How the Iran-Iraq war shaped the trajectories of figures like Qassem Soleimani

A man holds a picture of late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, as people celebrate in the street after Iran launched missiles at U.S.-led forces in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran January 8, 2020. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
Editor's note:

The death of General Qassem Soleimani has underscored the crucial importance of the Iran-Iraq war in shaping the politics of today’s Iran and its future, writes Bruce Riedel. This piece was originally published by the Asia Institute.

The death of General Qassem Soleimani has underscored the crucial importance of the Iran-Iraq war in shaping the politics of today’s Iran and its future. Soleimani and his successor Ismail Qaani began their careers as soldiers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting the Iraqis in the 1980s, their legitimacy as Iran’s defenders flows from the war. The defining moment in their lives, the war shaped their views of the region and especially of the United States.

The Iran-Iraq war was one of the largest and longest conventional interstate wars since the Korean War ended in 1953. At least a half million lives were lost and over another million injured. The economic cost was over a trillion dollars. After eight years of warfare, much of it like the trenches of World War I, the armies ended in virtually the same positions they had started in September 1980. It was also the only war in modern times in which chemical weapons were used on a massive scale along with ballistic missiles to attack cities. It was the most extensive use of weapons of mass destruction since Japan in 1945.

It also began a march of folly that continues today and may be about to explode. The war led almost inevitably to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 as Saddam Hussein desperately sought to pay off the tens of billions of loans he had used to finance the war from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. That in turn led to the coalition that liberated Kuwait and the Anglo-American war that toppled Saddam a decade later.

For Iranians it was the “imposed war” that was the creation of the United States in order to throttle the Islamic Revolution. The Iranians vastly exaggerate the degree of influence the Carter administration had on Saddam in 1980 but they rightly note that Washington and the other permanent members of the Security Council did not summon a meeting of the council for weeks after the Iraqi invasion and then did not blame Baghdad and call for it to withdraw from the territory its army had seized.

Only when the tables had turned, and Iran pushed the Iraqis back and threatened to march on Basra and Baghdad did the Reagan administration belatedly begin to press for a cease fire. Behind the scenes the CIA began providing Iraq highly useful intelligence that help foil Iran’s campaigns to take Iraq. The intelligence sharing also directly facilitated Iraq’s use of chemical weapons.

In 1988, Washington intervened directly in the war to protect oil tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz. An undeclared naval war followed in which the Iranian Navy was badly defeated. An Iranian commercial air liner was shot down with 290 killed including 66 children on July 3, 1988. The shoot down of Iran Air 655 led the Ayatollah Khomeini to finally accept a cease fire or as he said to “drink the poison.”

Both Soleimani and Qaani were foot soldiers in the war rising through the ranks to become division commanders in the Revolutionary Guard. They established their careers in the war against what they saw as Iraq and America. No Iranian soldier believed the shooting down was an accident by the USS Vincennes for example and they were certain that the United States and its allies were ensuring Baghdad had the money and weapons to fight the war.

The war consolidated the mullahs hold on Iran. The Ayatollahs benefited from a nationalistic wave of support. Iran was under attack, its cities bombed. It also consolidated the Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, as the preeminent defender of the revolution and the nation. Their prestige is based on the war.

It also created the alliance between Iran and Syria. Hafez Assad was the only Arab leader to back Tehran. The IRGC sent a contingent to Syria and Lebanon in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Guards created the Hezbollah to fight Israel and America. They killed my boss at the CIA, Robert Ames, when they blew up the American Embassy in the first of two occasions when the embassy was attacked. Hundreds of American marines and French paratroopers died in Hezbollah suicide bombings. The IRGC successes in Lebanon, capped by the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 from its security zone along the border, established the reputation of the Guards as experts in asymmetrical warfare. Soleimani went on to build his career supporting Hezbollah and Hafez’s son Bashar in the Syrian civil war.

The Guards also got their chance to turn Iraq from enemy to ally after the reckless Anglo-American invasion in 2003, another piece of unfinished business from the wars of 1980-88 and 1990. Soleimani was instrumental in building the network of Shia groups that fought the occupation and then the Islamic State and now seems poised to take on the Americans again.

The Iranians and the Guards especially are focusing on the strategic prize at stake — Iraq. Donald Trump has mishandled it for three years (he has never met an Iraqi prime minister). He seems fixated on the air base he visited once. Tehran knows the ouster of America from Iraq will close the door on the Iran-Iraq war. The missile attacks on the night of January 7 were calculated — Al Asad air base is that visited by Donald Trump and which he has highlighted as being especially important to him and on which he has been fixated.