“War, War until victory” was a popular slogan chanted by revolutionaries in Tehran amid the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). But after years of fighting with no victory in sight, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, was forced to settle for a UNSC sponsored ceasefire resolution which he compared to drinking from “a poisoned chalice.” Seldom has revolutionary Iran done such a 180-degree shift on a high profile foreign and security policy matter. Accordingly, it has direct relevance to Washington’s current “Maximum Pressure” approach.
This September 22, Tehran will mark 40 years since the start of that war, which officials style “the imposed war” or the “sacred defense.” More so than the Islamic Revolution, the war produced the Islamic Republic that we know today, including the cadre of elites that currently hold power. While a full accounting of this monumental conflict – the longest conventional war in the 20th century – and all its twists, turns, and intrigues remains outside the scope of this article, a short chronology is in order.
Initially on the defensive for the first two years of the war, Iran shifted to Iraqi territory for a near six-year offensive in a bid to decapitate Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. During this period, the conflict escalated with new weaponry and geography. And for Iran, it internationalized significantly, dragging the U.S. navy into numerous naval engagements in the Persian Gulf. In the closing months of the conflict, a cocktail of factors, including but not limited to a growing perception of American resolve to prevent an Iranian victory, significant regional and battlefield setbacks, economic deprivation, and the potential for mass social unrest, all helped facilitate the conclusion of the war which Khomeinie to “bargaining away” his “dignity… with God.”
Having failed to export its revolution to Iraq, since the war ended, Tehran moved to romanticize the endeavor, with officials framing it as a “divine promise” and even something that kept their homeland safe from future wars. Lest we forget, at the time, the conflict allowed revolutionaries to purge domestic political opponents, consolidate the nascent Islamist regime, establish and support foreign military proxies, re-start its nuclear program, procure projectiles and associated technology to stand-up its missile program, and even take-on the United States. But given the high-cost and outsized impact of the war, a new conflict commenced once the shooting stopped. This new struggle featured factional infighting, finger pointing, secrets, conflicting narratives, and memoirs, all over how the war was prosecuted, and who to blame for its lackluster end.
Outside a recent rising tide of interest in this conflict by academics, Washington-audiences have only occasionally noted the war’s implications for the present. As I wrote in 2014, the conflict is the best “international case study for both war-making and peacemaking with the Islamic Republic.” This observation was true then, and rings even more true today.
In fact, four times in 2019, which is one year after the restoration of American sanctions previously waived by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Iranian officials drew comparisons to the challenges of the present versus those of the war-era. After Washington cancelled waivers for the purchase of Iranian oil last May, no less than Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “During the war we did not have a problem with our banks, oil sales or imports and exports.” He went on to claim that, “The pressures by enemies is a war unprecedented in the history of our Islamic revolution.”
Echoing the challenge of oil sales and financial sanctions was Iran’s Minister of Oil Bijan Namdar-Zanganeh, who reportedly drew on the war as an analogy in his commentary three times last year. In February 2019 he claimed, “I was also in war and I understood war, but these conditions are harder than war.” In June, he took that one-step further, noting, “The difference between the current-era and the war-era is that if Saddam didn’t bomb us, we could, at any rate, sell the oil we want… but now, the sale of oil, supply of ships, the moving of money, and even the buying of many goods has its own conditions.” He also warned, “We must know what a fierce war we are involved in. If this intensity is not understood – which I do not think some people understand or feel – we will suffer due to incorrect assessments.” And in September, he confessed, “The economic situation in the country today is even more difficult than during the war,” and, “If we were victorious during the Sacred Defense, it was because of [our] spirit, faith, and belief, and today we must proceed in the same way.”
Such statements are not to be taken lightly. The Iran-Iraq War represents the quintessence of sacrifice for the ruling regime. While the war is a common reference point, no earthly challenge to the Islamic Republic is framed as being more intense or defining for Iran, which endured chemical weapons use on the battlefield and ballistic missile attacks against population centers amid the conflict.
Therefore, the above proclamations constitute a rare signal amid the noise generated by Iranian officials about the efficacy of Washington’s current pressure policy. Moreover, any Iranian admission that a unilateral sanctions regime implemented for less than two years can be more challenging or at least on par with a conflict that was once called “world war three” is a qualitative data-point about sanctions that ought not to be ignored.
To translate this economic success into the stated policy goals of the Trump administration, which is a genuinely comprehensive and improved accord with Iran, Washington must not take its foot off the gas pedal and continue to pressure Tehran until it is forced to accept a sub-optimal solution in its foreign and security policy. Put differently, it should replicate the conditions that led to the war’s conclusion.
None of this is to mean that if Washington wants a broader deal with Iran, it will need to launch a war with the same devastating implications for human life that the Iran-Iraq War wrought. Quite the contrary. Nor does it seek to minimize Iran’s ability to prosecute a conflict or resist foreign pressure even under duress. Moreover, it does not aim to downplay the various other factors that contributed to the war’s end; although on objective assessment would surely note that Iranian street protests from 2017-present, the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and a wave of regional normalization agreements with Israel are proof that they are again rearing their head today.
Rather, it is to appreciate what peaceful uses of coercive economic measures can achieve as a national security tool. After all, almost every mainstream account of the conflict notes that the inability of Tehran to fund the war effort – and in particular, to procure material on a controversial shopping list prepared by the then-head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which included atomic weapons – impacted the war’s conclusion.
Four decades since the start of the Iran-Iraq War and forty-one years since the inception of the Islamic Republic, it is painfully apparent that not all men have their price. But all causes do. Washington must continue escalating economic pressure on Tehran until Khomeini’s successor and current Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides to reach for his own “poisoned chalice.”