For the past 30 years Iran has been marking the anniversary of its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s with bombastic military parades in Tehran and other major cities and the commemoration of those Iranians who died defending the Islamic Republic.
On 21 September, the first day of Iran’s annual celebrations of “Sacred Defence Week” begins, its military display of tanks, the newly supplied Russian S-300 air-defence missile system and its domestically-built ballistic rockets.
For Iran, the eight-year conflict is a defining period in the country’s modern history, and the Islamic Republic has spared no efforts in continually keeping the memory of the conflict in public consciousness.
Murals commemorating the martyrs of the 1980-1988 War still decorate street junctions in Tehran and other Iranian cities, along with pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and Iran’s wartime leader.
While the war remains a huge story in Iran, by contrast the anniversary does not receive much consideration from Iraq’s current Shia leaders, who are mostly friendly to Iran and support its narrative that the war was imposed on Iran by then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Iraq invaded Iran on 22 September 1980, with Saddam claiming the Iranian regime had started the conflict two weeks earlier by shelling Iraqi border posts. He also gave as a reason for the invasion a territorial dispute over the Shatt Al-Arab, the strategic waterway which forms the southern boundary between the two countries.
Saddam, leading a secular, Pan-Arab regime, also feared that Khomeini, the Iranian revolutionary Shia cleric, wanted to make Iraq an Islamic Shia state.
The Islamic regime in Iran has spared no efforts in keeping the memory of the war alive. At the Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery south of Tehran the authorities have built a “Pool of Blood,” a fountain dyed red to serve as a resting place for soldiers who died.
Iranian officials still use the war to consolidate the Islamic Republic and mobilise the population in the face of domestic and foreign challenges. Worries about these were revived earlier this year when an attack on a military parade in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz killed at least two dozen people.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani immediately evoked memories of the war to call for unity in the face of economic hardships and US pressure. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the attack on the United States and US-backed regimes in the region.
The war has thus helped to crystallise Iran’s worldview as well as define the country’s security policy. Iran learned many lessons from the war, including the need to be self-reliant in order to face up to prolonged diplomatic isolation.
With the Trump administration set on imposing more stringent sanctions on Iran in November, there are growing fears of a regional flare-up that could entangle the Islamic Republic in another war.
But with the Saddam regime’s animosity in mind, one of Iran’s main worries is the presence of a hostile regime in Iraq that could be incorporated in an anti-Iran regional alliance upsetting the balance of power that Iran now sees as operating in its favour.
A look back at history, however, reveals that neither side won the war, which was disastrous for both countries in addition to its enormous human casualties, stalling economic development and disrupting oil exports which cost them billions of dollars.
The conflict left the borders unchanged. Two years later, as war with the US-led Coalition over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait loomed, Saddam recognised Iranian rights over the eastern half of the Shatt Al-Arab, a reversion to the status quo that he had repudiated a decade earlier.
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 put Iran in a favourable situation in the light of the destruction of the Iraqi military by the US and the empowerment of Shia opposition groups in Iraq that had been groomed by Iran to fight Saddam.
Gradually, Tehran has managed to create huge influence in Iraq that includes political, economic and cultural assets and also and most importantly a vast pro-Iranian para-military force, or militias, that it has used to maximise its influence.
Iraqi political leaders friendly to Iran cannot be expected to stand in front of war memorials to honour the names of those who went forth to fight the Iranians and did not come back.
But even if they do not believe in the cause of the war, their view of it seems to be ideological or sectarian instead of patriotic or at least pragmatic.
Since Saddam’s fall there has been no debate on the war in Iraq, specifically about the patriotism of millions of Iraqis who gave their lives or were made to pay a horrible price in hardship and suffering.
Discussing the legacy of the war by the Shia ruling groups has become a propaganda industry to villainise Saddam as being solely responsible for the war, which they depict as an act of “aggression” against Islamic Iran.
As a result, ignoring the commemoration of the war in post-Saddam Iraq should come as no surprise. Indeed, by failing to honour the memory of those Iraqis who made the ultimate sacrifice Iraq’s rulers are actually underscoring the Iranian narrative of the war.
By taking this approach to coming to terms with Iraq’s new era in which Iran has been blended seamlessly into the new regime, the measures taken to dismantle Iraq’s war heritage seem to be excessive.
Many monuments depicting the war or paying tribute to war heroes or events or dates symbolising Iraqi sacrifices have been demolished or dismembered.
A Martyrs Monument in Baghdad built during Saddam’s time in office to honour Iraqi soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq War has been suffering from neglect, and part of it is now used to as a memorial to Saddam’s victims.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans lost their pensions and benefits after Saddam’s fall, while survivors feeling hostility from Saddam’s successors only because they sided with their country in the war.
Viewed from a larger security perspective, Iraq’s main problem 30 years after the war ended remains its vulnerability in dealing with Iran’s increasing military power and its threats to the region.
Arguably, such impressive military shows of strength by Iran should have reawakened old fears, but not in Iraq under its current pro-Iranian leaders even though the country is suffering from a huge military disadvantage when compared to Iran.
Nobody disputes the fact that Saddam’s recklessness in attacking Iran triggered a broader conflict, but the roots of the war also lay in a number of territorial and political disputes between Iraq and Iran. It also reflected geopolitical and historical rivalries that have not died down and could be renewed.
Yet, when it comes to Iraq’s post-Saddam’s rulers, there has been strikingly little reflection about the range of challenges or potential security threats that Iraq faces and that consist of Iran’s rising power and influence.
At present, the two countries enjoy peaceful relations, but this is only due to the client-type relationships Iran has succeeded in building with some of Iraq’s Shia leaders.
However, because nations are bound to seek their own national interests and are bent on developing effective security strategies, such relationships are doomed to change.
Baghdad has also been challenged to address widening regional security threats, and sooner or later Iraqi policy-makers will need to realise that they must develop their own broad rethinking of national security policies dealing with some of these.
Post-Saddam Iraq is not responsible for the 1980-1988 War, but acting as if the war did not happen is foolish because it ignores its military and security lessons.
Any nation’s security is defined in the context of its relationship with other nations, especially its neighbours, but Iraq’s security dilemmas seem to stem more from its own leadership than from geopolitics and recent history.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s forgotten war with Iran