The Iran–Iraq War by Pierre Razoux (Translated by Nicholas Elliott) - review by C P W Gammell

C P W Gammell

Slaughter over the Shatt al-Arab

The Iran–Iraq War


Harvard University Press/Belknap Press 640pp £29.95 order from our bookshop

In the days following George W Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech on a US warship just returned from the Persian Gulf, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the region in which the West’s troops were fighting had no recent history, no momentum of its own. In reality, as the world now knows, the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime in Baghdad was anything but ‘mission accomplished’. We are living with the consequences today and if we are really to understand them and their genesis, we must look further back in history, to the Iran–Iraq War. French academic Pierre Razoux’s detailed, wide-ranging and elegantly written account is the best hope we have of seeing this epoch-defining conflict for what it was. Drawing on a decade of research, during which he accessed Saddam’s audio records of military and political meetings, investigated Iranian sources and conducted countless interviews with military, political and business figures from around the world, Razoux gives the reader a uniquely broad and deep look at the conflict.

The Iran–Iraq War ostensibly concerned sovereignty of the Shatt al-Arab, a stretch of water dividing the two nations. The Algiers Accord of 6 March 1975 allowed Saddam and the Shah of Iran to announce that they had put an end to their disagreements. The demarcation of terrestrial and fluvial borders resulted in the border running through the middle of the Shatt al-Arab, rather than along the Persian bank, which had served as the previous demarcation. For Saddam, the accord had been a humiliation and on 17 September 1980, after months of tension, he renounced it. On 22 September Iraq launched an air offensive, striking inside Iranian territory. The conflict continued, through phases of operations and different styles of warfare, only ending on 20 August 1988, after Iran accepted the UN Security Council’s Resolution 598. And yet, as Razoux shows, this conflict concerned more than a stretch of water separating Iran and Iraq. It covered everything from the Cold War to ancient Persian-Arab tensions to Islamic sectarianism and ethnic separatism.

One of the most fascinating insights this book offers is its illustration of the impact the conflict had on the Islamic Republic of Iran and how that nation moved from fledgling revolutionary state to an established Islamic theocracy. Razoux is right to argue that Iran’s real revolution occurred during the Iran–Iraq War; it was these years of bitter fighting against internal and external enemies that shaped the Iran we see today. The Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force, the Basij and the clerical hierarchy – all these were created, strengthened or became ascendant during the conflict. As Razoux notes, the war was a way to ‘stoke revolutionary fervour and unite the Iranian people around the mullahs while destroying the previous regime’s social structure’. Members of the Revolutionary Guards and those who cut their teeth in the Iran–Iraq War hold the keys to power in today’s Iran.

It is through his interviews with the conflict’s protagonists, some of whom are still politically active and have decided to remain anonymous, that Razoux shows the reader the Iraqi side of the war. The ‘Saddam Tapes’, captured in 2003 after the fall of Saddam’s government, provide a wealth of hugely significant information and give striking insights into the Iraqi leader’s mindset, as well as his evolution from thuggish rabble-rouser to feared tyrant with an eye for a photo opportunity. Razoux explains how the Iraqi government had effectively cracked the Iranian regime’s codes for communicating, in the manner of Enigma and Bletchley Park. So secret was this programme that Saddam did not disclose its existence to his officers, leading these men to the conclusion that he was a mind reader and had access to the thoughts of the Iranian high command. (This was a belief many still held after being captured by the Americans in the wake of the 2003 invasion.)

The Iran–Iraq War dragged forty nations into its orbit; it created a complicated geopolitical landscape. Razoux navigates this with skill and erudition, leaving the reader informed but not overly bewildered. Kidnappings in Lebanon and bombs in Paris and on commercial passenger jets were the collateral damage of this international game as other global powers entered the fray. The US naval engagements in the Persian Gulf during this conflict were that nation’s most significant since the Second World War. Israel, long seen as Iran’s mortal foe, supported Tehran with weapons, for the Israelis greatly feared a triumphant and nuclear-armed Saddam. Indeed, Razoux notes how the Iranian government sent the Israelis a photo of Saddam’s fledgling nuclear plant at Osirak with a note attached. The Israeli reply simply said, ‘Don’t worry about this target, we are taking care of it.’ They did, bombing it into oblivion in 1981. Iran also received military assistance from the Soviet Union, Libya, China and North Korea. Iraq, in turn, was assisted by a broad coalition of Sunni Arab partners. Some members of that alliance were not, however, above playing both sides. One such nation was Turkey, which emerged with handsome profits. Kissinger’s quip that he hoped both sides would lose sums up the chaotic opportunism that reigned for the years during which Iraqi and Iranian soldiers fought and died in their hundreds of thousands. In total, 180,000 Iraqis and 500,000 Iranians were killed in the fighting. Upwards of 1,500,000 were wounded.

The echoes for today’s conflicts in the Middle East are difficult to ignore. Razoux is too clever to descend into a parallel analysis of today’s messes, wisely leaving the reader to do so with the benefit of his scholarship and insight. When one reads about the massacres in the marshes, the horrors of trench warfare and child soldiers dying in their thousands, one can immediately understand why Iran should seek nuclear capability – and it is not to fight Israel. Iranian policy objectives are informed by fear of Iraq as much as dislike of the West. At one point in the war, as waves of bombs struck Western interests in Beirut and Westerners were kidnapped monthly, the US considered direct military intervention in the conflict in Iran and Iraq to prevent ‘the establishment of a Shiite government in Baghdad’. It is a sobering thought that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the establishment of exactly such a government. Indeed, ‘Mission Accomplished’ might easily have referred to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s regional strategies, for 2003 gave the country what it never managed to achieve during its struggle to the death with Saddam Hussein: a Shiite regime in Baghdad.

This was a war with everything: energy competition, sectarian hatred, ethnic divisions, trench warfare, aerial dogfights, chemical weapons, international intrigue, murky dealings and a horrific human toll on all sides. Pierre Razoux’s excellent and lucidly translated study does this awful conflict justice in an even-handed and professional manner. It is a must read for anyone with an interest in Iran, Iraq and the region as it stands today.

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