The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was one of the most traumatic episodes of the 20th century for Iranians. While a new governmental system was being crystallized in a turbulent social context in the wake of a revolution, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein waged an all-out internecine war against his fragile neighbor, inflicted unspeakable human suffering on the people of Iran and razed the country’s infrastructure to the ground.
The goal was to nip the fledgling Islamist movement spearheaded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the bud and prevent revolutionary Iran from emerging as a force of hostility against the Arab states of the Persian Gulf region and the alliance of Western powers.
Described as one of the world’s most protracted conventional wars since the Korean War ended in 1953, Saddam’s military campaign wiped out some 1 million Iranians, even though more cynical estimates put the casualty rates much higher.
The Iraqi army deployed chemical weapons against civilians across Iran, and for the first time ever on a battlefield, nerve agents such as sarin and tabun were used by the Baathist forces.
Saddam specifically targeted Iran’s oil industry, the national economy’s beating heart, and pounded several oil refineries in southern Iran – including the one in the city of Abadan, which at the time was the world’s largest petroleum refinery – rendering most of them dysfunctional.
The scars of Saddam’s crusade were ingrained into the collective memory of Iranians, driving a wedge between the two most important Shiite states in the world, creating a renewed groundswell of Persian-Arab animosity recalling the resentments that had sprung up after the Muslim conquest of Persia that began in AD 633.
Even though the Islamic Republic later concocted its own exclusive jargon for the eight-year war and refers to it as the “Sacred Defense,” dispensing with any reference to the name of Iraq, the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein’s troops and their numerous attempts to seize and annex large swaths of Iran’s territory, including the entirety of the province of Khuzestan, inhabited by an Arabic-speaking majority, continue to stir feelings of humiliation and indignation among many Iranians.
The harrowing war cultivated a culture of resistance, patriotism and martyrdom in Iran, proud of its unassuming chivalry against a regime armed to the teeth that was sponsored and equipped by almost every major European nation, the United States, the Soviet Union, China and the Arab states of the Gulf.
Iran didn’t have the military and intelligence wherewithal to shield its cities, and its bourgeoning anti-American revolution had turned much of the world against it, so its people had to defend their lives and homes with empty hands, while its soldiers, mostly untrained volunteers, had to embrace life-threatening missions to block the Iraqi army from capturing the Iranian soil.
In a pageantry of bravado, Iran rejected a truce offer by Iraq in 1982, insisting that the war would continue until the government in Baghdad was replaced by an Islamic republic. Iran was livening up the apocalyptic mantra that “the road to Al-Quds passes through Karbala,” bespeaking its leadership’s reverie of “liberating” Jerusalem (Al-Quds) and appending it to the Muslim world after conquering Iraq.
Many historians and military experts called Iran’s obduracy a logistical miscalculation that resulted in undue costs to the nation, yielded unnecessary casualties and drained the armed forces and their resources.
In 1988, Saddam Hussein, emboldened by international support and impunity, threatened to unleash a new wave of attacks on Iranian cities, this time brandishing weapons of mass destruction. On August 2 that year, Iraq dropped chemical weapons on four locations in the Oshnavieh district in northwestern Iran, killing at least 1,000 and injuring 1,700 civilians.
Iran submitted a protest to the United Nations, but to no avail. The global community’s recalcitrance to reining in Saddam was perturbing.
Eventually, under pressure by the more pragmatist elements of the Iranian government who had warned that Tehran’s military budget was tailing off, the soldiers’ morale had waned and that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to drag on the fighting until 1993, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire, and Security Council Resolution 598 came into effect on August 8, 1988.
The rebuilding of Iran’s stained relations with its indispensable neighbor was a huge challenge. But the Islamic Republic didn’t hesitate to embrace engagement, and in October 1990, it restored diplomatic relations, followed quickly by a visit to Baghdad by foreign minister at the time, Ali Akbar Velayati.
Acrimonies that had reached a crescendo during the corrosive war of attrition were dislodged by a marriage of convenience, and the two oil-rich states began cozying up to each other.
Hostilities began to be swept under the rug, and in what many Iranians continue to recall begrudgingly as a sign of acquiescence to a rival nation, the government in Tehran refused to claim from Iraq nearly US$100 billion in damages wrought by the war after the United Nations secretary general at the time, Javier Perez de Cuellar, identified Iraq as the aggressor and initiator of the conflict in a December 11, 1991, report to the Security Council.
The reasoning of the Iranian authorities, however simplistic, was that it was not expedient to seek compensation from a fellow Muslim nation.
Downfall of Saddam
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq should in practice have gladdened the Iranian leadership, because it was hinged on eliminating a secular despot who had found Iran’s rendition of Islamic governance unsavory, had wreaked havoc on the country in the early days of a sensitive political transition, exterminated thousands of Iranian civilians and reduced its formerly robust economy almost to rubble.
But the Iranian government opted for clinging to its revolutionary anti-American agenda and opposed the US operation from Day 1.
Even when Saddam Hussein was tried and then executed by hanging on December 30, 2006, the Iranian government forbade public celebrations, and high-ranking authorities didn’t salivate at the news, at least publicly. This was after thousands of Iranian families who had lost their beloved ones to Saddam’s expansionism and savagery had a reason to rejoice and feel that justice had been administered.
Saddam’s downfall was followed by Iran forging amicable relations with the new Iraqi government, cementing its foothold in Iraq militarily and politically and speeding up trade and economic exchanges to the point that in 2019, Iraq became Iran’s second-largest trading partner after China.
Whether to deter Iraq from acceding to its territory becoming a permanent stronghold of the United States on Iran’s doorstep or to evade the stinging impacts of international sanctions torpedoing its economy by incentivizing trade with a neighboring state whose market had conventionally been amenable to Iranian goods and services, the Islamic Republic decided that it wanted to make peace with a country with which it had fought a bitter war for eight years.
These days, it is not uncommon to hear Iranian authorities heaping lavish praise on Iraq as a brother nation and a crucial party to the so-called Axis of Resistance, and religious eulogists singing epic songs adulating Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the former commander of the Popular Mobilization Committee, who was killed along with Iran’s hero-worshipped commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, in a US drone strike in Baghdad. The theme of many of these songs is, “Separation between Iran and Iraq is impossible.”
Iran does not any longer rehash the grievances of war and does not want its relations with the neighboring Arab country to be defined in terms of that brutal conflict.
Iran-US rivalry not set in stone
The same pattern of reconciliation could easily be reproduced with the United States. Iran and the US have had a history of fraught relations since the 1979 revolution. They were dragged to the precipice of war on several occasions, and their leaders have constantly traded insults and accusations.
They have relentlessly undermined each other’s interests and, when the opportunity presented itself, killed each other’s citizens, whether in the skies or in proxy face-offs.
But one thing is clear: Iran’s rivalry with the United States is not stiffer than Iran’s erstwhile enmity with Saddam’s Iraq. At least, they haven’t fought a war with 1 million fatalities.
It is true that opposition to the United States by the Iranian leadership and the more hardline actors in the establishment is not a matter of national interest but an ideological leaning that outlines the identity of the Islamic Republic as a nation that seeks to be a non-aligned regional power unshackled by the “hegemonic” powers.
However, even this dogma could be discarded if the more rational protagonists of the Iranian government concluded that anti-Americanism can no longer satisfy their growingly skeptical, educated and young constituents, who are still unconvinced why their country should be at loggerheads with the United States while there are many grounds for synergy and cooperation.
Iran made peace with Iraq. It can definitely do so with the United States. The coming to power of President Joe Biden, a seasoned politician who cherishes multilateralism and diplomacy as hallmarks of his foreign policy, is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.