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War museum embodies Iran’s search for meaning in Iran-Iraq war

Holy Defense Museum in Tehran
Holy Defense Museum in Tehran Jan van der Made

For many in the west, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war is just a footnote in history. But in Iran the bloody episode is called the “Imposed War” or the “Holy Defense” and memories of the war that cost the lives to a million people are part of daily life. Apart from causing  grief and emptiness, the war helped shape many Iranians’ vision of the world and still influences major diplomatic- and policy decisions today.


In 2004, Tehran’s then mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf (who earlier this week joined conservative presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi after withdrawing from the race himself) opened competition for the design of what was to become Iran’s Holy Defense Museum and Promotion of Resistance Culture, a permanent high tech exhibition that brings the war back in sometimes chilling ways.

“It is the first time I am here,” says Sharam Mirzale, who was invited by his company to take a tour around the museum

 “It makes a big impression on me.” For a brief period at the end of the war, Mirzale was stationed as a sniper in Iraqi Kurdistan. He remembers the Iraqi fighter planes making passes, but he, nor any of his friends got hurt. “We were there after the major operations had already finished,” he says. Then he walks away to catch up with his friends who had gone deeper inside the enormous museum

Sharam Mirzale worked briefly as a sniper at the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict
Sharam Mirzale worked briefly as a sniper at the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict Jan van der Made

The ultra-modern building consists of seven main halls where episodes of the war are exhibited in what one travel guide calls “forensic” precision.

Scenes with live size soldier models amidst minefields, wounded, kneeling, marching. A replica of class room turned in rubble by Saddam’s bombardments and an enclosed multi-wall projection that simulates an Iraqi air force attack on a busy village street, completed with the sound of sirens and heavily vibrating bomb explosions from high power loudspeakers.

Another hall, that features walls of pictures of “martyrs,” kids sometimes, who died in the 8-year conflict.

“I was in the war myself, so this makes a deep impact on me,” says Majid Qoreishi, who sits in a wheelchair that is pushed by his brother. “It reminds me of my friends who I lost during the war.”

Majid Qoreishi was a war correspondent during the Iran-Iraq war
Majid Qoreishi was a war correspondent during the Iran-Iraq war Jan van der Made

Qoreishi was a war reporter. He also visited Kurdistan, but he came under attack and saw some of his comrades killed by the troops of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

After walking along pictures and lay-outs representing graphic war-scenes, visitors pass over a bridge that leads into a tunnel whose rounded walls are plastered white, and which leads to a hall with two gold-cladded shrines to honor the fallen of the war.

A teacher guides a group of impressed-looking students along the brutal scenes of butchery and destruction.

Simulation of classroom after a bombing campaign
Simulation of classroom after a bombing campaign Jan van der Made

One of the lessons the museum is meant to teach is to never forget.

“We learned resistance against the enemy, says Majideh Qoreishi. “We learned how we can be courageous and powerful and we can defend ourselves against an enemy and finally defeat him.”

According to Sharam Mirzale the war represents a unifying force, even today. “I can’t repeat it enough,” he points out. “We were defending our country, regardless of age or background.”

Another visitor, Hamid Shokraneh was studying in the UK when the war broke out. But two of his cousins were sucked into the Iranian war efforts and died fighting Saddam Houssein.

“I feel sad at this moment. I still feel the same thing, I feel very sad,” he says.
“What we learned? War is no good for anybody. But Iran was forced into the war. We didn’t want it. Saddam started it and we had to defend ourselves. We were on our own, the rest of the world was behind Saddam.

Saddam Hussein & George W. Bush
Saddam Hussein & George W. Bush Jan van der Made

The end of the exhibition reveals an ambivalence towards the US.

It shows pictures of a bearded and haunted looking Saddam Hussein after he’s been arrested by US troops, next to televised fragments of US president George W. Bush.

“We were so happy then,” says Amir, another visitor of the museum, but he pointed out that the US’ backing of Saddam during the "Holy Defense” was incomprehensible.


Back in Tehran, people expressed a similar disappointment in Washington’s attitudes towards Iran.

“They [the US] should know that we have more progress than Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” says Reza, who is queuing up to cast his ballot in the presidential elections. “Look here, we have some democracy, but those countries don’t. But they are friends with America. Look at the people of Iran. We are here, voting for a president. We think of peace, we don’t want war.”

Shrine honoring female war victims
Shrine honoring female war victims Jan van der Made

The fear of a repeat of the “Holy Defense” is also used in the presidential campaign, where incumbent president Rouhani presents himself as a proponent of peace, while his supporters think that a vote for Ebrahim Raisi meant a more confrontational foreign policy, possibly resulting in armed conflict.

In the “Holy Defense” museum, the permanent exhibition ends with a scale model of the Busheher nuclear power plant and plates that explain how nuclear technology can benefit the medical industry.

The irony that Iran’s nuclear program was exactly the basis for western accusations that Tehran was developing a nuclear weapon, triggering the crippling sanctions that were only party lifted in 2015 seems to have escaped the museum’s curator. The museum doubles as an international convention center.

Scale model of nuclear power plant
Scale model of nuclear power plant Jan van der Made


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