Iran holds mass funeral for 1980s war dead

Ceremony comes as nuclear talks in Vienna continue and days before the two-year anniversary of a Ukrainian passenger plane being shot down near Tehran

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Thousands of mourners poured into the streets of Iranian cities on Thursday for the mass funeral of 250 victims of the Iran-Iraq war, a testament to the brutal conflict’s widespread scale and enduring legacy 35 years later.

A funeral procession carrying the remains of soldiers recently recovered from former battlefields snaked through the capital, Tehran, while other remains were returned to another two dozen provinces. Although Iran and Iraq sporadically exchange war dead excavated from borderland territory affected by major combat in the 1980s, Thursday was the largest such ceremony in recent years.

While serving as remembrance for a country routinely consumed in mourning over the grisly war that killed a million people on both sides, the patriotic extravaganza also demonstrated the power of the Iranian hardliners who organised it while the country’s diplomats met in Vienna for talks over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

With conservatives under President Ebrahim Raisi in control of all branches of government, Iran has presented maximalist demands at the negotiating table, exasperating western delegates as the country presses its nuclear advances. Meanwhile, tensions have increased across the region – hostility with its roots in US support for Iraq in the eight-year war.

The funeral also comes just days before Iran marks the two-year anniversary of the Iranian military’s downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane with two surface-to-air missiles, killing all 176 people on board – a tragedy that ignited an outburst of unrest across Iran and further damaged its relations with the West.

From outside Tehran University, vehicles piled high with flag-draped coffins made their way through the streets. Men and women in black thronged the coffins, many weeping for those lost in the bloody, stalemated war started by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party in 1980.

It was the first time in recent years that Iran honoured the interment of so many 1980s war dead at once. Hassan Hassanzadeh, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general, told state TV that Iran had planned the mass funeral two years ago but pushed it back because of the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated the country. Infection numbers have declined in recent weeks as vaccination rates accelerate.

Thursday’s ceremony, which also commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima, came as social media in Iran were awash with hashtags and images commemorating the crash of the Ukrainian plane that shocked the world on January 8, 2020. For days, as Iran and the United States teetered on the verge of war, the IRGC denied downing the plane, ultimately deepening public mistrust and unleashing popular anger in Iran.

This week, hardliners have been pumping out photos and slogans on Twitter to show solidarity with the recovered Iranian war dead.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the soldiers and offered his support to the family members of victims, Iranian media reported. His conservative protege, President Ebrahim Raisi, paid his respects at the funeral.

While many Iranian mourners at cemeteries on Thursday wept and pounded their chests in public demonstrations of grief traditional for the Shiite faith, families of the victims killed in the Ukrainian plane disaster have alleged that security forces are preventing them from gathering to publicly mourn their loved ones.

Most of the war victims’ remains were recovered from the south-west border area of Shalamcheh, about 640 kilometres from Tehran, state TV reported, one of the main war-ravaged sites of Saddam’s surprise invasion. Many were killed in Iran’s offensive, known as Karbala 5, in January 1987 – the war’s bloodiest battle in which up to 19,000 Iranians were killed in a struggle to win back about 155 square kilometres of the country’s territory.

None of the victims’ remains returned on Thursday were identified. The tombstones read “anonymous martyr”. Images of Qassem Suleimani, the general killed by a US drone strike in 2020 in Baghdad, covered their coffins. For many Iranian families, the conflict’s painful legacy drags on in continuous waiting for news of loved ones still missing.

The war that shaped the young theocracy after the 1979 revolution continues to haunt Iran. Most of the country’s top officials either fought or contributed to the vast war effort. The military sent legions of young conscripts to the battlefields, including those who dropped out of high school to join the volunteer force and never returned.

American support for Saddam’s forces during the war, as Iraq unleashed thousands of chemical bombs against Iranians, also helped to fuel the mistrust and wariness between Iran and the US that persists today.

Updated: June 17, 2023, 11:51 AM