PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine


On 24 May 1982, after several years of fear and sorrow, a wave of joy swept the country. ‘Khorramshahr is liberated!’ This announcement didn’t have quite the same effect on the public as ‘The Shah is Gone!’ but the joy was comparable.

Khorramshahr was one of the last and most strategic Iranian territories still occupied by Iraqi forces. Iran had taken the offensive and, with the support of millions of untrained volunteer Basijis at the front, had succeeded in forcing the Iraqi armies to retreat from most of the occupied lands, which now included the port city of Khorramshahr in Khuzestan province.

Saddam Hussein was now forced to retreat behind the official border as well as to confess that continuing the war was no longer plausible. The latest defeats had left the Iraqi army too demoralized and damaged. At the same time, Israel had invaded Lebanon. Saddam Hussein suggested to Khomeini that they should stop fighting and send their armies to help the Lebanese and the Palestinians. Backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, he even offered Iran US$70 billion by way of war reparations and the complete evacuation of his forces from Iranian territory.

A complete and total victory seemed in sight for the Iranian troops who had fought with nothing more than their old-fashioned rifles and their bare hands. They had sacrificed their lives, their limbs, their families and their youth in defence of their homeland. Now the enemy was offering a truce. Peace seemed so close.

But Khomeini was intoxicated with the idea of a total victory. He had destroyed all his potential competitors within Iran; he had gained immense popularity among the young as the ‘Father of the Nation’; and, as the Vicar of the Hidden Imam, the Shia considered him the holiest man on earth. Now, the retreat of Saddam Hussein could prove his righteousness.

It was at this moment that he made the biggest mistake of his life.

To the surprise of everyone in the country, even his closest friends, Khomeini declared that the liberation of Palestine from the occupation of the Israelis would not be possible until Iraq had been liberated from Saddam Hussein. Therefore, Iran would not accept the truce unless Saddam Hussein was arrested and tried; the government of Iraq paid US$150 billion by way of war reparations and released all the imprisoned Shia in Iraq. Declaring ‘The road to Quds [Jerusalem] passes through Karbala,’ Khomeini further insisted that Karbala and Najaf, two of the most sacred cities for the Shia and located in southern Iraq, must first be liberated.

But after a few days he changed his mind.

‘There are no conditions except that the regime in Baghdad must fall and be replaced by an Islamic Republic.’

This decision turned a defensive war into an absurd, ideological one that continued for another six years, during which up to a million Iranian soldiers were killed, hundreds of thousands more maimed or rendered homeless and the Iranian economy shattered. It would take years to rebuild the country. Iraq fared no better, with an estimated 160,000–240,000 dead and 375,000 casualties.