Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Iran-Iraq War: A Reassessment

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Iran-Iraq War: A Reassessment

Article excerpt

The Iran-Iraq war remains one of the longest conflicts in the history of the modern Middle East. The war would define Iran's foreign policy orientation, as the exigencies of the conflict conditioned its approach to the United States, the Arab world, and even Israel. Along the way, Iran's leaders made a series of mistakes and miscalculations that ensured a stalemated conflict. Subordinating strategy to ideology and misplaced hopes that Iraq's population would rise to welcome Iranians as liberators contributed to prolonging a devastating war.

This year will mark the 30th anniversary of one of the most important and peculiar conflicts in the history of modern Middle East, the Iran-Iraq war. The Islamic Republic of Iran's ritual celebration of its martyrs obscures a more deliberate and dispassionate assessment of the conflict. Iran fought the war with remarkable disadvantages, as it lacked reliable allies, a dependable supply of arms, and superpower goodwill. Along the way, Iranian leaders perceived that they would be welcomed as liberators and believed that no detailed occupation policy was necessary. Still, the regime's ability to sustain an eight-year conflict reflected its resilience and ability to mobilize society and consolidate its power under duress. The state that was often viewed as a passing and transient phenomenon proved that it could deal with domestic challenges and international isolation while waging a total war.

Iran's conduct in the war reflected its militancy and revolutionary fervor. This was not an interstate conflict fought for territorial adjustment or limited political objectives. At stake was a contest of ideologies and a competition for power. The clerics whose revolution had succeeded against great odds assumed that spiritual valor would compensate for Iraq's technological edge. Military planning and issues of strategy and tactics were cast aside for the sake of martyrdom and sacrifice. The war and revolution had somehow fused in the clerical imagination. To wage the war was a way of demonstrating one's commitment to the divine mission launched by the Imam Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

In one of the paradoxes of Iran, the war that Ayatollah Khomeini hoped would realize his ideological values ended up undermining the transnational mission of the state. After an inconclusive but costly struggle, Iran failed to defeat Iraq, transform the Middle East, or project its Islamist template beyond its boundaries. The Islamic Republic would now have to rest its legitimacy on factors other than its religious imperatives or revolutionary aspirations. A state that had so long resisted mundane considerations uneasily became another government preoccupied with providing services to its constituents and achieving its objectives within the prevailing international system.

Redemption of God's Will

On September 22, 1980, Saddam Husayn made the catastrophic decision to launch an invasion of Iran. The persistent border clashes, Iran's propaganda campaigns, and Saddam's opportunism finally led the Iraqi strongman to provoke one of the longest conflicts in the annals of the modern Middle East.

Iraq's invasion initially scored impressive gains, as the city of Khurramshahr fell and the important industrial cities of Abadan and Ahvaz were besieged and isolated. Saddam flamboyantly proclaimed his desire to fight "until every inch of usurped land was restored to Arab control," an unsubtle claim on the oil-rich Khuzistan province.1 Nonetheless, Saddam's ambitions outstripped his military acumen, as his forces soon encountered logistical difficulties resulting from poor planning and unexpectedly stiff Iranian resistance. Even at the early stages of the conflict, Saddam's misjudgments were becoming obvious, as the notion of Iraq's battlefield successes leading to a mass uprising grossly misunderstood the mood of the Iranian people. Moreover, the notion that a revolutionary regime claiming to be in command of a new epoch would quickly cede vast portions of its territory and resettle itself in a truncated terrain was a misperception of how militant leaders behave during times of national crisis. …

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