With the possibility of a confrontation looming with Iran, one historical example that should command American attention in its hour of decision — but is being neglected — is the bloody conflict that Iran fought against Iraq from 1980 to 1988. It is worth recalling the fierceness of that struggle to gain some appreciation of the enormity of any decision by Washington to go to war with Iran, for it may foretell what Tehran is capable of doing when it feels its Islamic Revolution is at stake.
The original clash between Iran and Iraq began shortly after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed the shah in 1979. Following that triumph, Khomeini in mid-1979 called for similar upheavals throughout the Middle East. He singled out the Shiite population in neighboring Iraq, demanding that it overthrow the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. In the months that followed, skirmishes erupted along the Iran-Iraq border.
Eventually, Hussein, fearful of an Iranian attack and dreaming of seizing Iranian oil fields, struck back at Khomeini preemptively. On Sept. 22, 1980, Hussein ordered his air force to bomb 10 Iranian airfields and wipe out Iran’s offensive aircraft. The surprise attacks damaged some bases but failed to knock out the Iranian fleet. A war began in earnest. As the zone of action gradually expanded, however, the adversaries reached a stalemate.
Then in late 1981 and into 1982, the Iranians began a series of attacks, using, among other tactics, human wave assaults. By June 1982, the Iranians had recovered practically all of the areas originally lost to Iraq and shut down much of Iraq’s oil exports. Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states, alarmed by Shiite Iran’s ascendancy, responded by pouring financial support into beleaguered Iraq. Soon the U.S. and the Soviet Union also provided aid. A now-wary Hussein suddenly announced that he was willing to accept a cease-fire with Iran along the old borders.
Tehran, in its righteous fury, turned him down. Despite some troublesome internal opposition, Khomeini declared that he would invade Iraq, oust Hussein and establish a Shiite republic. Iran began a determined struggle that placed the entire nation on a war footing. For the next six years, at an increasingly bitter cost in the loss of soldiers, military weaponry, treasury and economic health, Iran fought on.
Iran took every measure it could to win the war. Among its many tactics was to dispatch young Iranian “volunteers,” ranging in age from 9 to 16, to clear Iraqi minefields with their feet and allow more experienced soldiers to follow. Thousands even signed “Passports to Paradise” forms to ascend to heaven as martyrs after just a week of basic training in order to sacrifice their lives for the Iranian cause. And at least 100,000 others perished in the face of Iraqi chemical weapon and mustard gas attacks.
By 1988, Iran had suffered an estimated 1 million casualties, killed or wounded, and lost at least $600 billion in assets. Finally, on July 20, 1988, Iran said it was willing to accept a U.N. cease-fire. After further talks, Iran and Iraq formalized an accord on Aug. 20, 1988, and agreed to return to the border lines of 1979. Iran had fought on for six additional years only to accept the same terms it could have gotten from Hussein in 1982.
The lesson one may take from this raw and cruel warfare is that the Iranian government is willing to go to exceptional lengths and pay any price to safeguard its Islamic state. It is true that Iraq, in some ways, represented a special case for Iran as a border state with a “deviant” religion. In addition, this remained a relatively isolated conflict (though foreign powers eventually took sides). Still, the United Nations did not take note of it until the war was already entering its seventh year.
Today, Iran is facing down Israel, the U.S. and Europe over its nuclear program. Is a strike on Iran’s putative underground bunkers capable of eliciting a response similar to the one it had to Hussein? I think it is. Tehran will not play the same passive victim that Syria or Iraq did after Israel unilaterally bombed their nuclear facilities.
There might be some blundering and clumsy reprisals by Iran, as it demonstrated in its purported hits against Israeli targets in Thailand, India and Georgia. However, almost certainly Iran would mobilize the resources of the entire country and pursue retaliatory terrorism, missile attacks and other punitive measures, in concert with its Hamas and Hezbollah allies — and, once again, it would show a willingness to sacrifice its own people’s lives.
Does Israel understand the potential cost to its own security? Is it worth it? Is the United States prepared to deal with assaults on its troops and embassies and against its own citizens on its own soil? Finally, will there be any last-minute opportunity for the U.N. to devise another cease-fire?
Caution and diplomacy should be the bywords of this tale. There is still time for sanctions to bite and talks to proceed. Even containment, a strategy that worked against a far more powerful Soviet foe, should not be ruled out. But it is clear that, in any case, Iran can be more than a fearsome adversary; it can be a relentless, indeed irrational, state willing to strike out blindly.
Stephen Schlesinger, a historian and fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, City, is the author of “Act of Creation,” about the founding of the United Nations.