How Saddam’s ‘War of the Cities’ spawned Iran’s missile drive

The Iranians never forgot their sense of helplessness against Saddam’s military machine.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Haunted by the past. A surface-to-surface missile on display during a rally in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, last February. (AP)
Haunted by the past. A surface-to-surface missile on display during a rally in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, last February. (AP)

BEIRUT - Iran’s focus on building a powerful ballistic missile arsenal, which the Americans, Saudis and Israelis, among others, see as a major threat, has its origins in the 1980-88 war with Iraq in which major cities were subjected to merciless missile and air strikes in which thousands of civilians were killed or wounded.

The so-called War of the Cities involved five periods of systematic and intense bombardments with missiles, aircraft and even long-range artillery from February 1984, when Saddam Hussein ordered indiscriminate attacks on 11 Iranian cities, through February 1987.

In the first cluster of raids, at least 1,200 Iranian civilians were killed. All told, there were 13,000 Iranian casualties from those exchanges.

The objective was to inflict large civilian casualties to demoralise the infant Islamic Republic but the Iranians, despite being outgunned, became more determined to exact revenge and so was born the ballistic missile industry that worries the Americans so much.

The Iranians had few weapons with which to retaliate with the same intensity as the periodic raids mounted by the Iraqis, who had been aided by the United States. Eventually they acquired a handful of Soviet-era R-17 (Scud-B) short-range ballistic missiles from Russia and Libya and began blasting Baghdad and Iraqi cities.

They began developing their own Scud production lines and created an entire industry from scratch, an enterprise that has become a predominant element in Tehran’s dealings with the West.

“The wartime need for ballistic missiles, as well as Iran’s historical enmity with Israel, led Iran to develop its own missile industry,” observed Kyle Mizokami, a US defence expert. “The lack of accuracy of the missiles made cities the easiest targets and both Iranian and Iraqi civilians bore the brunt of the crude missile campaign.”

The Iranians never forgot their sense of helplessness against Saddam’s military machine and their inability to retaliate with long-range attacks on Iraqi cities.

“While the Scud-B was militarily insignificant due to its poor accuracy, Tehran perceived the missile as a strategic success given that it enabled Iran to strike deep inside Iraqi territory,” a July 2017 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative stated.

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