Today in 1980 Iraq invaded Iran. Eager to take advantage of a regional power vaccuum in the wake of the Iran’s revolution of the previous year, Saddam Hussein took Iran by surprise, but all progress was quickly reversed and then some; Iran had the upper hand for the last six years of the war, penetrating deep into Iraqi territory. Hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides of the conflict. Responding to the beginning of the war in an editorial, “Guns of September,” The Nation’s editors faulted President Jimmy Carter for naively believing that the Iraqi invasion would convince Iran that they needed the United States as partners. Indeed, the United States strongly supported Iraq for the duration of the war. Within two years of the end of the Iraq-Iran war, the United States would go to war against its former ally.
The border dispute between Iraq and Iran over the Shatt al Arab waterway should never have erupted into a shooting war. That it did is a sign that the top-heavy Iraqi Baathist regime is now determined to establish itself as the dominant military power in the Middle East. Baghdad’s military strongman, Saddam Hussein, seems bent on filling the now-vacant role played so extravagantly by the late Reza Pahlavi.
The great powers, of course, must share blame for arming so many parties in the Middle East, Iraq and Iran, armed respectively by the Soviet Union and the United States, are now resorting to twentieth-century military technology to solve ancient parochial disputes. The great powers must stand by and watch while the arms given supposedly to protect the region’s valuable energy resources are used to burn oil refineries and disrupt strategic oil routes.
Hussein is giving a demonstration of the aggressive role he expects Iraq to play in the region. But in exploiting the current disarray in revolutionary Iran, Hussein may find it difficult to control the momentum of war. Despite their initial victories and obvious military superiority, the Iraqis must reckon with the nationalist passions of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran; it is difficult to imagine Teheran resigning itself to a defeat. There will be a long-term cost to this war, whatever the initial outcome.
Washington’s response to the situation has been naïvely serene. President Jimmy Carter’s notion that the Iraqi attack will persuade Khomeini that he needs American friendship—and presumably our weapons—is an embarrassing sign that Washington has yet to understand Iran or the revolutionary dynamics that move it. Things are clearly out of control and summon to memory the mindless drift that brought the world to war in 1914.
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