What the Iran-Iraq War Tells Us about Iran Today

by Shaghayegh Christine Rostampour

On September 22 1980, exactly 40 years ago, Iraqi forces under the rule of president Saddam Hussein initiated open warfare against Iran, officially declaring war against the vulnerable country [1][2]. This was the beginning of a protracted armed conflict that spanned the next 8 years and while Saddam and Iraq made almost no gains, it caused Iran a lot of loss, became a turning point in the country’s domestic affairs, and impacted how Iran interacted with the world.  This article will look at two such impacts that are closely interrelated.

First, the Iran-Iraq war can help one understand Iran’s current “defense posture and discourse”, particularly Iran’s narrative of “self-reliance” based on which the country enhances its military posture. Second, the Iran-Iraq war and the stance of the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies regarding the conflict raises questions about the motives behind the US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is particularly important in light of the similarity between the Donald Trump administration’s discourse on Iran and the narrative that the administration of George W. Bush used before the invasion of Iraq. In what follows, this article will look at both of these issues. 

Iran’s Defense Posture and the Discourse of “Self-Reliance” 

Having already gone through a troubled history with the “East” and the “West” that resulted in a discourse defiant of both [3], Iraq’s 8-year-long war with Iran has had a major role in Iran’s current defense aspirations and narrative. As mentioned before, the war had little gain for Iraq; it did, however, cost Iran gravely. Figures are uncertain but estimates for the number of Iranian deaths range from 170,000 to 750,000 [4]. Others put the total number of casualties at over one million lives on both sides [5]. Iraq also carried out aerial attacks on infrastructure, from military bases to research and technological facilities, as well as civilian areas and Iran retaliated [6]. The monetary loss has been estimated to be billions of dollars in lost oil revenues alone. What makes Iraq’s aggression against Iran even more horrid was Iraq’s use of chemical weapons the details of which will be explained in the next section [7]. 

Iraq’s attempt to invade Iran, however, did far more than causing death and destruction for the Iranian side: it reinforced Iran’s narrative of relying on none other than itself (neither the West, nor the East) . Throughout the 8 years of devastating war, the United States and its allies, as well as Arab states in the region backed Saddam’s aggression against Iran. Aside from political endorsement, this support manifested itself in the form of arms sale to Iraq on the one hand, and blocking Iran’s attempts to access the international arms market on the other [8]. Forsaken by the international community, while past grievances were still fresh, the Iran-Iraq war had several direct impacts on Iran’s defense posture and discourse[9]. First, the war motivated and consolidated Iran’s non-conventional military which fended off Iraq’s insurgence: that is Iran’s parallel army namely the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which was established shortly after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and Iran’s paramilitary volunteer militia called Basij [10]. In addition to the added legitimacy to both groups, the Iran-Iraq war also showed Iran’s leaders that they rarely had any allies, a mindset which would then amalgamate with Iran’s existing aspirations of “self-reliance”, “self sufficiency” and “self-determination” [11][12]. Today, Iran relies on the same narrative of “defense” and “self-reliance” whenever Iran argues for vamping up its military posture or attempts to justify its role in proxy conflicts in the region [13]. 

Iran-Iraq War raises questions about the the Iraq Invasion of 2003

In addition to Iran’s narrative about its own military capabilities, the Iran-Iraq war also puts the motives of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in context. As mentioned before, the US and its allies backed Iraq politically and militarily during the war. What makes this support integral to the 2003 war is Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran between 1980-88 even though their use was banned under the Geneva Protocol [14].

Iraq’s large scale attacks that reportedly numbered an estimated 350 counts and left over 70,000 victims were never condemned or questioned by the United States. Neither did the United States keep the Saddam regime from developing and enhancing its Weapons of Mass Destruction [15][16]. In fact, newly declassified documents from the FBI show that the US was not just silent against the use of chemical weapons (which fall under the category of Weapons of Mass Destruction) but in fact was “fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent” [17]. In addition, Saddam used American intelligence including satellite imagery and maps to conduct their mustard gas and sarin gas attacks, and was able to fend off Iran’s retaliations thanks to the US [18]. This contrasts with the way that, 20 years later, George W Bush administration’s justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was Saddam’s alleged possession of WMDs. The United States’ aid to Iraq’s use of weapons of mass destruction against Iran on the one hand, added to the failure to find WMDs in possession of a weakened Saddam two decades later raises the question of whether the “illegal” Iraq War was in fact a failure on behalf of American intelligence, or else signals the possibility of other motives behind the 2003 war [19][20]. 

But the question about the 2003 invasion of Iraq is not a mere investigation into the past. The story indeed comes full circle and has relevance today in light of the emergence of “Iran War Hawks” and the Donald Trump administration’s position regarding Iran. Ironically comprised of several of the Iraq War hawks, the Trump administration has time and again come on the brink of war with Iran using a similar discourse to what was used to justify the invasion of Iraq 

The use of chemical weapons against Iran, of course, meant that an unsupported Iran would seek the possibility of developing them. Looking into the Iran hawks’ discourse on “Iran’s Chemical Weapons Related Efforts”, they seem to cite activities that were explained earlier as Iran’s self-reliance motive [21]. It is noteworthy that Iran remains strongly opposed to the use of Chemical Weapons in its discourse and has ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997 [22][23]. 

Most recently, the White House has intensified its rhetoric on “Iran’s Nuclear, Ballistic Missile, and Conventional Weapons Pursuits” [24]. One might argue that the Trump administration’s argument that Iran’s conventional military program as a threat to international security has some prevalence within the mainstream discourse on Iran. However, Washington’s attempt to pose Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to international security is highly questionable in light of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement in 2017.  Records show that before the unilateral measure taken by the Trump administration, the UN and EU-endorsed agreement was in fact effective in curbing Iran’s adventurism with its nuclear program. The United States’ violation of the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance with the agreement until that point, and shortly after, is only one side of the story. The other is the Trump administration’s constant threat of using military force against Iran, and pushing Iran to curb its military posture, particularly Iran’s missile program

 All this raises a question similar to the one that this article raised about the Iraq war: is the Trump administration relying on faulty intelligence as the administration of George W. Bush did, or has the US been seeking to find its excuses to enhance its bases in the Middle East for an ulterior motive? 

Notes and References: 

[1] Iran had experienced years of political turmoil and underwent a Revolution in 1979. The newly established Islamic Republic of Iran was still struggling to manage its domestic affairs while coming under pressure by states that supported Iran’s previous ruler, the Shah. 

[2]  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/iran-iraq-war

[3] See the concept of “Neither East, nor West” in the Iranian discourse: https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/410972/Today-it-s-Neither-East-nor-West-but-the-Islamic-Republic 

[4] Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch, “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths,” European Journal of Population, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2005), pp. 145–166, doi:10.1007/s10680-005-6851-6.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/23/iran-iraq-war-anniversary 

[6] (Iran’s Bushehr power complex came under Iraqi fire on March 24 1984, February 12 1985, November 17, 1987, and on July 18, 1988 (Carol, 2015 )

[7] https://www.nonproliferation.org/wp-content/uploads/npr/81ali.pdf

[8] https://idsa.in/system/files/page/2015/waw-3-2.pdf P. 17 

[9] https://www.theglobalist.com/facts-made-in-the-usa-irans-grievances/ 

[10] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13530194.2018.1450137 

[11] See an opinion piece that looks into Iran’s “self-reliance” discourse based on a study of Iran’s historical grievances: 



[13] https://idsa.in/system/files/page/2015/waw-3-2.pdf P. 17 

[14] https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/bio/1925-geneva-protocol/ 

[15] https://web.archive.org/web/20170510104458/http://www.cbrneworld.com/_uploads/download_magazines/Long_legacy.pdf 

[16] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/10/14/world/middleeast/us-casualties-of-iraq-chemical-weapons.html 

[17] https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/ 

[18] Ibid. 

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/sep/16/iraq.iraq

[20] The Iraq War and WMDs: An intelligence failure or White …www.washingtonpost.com › politics › 2019/03/22 › ira… 

[21] https://www.iranwatch.org/our-publications/weapon-program-background-report/history-irans-chemical-weapon-related-efforts

[22] https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention 

[23] https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1997-10/press-releases/russia-iran-join-cwc-membership-total-reaches-104 

[24] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-regarding-new-restrictions-irans-nuclear-ballistic-missile-conventional-weapons-pursuits/

[25] https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iran 

[26] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/01/donald-trump-threatens-iran-again-if-attacks-u-s-iraq/5104981002/ 

[27] https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm1130