Stephen Schlesinger: Iran Then and Now

Roundup: Historians' Take

Stephen Schlesinger, a historian and fellow at the Century Foundation in New York, City, is the author of Act of Creation, about the founding of the United Nations.

With the possibility of a confrontation looming with Iran, one historical example that should command American attention in its hour of decision — but is being neglected — is the bloody conflict that Iran fought against Iraq from 1980 to 1988. It is worth recalling the fierceness of that struggle to gain some appreciation of the enormity of any decision by Washington to go to war with Iran, for it may foretell what Tehran is capable of doing when it feels its Islamic Revolution is at stake.

The original clash between Iran and Iraq began shortly after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini deposed the shah in 1979. Following that triumph, Khomeini in mid-1979 called for similar upheavals throughout the Middle East. He singled out the Shiite population in neighboring Iraq, demanding that it overthrow the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. In the months that followed, skirmishes erupted along the Iran-Iraq border.

Eventually, Hussein, fearful of an Iranian attack and dreaming of seizing Iranian oil fields, struck back at Khomeini preemptively. On Sept. 22, 1980, Hussein ordered his air force to bomb 10 Iranian airfields and wipe out Iran's offensive aircraft. The surprise attacks damaged some bases but failed to knock out the Iranian fleet. A war began in earnest. As the zone of action gradually expanded, however, the adversaries reached a stalemate... ..

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