The 1979 Iranian revolution, one of modern history’s biggest tumults, yielded in turn one of the world’s most perplexing governments. Purportedly revolutionary yet tightly controlled by clerical oligarchs; rhetorically internationalist yet repeatedly willing to weaponize both cynical statism and militant sectarianism; broader-based than its monarchic predecessors yet politically coercive; economically vulnerable yet politically dominant—the regime of the past four decades has been riddled with paradoxes.

Still, the strange entrenchment of the revolution’s elites – such as clerical politicians Ebrahim Raisi, winner of this year’s presidential election, his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – was by no means a foregone conclusion. Not only was the revolution immediately stricken with problems – some of its own making – but within two years it was beset by a major attack from its longstanding rival, Iraq.

This article reviews the early 1980s, when the Iraqi army invaded Iran. Contrary to expectations, the subsequent war only served to entrench a historically marginal clergy into Tehran’s oligarchs.

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Background: Revolution and Rupture

The downfall of what had seemed an ironclad monarchy took much of the world by surprise. With energy reserves, a powerful military, and a tyrannical security force, the Pahlavi dynasty seemed to be approaching its peak when it crumbled dramatically. Even as it strutted on Asia’s stage, the monarchy had managed to alienate various parts of Iranian society, from paupers to merchants, clergymen to leftists, intelligentsia to professionals. Thus, the coalition that brought it down was a very diverse one; its foremost leader was the dissident cleric Ruhollah Khomenei, who preached the novel political doctrine of “vilayete faqih,” or government of the clergy. While many other leading opponents of the monarchy did not share Khomenei’s views, most lacked both his charisma and cunning.

The ancient regime’s military elite plotted their return from Western exile; a coup attempt in July 1980 by former airforce commander Ayat Mohagheghi and former navy commander Saeed Mehdiyoun was the most dramatic of such events. Wary of the military, the government relied increasingly on Islamist paramilitaries that would eventually coalesce into a massive praetorian guard, the so-called Pasdaran (Guardians) of the Revolution.

Iran 1980s

The newly established Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps parade past a viewing stand in Tehran on May 16, 1983. (AP Photo)

The revolutionary order itself was dominated by a mixture of clerical politicians, among whom Khomenei assumed the leadership, and longstanding activists such as the then-Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. Many camps and competing ideological currents existed inside and outside the government, with little in common except longstanding opposition to the monarchy.

In Tehran, assassinations took out high-ranking figures such as Khomenei’s lieutenant, Morteza Motahhari, and Defense Minister Valiollah Gharani. The chasm in the government widened; Khomenei prevailed over Bazargan when militiamen seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held its staff hostage, forcing the unhappy Prime Minister to resign along with his Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazid, an influential Islamist with more internationalist tendencies. But a subsequent election for the presidential seat brought Khomenei a peskier rival in Abolhassan Banisadr.

Outside Tehran, another challenge emerged in the form of an autonomist Kurdish revolt in the west, led by Abdol-Rahman Ghassemlou. The revolt was supported by Iraq, whose Baathist strongman Saddam Hussein continued a longstanding tradition of Baghdad and Tehran supporting each other’s dissidents. Khomenei himself had once benefited from this policy; he had spent a decade of his exile before the revolution under Saddam’s nose in Iraq.

Revolutionary Iran proved no different to its monarchic predecessor in hostility toward Baghdad.

Revolutionary Iran proved no different to its monarchic predecessor in hostility toward Baghdad; if anything, the desire to “export the revolution” intensified tensions. Encouraged by Khomenei’s success, Shia opposition in Iraq sought to destabilize the Baathist regime. Yet with the Iranian revolution flailing in every way and alienating both West and East, Iraq seemed to have the advantage.

Border skirmishes escalated to a full-scale Iraqi invasion in September 1980. Two Iraqi corps rumbled across the border: the northern corps, helped by Ghassemlou, made for the Kurdish-majority Iranian west, while the southern corps thundered into the oil-rich, and largely ethnically Arab, Khuzestan region. The subsequent war would last eight years and be the bloodiest since the Second World War.

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Rhetoric and Reality for the Revolution

Rather than widen the cracks in the Tehran regime, however, the Iraqi attack papered them over. The tensions between soldiers and militiamen disappeared for the moment as the latter, in particular, played a conspicuously brave role in Iranian defense. This was clearest at the southern city of Khorramshaher, where a grueling attack by Iraqi corps commander Ismail Tayih was held off for weeks by Iranian militia commander Ali Jahanara. But though such courage boosted morale, it could not disguise the early trajectory of events. Iraq captured Khorramshaher – and with it its Iranian Oil Minister Javad Tandgouyan, in November 1980. Furthermore, most of Khuzestan’s cities were either seized or, as in the case of Abadan port, surrounded. This southern sector was watched with especial interest abroad, given its position overlooking the Gulf.

By spring 1981, Saddam was confident enough to offer a ceasefire, mediated by Sekou Toure of Guinea, but Iran rejected it. With Iraq openly supported by King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan and President Ali Saleh of Yemen – and, more covertly, by Saudi Arabia – Tehran’s revolutionary rhetoric gave way to geopolitical maneuvering. In early 1981, Iran’s Prime Minister Ali Rajai signed over the release of the American hostages, theatrically on the same day as Ronald Reagan’s instatement. Tehran built close links to Saddam’s Baathist rivals in Syria. A spectacular Iranian air raid in western Iraq, skirting much of the Iraqi-Syrian border, was a dramatic proof of this alliance. Ostensibly, Tehran did not object to Damascus’ brutal ongoing crackdown on its own Islamist-led revolt.

Iranian-Israeli coordination in opposition to Iraq would yield the backrooms sale of weapons through the United States.

More shocking yet was Tehran’s coordination with the same Israel that it publicly condemned. This Iranian-Israeli coordination in opposition to Iraq would yield the backrooms sale of weapons through the United States, which would culminate in political scandal by the late 1980s. But the Reagan administration did not confine itself to supporting one side over the other: urged by the Arab monarchies, America would increasingly arm Iraq while covertly selling weapons to Iran.

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The Iranian Military: From Professionals to Revolutionaries and Back

The emergent Iranian military was a hybrid of revolutionary militiamen and professional soldiers. Such cases as Youssef Kolahdoz and Sayad Shirazi were illustrative, as both senior soldiers had been secretly active in Islamist circles under the ancient regime. The rapidly expanding praetorian corps was overseen by Khomenei’s formidable lieutenant, Ali Khamenei. He and other clerical commanders, such as Hassan Rouhani, worked alongside Defense Minister Mostafa Chamran, a scientist of some promise who had left the United States to participate in revolutionary militancy, particularly in Lebanon, alongside other student activists like Ebrahim Yazid and Sadegh Ghotobzadeh.

In the field, Iran developed a peculiar dual command, with each campaign and its constituent forces led at every level by a coordinating career officer and praetorian officer. Career troops played a major role in strategy and specialized operations. But Khamenei’s praetorians, who soon outshone them, provided the blunt force. Comprising tens of thousands of youths recruited under the banners of Islam, revolution, and Iranian patriotism, they would adopt the tactic of “human waves,” flooding better-armed Iraqi troops by sheer weight of numbers and suicidal devotion.

The architect of this bloody but striking strategy was Mohsen Rezai, an ambitious ideologue who would after the war become a perennial figure in Iranian politics. The praetorians’ simultaneous cooperation and steady ascendancy over their professional military counterparts was epitomized by Rezai’s relations with his professional colleague Sayad Shirazi. Although the latter was uneasy with mass assaults, Rezai won the day, as praetorian waves carved their way into Iraqi lines and Iranian political domination.

Praetorian field commanders who would make their name in the ensuing war included the infamous Qasem Soleimani.

Praetorian field commanders who would make their name in the ensuing war included a variety of Iranian military elites – such as the infamous Qasem Soleimani, as well as Aziz Jafari, Rahim Safavi, Ali Shahbazi, Ahmed Kazemi, and others. Usually identified with the “hard line” of Iranian politics around Khamenei, this group derived its experience, worldview, and legitimacy from the war against Iraq. Yet their entrenchment in the republic’s military forces would lead to the return of these revolutionary upstarts to the country’s new career politicians.

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Tumult to Triumph

At first, the Iranian military machine struggled; they mounted a wave of brave but costly counterattacks against the Iraqi troops. In the mountainous Kurdish region, the Iraqi commander Abdul-Jabbar Asadi, who had planned the initial invasion, held particularly firm. Thousands of Iranian fighters were slain in each campaign, eventually including Defense Minister Mostafa Chamran himself. In September 1981, his successor Moussa Namjou – along with military commander Valiollah Falahi, airforce commander Javad Fakouri, corps commander Youssef Kolahdoz, and field commander Ali Jahanara – lost their lives in a mysterious plane crash, wiping out a significant proportion of the Iranian high command.

Khamenei himself had survived an assassination attempt in midsummer 1981, but a particularly devastating assassination killed Chief Justice Hosseini Beheshti and some 70 others. In the ensuing furore, the parliament led by Akbar Hashmi-Rafsanjani – a wily political cleric who then identified his political interests with Khomenei – took the opportunity to impeach President Abolhassan Banisadr. Hounded underground and out of Tehran, the hapless Banisadr was accused of a roster of crimes by Khomenei’s faction, his supposed treachery scapegoated for Iran’s military setbacks.

Prime Minister Ali Rajai took Banisadr’s place in the presidency, but at the summer’s end both he and the new Prime Minister, Javad Bahonar, were assassinated in a bombing allegedly planned by Massoud Keshmiri, their secretary. On this occasion, the regime did not doubt who the culprits were: the Mojahedine Khalgh organization. An eclectic militant movement, mixing elements of Islam with concepts from Marxism, the organization was indeed a dangerous challenger. They had long militated against the monarchy and infiltrated several organs of the state, while their leaders – Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam– matched Khomenei’s political shrewdness and enjoyed strong links abroad. When Banisadr reappeared with the Rajavis in Paris, the regime’s claim that it had faced a conspiracy seemed confirmed.

Khomenei: The Iranian Phoenix

Paradoxically, the 1981 crisis enabled Ruhollah Khomenei and Ali Khamenei to emerge with renewed vigor. The process began in September 1981 when, even as much of the military command had been extinguished in a plane crash, a massive Iranian force led by Rahim Safavi broke the year-long siege of Abadan. The Iraqis responded by forming a third corps on the central front, led by the experienced commander Hisham Fakhri. Yet a series of grueling campaigns over the winter forced Fakhri’s troops right back to the border by spring 1982. And the rebound was yet to peak.

In May 1982, an enormous Iranian force headed by Mohsen Rezai and Sayad Shirazi thundered toward the southern Iraqi corps, now led by Salah Qadi. In a series of lightning advances and feints, they outmaneuvered the Iraqis, seized Ahwaz, and mounted a massive assault on Khorramshaher. The ensuing battle – the largest and bloodiest urban battle since the Second World War – ended in a crushing Iranian victory, with the Iraqi corps scattered and forced west across a suddenly exposed border. Among the roughly 50,000 casualties was Iraq’s military governor Ahmad Zaidan—whom Iranian state media sneered at in a final, and perhaps untrue, taunt; he was killed in flight. Qadi was no luckier; in spite of his long service, he was hauled back to Baghdad where a fuming Saddam had him executed.

Saddam Hussein’s plan to exploit the Iranian revolutionary upheaval backfired.

The Iraqi invasion had come full circle. With the southern borderlands suddenly exposed, Saddam recalled the northern corps back across the border as well. Never again, apart from a brief salvo in 1986, would Iraqi troops enter Iranian territory. Saddam’s plan to exploit the Iranian revolutionary upheaval had backfired: with the applause of the people in his ears and a keening army at his heels, Khomenei seemed politically invincible. In fact, just the previous month, he had eliminated the last of the activist Islamists – Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotobzadeh, who was accused of a coup scheme – and soon Iran’s communist party would be driven underground as well, after another alleged plot. Yet when the war could have ended then, in summer 1982 Tehran instead set its sights on invading Iraq.

Overreach and Oligarchy

The Iranian phoenix’s ambitions quickly became clear to Baghdad and its Gulf backers – who had only recently founded the Gulf Cooperation Council with at least a nervous eye on the war’s direction. Saudi Arabia, seeking to stop the Iranian tide, offered war reparations in return for Tehran standing down. This tempting offer briefly split the Iranian elite along lines that curiously inverted the idea of “moderates” versus “hardliners.” It was such hardliners as Khamenei who were prepared to accept the offer, while Prime Minister (and future dissident) Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Parliament Speaker Hashmi-Rafsanjani, and Khomenei’s idealistic heir-apparent Hossein Montazeri – each seen as “moderate” par excellence – were eager to carry the momentum into Iraq with an offensive.

Most of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war actually took place with Tehran on the attack.

It was the sentiment of the latter camp that won, and Iran embarked on its own invasion of Iraq. Often termed in Iran the “imposed war” because of Iraq’s initial invasion, most of the 1980s war actually took place with Tehran on the attack. It would last six more bloody years, and frustrate Khomenei in its result as it once did Saddam; he compared the eventual ceasefire of 1988 as a poisoned chalice.

Conclusion

Nevertheless, from a political viewpoint, the war only strengthened the clerical regime. By its end, Ruhollah Khomenei was the unchallenged master of Iran, crowning the conflict’s culmination with a series of mass executions over which Ebrahim Raisi presided. This ruthlessness galled the heir-apparent to the Supreme Leader, Hossein Montazeri, who was quickly replaced with Ali Khamenei just three months before Khomenei’s death. The architect of the praetorian corps has ruled Iran since, with such veteran lieutenants as Soleimani, Safavi, and Kazemi serving him to the end.

The Iraqi invasion enabled a new elite to cement itself in Iran, comprising clerical politicians of varying viewpoints – from the placatory Rouhani to the ruthless Raisi – and such military veterans as Mohsen Rezai, a perennial political candidate and most recently Raisi’s runner-up in the 2021 election. Despite considerable differences on social policy and geopolitical tactics, this elite has remained united in its dedication to the vilayete faqih born in the 1979 revolution and consolidated by the subsequent war with Iraq.