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Attacking Iran: lessons from the Iran-Iraq war

Military action against Iran, and even the continuing threat of attack, is likely to give the Islamic Republic a new lease on life
Annie Tracy Samuel
2 February 2012

The presumed aim of an attack by the United States and/or Israel on Iranian nuclear and military facilities would be to weaken the Islamic Republic, particularly by hindering its ability to build a nuclear weapon. However, the history of the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 calls into question the contention that an attack will weaken the regime in Tehran. Iran’s security policies, and its policy outlook more generally, have been shaped enormously by the country’s experience in the Iran-Iraq War. As the Iranians themselves continuously point to the lessons of the war and their bearing on the present day, it behooves policymakers to follow suit.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 was a movement of several different groups that were united most strongly in their opposition to the regime of Muhammad Reza Shah. Following the ouster of the Shah in February 1979, the union of those groups began to break down. In invading Iran, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein assumed that the divided Iranians and their dilapidated armed forces would be unable to put up much of a fight. He was wrong. Iranians responded to the invasion by uniting against him and under their current leadership, even though many opposed the direction the revolution had taken. Iran’s leaders quickly resurrected the armed forces by halting military trials and purges and enforcing conscription.

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), which was established following the revolution to serve primarily as an internal security force, transformed into a second military and rushed to confront the invading forces. Thousands of volunteers were incorporated into both the IRGC and the regular military. They were driven to defend the country, the revolution, and the Islamic Republic by a potent combination of nationalism, revolutionary mission, and religious zeal that was stoked by the foreign threat. Their dedicated and determined defense, combined with the Iraqi forces’ poor performance, caused the invaders to stall and then retreat. The IRGC and the Basij remain today as the Islamic Republic’s most devoted defenders. They have a substantial interest in the survival of the regime, and can therefore be expected to vigorously confront attacking forces, just as they did when the Iraqis invaded.

An attack on Iran by the United States or Israel will likely add to the ranks of the regime’s supporters. Just as a divided population came together to confront the Iraqi invasion, Iranians of all stripes will unite in opposition to an attack. The upshot will be a stronger, more cohesive, and more militant Islamic Republic. In the words of Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s reformist former president and a harsh critic of some of Iran’s current leaders and policies, “If there should one day be any military interference in Iran, then all factions, regardless of reformists or non-reformists, would [unite] and confront the attack.” Iranians interviewed by Reuters, Radio Farda, and the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran made the same argument. “A war will unite the regime, and it will also force many to unite behind a regime they don’t even support” said a 56-year-old woman living in Tehran. “What else should we do, [cheer] for Israel, which would kill our countrymen working in the nuclear sites?” Similarly, a Tehran-based journalist who said he sympathized with the opposition Green Movement wrote that, “[Iranian] society will not welcome any country that attacks its soil.”

An attack on Iran will not only bring Iranians together under the current regime; it will also unite them in support for a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Even if it targeted Iranian nuclear facilities and was limited in scope, an attack will most likely be interpreted by Iranians as a declaration of war, an attempt at regime change, and a determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology or enrichment capability of any nature. It will also convince them that accelerating that drive and ultimately possessing nuclear weapons is the only way to safeguard their regime and their country from future attack. Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently put forward this view. “I don't think you can convince anyone to give up an atomic programme through the threat of violence,” he stated. “Rather, it will cause them to move even faster on it, in order to defend themselves. ... If the decision to build a bomb has not yet been taken, a military strike would ensure more than ever that it is.”

While the regime may increase its strength in the wake of an attack by winning new supporters, it may also be able to capitalize on an attack to eliminate its internal enemies. That is precisely what happened following the 1980 Iraqi invasion. Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies used the war to strengthen their control over the state along the war-making state-making nexus, following the pattern of revolutionary elites in other countries. Throughout the war Khomeini used the conflict to discredit and eliminate his internal rivals. By keeping the people mobilized for the war and focused on Iran’s external enemies, he was able to consolidate his power with fewer constraints and less debate.

Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the powerful IRGC would be able to achieve similar results in the case of a strike on Iran. The Revolutionary Guards have long warned of the dangers posed by Iran’s external enemies and have characterized internal opposition as the work of external forces. An attack on Iran will seemingly vindicate the IRGC’s position and enable them to increase repression and their own power. Iranians favoring any sort of softer line will be undermined and suppressed. Hossein Ghazian, an Iranian sociologist who was jailed in Iran and is now a visiting scholar at Syracuse University, said that, in the case of an attack, the regime would have “enough legitimacy, excuses, and reasons to repress those opposed to it.”

Similarly, in a 2005 op-ed in The New York Times, Iranian human rights activists Shirin Ebadi and Hadi Ghaemi put forward “The Human Rights Case Against Attacking Iran.” They argued that, “for human rights defenders in Iran, the possibility of a foreign military attack on their country represents an utter disaster for their cause.” The authors also drew a parallel with the Islamic Republic’s behavior following the 1980 Iraqi invasion. The “threat of foreign military intervention will provide a powerful excuse for authoritarian elements to uproot [independent human rights organizations] and put an end to their growth,” they argued. “Human rights violators will use this opportunity to silence their critics by labeling them as the enemy’s fifth column. In 1980, after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and inflamed nationalist passions, Iranian authorities used such arguments to suppress dissidents.”

In a report released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran in November 2011, Ghaemi, writing as the president of that organization, emphasized that the parallel is still valid. In summarizing the views of Iranians interviewed by the Campaign, Ghaemi wrote that, “an attack would further militarize the state, exacerbate the human rights crisis in Iran, and undermine Iranian civil society and the pro-democracy movement. ... A military strike would likely lead to an upsurge of political violence, threatening all those considered enemies of the government. Given the mass executions of numerous political prisoners during the Iran-Iraq War, strong fears were expressed about the fate of hundreds of current political prisoners in the event of a conflict with the United States.”

Military action against Iran, and even the continuing threat of attack, is likely to give the Islamic Republic a new lease on life. Its devoted supporters will be strengthened and mobilized, and it will enjoy the additional support of those who will join in condemning and retaliating for an attack. Threats of a possible strike, and certainly a strike itself, substantiate and animate the security narrative Iranian leaders have been propagating for years: that the West is determined to raze the Islamic Republic. They have mastered the art of using the threat of attack, signs of Western hostility towards Iran, and even invasion to consolidate their power. Further, the more likely an attack appears, the more determined Iranians will be to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. The policy of attacking and threatening Iran has served as the lifeblood sustaining the Islamic Republic. We have yet to see how the regime might sustain itself without it.

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