As we know, the reason, Israel can justify it brutality and mass killing of Palestinian civilians is because the notion of ‘collateral damage’ is accepted as an inevitable result of military warfare. However, there was an exception to this consensus during the first 9 months of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which challenges the consensus and shows the way out.
In September 1980, the Iraqi army invaded Iran. Saddam believed that he could defeat the Iranian army in less than a week. As the religious clergy had decapitated and severely demoralized the Iranian army by executing, imprisoning and expelling more than 12,000 army officers. However, when the democratically elected president Abol-Hassan Banisadr became commander-in-chief of the army, he removed the principle of ‘blind obedience’, democratized the authoritarian command and control of the army structure, kicked the clergy out of army barracks and became a constant presence on the front lines. There was an immense rise of patriotism within the army’s rank and file and Saddam’s dream turned into a nightmare of a war that he could not win.
In desperation, he decided to resort to creating terror within the Iranian population. He attacked some of Iran’s frontier cities with missiles, leading to thousands of casualties. Banisadr visited one of those that were destroyed, in city of Dezful, and in which many had been killed. The furious people demanded that he retaliate by attacking Iraqi cities. Banisadr recalls:
» to my experience during the war with Iraq, while the Iranian air force had dominated Iraq’s sky, the Iraqi military used missiles against some Iranian cities which killed and injured many civilians. I resisted demands for revenge and ordered the air force not to carry out any mission, which might lead to collateral damage in Iraq. As a result, when sirens sounded in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqi civilians ran not for shelter but to the roofs of their houses to see the planes as they were certain that they were not targets. This method weakened Saddam Hussain’s propaganda for mobilising Iraqi public opinion in the war with Iran. It became one of the main reasons that, nine months after he invaded Iran, he agreed to end the war and pay hefty compensation. «
What he (Banisadr) was referring to was survivors of Iraq's attacks on the cities were demanding a revenge attack and he had refused to order one. Once again, at the time, we can see his refusal in his daily report to the people, referring to negotiations with the ‘Eight mediating Islamic Countries Committees’ (Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Yaser Arafat.) who were trying to end the war. On one of the occasions, he wrote:
"After Mr. (Ahmed) Sékou Touré, (president of Guinea at the time) finished talking, I responded that from the beginning (of the war) we had recruited peaceful methods. Methods that we are still using while the war is happening Have patience and come with us to the front. Then you will see what I tell you with your own eyes. We are able to make an aerial attacks on Iraqi cities, and a land attack with our missiles and canons. Until now we have resisted the increasing pressure of the people who are under the fire of Iraqi warplanes, missiles and canons. We haven’t (retaliated) and attacked any Iraqi cities. (23 April 1980) (1)
We see the same policy, around six months before before Iraq's invasion of Iran, the Komeleh Party (a Kurdish Stalinist–Maoist organization, which was backed by Saddam Hussein and Shapur Bakhtiar, Shah’s last prime minister. Who was trying to overthrow the revolutionary regime.) attacked a military convoy on its way to the Iraqi border. They inflicted casualties and then attacked the army's headquarters in the city of Sanandaj, while entrenching themselves in people’s houses. In order to break the siege, Banisadr not only refused to use the Airforce and heavy weaponry in the town, but made a direct order that the military should not inflict civilian casualties, at the cost of receiving themselves. Hence, the military operation that could have broken the siege in a few hours by inflicting a high level of casualties lasted 23 days as the army had to use only light weaponry to spare the lives of civilians.
Unfortunately, the Iranian clergy conducted a coup against Banisadr in June 1981, (2) which few people know about today as its story has been stolen from the history of the revolution. It was after this coup that the clergy began to retaliate and attack Iraqi cities.
It was because of this policy that the Iraqi army increasingly lost motivation to fight an army that saw and treated them as human. The treatment of Iraqi prisoners was so humane, that the Red Cross, twice praised Iran’s treatment of Iraqi prisoners.
Partly, because of these methods, The Iranian army was able to liberate half of the land that it lost to Iraq, and Saddam Hussein agreed to end the war, remove Iraqi forces from the remaining Iranian land and pay a hefty compensation. This was the very thing the clergy did not want, as in order to establish and solidify their dictatorship they needed to continue the war. Hence, while the coup against Banisadr interrupted his policy of not attacking civilians, it demonstrates that ‘collateral damage’ cannot and should not be justified.
1. Enghelabe Eslami News Paper, issue: 521
2. For detailed analysis of the coup, see: Editor: Fatima Waqi Sajjad, ”Peace as Liberation”, Mahmood Delkhasteh, ‘The June 1981 Coup: The Stolen Narrative of the Iranian Revolution. Springer Publishing Co, Ohio-USA, 2023) pp. 156- 182