by Narges Bajoghli
“When I was 22, I went to war…I went to war, and it became clear to me that I never wanted to go to war again,” Secretary John Kerry reportedly said, choking up, at a closed-door session with all of the foreign ministers present at the Vienna International Center, once a deal was struck. Kerry’s experiences in war are the apparent reason the secretary of state pursued the Iran nuclear talks with such determination. Kerry was referring to his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War, the last American war fought almost exclusively in close combat, with a large number of fatalities and grave physical and psychological injuries to many of the American soldiers who served, not to mention Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
Secretary Kerry’s desire to prevent war after having experienced its horrors firsthand has a parallel on the Iranian side as well. Anti-war sentiment also played a significant role in the Iranian decision to seek out diplomacy, and it is a story rarely told.
A significant number of Iranian veterans of the Iran-Iraq War played a substantial role in putting consistent pressure on Iranian politicians to seek a peaceful way to resolve the country’s problems with the West. “War is horrible. War is the most horrible thing in the world,” Ahmad, a veteran and leading peace activist in Iran said to me in 2011, while I was filming a documentary in the country on the effects of the Iran-Iraq War on veterans. The specter of war loomed large at that point, and when I asked him if he’d allow his sons to fight if there were an attack on Iran, he said: “I hope there isn’t an attack. But I never want them to go through what I went through. That’s why we have to stop a war before it even starts.”
Much like the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was a bloody and prolonged conflict that claimed the lives of endless young soldiers and maimed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. Today, Iran is home to 100,000 survivors of chemical weapons, the largest number in the world. Iraq indiscriminately dropped chemical bombs over Iran starting as early as 1981. In addition to veterans who suffer from collapsing lungs, blinded eyes, and melted skin from those chemical bombs, tens of thousands of veterans have been confined to wheelchairs since the war, legs blown off by bombs, limbs mangled by land mines, and spines crushed under tons of concrete.
A group of veterans devoted to peace started a NGO called the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support. Devoted to raising awareness about survivors of chemical warfare, the group has focused on victims who were not receiving the attention and care they needed. Slowly, this group began to organize in the early 2000s to offer a different voice from the one that the Islamic Republic often ascribed to them about the glories of war and martyrdom for their country. This group of peace-seeking veterans had a different message: war is one of the most terrifying experiences a person can go through—it should not be glorified and it should never be courted. Slowly, this group began to make contact with peace organizations around the world and began sending delegations to international peace conferences to learn how to create a culture of peace in a country still reeling from the consequences of the longest conventional war of the 20th century.
Under Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, himself a veteran of the war, this group of peace activists received the building permits and funding to create Iran’s first-ever Peace Museum, which opened it’s doors to the public in 2011, and has won prestigious national and international awards for its work. It is now one of the most visited museums in the country. The Tehran Peace Museum is a stark reminder of the destruction of war. Its walls are covered with the horrors of armed conflicts around the world and the grave suffering that soldiers and civilians have endured for political means.
“I don’t regret fighting in the 1980s and losing my legs. We were under attack, after all, and I had to defend my country,” Mohammad, one of the leaders of the museum, said to me from his wheelchair. “But I gave my legs and we went through hell with the hopes that no other generation in Iran would have to experience war.” With his mangled hands, also destroyed from the bomb that landed near him, he flips through photos he’s scanned to his iPhone, showing me all the injured soldiers he met in his days recuperating in the hospital.
For the hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, even if they did not get injured directly, they know a fellow soldier from their battalion that did. Every veteran of that war was affected by the death of a close friend, trauma from trench warfare, and knowledge of their fellow soldiers living with oxygen masks due to chemical weapons exposure. That includes the numerous veterans from the war that now sit in high offices in the political echelons of the Islamic Republic. The horrors of war are never far off: they simply have to look to friends from their battalions who fared far worse than they did.
Ali, who served six of the eight years at the front and came away with minor injuries, is currently a captain in the naval forces of the Revolutionary Guard. Discussing the possibility of a new war in Iran in 2012, he said to me: “Those who champion war think it’s like sitting behind their television screens as they play video games. There is nothing glorious about war. Our population suffered enough in the 1980s. It doesn’t need to suffer again.”
Once the peace veterans began to organize and receive international attention for their work, they had a powerful platform from which to address their former brothers in battle who now held political offices in the Islamic Republic. Both formally and informally, these veterans-turned-peace activists lobbied those in political positions to keep peace in Iran and reminded them of the horrors they all went through as young men.
Key in the political make-up of the Islamic Republic is the fact that the newest generation of politicians in the country have experienced war first-hand. Not all are peace-advocates, but the peace activists in Iran who are veterans, most of whom are hospitalized many months a year due to exposure to chemical weapons, or who have had their legs blown off, command a great deal of respect from all veterans in the country. They can pressure the government without risking of the kind of blowback other activists face. And they used their position to lobby for a peaceful resolution to Iran’s isolation due to the nuclear program.
In hundreds of interviews with veterans in Iran from all political stripes, I heard the constant refrain that “war is horrible.” Even for those who hold hardline views against the west, none of them wanted their children to experience what they had. Given Secretary Kerry’s remarks, in the end, it seems to be the men on both the American and Iranian sides who experienced bloody wars firsthand, that wanted to most avoid a new conflict.
Photo: Tehran Peace Museum director Mohammad Reza Taghipoor Moghadam commemorates the 28th anniversary of the Sardasht gas attacks (courtesy of Tehran Peace Museum).