(Joost Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.)
The Choman Valley in Iraqi Kurdistan. (FRITS MEYST/PANOS PICTURES)
The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) was no different in this respect.
Opportunistic in conception, clumsy but unrelentingly lethal in execution and horrific in its accumulating human toll, its result left both parties more or less where they started territorially -- a pointless war fought by two regimes intent on their own survival while largely unaccountable to their publics. At war’s end, there was no peace treaty but merely an armistice, an acknowledgment of the law of diminishing returns and of mutual exhaustion, not evidence of conflicts resolved or emotions calmed.
Like any war, this conflict, too, had its enablers and exploiters, its funders and suppliers, as well as its anxious observers fearing adverse consequences for themselves. All shut their eyes in tacit unison as one atrocity followed another, feigning shock and surprise when intrepid reporters managed to navigate either one of the countries’ paranoid, closed and repressive security systems to reveal some of the battlefield’s worst horrors. The journalists’ efforts were rewarded invariably with global indifference.
There were perfunctory condemnations by the UN, which, when it either could not or would not identify the culprit of the latest outrage (as was the case especially with chemical attacks), cast a plague on the houses of both adversaries.
Hundreds of thousands of casualties later, this senseless war continues to reverberate today and indeed continues to be fought, but in a different guise. Its legacies are only now starting to articulate themselves against the backdrop of a region profoundly shaken by the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the neo-conservative pioneering that followed. They are the unintended consequences of a war that should never have been started, or encouraged, or allowed to drag on for eight long years. Whatever lessons one may draw about the start, continuation and end of the Iran-Iraq war will come too late to significantly alter the course of history. Yet they might help in finding ways to channel the new conflicts these legacies have engendered toward peaceful resolution, and thus prevent a new round of slaughter.
A Cage Fighter Diminished
Iraq’s September 1980 invasion was motivated in part by the regime’s fear of how the advent of a revolutionary Shi‘i Islamist order next door would affect Iraq’s internal situation, given its Shi‘i majority and the existence of a group, Da‘wa, that sought to overturn Baathist rule by violent means. The other part was opportunity: The Shah’s demise brought disarray and thus a chance to shape Iranian politics to Iraq’s advantage. Iraq fumbled the invasion, however, and within two years found itself on the defensive, with the Islamic regime consolidating its power in the face of external aggression.
In prosecuting a war it had initiated but could not control, Iraq soon was pulling out all the stops, obeying no commonly held rules of engagement in defense of its territory. Trapped, the “cage fighter” (in the words of David Newton, former US ambassador to Iraq) found itself struggling for its very survival against an adversary that responded in kind when it could and played its demographic majority to its advantage by -- just as callously -- throwing endless cohorts of its young men (and sometimes women) into the battle zone as cannon and land mine fodder. Iraq resorted to chemical weapons as a “force multiplier” to prevent these “human waves” from washing over its defenses and, later, to suppress a spreading insurgency within its own borders. Iraq may not have been the first in the history of warfare to deploy such weapons, but it pioneered the use of nerve agents and remains alone in having gassed civilians in addition to enemy soldiers and Kurdish rebels.
The Iranian army advancing. (ALFRED YAGHOBZADEH)
This denouement hardly allayed Iraqi fears. The Islamic regime was still there, gasping perhaps, but putting its house in order and, in imitation of the Iraqi example, developing its own chemical warfare capability, and perhaps more. The outcome of Iraq’s fateful invasion of Kuwait -- an attempted shakedown of a primary lender to reinvigorate an ailing economy -- only made matters worse. Whatever ambitions Iraq may have had to rebuild and prosper came to naught in the 1990s. International sanctions weakened the state and economy even further, while the dismantling of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs left it vulnerable to Iranian revenge attacks. Hence the myth, inherent in Iraq’s demurrals about its nuclear program, that it continued to have a nuclear deterrent; in effect, the myth became the deterrent. The regime may have found solace in the fact that as the US trampled upon Iraq’s sovereignty it was also working hard to contain Iranian influence in the Gulf.
And then: chaos. The 2003 US invasion laid the basis for a new order in which contending claims about power and identity have run rampant, turning Iraq into a regional playground in which neighbors fight old wars in new ways. To many Iraqis, the regime’s overthrow and the parliamentary elections that followed opened the door to Iranian influence through Iran’s perceived proxies, Iraq’s Shi‘i Islamist parties. This state of affairs has led to fierce competition between pro- and anti-Iranian factions ensconced within the security and intelligence apparatus, a struggle that does little to ensure the state’s cohesiveness.  An ongoing battle concerns the planned acquisition of major military equipment, such as F-16 fighter planes, encouraged by the US to allow Iraq to regain control of its airspace and deter external threats, and opposed vigorously by Iran as a Western attempt to undermine its influence in the Gulf. Iran will also put up a stiff fight, via whatever allies it can mobilize within the Iraqi political system, to prevent a follow-on accord to the 2008 US-Iraqi security agreement that would allow US troops to remain in Iraq beyond 2011. And if and when Iraq succeeds in jacking up its oil production, it will face an Iran that has no interest in another revenue-fueled Iraq muscling its neighbor out of the market while again arming itself to the teeth.
Iraq’s stature in the Gulf has diminished as the result of a series of disastrous decisions by its leadership, leading to the US invasion and subsequent mayhem. It is a common notion in Iraq that Iran is on its way to triumph by delay in the 1980s war, aided strangely by the US, which jettisoned its policy of dual containment in favor of regime change but halted its military march in Baghdad. Many Iraqis are so mystified by the course of events that they simply do not believe the Americans could not have intended it. Some speak publicly of a US-Iranian conspiracy to transfer authority over Iraq to Iran. Should this perception persist, or be matched by developments on the ground, Iraq could turn from regional playground into battleground, the next stage in an unfinished war.
The Injured Avenger
Mehdi Asgari, an Iranian chemical weapons victim, at a state-sponsored gathering of visiting doctors in 2007. (MOHAMMAD KHEIRKHAH/UPI PHOTO/LANDOV)
The war proved both traumatic and unifying. Iran felt it was caught unawares at a moment of internal havoc. Iraq’s air and missile strikes on its cities, oil infrastructure and shipping, combined with its chemical weapons use, crippled the economy and eroded public morale. Iran’s staunchest enemy, however, may have been its own international isolation. Induced by the revolution broadly and the hostage affair specifically, it left Iran bereft of allies even on matters of great international concern, such as Iraq’s initial invasion, its targeting of civilians and its gas warfare. The deafening global silence when Iraq combined the latter two by launching chemical strikes on entire Kurdish towns -- Serdasht in Iran (1987) and Halabja in Iraq (1988) -- and then threatened to target Tehran and other major Iranian cities with chemically loaded Scud missiles was particularly unconscionable, but perfectly understandable when one considered Iran’s ostracism.
Having no true choice, Iran turned its sense of abandonment into a badge of honor and an opportunity to mobilize support for the regime, foster economic self-sufficiency and develop its own defenses in the absence of international enforcement of Iraq’s treaty obligations, for example, those pertaining to chemical warfare. Iran’s strongest weapons after the war became an astute mix of nationalism, the perception of active weapons of mass destruction programs, and a readiness to adhere to multilateral commitments and allow international inspections. If Iran is indeed developing nuclear weapons, its denials must constitute dissimulation, the facts disguised by the Islamic regime’s stated abhorrence of such weapons grounded in religion and the real-life experience of having been on the receiving end of Iraqi gas attacks (whose victims continue to suffer, and die, from the delayed effects of mustard gas in hospitals throughout the country). Its posture breathes a profound mistrust of the international community and its suspected objectives in the Gulf. 
Iran’s core aspiration is to regain what it views as its proper stature and influence in the Gulf -- to be a regional superpower that is respected and can dictate terms. Post-2003 developments in Iraq clearly have been in its favor. Yet Iran faces significant constraints. A predominantly Persian and Shi‘i country, its neighborhood reach is limited. An advocate of velayat-e faqih, the rule of the religious jurisprudent, its appeal is tenuous even among the Shi‘i masses. Its putative nuclear weapons program and active support of Hizballah and Hamas have earned it the continuing enmity of the US and its Western and Arab allies, who are involved in a full-scale effort to push back its influence. Thus the logic set in motion by the great-power interventions in Iran at least as far back as the nineteenth-century meddling of the Russians and British remains firmly embedded in the Iranian psyche. In this perennial give and take, the Iran-Iraq war was a traumatic event that the regime turned to its advantage as it now plots, patiently, to land a blow of its own.
Iraqi Kurdish refugees at the Iranian border in 1991. (AP Photo)
The largest number of victims hailed from the rural hinterland of Kirkuk and its super-giant oil field. Their destruction, enabled by wartime conditions, was the ultimate step in a decades-long campaign designed to increase the Arab and decrease the non-Arab population of these hydrocarbon-rich, mixed-population areas. Kirkuk thus seemed irrevocably out of reach for any Kurdish ambition to absorb it into their autonomous region.
The Kurds were bailed out, providentially, by Saddam Hussein’s ruinous decision to occupy Kuwait and George H. W. Bush’s resolution not to let it stand. In the Kuwait war’s aftermath, the Kurds joined their Arab brethren in rebelling against central rule, gaining international traction only once the regime had rallied to crush the insurgents and refugees had started pouring into Turkey. In response, the wartime allies imposed a no-fly zone and a safe haven in the north to provide an air-protected shelter (and shield Turkey from an influx of Kurds -- a much larger refugee flow into Iran was duly ignored).
The Kurds spent the 1990s carving out a quasi-independent region, constricted in their access to the outside world by Turkey, Syria and Iran, which viewed with suspicion any attempt to transform humanitarian aid into support for infrastructure and industry, and thus the basis for a genuinely independent state. A second fortuitous circumstance occurred in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq. This act allowed the Kurds to break out of their region, extending its boundary along the length of northern Iraq to incorporate huge swaths of land that once, before Saddam’s village destruction campaigns, had been home to a significant Kurdish population. Kurdish leaders also sent their representatives to Baghdad to take a share of power in the new order.
The Kurds’ core ambition is to build a federal Kurdish region that will be strong enough to counter any aggression from Baghdad or elsewhere, and to lay the groundwork for future independence, should regional conditions permit. Eager to develop their own resources, they have attracted a number of second- and third-tier oil companies to explore the region’s potential; these companies hope and expect to be bought out by larger oil companies the moment they strike pay dirt. Significantly, exploration also covers the additional terrain taken in 2003, and thus sets up a potential conflict with the central government over management rights. By creating such facts on the ground, the Kurds hope at least to increase their bargaining strength in any future negotiations over the power of the Kurdistan region and the disposition of these disputed territories.
As they proceed, they face significant constraints. They remain a minority in Iraq, able to block decisions that threaten them (including, possibly, the government’s intended purchase of F-16 fighter planes from the US) but unable to enforce those that could further their interests.  They are landlocked, so that even if they can produce oil and gas, they cannot export their natural wealth without the approval of the federal oil ministry, which is loath to grant it, so they end up smuggling some of it to Iran and Turkey by truck at less than optimal profit. Their neighbors view darkly any Kurdish move toward greater independence.
Finally, the Kurds remain internally divided. They have made significant strides in overcoming their internecine conflict of the mid-1990s by merging the two parallel governments, but the hardest work -- integrating their security and intelligence services -- is still ahead. Their efforts come at a time when the balance between Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has been shaken by a succession crisis in the PUK, which has seen the emergence of an opposition group, Goran (Change), that is challenging the PUK’s supremacy in Suleimaniya and is aspiring to do the same to the KDP in Erbil. How this will play out is unclear, but for now Barzani appears firmly in control and is drawing more power to himself, his party and the government over which he presides.
The Kurds have come further than they ever have before, including their instant of formal independence, the ill-fated single-town Republic of Mahabad in Iran in 1946. They have played on Western sympathies for their plight during Anfal and at Halabja to advance their case for statehood. The question is: Will they be able to stay a step ahead of the many who oppose their quest?
A Nervous Bystander
A 2006 photo exhibit on the Anfal campaign in Kalar, Iraqi Kurdistan. (YAHYA AHMED/AP PHOTO)
As long as Iraq was there and viable, Turkey supported it as a bulwark against Iran without, at the same time, alienating its important neighbor, maintaining an active and lucrative commercial relationship that made the two countries its biggest trading partners. This arrangement held throughout the Iran-Iraq war, when Turkey played both sides in a carefully calibrated balancing act, but most of all worked to help prevent an Iraqi collapse, an objective it shared with most of the Arab world and Western nations. It could not prevent, however, the PKK from starting a new insurgency in 1984 and exploiting the vacuum in northern Iraq to establish bases there after the 1991 Gulf war. And even when war’s end brought relief, neither could Turkey prevent the establishment of a US-sponsored safe haven for Iraqi Kurds that ran directly contrary to its interests. If Turkey participated in Operation Provide Comfort and its successors designed to protect Iraqi Kurds, it was mostly to improve its intelligence on the PKK’s movements through its presence on US surveillance aircraft, and to be in the room when the Gulf war allies made decisions that could affect Turkey’s policy toward Kurds both at home and across the border.
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq raised new fears that despite the success so far in containing Iran’s revolutionary impulse, the Iranians would get a second chance due to the demolition of the Iraqi bulwark that had dammed up the mullahs’ fervor. Moreover, in the past decade Turkey has become increasingly alarmed over Iran’s nuclear program, which it believes to be of a military nature. It has therefore invested heavily in tying Iraq to the Turkish economy, especially in energy and construction, as well as through trade. This charm offensive faces significant pushback from Baghdad in the form of Iraqi anger over the Greater Anatolia Project and other water management schemes that have reduced Iraq’s access to water and damaged its agricultural sector. Nonetheless, Ankara has been able to sign security agreements with Iraq and assist in the rebuilding of its security forces. And it has spent significant resources and diplomatic capital on promoting anti-Iranian political forces, including Iyad ‘Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya list before, during and after the March 2010 elections. It harbors an almost congenital mistrust of the Shi‘i Islamists running the country, and would rather that Nouri al-Maliki had failed in his bid to extend his tenure as prime minister.
With Iran rising, what to do with the other threat, the Kurds? Because it cannot rely on Iraq to play a balancing role as long as perceived Iranian proxies remain in control, Turkey has had to revise its policy toward Erbil. After shunning Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani and repeatedly carrying out anti-PKK military campaigns in the mountainous border regions, Turkey changed tack in 2007, deciding that if it could not prevent the emergence of a fully autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, it should midwife the birth so as to control it. Turkey has since smothered the Kurds with love, pledging the region’s complete integration into the Turkish economy in exchange for determined action against the PKK, while making sure the Kurds do not leave Turkey’s intimate embrace. Moreover, it covets the Kurdistan region’s hydrocarbon wealth; its companies are heavily involved in oil and gas exploration. Today, the relationship between Ankara and Erbil is one of the very few (unintended and unanticipated) success stories of the Bush administration’s Iraq adventure, with Turkey potentially replacing Washington as the Kurds’ primary protector following the US troop withdrawal in 2011.
Still, all is not well for Turkey. Championing the Kurds’ cause risks angering Baghdad, as its support of ‘Allawi over Maliki already did, and Turkey still needs Iraq as a counterweight against Iran for as long as that struggle remains undecided. But the enduring conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over power, territory and resources has held up Kurdish oil and gas exports to Turkey. Because it does not want the Kurds to get any ideas about independence, Turkey has insisted that the federal oil ministry must approve all Kurdish exports. In a telling development, when in September Ankara and Baghdad renewed the lease on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports Iraqi oil to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast for on-shipment, the agreement stipulated that all such exports have to be approved by Iraq’s state marketing board. This clause was a political setback for the Kurds, who had been harboring hopes of circumventing the center through direct bilateral deals and a separate pipeline.
Turkey faces the region’s uncertain future with great wariness. It maintains good relations with Tehran, the better to shape its behavior, but receives reprimands from its Western allies when it pursues separate deals on the nuclear front and imports Iranian gas at a time when the UN is tightening sanctions. It is pushing for sturdier ties with Baghdad, despite its strong misgivings about its leadership’s loyalties. And it uses the Kurds as a potential buffer against the feared emergence of a pro-Iranian regime (or utter chaos) in Iraq. But will Ankara be able to prevent the mini-state it is building up from acting on its deepest aspirations?
A Blinded Cyclops
For the US, the 1979 embassy takeover and humiliating hostage crisis were the insult that came on top of the injury of losing its policeman in the Gulf, the Shah. Subsequent policies have been colored and distorted by an Iran phobia that has hardly served to advance US interests, from the tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war to the perverse Iran-contra affair, the unwillingness to reach out seriously to the Iranian regime or court its people (despite the attempted shift in emphasis under Obama). In recent years, Washington has been obsessed with Iran’s nuclear program, while failing to recognize that what propels the regime is a profound insecurity that derives from feeling encircled, besieged and disrespected by the US and its friends.
US support of Iraq during the war -- aid and trade, intelligence data critical to the war effort, reflagging of oil tankers -- empowered Saddam Hussein to the point he felt he had the green light to sack Kuwait two years later. And so the US lashed out at Iraq, upending its Kuwait adventure and eviscerating Iraqi society while leaving the regime in place. For Iran this turn was a godsend, an opportunity to rebuild without fear of renewed confrontation with an unpredictable neighbor, to arm itself in order never again to be so exposed and vulnerable. These developments paid short shrift with Washington’s dual containment approach, as one target rose and the other sank. Thus the pendulum began to swing; Iraq no longer constituted a meaningful threat to Western interests, while Iran’s perceived nuclear ambitions were seen to pose a much more important, strategic menace. But whatever plans existed to ease the Iranians off their chosen course landed in the dustbin with George W. Bush’s rash decision to remove Saddam and remake Iraq.
If the 2003 invasion was intended partly to send a message to Tehran, the one that was received by the regime merely said that while the US had the military power to change regimes, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to rebuild the affected societies tied down its troops, perhaps indefinitely. And so while Iran was alarmed by having a large hostile military force on its southern and western borders, it felt comforted by the fact that the US was flailing wildly, incapable of fixing anything and, least of all, of projecting itself elsewhere. Worse, from the US perspective, Iran gained from the removal of a hostile regime and the staging of elections that brought a kindred group to power. So far Iran has not been contained and its regime has not been changed. What alternative approach remains?
The US finds itself overstretched militarily and distracted by both pressing domestic concerns and dangers further afield. The American public has expressed no appetite for an extended US military stay in Iraq that would seek to stabilize the country to the point that it could once again play its traditional role of balancing power against Iran. This reality is most disconcerting to US allies in the region, from the Gulf to the Caspian Sea, all of whom fear a resurgent Iran, especially an Iran potentially armed with nuclear weapons. The Arab Gulf monarchies’ anxiety about Iran is crystal-clear in Saudi King ‘Abdallah’s injunction to Washington to “cut the head off the snake,” revealed in the State Department cables publicized by Wikileaks in December. The Saudis and their fellows are concerned as well that Shi‘i Islamists have emerged unbowed from the Iraqi power struggles following the March elections, while the Kuwaitis in particular are disgruntled that Iraqi debt from the 1980s war perdures. In the view of these US allies, and despite clear limits on Iran’s ability to project itself in the region, the outcome of the Iran-Iraq war is now becoming clear: The Iranians have won because Washington dropped the ball.
Where To from Here?
Every war has unintended consequences, which continue to reverberate in myriad and unpredictable ways. Iraq’s September 1980 invasion did not defeat, but reinvigorated, the Islamic Republic. The US tilt toward Iraq aimed at preventing the mullahs in Tehran from spreading their revolution throughout the Gulf, but built up a bully, who went into Kuwait to grab what he thought belonged to Iraq, thus destabilizing the entire region. Support of Iraqi chemical attacks through detailed satellite intelligence was designed to prevent an Iranian victory, but also encouraged the introduction of a new and very dangerous generation of chemical agents on the battlefield, as well as the unprecedented wholesale gassing of population centers. It then set off a race between Iran and Iraq to develop biological and nuclear weapons, raising the specter of regional proliferation. Two decades of containing Iran were subsequently undone by the botched post-2003 US state-building project in Iraq, which opened the way for Iran to regain supremacy in the Gulf. The effort to corral Kurdish irredentism during the Iran-Iraq war convinced the Kurds, trading on atrocities tolerated by Washington, to press for a quasi-independent entity protected by both the US and Turkey, and perhaps independence beyond. And so on.
In the process, hundreds of thousands were killed; many more were wounded. Many still suffer from war-related injuries (especially from mustard gas), or more commonly from unhealed emotional scars. For example, many prisoners of war never returned home, their fate unknown, preventing closure. Entire peoples have been traumatized, while the region remains profoundly unsettled. To what end?
One could debate interminably the question of whether any of this mess could have been prevented. It is all too easy to second-guess decisions taken two or three decades ago when circumstances -- the Cold War, the fact that Iraq’s near-totalitarian system offered no unmonitored (if any) access, the novelty of the Islamic Revolution, the wrenching hostage crisis, total ignorance of the Kurds and what drove them -- were so radically different from what they are today. Various research endeavors seek to reexamine this history now that more documents have become available and some of the policymakers and intelligence analysts from that time have started to speak out. The joint oral history project of MIT’s Center for International Studies, the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) and the National Security Archives at George Washington University, which focuses on US-Iran relations, is particularly noteworthy, as is the discussion encouraged by Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 project. 
Regardless of the wisdom of decisions taken, what is telling is the absence of concerted moral outrage at the height of the atrocities committed during the Iran-Iraq war. One can blame the lack of access to either country (including Kurdistan), but a great deal was widely known at the time or shortly afterward. The Halabja monstrosity made it on to prime-time television. Clearly, whatever moral furor was expressed did not affect policy. As previously, and as so often since, geostrategic considerations trumped the protection of vulnerable populations. Wars are never paeans to humanity, of course, but the callous disregard of the victims in this conflict by not only the perpetrators but also the enablers and informed bystanders is especially shocking.
Since the clock cannot be turned back, it is incumbent upon all concerned to work indefatigably to expose, demystify and challenge the destructive policies of the various governments involved and those they support in the common pursuit of the peaceful resolution of intractable conflicts. Let that challenge become a more positive legacy of this wretched war.
Author’s Note: This article is based on a keynote speech delivered at “Reappraising the Iran-Iraq War Thirty Years Later,” a conference held at the London School of Economics in September 2010. I thank Zaid al-Ali, Malcolm Byrne and Hugh Pope for their helpful comments on a draft.
 See International Crisis Group, Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces Between US Drawdown and Withdrawal (Brussels, October 2010).
 See Joost Hiltermann, “Iran’s Nuclear Posture and the Scars of War,” Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2005.
 See Joost Hiltermann, “To Protect or To Project? Iraqi Kurds and Their Future,” Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).
 The project’s website, http://hyperstudio.mit.edu/projects/us-iran/, is expected to go live in early January 2011.