Review of Correspondence between Presidents of Iran and Iraq on the Anniversary of Iran’s Acceptance of UN Resolution 598

Monday, July 18, 2016

Diplomatic Battle between Hashemi and Saddam

For many people, both Iranian and non-Iranian, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 is reminder of the termination of the longest conventional war in the 20th century: The Iraqi imposed war against Iran. From a legal viewpoint, the main importance of the resolution is that it marks the terminal point of the war between Iran and Iraq. In the meantime, however, there are a number of important points which should not be forgotten. One of those points is that the contents of the Resolution 598 never entered into force as per the arrangements predicted for it, including an executive plan introduced by the then Secretary-General of the United Nations Javier Perez De Cuellar. That plan was to be taken as a basis for the total and whole acceptance of the resolution according to which none of the articles of the resolution would be preferred or given precedence over the others. According to that plan, an impartial delegation was supposed to begin its work on the very day of the cease-fire. The two sides’ forces were supposed to start withdrawing from their positions. The withdrawal was scheduled to start at a certain date after the delegation started its evaluation of the situation. The next point was that the resolution had not stipulated what impact the establishment of a committee, which was supposed to give its opinion on the party that began the aggression, would have on the implementation of the resolution and how the aggressor would be dealt with.

This is an issue, which still keeps many more questions about the legal and political outcomes of determining the aggressor, open and credible. The same question can be also posed about such complicated issues as payment of war “remuneration.” Resolution 598 was passed by the United Nations Security Council about 10 months after its predecessor, Resolution 588, which had been totally rejected by Iran. During the few months that passed after the adoption of the resolution, Iran took a midway position of “neither rejection, nor acceptance” on the resolution. Finally, on July 17, 1988, Iran ambassador to the UN submitted a letter from Iran to the UN secretary-general. The letter had been written by the then Iranian president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iran’s ambassador to the world body asked the UN secretary-general to publish the letter as the Security Council document. In this way, Iran officially accepted Resolution 598. The implementation of the resolution, however, did not start before summer of 1990, which was in contradiction to original arrangements set by the involved committees and was also at odds with the secretary-general’s obligation and his executive plan for the resolution.

Acceptance of resolution by Iran: Iraq breaches its commitment

The implementation of the resolution was finally made conditional on the result of the correspondence between the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and his Iranian counterpart, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In the interval between signing of Resolution 598 -- that is, September 1988 -- to August 1990, many of the main issues related to the war, including the exchange of prisoners of war and the recognition of 1975 Algiers Agreement, which was supposed to be taken as the basis for determining the common border between Iran and Iraq had remained unsolved. In his introduction to the book “Text of Letters Exchanged between Presidents of Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq in 1990,” Rafsanjani has written, “A great deal of pressure was being exerted by various [military] headquarters to obtain the permission to carry out operations and undo the victories that Iraqis had achieved, but Imam [Khomeini] did not agree and did not allow [that and], therefore, defense was permitted to the extent that was necessary.” At a time that an ambiguous security situation governed Iran's western and southwestern borders, the Iraqi army launched a new and large-scale offensive on the morning of Friday, July 21, 1988, just three days after the Resolution 598 had been accepted by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Iraqi forces started to advance into the Iranian territory on two fronts in the border regions of Koushk and Shalamcheh in the southern part of Khuzestan Province. The main goal of that operation was to take into captivity – and in more precise words to take as hostage – the Iranian forces in order to give Saddam more bargaining power in possible negotiations over the exchange of prisoners of war. In continuation of Iraq’s breach of its commitments in the period immediately following the acceptance of the cease-fire by Iran, the Iraqi government embarked on the bombardment of facilities and buildings related to the nuclear power plant of Bushehr. The Iraqi army used 12 Mirage jet fighters to drop 23 bombs over the buildings of the power plant and totally demolished it. Finally, as the new offensive launched by the Iraqi army against Iran failed and after the Mujahedeen Khalq Organization also failed in its botched invasion of the Iranian territory in the Operation Mersad, the government of Iraq was forced to accept the truce on August 19, 1988, about one month after the acceptance of Resolution 598 by the government of Iran. Although the government of Iraq announced that it had accepted the resolution, Baghdad insisted that for the truce to take effect, Iran should deliver the entire Arvand River to Iraq. In the meantime, the Arab allies of Saddam, especially the government of Kuwait, saw that a full year had passed since the end of war between Saddam and Iranians, but the Iraqi government made no effort to clarify the situation of its huge debts to them. Therefore, they gradually raised claims against Iraq asking for the money that Baghdad owed them. Saddam, who up to that time imagined that he had been engaged in a proxy war with Iran on the behalf of the Arab states, did not expect those Arab countries to raise such claims. Therefore, before making any effort to settle its accounts with Kuwait, Saddam preferred to launch a diplomatic initiative in the form of “correspondence” with the leaders of the Islamic Republic in order to first put his eastern borders in order before thinking about his second warmongering project. In line with this plan, in May 1990, he started to exchange letters with the top officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The following article provides a review of six letters written by Saddam Hussein and four letters written in response to those letters by his Iranian counterpart, Hashemi Rafsanjani. The tone used by the Iranian chief executive in his letters is indicative of his distrust toward the other party (Saddam) who claimed to be advocating reconciliation between the two countries. He [Hashemi Rafsanjani] sometimes made fiery innuendos to the conflagration that had been started by Saddam Hussein. At other times, he indirectly derided the claims of Saddam Hussein about being the “commander of Qadisiyya” (a nickname favored by Saddam), and the hero of Arab war against Persians. The Iranian president also implied that Saddam was just a tool in the hands of the Western states; sometimes prayed for his guidance and at other times made fun of him. Hashemi even sometimes feigned forgetfulness by giving no clear answers to the demands posed by the highest ranking Iraqi official. In all these instances, the Iranian side aimed to forge a form of oral political balance, at least in words, to show who had actually started the war for the record in history. Sometimes even the Iraqi side could not ignore the Iranian president’s effort to create such a political balance, which was embedded in the derisive tone of the Hashemi’s letters and, therefore, protested to it in subsequent missives he sent to Hashemi.

As war comes to end, correspondence begins

Saddam Hussein wrote his first letter on April 22, 1990, addressed to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian president. The letter was conveyed through a famous courier who also brought a letter from the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, for submission to Iranian authorities. At first there were doubts about the genuineness of the letter, but in conclusion, the top Iranian officials met in a session to discuss the possible answer to Saddam’s letter.

In his letter, Saddam had written, “…Now… I will not repeat my previous viewpoints which can prompt you to bring up opposite viewpoints, thus, taking our discussion off the right track and far from its original limits and constructive goals, and drive it toward a dispute in which differences will come into the limelight. And to prevent such a situation from overshadowing the agreement we have reached to achieve enforceable, overarching, and immediate peace, God willing, not just between Iran and Iraq, but between the entire Arab Ummah and Iran, this time I directly address you to propose in this holy month [of Ramadan] when Muslims are fasting and endeavor to win the satisfaction of the Almighty, that a direct meeting should be held between our two sides. In that meeting, from our side, the servant of God and sender of this letter in addition to Mr. Izzat Ibrahim along with a group of our aides, and from your side, Messrs. Ali Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani along with a group of their aides will be present.

In his letter, Saddam had chosen the holy city of Mecca as the venue of the meeting which he said was scheduled to be held on the second day following the Eid al-Fitr.

After receiving the letter and making sure about credibility of the carrier and the contents of the letter, the Iranian officials convened a session. After a period of 10 days, the Iranian president gave the following answer to Saddam’s letter:

Dear Mr. Saddam Hussein,

I received your letter dated Ramadan 26, 1410 AH (April 22, 1990). Verily, if what had been said in that letter had been taken into account eight years ago and sending letters had been used instead of sending troops, today, the two countries of Iran and Iraq and perhaps the entire Islamic Ummah would not have been faced with so much loss and damage…. If all the Arab states of the region, as some of them did, knew the value of this anti-Zionist and anti-Arrogance revolution [which took place in Iran], and had cooperated with it, now the power equation in the Middle East would have changed in favor of Islam and the Muslims, and Israel and the Arrogance would not have found any opportunity to expand their entities and develop their sedition. Of course, we have no problem with the Arab Ummah and have availed ourselves of the honest cooperation of certain Arab states. It is a pity that the historical opportunity of the past 10 years was easily lost. At the onset of the Islamic Revolution an unwanted and destructive war was imposed on us and a large part of our land along the country’s western borders was occupied, and a huge portion of human, economic, and military assets of the two nations of Iran and Iraq, which should have been used in the fight against infidelity and atheism, was annihilated.

In the beginning of his first letter, Hashemi explicitly reminded Saddam of the fact that he had been the beginner of the war. Such reminder is important in that during that period of time, despite frequent requests by Iran for the introduction of the party which was to blame for the start of the war, the United Nations had taken no step to introduce Saddam Hussein as the beginner of war. In the same paragraph, Hashemi had used the phrase “defense period,” in order to emphasize that Saddam Hussein was the real aggressor. On the other hand, the writer of the letter had noted that the situation of “no peace and no war” could not continue for long and had warned that the continuation of that situation would erode the trust of the Iranian nation toward the Islamic Republic.

Second Saddam letter: Demanding peace laced with warlike complaints

In his second letter, which was actually an answer to the first official response he had received from Iran, the then Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, wrote:

I received your letter dated Shawwal 6, 1410 AH (May 2, 1990), and that letter was read more than once by me and my brothers in the leadership of Iraq. Of course, our understanding of the aforesaid letter was that you have agreed to our proposal to hold a meeting at the summit level to find a firm and final resolution for the existing problems between the two countries which have been the cause or effect of the war. We are happy about this. However, the general spirit of your letter was not like we hoped to be because at the introductory part of your letter, whenever the opportunity arises, you have made recourse to ambiguous phrases while the ending of the letter was harsh.

The answer given by Iran to the first letter sent by Saddam contained points which had made Saddam complain to the Iranian side. However, due to sensitive conditions of his country and the hurry he was in for the resolution of problems with Iran, he had not used a totally blunt language when making those complaints. In his letter, Saddam asked why the Iranian president had taken advantage of such phrases as “imposed war” and “slow-mindedness.” He had also inquired why the Iranian side had used “Hail be to he who follows guidance,” instead of using the customary ending of “Wassalamu Alaikum” (meaning “peace be on you”). He had also emphasized that due to religious reasons and the lofty position of peace, he had taken advantage of the concepts and terms which would conform to his humane standards and lofty goals.

In the final part of his letter, Saddam had made reference to the Iranian side’s unwillingness to give a straightforward answer to the question about possible venue of the summit meeting. He said, “As for the venue of the summit meeting, we are still waiting your proposal because in your answer no resolute remark has been made on the place we proposed, which is the holy city of Mecca….” Saddam continued by putting renewed emphasis on the list of people he believed should have taken part in the summit meeting and wrote hopefully: “We still believe that if you accepted the idea of a meeting at the level of heads of state and, by trusting on God, made a final decision to work with us for its realization, the summit meeting should be held attended by major decision-makers in both countries…..  For this reason, we once more repeat our commitment to our proposal that the summit meeting should be attended from our side by head of the Revolution Command Council, the president, and deputy head of the Revolution Command Council, and from your side by Messrs. Ali Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Iranian president, for the second time, decided to give an answer to Saddam’s letter using the following text:

We received your second letter, dated Ordibehesht 29, 1369 (May 19, 1990, or Shawwal 24, 1410 AH). Since the letter shows that there is a high possibility that your government is actually seeking peace, we give an answer to your second letter. However, we expect that after this letter, our time should not be wasted like this by exchange of letters, unless in absolutely necessary conditions, so that, the two nations and people of the region would come to no harm through the continuation of no peace and no war situation. We pray that this would be the last letter and we would witness more practical and serious steps taken toward the peace.

By explaining that the complaints by the Iraqi side were not justified, the Iranian president wrote that the Iranians are also not happy about that part of the letters which may be hurting, but the groundwork for such literature had been laid in the first letter written by Saddam Hussein. Hashemi added:

In your first letter, the claims [made therein] were such that as if our opposite side was the entire Arab Ummah; a falsehood around which many fruitless efforts were launched throughout the war in order to get it established. Even you and your party said during those days, when you were talking about [the necessity of forming] a progressive current and a confrontation front [against Iran], that certain people like some Arab kings, sheikhs and rulers who stood behind you during the war, were not ‘Arab Ummah’. You have written and said enough and left behind adequate proof to disclose their true colors.

… And also in your first letter, [the wording was such that] as if we had been invited by the one who is taking care of the affairs of Palestine and Palestinians as well as the forces that are resisting against the aggression of the imperialism. It is not possible for those who prepared that letter to have been ignorant about the Islamic Republic’s sympathy and pioneer role with regard to this issue….

In addition, in your letter, you had not observed the usual rules of making official correspondence. Phrases and terms which are negative and hurting, like what you had mentioned about the terms we used in our letter, can be found in your first and second letters. However, we prefer to ignore and pass over it and if you had not started to complain, we would not have written these sentences. At the present time, we only think about peace.

As for the presence of the leaders of the Islamic Republic in the meeting proposed by Saddam, the Iranian president wrote:

…It should be made clear from right now that Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, will not take part in the negotiations. Of course, the president and other officials will take no step against the viewpoints of the Leader and will seek his opinion on important affairs. Even if the president takes part in the negotiations, it will be certainly with full powers and any decisions made will be certainly carried out….

The Iranian president then made a comparison between the conditions after the withdrawal of the Iraqi troops from Iranian port city of Khorramshahr, and the withdrawal of the Iranian forces from the Iraqi port city of Faw. By making this comparison, he put renewed emphasis on the fact that Saddam was the aggressor and Iran's soil was under the Iraqi occupation following the liberation of Khorramshahr [from the Iraqi occupation]. The measure was aimed at refuting claims that Iran was responsible for the continuation of war after the liberation of Khorramshahr from the Iraqi occupation by noting that parts of the Iranian territory were still under the occupation of the Iraqi army, and under those circumstances accepting peace would have been meaningless.

Third Saddam letter: A letter which was not answered

Once more and for the third time, Saddam sent a letter, which was the shortest among the six letters he sent to Iranian officials. In that short letter, he had greatly distanced from the literature he had used in his previous missives. He wrote:

“Salamu Alaikum,

To facilitate the establishment of peace, hereby I declare my willingness for a representative from us to be sent to you in order to meet and discuss the establishment of peace between the two countries and also to know about your views with regard to everything which may facilitate the implementation of peace between Iran and Iraq.

According to your view, this meeting can be held confidentially.

Iran gave no answer to this letter and Saddam had to write a new letter to Iranian officials.

Fourth Saddam letter: A letter full of contradictions

In his fourth letter, Saddam tried on the one hand to put renewed emphasis on the necessity of peace, but on the other hand, approached the issue of the Arvand River through a logic that was reminiscent of the same logic he had used to launch the war in the first place. In the fourth paragraph of his letter, he proposed withdrawal from two sides’ positions within two months after the ratification of the [Algiers] agreement by both countries and even emphasized that the shorter that period, the better. Here, for the first time, he pointed to the issue of prisoners of war, declaring his compliance with the Geneva conventions. In the sixth paragraph, however, he repeated his past claims about Shatt al-Arab by writing:

Complete sovereignty over the [Shatt al-Arab] river should be given to Iraq because it is its historical and legitimate right.”

In the 12th paragraph of the letter, Saddam also tried to shun the charges that he had started the war by bringing up the issue of dividing international aid to the reconstruction of the two countries and asking for “50-50 division of international aid between Iran and Iraq.

This time, since Iraq’s proposals were not acceptable to Iran, especially with regard to the Arvand River and international aid, the Iranian side gave no answer to Saddam’s letter.

Fifth Saddam letter: Saddam’s new enemies and Iran's ultimatum

Saddam wrote his fifth letter by reminding the Iranian side of difficult conditions in the region and threats posed by his former allies and new enemies. This time, the letter was answered by Iran. The then Iranian president wrote:

We received your letter dated August 3, 1990. Although the letter has been apparently phrased to promote peace talks, part of its content is regrettable.” Hashemi wrote a letter in seven paragraphs in which he answered all the previous letters which had been sent by Saddam but not answered by Iran. In that answering letter, Iran strongly rejected the proposal for direct talks between the two countries’ presidents, noting that such a meeting could be only considered useful if it helped all important problems to be solved. Criticizing the occupation of Kuwait, Hashemi Rafsanjani then pointed to Saddam’s complaint about Iran's aid in quenching the burning Kuwaiti oil fields. He said, “During this period, we have seen no sign of measures which could be considered as indicative of your goodwill, and continued occupation of the Iranian soil has raised serious doubts about your willingness and determination to have peace [with Iran].” In the last paragraph of his letter, Hashemi gave Iraq an ultimatum for the acceptance of the Algiers Agreement calling it the sole practical way for the realization of true peace between the two sides.

Last Saddam letter

In his last letter to Iranian president, Saddam declared his newest decisions in four paragraphs. They covered such important issues as the exchange of prisoners of war, exchange of political delegations between Tehran and Baghdad, and withdrawal to international borders by both sides’ forces starting from August 17, 1990. He wrote:

Brother, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
The president of Iran…

Pursuant to our decision, everything is clear now. Therefore, all you wanted and emphasized on will be realized and there will be no more steps remaining but the exchange of documents before we can responsibly observe a new life full of cooperation in the light of the principles of Islam. In that way, we would be able to respect each other’s rights and, as such, push away those who want to catch their desired fish in muddy waters. Perhaps, we would be able to cooperate in ways whose end result will turn the [Persian] Gulf into a sea of peace and security and free from all kinds of foreign fleet and forces that are in ambush for us. In addition, such cooperation can be also generalized to other aspects of our lives. Allahu Akbar [God Is Great] and Lillah il-Hamd (Praise Be to God).

Four days later, on August 18, 1990, the Iranian president wrote his fourth and last letter to Saddam Hussein. He wrote:

Your letter dated August 14, 1990, was received. Renewed declaration by you of accepting the 1975 [Algiers] Agreement has paved the way for the implementation of Resolution [598] and settlement of disputes within framework of Resolution 598, thus, turning the existing state of truce into permanent and sustained peace.

We consider the beginning of the withdrawal of your forces from the occupied Iranian lands as proof to your honesty and seriousness to achieve peace with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Fortunately, the exchange of prisoners of war has been started on schedule. We hope that the withdrawal of your armed forces will take place according to the schedule, and the release of both sides’ prisoner of war will also take place at the highest possible speed until completion.

By announcing renewed acceptance of the 1975 Algiers Agreement by Saddam, Iraq practically accepted to start withdrawal from the occupied Iranian territories as a sign of goodwill on Friday August 17, 1990. Thereafter, apart from a symbolic force in addition to border guards and police forces which remained in the area to do their daily duties, Iraq withdrew all its forces from occupied Iranian territories along the common border.

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