In May 1985, I had accompanied Dr Kalim Siddiqui on a visit to Tehran. The Iraqi-imposed war was into its fifth year (the Iraqi dictator Saddam Husain had launched the war against the Islamic Republic on September 22, 1980). In the middle of the night, we were woken up by heavy anti-aircraft fire. An Iraqi air raid was underway. The windows of our hotel room rattled as bombs hit the ground and exploded.
In the morning, we discovered that not far from our hotel, Iraqi planes had dropped their lethal ordnance on a residential neighbourhood killing 37 civilians. Iraq also used Scud missiles on Iranian cities. These crude missiles were used more as a weapon of terror; they did not have much strategic importance.
The air raid that night was not my only encounter with Iraqi war crimes. Targeting civilians even in a state of war constitutes a war crime. Saddam’s regime was also using chemical weapons and poison gas against Iran’s army and revolutionary guards. The world heard of these attacks in 1984 when Iran took the matter to the UN Security Council, I became aware of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in September 1983, again during a visit to Tehran. Some revolutionary guards contacted me and showed photographs of Iranian troops with blisters and lesions as a result of chemical weapons attack.
I asked if I could see the victims personally. They promised to get back to me. Two days later, they returned and said I could visit the soldiers in hospital where they were under treatment. Of course, strict medical protocols were in place. From behind huge glass windows we saw Iranian victims in hospital. Row upon row of revolutionary guards were lying in beds with white paste plastered over their faces and bodies to ease the effects of chemicals. Many of them never recovered because their lungs were so badly affected by poison gas. They died a painful death gasping for air.
Upon return from Tehran, the story of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons—banned under the Geneva Conventions—was published together with photographs in the Crescent International edition of October 16-31, 1983. I also visited media outlets in Toronto and showed them the photographs. Nobody was interested in Iraqi war crimes. After all, Saddam was their SoB. It was only in 1988 that Western regimes and media started to talk about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons because by then Saddam had outlived his usefulness and become dispensable.
One more point about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons is relevant. During our 1985 visit, we had an afternoon appointment with Dr Kamal Kharazi who at the time headed the Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency (IRNA) and was member of Iran’s Defence Council (later to become Iran’s foreign minister). When Dr Kalim and I arrived at his office, he was studying the noble Qur’an. Dr Kalim asked him what he was searching for. While Muslims can read the Qur’an any time, generally it is read in the early morning or late evening. Dr Kharazi explained that the Defence Council was meeting the next day and had to decide whether Islam permitted Muslims to retaliate in kind for chemical weapons attacks.
The next day, we learned that Imam Khomeini had forbidden the use of chemical weapons even in retaliation. He said these were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Islam did not permit their use even though Iran was the victim. Throughout the war, Saddam’s regime continued to use chemical weapons and poison gas to thwart Iranian operations. It needs recalling that in March 2003, the US which had supplied Saddam with chemical ingredients to make these banned weapons, used the pretext of possession of WMDs to launch the war against Iraq.
In 1982, the Atlanta branch of Bank Nasionale de la Moro had provided $4 billion in loans to Saddam’s regime. And in December 1983, US President Ronald Reagan had dispatched Donald Rumsfeld to meet Saddam Husain in Baghdad to assure him of US support in his war of aggression against the Islamic Republic.
The US had no diplomatic relations with Iraq at the time. The country was in fact on the US list of “state sponsors of terrorism”. These were inconsequential for Washington’s larger objective: destruction of the fledgling Islamic Republic that had emerged after a long painful year of revolution against the US-backed tyrannical regime of the Shah. The US also dispatched AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia to gather intelligence on Iranian troop movements and communicate them to Iraq.
Other Western regimes were no less enthusiastic in supporting the Iraqi tyrant. Together with Germany, the US provided chemicals as well as financial credits to Iraq. France provided Exocet missiles and Super Etendard planes. Britain supplied artillery and other weapons. And Saddam’s Arabian brothers-in-crime provided limitless amounts of cash to purchase weapons to destroy the Islamic Republic whose successful revolution was seen as a threat to their illegitimate rule.
We need to return to Rumsfeld. He gained notoriety for doublespeak in the wake of 911. He coined such phrases as “extra-ordinary rendition” for kidnapping, “enhanced interrogation techniques” for torture and “collateral damage” for civilian deaths.
In September 1980, when Saddam launched his war of aggression against Iran, the latter was in the throes of a revolution. There were only a few pockets of Iranian troops on the border when the first waves of Iraqi mechanized infantry brigades rolled across the border. Oil cities like Abadan and Khorramshahr were quickly overrun. Iraqi troops moved all the way to Shush in Dezful meeting little resistance. There were few Iranian troops on the border.
Bani Sadr who was Iran’s president at the time and, therefore, the commander in chief of the armed forces, went to Imam Khomeini and told him that Iran had no choice but to surrender! The Imam dismissed such defeatist talk. He then called upon the Iranian people to mobilize for sacred defence. Millions of people—young and old—came forward. The revolutionary guards rushed to the war front and offering immense sacrifices, confronted Iraq’s massive firepower. The Basij—the volunteer force—also emerged to lend support to the revolutionary guards. Iran stood all alone to defend its honour, the revolution and its territory. Bani Sadr, meanwhile, fled the country after impeachment proceedings were launched against him in Iran’s parliament.
Attempts by Muslim regimes to secure a ceasefire failed because they refused to name the aggressor and punish him accordingly. All they were interested in was a ceasefire. Imam Khomeini rebuffed such attempts insisting that unless the aggressor was identified and punished, Iran would not accept a ceasefire. He made clear that if the mediators found Iran to be guilty, it would submit to whatever punishment the Qur’an prescribed.
At the outset of the war, Imam Khomeini had outlined three objectives: defence of the revolution, liberation of every inch of Iranian territory and overthrow of Saddam and his punishment. For eight long years, Iran struggled all alone. By May 1982, Iranian forces had driven all Iraqi troops from their territory including Khorramshahr whose epic battle was named Khooninshahr (the blood city).
Iraq had no shortage of weapons but no country would sell weapons to Iran. Most of its weaponry was US-made and Washington was determined to undermine the Islamic Republic by preventing even third countries from selling spare parts to Tehran. Iranians purchased weapons on the black market and were often cheated out of money.
Long before the Iraqi-imposed war, Islamic Iran had faced internal sabotage and a campaign of bombings and assassinations. The Mujahideen-e Khalq Oraganization (MKO), dubbed the munafiqeen in Iran, were behind this campaign. The MKO enjoyed US support (they still do). Leading figures of the revolution were martyred including the president, prime minister, chief justice, several cabinet ministers and scores of leading ulama. Any other country would have collapsed; not the Islamic Republic, for two principal reasons. First, they were led by an Imam, a great spiritual figure who appeared to emerge straight from the pages of Islamic history. Second, he was able to motivate the people to endure every hardship for the defence of Islam and the revolution.
Once Iran had liberated all its territory, it launched successive operations to capture Iraqi territory. These proved unsuccessful because the US provided real-time intelligence to Iraq about Iranian troop concentrations and armour. Further, the Iraqis’ indiscriminate use of chemical weapons inflicted immense suffering on Iranian troops.
In the end, Iran was forced to accept UN Security Council resolution 598 in July 1988 for a ceasefire in what the Imam described as drinking from a “poisoned chalice”. Iran had achieved two of its three objectives: defence of the revolution and liberation of every inch of its territory. The only objective it did not achieve was the overthrow of Saddam Husain and hanging him from a lamppost in Baghdad. That task was left to the US and its allies who hanged Saddam on December 30, 2006 after he was captured from a farmhouse near his hometown of Tikrit when he emerged from an underground bunker looking bedraggled with a long unkempt beard.
It was a pathetic spectacle of a man who had been puffed up and projected as larger than life. His ignominious end came at the end of a rope.
As the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui said: “Never invade a revolution, especially an Islamic revolution”!