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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 wrapped in Iranian flags, captioned, “They died so we could be here.” Taraneh Alidoosti, a popular actress, posted an image “in the memory of the 175 divers,” featuring a diver with angel wings floating in blood-soaked water, his hands tied behind his back. Writers and historians who had been quietly exploring the remnants of the war were suddenly met with an attentive public audience.
Alireza Kamari is one such writer. He works as research director of the Center for Art and Literature of Resistance at the Arts Seminary, an official arts and cultural institution established shortly after the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. Today, the seminary publishes books, produces movies, and curates museums, all loosely focused on the legacy of the revolution and war. Kamari oversees the publication of war literature. Remarking on the return of the soldiers’ bodies, he said, “The unknown soldier fits into the bigger story of the war, which we have framed within the Shiite narrative of Karbala. We see the war as the ultimate battle of the good versus the unjust.”
Kamari was referencing the seventh-century battle of Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, where the grandson of Muhammad, Imam Hussein, was ambushed by the Umayyad caliph Yazid and killed along with a small group of his supporters. Shiites revere Hussein and his followers to this day. “Many of the martyrs [at Karbala] did not even have graves; their bodies were lost forever,” Kamari said. During the war with Iraq, Iranian soldiers were portrayed as continuing Hussein’s war against tyranny; they were isolated defenders of justice in a hostile world.
During the war with Iraq, Iranian soldiers were portrayed as continuing Hussein’s war against tyranny; they were isolated defenders of justice in a hostile world.
The outrage about the discovery of the returned soldiers took a new turn on June 10, when Bagherzadeh announced that the media had misquoted his statement about the divers having been buried alive. He explained that only a “handful” of the divers had had their hands tied behind their backs. After listening to a number of eyewitness accounts, including from former Iraqi commanders, Bagherzadeh had come to the conclusion that the 175 divers were prisoners of war who had been executed by Iraqi forces and then buried. But by then the story had taken on a life of its own. The divers had already come to be known by the public as the ghavasan-e dast basteh, or “divers with their hands tied behind their backs.” In the popular imagination, these divers represented innocent victims of the violence that had been unleashed on Iran during the war years.
On Tuesday, June 16, a funeral ceremony for the martyred soldiers was held in Tehran’s Baharestan Square. On the day of the ceremony, the Tehran subways leading up to the square were choked with people dressed in funeral black. One woman I spoke to said that it took her 40 minutes to get out of the Baharestan metro station.
Leading up to the ceremony, it was uncertain how many people would attend. For one, it was scheduled for the afternoon of a hot summer workday. More importantly, there is a widespread ambivalence among many Iranians about state funerals, which are seen as political events co-opted by hard-line factions within the Islamic Republic. Yet half an hour before the ceremony’s 4 PM start time, the square and its connecting streets—vast, spacious avenues filled with landmarks such as the Sepahsalar Mosque and the old parliament building—were crowded with tens of thousands of people, and movement was nearly impossible.
The crowd at the divers’ funeral dwarfed those that normally appear for even the largest state rallies, such as the anniversary of the revolution, on February 11. Many Iranians brought flags and banners carrying political slogans: one, large and yellow, bore an atomic emblem with the words “We will stand to the end.” According to the flags, the martyrs had an opinion on everything: the nuclear negotiations, the hijab, and even women’s attendance of volleyball games, which they opposed. Parviz Esmaeili, President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy for communications and information, even felt compelled to remind protestors, via Instagram, that “martyrs are not tools,” and that “using them for political points is the greatest betrayal.”
The ceremony featured speeches by leading government officials such as Major General Mohsen Rezai, who commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for the duration of the war, and was centered on a procession in which the coffins of the returning soldiers, wrapped in Iranian flags, were driven through the crowd on open-backed cargo caravans.
Rezai began his speech an hour and a half later than scheduled. When I managed to get near Rezai’s podium, a teenage boy told me to go “stand in the back with the rest of the women.” Men and women are separated at these events, because the men fear making bodily contact. “Let her stay. She wants to risk it,” another man standing nearby said. In his speech, Rezai warned of the challenges that Iran faces, and called for solidarity: “In a situation where we needed to show unity and revolutionary anger, such a turnout today is very meaningful. Today, Daesh”—ISIS—“is within 35 kilometers of Baghdad, [and] it was necessary for the Iranian people to send them a message.”
Back in the crowd, I found myself squished next to a mother and her three children, the youngest of whom wanted to go home. The mother said, “Did I ask you to come? Who begged me to come? Stop whining!” He quieted down and laughed with his sister, but a moment later, his mother screamed as he was nearly run over by the crowd pushing to move forward. Two men yelled at the crowd to “give room to the women and children.” After recovering from her shock, the mother saw me, and told me to hold on to a corner of her black chador for protection. “We’ll walk together,” she said.
Following the speech, mourning music blasted from loudspeakers as the coffins were driven through the crowd in nearby Jomhouri Street. There was a crush of people attempting to get close enough to catch a glimpse of the martyrs’ coffins. It was nearly impossible to see the caravan in the mass of bodies, but the location of the trucks could be inferred from the sudden sound of people breaking into tears. Onlookers shared a grief that was momentary but intense; the coffins were remains not just of individuals but of the war. Iranians who had begun to enjoy the comforts of peacetime were forced to ask themselves what they owed to the dead.
The Iran-Iraq War was a result of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s assumption that Iran would be internally weak and diplomatically isolated following its 1979 revolution. (Around 12,000 officers had been purged from Iran’s formidable Shah-era military.) But in invading in 1980, Saddam had severely underestimated his neighbors’ willingness to fight. Then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for an “army of twenty million” to defend the revolution, and young Iranians responded: the newly formed IRGC paramilitary and Basij armed militia, mostly made up of amateur volunteers, were forced to act as a standing army. They would come to be known as the pasdaran, or protectors.
By 1981, the pasdaran had halted the Iraqi advance, and by 1982 Iraq was in full retreat. Yet Iranian success alarmed the U.S. foreign policy establishment and other Arab powers, which began to share funds, supplies, and military intelligence with Iraq. Iran’s sole Arab supporter was Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar. Iran’s diplomatic isolation was reflected at the UN Security Council, which passed seven resolutions over the course of the war calling for a cease-fire. None acknowledged Iraq as the aggressor—a nonnegotiable Iranian demand. The council even refused to criticize Iraq by name when it announced mustard gas had been dropped on Iranian lines.
These slights further convinced Iran of its own persecution and the righteousness of its cause. The battle of Karbala was an obvious precedent, and one that fused the grim reality of the war with a myth of religious salvation. Many of the words Iranians still use to discuss the war today recall the epic, religious tone of that era: the dead are martyrs, the war was a “holy defense,” and war literature is the “art of resistance.” This dedication, however, would prove to be a strategic Achilles heel. Because Saddam was a heretic, the thinking went, nothing but his total surrender would be acceptable, despite the fact that it was well beyond Iran’s military capacity to force that surrender.
Many of the words Iranians still use to discuss the war today recall the epic, religious tone of that era: the dead are martyrs, the war was a “holy defense,” and war literature is the “art of resistance.”
By the middle of the decade, Iran, now on the front foot, was shifting between two strategic positions: jang jang ta pirouzi (war, war until victory)and jang jang ta yek pirouzi (war, war until one victory). Hard-liners within the IRGC wanted to fight until the removal of Saddam, but more pragmatic figures, such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, wanted a single victory that would pressure Iraq to accept peace on Iran’s terms. Capturing the key oil city of Basra seemed the most plausible scenario, given its strategic significance to Iraq and proximity to Iran’s border.
In February 1986, after numerous failed ground offensives, Iran succeeded in capturing Iraq’s Al-Faw peninsula, less than 60 miles from Basra. Combat divers played an instrumental role in this operation, named Valfajr 8. Termed khat shekan (those who break the lines), divers swam the marshy waters of the Shatt-al-Arab River when tides were low, clearing the path of barbed wires and mines. Infantry followed them and quickly built bridge heads to transport troops over the river. Not anticipating an attack from the water, Iraq was caught by surprise.
After the capture of Al-Faw, Iranian commanders put forth a similar plan to capture Basra. Once again, Iranian divers would “break the lines,” clearing paths into the water, removing obstacles, followed by infantry forces who would move on through boats. These plans would culminate in Operation Karbala Four of December 1986.
In 1986, Ahmad was a 20-year-old engineering student in Tehran and a veteran of the Basij militia. In November, his deputy brigade commander called him at his dorm and asked if he could make it to the southern front for an upcoming operation. Ahmad discussed the matter with the other Basij volunteers in his dormitory. He preferred to stay behind and study. But speaking to me in Tehran a month after the divers’ funeral, Ahmad said, “We believed that the Iraqi war machine had to be stopped or it would always come back to haunt us.” They decided to go. Besides, he explained, Khomeini “had given a fatwa that when military commanders asked for troops, it is obligatory to join if within your means.” Ahmad would serve as his brigade’s radio officer, responsible for communicating with their base throughout the length of the operation.
On the evening of December 23, they were transported to Minoo Island, across the Shatt-al-Arab from Basra. “One of the hardest parts of battle was always the second when we had to walk out of our transport vehicle,” Ahmad said. “Reality would hit us, that we might not make it out alive, and our feet would become as heavy as rocks. We could not move.” Ahmad recalls reciting ayah 38 of Surah Tobah from the Koran, where men are asked, “O you who have attained to faith! What is amiss with you that, when you are called upon, ‘Go forth to war in God's cause,’ you cling heavily to the earth?”
The first phase of their plan was to capture Umm al-Rasas, an island across the water in Iraq. Ahmad’s infantry battalion would remain put until it got the go ahead from the divers, who were to mark the trail with underwater lights once the paths had been cleared. Ahmad recalls watching the divers hit the water in absolute darkness. But within ten minutes, Iraqi flares began lighting up the sky. “It was as if they were completely prepared, waiting for us,” Ahmad said. The Iraqi response began with heavy shelling and mortar bombs. The divers were first to face the fire, and most were killed immediately. Ahmad’s battalion would make its way to Umm al-Rasas in the dark.
On Umm al-Rasas, they “were barely trying to stay alive.” They could hear the sound of the dying, but were initially told to stay put. By 9 AM, Iraq began pounding their lines again, and Ahmad’s battalion was finally given orders to retreat. “Suddenly it was mayhem—people were trying to get on boats, the injured were begging for help.” In the rush to escape, Ahmad stripped off his clothes, keeping only his nylon chemical weapons protection, and swam across the river. On the Iranian side, he wrestled his way out of barbed wire, and walked half a kilometer through the palm trees to the main road. He hitched a ride to their base where he found his brigade. Less than half of the men were there.
“There were large groups of men sitting across the grounds, crying,” Ahmad said. “We were in shock; we couldn’t believe what had happened. What I remember feeling most was guilt, we had failed our people.” Their division commander, Mohammad Raoufi, attempted to comfort the men. Raoufi reminded them that they had acted on duty, and thus had suffered only a “lack of victory.” Ahmad said that later he “heard from other soldiers that some Iranians had defected to the Iraqi side, or that American intelligence had helped Iraq.” But he was “never certain what had happened.” This much is known: at least 1,000 Iranians died, 11,000 were wounded, and 4,000 were reported missing in action.
The operation was barely a footnote to the larger drama of the war. Tactically, it had been a disaster that was aborted within hours of its launch in December 1986. After a large buildup to the operation, the public was informed of its outcome, having only been told that the result was a “lack of victory.” When I asked a clerk at one of Tehran’s leading Iran-Iraq War publishing houses if he knew of any written sources on the operation, he exclaimed, “Miss, no one wants to talk about deception and failure!”
Some did. One of the first was Mohammad Doroodian, a historian of the Iran-Iraq War. Doroodian had began his writing career while working in the political office of the Revolutionary Guards as a “narrator of the war,” employed to document the conflict from the front lines. After the return of the bodies caught the public’s attention, he began to write regularly on his blog about the Karbala Four operation, “about which,” he explained, “no book has ever been written in Iran.” To Doroodian, the outpouring of emotion about the divers was an opportunity to begin exploring the legacy of the war, and especially the elements that had lain dormant for decades because of a lack of public interest.
The return of the divers’ bodies also prompted Ahmad to reconnect with his old comrades in a WhatsApp group, The Friends of Seyed Houshang, named after their deputy brigade commander (and combat diver) who was killed in Karbala Four. Now, the friends wonder whether the Iranian high command knew that Iraq was expecting them. Even Ahmad had been surprised by how openly everything was taking place the night of the operation—they could see Iranian cranes unloading boats on a beach that would have been visible from the Iraqi side of the river. Writing in Shahr-e Ketab magazine in September 2015, two former soldiers—one a diver battalion commander—claimed that Iran had known the operation was compromised, but went ahead anyway in order to surprise Iraq in the next offensive, Karbala Five.
"They died in excruciating conditions, but now we gather here, in comfort."
Iran did, in fact, go further toward Basra in Operation Karbala Five, launched two weeks later. Yet more than 30,000 Iranians were killed in the offensive, including a number of IRGC’s most celebrated commanders. Iraq would recapture Al-Faw by 1988 and move toward attacking Khorramshahr once more, forcing Iran to finally accept a cease-fire that year. Three years after the war, in 1991, UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, acting under Article 6 of the cease-fire, identified Iraq as the party responsible for starting the war. Iran had finally achieved one of its demands, but at an immense price.
Nearly two months after the funeral in Baharestan, a local education NGO in Tehran gathered in its office to celebrate the building of a new school. Ali, a doctor from the province of West Azerbaijan, was there to officially sign the agreement to fund a school in the Arab Seyd Aviyeh village of Abadan, Khuzestan province. Patrons were given the opportunity to choose the name of the school. “For months I was thinking of what I would want to call it,” Ali told me. But “with the bodies that were brought back, I knew.” He called it the School of the Martyred Divers.
One of the NGO’s directors, Bahar, is himself a veteran who lost his left leg in Operation Karbala Five. He gave the doctor a limited edition Shahnameh, a tenth-century poetic tale of Persian kings, as well as a cloth folded neatly on a silver tray. It is a piece of shroud that was put on one of the recently buried divers. As he bent slightly to offer the tray toward Ali, he smiled while his eyes filled with tears. After the obligatory photo, he hurried to the kitchen for some air. “We lost so many of our brightest boys,” he said, his voice shaking. “They died in excruciating conditions, but now we gather here, in comfort. We must remember them. That is all we can do.”