Iran’s eye-for-an-eye strategy was particularly visible during its eight-year war with Iraq. In 1981, the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, opened a new front by launching air strikes on Iranian tankers in the Gulf. In 1984, he went big, hitting Kharg Island, Iran’s major oil terminal in the Gulf, and several tankers. Iran, which had held back, began to counterstrike. The “tanker war” became a threat to international energy. The United States was sucked in to protect ships ferrying Saddam Hussein’s oil—at a price. In 1987, Iraqi warplanes mistakenly struck the U.S.S. Stark when it was on patrol in the Gulf on Iraq’s behalf. Thirty-seven American sailors were killed. By the time the war ended, in 1988, Iraq had hit more than two hundred and eighty Iranian tankers. Iran struck a hundred and sixty-eight tankers doing business with Iraq or its Arab allies in the Gulf.
The same pattern played out between the two nations during the so-called war of the cities. Hussein expected a quick military victory against Iran, given the way the Shah’s Army had been decimated after the revolution. As the war dragged on—ultimately, for eight years—Iraq began targeting Iranian cities well beyond the front lines, such as Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz. I covered the war and remember the incoming missiles, the rows of sandbags high in front of homes and businesses, and the tape criss-crossing windows to diminish the impact of the blasts. Iran hit back in kind. By 1988, Iraq had fired more than five hundred missiles into civilian areas. Iran fired a hundred and seventeen Scuds on Iraqi cities, notably Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Basra. Hundreds of thousands died on both sides of the conflict. In total, there were more than a million casualties.
“We say, ‘You may start a war, but you won’t be the ones who end it,’ ” Zarif told me this week.