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The Iran-Iraq War

While the Iran-Iraq War was characterized by undeniable undercurrents of ethnic pride, sectarian division, and nationalist chauvinism, the nature of the regimes in Baghdad and Tehran meant that the war could just as easily be interpreted as a clash between its two leaders and their respective visions. Said K. Aburish succinctly explains the leaders’ pivotal difference. “Khomeini placed loyalty to religion ahead of loyalty to the state”. Also, religion played a very different role in each state. In Iran, Shi’a Islam had been the official religion of the state for centuries.

Iraq, despite its Shi’a majority, had historically been governed by Sunni Muslims. Accordingly, Iraqi Shi’a clergy did not have the authority or the influence over the government that their Iranian counterparts enjoyed. Sandra Mackey has written about the difference in the national identities and histories of the belligerent nations. “Khomeini carried into battle 2,500 years of Iranian cultural continuity. Hussein threw into the conflict a country void of any clear sense of itself, claiming a history of only half a century.

” Mackey is one of many writers whom contend that while Iraq did not win any real military or economic gains during the war, it surely won a political victory, as it emerged from the conflict with a much clearer sense of itself as a nation that it had ever enjoyed before the war. There was a price to be paid, however, as the war effectively ended Iraq’s chance to exist as a stable, multiethnic nation; Iraqi society after the Iran-Iraq War was distinctly Arab. While relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish north had been historically tense, they became downright poisonous during the war with Iran.

The willingness of Kurdish leaders to ally openly with Iran, due to a common enemy in Saddam Hussein, prompted the Ba’athists to use the cover of war to institute a policy of genocide against Iraq’s Kurdish minority. The campaign of extermination was called Anfal (the spoils) by the Ba’athists, and the aim was to wipe out all Kurds living in rural areas of northern Iraq. As a consequence, Iraq’s nation-building efforts of the 1970’s were largely erased in terms of attempting to draw the Kurds into the body of Iraqi nationalism.

In addition, the only hope that Baghdad had of avoiding outright defeat at the hands of Iran was convincing the Shi’a majority that they were Iraqi Arabs first and Shi’a Muslims second. Since the sectarian Sunni-Shi’a split remained constant, ethnicity assumed new importance in Iraq. Iraqi Shi’a needed to feel that being Arab was more important than being Shi’a or Sunni; the Kurds were left with no place in this new calculus. While Saddam Hussein’s sadism and paranoia are no secret, it is clear that Iran, or at least Khomeini, posed a tangible threat to Iraq, or at least to the Ba’athists.

When Khomeini felt compelled to list his enemies in 1979, he prioritized, “first the Shah, then the American Satan, then Saddam Hussein and his infidel Ba’ath Party. ” Khomeini attacked not only the secular underpinnings of Ba’athism, but its identity as an Arab movement in general, referring to Ba’athism as “the racist ideology of Arabism” . Saddam Hussein, in turn, was nothing more than a “dwarf Pharoah”. Shortly after his triumphant return to Iran in 1979, Khomeini was hardly coy about his goals. “What we have done in Iran we will do again in Iraq.

” In a thinly veiled threat to Hussein, Khomeini declared, “other tyrants [besides the Shah] have yet to see their day of reckoning”. Khomeini’s threats were far from mere bluster, and the Ba’athists knew it. Many high-ranking regime members, most notably Tariq Aziz, were targeted for assassination by Shi’a groups. The responses from Baghdad were quintessentially Ba’athist: senior Shi’a clerics were executed by the state for the first time in modern Iraqi history, and thousands of Arab Iraqi Shi’a were deported to Iran for being insufficiently Iraqi or even “secret Iranians”.

Khomeini’s ties with Mohammed Bakr al Sadr, an extremely influential Iraqi Shi’a cleric, gave the Ba’athists considerable cause for concern, especially as al-Sadr began to refer to himself as Khomeini’s deputy in Iraq. Hussein responded by making membership in al Sadr’s al-Dawa party a capital offense. Not surprisingly, al Sadr himself was tortured and executed, despite, or perhaps because of, his widespread popularity. In addition, Hussein decreed that Shi’a religious students would be exempt from military service during the war.

This was less of a considerate reprieve, however, than a calculated attempt to keep the most devout and literate of Iraqi Shi’a away from the front, where they may have served Khomeini’s cause more than Hussein’s. The threat from al-Dawa, however, paled in comparison to that posed by al-Mujahedin; the latter group proposed not simply to overthrow Hussein and secular governance, but to erase Iraq’s identity as a sovereign nation in favor of the creation of a pan-Islamic state to be governed from Tehran.

The repression of al-Mujahedin was therefore even more brutal than that of al-Dawa; Indeed, even members of al-Dawa frowned upon the idea of stripping Iraq of its nationhood. In addition to local Iraqi Islamist parties for the Ba’athists to contend with, Khomeini created the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in 1982, which consisted of exiled Iraqi Shi’a living in Iran. Khomeini’s regime was opposed by most secular Arab governments, with one interesting exception.

The Ba’athist regime of Hafez al-Assad in Syria forged ties with Iran; Assad’s hatred for Hussein, his fellow Ba’athist and eastern neighbor, allowed him to look past Khomeini’s hostility to Ba’athism in all its forms. A mitigating factor was the dominance of Shi’a Muslims in the Syrian Ba’ath party. Much as in Iraq, the minority sect dominated the national Ba’ath party. In short, for both Khomeini and al-Assad, this was a quintessential example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The same sentiment could be said to apply to the West’s relationship with Iraq during the 1980’s.

As far as Hussein was concerned, it was Iraq’s manifest destiny to serve the Arab World as “as a steel base guarding…against the evil of enemies and covetous forces”. Hussein was only too happy to indulge in his own customized fantasy of pan-Arab ascendance with himself at the tip of the spear. This is where Hussein’s carefully honed cult of personality comes into play. This cult “was modelled on that of Stalin, Mao, and Kim il-Sung. But the person he really yearned to be was Gamal Abdel Nasser. ” The Arab world had been without a genuinely popular demagogue since Nasser’s death.

Hussein aimed to fill that void, and confronting a common Arab enemy was a sure-fire way to commandeer the leadership of the Arab world. Hussein’s uncle, Kahyr Allah Talfa, authored a pamphlet in 1981 that seemed to illustrate the Ba’athists’ opinion of their eastern neighbors. The pamphlet was titled, with an obvious reluctance to mince words, Three Whom God Should Not Have Invented: Persians, Jews, and Flies. It is interesting to note that in this verbal attack on Iran, the secular Ba’ath Party presumes to dictate what God should or should not do.

Despite the barrage of slurs between the two nations , the Ba’ath Party clearly felt pressured to downplay the secular nature of its regime in an effort to avoid the appearance of a war being waged between believers and non-believers. Indeed, Hussein himself felt compelled to clarify that, “We are not neutral between belief and unbelief. We are believers. ” There remained a clear distinction, however, between possessing faith and making that faith synonymous with government. Along with political ideology and theological loyalties, there were clear-cut territorial reasons for the war as well.

Hussein especially coveted the Sha’at al-Arab, the contested waterway that served as the border between Iran and Iraq, and the Arab-speaking Iranian region of Khuzestan, which had the added incentive of holding considerable reserves of oil. As cross-border skirmishes indicated that war was nearing, the rhetoric escalated and focused more on the right to be the legitimate bearers of Islam than on power politics. Drawing of Aflak’s interpretation, Hussein asserted, “The Koran was written in Arabic and God destined the Arabs to play a vanguard role in Islam”.

Hussein also characterized Khomeini as a pretender, as a “Shah in religious garb”. Meanwhile, Khomeini exhorted Iraqi Shi’a to “paralyze the economy. Stop paying taxes. This is a war between Islam and blasphemy. ” For many Iranians, the war would serve as a sounding board for Khomeini’s revolution. After the war, a crippled Iranian veteran stated, “the war gave us an opportunity to tell the world about the power of the revolution, the power of the Imam and our cultural and ideological values in relation to Western values…every missile we sent to Iraq carried with it the Imam’s thoughts to the world.

” In a certain sense, the military tactics adopted by each nation were indicative of their political ideologies in general. Iran’s use of gruesome human wave attacks against entrenched Iraqi defenses clearly promoted martyrdom as a virtue and was obviously indicative of the faith, at least in the war’s early stages, of the Iranian soldiers. Baghdad’s efforts depended much more on technology imported from the West. This approach would seem logical to secular-minded individuals or nations.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein seemed more concerned with purchasing and employing means of technological destruction than with fostering the capability and independence of his own soldiers. Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp have written of an Iraqi “obsession with sophisticated technology as a ‘wonder weapon’, separate from the skills and knowledge of the men using it. ” Shortly after the outbreak of the war, and by 1982 at the latest, Hussein’s over-confidence and Khomeini’s stubbornness were evident in the grisly combat between their nations.

Hussein had mistakenly assumed that Tehran would sue for peace after Iraq moved swiftly into Iranian territory. Hussein relied largely on intelligence from disgruntled Iranian exiles, who told the Iraqis that the Iranian military had been purged and was thoroughly demoralized. Hussein apparently thought it inconsequential that Iran had a greater population than Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and the Arab Gulf sheikdoms combined. When it was clear that he had underestimated his adversaries, Hussein proposed a cease-fire.

Khomeini refused, and he declared that Iran’s war aims were not simply self-defense, but regime change in Baghdad. In the words of Tariq Ali, Khomeini was, at this point, “unwell and, therefore, in a hurry”. Making it clear that he was fully cognizant of the international support that Hussein enjoyed, Khomeini declared to the Ba’ath, “all of you are partners in the adventurism and crimes created by the United States”. Iraq now was fighting for its very independence, and this served to boost morale among Iraqi troops.

Accordingly, after Iranian troops had driven Iraqi troops from Iranian soil, their morale began to falter. When it became clear that Iraq wished to end the war, Khomeini refused, telling the Shi’a of Iraq, “We are related by race, traditions, and religion…no other government or nation in the world except Iran had the right to be concerned about Iraq’s future. ” This was indicative of Iran’s attempts to “Islamicize” the war; this approach was countered by Iraq’s attempts to “Arabize” the war.

Iraq enjoyed more success in this regard, as other Arab governments discerned a common cause with Baghdad, while Iran’s pleas for solidarity from all Muslim nations went largely unheeded. Iran’s desire to rally other Muslim nations to its cause was made clear in its Constitution, which it is worth to quote at length. All Muslims shall be considered as one single nation and the Islamic Republic of Iran shall make its general policy on the basis of coalition and unity of all Muslim people and shall constantly make every endeavor to realize the political, economic, and cultural unity of the world of Islam.

This pan-Islamic orientation was in clear contrast to the secular Ba’athists, who felt that the Ummah was a community “of minds and hearts, not of political forms”. The Iranian government, like Ibn Taymiyya and many other Muslim scholars, held that “to derive glory, outside of Islam and the Quran, from one’s birth, country, race, legal school or religious way is to fall into the vanities of paganism. ”

In other words, the Iranian and Iraqi regimes had different definitions of the Ummah. Khomeini’s worldview held that the Ummah was, or should be, an indivisible religious and political entity. The brand of Arab nationalism which had been ascendant since the 1950’s, and to which the Ba’athists ascribed, held that the single religious community, the Ummah, could be administered as several politically sovereign units without fundamentally harming the concept of the Ummah.

This secular orientation was rejected by Islamists, who argued that “loyalty to the Islamic ummah negates any other loyalty to ethnic, linguistic, or geographical entities. ” As with many revolutionary governments, there was a conflict in the Iranian hierarchy over whether to consolidate and defend the Iranian state or to aggressively seek to spread the revolution throughout the region.

While the mitigating factor of the war with Iraq clearly gave import to the former consideration, there were several attempts to influence the internal affairs of other nations by the Iranian regime. Unrest in Kuwait, Bahrain and, most notably, Lebanon were fueled by Iranian agents and front groups. Most of these inroads were quickly crushed by local governments however, and with the exception of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian Revolution secured no meaningful international footholds.

The enormous stock that Iranians of all persuasions place on independence, noted above, was apparent throughout the war. Politically, economically, and militarily isolated, Iran nonetheless paid for the entire war with its reserves. Incredibly enough, Iran emerged from the war without any debt to any foreign nation. A truer indication of independence would be hard to define. Iraq, on the other had, was saddled with a crippling debt which played no small part in Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990.

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