This is the second in a two-part series about politics, the Revolutionary Guards and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Read the first article, Decoding Iran’s Politics: The IRGC and the Iran-Iraq War (Part 1)
Halabja Chemical Attack
In March 1988, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), carried out Valfajr 10, its last major operation into Iraqi territory. In this operation, IRGC troops, backed up by Iran’s regular army, the Artesh, seized areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, including the city of Halabja.
Saddam Hussein's response to Iran's assault on Iraqi Kurdistan was the deadliest direct chemical attack on an urban area in history. Halabja’s chemical bombardment in mid-March 1988 killed at least 5,000 people, mainly civilians, because most of the Iranian troops who had seized the city had already left the area to pursue other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.
However, after the Halabja bombardment, the UN Security Council failed to take any stance for seven weeks. Finally, it stopped short of criticizing Saddam Hussein's government and blamed "both sides" in the conflict.
Iraq’s Gaining of the Upper Hand
With a deadlock in Iran’s military operations on the southwestern and western fronts, the Iraqis gradually gained the upper hand. From late March 1988 on, the Iraqi Army managed to inflict successive defeats on Iranian troops.
Iraq’s first major achievement at this stage was retaking al-Faw peninsula in mid-April. The Iraqis carried out their operation between the first and the second rounds of Iran’s parliamentary elections, when a number of IRGC commanders were engaged in political activities in order to increase their influence in the parliament. In fact, on the day the Iraqi operation to retake al-Faw was launched, most of the IRGC’s high-ranking commanders were attending a political seminar, far away from the battle fronts.
By mid-July 1988, the Iraqi military also managed to retake other important areas within Iraqi territory that Iran had initially seized.
Iraq’s victories included pushing back Iranians from the lands they had occupied east of Basra, retaking the Majnoon islands in southeastern Iraq, and advancing into Ilam province in western Iran. At the same time, the IRGC were inevitably forced to evacuate Iraqi Kurdistan so that the retreating troops could join fellow troops on the endangered southeastern front.
Iran’s Adoption of Resolution 598
Following the military defeats that took place between April and July 1988, high-ranking Iranian authorities engaged in a range of discussions to decide how to shift the direction the war was taking.
At this stage, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had been the acting Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces since May 12, 1988, demanded that the IRGC commander, Mohsin Rezaei, outline what he believed was needed to win the war.
In late June 1988, and after consulting with other IRGC commanders, Mohsen Rezaei wrote a letter to Hashemi Rafsanjani, listing the weapons he believed the armed forces needed to win the war. In the letter, he wrote, for example, that within the next four years, IRGC troops should increase by seven times. He added that, within the same period, the number of Iranian tanks should increase by a factor of 2.5, and that of jet fighters should be increased by a factor of five — all at a time while Iran was under international arms sanctions and could not buy a single tank or aircraft. The IRGC commander’s letter emphasized that defeating Iraq would probably result in a military confrontation with US forces in the Persian Gulf, concluding that Iran should also have nuclear weapons to deter the Americans.
Other high-ranking economic and political officials also wrote to Hashemi Rafsanjani about the country’s capabilities to continue the war. Next, the heads of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government gathered to summarize all the reports they had received from various Iranian authorities.
The conclusion of this meeting was reported to the Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Based on their conclusions, Ayatollah Khomeini took a final decision in mid-July 1988, explained in a written message to Iran’s high-ranking officials.
Part of the message made brief references to the reports Khomeini had received from the country's economic and political officials, which said the country was financially unable to sustain the war and warned that troops’ presence on the frontlines had significantly declined.
But the main thrust of the Leader’s letter quoted Mohsen Rezai’s report about the equipment the armed forces needed to win the war. Describing Rezaei’s report as “shocking,” Ayatollah Khomeini stated that the IRGC commander had requested a massive amount of weapons, including nuclear weapons, to continue the war. Ayatollah Khomeini emphasized that, after requesting such weapons, the IRGC commander had said “the war should still continue” — which the Leader dismissed as “nothing other than empty words". The Leader, according to the IRGC commander’s report and the reports of other authorities, then announced his decision to accept a ceasefire with Iraq.
On July 18, the then president, Ali Khamenei, officially announced to the UN Secretary General that Iran would accept Resolution 598.
Iraq’s Pre-Ceasefire Invasion
Iran’s adoption of Resolution 598 did not bring about an immediate ceasefire, as predicted in the resolution. Saddam Hussein, who had regained confidence due to his army’s recent victories, said that Iranian authorities should start holding direct talks with Baghdad before the ceasefire was enacted. Tehran rejected this precondition, which was not included in Resolution 598. Consequently, on July 22, Iraqi forces carried out new, unexpected attacks against Iran’s southern and western borders. Shortly thereafter, troops from the Mujahedin-e Khalq organization (MEK) advanced into western Iran. The Iranian opposition group was based in Iraq and collaborated with the government of Saddam Hussein against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In reaction to Iraq and the MEK’s attacks, Ayatollah Khomeini warned IRGC commanders that, if they were not able to stop the invasion, the military force would turn into a "degraded and dead" corps. He also ordered the judiciary to "execute" those Iranian commanders who were responsible for the country’s recent defeats. However, in the end this did not result in the execution of any IRGC officer, largely due to the intervention of high-ranking officials including Rafsanjani. Under such crucial circumstances, IRGC commanders drew up a plan to attack parts of southern Iraq. But Ayatollah Khomeini did not approve the new operation, emphasizing that Iranian troops must focus on defending Iran's soil, rather than trying to penetrate into Iraq’s territory.
On the other hand, the MEK and Iraq’s fresh invasion into Iranian soil gave a sudden and dramatic boost to the presence of Iranian volunteers on the frontlines. The new volunteers, who mainly joined the Basij, the IRGC’s paramilitary arm, were furious about the new surprise attacks on their borders that had been launched after Iran’s adoption of Resolution 598.
At the same time, the Security Council and Iraq’s regional allies, which were worried about the consequences of the war continuing, pushed Iraq to accept a ceasefire and abide by the terms of Resolution 598.
After the Ceasefire
On August 6, 1988, the Iraqi government abandoned the preconditions it had set in order to accept the ceasefire. Two days later, members of the Security Council unanimously approved the details of the ceasefire. Finally, on August 20, 1988, the ceasefire was enacted.
This happened while about 2600 square kilometers of Iran’s territory were still under Iraqi occupation. These lands remained occupied for about two years after the ceasefire. Iraq’s withdrawal from these parts of Iran eventually took place after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, when the Iraqis, on the brink of a new war, badly needed to secure their eastern borders with Iran.
However, after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, a new chapter began in the history of the IRGC, marking the force’s increasing involvement in Iran’s economic, intelligence and political affairs. Due to this involvement, the IRGC gradually transformed into the country’s most important security force, its largest economic cartel and the most powerful political organization in Iran.
The process by which the IRGC’s strength increased over the post-war period is an important and decisive part of the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a history that deserves a separate and in-depth review.
Read other articles in this series: