In northern Tehran, located next to the oasis of the Taleghani and Ab-o-Atash parks, sits a sprawling complex larger than twenty-one football fields. There are metallic-roofed buildings, manicured gardens with fountains and ponds, and even a children’s playground. And there are tanks. Many tanks. Rusty, old, decommissioned tanks.
This is not a military base. It is Iran’s new Holy Defense Museum, a state-of the-art, highly-immersive memorial dedicated to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and, primarily, the eight-year war with Iraq fought in the 1980s.
As the U.S. government intensifies its efforts to marshal a global “anti-Iranian coalition,” the Holy Defense Museum – which bears the name used by Iranians to refer to the Iran-Iraq War – stands as a bold reminder of the continued importance to Iranian national identity of resistance against foreign aggression, military invasion, and Western imperialism. Anyone who cares to understand the gathering international storm from an Iranian perspective should plan a visit.
For most people around the world, the Iran-Iraq War is little more than a footnote in Middle Eastern history. Yet Iranian participants at international conferences – academics, analysts, and activists – routinely mention this historic event to explain their country’s foreign policy, and why Iran continues to develop defensive ballistic missile systems. Westerners, however, are often bewildered or irritated by the overstated importance Iranians attach to a war that ended thirty years ago. Saudi Arabian officials are even more straight-forward about their feelings: the Iran-Iraq War is ancient history, just get over it. Indeed, I recently heard a senior Saudi diplomat tell a European delegation something very similar.
Of course, for Iranians, talk of the Iran-Iraq War is no rhetorical tic, nor is it the expression of a tired old grievance. It is, in fact, one of the primary motivations behind Iranian foreign policy and national security measures. Taking a tour of the Holy Defense Museum helps explain the place the Iran-Iraq War still occupies in Iranian hearts and minds.
Beyond remnants of tanks and other weapons from the war, the museum features extensive exhibits of war memorabilia, soldiers’ belongings, a martyrs’ shrine, and much more. It also provides the political context for understanding Iran’s many current predicaments in the region, and the policies it adopts to deal with them. The museum, in short, emphasizes Iran’s relative diplomatic isolation and need for self-reliance in defense and security matters.
Illustrative of this point, the museum hosts a rogues’ gallery displaying powerful villains arrayed against Iran. The chief evildoer is, of course, the megalomaniacal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who invaded Iran in 1980, showered Iranian cities with missiles, and used American-made chemical weapons against Iranians. But this place of dishonor is also reserved for a long list of Saddam’s international backers, like U.S. President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordanian King Hussein bin Talal, and Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz.
Indeed, there seem to be two key messages the rogues’ exhibition intends to convey. First, it signals that Iran was alone in confronting Iraqi aggression, as most of the world rooted for (and even financially supported) its defeat. Second, it displays the sheer destruction to human lives and physical infrastructure, as well as Iran’s own lack of preparedness in the face of a surprise assault. Together, these two key messages produce a third one: Never again shall Iran be subjected to devastating foreign attacks on its own soil.
Today, the Trump administration openly embraces a policy of regime change in Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12-points ultimatum to Iran and his recent bellicose speech allegedly to the Iranian-American community at – of all places, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California– remove all doubt as to American intentions. After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted in a televised speech that Iran would defend itself against any U.S. military attack, President Donald Trump threatened Iran, in an unhinged all-caps tweet, with the consequences that “few throughout history have ever experienced.” His national security adviser, John Bolton, has promoted a cult of exiled, pro-regime change Iranians, who were on the U.S. terrorist list until 2012, and who sided with Saddam Hussein in its aggression against Iran. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has promised to bring war to Iran, while the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, has declared that his goal is to “remove” Iran (and Turkey) from the region. As these statements are made and actions taken, the Iran-Iraq war looms in the background. Indeed, a senior Iranian official in Brussels told me last May that he found such behaviors to be ominously similar to those of Saddam Hussein before he launched his war against Iran.
Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently articulated Iran’s perspective in an article for Iran Daily, stating that “in the past 40 years the Iranian people have heroically resisted and foiled aggressions and pressures by the US,” including attempted overthrows, military attacks, and support for its enemies in the region. Zarif declared that “‘Never forget’ is our mantra, too,” adding that “History bears testimony to the fact that those who staged aggression against this age-old land, such as Saddam and his regime’s supporters, all met an ignominious fate, while Iran has proudly and vibrantly continued its path towards a better and brighter future.”
The lesson Iranian policymakers derive from constant American, Israeli and Saudi threats is that they cannot afford to be, once again, caught unprepared as they were in 1980. This — more than expansionist designs — largely explains Iran’s investment in ballistic missiles and regional allies and proxies, such as Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and some Shiite groups in Iraq.
The gallery of martyrs at the Museum of Holy Defense consists mainly of idealistic, pious-looking, young men, for whom the war against Iraq was not only, and perhaps even not so much, the defense of Iran, as in service of Imam Khomeini’s nascent Islamic Republic, with its promise of justice, equity and dignity. It is fair to say that Iranian society has changed since the revolution and the war. Surely, four decades of resistance is taxing, and Iranian society shows signs of weariness. Indeed, not all Iranians agree with their country’s approach in Syria and Iraq, and feel the nation’s resources are being squandered in regional conflicts.
Riding in a taxi through the streets of Tehran in April, I passed Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) Street. The driver, in broken English and with intense gesticulation, declared that the “akhonds (a somewhat pejorative word for clerics) and Pasdarans suck the country’s blood.” Although no one should fall into the Thomas Friedman-style trap of drawing far-reaching conclusions from one comment by a cab driver, such feelings seem to have some traction in Iran, as recent protests have shown.
Such views, however, should be balanced against those of other Iranians, like the upper-middle class woman I recently met. She expressed little sympathy for the Islamic Republic, but was quick to credit national security forces with maintaining a modicum of safety and stability in Iran. “Unlike people in Iraq and Syria, we in Iran can be reasonably certain that when we leave our homes in the morning, we’ll be able to come back in the evening,” she told me in a bustling Tehran coffee shop this past April. On this view, supporting friendly forces in Iraq and Syria is not an act of squandering the nation’s wealth, but a wise investment in national defense.
A public opinion poll released in February 2018 by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland found that a whopping 95% of Iranians believe it is “important” for their government to develop missiles – over 73% of respondents said it was “very important.” Again, the memory of the Iran-Iraq war is relevant. Many Iranian cities were struck by missiles during that conflict. There is overwhelming consensus, not only within the system, but also among the general population, that the country should be able to defend itself from such attacks. In the absence of an external security guarantor, Iran can rely only on its own domestic capabilities and security forces to do so.
Learning From The Past
The Iran-Iraq experience has another paradoxical effect. While Iran’s security establishment is ready for war, it does not want it. Most of its members have tasted its bitter fruits, licked their wounds, and would rather avoid repeating the experience. This outlook could eventually change, of course, with the ascendance of a new generation of security officials. Younger analysts, those without memories of battlefields and air raids, may be more comfortable with the idea of Iran as a powerful geopolitical player seeking to spread its influence in an offensive way. In fact, some of them told me so during my recent trip to the country.
With many young Iranians more secular in their lifestyles than the older, revolutionary generation, they might feel less compunction about asserting Iran’s national interests, even if it comes at the expense of a commitment to their Muslim brethren. In these circles, Iranian nationalism has more resonance than political Islam.
This is why both the West and Iran’s Arab neighbors should take seriously Iranian proposals for collective security arrangements in the Middle East. Such proposals would have never been made if there were no green light from Khamenei and consensus within the security establishment. Iran is a geopolitical reality, however much some of its neighbors entertain fantasies about removing it. Wishing Iran away simply will not work. It is better to make peace with mutual dignity and respect, than stoke a conflict that will reverberate for generations to come. There are enough war memorials already.
The information and views set out in this article are solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union or the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.