TEHRAN: With its air raid simulator and battlefield reconstructions, the state-of-the-art Holy Defence Museum in Tehran seeks to glorify the Iran-Iraq war as a time when the country faced down “the whole world”.
As Iranians prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the devastating conflict on Monday, they are being urged to display the same steadfastness as country after country falls in line with crippling unilateral sanctions being reimposed by Washington after its abandonment of a landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.
“The message of the museum is perseverance, resistance and the protection of our honour,” deputy director Seyyed Mohsen Hajbabian said.
“We teach younger generations the spirit of combat. Iraq was backed by the whole world and Iran was alone in defending itself, but thanks to God… we were victorious in this war.”
For Iranians, it is “the imposed war”, started by Iraq’s then-leader Saddam Hussein on September 22, 1980 and ended by a ceasefire on August 20, 1988.
The Iraqi dictator sought to present himself as a bulwark against the revolutionary ideology of the fledgling Islamic republic, which had overthrown the pro-Western shah only a year earlier, and which was seen as a major threat to the Gulf monarchies and other Arab autocracies.
The resulting war was the longest of the 20th century, a ruinous conflict of attrition that has often drawn parallels to the First World War in Europe.
It ultimately led nowhere, ending with zero territorial gains for either side even if it reinforced Saddam’s grip on power in Iraq, as well as that of the Islamic republic in Iran.
But the human cost was horrifying.
Although the often-cited figure of a million dead may be an exaggeration by both sides, according to French historian Pierre Razoux, he still estimates a total of 680,000 lives lost.
Of those, Iran bore by far the heavier losses, with around 500,000 dead or missing, he said.
Built by the Tehran municipality, the Holy Defence Museum opened its doors in 2012 and receives more than 300,000 visitors per year, Hajbabian said.
On a recent summer afternoon, it was mostly young men and groups of school children on trips organised by Islamic institutions.
In the first halls, the visitor is plunged into the ruins of Khorramshahr, the border town in the southwest that was seized by the Iraqi army on October 24, 1980 and still bears some of the worst scars of the war.
The “bombing raid simulator” recalls the terror of air strikes suffered by Iranian cities, replete with trembling walls and floors.
There are models of the refineries targeted with missile strikes by both sides, as the belligerents sought to sap each other’s energy reserves and main source of income.
The museum also glorifies the immense public mobilisation that saw everyone from children to pensioners sign up and sacrifice themselves as martyrs at the front.
An audio commentary in Persian, English and Arabic accuses “numerous Western media of… serving as a platform for the Iraqi regime” by closing their eyes to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons.
Photo montages recall the support Western powers, Arab monarchies and the then Soviet Union all gave to Saddam.
There is no mention, however, of the support Iran received from Israel now its mortal enemy but then both sharing a greater fear of Saddam’s brutal regime.
Nor is there any discussion in the museum of the weapons provided by the United States under the highly controversial Iran-Contra deal, in which Tehran was supplied with arms in exchange for help in securing the release of hostages held by Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“Now I have a deeper and more profound understanding of the war,” said one young visitor, Ali Jafarzadeh, at the exit.
“We fought the whole world, who supported Iraq, and we resisted for eight years.”
With tensions mounting between Tehran and Washington over renewed sanctions, he says he is ready to participate “without fail” in any new conflict “to defend my country”.