What the Iran-Iraq War Can Teach U.S. Officials

By Alfoneh, Ali | Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

What the Iran-Iraq War Can Teach U.S. Officials


Alfoneh, Ali, Middle East Quarterly


Relations with Iran have challenged every U.S. administration since the 1 979 revolution, and all U.S. presidents since Jimmy Carter have had to address the regime's attempts to export its Islamist revolution abroad, its fierce opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and its dogged nuclear quest. As President Barack Obama begins a second term in office, it would serve the president and those advising him well to truly understand the mindset of the revolutionary regime in order to avoid repeating past mistakes.

The task of untangling that history, facilitated by such books as Kenneth Pollack's The Persian Puzzle1 and Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin's Eternal Iran,2 has now received a major boost with David Crist's excellent new title The Twilight War: The Secret History of America s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran? Based on twenty years of archival research and four hundred interviews, it is a serious contribution to our understanding of the turbulent relations between Washington and Tehran during the past three decades. Crist highlights both the immaturity of the revolutionary regime in Tehran and errors in judgment by Washington that have led to numerous missed opportunities to normalize relations over the years.

The book's most important shortcoming, however, is its lack of primary source material in the Persian language. In most cases, this material would have reinforced Crist's arguments, yet in a few important instances, this deficiency leads to questionable conclusions. In particular, his judgments about the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) - the formative experience shaping the minds of the current crop of Iranian decision makers - would have greatly benefited from the use of such sources. Its proper understanding offers insights into the Islamic Republic's strategy today that might help avert looming catastrophes.

THE IRAQI INVASION

According to official Islamic Republic historiography, the war with Iraq began on August 22, 1980, when Iraqi forces conducted a surprise invasion of Iranian territory.4 Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself made a point of stressing the element of surprise when addressing ambassadors of Islamic countries in October 1980: "The usurping government of Saddam attacked Iran from the sea, air, and on the ground without any excuse acceptable to the governments of the world and without prior information or warning of conquest."5

Notwithstanding Khomeini's public pronouncement, he had been warned of an imminent Iraqi invasion well in advance. Crist perceptively cites a meeting on October 1979 between CIA officer George Cave and then- foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi, in which such a warning was given.6 Cave also instructed Yazdi to reactivate a signals intelligence collection station in Ham to "find out what Iraq is up to," but Yazdi dismissed the advice saying: 'They wouldn't dare!"7

Persian language primary source material reveals other early warnings ignored by the supreme leader. In a September 22, 1991 interview with the weekly Payam-e Enghelab, Ahmad Khomeini, son of the grand ayatollah, disclosed that Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the shah, had reached out to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris through his chief of staff. When denied an audience with Khomeini, Bakhtiar's chief of staff met with Ahmad and warned him of suspicious movements by the Iraqi forces detected by Iran's military intelligence.8 Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed Bakhtiar's warnings as a scare tactic.

On June 15, 1980, Iran's first post-revolutionary president, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, sent a letter to Khomeini warning of suspicious movements of Iraqi forces.9 A September 19, 1980 letter from the president is even more revealing:

I don't know what happened at your residence last night and what the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] discussed with you. But I find it necessary to report this: . . . One month ago I sent you the exact same commanders who passed you information about today's conspiracy. …

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