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Sunday, May 1, 2016
Analysis by Farideh Farhi*
- Ongoing factional disputes and mounting international sanctions have ignited heated debates among Iran’s elites about another critical period in the country’s post- revolutionary history – the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
That war, in which at least a quarter million Iranians are believed to have died, hastened the rise of institutions, such as the Basij militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which remain key actors in Iran today.
But the war also created a cultural ethos that emphasised the epic aspects of the conflict: sacrifice and courage, piety, the control of passions, disdain for fame and material gain, and unconditional loyalty to the leadership.
This was in some contradiction to the spirit of the 1979 Revolution when a multiplicity of voices and ideologies competed for attention and popularity.
With the new Islamic Republic under siege, however, the war offered a pretext for the emerging political order to both crush the domestic opposition and rally the population behind the “sacred defence” against international aggression.
Now that, a quarter century later, Iran faces another period of domestic repression coupled with a tangible increase in external pressures, key decisions made by the country’s leadership during the Iran-Iraq war are being rehashed by the country’s fractious elites.
Three issues regarding the war have relevance to Iran’s current predicament, particularly as Tehran faces ever- escalating economic sanctions because of its rejection of international demands that it curb its nuclear programme.
First and foremost is the decision to continue the war after June 1982 when Iran had successfully pushed Iraqi forces out of most of its territory and began taking the offensive while rejecting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s offers of a ceasefire.
At that moment, the dilemma faced by the leadership in Tehran was whether to continue the war – and the sacrifices that implied – on behalf of a cause that was no longer shared with the same intensity by much of the population as it had been two years before.
The generally accepted narrative in defence of the decision to continue the war is simple: Iran could not afford a ceasefire in 1982 because it was believed that Hussein would use it to regroup and launch a new invasion at a moment when Iran’s leadership would find it more difficult to rally the post-revolutionary fervour behind the regime’s defence.
Iraq’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait in 1990 made this narrative plausible during most of the post-war period.
But, in recent years, and particularly since last year’s disputed elections, this justification has come increasingly under question.
The main point of contention has been over the apparent disconnect at the time between the regime’s declared war aims – in Khomeini’s famous slogan, “War, War, until Victory,” and Rafsanjani’s “War until a decisive victory,” and even exhortations by some military leaders to take over Baghdad – and the lack of adequate resources to achieve those aims.
Last week, for example, the former minister of the IRGC, Mohsen Rafiqdoust, effectively accused Mir Hosein Mussavi, the Green Movement’s presidential candidate who served as prime minister during the war, of withholding resources that could, if provided to the military, have brought the war to a victorious conclusion.
Mussavi, who until recently kept silent in the debate about the war, felt sufficiently provoked to respond in a statement posted on his Kaleme website in which he threatened to reveal the reasons for his attempted resignation in 1988, immediately after the war’s end.
Noting the sacrifices that a number of former officials, some of whom have been sentenced to prison after last year’s elections, have made in defence of the regime and the country, Mussavi pointed out that more than 65 percent of Iran’s then-severely limited oil revenues had been spent on a war that, at least in its initial phases, had been incompetently run.
He wrote that Rafiqdoust had been “imposed” on him against his will and compared the former minister’s military incompetence and promises of victory during the war to his subsequent leadership of the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, a powerful organisation that became notorious for its corruption and mismanagement.
Of course, two other leaders most responsible for the decisions made during the war – then-President Ali Khamenei and Rafsanjani – also play critical roles today as Leader and chair of the Expediency Discernment Council, respectively.
Suggesting that they also set war aims for which they were either unwilling or unable to provide adequate resources is a serious charge. Even more serious, however, is the implication that by pursuing unrealistic war aims they imposed unnecessary sacrifice on the population when the confrontation with an external enemy could have been ended earlier.
Thus, the regime’s hardliners have mounted a predictable effort to blame Mussavi for Iran’s failure to achieve victory. One of his critics, Ahmad Panahian, has gone so far as to hold Mussavi and other Green leaders responsible for the latest round of international sanctions against Iran, insisting that, without their post-election “sedition”, these sanctions would not have gone into effect.
A second war-related issue relevant to the situation today relates to Khomeini’s decision to accept a ceasefire in the war after adamantly refusing to do so. Some hard-liners, still unable to reconcile themselves to the Leader’s abrupt reversal, now argue that he was deliberately misled by the political leaders, including Mussavi and Rafsanjani, of the time.
At the same time, others with a less ideological bent wonder whether, in the face of escalating pressure, the current regime was capable of acting as decisively as Khomeini did in taking responsibility for ending the war despite his prior insistence on “War, War, until Victory.”
What is undisputed is that once Khomeini decided that Iran’s economic and military capabilities could not overcome Iraq’s heavily buttressed military machine and devastating chemical attacks, Rafsanjani, as his appointed commander-in-chief, offered to take the blame for failing to achieve victory and retire from public life.
Khomeini refused the offer, announcing that he himself would drink from the “poisoned chalice” and promising a full explanation in the future, a promise that he failed to fulfil before his death in June 1989, 10 months after he accepted the ceasefire.
Still Khomeini’s decision to end the war assured the Islamic Republic’s survival by pre-empting a blame game among his followers and opening the way for the so-called “era of reconstruction” under Rafsanjani’s presidency.
Indeed, it is this re-direction that constitutes the third debate about the Iran-Iraq war and its aftermath. Hardliners are asking whether the same political leaders who they say convinced Khomeini to end the war also pushed the country in an un-Islamic direction, resulting in the abandonment of the culture of heroic sacrifice and resistance in favour of greater political, economic, and cultural liberalisation.
Their call is for a return to an era in which “values” are prized over “reconstruction”. They see Rafsanjani’s post-war “reconstruction” as the source of today’s political, economic, and diplomatic ills.
More pragmatic elements, on the other hand, publicly worry about, in Rafsanjani’s words, “the extremism and fanaticism of those who, with their unwise decisions and actions, place the revolution and (Islamic) system in the hard, perilous situation the enemy desires.”
As Tehran prepares for renewed negotiations over its nuclear programme, conflicting memories regarding the conduct of the war, the circumstances that led to the decision to end it, and the direction taken by the leadership after the war will have a significant impact on how various forces within Iran position themselves.
*Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate of the Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.