Thirty years ago today, at Iran’s behest and supported by Hafez al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah attacked the US embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. The embassy bombing, which took place during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, touched off a series of Iranian-backed terrorist attacks against US and allied interests in Lebanon and beyond. Still, the Iran-Iraq war is being evoked today as the model of stalemated conflict that the US should pursue in Syria.
The administration has communicated through the media its concern over too swift a rebel victory in Syria, which it believes will result in the triumphant rise of jihadi groups. The solution, say some, is to let the Assad regime’s Iranian backers and the Sunni jihadis fight it out in the Syrian battlefield, leaving our two regional foes devoted to killing each other—like Iraq and Iran did in the 1980’s. Rather than back one side to win, the US would prefer, to paraphrase former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, both sides lose.
This argument rests on a few contentions, which can be summarized as follows: a protracted war of attrition would bleed both sides and limit their ability to project power elsewhere or harm US interests. With neither side having won, both would emerge severely weakened from the stalemated conflict—just as Iran and Iraq did.
Regardless of the merits of the analogy, the reality is that this is not an accurate reading of how the Iran-Iraq war played out. A quick perusal of the historical record shows that, in fact, both sides continued to pose a problem for the US.
In the case of Iraq, the regime of Saddam Hussein, bankrupted by a decade of war, proceeded to invade Kuwait and compelled the US to land its forces in the region. As for Iran, it is precisely this period in the 1980’s that we associate most with Iranian terrorism against the US and its allies.
The Iran-Iraq war divided the region into two camps, much like the Syrian war today. The Gulf Arab states and Jordan backed the Iraqis, whereas Syria stood with Iran. Tehran had also established a base in Lebanon through Hezbollah and maintained ties with various Iraqi Shiite groups, who likewise had a presence in Beirut. To be sure, the Iraqi regime had its own proxies in Lebanon, and the Iran-Iraq war became yet another subset in the multiple wars that were being waged in the tiny country.
But Lebanon was hardly the only proxy theater. Iran, along with its Lebanese and Iraqi assets, began striking at Gulf Arab states supporting Iraq. Kuwait was the main theater of operations, and between 1983 and 1988, the small Gulf emirate witnessed a series of attacks by Hezbollah and the Iraqi Islamic Da’wa party, under the direction of Iran.
In December 1983, a series of bombings targeted Kuwaiti infrastructure and installations, as well as the American and French embassies in Kuwait. One of the 17 men arrested in Kuwait was none other than Mustapha Badreddine, brother-in-law and successor of Hezbollah’s late military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. The attack against the US and France in Kuwait came after Hezbollah’s bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in April, and the twin bombings of the US Marine barracks and French paratrooper barracks in October. By September of the following year, Hezbollah had struck the US embassy annex in Awkar as well.
Iran, at times with help from its Syrian ally, also targeted French diplomats and US intelligence officers in Lebanon. Hezbollah began a wave of kidnappings of Americans and other Westerners in Lebanon—including CIA station chief William Buckley. Hezbollah’s practice of abducting Western citizens persisted throughout the 1980’s. The Shiite group also hijacked a Kuwaiti airliner in 1984 and a TWA flight in 1985, which resulted in the murder of US Navy diver Robert Stethem. The attacks on France, meanwhile, weren’t confined to the Middle East, as by 1985-1986, bombs were going off in Paris.
Far from signaling weakness and retrenchment, the lesson the Iranians drew from their terrorist activity in the 1980’s was that when the West is hit, it flinches. In November 1987, the French released an Iranian suspect in a September 1986 bombing in Paris. The release was part of a broader deal with Tehran that saw the release of the French consul in Iran and a couple of French hostages held by Hezbollah in Beirut. The deal also included the return to the Iranians of $700 million that France was holding. Furthermore, the following month, the French government expelled Iranian opposition figures.
The US also blinked. Not only was there no retaliation for the attacks against the US in Beirut, but also soon thereafter, the Americans packed up and left Lebanon. Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of the US as a paper tiger could have only been confirmed by the outcome in Beirut.
Iran never paid a price for its attacks against the US, and now has become the most significant threat in the region, not to mention a soon-to-be nuclear power. Its Hezbollah asset effectively controls Lebanon, possesses thousands of rockets and some strategic weapons systems, and operates a criminal enterprise with tentacles all over the world.
The argument against pushing aggressively for Assad’s fall is based on a faulty reading of the Iran-Iraq war and how it affected the two sides' behavior. The Iranians waged a clandestine war against the US and its allies, which continues to this very day. In the end, the eight-year stalemated war with Iraq did not result in weakening Iran’s strategic position in the region over the long term. If anything, it was US prestige that was damaged in those years. Allowing Tehran's Syrian ally to hang on for an extended period of time hurts America's interests—not Iran's.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.