The War over the War

Read this article in Persian.

Thirty years after the end of the war between Iran and Iraq a fierce battle is being fought amongst statesmen, military commanders and scholars about the war. Three questions remain contested: Why did the war began in the first place? Why did the war continue after Iran's liberation of territories occupied by Iraq? And why did the war with Iraq end? Most central documents from the war with Iraq remain outside the reach of scholars, but the open source material to which there is free access provide some answers to these questions. Answers which not only shed light on war era strategic decision making in the Islamic Republic, but also provide valuable insight into mechanisms directing the Islamic Republic's nuclear strategy today.

Beginning of the war

According to official Islamic Republic historiography the war with Iraq began on August 22, 1980 as Iraqi forces made a surprise invasion of Iranian territory. Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini himself made a point of stressing the element of surprise in the Iraqi invasion: "The usurping government of Saddam attacked Iran from the sea, and air and the ground without any excuse acceptable to the governments of the world and without information or warning and dreaming of conquest,…" Grand Ayatollah Khomeini complained in his October 17, 1980 address to ambassadors of Islamic countries.

However, other sources indicate that Grand Ayatollah Khomeini had been warned of an impending Iraqi invasion of Iran well in advance. In a September 22, 1991 interview with Payam-e Enghelab Hojjat al-Eslam Ahmad Khomeini disclosed that Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar's chief of staff being denied audience with Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris had warned Ahmad Khomeini of ethnic skirmishes in Iran: "He talked about the domestic problems which were as we ourselves had guessed. He said that there is skirmishes in Torkaman-Sahra, in a different way in Balouchestan and in parts of Kordestan and in the South there are movements called the Arab Nation and we in addition to guessing all this also found it probable that a war would be waged against the revolution." Ahmad Khomeini also continued that the leadership of the revolution also had received reports on movements of the Iraqi forces before the invasion.

President Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr's June 15, 1980 letter to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini concerning movements of the Iraqi forces provides another proof that Grand Ayatollah Khomeini could not have been ignorant of the military threat from Iraq. Bani-Sadr's September 19, 1980 letter is even more revealing: "I don't know what happened at your place last night and what the Army and Guardsmen discussed with you. But I find it necessary to report this: 1. One month ago I sent you the exact same commanders who revealed information to you about today's conspiracy. Afterwards you told me that you do not believe in such intelligence. Today the intelligence has proved right and there is a strong possibility of an extensive fight from the Turkish border to Pakistan."

Questions abound: Why did Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and his entourage in Paris not listen to warnings of Bakhtiar's envoy when the revolutionary leadership itself anticipated the war following victory of the revolution? Why did Grand Ayatollah Khomeini ignore Bani-Sadr and the Army commanders' warnings about the developments on the Iraqi side of the border? And why did Grand Ayatollah Khomeini isolate Iran diplomatically by constantly threatening Iran's neighbors with "export of the revolution" at a time he was perfectly aware of the threat of invasion?

Iranian academic Sadegh Zibakalam's conversation with Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani may help solving the mystery. Zibakalam writes: "My conclusion is that deep inside the Imam was happy about the war. He never said so directly, but deep inside he thought that it was not us who wanted to attack the Ba'th regime of Iraq, but now that they have attacked us we will pursue it to the very end." Ayatollah Rafsanjani responds: "I agree with your view. But it is not true that it was deep in his heart is not correct. He would also say that. He did not hide it." Zibakalam says that "[Grand Ayatollah Khomeini] had found a moral justification for thinking of and acting towards total collapse of Saddam's regime." Ayatollah Rafsanjani responds: "The war gave us a path to solve the regional problems and build our nation. We all said this and the Imam too was of this belief."

Ayatollah Rafsanjani's analysis is only too correct. Thanks to the Iraqi invasion of Iran Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and the revolutionary regime managed to rally a fragmented nation around the revolutionary leadership. The revolutionary leadership also managed to keep the remains of the Imperial Army busy at the fronts and effectively out of politics. The invasion also gave the regime the necessary excuse of suppressing popular demand for political freedoms with reference to the state of emergency. The war indeed proved a "divine blessing," for the regime--A divine blessing actively sought and called for by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. But hardly a blessing for the national interests of Iran or for that matter those hundreds of thousands of Iranians who sacrificed their lives in war which could have been avoided.

Continuation of the war after Khorramshahr

On May 24, 1982 Iran liberated the city of Khorramshahr ending the Iraqi occupation of the city. But the liberation of Khorramshahr was not to end the war with Iraq. The question is why the Islamic Republic leadership chose to continue the war on Iraqi soil after liberation of Iranian territories.

Ahmad Khomeini was one of the first senior individuals of the Islamic Republic to disclose the secret behind the continuation of the war beyond Khorramshahr. In his September 22, 1991 interview with Payam-e Enghelab Ahmad Khomeini says: "Concerning the issues of Khorramshahr the Imam believed that it was better to end the war, but those responsible for the war said that we must move towards Shat al-Arab (Arvand-Roud) so that we can demand war reparations from Iraq. The Imam did not at all agree with this issue and used to say that if you want to continue the war know that should the war continue with the situation that you have now and should you not succeed this war can't be ended at all. We must continue to this war to a certain point. Now that the issue of liberation of Khorramshahr has occurred is the best time to end the war."

The second high ranking individual disclosing Grand Ayatollah Khomeini's opposition to continue the war after liberation of Khorramshahr is Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. In his memoirs Grand Ayatollah writes that "according to one account the Imam himself was inclined to end the war but the supporters of continuation of the war imposed their viewpoint upon him." Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's account of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini's preference seems credible, but Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's family connections and network and their careers taken into consideration it seems highly unlikely that Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was opposed to continuity of the war after liberation of Khorramshahr as he purports to have been.

But who were the "supporters of continuation of the war"? A survey of Ayatollah Rafsanjani's memoirs provide the answer to this question. In his April 18, 1982 notes Ayatollah Rafsanjani writes: "The war like atmosphere of the country and the high expectations of the people and especially the combatants is such that they ridicule such propositions [of peace negotiations] and they do not consider immediate but conditional withdrawal enough and criticize those responsible for the war effort of why they don't immediately enter Iraqi soil." However, consistent with the accounts of Ahmad Khomeini and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, also Ayatollah Rafsanjani's account stresses that Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was opposed to continue the war on Iraqi soil. According to Ayatollah Rafsanjani Grand Ayatollah Khomeini conveyed his opposition to him through Ahmad Khomeini on March 26, 1982, and at a meeting with military commanders on June 10, 1982. According to Ayatollah Rafsanjani the military commanders managed to "persuade the Imam" of allowing them to enter Iraqi soil in depopulated or thinly populated areas. Rafsanjani repeats the same account in his conversation with Zibakalam, but also adds the arguments Grand Ayatollah Khomeini used--to no avail--against continuity of the war: "1. After entering Iraqi soil Arab countries will support Iraq more overtly and will display Arab extremism. 2. The people of Iraq have not supported Saddam until now because Saddam was on our soil. But should we enter Iraqi soil the people will support and we should not make the people of Iraq oppose us. 3. If we enter Iraqi soil the people will be harmed. In war, the people of Iraq who have not fought us should not be harmed. 4. Also the world will present us as invaders and will subject us to propaganda pressure."

These sources show that by May 1982 Grand Ayatollah had developed a degree of political maturity which is a world apart from radicalism he displayed during the first months after the revolution. However, maturity of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was to no avail faced with the will of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) will to continue the war. Thanks to the war the IRGC had managed to expand its force from a few thousand undisciplined revolutionaries to the most important security, military and even political force in the Islamic Republic. This development would not have been possible had it not been for the continuity of the war with Iraq. In this case it was the IRGC which sacrificed Iran's national interest and hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives for the sake of its expansionist organizational interests.

End of the war

Following major setbacks in the final phases of the war with Iraq the Islamic Republic leadership accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 and on August 20, 1988 a ceasefire agreement was agreed upon between Iran and Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini described accept of the ceasefire agreement as being "more deadly than poison," but assumed complete responsibility for the decision. But what made Grand Ayatollah Khomeini drink from the chalice of poison?

According to Ayatollah Rafsanjani who was appointed commander in chief deputy on June 3, 1988, the heads of the powers of the state meaning Ayatollah Rafsanjani himself, Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Abd al-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, President Ali Khamenei, Hojjat al-Eslam Ahmad Khomeini and Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi knew that "they will not allow us to win in the war." Therefore, Ayatollah Rafsanjani pursued a strategy of occupying a strategic location after which peace negotiations could commence with Iraq following the dictum "War war until a victory." Grand Ayatollah Khomeini on the other hand apparently pursued his dictum of "War war until eradication of the discord," while the IRGC demanded "War war until victory."

Operating under such difficult operational circumstances coupled with United States downing of an Iranian airbus Ayatollah Rafsanjani was fortunate enough to face new demands from IRGC Chief Mohsen Rezai. According to Ayatollah Rafsanjani, towards the end of the war, Rezai approached Ayatollah Rafsanjani with "a strange list" of military demands in order to continue the war effort. Ayatollah Rafsanjani tells Rezai that he is incapable of providing for such needs and recommends that he writes the demands in a letter to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. The letter which was written sometimes before July 16, 1988 and first disclosed to the public in 2001 by Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, shows that Rezai had confessed that there would be no victory in the next five years unless almost unlimited resources are directed to the IRGC and the regular military, that Iran develops a nuclear bomb and manages to force the United States to leave the Persian Gulf! Rezai's letter is quoted in Grand Ayatollah Khomeini's secret letter to the clerical establishment which is asked to prepare the public for Iran's acceptance of the end of the war with Iraq.

The issue of the end of the war with Iraq shows that the Islamic Republic was defeated in the war because it failed to achieve its strategic objectives be it "eradication of discord", "victory", or for that matter "a victory." But had it not been for Ayatollah Rafsanjani's manipulation of Rezai, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini would not have discovered the dire realities of the war which could not be won without the unlimited resources asked for by the IRGC.

Another chalice of poison in the waiting?

Thirty years after the end of the war with Iraq the leadership of the Islamic Republic faces many of the same challenges that it faced during the war with Iraq. The revolutionary leadership is combining the greatest degree of unpreparedness for war with the greatest degree of provocations against regional countries and great powers alike. Threats of annihilation of Israel, ideological competition with Sunni Arab states, systematic provocations against the United States military in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the Islamic Republic's nuclear program which is suspected of having a military dimension have left Iran diplomatically isolated and friendless in a dangerous world. Every single day political factions and these days also the Revolutionary Guards, sacrifice Iran's national interests on the altar of narrow factional interests. Another chalice of poison may be in the waiting for the political leadership of the Islamic Republic, but as always the broader Iranian public will also pay a very high price. This time, not even Ayatollah Rafsanjani may be capable of defending the regime against its own mismanagement.

Ali Alfoneh is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/mtrommer

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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