Iran's Memory of War

Karbala Four and the Iran-Iraq War's Legacy

Mourners at a funeral in Tehran for IRGC general Hossein Hamedani, killed while advising the Syrian army near Aleppo, October 2015.  Reuters

In May 2015, the Iranian Committee to Find Missing Soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War announced the discovery—and imminent return—of 270 bodies in the southern Iraqi towns of Abu Falous, Al-Faw, and Majnoon. Although most bodies could not be individually identified, 175 were determined to belong to combat divers killed or captured in 1986 during Operation Karbala Four, a failed attempt by Iran to capture the Iraqi oil port of Basra.

Since the end of the war, the return of soldiers’ remains has been a regular occurrence in Iran. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, tens of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi families have yet to hear what happened to their missing sons. In Iran, unknown soldiers occupy a place of particular importance in the context of a war that has come to be known as “the holy defense.” There is even a vocabulary built around them: shahid-e gomnan (nameless martyr) is distinct from shahid (martyr), and the former is treated with even greater respect. As one Iranian war poem says, “to be unknown is only an affliction to those seeking a name; the nameless are the greatest sacrifice.”

Yet the discovery of the divers was still unusual. To begin with, there was the sheer number of bodies. But more important to the Iranian public was the gruesome revelation by the head of the committee, Seyyed Mohammad Bagherzadeh, that the divers appeared to have been buried alive with their hands tied behind their backs. “These are the same atrocities being committed by takfiris today,” he said, using the derogatory term for Sunni extremists who kill Shiites and other minorities they accuse of apostasy.

Stories of the divers went viral on Iranian social media. The Instagram account of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, featured a poster of divers underwater looking toward a light, above gold-colored Persian calligraphy reading, “Hearts of the sea, those who break the lines [of the enemy].” Pop singer Reza Yazdani uploaded a drawing of underwater coffins

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