How Iran's leaders view war with Iraq

The invasion of southwestern Iran by Iraqi forces last September, contrary to many prognoses at that time, proved to be the second major rallying point for the Iranian revolution. (The first was the seizure of the American hostages.)

Now, despite continuing signs of political and economic chaos in Tehran, the Iranians appear to have started a serious counterattack against the invaders in the south. Early in January they were able to show more than 400 captured Iraqi troops to foreign news crews.

The Iraqi government apparently had hoped the impact of its original thrust into Iran would cause the revolution to fall apart at the hands of warring tribesmen, wrangling politicians, and digruntled military men.

During my recent visit to Iran, I found a lively debate there about the conduct of the war, but no question whatever that all Iranians should get together to fight it.

The country's politicians divide roughly into two major groups when discussing war aims against Iraq. One group, which includes President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, most Army leaders, and lay nationalists such as former Premier Mehdi Bazargan, see the prime aim as being to force the Iraqi troops back to their side of the joint border.

Others, such as Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai, most of the scores of thousands of Revolutionary Guards, and many clerics, call for prolonging the war until the Islamic revolution "matures" inside Iraq itself.

However, within this framework there are many nuances. One of President Bani-Sadr's closest aides stressed to me, "There is no disagreement between the Imam [Khomeini] and Bani-Sadr over continuing the war until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein falls. Bani-Sadr wants an Islamic revolution in Iraq, but he disagrees with the Imam over the priorities."

For Mr. Bani-Sadr, aides stress, top priority in the war effort goes to ensuring Iran's continued independence from the great powers.

"He is afraid that if the war lasts too long, we will need spare parts and other materiel, which would mean making concessions to the big powers," one co-worker explains.

A key critic of such views is Hojatolislam Ali Khameini, who is Ayatollah Khomeini's personal representative in the national Higher Defense Council (HDC) and who represents the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) organization in the key front-line operations room in Ahvaz.

"It was natural up to now that when two small states had a border war and destroyed their war goods, to obtain more they would have to go to one ore another big power," Khameini admitted to me.

"But the truth of our situation is different. We have broken all previous political equations in the world. When the battle was at its height with America we never gave an ear to the Soviets. Khomeini annoyed the West and made the East despair."

The hojatolislam, wearing military clothes as he talked to me in the incongruously gracious surroundings of the Ahvaz operations room, revealed that he twice had received a special envoy sent to Iran by French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. "He argued that we had common interests and could work together," Khameini laughingly recalled.

"But we refused and closed the door. And now, as you know, France is one of the greatest arms suppliers to Iraq."

Khameini said that self-reliance and local creativity would be sufficient to maintain Iran's fighting capability. He rejected suggestions that a long war could reflect badly on Iran's internal situation.

"In our position as a revolutionary society, the war leads to strengthening the revolutionary understanding, the values and relations which the revolution brought to the society," he said. "In Islamic society, anyway, there is no war as understood outside, but there is jihadm [Muslim holy campaign] for the sake of God, which sometimes takes the form of a war.

Khameini foresaw one of two major paths for the future of the war. "The minimum, which we see as the most likely, is that we allow the Iraqis to stay on our land for up to some weeks more. And we drain them and destroy them on this land before they withdraw, and we don't give them the opportunity to withdraw. . . .

"But maybe outside factors will intervene, in which case the maximum prognosis could operate. In this case, the war would become a long-term war of attrition."

Khameini saw little prospect of great-power intervention. "True, they would enter if they could," he said, "to bring down this Islamic republic with a quick and decisive blow. . . .

"But America is not confident of its internal situation, and unable to rely on being able to enter a long total war as in Vietnam, which perhaps could lead to a world war.

"Also, as regards the Soviet Union, its capabilities don't allow it to enter such a war."

For Prime Minister Rajai, it is important, as he himself told me, that: "The method we use in this war should be the Islamic method."

"We hope," he added, "that the war may be a route to exporting the Islamic revolution."

Mr. Rajai thus went to the heart of a dilemma facing all the Iranian revolutionaries, and which has been brought to the fore by the Iraqi invasion: To what extent should their aim be the building (and defense) of a model Islamic state in Iran, and to what extent should it be the export of the revolution?

For Imam Khomeini the ultimate goal is very clear. "The Imam sees the war on the basis of his fixed strategy," people very close to him say. "This is continuing efforts to revive the great state of Islam, and the emergence of Islam as a third force to confront the East and the West."

In the worst days of the war for Iran, when it seemed that such unity of purpose could never be possible or effective, Khomeini walked out to the balcony of his house to talk to the thousands gathered there. Those were the days when the Iranians were taking such a battering most outsiders were amazed they still refused mediation with Iraq.

Unknown to most, some months before, the Imam had sent letters to leaders of the numerous Shiite communities inside Iraq promising them never to do a deal with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whom he regards as another "great satan."

"If we dealt with Saddam now," he asked his listeners from the balcony, "how would our people in Iraq think of us after?"

And it was this uncompromising sense of purpose that the revolutionary leaders proceeded to prepare their counterattack.

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