The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Iran-Iraq War

Aug 31, 1984

It will be 4 years this September, since Iraq attacked Iran and initiated the present war in the Persian Gulf region. The war is estimated to have claimed almost half a million lives, and an equal number of wounded. The financial cost of the war as of spring 1984, including all damage to both, and cutbacks in the economy, was estimated almost as high as 400 billion dollars.

Whose interests have been served by this long, bloody and costly war which neither side seems able to win?

It was the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein which began the war in 1980. Hussein’s decision was probably the consequence of the convergence of both external and internal factors.

On the one hand, Hussein was no doubt persuaded that a quick military victory over Iran was possible and could provide him with new oil rich territory. Iran, a traditional rival of Iraq’s, in this period seemed both weak and isolated. It confronted social, political, and economic disruption as a consequence of the overthrow of the Shah, and at the same time was facing a confrontation with U.S. imperialism in the hostage crisis. For the first time in years, the Iraqi regime could hope to have support from U.S. imperialism, or at least neutrality, if it went against Iran. The Iraqi regime also knew it could count on the support of the other Gulf states which feared the potential spillover of the unrest from Iran against their own precarious dictatorships, and were hostile to the Khomeini regime. On the other hand, and more importantly, such a war could allow Hussein to shore up his own regime.

The Hussein regime which came to power in 1968, is a dictatorship which over the years has had less and less of a base. The regime relies on the Sunnis, who while constituting only 25 per cent of the Iraqi population, have long been the dominant force in both the military and the government bureaucracy. Through a series of purges in the ruling Ba’th Party in the 1970s, Hussein cleaned house and rid himself, for the time being, of competitors even from within.

The regime, a brutal police state, enforcing poverty on the majority of the Iraqi population, faced a series of problems from a variety of sources. Most important, Hussein feared opposition from the Shi’i community. In Iraq, the Shi’i are the majority, representing 60 per cent of the population, and yet excluded from power. The take-over by the Mullahs in Iran, centered in the Shi’i there, had the possibility of encouraging an opposition movement in Iraq. In the period leading up to the war, there had been demonstrations and some assassination attempts by Shi’i against the regime. This opposition was encouraged by the Khomeini regime.

Second, the Iraqi state had often faced armed opposition from the Kurd minority. The Kurds represent 2.3 million out of a population of 14 million, and are concentrated in the North in the oil rich area of Mosul. In the past, they had enjoyed support from Iran until the Shah terminated it in 1975 when he signed the Algiers Agreement with Iraq. That accord was followed by a fierce repression which nearly smashed the Kurdish movement. In 1980 it was not so much that Hussein faced opposition from the Kurds, but that he could hope to prevent it. In 1980, following the attack made by the Khomeini regime against the Iranian Kurdish population, Hussein could portray his war against Iran as a defense of the Kurdish people, and thus gain favor in the eyes of the Iraqi Kurds.

Finally, the Iraqi working class was seen as a threat by the Ba’thi regime. As a major employer, the government could offer some wage increases and it cut some prices as a gesture to the working class. But the inability of that to work is seen in the necessity the regime feels to maintain an extensive spy network in the workplaces.

The Iraqi Communist Party has a certain base in the working class. At some point, in part because of Iraq’s ties to Moscow, the C.P. was included in the government. But the Ba’thi regime later carried out bloody repressions against it, driving it completely underground by the late 1970s. Nonetheless it is still a political apparatus outside the direct control of the Ba’th Party.

By 1980, although its opponents seemed crushed, the potential for new opposition to the regime still existed widely. With the war, the regime could hope to mobilize the population behind it, and to drown a part of the opposition of the Shi’i and Kurds under a wave of patriotism.

Iraq’s initial military offensive was successful. Iraq’s combined attacks on military and economic targets cost Iran 20,000 lives in the first year of the war, 5 billion dollars in 1981, and Iraq claimed between 6,000 and 8,000 square miles of Iranian territory in Khuzestan province.

Iran Finds the Way to Turn the War to Its Advantage

But the Iraqi regime miscalculated the depth of the Iranian problems, mistaking the chaos of the revolutionary period as a real opposition to the Khomeini regime.

It is true that, during the hostage crisis, the problems of Iran were exacerbated. It saw its foreign assets frozen. And it had faced an economic blockade organized against it by U.S. imperialism. It was forced to cut back on its oil exports, reduce production, and halt government projects. This left it facing shortages of raw materials, parts and food.

With the end of the hostage crisis, however, its assets were released and trade was reopened, while it increased oil production. Eventually it was able to reach its OPEC limit and bring in a revenue of 20 billion dollars a year, allowing it to spend 12 billion dollars on the war and at the same time build up its reserve of foreign currency. The new influx of cash allowed it to go buy arms, expand foreign trade, and start up construction projects again.

A small section of the bourgeoisie, linked to the Mullahs, began to benefit from increased production; and trade allowed them once again to play the role of intermediaries for foreign capital. A number of large landlords, expropriated during the earlier stages of the revolution, were now compensated for their losses. For the rich, more trade meant more luxury goods. So a section of the upper classes rallied to the regime.

While Khomeini didn’t initiate the war, nonetheless the war proved useful in the regime’s attempt to consolidate its rule and defeat its enemies. The coalition that had united to overthrow the Shah unraveled after the Khomeini victory, and the regime faced a number of political factions. Khomeini could hope to use the war to make a patriotic appeal to remobilize the population behind him. In fact, this won such diverse elements to his side as the son of the former Shah, who from exile gave his support to the leftist Fedayi in Iran.

With the revolution, there had been a flourishing of national feelings on the part of the ethnic minorities, especially the Kurds whom Khomeini had viciously put down. There were also some problems with sabotage and anti-government attacks in Khuzestan by the Arab population, all of which were encouraged by Iraq. But the war was able to serve as an antidote to these national feelings. And in the end there was no uprising of the Arab peoples of Khuzestan against Khomeini’s regime, disappointing Hussein’s hopes.

Furthermore, the war allowed the regime to expand the pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards. A new ministry was eventually set up, making them a permanent part of the state apparatus. Later the Basij-i Mostazafin, the Mobilization of the Oppressed, mostly teenage boys, was also created to fight the war. These forces allowed the regime to have a counterweight to the army; and this allowed the regime to try to remobilize and engage the army behind it.

The army had been the mainstay of the Shah, and it had been disoriented and fragmented by the revolution. After the overthrow of the Shah it was however not clear whether Khomeini and the Mullahs could bring it into line to work for them. The army ruling circles remained split among the contending political factions, including former allies of the Shah. Furthermore, before the war the army had been viewed with mistrust which contributed to lowering the morale of the troops.

The combination of the pressure of the popular mobilization and the use of purges of the state apparatus, including the execution of some commanding officers and their replacements by those favorable to the regime, brought the army around in line behind the regime. At the same time, the war gave it a place. And with the war, the army achieved a new popularity, making it easier for a time to recruit its forces and fight the war.

In the first year of the war, Khomeini’s regime was on the defensive. But, as the war continued, it served as a pretext for solving Iran’s internal problems, just as it had served the same purpose for Hussein earlier. Thus, this war allowed each regime to discipline its own population.

By the spring of 1982, Iran had forced Iraq back out of its territory and it had itself pushed forward into Iraq. But it was unable to go further. At this point Iraq asked for an end to hostilities, but Iran refused, demanding Hussein’s removal from power, and 150 billion dollars in reparations, conditions that Hussein could not accept.

A War that Serves Imperialism and Its Friends

The war has benefitted U.S. imperialism most of all. At the beginning of the war, when U.S. imperialism was involved in the hostage crisis, Iraq’s attacks on Iran put additional helpful pressure on the Khomeini regime. More important, the war worked to imperialism’s advantage, given that Iran was at war with an Arab country, discrediting Iran in the eyes of the Arab populations of the Middle East. Thus it placed a sort of barrier to the spread of the Islamic movement from Iran to other countries. On the other hand, the war created difficulties for a country which had used its ties with Moscow to escape, if only slightly, from imperialist domination. The war could serve to bring Iraq back to the side of the U.S.

Finally the war also worked to further divide the peoples of the Middle East. That can be seen in the shifting alignments of the Middle East regimes. Israel supported Iran, seeing the war as a means to neutralize Iraq, one of its harshest Arab critics. At the same time, it took advantage of a conflict involving two Middle East regimes, both of whom are its potential enemies and whose war efforts put a dent in the effort to unify the Arab regimes against it. Syria lined up with Israel on the Iranian side, since it views Iraq as its primary rival, while Egypt and Jordan and the most conservative Gulf states are backing Iraq.

Later when imperialism was itself directly tied up in Lebanon, in a difficult situation, the fact that Iran and Iraq were at war with each other, and that many of the countries of the Middle East were divided, was a real advantage. It gave imperialism more room to maneuver in a tricky situation.

While imperialism stood on the sidelines, it could allow its allies and surrogates to take advantage of the war to sell weapons, and by so doing to encourage a continuation of the war. Thus, France provided billions of dollars of arms to Iraq, continuing its traditional alliance and maintaining its foothold in the Middle East, and Britain did the same with Iran. Japan, too, made loans to Iraq.

A Plus Turns into a Minus?

But the continuation of the war could reverse the benefits accrued so far. This war which was initially used by both Hussein and Khomeini to reduce their internal contradictions has created new ones.

Iraq’s exports of oil were reduced because of its dependence on Gulf shipping and because Syria shut down one of its pipelines that went through Syrian territory. Today Iraq can export only a fraction of its oil, far less than it needs to carry out the war, estimated to cost it 20 million dollars a day. At the same time the Gulf states, which in the beginning of the war supplied it with one billion dollars a month, have cut back on their aid. This forced Iraq in turn to cut back on all imports except military ones, reduce its government projects and reduce imported goods, even in some cases for the wealthy. At the same time, its war losses have made it harder to recruit to the army.

In Iran, too, the problems have escalated. There have been reports in the last 2 years of mutinies and defections in the army. Penalties for trying to avoid military service have been increased and officers have been instructed to shoot soldiers who shirk their duty in the battlefield. Thousands are held in military prisons in Teheran.

Imperialism and its allies may have once been pleased to see this war and found it useful to further their own aims, but it could create new problems for them too. If the war is extended in the Gulf and the oil shipments are restricted, this will pose problems for the Western powers.

Last spring this was exactly the process that seemed to be unfolding. Since neither side had been able to win, both had reason to up the ante. Thus Iraq attacked the Iranian Kharg Island refinery and ships transporting Iranian oil. Iran responded by attacking Iraqi oil tankers and those of its supporters. In the past year, over 40 ships have been attacked, driving ship insurance rates sky high for a time, and forcing some countries to renounce shipping in the area. There were also several minor incidents between the Iranian air force and that of Saudi Arabia.

In the most recent period, imperialism has seemed to be trying to find a solution to end the war. And there have been several attempts to organize peace talks by U.S. allies. At the same time, U.S. imperialism has given some support to Iraq as a warning to Iran that if it continues the war it could face not only Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but U.S. imperialism itself. To back up this warning it made a show of force with its own fleet in the Persian Gulf.

It’s not that U.S. imperialism wants to intervene with its own forces. It undoubtedly prefers a war fought by others to their detriment and its advantage. But it recognizes the possibility that interference with its oil may oblige it to protect its own interests itself. And in this case, the nature of the war would change, and it could implicate many other countries, and even risk a confrontation with the U.S.S.R.

A War against the Poor

While the dictators and imperialist rulers have reaped some benefits from the war, the suffering of both the Iraqi and Iranian peoples has been hideous. In addition to the dead and wounded, there are big parts of the countrysides of both which have been turned into military camps. There are at least 2 million refugees on top of an additional 1.5 million refugees in Iran from the Russian war against Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of war prisoners.

For a period, the standard of living improved for the upper classes of both countries. But for the population as a whole, things became worse. In the first part of the war, the Iranian population faced many hardships – 50 per cent unemployment and inflation, food shortages and oil rationing. It is estimated that, as of last spring, the Iranian standard of living had been cut to two thirds of its level in 1975.

In Iraq, as the war has continued, there has been an increase in the shortages of food staples. Inflation jumped 30 per cent in 1983.

The Iraqi government has increased its repression against all possible opposition. According to Amnesty International it had executed 3,500 of the Shi’i opposition alone. The Iranian regime too, has carried out a repression against all those who oppose its rule. The Mujahidin claims that 20,000 of its forces have been killed and 40,000 jailed as of June 1981. In the fall of 1982, the regime attacked the Kurds. During the war the Tudeh Party was purged, arrested and banned. The official death toll from executions is 3,000, but estimates put it closer to tens of thousands.

It is clear that the poor and working class people of both Iran and Iraq are the major losers of this war. They are giving their lives and their standard of living to fight for a cause that goes against their interests. The interests of the poor and working class is not to support a war which has them pointing guns at each other and away from the regimes which repress them. Their interests lie in the opposite direction, in finding the way to fight in common against their respective dictatorships and against U.S. imperialism and its allies who exploit and oppress them all.