The Hero and Heroin (Part 2)

Photo/Kamin Mohammadi

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Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Read Part 1 here.

In the autumn of 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran, still in the throes of its 1979 Revolution. Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade was not just an exploitation of Iran’s post-revolutionary vulnerability and attempt to place Iraq as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, but also motivated by the fear that Iran’s new leadership would threaten Iraq’s delicate Sunni-Shia balance and would exploit Iraq’s geostrategic vulnerabilities – Iraq’s only access to the Persian Gulf is via the Shatt al-Arab. The historic animosity between the two countries stretches back to the pre-Islamic rivalry between the Achaemenid and Babylonian empires. More recently, the 1937 treaty between the two countries resolved the ancient dispute about the Shatt al-Arab waterway. However, as the last Shah grew more confident in his power and determination to make Iran the ‘guardian of the Gulf’, in 1969 he overrode the 1937 treaty’s rules on navigation in the Shatt al-Arab, leading to the two countries to deploy military forces along the delta.

However, Iraq and Iran came to terms in 1975 with the signing of the Algiers Agreement, in which the Shatt dispute was settled, terminating the armed confrontation, and Iran promised to withdraw its support from the Iraqi Kurdish separatist movement. According to the agreement, the joint border would be demarcated to imply Iraqi renunciation of its claim to Khuzestan (called Arabistan by the Iraqis).

Enter Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, still bitter over his expulsion from Iraq in 1977 after 15 years in exile in Najaf and vowed to avenge Shia victims of Baathist repression. Once installed, the revolutionary leader started to call on Iraqis to rise up against their leader. By 8 March 1980, relations had deteriorated to the point that Iran withdrew its ambassador from Iraq. Skirmishes along the border followed until, in September, Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement and declared full sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. On 23 September, Iraqi forces invaded Iran. On 22 October Abadan was besieged by the Iraqi army and on 24 October Khorramshahr – then Iran’s largest port – fell to the Iraqis.

Baghdad planned a swift victory, expecting the native population of ethnic Arabs living in Khuzestan to rise against the new Islamic regime. However, the uprising didn’t come, the Arab minority remained loyal to Iran. Saddam also knew that despite the Shah’s stockpiled arsenal of the latest weapons, Iran had just executed or lost to exile all its top military personnel – between 1979 and September 1980, some 12,000 senior officers had been purged – and so lacked cohesive leadership, and, in the event, spare parts for the equipment as well as the knowledge of how to assemble or use them correctly – the Iranian air force was only able to fly half of its aircraft by the start of the war. Iran’s military was thus depleted and the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were led by clerics with little or no military experience and often armed only with light infantry weapons and Molotov cocktails, so Iraqi morale was certainly running high in the first few months of the war. In spite of this, it dragged on for eight long years, a protracted and very costly war – a war in which trench warfare was seen for the first time since World War I and nerve gas was used – by Iraq – in combat operations for the first time ever.

What Saddam perhaps underestimated was the extreme passion of his opponents for their land and the strength of the ideology that Khomeini immediately employed to motivate the populace. Iraqi forces were repulsed from entering Abadan by a small Pasdaran unit and its fierce inhabitants and Khorramshahr was only captured after a house-to-house fight so bloody that the town was nicknamed khunistan (town of blood). Some 6,000 Iraqis fell in the battle for Khorramshahr, Iranian death tolls were even higher, with 7,000 dead and seriously wounded.

Another unforeseen factor was the Basij, the People’s Militia, what Ayatollah Khomeini called the ‘Army of Twenty Million’. By the end of November 1980, some 200,000 new Pasdaran and Bajis were sent to the front, troops so ideologically committed that some carried their own shrouds in expectation of impending martyrdom.


In Tehran I meet Hassan, a veteran of the war. Courteous and serious, Hassan has an almost imperceptible limp, a result of the war years. Hassan is from Tehran, so unlike Ebby he never lived through the early horror of the war. Like Ebby, Hassan is from a secular middle class family, not particularly religious. But, as a teenager during the Revolution, he became a fervent supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini. He believed in the Revolution and he believed in the Islamic Republic. He saw Saddam’s invasion as a threat to the values of the Revolution and he longed to defend Iran.

We are sitting in the Laleh Park in central Tehran and I am chaperoned by an uncle: for a devout man like Hassan it would be wrong to be alone with me, an unmarried woman, especially in a park, the setting for so many illicit meetings these days. ‘The Imam called it a “holy war”‘, he says quietly. ‘He promised us that anyone who died in the war would be a martyr and go instantly to paradise.’ He laughs. ‘I know how it sounds now but at the time, whenever a mullah came to talk to us about the war at school, I was burning to join up.’

The regime used aggressive recruiting techniques, particularly in mosques and schools in lower income urban and rural areas where passionate talk of religious sacrifice and martyrdom fired up the populace. Iranian television broadcast pictures of young men – boys – with their red Basij headbands and guns, saying how wonderful it was to be a soldier for Islam, to fight for freedom and your country. There were films of women saying how proud they were that their sons had died martyrs for the cause. The Basiji orders were founded to absorb young men who were not old enough to join the regular military. Although Hassan was 16 when he joined up, he says there were plenty of much younger boys. ‘There was a kid who was 12,’ he says. ‘He lied about his age but they let him join anyway. He said he had his parents’ permission but I can’t imagine any mother would willingly let their child go to war like that.’

The cult of martyrdom is still in evidence in the mass of published books, the towering poster-art billboards in every town with names and pictures of the dead, the street names changed to commemorate the martyrs. In a country where getting ahead is often a matter of who you know, veterans of the war benefit from preferential treatment – university places, government jobs – as do the martyrs’ families. There is a sense of resentment from the general public who tend to exaggerate the benefits, but nonetheless this signifies a change in attitude to the war and those who fought or died in it. Duel, a film made by Ahmadreza Darvish and released last year was remarkable for two things: it was the most expensive film ever made in Iran and, unlike the multitude of earlier war films, it made no attempt to glorify martyrdom and sacrifice. In fact it made a pretty good case for the futility of war.

Hassan went to the front in 1981. He won’t talk to me about the actual fighting, but I know that in the rain and mud of that winter, Iran first employed what would become a trademark tactic, the suicidal ‘human wave’, when thousands of ecstatic soldiers would storm the Iraqi lines without any artillery or air support, chanting ‘Allahu akbar’. An Iraqi officer once described the effect this had on his men: ‘They come on in their hundreds, often walking straight across the minefields, triggering them with their feet as they are supposed to.’ He said that his men would cry and try to run away from these men – most of them very young: ‘my officers had to kick them back to their guns.’

The Basiji had a piece of white cloth pinned to their uniforms as a symbol of a shroud, and wore a plastic key around their necks, issued as a symbol of their assured entry to paradise. At first they had little or no training and were used mostly as human minesweepers, but as the war raged on, they became more sophisticated in their training and preparation.

In July 1982 Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy – who had taken charge of operations earlier that year – used ‘human-wave’ attacks by the Pasdaran and Basij against the city in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to more than 50, these eager soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. Unsurprisingly, the Iranians sustained an immense number of casualties, and it is from this battle that Hassan has his limp.

Despite what were horrific injuries, he went back a few years later, towards the end of the war. I ask him why and he hesitates. ‘It’s hard to explain if you weren’t there,’ he says, looking into the distance. ‘But it was hard to get back to normal life. People in Tehran were scared of the bombing and my family wanted to go north to be safe. I just kept thinking of my friends and wondering what was happening.’ He looks embarrassed and clears his throat. ‘You know, I felt close to God there.’

As Hassan contemplates this state of higher being, identified by one psychiatrist who has worked with war veterans as a common phenomenon, I watch a young couple walking by. They are giggling and well dressed.

Like most of the girls I have seen, especially in Tehran, this girl’s hejab consists of a short, tight coat that skims her mid-thigh, while the obligatory headscarf perches precariously at the back of a towering hairstyle, all topping off an exquisitely and elaborately made up face. Her man is clean-shaven, his longish locks slicked with plenty of gel and he clutches a mobile phone. They may be married but it is more than likely that they are out on a date, and as they walk by, they throw Hassan, with his short beard and collarless shirt a glance, muttering to each other. These are the children of the Revolution, the under 30s that make up 70% of Iran’s 68 million population. They didn’t live under the Shah and didn’t long for Revolution and didn’t fight in the ‘holy war’. They have grown up in the Islamic Republic and now, the majority are impatient for change.

They watch illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television beaming Persian pop music programmes from Los Angeles, they surf the internet and watch Hollywood films that they buy on the black market. They are tired of uncertainty and repression: they want their social freedoms.

Hassan catches their look and says to me: ‘Look, I have a family of my own and I am a liberal father. But I have friends from the war days who are very devout. And they look at these kids today and they wonder what it was we were fighting for.’ He considers before going on. ‘My children are very respectful but I still don’t talk about the war. I prefer to leave it in the past. But I know when I see some of their friends that they don’t care about our sacrifice. They don’t have respect.’

Click here for Part 3.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times magazine.

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.

One Response to “The Hero and Heroin (Part 2)”

  1. Ali Vaezzadeh Says:

    I don’t accept Mr Mohammadi’s reference to a historical animosity between Iran and Iraq stretching back to the Achaemenid-Babylonian rivalry.

    After defeating the formidable Lydian empire of King Croesus, Cyrus attacked the Babylonian Empire; neither he nor his successors ever engaged in rivalry with the Babylonians.

    Mesopotamia, the ancient world’s richest and most productive agricultural region, was the primary asset of all ancient Iranian empires, including the Achaemenids, the Parthians and the Sassanids.

    The two latter empires actually placed their capitals in Ctesiphon, near present day Baghdad.

    If one wants to force historical antecedents on present day events, it would be much more convincing to look at the pattern of competition between Iran and the West (Rome vs. Parthia, Rome vs. Sassanids, US vs. Iran) for the riches of Iraq, not a regional rivalry between Iran and Iraq.

    Furthermore, if arbitrarily associating rivalries between the modern nation states of Iran and Iraq with conflicts between ancient cities now located in the territories of each state, why not go 300 years further back from the Achaemenid Empire and reference the Assyrian King Assurnasirpal’s raid on the Elamite capital of Susa?

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