Bodies of 175 Divers Killed in the Iran-Iraq War Repatriated to Iran

Raz Zimmt examines the discourse on social media around Operation Karbala, following the repatriation of the bodies of 175 Iranian divers killed in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

In mid-May, the bodies of 175 Iranian divers killed in Operation Karbala-4 in late December 1986 were repatriated to Iran. The operation, part of the Iran-Iraq War, was supposed to have led to the conquest of Basra but ended – after only one day of fighting – with bitter defeat for the Iranians. The Revolutionary Guard and Basij forces encountered a well-prepared Iraqi defense force that pushed them back past the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and exacted a heavy price. Thousands were killed, injured or missing, and the hands of some divers whose bodies were returned had been tied. At the repatriation ceremony on May 18, Gen. Seyyed Mohammad Bagherzadeh, commander of the committee to find missing veterans of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic, said that some divers’ bodies showed signs of having been buried alive.[1]

The repatriation led to an unprecedentedly emotional response on Iranian social networking sites (SNS). Many users shared pictures of the divers, published essays and songs in their memory, and expressed their pain and identification with the wartime casualties. Hashtags “175,” “175 casualties” or “hands tied” were created and used when uploading reports of and responses to the repatriation. One of the most frequently shared posts on Facebook was uploaded by Somayeh Shadkam, whose uncle Massoud was killed in the operation. She uploaded his picture, accompanied by a eulogy in which she parted with him with emotional words. The post was shared more than 1,200 times and received more than 11,000 likes.[2] A drawing by artist Seyyed Abbas Emad Haghy, showing a single diver with the number 175 on his chest, was also widely shared. Of his illustration, Haghy said, “When I first drew it, his hands were tied, but it was frightening. If even tying someone’s hands in a drawing is terrifying, how much the more so in real life.”[3]

Iranians of all ages and all political views, both at home and abroad, expressed empathy with the casualties and their families. One exiled Iranian in the United States wrote that, if he were in Iran, he certainly would have attended the burial ceremonies of the divers who sacrificed their lives to defend their homeland.[4] BBC Persian journalist Nima Akbarpour tweeted, “When I started the first ?grade, the war began. When I graduated from junior high, it ended, but it feels like it still has ?not ended; it is still in the news.”[5]

In addition to expressing appreciation for the sacrifice of the casualties and grief over their deaths, the responses to the repatriation of the bodies included criticism of Iran’s national leadership during the war and hostility towards Iraq. Some users accused the country’s political and military leadership during the war of responsibility for the failed management of the campaign that led to the miserable defeat in Operation Karbala-4.[6] Behind these accusations is a public debate, which has been raging for several years, between senior Iranian leaders led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, over the responsibility of the regime’s leaders for the length of the war and the many casualties that resulted.

For some users, the reports about the repatriation served as a reminder of the heavy price exacted by the bloody war. “This human tragedy again proves how evil war is,” wrote one user.[7] Others emphasized the futility of the war, especially considering the difficult situation of citizens in the Islamic Republic today. “175 divers went to war so that we can wear a hijab and be prevented from having sex,” tweeted one user mockingly.[8] Others expressed great hostility towards Iraq, particularly in light of the fact that some of the divers had been buried alive, and criticized the assistance that the Iranian authorities are currently giving Iraq. “These handcuffed casualties fell on behalf of the motherland and now we are supporting their murderers. This anti-nationalist government should be embarrassed,” read one tweet.[9]

The critical responses on SNS were not ignored by senior officials of the administration and media outlets identified with the conservative right wing. Revolutionary Guards spokesman Ramazan Sharif criticized the use of SNS to denounce the military leadership during the war and create enmity between Iran and the Arabs. Sharif said that in these current conditions, in which Iran is facing off against ISIS, cooperation with the Shiite regime in Iraq is essential and care must be taken not to play into the hands of the enemy, who might use coverage of the repatriation for its own purposes.[10] The conservative Fars News Agency also warned against attempts by “anti-revolutionary and monarchist” users to take advantage of the situation in order to foment strife and racist emotions within Iranian society.[11]

Responses to the repatriation of the divers’ bodies to Iran is additional evidence of the centrality of the Iran-Iraq War in the Iranian collective memory, as well as how social media have become the main arena where the public can express its identity. Although 27 years have passed since the war has ended, it can still arouse strong nationalistic emotions and plays a central role in Iranian public discourse, even among many young people who were born after it ended.



[1] "Discovery of 175 "Holy Defense" (Iran-Iraq War) Martyr Divers' Bodies with Tied Hands",  Tasnim News, May 18, 2015. 

[3]"Social Media's Users' Mourning for 175 Martyr Divers with Tied Hands", Etemaad Newspaper, May 23, 2015, 

[10] "Media's Mischief over the Issue of 175 Martyr Divers", Fars News Agency, May 29, 2015,

[11] "Know the Real Killers of "those 175 people," Coalition of Iranian People & Iraq in Fighting American Baathists, Fars News Agency, May 23, 2015,