Iran-Iraq Conflict; an Unending War between Two Despots

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As the sixth year of the Iran-Iraq war comes to an end, the prospect for a settlement seems hopeless. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini continues to demand the ouster of President Saddam Hussein as a condition for negotiation, and Saddam Hussein appears determined to remain in power at all costs. During the first eighteen months of the conflict, when Iraq occupied part of Iran, Khomeini asked for an unconditional return to the status quo, while Saddam Hussein sought a military victory. In June 1982, when Iran recaptured virtually all its territory, the clerical rulers in Teheran debated the question of whether Iranian forces should pursue the Iraqi troops into their own country. After some hesitation Khomeini sided with the proponents of expansion and thus sealed the course of the war.

The Iraqi occupation of Iran had compelled the revolutionary regime to channel its energies into expelling the invaders. The psychological atmosphere of this widely popular mobilization tremendously benefited the religious extremists, who regarded the export of the Islamic revolution as their primary foreign policy objective. Since then the militarization of the state has steadily increased the extremists' base of support within the regime. When Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, there were only 7,000 Revolutionary Guards and no irregular militias. Today there are 200,000 Guards and about 350,000 militiamen, who are generally more zealous than the clerics who lead them. The Islamic regime claims that an effort is under way to recruit another 300,000 men to be sent to the front before the end of the Persian year, next March 20.

Iran's advantages in the war are its large population (46 million and growing at the rate of more than a million a year) and the high motivation of its irregular fighters, who play a more significant role in the war than do the 300,000 soldiers of the Iranian Army. Iraq has clear superiority in all types of sophisticated weaponry, but it is disadvantaged by its small size and population (14 million) as well as by low morale all the way to the top. Iran has captured nearly 60,000 Iraqi troops on the battlefield, indicating that the Iraqi fighters have a tendency to surrender rather than risk their lives. The belligerents' offsetting advantages have yielded a situation in which neither has been able to score a decisive victory.

Even though geopolitical calculation and greed have shaped the orientation of the superpowers and their allies toward the war, neither the origin nor the prolongation of the conflict can be blamed on anyone but the belligerent regimes. Those industrial countries capable of using their influence with either nation to encourage a settlement have not done so. Indeed, they do not seem eager for the war to end. For the first time since World War II both the capitalist and communist strategists of global politics have taken a nonideological view of a war between two important Third World countries. The United States, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China and the European countries have declared their neutrality in the conflict. Israel and Syria sell arms and ammunition to the Islamic Republic, even though they are contemptuous of what the ayatollahs symbolize. They are simply functional allies who want to see the Iraqi Baathists humiliated. Since the outbreak of the war nearly forty countries have sold arms to Iran and Iraq; ten of them have supplied weapons to both sides, some covertly. Most recently China joined in this traffic. Iran has purchased $300 million worth of military equipment from Beijing in the past six months.

Washington's view of the war was summarized by one State Department official when he said, "We don't give a damn so long as the Iran-Iraq war carnage does not affect our allies in the region or alter the balance of power.' Henry Kissinger has made the same point with more sarcasm: To serve "the ultimate American interest,' he said, "both sides should lose. …