By Karl Reiner
Although it passed virtually unnoticed in the United States, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict that started America on the road to deeper military involvement in the Middle East. Although the United States was not a direct participant, the consequences of that war still pose problems for us today.
In late September 1980, Saddam Hussein (Iraq’s president and dictator) ordered Iraqi military forces to invade Iran. The decision was made partly in reaction to Iran’s revolutionary propaganda campaign, border clashes and Saddam’s seriously flawed judgment. The Iraqi forces scored impressive gains in the early stages of the campaign. Tough Iranian resistance and logistical problems then began to bog the Iraqis down. Saddam had terribly misconstrued the reaction of the Iranian population. They were not welcoming his troops as liberators.
Iran’s revolutionary theocratic leaders saw the Iraqi invasion as a venomous assault on Islam. They rallied the people to defend against the sacrilegious Iraqi forces they said were bent on destroying the country. The war offered Iranian Muslims an opportunity to reap the rewards of martyrdom. The invasion was also seen by Iran’s leaders as part of a wider conspiracy. It was another attempt by the evil West to overturn Iran’s glorious revolution.
The invasion and the revolution merged in the minds of the ruling clerics. Iran’s response would reflect their militancy and revolutionary zeal. It created problems; military planning and strategy were often disregarded for the sake of martyrdom and sacrifice. Fighting the war was viewed as commitment to the sacred mission launched by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 when he overthrew the Shah.
Many of the Iranian revolutionaries wanted to continue the fight until the Iraqis were driven out and Saddam’s government was overthrown. In early 1981, Iran began to counterattack. The fanatical militias and Revolutionary Guards hurled human wave assaults at the Iraqi defenses. When the front lines were cracked, the regular forces were moved up to exploit the opening.
The costly tactics worked. By June 1982, Iran had pushed the Iraqis out of its territory. Rather then negotiating a settlement, the clerics decided to drive into Iraq and topple the government. In July, the offensive began. As Saddam had misread the situation in Iran, Iran’s fanatical leaders now misjudged Iraq’s population. They expected the Iraqi people to welcome the Iranian forces. The opposite occurred. The Iraqi military didn’t crumble; the population did not rise in revolt.
The Iranian clerical leadership made an enormous mistake by subordinating military strategy to ideology. The misconception now brought on a bloody stalemate. The war turned into an ugly battle of attrition. The battlefront resembled the massive European trench lines of World War I.
As the fighting dragged on, Western governments decided that Saddam Hussein’s government, bad as it was, was the lesser of the two evils in the conflict. Iraq was not going to be allowed to fall to a radical Iranian clerical regime that despised all things Western. The Europeans supplied arms. The U.S. provided intelligence data and commercial credits.
The outnumbered Iraqis shamelessly began employing poison gas. Because Iraq was seen as the barrier to Iran’s rampant expansionism, its violations of international law were uneasily tolerated. In 1987, to counter growing Iranian threats to disrupt the oil supplies moving in the vital Persian Gulf, the U.S Navy was ordered to provide protection for the oil tankers transiting the waterway. During this time, Donald Rumsfeld was a presidential emissary traveling between Baghdad and Washington. The experience of dealing with truculent Iraqi officials would affect his judgment during his later tenure as Secretary of Defense.
By 1988, the fickle fortunes of war had changed again. Iraqi forces drove the Iranians out and reentered Iranian territory. Iranian cities became the targets of missile attacks. Iran was under growing strain; its invasion of Iraq had failed. On the home front, the war was rapidly losing its appeal. Volunteers were no longer coming forward at rates high enough to fill the depleted ranks of the fighting forces.
After much internal squabbling, Iran reluctantly asked for a ceasefire in August 1988. The war devastated the economies of both nations. The monetary cost to the combatants was over $200 billion. The conflict inflicted approximately one million casualties. Revolutionary Iran lost over 300,000 soldiers killed and more than 500,000 wounded.
Regrettably, Saddam Hussein learned nothing from his horrific misadventure. Owing approximately $28 billion to non-Arab creditor nations and billions more to Arab creditors, he faced a short-term debt service problem. Being unwilling to negotiate with lenders and perhaps believing that a big mistake deserves to be followed by a larger one; his forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
His judgment proved to be flawed again. The Iraqis were crushed and expelled by a coalition of forces led by the U.S. Tight controls and sanctions were placed on Saddam’s regime after hostilities ended in 1991. Never willing to compromise, his government tried to thwart the sanctions. As time went by, the country slowly decayed as the standoff continued.
In a strange twist of fate, the events of September 11, 2001 led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein. He was accused of maintaining weapons of mass destruction and supporting al-Qaida’s terrorism. In early 2003, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq quickly overran the country. The megalomaniac who had started two wars and ruined his country in the process was soon gone. The only problem was that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Nor did Saddam’s brutal secular dictatorship give support to al-Qaida.
The too few U. S. occupying forces had their hands full. Maintaining order in a hostile country while attempting to establish a functioning government has proved to be a daunting task. Seven years later, it is unclear when the remaining troops will be able to withdraw. There are also doubts if the fledgling government they will leave behind will be able to hold itself together.
The war with Iraq made an indelible impact on Iran’s outlook. At odds with the West, the cornerstones of Iran’s policies in economic and defense matters became self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Iran is engaged in a nuclear development program it claims is for peaceful purposes. The Western nations have doubts about the honesty and integrity of Iran’s intentions. At the same time it denies it will build nuclear weapons, Iran claims it is the victim of a double standard because India, Pakistan and Israel have nuclear weapons.
Iran’s Islamic revolution was fired by a big dose of anti-Americanism. Its leaders also deny the right of Israel to exist. Their position stems from a combination of revolutionary ideology and a focus on the anti-imperialist aspects of the Palestinian problem. The numerous anti-Semitic tirades are cleverly designed for regional consumption, to appeal to the Arab masses. Revolting as they are to Western sensibilities, they have made Iran’s President Ahmadinejad one of the most popular figures in the Arab world. Considering that Iran is a non-Arab state, it has turned out to be a successful political gambit.
Although the clerical ruling class wants to maintain the thrust of the revolution, a large part of Iran’s population is under the age of 35. More comfortable with the West, the younger generation is not particularly interested in continuing to make sacrifices for the sake of spreading ideology. They don’t want to be isolated due to the radical politicians’ ambition to have a nuclear arsenal. With Israel holding an estimated 200 nuclear warheads, a large part of the Iranian population is sensible enough to want to avoid a confrontation.
For years, the West has fluctuated between persuasion and coercion in an attempt to resolve the problems raised by Iran’s nuclear program. With the hard-liners hanging on to power after the disputed June 2009 election, there appears to be few options other than more sanctions or a military strike. Sanctions can be counterproductive in tightly controlled state. While they make life tougher for the general population, the ruling class often manages to insulate itself from the impact.
Iran is a large, proud nation that has proven itself able to withstand a battering. It also has the power to retaliate. It has the military capability to close the Straits of Hormuz, a move that would choke off a major part of the world’s oil supply. Along with the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and its nuclear program poses a haunting dilemma for the Obama administration. At least it does not face the problem alone. Other countries with an interest in Iran’s nuclear posture include the NATO states, the Gulf Arab countries, Israel, China, Russia, Turkey and Brazil.