Hossein Kharrazi’s bicycle was leaning against the wall of his parents’ house in Isfahan. Mrs Kharrazi told me to come in, rearranging her chador so it wouldn’t slide off her head. I took off my shoes and she showed me into a living-room that looked onto a courtyard with a persimmon tree in the middle. There was a big mural on one of the walls, a copy of a photograph I’d seen before. It showed Hossein in combat fatigues, talking into two microphones that had been taped together. He was telling his men why the war against Iraq was a sacred war, and that if they were killed they would go to paradise.

I was drawn to the fragility of Hossein’s features, to his delicate nose and lips. His hair was receding prematurely, but you could imagine him laughing like a boy. Although he had been right-handed, he was holding the microphones in his left hand; this meant the photograph had been taken after 1984, when he lost his right arm. Hossein had borne his disability with neither pride nor shame. It was as integral to him as his faith, and his will to fight.

‘Sit down! Sit down!’ His father, a pale old man without a hair on his head, came into the room, smiling. I smiled back, partly because Mr Kharrazi was wearing pink striped pyjamas. We sat down on a lurid red carpet. I remarked that, apart from the mural, the room contained no sign of Hossein. ‘After he was martyred,’ Mr Kharrazi said, ‘everyone wanted photos of him. Soon, we’d given most of them away. That’s why we had this one painted on the wall. No one can cart that off, can they?’

Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, Hossein Kharrazi and about fifty other Isfahanis volunteered to help put down a separatist rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan. In Tehran, I had come across a man who had fought under Hossein in Kurdistan and then during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when Hossein commanded Isfahan’s volunteer forces. Talking about him, the man had described qualities – piety, courage, modesty and selflessness – that seemed to correspond to an archaic Persian ideal of manhood, passed down by the epics. At the same time, he’d spoken protectively, as if Hossein were still vulnerable 16 years after his death.

During the hour or so I spent with them, the Kharrazis gave me a subtly different impression. The Hossein they spoke of needed no protection: he had longed for martyrdom in the service of God and the Revolution. Mr Kharrazi repeated much of what I had learned from official hagiographies: that Saddam had offered a reward to anyone who could capture Hossein; that Hossein had taken leave to go to Mecca, for fear of dying without having made the pilgrimage; that Hossein had been posthumously honoured by the top brass of the regime.

Unlike the old soldier I had met in Tehran, Mr and Mrs Kharrazi had stopped mourning Hossein. ‘We’re satisfied if God is satisfied,’ Mr Kharrazi said. He meant me to infer that God had honoured Hossein by drawing him to his side, and that humans had no business questioning his will.

Since Hossein’s death, his parents had received senior ayatollahs and cabinet ministers in their house. They had, I guessed, enjoyed some of the privileges that are granted to the parents of important martyrs, such as discounted trips to Mecca and a place among the bigwigs during the annual commemorations. Mrs Kharrazi sniffed when I asked her whether she mixed with the mothers of other martyrs; she evidently considered herself a cut above them. It made sense to me that the Kharrazis had enlarged Hossein’s public image, and put it on their wall. It was the public Hossein, not the private one, who had made them what they were.

While Mrs Kharrazi was preparing tea, her husband showed me a photograph of Hossein’s lolling head, covered in dust. A trickle of blood was coming out of the side of his mouth. Mr Kharrazi smiled at his beautiful martyrdom, and looked up, expecting me to smile too.

I learned from Mrs Kharrazi that there had been an argument. In 1985, Hossein had decided to get married, but his mother hadn’t approved of the girl: it took four months for her to lift her veto. Hossein was killed two weeks before his son, Mehdi, was born. As often happens in such cases, his widow immediately contracted a second marriage, to Hossein’s younger brother.

Shortly before I left, I turned off my tape-recorder, and repeated something I had heard vaguely expressed in Tehran. ‘Isn’t it true that there was a dispute between Hossein and some important officials, shortly before he died?’

The Kharrazis glanced at each other. Mr Kharrazi said: ‘There was no such dispute.’ She said: ‘Of course, there may have been little problems, but only little ones.’ Her husband nodded, and said, ‘Nothing big, though,’ and his smile grew chilly.

On 22 September 1980, after months of skirmishing, propaganda and Iraq’s occupation of some border areas, Saddam’s well-equipped Army invaded Iran. Saddam wanted to destroy the Islamic Revolution; he feared it would spread, and destroy him. He wanted to suck Iran’s Arab-dominated province of Khuzistan, rich in oil, into his sphere of influence. Finally, he wanted a military victory that would give him leadership of the Arab world – a vacant position, now that Egypt had made peace with Israel. He was materially and morally supported by most Arab countries – Syria and Libya were notable exceptions. Most Western countries, fearing Khomeini’s Iran, were not displeased.

Only unwarranted caution and military incompetence stopped Saddam from seizing even more than the four thousand square miles of Iran that he had taken by mid-October. In many places, the regular Army was incapable of resisting. During the Revolution, the Army had lost many senior officers and 140,000 men to desertions and purges. Thanks to sanctions provoked by the continuing US Embassy hostage crisis, and the new republic’s brittle relations with most countries, the Army’s access to Western-made parts and arms had been severely curtailed. (The Soviet Union imposed an arms embargo on both belligerents.) Logistically, Iran was caught unawares; it took one division six weeks to get from a base in eastern Iran to the theatre in the west.

A few days after he heard about the invasion, Hossein Kharrazi commandeered two buses and took his men to Ahwaz. They were not members of the regular Army, but had joined a volunteer corps called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which Khomeini had set up to harness the young ideologues who had brought him to power. It immediately entered into rivalry with the regular forces, whom Khomeini suspected – rightly, in the case of some officers – of favouring a restoration of the monarchy.

Hossein had become leader of his group of Isfahanis in an informal election. At 23, he was older than the others; bright as well as fervent, he was able to articulate their ideals. History had restarted with the Revolution and Khomeini’s return from exile, just as it had restarted with the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622, and the setting up of the first Islamic administration. It was the duty of good Muslims, Hossein argued, to protect the Revolution from Iraq and its Western paymasters. If they were killed – as long as they had not actively sought death, but rather the glory of Islam – they would go to heaven. (The Koran and the sayings of the Prophet made that clear.) If they stayed alive, and won, they would create a clean, pious society.

Hossein’s troops were young and poor. Many were illiterate. The Shah’s rule had disoriented them; the elite had been devoted to money, while much of the rest of society continued to profess its old attachment to spiritual rewards. These boys had been deprived of both. Now, wealth was being measured in ways that favoured them. You were rich if you enjoyed the favour of God and Khomeini, if you were going off to Khuzistan for a grand adventure, a love affair with the Revolution. You were worth a million if your mother shed tears of dread and pride on your shoulder: ‘God speed your return!’ A few of the boys – the more thoughtful ones – conceived of heaven abstractly. It was a state of grace, God’s mingling with the soul. Most of them, however, thought of paradise as a mild spring day, and heavenly facilities as things that could be smelt, touched or tasted.

When Hossein and his men reached Ahwaz, they presented themselves at the IRGC’s regional headquarters. Before the Revolution, it had been a golf club patronised by Americans working at a nearby atomic complex. Now, the clubhouse had been renamed the Barracks of Those Awaiting Martyrdom. Men who might once have been caddies or flunkeys issued orders and prayed on the floor of the bar. The music system played sacred laments. Ahwaz was also the regional headquarters of the Mobilisation of the Oppressed, the Basij. Khomeini had set up the Basij in the first days of the war. It was to be an irregular volunteer force, commanded by the IRGC. Khomeini said he wanted twenty million basijis. Since they had few guns, their weapon would be faith. There was joy, and chaos. Basijis roamed around the town. Some were 70-year-old holy warriors, a bit confused, doing their bit. There was an IRGC unit for women. The volunteers were taught how to fight while wearing a chador. The basijis were encouraged to wear the piebald Palestinian scarf, the kaffiyeh, lest they forget that, while Saddam was a considerable danger, he was still only a tentacle of the fiendish Zionist threat. A Revolutionary Guard got about $200 a month, and whatever ammunition could be spared. A basiji got much less. If there wasn’t a gun for him, he was expected to steal one from the enemy.

The IRGC gave Hossein and his men four hours’ training, assigned them some basijis, and sent them south. A few miles north of the port city of Khorramshahr, which was in Iraqi hands, they met some enemy tanks. Some of the men had never seen a tank before and were dismayed when their bullets bounced off them. One of them had a grenade launcher, which he had not been trained to use; by trial and error, he disabled one of the oncoming tanks. The Iraqis withdrew, and Hossein’s men realised that the enemy, though well armed, had no stomach for the fight. Hossein gave the order to dig in, but neither he nor his men knew how; there had been no call for trenches in Kurdistan. The hole they dug – ‘a grave’, in the words of one of his men – obeyed none of the basic precautions that have governed trench building since World War One.

Iraq’s advance ended, the rains set in and Khomeini made it clear that he would not – contrary to Saddam’s expectations – sue for peace. The IRGC’s hand was strengthened by the failure of the regular Army’s winter offensives; the volunteer forces got more resources and prestige as a result. (This trend accelerated after President Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, who had championed the regular Army, was ousted, and fled abroad.)

Amid the squalor of war, a splendid society was being created. The unit was its microcosm. There were no formal ranks. The men addressed one another as ‘brother’. Hossein was obeyed because his authority, everyone assumed, came from God. When there was a shortage of food, Hossein would pretend he wasn’t hungry, and give his share to the younger troops. He took guard duty like the rest, and went on dangerous reconnaissance missions. He taught them:

No drop of liquid is more beloved of God than a drop of blood shed for him.

The best deed of the faithful is fighting for God.

Participate in holy war, so you will be happy and need nothing.

One hour of holy war is better than sixty years of worship.

The wives of those who have gone to war must be respected and treated as inviolable.

An ideologically pure army is better than a victorious army.

Hossein and his men were comforted by thoughts of the twelfth Imam, the last infallible descendant of the Prophet. Shias believe that he lives hidden among them, and will one day re-emerge to establish his perfect caliphate. ‘No one missed the cities,’ one of Hossein’s men told me, ‘because they were still full of sin; here, in the field, we were fighting alongside God.’

To compensate for their tactical ignorance and the scarcity of armour and artillery, IRGC commanders specialised in surprise night attacks, often across difficult terrain, and in the creative use of flooding to ‘drown’ enemy formations. As they began their first, limited offensives, some commanders showed disregard for the lives of the ordinary basijis – an indifference equalled only by some of the basijis, who styled themselves ‘seekers after martyrdom’. On one occasion, the head of the IRGC flew to Tehran to ask for advice about an engagement; Khomeini advised him to consult the Koran.

By the middle of 1981, Hossein’s force was up to brigade strength – around three thousand men. (He named this brigade after the Imam Hossein, who had died gloriously while combating tyranny in the name of Islam. A few months later, it would become a division of three brigades.) He was going regularly to Isfahan, to consult Ayatollah Taheri, who was supervising the city’s war effort, and to visit the families of martyred soldiers. (The IRGC was also leading the civil war against the People’s Mujahidin, an armed opposition group that had declared war on Khomeini’s state.) Thanks to Taheri’s efforts, the city’s mosques had been turned into recruiting stations, and the bazaar into a supply depot. War mothers pickled vegetables and knitted clothes. Supplies were taken to the front in bazaar traders’ trucks. Isfahanis still tell the story of a peasant woman who travelled all day from her village to a collection point in the city, where she donated an egg to the war effort.

Talking to his men, I get the impression that Hossein cared more about the average basiji than many commanders did; a fruitless death, he maintained, didn’t count as martyrdom. His troops, although conspicuously brave, didn’t fight with the recklessness of volunteers from Tehran. Hossein encouraged the growing number of basijis under his command to go home to Isfahan during lulls; they returned to the front when an offensive was brewing. As Iran started to recover its territory, the Brigade of Imam Hossein was involved in every major operation. Privilege and responsibility gave his men swagger. During one night raid, Hossein’s commandos overran an Iraqi installation, but didn’t return to their lines before they had used the Iraqis’ showers, and dined on the enemy’s superior tinned food.

On 1 May 1982, his men silently crossed pontoon bridges that had been thrown across a strategic river, and moved towards the Iraqi border to cut off Khorramshahr, the only major city Iraq had managed to hold onto. Three weeks later, they were among the first Iranian troops to enter the city, after an offensive that involved 150,000 Iranian troops from the IRGC, Basij and regular forces. The Iraqis fled; as many as twelve thousand were captured. Except for some land near the border, Iran was free.

The day after I met the Kharrazis, I had an appointment with a cleric, Mr Rafi’i, in a 17th-century seminary. At the beginning of the war especially, the clerics were very influential. Each IRGC battalion was assigned one. They answered the men’s questions on everything from martyrdom to daily observances. One of Hossein Kharrazi’s junior commanders was a cleric. During a desperate fight for control of a gorge, he climbed into full view of the Iraqis and questioned their manhood – he became famous for that. The clerics had to deal with men who claimed to have had visions of the twelfth Imam. As the war progressed, and nerves frayed, there was an epidemic of such claims. Whenever a ‘seer’ was martyred, other men would rip pieces of clothing off his corpse to keep as relics. This trend was bad for discipline, and probably blasphemous. Encouraged by Hossein and a few other commanders, the clerics intervened. From them on, seers were persuaded, sometimes violently, to recant.

The seminary was set round a courtyard, bounded by cells set in vaulted niches, with tiled porticos on three sides. A sheet of water and a path divided the grass into four lawns. The leaves of the cypress trees almost obscured the vivid blue dome over the prayer hall.

Mr Rafi’i hadn’t arrived. I walked to the far end of the courtyard, and sat down on a marble platform that supported one of the porticos. Some seminarians were crossing the courtyard on their way to class. A few were reading on the balconies of the first-floor cells. A door slammed. Shortly after the Revolution, I had been told, there had been three hundred seminarians here. Roughly a third were killed in the war. A movement made me look up. A man was walking slowly towards me. He had a bulging red head, and wore a checked shirt, not the cleric’s gown and turban that I had expected. It was Mr Rafi’i.

He looked like the farmer he had been before he became a seminarian thirty years ago. As my ears got used to his thick rural accent, my eyes were drawn to his forehead. Many Shias have a purplish blotch there, from the baked tablet of sanctified earth they press down on as they pray. Mr Rafi’i’s blotch had acquired a crust, with small features of its own. It seemed to laugh whenever he did, like a wizened sprite living in his head. Mr Rafi’i’s job was to teach seminarians the sayings, sermons and letters of the Imam Ali. For Shias, Ali is the supreme example of a just and generous sovereign. During his caliphate, he is said to have bought two shirts and offered the finer to his servant. His judges were so independent one found against him in a case. Many Iranian revolutionaries longed to create a regime like his. ‘We carried out the Revolution because we wanted to make a just society,’ Mr Rafi’i said. ‘We fought the war to protect it.’

I wanted to find out what Mr Rafi’i had done as a volunteer during the war. He smiled when I inquired whether he, like others I had met, had received military training in Shia-dominated South Lebanon. When I asked him about wounds he had received, he said: ‘I don’t talk about things like this, because that’s hypocrisy. Whatever I did, I did for God.’ Instead he talked about Hamid, a young seminarian. ‘He was 16 years old. He was a good boy: pure! They all were all pure, back then.’ His inference was clear. ‘I remember – such a fine-looking boy! Like the moon! He had an accident – I’ve forgotten what it was – and his front teeth were smashed in. I said he should go to the dentist and get his teeth repaired, and he said: “I’m not going to bother going to the dentist, because I’ve been summoned.” A few days later, we went out to try and get an idea of the enemy’s strength in our sector. There were 22 of us, in a column. As we set out, Hamid kissed me on both cheeks. He smelt of eau de cologne, and he’d put on clean clothes.’ If you’re going to meet God, there’s a protocol to be followed. ‘The Iraqis were on the heights above us. When we came under fire, we hit the deck, and Hamid was next to me. I noticed my leg was hot, and I thought, “I’ve been hit,” but something stopped me looking down. I was afraid. Then, a few second later, I felt that my groin and stomach were also hot and wet, and I looked down, and I saw I hadn’t been hit. It was Hamid’s blood. I looked at his face. He smiled, and slept.’ Mr Rafi’i wept briefly, his eyes straying up to the sky. Perhaps he was crying at the beauty of Hamid’s martyrdom, as much as the loss.

‘How did you get out of that situation,’ I asked, ‘when the Iraqis were on the heights above you?’

‘Oh, we managed.’ He waved his hand vaguely – I sensed there had been an act of bravery. He was still thinking of Hamid. He said: ‘You have to be clean to be a martyr. It’s an honour, you know. Not everyone is summoned like that.’ And then, anticipating my next question: ‘God didn’t want a grizzly old sinner like me.’ We laughed.

‘What did the men do before they went off to battle?’ I asked. ‘Did they pray? Were they silent? Did they chatter to try and forget their nerves?’

Mr Rafi’i said: ‘I remember, before one operation, my battalion was given leave to go to the nearest town, to the public bathhouse. Normally before an operation, you do your martyrdom ablutions, and ask God to let you come to him. At any rate, everyone went along to the baths – we must have been about four hundred people. And I got a shock, I can tell you, because the lads in the bathhouse started playing around, splashing each other with cold water. Afterwards, someone told me you could hear the shouts and laughter from down the street.’

‘Did you joke around and splash, too?’

‘No, it’s not correct behaviour for a cleric to behave like that. I washed quickly, and left.’

‘How many of the boys who went to the bathhouse are still alive?’

‘There can’t be more than a few dozen.’

After the liberation of Khorramshahr, the Iraqis observed a unilateral ceasefire, and the international community urged Iran to negotiate. But it invaded Iraq, and went from being the injured party to being the aggressor. Didn’t he think it would have been better to stop there and then, after Khorramshahr? He was vexed. ‘Why don’t you go and ask Saddam why he invaded Iran in the first place? Do you think Saddam is the kind of man to go back and sit in his place, like a good schoolboy? He would have regrouped and rearmed, and then invaded us again. We needed to drive Saddam right back, and teach him a lesson.’ He started to cough, weakly, like a kitten. His face had got redder. A yellow scum had accumulated at the corners of his mouth (I later found out that he’d been gassed in the war). He excused himself.

There’s a story that, a few months after Khorramshahr, Khomeini advised the nation’s top military and political leaders to end the war, and they demurred. Perhaps the story was invented, or altered, to cast certain members of his entourage, who now occupy very high office, in a bad light. As far as I can ascertain, few people wanted to stop after Khorramshahr. Casualties – at most, sixty thousand Iranian dead – were sustainable. People were convinced that force could be used to export the Revolution. Israel’s invasion of South Lebanon had made this objective urgent: if something wasn’t done, the whole region could fall to the Zionists. The war would go on until Saddam was toppled, and the forces of Islam had destroyed Israel. Mr Rafi’i came back, carrying two glasses of water.

‘What happened to justice?’ I asked.

‘What justice?’

‘The just society you were fighting to create.’

He smiled: ‘If you pursue God, you generate a perfume; you must have heard this. Do you smell it now in Iran?’

I thought. ‘No.’

‘What do you smell?’

‘A few days ago, some policemen were beating up some kids and students.’ (I had witnessed a small demonstration, held to commemorate a larger pro-democracy protest three years before.)

‘Back then, there was a perfume in Iran; you know what the body of a martyr smells like?’ I shook my head. ‘Like leaves in the rain.’

‘And now?’

‘Oh, God,’ he said ruminatively, ‘Oh, Ali . . . I’m tired. I just want to go. I want him to let me sleep.’

A couple of days later, I visited the Foundation for the Dispossessed and War Disabled. An official explained to me that the war-wounded are examined and assigned a figure, a percentage, which rises in proportion to the gravity of their disabilities; the benefits they receive reflect this percentage. The official had never come across a figure higher than 70: that was for paraplegics, and the victims of severe gas poisoning. As we talked, supplicants came and went. A healthy looking man (10 per cent) pleaded with the official to intercede on his behalf. A state bank had refused to advance him a loan for rebuilding his house, which had been destroyed by fire. Next came a middle-aged woman; her husband (60 per cent) wanted to know why the foreign car he had been promised hadn’t turned up. The official replied that hundreds of veterans were asking the same question: the cars hadn’t cleared customs.

The official took me to see the people at internal security. In the corridor, we came across a man who was staggering and shouting. The official asked me if I would like to visit an institution for mentally deranged veterans. I said I’d prefer to meet victims of the gas and their families. The official asked whether I had any preference, percentage-wise.

Internal security detailed someone to take me to see Mr Karimi. He was 70 per cent, and had the tremulous voice I had come to associate with people who’d been gassed. One of his two sons had a distended head. His wife wore a chador adorned with wild flowers, and served us sherbet. Mr Karimi had spent the war driving men and munitions around. He’d been gassed in 1982, shortly after Khorramshahr, and before the Iraqis started producing poison gas on an industrial scale. (In autumn 1983, Saddam’s West German-built ‘insecticide’ factory at Samarra started making mustard gas. Later on, this and a second plant, also made by West German companies, began to produce large quantities of nerve agents, such as sarin and tabun. Competently blended, Iraq’s poison gases produced high mortality rates.)

Mr Karimi was gassed during an offensive called Moharram, which followed the liberation of Khorramshahr, and was meant to open the way for a deep penetration into Iraq. He had been ordered to watch over an abandoned Iraqi motorbike to make sure it wasn’t stripped for parts. An Iraqi plane dropped its bombs fifty yards away. Instead of a loud bang and flying shrapnel, there was white smoke, in the midst of which were glowing shapes, the size of tennis balls – perhaps ten of them – drifting towards him. It was before masks, before awareness, but Mr Karimi ran away. He tripped and fell over, and breathed in a gulp of gas as he got to his feet. Running made him sweaty, too; the gas entered his body under his armpits and around his groin. There was a smell, like garlic. He went to a field clinic, but the medics had no drugs to help him. Mr Karimi was finding it hard to breathe. Before long, blisters grew over his eyes, and he couldn’t open them. He felt nauseous. Then his sides started to hurt intensely. He started coughing uncontrollably, which increased the pain. The nurses applied pomades, to ease the pain of his blisters. It was four days before he could open his eyes again. He’d been poisoned by a blend of mustard gas and nerve agents. There was no antidote.

A military doctor I spoke to thought there were about eight thousand survivors of gas poisoning in Isfahan alone: there must be tens of thousands around the country, but official figures are hard to come by. (Those who were very severely gassed had died in short order, from internal blistering or congestion of the lungs.) With modern drugs and tracheotomies, he said, the effects could be mitigated, but not for all that long. Now the eight thousand were starting to die.

‘You’ll take tea,’ said Mrs Karimi. She was carrying a tray with tea and poolak, discs of caramelised sugar that melt on the tongue. Mr Karimi did not take tea. He rolled up his sleeve and injected himself with a drug to help him breathe more easily.

Amid the courtesies I received from the Karimis, there was a current of recrimination: they considered the West to be as responsible as Saddam Hussein for Mr Karimi’s attenuated martyrdom. He showed me his pirated translation of Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq by Kenneth Timmerman. I had the English-language original, which claims some Western Governments covertly approved their entrepreneurs’ efforts to sell Saddam an arsenal of horrendous weapons. Like Timmerman, Mr Karimi found it hard to believe that the West German Government had, as it maintained, not known that its companies were helping Saddam produce poisonous gas and nerve agents. (It wasn’t until 1991 that the German police finally made arrests in connection with this.) I said that America now seemed determined to unseat Saddam. Mr Karimi replied: ‘The West didn’t care what he did to us. Now they’re terrified of him, because he threatens them, and they know what they gave him.’

Mr Karimi had seen Donald Rumsfeld on television a few days before, demonising Saddam. ‘It was different in 1983,’ he said. ‘That was when Rumsfeld went to Baghdad and told Saddam that President Reagan wanted to strengthen military, technical and commercial ties.’ Later on, back at my hotel, I looked up Rumsfeld in Timmerman’s index. There was one entry; Mr Karimi had memorised it.

In 1984, in the light of an investigation ordered by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, then the UN Secretary-General, Iraq was exposed as a violator of the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing the use of poisonous gas. But the Security Council was dominated by countries that supported Iraq, and they would only allow the Council President to condemn the use of chemical weapons, without naming Iraq. Saddam Hussein subsequently gassed tens of thousands of Iranian servicemen, and launched a chemical weapons offensive against his own rebellious Kurds. The USSR was by now arming and supporting Iraq, as were Nato and Arab countries.

Mr Karimi had the chance to go with other gas victims to Germany, for treatment at the Iranian Government’s expense. German doctors had developed a laser treatment, and were good at tracheotomies. ‘When it comes to chemicals,’ Mr Karimi said, ‘they’re the best. They’re the best at producing, and the best at treating.’ He refused to go. He worked as a taxi driver until 1995. Then his lungs got worse; every few weeks, he would have to go to hospital and be put on a respirator. When he was at home, he read the papers, and listened to the news, to see what would happen to Saddam. He asked me if I wanted to put some questions to his wife. Mrs Karimi had been a young girl during the war. She and some schoolfriends had vowed to marry men who had been badly wounded. It was their way of doing their bit.

On my last evening in Isfahan, I went to the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, to see a veteran called Mr Amini. I had met him already, but he hadn’t liked me. In the past few years, one or two Iranian journalists had called the war into question, suggesting that it had been needlessly prolonged at an unacceptable human cost. Mr Amini may have associated me with them. He’d reluctantly agreed to meet me a second time, but I only half expected him to turn up. The Rose Garden is the resting place of many of Isfahan’s war dead. It’s dominated by the Division of Imam Hossein. There are about seven thousand graves, each marked by a metal frame containing a photo of the man in the grave. The martyrs have been buried according to the action in which they died. This classification is unintentionally candid. It clearly shows that Iran sustained the great majority of its casualties not in defence of the homeland, but during offensives on Iraqi soil.

The attacks that Iran launched after the liberation of Khorramshahr were designed to threaten the Iraqi port of Basra and, to a lesser extent, Baghdad, and to support Iraq’s Kurds, who had risen against Saddam. (Throughout the war, both sides used each other’s Kurds as proxies, to the Kurds’ enduring disadvantage.) Iran’s ‘final offensives’ of 1986 and 1987 had similar aims. Iran’s infantry had to penetrate minefields strewn with barbed wire and booby-traps. Dummy markers led them into ‘fire zones’ that were covered by artillery, mortar and machine-guns. There was an area of massive berms, defended by tanks and cannon. Iran’s diplomatic isolation meant it could not buy or maintain the artillery pieces, aircraft and tanks it needed to pierce these defences. The IRGC relied on headlong advances by young men and children – boys of 12 were joining the Basij. The Iraqis were impressed by their bravery, and mowed them down.

On my return to Tehran, I came across Khomeini’s Forgotten Sons: The Story of Iran’s Boy Soldiers, written shortly after the end of the war by a Briton, Ian Brown. I was struck by one account, a basiji’s recollection of his baptism of fire, at the age of 13.

After only a month’s training at a camp near Khorramshahr I was sent to the front. When we arrived we all assembled in a field where there must have been thousands of us, young boys, some younger than me, and old men as well. The commander told us we were going to attack an Iraqi position north-east of Basra which guarded the road to Qurna to try and capture the road.

The following morning we set off at 4 a.m. in army trucks, and I had been given a gun and two hand grenades . . . The sun was beginning to come up as we started walking towards the Iraqi lines . . . When we got to the top of a hill, we started running down the other side towards the enemy position. I wasn’t afraid any more. We shouted ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ as we ran, and I could see the soldiers in front of us – a line of helmets – then they started firing. People dropped all around me, but I kept running and shouting, kept going while many were being killed. By the time I reached the trenches, I’d thrown my grenades and somehow had lost my gun, but I don’t remember how. Then I was hit in the leg and fell over and lay for a long time right in front of the lines.

During Operation Kheibar, in 1984, Iran tried to seize the southern stretch of the road from Baghdad to Basra by launching a surprise offensive across a marsh. The operation began on the evening of 22 February, when the northernmost of Iran’s two big amphibious forces crossed the marsh and established a bridgehead on the Iraqi side. Thousands of men having been disembarked, military wisdom required that the Iranians fortify the bridgehead with heavy weapons in preparation for the inevitable counterattack. But they had no such weapons. They dug in and waited.

‘The following morning,’ one of the participants told me, ‘the ground started trembling. The Iraqi tanks were coming towards us. They were taking out the earthworks we had built, and they were supported by aircraft. We had grenades and assault rifles. We took some of them out, but they just kept coming.’ The basijis were crushed in their foxholes or gassed. Iraqi helicopter gunships attacked the tiny marsh channels, which were full of small craft. They electrocuted fleeing Iranians by diverting power into the marsh. Further south, a second Iranian force was stuck on exposed salt flats. For more than a week, wave after wave of basijis advanced, but the Iraqis held firm. By 2 March, the attack had been exhausted. Hossein Kharrazi was one of the last to cross a pontoon that had been thrown back across the marsh. As he went, his right arm was shot to bits. He shouted at the men ahead of him: ‘Go on! Don’t come back for me!’ At least twelve thousand Iranians were killed during Kheibar – the number may have been as high as twenty thousand. A third, smaller offensive gained Iran a strategically unimportant group of islands. In Tehran, victory was duly proclaimed.

After Kheibar, some commanders, Hossein among them, advocated better training and weapons for the IRGC and Basij, and combined arms offensives rather than infantry charges. But this ran counter to the prevailing theory, which held that zeal, divine intervention and weight of numbers must prevail. It ran counter, also, to Iran’s aggressive approach to foreign relations, which had provoked the distrust of most arms-producing countries. As rumours spread of disagreements among military and civilian leaders – the distinction had always been slim – the war stopped being sacred. Small hurts accumulated. Men on leave from the front found that certain goods were scarce; bazaar traders were hoarding, waiting for prices to rise before they released these commodities onto the market. Volunteer levels went down; young men were no longer thrilled by official proclamations of a ‘massive mobilisation’ that would lead to ‘final victory’. The fiasco of the Iran-Contra Affair, when it was revealed that Iran and America had done secret arms deals, taught Iranians what Americans already knew: every government, even one sanctioned by God, lies. In Isfahan, I met a former field doctor who recalled feeling physically sick when he read in a newspaper at the front that the previous day there had been a concert of classical music in Tehran.

At the beginning of 1988, Iraq’s superior equipment and morale allowed Saddam to launch a series of major offensives. Iran tamely gave up Iraqi territory it had spent months and thousands of lives winning. Iraq stepped up its missile attacks on Iranian cities; fearing gas, hundreds of thousands of people fled Tehran. Everyone remembers where he or she was on the summer day in 1988 when Iran announced that it had accepted a ceasefire whose terms it had rejected six years before. (There was panic in Tehran’s bazaar: the hoarders had lost millions.) At the front, some thought that stopping the war was an insult to the martyrs. Others asked why it hadn’t been stopped much earlier. Everyone agreed on one thing: it shouldn’t have ended like this. The final toll is hard to ascertain, since both sides presented absurdly low casualty figures for themselves, and wildly exaggerated losses on the other side. According to two military historians, Anthony Cordesman and Abraham Wagner, Iranian deaths were between 450,000 and 730,000, and Iraqi deaths between 150,000 and 340,000. They estimate that the war cost Iran $69 billion, and Iraq $159 billion. ‘Few wars in modern history,’ they conclude, ‘did less to further the ambitions of the leaders that started them, at so high a cost to their peoples.’

IIt was nearly six. The temperature had cooled, and people had entered the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, to clean graves, lay flowers, and pay someone to sing an episode from the martyrdom of Imam Hossein over their dead sons. Women wept, while children ran around playing, and men and boys distributed cold drinks as an act of pious charity. I saw Mr Amini at the entrance. His face didn’t seem to fit his head. They could have come from different kits. His forehead was a collage of metal and bone. A mutual friend had told me that he had around sixty bits of shrapnel inside him.

He was standing still, but his lips were moving; he was greeting the martyrs. I put my hand up, but he didn’t see me. He entered a baldachin that contained an important tomb. I sat down on a bench and took a newspaper out. On the front page was a photograph of Ayatollah Taheri, who had co-ordinated Isfahan’s war effort. His son had been martyred while fighting for Hossein Kharrazi. Taheri was critical of the conservative clerics who were preventing the reformist government from making Iran more democratic. Now, he’d gone a step further and issued an open letter, explaining why he was resigning as Isfahan’s Friday prayer leader. The people, he said, had shed ‘pure blood’ to ‘establish the just government of Ali’, but things had turned out differently. The regime that Taheri depicted was corrupt, opportunistic and thuggish. His letter was one of the most sensational critiques a member of the regime had made since the Revolution.

I looked up; Mr Amini was by my side. We shook hands, and he sat down. I showed him the newspaper, and asked: ‘What do you think?’ I had hoped to talk to him about several operations in which the Division of Imam Hossein had taken part. I had hoped to learn how he felt about the changes that had taken place in Iran since the end of the war. But for the moment, Mr Amini had decided not to talk; he still didn’t trust me. Most of the veterans I had met in Isfahan would agree with Taheri; they knew today’s Iran was a parody of the Iran that Khomeini had promised them. But how could they support reform? The reformists under President Muhammad Khatami had been in power for five years, and Iran had never known such moral corruption. Pre-marital sex, divorce, drug addiction and prostitution had reached levels you’d associate with a degenerate Western country.

After the war, Mr Rafi’i had bought a small piece of land and gone back to farming. Mr Karimi had his wife, and Timmerman. I’d met a veteran who was pursuing a mystically intense relationship with God; he made it sound like a balm. I wondered what Mr Amini had in the way of solace. I knew he met his friends one or two evenings a week, to smoke the hookah; they were all veterans, most them crocked. They understood each other.

I said: ‘I recently read a novel that’s set in London after World War One’ – and went on to describe the guilt and distress felt by Septimus Warren Smith on his return home from the war.

Mr Amini said: ‘What happens to him?’

‘He jumps out of a window.’

‘Islam doesn’t countenance suicide,’ he said with satisfaction.

I said: ‘Did you take part in Karbala Four?’

‘Why do you ask questions like that?’

In the last days of 1986, the top brass told Hossein Kharrazi to lead an amphibious attack on a point south of Basra. Hossein’s spies told him that the Iraqis had heavily fortified the area; the Iranian force, they predicted, would be wiped out. Hossein passed this intelligence on to the top brass, but they paid no attention. He pleaded for the attack to be cancelled. The top brass repeated: the attack must go ahead. It was the fourth offensive in a series that had been named Karbala. Karbala was where Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet, and his followers had been massacred. Karbala Four was Iran’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Afterwards, Hossein Kharrazi’s opposition to the attack was not forgotten. He returned to Isfahan for a few days, but the authorities refused to supply him with a car to get back to the front. He took a bus.

‘Let’s say hello to Hossein,’ Amini said.

We walked through the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. Mr Amini started to talk.

‘A few weeks after Karbala Four, Hossein’s in a trench at the front and he’s hungry and he says: “Boys, what have we got to eat?” And one of the boys says: “We’ve got chicken from last night, I’ll heat it up for you on the stove.” As it’s warming up, Hossein sticks his head out of the trench and sees a water tanker take a wrong turn. It’s heading off towards the enemy lines. Any other commander would have sent someone to stop the water tanker but Hossein doesn’t think; he gets up himself and runs off towards the tanker, shouting: “Stop!” The tanker stops and the driver sees it’s Hossein, and he’s thrilled. He gets out to kiss his cheeks and they’re standing there and a shell lands and cuts Hossein in pieces. The boys rush out of the trench and see Hossein in pieces and they send him to the clinic, but it’s too late; Hossein’s gone. They go back to the trench and Hossein’s chicken’s still on the stove, cooking. It starts burning, and everyone’s sitting there. So, they sit there while Hossein’s chicken burns, and the walls of the trench go black with the smoke, and they carry on sitting there until the stove runs out of kerosene.’

Mr Amini was sucking in, making a rasping sound. It’s the sound badly gassed men make when they’re trying to hold their emotions in check. We’d reached Hossein Kharrazi’s grave. Mr Amini touched the top of it, and said a prayer in Arabic.

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