Trump administration should not ignore lessons from Iran-Iraq War

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On July 14, the nuclear deal with Iran will turn two. This anniversary comes at a time when the United States is reviewing its Iran policy, of which the controversial agreement is a key pillar, and is putting the option of regime change on the table once again. In doing so, the Trump administration should consider some lessons from one of the defining events in contemporary Iranian history: the Iran-Iraq War.                                                                                                            

At first glance, the war doesn’t seem to have much to do with the nuclear deal. After all, it took place in the 1980s; it did not officially involve any of the parties to the agreement with Iran—the United States, its European partners, China, and Russia—and it has largely faded from public memory. In Iran, however, the conflict that Iranians know as the Sacred Defense or Imposed War continues to loom large. Today, almost three decades after it ended, the war has a profound influence on decision-making in Iran, especially as it pertains to national security issues.

{mosads}On Sept. 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran. This prompted one of the bloodiest wars in recent history, one that lasted eight years and left hundreds of thousands dead before it was ended by a United Nations–backed cease-fire on Aug. 20, 1988.

The end of the war restored the status quo ante, with both regimes still in power and without territorial adjustments. Throughout the last years of the war, missiles flew into major cities and population centers, as combatants dug up trenches, and Baghdad used chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraq’s own Kurdish populations.

Although the war was disastrous for Iranians, the Islamic Republic has taken from it two key lessons that continue to condition Tehran’s actions and policies today.

First, Iran came out of the war with a deep distrust of the United States and the world order it leads. And an event whose anniversary comes on July 3, just days before that of the nuclear deal, played a critical role in this. On that day in 1988, a U.S. Navy cruiser accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people on board.

Second, feeling isolated from and distrustful of the U.S.-led international system, Iran emerged from the war with the conviction that it could not rely on anyone but itself. Throughout the conflict, Iran had difficultly purchasing weapons and updating and upgrading its aging equipment. As a result, in the middle of the war, Tehran began to develop the ballistic missile and nuclear programs that today generate so much tension with the United States.

For Washington, the nuclear deal was an opportunity to curb Iran’s nuclear program. It also cleared the path for future negotiations on other aspects of Iran’s potentially dangerous activities too. But for Tehran, the nuclear deal was a way to remove the threat of war, renormalize its status within the international community, and open up its economy.

However, the Trump administration’s erratic and tough talk and its failure to assert clearly that the deal is here to stay have only reinforced the lessons of the war and have convinced Iran that the United States won’t allow it to achieve those goals. The resulting uncertainty surrounding the nuclear deal has made businesses and investors even more reluctant to reenter a market whose prospects remain dubious. And the threat of war looms once again, as the administration openly admits to maintaining a policy of regime change.

The re-entrenchment of the lessons of the war have long-term, and largely negative, implications for the United States. These lessons make Iran more inclined to distance itself from America and its allies, which in turn undermines U.S. ability to affect Iranian policies. They also reinforce Iran’s threat perception and fuel its distrust of the international order and the United States. That in turn will make Tehran less likely to return to the table and engage in negotiations over its other worrisome activities and more likely to pursue policies that challenge and undermine U.S. national interests.

As the nuclear deal enters its second year, it is vital for the United States to clearly communicate its commitment to the agreement. Doing so will afford Washington a much-needed credibility boost at a time when international confidence in American leadership is waning. It will also allow the United States to continue to lead the implementation process, leave the door open for future negotiations on other concerning aspects of Iranian behavior, and promote U.S. national security interests.

Ariane Tabatabai (@ArianeTabatabai) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Security Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Annie Tracy Samuel (@ATracySamuel) is an Assistant Professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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