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October 22, 2012

Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War

Washington, DC – “If history doesn’t repeat itself, I think it’s safe to say that it at least rhymes,” stated Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, several times throughout the course of a panel discussing the recently released book “Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979-1988.” The panel also included Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director of the National Security Archive, and John Tirman, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for International Studies. All three were significantly involved with the project.

The book examines the interactions between the United States and Iran through the Iran-Iraq War, using primary documentation, group discussions with key participants and input from academics to create a nuanced view of the relationship at that time. While the panel didn’t discuss the present sanctions and nuclear negotiations between the two countries, they showed how the war experience was formative for the current leadership of Iran with significant implications for U.S. policy.

The Iran-Iraq War was “the longest and deadliest conventional war in the last half century,” said Riedel. Conservative estimates say that 500,000 died, with another million severely wounded and another million presumed wounded and uncounted. An estimated $1 trillion in damages were incurred on the region. “This war was also unique in that it saw the largest and most sustained use of a weapon of mass destruction in any conflict since the United States dropped nuclear weapons,” Reidel continued, “Iraq used chemical weapons on a scale in the 1980s that no country has used them since the end of the First World War.” As a result of the horrific scale of the conflict, the Iran-Iraq War was the formative event of the current Iranian leadership’s lifetime. “It, more than anything else, determined there worldview and scarred them,” Riedel explained.

The actions of the United States and the international community throughout the war convinced Iran that it was isolated from the rest of the world, according to Riedel. He pointed to the UN Security Council resolutions on the conflict; while Iraq controlled Iranian territory, the resolutions called for an end to the war with current borders, but when the roles reversed, the Security Council pushed for a return to original borders. Iranians also noted extensive foreign aid coming into Iraq during the war, and the fact that the United States provided Iraq with crucial intelligence. “Without that intelligence, I think it’s safe to say that Iraq would have lost the war in the summer of 1982,” Riedel explained, “For Iranians then… It wasn’t just Saddam Hussein that was against them, it was the whole world, and particularly the United States.” The current strategy of global economic pressure and isolation resonates with this perspective; history, as Riedel said, is rhyming.

The Iran-Iraq War also demonstrates how difficult it is to pressure the Iranian regime. Iraq “invaded with overwhelming superiority, succeeded in taking a considerable amount of Iranian territory,” Riedel said, “[Saddam] used chemical weapons on a massive scale, he then purchased tens of billions of military equipment to fight against the Iranians, and he couldn’t get the Iranians to cry wolf.” In the end, it took Iranian “conviction that the next Iraqi escalatory step was to fire chemically-tipped SCUD missiles into Iranian cities, like Tehran,” to convince them to drink the “poisoned chalice,” Riedel said. “If that’s what it took to bring the Iranians to the peace table in 1988, think what we would have to do to get the Iranians to come to the peace table for some future conflict.”




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