Policy Brief - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Attacking Iran: Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War

| December 2011

This policy brief seeks to contribute to and inform the debate concerning a possible attack by the United States and/or Israel on Iranian nuclear and military facilities. The presumed aim of such an attack would be to weaken the Islamic Republic, particularly by hindering its ability to build a nuclear weapon. However, the history of the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 calls into question the contention that an attack will weaken the regime in Tehran. This policy brief examines Iran's reactions to the Iraqi invasion in order to shed light on Iran's possible reactions to a U.S. or Israeli attack.

The subjects addressed in this policy brief are only a small part of the factors that must be addressed when considering a policy towards Iran that includes a military option. The ramifications of such an attack will be immense and unpredictable. It is therefore critical that we examine Iranian responses to the Iraqi invasion in order to draw whatever lessons we can and to understand the implications of a future attack. Further, Iran's security policies, and its policy outlook more generally, has been shaped enormously by the country's experience in the Iran-Iraq War. As the Iranians themselves continuously point to the lessons of the war and their bearing on the present day, it behooves policymakers to follow suit.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978–79 was a movement of several different groups that were united most strongly in their opposition to the regime of Muhammad Reza Shah. Following the ouster of the Shah in February 1979, the union of those groups began to break down.1 Though many of the Iranians who had participated in the revolution supported the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the system of vilayat-i faqih or guardianship of the jurist, and the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, most did not fight for the sort of absolute power that Khomeini and his allies were eventually able to yield. Further, there was little consensus among Iranians on the nature and policies of the new Islamic Republic and the scope of religious leadership, which led to a degree of disillusionment with the revolution and the new regime.

In invading Iran, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein assumed that the divided Iranians and their dilapidated armed forces would be unable to put up much of a fight. He was wrong. Iranians responded to the invasion by uniting against him and under their current leadership, even though many opposed the direction the revolution had taken. Iran's leaders quickly resurrected the armed forces by halting military trials and purges and enforcing conscription. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), which was established following the revolution to serve primarily as an internal security force, transformed into a second military and rushed to confront the invading forces.2 Thousands of volunteers were incorporated into both the IRGC and the regular military.3 They were driven to defend the country, the revolution, and the Islamic Republic by a potent combination of nationalism,revolutionary mission, and religious zeal that was stoked by the foreign threat.

The Iranian leaders effectively capitalized on those feelings by allowing them to fuel the military campaign, particularly by arming the irregular revolutionary forces—the IRGC and the Basij, composed of the regime's most loyal supporters—and sending them to lead the campaign against the Iraqis. Their dedicated and determined defense, combined with the Iraqi forces' poor performance, caused the invaders to stall and then retreat.4

The IRGC and the Basij remain today as the Islamic Republic's most devoted defenders. They have a substantial interest in the survival of the regime, and can therefore be expected to vigorously confront attacking forces, just as they did when the Iraqis invaded. In shocking displays of courage and allegiance, the Iranian Basijis became notorious in the Iran-Iraq War for their willingness to clear minefields with their own bodies in human waves. These forces can be expected to show similar tolerance for sacrifice and a war of attrition in the case of a future confrontation.5

An attack on Iran by the United States or Israel will likely add to the ranks of the regime's supporters. Just as a divided population came together to confront the Iraqi invasion, Iranians of all stripes will unite in opposition to an attack. The upshot will be a stronger, more cohesive, and more militant Islamic Republic....

The entire policy brief may be downloaded below.

1 Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 240.

2 Kenneth Katzman, The Warriors of Islam: Iran's Revolutionary Guard (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), 70, 86.

3 Edgar O'Ballance, The Gulf War (London: Brassey's Defence Publishers, 1988), 50.

4 Steven Ward, "Iran's Challenging Victory Narrative," Historically Speaking 10/3 (2009), 41–42. Barry Rubin, "Iran's Revolution and Persian Gulf Instability," in The Iran-Iraq War: New Weapons, Old Conflicts, ed. Shirin Tahir-Kheli and Shaheen Ayubi (New York: Praeger, 1983), 139. O'Ballance, 58. Stephen C. Pelletiere, The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum (New York: Praeger, 1992), 43. Saskia Gieling, Religion and War in Revolutionary Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999), 19.

5 Lieutenant Colonel Leif Eckholm, "Invading Iran: Lessons from Iraq," Hoover Institution Policy Review 168 (Aug. 1, 2011).


Statements and views expressed in this policy brief are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Tracy Samuel, Annie. “Attacking Iran: Lessons from the Iran-Iraq War.” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, December 2011.

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