In the early days of the eight-year Iraq-Iran War that started in 1980, the Iraqi public was stunned to watch an aged villager on national TV asking former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein whether he thought entering the war had been a miscalculation
It was one of what had become Saddam’s routine public appearances after he became president, as he started touring towns and villages across Iraq and indulging in publicity stunts amidst elated people.
“What has made you fall into this trap? They [the Iranians] are strong-headed,” the old man, who could hardly be heard, told Saddam in a video broadcast on state-owned television.
Saddam’s old trick of cutting whenever the situation required seemed to fail him in this extraordinary moment, and state TV cut the villager’s succinct remarks when the clip was replayed again that night.
But the comment from the elderly Iraqi that night had already been echoing in the thoughts of many in the audience since the beginning of the conflict that had followed the revolution that had brought about an Islamic regime in Iran.
The triumph of the revolution that was celebrated on 11 February 1979 was a pivotal moment in Middle East history, but no country was more impacted than Iraq. It marked a turning point when Saddam’s secular pan-Arab regime stood squarely against the new Islamic Republic led by Shia clergyman Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The two neighbouring countries were soon caught up in a savage war that ended eight years later leaving behind it more than one million casualties and wreaking destruction that cost hundreds of billions of dollars to repair.
The war was also one of the bloodiest in the Middle East and in many ways ushered in an era of costly regional conflicts that are still raging.
As Iran marks the 40th anniversary of its revolution next week and the toppling of former shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, one of the questions that has been raised is whether Saddam anticipated the Iranian Revolution or the ensuing war with the new Islamic government.
Saddam’s regime was the shah’s deadly enemy, and it had hosted Khomeini in exile for years, but Saddam also became the top foreign target of the revolutionaries in Tehran once they took power in 1979.
Way back in 1978, I was working in the research department of the Iraqi Ministry of Information and Culture in Baghdad. I was a member of a small team assigned to watch the events unfolding in Iran and make assessments of the situation.
In Saddam’s Iraq, no one was allowed to make policy recommendations for the leadership to make decisions. Saddam maintained an unflinching hold on Iraq, and he was notorious for scoffing at information that might challenge his often fallacious preconceptions about the world.
Our group was monitoring the situation through the flood of news coming out of Iran, as well as from the secret and confidential reports coming from the Iraqi mission in Tehran and other embassies in the country.
Other sources such as books and articles not usually accessible by the public were also available.
Among the books that provided me with insights about Iran under the shah was “Iran, Dictatorship and Development” by the British Marxist scholar Fred Halliday.
The book, released that year, was a valuable assessment of the socio-economic and political conditions in Iran in the years preceding the uprising. Nevertheless, it failed to predict the momentous historical event that shook Iran a few months after its publication.
When I met Halliday in London in 1980, I asked him if he felt he had failed to anticipate the revolution. He answered by asking “who could have made such a prediction?”
Writing in the US Brookings Institute’s blog last month, former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel who worked on the Iran desk in the CIA in 1978 noted the “widespread allegations that the [US] intelligence community had failed to anticipate the revolution.”
Another book that had enormous influence in shaping my analytical opinions about Khomeini’s revolutionary plans for Iran was his book “Hukumet-e Islami,” or “Islamic Government.”
In this book, the future supreme leader of Iran laid out his ideas for his future government that should be based on the principle of “velayat-e faqih,” or the “governance of the jurist.”
The book, originally a series of lectures delivered to his followers in the holy city of Najaf during his exile in Iraq, emphasised that the division between religion and politics was anti-Islamic.
Khomeini moved to Iraq from Turkey in 1965 a year after he was sent into exile by the shah for his role in leading protests against the US-backed government.
Saddam’s decision on 5 October 1978 to expel Khomeini from Najaf triggered further signs of Iraq’s concern at the turmoil in Iran. Saddam justifiably feared that a potentially fundamentalist Islamic government in Iran could provoke a direct challenge to his secular regime.
Khomeini soon found refuge in France outside of Paris from where he commanded the final months of the revolution and triumphantly returned to Tehran on 1 February 1979.
More than 20 years later, Farah Pahlavi, the shah’s widow, told me in Cairo that in 1978 as political turmoil spilled into the streets of Tehran she had travelled to Baghdad to plead with the Iraqi leadership not to kick Khomeini out of Iraq.
She said she had also travelled to Najaf to ask grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim Khoei, then the top-ranking Shia cleric, to work to stifle Khomeini’s anti-shah propaganda.
But her efforts with both Saddam and Khoei fell on deaf ears.
In summer 1978, the Cinema and Theatre Department of the Iraqi Culture Ministry started making a historical film given the title “Al-Qadissiya.”
An Egyptian crew of screen-writers and producers and an enormous cast was hired for the multi-million-dollar film that was to depict the epic battle of Al-Qadissiya when the Muslim Arabs had beaten the Persians in 636 CE.
In a private conversation in August 1978 with director Salah Abu Seif in Baghdad, I gathered that the film with its memorable battle scenes was meant to be a propaganda piece used for national mobilisation in Iraq.
In a later encounter with Abu Seif in Cairo in 1994, he recalled that Saddam had supervised every detail in the film and had wanted re-shots of some of the scenes.
When the Iraq-Iran War broke out in September 1980, Iraqi state-controlled media called it “The Second Qadissiya.” Later in the war, it became known to Iraqis as “Saddam’s Qadissiya.”
Whether Saddam, who moved to take control of the country and became president of Iraq in summer 1979, anticipated the Iranian Revolution or predicted a war with Iran a year later, remains a mystery.
The conclusion of our small team of researchers, which was conveyed to Saddam, was that the victory of the Iranian Revolution was inevitable and that this could put the two regimes on a collision course.
Those who have written about the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and those who are deeply engaged in commemorating it today have frequently questioned Saddam’s judgement in going to the war with Iran in 1980.
As one who witnessed the unfolding of the Iranian Revolution and covered the 1980-1988 conflict as a war correspondent, I thought both events were not unimaginable or unpredictable.
Saddam must have predicted the Iranian Revolution and foreseen the war, but he choose to pick his opportunity and ignore the challenge.
In a way, Saddam forecasted that the collapse of the shah’s government, which left Iran weak and its military in disarray, would give him the best opportunity to establish himself as Iraq’s dictator as well as the Arab world’s unchallenged leader.
Because of his illusions and delusions, Saddam failed to grasp the old man’s wisdom on Iraqi TV that day, and 30 years after the war ended, Iran today enjoys enormous influence in Iraq.
Its military power and the ideology of its Islamic Revolution have also seen wide-ranging regional extensions.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: How Saddam perceived Iran’s revolution