Earlier this month Iran commemorated the 30th anniversary of the ending of the Iran-Iraq War. The eight-year conflict is a defining period in the country’s modern history and the establishment has spared no effort in continually keeping the memory of the conflict in the public consciousness.
The war was the biggest factor in the consolidation of the newly-established Islamic Republic and helped crystalise the revolution’s world view as well as defining the country’s foreign policy. Iran’s experience during the war, specifically the country’s severe isolation, has bequeathed an enduring lesson centred on self-reliance and a cynical view of international diplomacy.
There is also a lively debate on the big details of the war, specifically Iran’s decision to go on the offensive against Iraq following the liberation of Khorramshahr in May 1982 and the events of the final months of the war in 1988, when Iran endured several tactical losses in rapid succession. Above all, the circumstances surrounding Iran’s acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 in July 1988 are constantly debated in the light of the continual emergence or leaking of new information.
The 30th anniversary of the war’s conclusion comes at a critical time when the war of words between US President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders is heating up. With the US administration set on the economic strangulation of Iran, there are growing fears that the Islamic Republic may be forced to fight again.
Since the ending of the war in July-August 1988 new revelations about its conduct – and the decision-making process driving strategic choices – have come to light on a regular basis. These revelations have intensified in recent years as efforts are stepped up to shape the memory of the war, in addition to securing its legacy.
The war is still a huge story in Iran, as demonstrated by the murals of fallen martyrs and the war-related slogans emblazoned on major buildings in Tehran and towns and villages across the country. By contrast, in neighbouring Iraq the war never had such a deep impact, and at any rate it has long been forgotten, superseded by bigger events, notably the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of the country in 2003.
The debates on the war’s conduct focus on two issues in particular. First and foremost, the wisdom behind Iran’s decision to invade Iraq in late spring 1982 – following the liberation of Khorramshahr – has been repeatedly called into question. The retaking of Khorramshahr marked a major turning point in the war as it signalled a full reversal in fortunes and a shift in momentum in favour of revolutionary Iran.
When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, the Iraqis expected a quick victory and the satisfaction of their stated war aims, namely full control of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway and the occupation of large swathes of Iran’s south-western Khuzestan province. Whilst Iraq made some gains in the opening months of the war, from mid-1981 onwards the Baathists were on the defensive as Iran steadily retook lost ground.
Iran has justified its decision to continue the war after the liberation of Khorramshahr as an essentially defensive or preventive measure, for fear that Saddam Hussein would restart the conflict once his forces had recovered from the shock of Iran’s successful offensives in 1981 and 1982. This has always been a difficult decision to justify as Iraq was on the ropes in late spring 1982 and not surprisingly Saddam Hussein was suing for peace. Critics of the decision argue that had Iran entered into negotiations at that stage, the Islamic Republic would have scored a major moral victory (by demonstrating that it had contained Baathist aggression) and would have been able to pursue peace on Iran’s terms.
Iran held the advantage for six years (1982-1988) but was never able to deliver a knockout blow by for instance occupying Iraq’s second city Basra and effectively cutting the country into two. Basra was indeed the focus of Iran’s major offensives, notably Karbala-4 and Karbala-5 in late December 1986 through to early 1987, but despite making significant gains, to the point where forward Iranian infantry were only a few kilometres away from Basra centre, ultimately the Iranians failed to seize the port city.
Iran’s failure to deliver a knockout blow had two principal causes. Foremost, severe military-related sanctions on the Islamic Republic made it difficult to obtain arms and spare parts, in particular for Iran’s air force, which was mostly equipped with American fighter jets supplied before the Iranian revolution. By stark contrast, Iraq had ready access to legitimate international arms markets and was well supplied by both sides of the Iron Curtain, notably by France and the former Soviet Union.
Moreover, the United States, which later turned against Saddam Hussein, was aiding the Iraqi war effort as early as the spring of 1982 for fear that an Iranian victory would destabilise the entire region. By 1987 the US was in open confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf, as demonstrated by Operations Nimble Archer in October 1987 and Preying Mantis in April 1988. The latter was the US navy’s largest battle since the Second World War, as demonstrated by the ferocious fighting, which resulted in the destruction of a quarter of the Iranian navy.
Second, Iranian mismanagement, and specifically the lack of adequate coordination between the regular Iranian military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (which had the lead role in the war), was a major factor in the failure to turn Iran’s inherent advantages into a war-winning formula. This mismanagement came into sharp relief in early 1988 as Iraq broke Iran’s momentum and once again went on the offensive.
Starting with the retaking of the Fao Peninsula in April 1988 the Iraqis retook much of the ground that Iran had captured during six years of painstakingly slow advances. The loss of Fao was a huge psychological blow to the Iranians, who had captured it two years earlier in February 1986 during the Valfajr-8 offensive. Fao’s capture was widely regarded as Iran’s most important war gain, thus exacerbating the symbolism of its loss two years later.
Although the Iraqi advances of 1988 was facilitated by the liberal use of chemical weapons – in Fao for example Iranian forces fled in panic for fear of getting caught up in chemical attacks – there was no getting away from the fact that deeply-rooted structural flaws, in particular Iran’s inability to sustain sufficiently large logistical networks, made a decisive Iranian victory all but impossible.
In legacy terms, there are two over-riding lessons from the Iran-Iraq War, which was the longest conventional inter-state conflict of the 20th century. First it was pointless, as neither side achieved its stated war aims and by the time that a ceasefire had taken hold in August 1988 the protagonists were effectively back to square one. Second, the war proved that revolutionary fervour and a messianic drive (as consistently demonstrated by revolutionary Iran) cannot overcome superior military forces in a conventional conflict.
Iran has drawn important lessons from its failures and sought to address the deficiencies even in the face of a continuing hostile international environment, as demonstrated by the persistence of military-related sanctions. For example, Iran has compensated for the inability to fully rebuild its air force by investing in the development of a formidable indigenous ballistic missile capability. This capability is designed to deter major adversaries such as the US and Israel from casually walking into a military conflict with Iran.
The Islamic Republic has also invested considerable effort into developing a wide range of asymmetric or irregular warfare capabilities. This is foremost exemplified by the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Revolutionary Guards, which in view of the scope and extent of its operations across the region, must be regarded as the most influential special forces organisation in the Middle East.
The commander of the Quds Force, Major-General Qasem Soleimani, ratcheted up the war of words with Donald Trump by proclaiming that in the event of a military conflict the US will be facing him and the Quds Force alone. There are two important messages here: first, Soleimani is hinting that in the event of a military conflict in the Persian Gulf the conventional Iranian armed forces would not necessarily get involved, as there is a risk of annihilation in view of the massive military disparity between Iran and America. Second, Soleimani is confident that the Quds Force’s asymmetric tactics, in addition to its vast knowledge of US forces and personnel in the region and beyond (which is the result of painstaking intelligence work), can deliver a bloody nose to the Americans in a short but sharp war.
Furthermore, as the countdown to a military confrontation with the US begins, Iran has started to deploy its formidable ideological and broader cultural infrastructure, both to prepare the populace for conflict, but more importantly to reap the post-conflict political and strategic benefits. This is what Qasem Soleimani meant when he said that Trump can begin the war but Iran will finish it.
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