and its confrontational stance towards the US provided much of the political fuel that powered the buildup of US interventionary forces in the early 1980s.
According to the Iranian media, the seventh year of the war was again to be the “decisive year.” For Iraq it was a year of more “achievements and victories” under the leadership of the “militant leader.” On March 21,1987, the Persian New Year, Saddam Hussein brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the end of the “decisive year” without an Iraqi defeat. Perhaps he was not aware that in Tehran they date the war years from September to September. Then again, to celebrate not being defeated yet as a victory is typical of the demagogy in which the Iraqi leadership indulges.