Re-Writing History(The Iran-Iraq war 30 years later)

Bryan R. Gibson .Tuesday 02 November 2010

In the 30 years since the start of the Iran-Iraq war, our understanding of the conflict has undergone periodic shifts. Today, thanks to the release of Iraqi documents that were previously classified, the willingness of participants to discuss the war, and the persistence of researchers, more is being learned about the war than ever before.

Thirty years ago, Iraqi forces thrust across the Iran-Iraq border to the east of Basra, leading to eight years of war that can best be described as “a bare-knuckle fight with no rules.” After its initial invasion, Iraq’s momentum collapsed. Having been caught off guard, the Iranians quickly recuperated and in the summer of 1982 pushed Iraq back to the border. For the next four years the war remained in stalemate, with Iran launching annual spring offensives aimed at capturing the strategic Baghdad-Basra highway but to no avail. It was not until Iran’s successful invasion of the Fao peninsula in 1986 that the deadlock broke, but even then the war quickly settled back into a stalemate. 

Having been on the defensive for seven years, Iraq shocked Iran when it launched a series of well-rehearsed offensives against Iran’s positions all along the front, effectively destroying Iran’s ability to continue fighting the war. Even though Iran was defeated militarily, the catalyst for the end of the war was the downing of Iran Air 655 by an American naval vessel on 3 July 1988, killing 290 civilians. Defeated militarily and shocked by the American attack, on 18 July, Ayatollah Khomeini drank his “poisoned chalice” of defeat. He dropped Iran’s more contentious demands, accepted the UN-mediated ceasefire resolution, and proceeded for peace, though a ceasefire could not be put in place until 20 August 1988.

In the 30 years since the start of the war, historian and policy-makers’ understanding of it has undergone periodic changes.  Part of this has to do with the willingness of former Iraqi and Iranian officials to talk about the war; another part has to do with the release of declassified documents. Today, thanks almost entirely to the release of documents apprehended during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, we are witnessing another shift in perspective.

On 23-24 September, policymakers, intelligence officers and scholars of the Iran-Iraq war met at the London School of Economics (LSE) to debate, discuss and reappraise the present state of knowledge on this brutal war that cost over 300,000 lives and permanently maimed thousands more.  Over the course of the two-day conference, presentations covered military conduct during the war; the economic impact of the war; and the war’s impact on regional neighbors such as Turkey, Israel, the Gulf and the Soviet Union, among other interesting topics. Consequently, a great deal of new information about the war came to light.

Kevin Woods and Williamson Murray, two researchers associated with the National Defence University’s Conflict Records Research Canter at Fort McNair, spent years translating and analyzing thousands of Iraqi documents confiscated by the US. Woods and Murray’s endeavor now allows us to know a great deal about the internal machinations of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his conduct during the war.

Of interest, they revealed that Saddam Hussein had developed a “Nixon complex,” in that he recorded nearly every major policy debate and had transcripts of important conversations drawn up for his own reference. These transcripts and documents show that Iraqi generals were ordered to invade Iran only days before the actual invasion took place.  Caught completely unaware, the generals had only limited resources and could only execute the war as far as their logistical tethers would allow. This created problems in Baghdad, because the regime wanted its forces to advance, but its troops could not get enough supplies to the front to continue the assault. This completely debunks previous explanations for the start of the war that Saddam had intended to fight a limited war in order to physically retake the Shatt Al-Arab river and establish a buffer zone to ensure Iraq’s supremacy over the waterway.

In addition, Woods and Murray disclosed that throughout the latter stages of the war, the Iraqi regime legitimately feared Iran’s chemical weapons capability. Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the war is well documented, but there has never been definitive proof that Iran used such weapons. Able scholars like Joost Hiltermann have attempted to lay this question to rest, but there always remained the lingering suspicion that Iran might have used chemical weapons during the war as well. In light of this retrospective debate, it was quite remarkable to learn that Saddam himself firmly believed Iran had this capability.  In fact, toward the end of the war, Saddam was so certain of his views that he ordered his generals to conduct live-agent drills, subjecting Iraqi troops to chemical bombardment, with the objective of increasing confidence among his forces so that they would be adequately prepared in the event of an Iranian chemical weapons attack.

The LSE conference also revealed new information about American and French policies toward the war. With respect to America’s policy, a great deal of discussion focused on the “green light” allegedly given to Saddam by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor, however, senior American diplomats and a former CIA analyst dismissed this as a hoax. As one intelligence analyst put it: “Why would Saddam have cared if the United States wanted it to invade? That was not the way Saddam worked.” Furthermore, senior American officials, including Ambassador Richard Murphy, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs from 1983-1989, questioned the logic of the claim. Indeed, Kevin Woods indicated that he had not seen anything in the Iraqi documents that suggests an American “green light.”

The conference also highlighted France’s significant role in the war: supplying Iraq with billions of dollars in advanced weaponry, including more than 80 Mirage jets and their incredibly effective Exocet missiles. France’s public tilt toward Iraq was not just driven by its extensive commercial interests in the country, but by Iran’s continued attacks against French interests in the Middle East, including the kidnapping of French citizens and the bombing of the French barracks in Beirut, and its embassy in Kuwait. As wave upon wave of Iranian-sponsored attacks occurred against France, it retaliated by significantly increasing its support for Iraq.

Thirty years later, we are still learning a great deal more about the Iran-Iraq war, and there are still many unanswered questions.  Certainly, Saddam Hussein’s transcripts will continue to reveal more of the Iraqi perspective of the war. Their release only underscores that we have much more to learn, particularly about the Iranian side of the war. After all, the disclosure about Saddam’s abrupt decision to invade Iran completely alters our previously held perceptions about how the war started. Unfortunately, our knowledge of the Iranian perspective toward the war is quite limited and it is unlikely that similar disclosures from Iran will be forthcoming anytime soon.

Bryan R. Gibson – PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (Praeger, 2010).

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