Helion & Co. in Great Britain recently published an excellent four volume set on the Iran-Iraq War. Overshadowed by the coverage of politics and religious-related issues, military operations in this war have never gotten the in-depth coverage that they deserved – especially considering this was the longest and bloodiest conventional conflict since 1945. Tom Cooper has published widely about aerial warfare between Iran and Iraq and was one of the lead authors in the Helion’s series. This is an interview with his thoughts on the war.
1. What was Iraq’s initial war plan for invading Iran in 1980 and how did it go wrong?
Due to the general sloppiness of Saddam Hussein’s government the Iraqi military invaded Iran with no clear strategic concept and no coherent plan. This is why every surviving Iraqi commander interviewed ever since is providing an entirely different set of recollections. Actually, after monitoring the situation in Iran for months through 1980, the idea was born within the Ba’ath Party’s leadership for an invasion based on an underlying assumption that the Iranian military was in a state of chaos, and thus any appearance of massive mechanized units of the Iraqi Army alone would result in a grand collapse of Iran – and thus a quick and easy victory. The overwhelming secrecy resulted in a situation where – although mobilized and deployed along the border to Iran during August and September 1980 – the Iraqi Army and Air Force commanders received their orders for invasion only 48 hours in advance, often masked as ‘training exercises’. They trundled over the border without an operational and tactical focus, and while even lacking up-to-date maps, hoping ‘something might turn up’ and Iran would then capitulate on its own.
While taken completely by surprise, instead of running away, the Iranians offered determined and bitter – even if chaotic – resistance: and still, within just two weeks main prongs of the Iraqi advance were stopped. Moreover, reacting de-facto ‘automatically’, whatever was left of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) then launched an all-out offensive against the Iraqi oil industry, demolishing it to a degree where it did not fully recover even after the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Especially the latter factor was to prove decisive in the long term: with Saddam’s government expecting a short war and continuing the lavish spending for civilian-related projects, Iraq was actually bankrupt by the end of 1981 and survived the following seven years of war only thanks to extensive crediting by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Effects of this factor were to ultimately to lead to Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait, in August 1990, and thus the downfall of Iraq as a dominant Arab state.
2. Iraq quickly lost the initiative and Iran would go on the offensive for almost the entire eight year conflict. There was a major split between the Iranian army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) over the conduct of the war and who should lead operations. What were those differences about, and how did the IRGC end up winning?
A much ignored fact about the Iran-Iraq War is that Iran was actually in a state of civil war between 1979 and 1983. Better known are some of effects of that power struggle, foremost the fact that the regular Iranian military lost all of its top generals and thus all but a handful of its leading military thinkers. What is less well-known is the degree to which the position of officers that took over by 1980-1982 was heavily dependent on their ties to diverse cliques within the ranks of those in power in Tehran – clericals and politicians alike.
While fighting against the Iraqi invasion, the Iranian military commanders first underwent a ‘learning by doing’ process, which lasted well into 1981. They learned their crucial lessons and exploited these to force the Iraqis into a general withdrawal from the Khuzestan province, during early 1982. However, related offensives exhausted the regular Iranian military to the point where it was ill-suited to follow the wish of ‘hawks’ in Tehran to continue the war through a counter-invasion into Iraq. With this, the ‘regulars’ lost their influence over subsequent developments; some even completely withdrew their service from the frontlines (see the decision of the IRIAF to stop fighting for battlefield aerial superiority, from 1982): the – already existing – deep rift between them and diverse and emerging cliques in power only helped disrupt the standard chain of command. This was the situation ably exploited by the IRGC – which had next to no serious battlefield presence before early 1982, but was now significantly bolstered through the capture of immense amounts of heavy equipment and army left behind by the retreating Iraqis – to impose itself as the leading military force in continued war against Iraq.
This development was combined with the massive miscalculation of the Iranian leadership in regards of the position of the Iraqi Shi’a: just like Saddam mistrusted the Iraqi Shi’a clergy without any good reason, they expected the Iraqi Shi’a to turn against the government in Baghdad – if supported from abroad. Thus, while the top commanders of the regular Iranian military correctly recognized the actual ‘Schwerpunkt’ of the entire Iraqi plan, and demanded – should Iran decide to continue the war through a counter-invasion of Iraq – an all out attack on Baghdad so to conclude the war at earliest possible moment, the IRGC opted for an ‘indirect approach’ in the form of an offensive on Basra, i.e. for advances into areas predominantly populated by the Iraqi Shi’a.
There were massive differences between commanders of the regular military and the IRGC on the operational and tactical plan, too. While the former emphasized training, infiltration- and flanking operations, the commanders of the IRGC were convinced that the religious zeal of their combatants would be sufficient to overcome any obstacles. Only the negative experiences from all the failed offensives in period 1983-1984 taught them a lesson, though then ‘even’ the IRGC had to go through its own period of ‘learning by doing’ – which lasted until 1986.
Ultimately, the IRGC won this power struggle by default: with many of its commanders playing an important role during the revolution of 1978-1979, and then proving their loyalty to the Shi’a clergy during the following civil war in Iran, they were closer to the top clergy than any of commanders of the regular military. The latter stood no chance in comparison, and could never receive similar support.
3. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) led almost all of the Iranian operations yet they had major shortcomings. What were principal problems with the force?
The idea that the Revolutionary Guards led ‘almost all’ or even ‘all’ of Iranian operations during this war is based on IRGC’s post-war propaganda – most obvious from, for example, successive change of code-names for major offensives (especially those that resulted in the liberation of the crucial Khuzestan province of south-western Iran) from ‘non-religious’ – even ‘US-style’ – to designations with religious meanings. Indeed, the IRGC’s ‘historians’ are meanwhile excelling in re-writing the military history of that conflict in style nicely described in George Orwell’s book ‘1984’.
Actually, the IRGC started playing a role in the military-related decision-making process in Tehran only in summer of 1982. Even then, commanders of the regular military continued playing a crucial role in the planning of every military offensive until at least 1986: indeed, the first ‘IRGC-only’ operations were launched only late after that, and early in the following year (Operations Karbala-4 and Karbala-5, both of which ended in bloody disasters).
Major problem of the IRGC back then was the same it is today and is related to its ideology: this is emphasizing the idea of ‘martyrdom for higher purpose’; of the combatants having to martyr themselves in order to provide evidence (to ‘Allah/God’) that they are trying hard enough, which in turn should result in the ‘Almighty’ concluding that their purpose is just and deciding in their favour…
Another issue was related to the very backgrounds and nature of this service, i.e. the fact that it grew out of civilians that volunteered to ‘protect the Islamic Revolution’ (i.e. those that actually volunteered to protect the regime of specific cliques within the Shi’a clergy) and that the majority of IRGC’s early commanders were thus nothing else but military dilatants; indeed, people with strong predilections to continue bolstering failures. Between others, they taught their combatants not to be afraid of death since paradise awaits any martyr. After going through several painful experiences in 1982-1983 period, the IRGC then went to quite some extensions to attract and recruit any professional military commanders it recognized as ‘thinkers’. In turn, this resulted in a change of its fundamental ideology from something like ‘martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom alone’ into something like ‘martyrdom for the sake of contribution to the victory’. This is what enabled it to run a series of huge, reasonably well-planned and well-executed offensives, each of which nearly collapsed the Iraqi military before running out of steam, in 1986-1987 period.
4. Iran had an overwhelming advantage in manpower yet was short in heavy weapons, which was the exact opposite of Iraq’s military situation. Can you compare and contrast the two militaries?
From my point of view, studying this war means studying three basic military concepts, i.e. three militaries: the Iraqi, the Iranian, and that of the IRGC.
The conventional, indeed ‘classic’, Iraqi military experienced a period of significant quantitative growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was in the process of improving its quality when Saddam Hussein established himself in power, in 1979, and stopped its further development. From that point onwards, the fate of the military was closely tied to that of Saddam’s reign: although the strongman further intensified the acquisition of advanced armament during the following years, the result was a heavily politicized and centralized military with more capacity than capability. An excellently equipped military that couldn’t do more than win defensive battles – and even that in, usually, rather costly fashion. Through this time, the Iraqi military leadership was living in a sort of fool’s paradise: it remained preoccupied with such ideas like that it had all the time and money of the World, and thus could continue planning for the ‘times after the war’, while only needing to wait for the war with Iran to end ‘on its own’. It took such bitter lessons like the loss of the Faw Peninsula of 1986 for the strongman in Baghdad to grudgingly admit his own dilettantism and let professional military officers take over. This is what resulted in the decisive ‘leap forward’ in quantitative terms: after taking about a year to learn to operate on their own, top Iraqi military commanders then deployed the machinery under their control to effect the destruction of the Iranian capability to continue waging the war. This is what resulted in the – much belated – end of that war.
In my opinion, it is this process, and the – often amazing – differences in effectiveness between an Iraqi military constrained by Saddam, and the Iraqi military free of his micromanagement that are the most fascinating aspects of the Iran-Iraq War. It is the best evidence for utter failure of traditional Western theories about supposed incompatibility of ‘Arab culture’ and modern warfare.
The pre-war Iranian military was based on the concept of ‘quality over quantity’. It was over-reliant on a powerful, excellently equipped air force, expected to establish air superiority over any kind of opponents, and thus gain freedom of operation necessary to effectively support relatively small ground and naval forces. This military was destroyed during and after the revolution of 1978-1979, and cut off from its primary source of equipment and advice. Worse yet, the massive support infra-structure necessary for its maintenance including dozens of high-technology enterprises – developed at immense cost during the 1970s – was partially incomplete, and partially rendered dysfunctional due to the revolution. Finally, the Iraqi invasion took the Iranians by surprise, and hit home at the time the chain of command of the Iranian military was in a state of chaos. Commanders of the regular Iranian military were thus forced to improvise, and frequently acted on their own. Indeed, by early 1982, the enthusiasm of their combatants and newly-gained skills of lower-ranking officers often left them in a position of having little choice but to follow the developments on the ground. Certainly enough, by the time it effected the liberation of Khuzestan, by late spring 1982, the regular Iranian military was hopelessly exhausted: with hindsight, it can be concluded that it would never recover its former might; that ever since the IRGC was literally waiting for the regular Iranian military to ‘die away’. Nevertheless, I think the achievements of that military from the period 1981-1982 in particular should be paid closer attention: much of modern-day Iranian military thinking is based on these experiences no matter how much they are credited to the IRGC instead.
Finally, there is the issue of the IRGC. Originally, this was a purely volunteer and amateurish service driven by a combination of enthusiasm and religious zeal. Over time, and rather ironically, the IRGC was the party that profited from the Iran-Iraq War the most – at least in the long term: it converted itself into a massive, extremely violent, and deeply corrupt para-state that imposed itself in control over de-facto all aspects of life in Iran – from its military and defense sector, to all branches of the economy. My impression is that the IRGC never really learned fighting conventional wars: it only learned – and that to a very limited degree – how to manoeuvre large infantry formations on the battlefield. Even in this regards, its own publications about the Iran-Iraq War, and recent operations in Syria, are actually showing that the IRGC had institutionalized dilettantism between commanders of its regular military formations. Instead, the Revolutionary Guards learned to patiently subvert its enemies through a combination of limited military action (foremost through such ‘indirect’ means like missile warfare) with help of local- or imported surrogates, and diverse other forms of asymmetric warfare – like on economic and, particularly, on religious/sectarian plan. Military-wise, this is probably the most important lesson – for the IRGC and for foreign observers – of the Iran-Iraq: we can monitor the application of this lesson in Iraq all the way back to 2003, perhaps even to 1991.
5. The Iranian leadership believed it could win the war via attrition and seizing Basra. The clerics ordered offensive after offensive after offensive, and eventually it seemed like they were not paying attention to the problems the Iranian military was facing and ignoring tactics and strategy. What were the shortcomings with Tehran’s conduct of the war?
My point of view is that answers to questions of this kind require few definitions. For example: what ‘clergy’ has ordered one offensive after the other? Or: was it the clergy, ‘only’ – or was it somebody else, ‘too’…?
Western observers (me included) have a major problem in clearly identifying ‘culprits’ in Tehran: people who played (and/or still play) the decisive role for decision-making processes at specific points during the Iran-Iraq War – and, indeed, ever since. Reason is that the quasi-clerical regime that established itself in control over Iran in period 1979-1983 is no monolithic, tightly centralized ‘block’. Although appearing to be centred on one person – that of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution (Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979-1988 period) – rather than this, the emerging regime in Tehran was and remains a conglomerate of diverse cliques of opportunists, all of which are misusing religion to their advantage. The cliques in question might consist of people who are clerics, or at least pious Moslems, and it is certainly including plenty of fierce Iranian patriots, no doubt. However, majority are first and foremost extremely corrupt opportunists – constantly at odds with all sorts of rivals. It is thus very rare for one or even a handful of such cliques to be in possession of clear advantage over their rivals for periods longer than two, perhaps three years: their power and influence are continuously fluctuating – which is why the resulting conglomerate of cliques actually rules through consensus.
Thus, and while there is no doubt that it was Khomeini who had the final say for most of the war with Iraq, it is actually wrong to put ‘all the blame’ for Iranian failures in the Iran-Iraq War upon him, or upon clergy, upon IRGC-commanders, or any specific politicians in Tehran. All were involved to one or other degree, at one or the other point in time. Foremost, it was always the most extreme elements from all three groups that won power struggles through application of superior violence; all turned out to be incredibly corrupt, and most of crucial decision-makers grew immensely rich in the process (except those that fell out of favour or lost power struggles, of course).
Secondly, the cliques gravitating around Khomeini and the IRGC’s leadership have exploited the war with Iraq to win the civil war in Iran, in 1983, and then to firm their grip on power. Subsequently it was for their own, opportunistic interests that they brought the decision to continue the war with Iraq because this was ‘uniting the Iranians under the flag of the regime’ – i.e. making it easier for decision-makers to exercise control, avoid accountability, and continue pocketing at every opportunity. Ironically, the leaders of the clergy – at least those that won the power struggle within the clergy – have accepted and indeed favoured this ‘solution’ because it proved to be in their interest. In turn, they thus bought the time to subject all of the Iranian economy to their control – even at the price of ruining the entire project of the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ as result.
In my opinion, this is the only way of approaching this issue that is actually making the shortcomings of such a system of rule clear. Foremost is that there is no accountability: while, for example, the Iranian oilmen and the IRIAF fought valiantly and have managed to triple the income from oil exports during eight years of the war, the mass of the money earned in this way was squandered for anything else than for fighting the war with Iraq: instead of being used to buy arms or spare parts, it disappeared in the pockets or ruling opportunists. By early 1988, the corruption reached a point where, combined with major strategic mistakes of the IRGC (compounded with the underdeveloped communication system), and the damage caused by the Iraqi air force to a relatively small – yet decisive – segment of the Iranian economy, the entire country was out of position to continue fighting the war. In other words: if the Iraqis can claim for themselves to have ‘won’ this conflict, then because the rulers in Tehran have done nearly everything wrong; and, they could do everything wrong because they declared themselves for acting ‘in the name of God’, which made them untouchable and thus unaccountable.
6. The Iraqi leadership had its own problems. It went on the defensive in less than a year, and remained in that stance until 1987. What were some of the problems with Iraq’s strategy and how did that change in the last year of the war when Baghdad finally went back on the offensive?
Contrary to Iran, the system of rule in Iraq in the 1980s was crystal clear, and depending on one person. There is also little doubt that Saddam micromanaged the Iraqi military operations during the first six years of the war, and can thus be considered directly responsible for all the failures of the Iraqi military in period 1980-1986.
Nevertheless, Saddam was not alone, nor the only one bringing decisions: he ruled with help of an entire network of willing – indeed: eager – supporters, people convinced they (and Saddam) are the only ones being ‘right’. Many people in question were military officers. Nominally, the installation of Saddam’s supporters into crucial commanding positions was supposed to ascertain military’s loyalty to Saddam’s rule.
With this as a ‘starting point’ it becomes obvious why the Iraqi military remained ‘patient’ for six years, and continued fighting the war as dictated by Saddam – in a vain hope that Iran might, at one point or the other, offer a cease-fire on its own. The loss of Khuzestan in 1982 should have shattered such illusions, but it didn’t – thanks to timely provision of loans by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which saved Saddam’s government from bankruptcy: thanks to that money, and explicit orders for his military to avoid any risks when fighting the Iranians, but also through a lavish issue of decorations and monetary awards, Saddam was able to recover the shattered morale of his military. Indeed, instead of challenging the strongman in Baghdad, the military leadership ‘misfired’ and left itself subjected to additional constraints. For reasons related to the safety of their homeland, and because the Iraqis are people who prefer to avoid the ‘unpleasant’ – starting already with the fact that it was Iraq that invaded Iran, and not the other way around – it seems that most of top military officers accepted this solution as a ‘necessary evil’. Instead, they convinced themselves of such myths like that a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran was ‘unavoidable’ because of Khomeini’s intention to ‘export’ the ‘Islamic Revolution’, for example; or because of traditional enmities between the Arabs and the Persians. The war thus went on like if nothing happened, and as if Iraq could continue lending money forever: nobody in Baghdad is known to have questioned Saddam’s methods for the next four years.
Only the loss of the Faw Peninsula in 1986 prompted the Iraqi top military commanders into getting ‘fed up’: it resulted in a realization that Iran really ‘has to be brought to its knees’ in order to end the war, and that Saddam was extremely unlikely to effect such a situation. This is what prompted a fundamental change in the Iraqi strategy, and thus the behavior of its military.
The Iraqi military of 1987-1988 then fully exploited the opportunity to show its true face: it has shown that it was commanded by well-educated, professional, courageous and – indeed – bold officers, capable of not only leading their men into the battle, but indeed of planning and running decisive, large-scale, joint arms operations. While some of domestic and foreign military commentators tend to over-emphasize the material superiority, supposed ‘prescription of battle-planning’, and widespread use of chemical weapons as decisive factors for the Iraqi successes of 1988, and while there is no doubt that the major units of the Iraqi military were really well-equipped by the time, and the deployment of chemical weapons had negative repercussions for the morale of IRGC’s combatants – the actually decisive point was that in that year the Iraqi military was led by its professional officers, instead of by Saddam. They knew what targets in Iran to hit with their air force, they knew how to quickly shift the Schwerpunkt of their major units from one section of the front lines to the other; they knew how to run complex joint arms operations, and similar. This was something that the combination of endemic corruption and IRGC’s institutionalized military dilettantism was hopelessly out of condition to counter.