Studying War Torn Iran: The Effects of the Iran-Iraq War

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), numerous commentators and journalists wrote about the conflict that wreaked havoc on the two neighboring countries. Most observers emphasized the length and violence of the twentieth century’s longest conventional war. It has since inspired a new generation of scholars to investigate the visual and material culture that reshaped Iranian society as it responded to the historical exigencies of the war. Each presenter approaches the eight years during which the conflict raged as a distinct era that proffered a culture of its own, one that transformed the meaning of Iran and being Iranian. Within the last decade, there have been few but significant works on the subject, including those by Dina Khoury, Amatzia Baram, and Roxanne Varzi. This panel contributes to this surge of interest in the topic by exploring new and exciting directions the study of the conflict may take in the realms of diaspora studies, nationalism, modernity and technology, cultural history, and media studies.

The first panelist analyzes the exile of Iraq’s so-called Persians in order to prove that Iran forewent its responsibility to this community due to its desire to produce a more inclusivist nation-state model that integrated its Khuzestani Arabs. Just as the Islamic Republic approached nationalism radically differently because of the war, the regime also reconsidered its relationship to modernity. The second panelist examines the Islamic Republic’s depictions of Iraq’s comparatively advanced technology in order to demonstrate its use in portraying Iran as a victim of modernity’s uniquely destructive weaponry. The Islamic Republic’s interpretation of technology thus created an entirely new narrative of Iran’s relationship to modernity. The third presentation on the dissemination of Film Farsi investigates the new life breathed into the genre following the descent of Iranian media into morbid and violent depictions of war. Iranians transformed this censored entertainment to artifacts of a longed-for past, causing many to upload the films on the Internet and thus globalize the Film Farsi genre. The final panelist continues to interrogate the use of the Internet and argues digital media concerning the Iran-Iraq War has revolutionized its remembrance and commemorization.


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The Bath party, ruled by Saddam Hussein, exiled between one hundred to two hundred thousand ethnically Persian Iraqis to Iran. This community, which moved across the border to an unfamiliar land because of their supposed ethnicity, has been afforded surprisingly little more than brief mentions in the historiographies of Iran and Iraq. From the 1970s through the 1980s, “Persian” Iraqis were forced to divorce spouses, relinquish inheritance rights, and migrate to Iran. During the bloody eight-year war (1980-1988), both the Islamic Republic and the Bathists failed to integrate this community. These exiles, I argue, represent the counterpoint to the fight between the Bath and Islamic Republic to win the loyalties of historically marginalized communities, namely the Shias of Iraq and the Arabs of Iran. While Iran fiercely fought for the support of their Arab population and aggressively courted Shia Arab POWs, the regime strangely fumbled with Persian Iraqi exiles. I assert this proves both the Islamic Republic’s desire to weaken Iran’s ethnocentric nationalism as well as the vulnerability of this group (and any group, in fact) that held no historic claim to territory, like the Kurds of Kurdistan or Arabs of Khuzistan, which would give the Islamic Republic justification for annexation.

The definition of a Persian Iraqi was, after all, exceptionally nebulous. In fact, many scholars of Iraq have discussed the tendency among Sunni pan-Arabists to conflate Shia Arabs with Persians. Whether these “Persians” truly self-identified as such or were mistakenly assigned that identity by the state made the situation all the more complex. While Iraq assumed the loyalty of its “Persians” lied with Iran, as much as they expected the loyalties of Khuzestani Arabs lied with Iraq, I demonstrate that the Islamic Republic considered these Persians a liability and preferred they return back from where they came. Ultimately, neither wished to acknowledge this community as “native” to their territories. By engaging oral histories, literature, memoirs, print journalism, and documentaries produced during the conflict, I demonstrate the social and cultural frontier on which the Iran-Iraq War was fought and bring to light the stories of this forgotten community.

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When the Bath army invaded Iran on 22 September 1980, the new Iranian government was confronted by the challenge of convincing the world of Iran’s victimhood and exhorting Iranians to make the necessary sacrifices to fight what would become a long and grueling war. To meet it the Islamic Republic emphasized the destructive effects of Iraq’s use of aerial and artillery bombardment. As made clear by the literature comparing the two combatant’s respective arsenals, Iran began the war with a minor but nonetheless real material disadvantage that it never managed to overcome. While some scholars point to the social dislocations, economic implications, and geopolitical ramifications of the Iran-Iraq war, little attention has been paid, outside the fortunes and failures on the battlefield, to the role of modern armaments in the conflict. Especially unexplored is how that small but real difference in military capability influenced Iranian understandings and narratives of the war. Inheritors of the impressive Pahlavi arsenal, Iranian narratives of the war erased much of Iran’s advanced weaponry in favor of depictions that emphasized the humanity of Iranians. In order to study those narratives, my presentation will engage the diaries, memoirs, novels, film, and political posters produced during the period, as well as letters of the Iranian Mission to the United Nations.

This paper argues that depictions of Iraq’s advanced and destructive weaponry, in both official and private narratives, represented an important method by which Iranian society and the Islamic Republic defined itself. Often contrasted to Iran’s supposed lack of comparable technologies, Iraq and its soldiers became not inhuman or evil monsters but faceless technologies that attacked from afar and left Iranians suffering in their wake. Bombardment became a frame through which many of the inevitable experiences of war—death, dismemberment, pain, and deprivation—were brought into focus, overshadowing other sources of such hardships. The destruction wrought by Iraqi artillery and aircraft was further instrumental to the Islamic Republic’s bid to portray its country as an aggrieved victim worthy of world sympathy. While Iranians fought ferociously and victories were celebrated, ultimately the acceptance of suffering from bombardment carried the conviction of the country’s innocence. In portraying suffering Iranians as human and Iraqis as destructive machines, such depictions helped reinforce broader revolutionary narratives of a noble and humane Iran confronting a cold and immoral outside world.

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The introduction of the internet and proliferation of new media technologies have significantly affected commemorative practices by which nations remember, memorialize, and attempt to resolve memories of struggle, resistance, violence and war, and make the past meaningful in our present age. Similar to traditional memorial sites—namely street names, museums and monuments, which construct narratives of the past—websites of commemoration facilitate what the French historian Pierre Nora has called lieux of memoire, literally comprising “(web)sites of memory", or in short web-memorials. Although web-memorials, in general, lack the architectural impression of public monuments and statues situated in central public places and discharged from the sacredness attached to them, internet websites are more invariant and less static than other mnemonic devices. They present a fusion of various elements and contents (sound-image-text) in different contexts, resulting in de-temporalization and de-territorialization of places, times, and events, as they can be accessed at all times and from everywhere. Web-memorials also facilitate new strategies and techniques of remembering via different modes of connectivity. They are embedded and distributed through socio-technical practices, thus epitomizing a reconfiguration of human capacity to remember, for example, through applications of event reminders and ready-made condolence messages.

Within this theoretical framework, the paper explores the commemoration project of Iran's war martyrs by focusing on web-memorials and popular mnemonic schemes by which their remembrance is virally disseminated online. Web-memorials refer to a collection of websites dedicated to the memory of individuals, groups, events, or dates associated with Iran's martyrs of war that are endorsed by cultural authorities and state agencies, such as The Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs and The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. Identifying points of intersection between communication platforms (web-memorials), communication phenomena (narratives and representations), and collective memory makers, the paper will offer an updated account on martyrs' commemoration in post-war Iran and contribute new insights on its digitization.

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Following the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the government banned the majority of Iranian popular films from the mid-twentieth century, known as filmfarsi. Despite this purge, currently a plethora of these films are available online or through independent distributors outside of Iran. The films’ appearance online questions who and by what means these films have found new viewership. This paper seeks to understand the networks and mechanisms that have breathed new life into these discarded films through recent technological shifts in viewing practices. The constant addition of films contributing to an online archive demonstrates the continued interest of filmfarsi among Persian-speaking audiences since its unparalleled popularity in the 1950s through 1970s. Yet, the filmfarsi tradition has received little scholarly attention, and, similarly, film scholars have not considered the relevance of filmfarsi’s distribution methods. My research takes on the filmfarsi tradition in light of its reinvented iterations. In the face of widespread proscription of filmfarsi that has hindered viewing since the Revolution, these un-dead cinematic works have found new mediums for viewing, through digitization and video. I argue that the reinvigoration of filmfarsi lies outside of the physical, territorial boundaries of Iran, creating external viewing communities memorializing days past.

Viewing technological changes in cinema and archiving methods, this paper addresses the geographic and virtual spaces into which Iranian commercial film has leaked since the Iran-Iraq War. Specifically, I look to filmmaker Samuel Khachikian as a case study for understanding the broad and continued fascination with filmfarsi. While Khachikian’s appeal might have been limited as a member of the Armenian Iranian minority population, the lasting popularity of his films exhibits filmfarsi’s irrepressible reach from the Pahlavi era until today. Analyzing this prolific filmmaker identifies the avenues by which filmfarsi was exported from Iran and why it was eventually converted to video. The continued popularity of Khachikian’s crime and melodramatic films have satiated external Persian-speaking communities growing since the Revolution and war. Further, my project attends to the cultural flows of global media consumption and means of sidestepping domestic Iranian laws; the original, and even damaged, 35mm films were often converted outside of Iran into video, then digital formats, and finally, uploaded onto online platforms. With its reinvigoration, filmfarsi, a tradition targeted specifically for Iranians in Iran, fits within a globalizing cinema that reaches a constantly evolving Persian-speaking international community.