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Don’t Underestimate Iran’s Ability to Fight a Bloody War

On July 29, President Trump tweeted: “Just remember, Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation.” In just 12 words, Trump leveled a multi-layered, ahistorical insult against both his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Iran. 

More importantly, the remarks betray a dangerously ignorant understanding of Iran that could result in another careless Middle East war of choice.

The tweet invokes a clichéd, colonial-era stereotype that Iranians, like other Middle Eastern peoples, are wily swindlers—rapacious, greedy bazaar merchants who aim to take advantage of honest and unsuspecting Westerners. Trump is hardly the first American leader to dabble in such denigrating stereotypes. Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department official and former lead negotiator who helped forge the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, infamously quipped [1] that Iranians could not be trusted because they have “deception in their DNA.” 

The president deployed the stereotype of Iranian cunning to imply that they tricked a naïve president, Barack Obama, into signing a flawed nuclear deal. According to the world’s foremost nuclear security experts [2], however, the accord was ensuring Iran’s compliance, thereby preventing a nuclear weapons program—that is, until Trump subverted the agreement in 2018.

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More importantly, Trump’s words underscore the idea that Iranians are cowardly and militarily ineffectual, but make up for such unflattering character flaws by swindling their foes during negotiations to achieve victory.

Iran’s last war, however, should dispel any notion of cowardice and military weakness—a history President Trump and anti-Iran hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton must face with clear eyes if the United States is to avoid another needless, catastrophic war in the Middle East.

Iraq Invades Iran

In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran faced one of its most vulnerable moments in modern times. During the revolutionary upheaval, many arms depots were raided and weapons were distributed to volunteers ready to deliver the monarchy its coup de grace

After the watershed moment, the Revolutionary Council feared that, given the Anglo-American coup in 1953 through the Iranian military, Iran’s generals could not be trusted. The subsequent purge resulted in the decimation of the country’s military leadership. Moreover, political infighting between revolutionary factions also led to unrest. To make matters worse, militant students were fearful that the U.S. was planning to undermine the revolution through a coup—as it did the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953—so they resolved to ward off any such attempts. Consequently, they seized the U.S. embassy and held its personnel hostage. The international community responded by isolating Iran for its blatant disregard for international norms. 

Capitalizing on Iran’s internal post-revolutionary chaos, military disarray, and international isolation, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of his neighboring rival on September 22, 1980. Shortly after, Iran’s internal power struggle between the various revolutionary factions erupted into open warfare. 

So devastating was the power struggle that many of the leading personalities of the Iranian Revolution died in assassinations and bomb blasts, including Iran’s president and prime minister. Thus, the Iranian state was forced to fight on two battlefronts—internally against its challengers and externally against Iraqi invaders. The government did not, however, collapse under the weight of its domestic rivals and foreign aggressors. In fact, the war enlivened Charles Tilly’s timeless words: “War makes states.”

Iranian Resilience

The Iranian state harnessed a powerful ideology that intertwined nationalism with Islamic revolutionary zeal in order to prompt Iranians to close rank behind it, marshaling hundreds of thousands of soldiers to liberate Iranian territory occupied by the Iraqi military. By May 24, 1982, and after tens of thousands of deaths, Iran freed the border city of Khorramshahr after a brutal two-year siege.

Soon after Khorramshahr’s liberation, the invading Iraqis were on the defensive, and Saddam’s wartime financiers, namely Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, offered Iran a multi-billion dollar reparations package to end the war. Iran’s leader refused, declaring that the only way the war would end was with Saddam Hussein’s bloody demise. He then spearheaded the conflict onto Iraqi soil for the first time. Time captured the moment by phrasing the counter-invasion as “Iran on the march [3].”

Iran Versus the World

Iraq enjoyed the support of the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and the Arab League—with the exception of Syria and Libya—and even used chemical weapons [4] on Iranian troops. Yet Iran persisted despite such horrible odds, and hundreds of thousands continued to go to the battlefront knowing it was possible that they, too, could fall victim to Iraq’s horrific chemical weapons.

The violence dragged on for eight bitter years, making it the longest conventional war of the 20th century—with an Iranian death toll estimated between half a million to a million. To put that staggering number into perspective, the conservative estimate exceeds the total American loss of life in World War II. 

The war’s conclusion was a failure in Iranian eyes, as it did not end in Saddam Hussein’s overthrow and Iraqis and the region would continue to suffer at his hands. Two years later, he refused to demobilize his million-man army to a jobless future in a war-ravaged economy, and instead dispatched them across Iraq’s border again—this time to Kuwait.

Yet neither did Iran lose the war. In fact, it was the first conflict since the two 19th-century wars with Czarist Russia in which Iran did not lose any territory. Above all, the country survived a genocidal conflict—and survival was its own victory.

Iran Today

Today, Iran’s population is more than double what it was in 1980—estimated at roughly 83 million [5]. After lacking military support from abroad during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran now has extensive domestic weapons [6] manufacturing capabilities. Also unlike 1980, it has more allies in the region. In other words, if Iran fought so stubbornly under such dire circumstances during the ’80s, it will only fight more effectively today. It has already proven itself militarily by coordinating the fight alongside the U.S. to defeat ISIS in Iraq while simultaneously working with Russia to help the Syrian government win an unrelenting civil war.

The Iranian military budget may be a fraction of America’s, but the Trump administration—especially anti-Iran hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo—should consider this history and current reality objectively. If they don’t, if they continue to underestimate Iran the same way the Bush administration did with a far weaker Iraq in 2003, they risk another war of choice. Indeed, on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney infamously stated [7]: “I think it will go relatively quickly…weeks rather than months.” To be sure, history has been unkind to his rosy assessment.

Thinking a war with Iran will be over before it begins—or that it will, as Senator Tom Cotton boasted [8], not require more than “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”—is the first step towards another needless, ruinous war.

Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology [9], and author of the forthcoming Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter @iPouya [10].