The story goes something like this: During the Iran–Iraq War, faced with an invading Iraqi army, the outgunned and overwhelmed Islamic Republic of Iran eventually resorted to “human wave” attacks in order to sweep for land mines and absorb Iraqi heavy artillery. The ruling mullahs embarked on a variety of indoctrination campaigns both in public and on the pulpit to mobilize Iran’s faithful out to the front lines. In order to entice Iranians to volunteer — or, in some cases, to volunteer their children — promises of eternal peace and pleasure in the afterlife were guaranteed.
“Plastic keys, ostensibly good for opening the door to heaven, and to erotic and culinary delights, were … given to these young men, who walked to their deaths,” wrote Stanford University’s Abbas Milani in a 2007 essay for Boston Review. The Iranian government was “so certain” that these martyrs would be sacrificed, explained Iran watcher Michael Ledeen back in 2008, “that these little children were provided with plastic keys that were said to open the gates to paradise.”
Thus we have the legend of the paradise keys. Many Mideast analysts and observers — yours truly included — have referenced these keys throughout the years. In some tellings these keys are said to have been made of plastic — in others, brass or gold — and imported from either China or Taiwan. So pervasive is the keys story, that they have even made appearances in relatively obscure (and somewhat disturbing, NSFW) punk and folk songs.
Just one problem: There is virtually no photographic or video evidence that these keys ever existed. I contacted several trusted Iran experts and analysts, and while none were willing to outright reject the validity of the paradise keys story, none had ever seen one, nor could they say with certainty that they ever truly existed.
Upon first appraisal, this might strike someone as rather odd. For a country believed by many to be bent on martyrdom and sacrifice, you would think, said Mideast analyst Meir Javedanfar, that the ruling mullahs would have gone out of their way to preserve and promote these artifacts. “While it is possible that such keys existed,” said Javendanfar, “the fact that there is no visual verification of them gives credibility to those who question their existence.”
Or does it? After all, one obvious answer as to why these keys are so hard to come by is that so few of their original owners — often young boys and older men — survived long enough to boast about their war souvenirs. As Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies put it, “many of these folks lived to die.” Indeed — though concrete casualty numbers are difficult to come by — we know that thousands of Iranian volunteer soldiers (Basijis) marched to their deaths in that long, bloody war of attrition with Iraq. The last thing these martyrs were likely concerned about was the preservation of the one-way ticket around their necks.
And that, to analysts like Gerecht, is the more salient point. While the gruesome nature of the Iran-Iraq War would ultimately turn many would-be martyrs away from the cause, it’s the ones who didn’t walk away from Iran’s revolutionary ideology after the war, according to Gerecht, who should worry us.
“A fraternity of death developed. One of the reasons that some of the senior IRGC [Revolutionary Guardsmen] are so scary,” explained Gerecht, the former CIA case manager, “is that they survived the war and walked away still white hot. As if their survival had been vouchsafed by God.”
It’s with that in mind that many Iran experts say this regime cannot and should not be contained. If, after all, the upper echelons of today’s Islamic Republic were forged in the blood and sacrifice of the war against Iraq, then who’s to say those same true believers wouldn’t use a nuclear weapon against Israel, or threaten America and its global assets? What’s to prevent that “death cult” from martyring the entire state of Iran?
There is, however, reason to believe that even Iran‘s elite Revolutionary Guard can be targeted and contained. Setting aside the guard’s messianic reputation, it is, by most measurements, an organization in search of the world’s more sublunary pleasures. The afterlife may be a paradise, but the here and now has been pretty good to the IRGC. Moreover, even if we were to assume the worst about Iranian war tactics back then, national fratricide certainly isn’t unique to the Islamic Republic. As Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress noted in a 2011 article for Foreign Policy, two 20th Century regimes that actually did martyr millions of their own citizens — China and the Soviet Union — still posed a mostly terrestrial and containable challenge to Western policymakers.
That the newly-empowered mullahs appealed to Iranian patriotism — and fear — in order to mobilize poorly-trained civilians to the front lines is important and noteworthy, but so too is understanding the besieged Iranian mindset at the time of the war. An Iraqi dictator with imperial ambitions — left mostly to his own devices by the international community, and aided by much of the West — declared war on a society already in revolutionary flux. As the eight-year-long war went on, neighboring Arab regimes — due in no small part to Iranian instigation and terrorism in the Gulf and the Levant — coalesced around Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime — and against Tehran.
Desperate nations have resorted to desperate (and questionable) war tactics throughout history. So what makes this particular regime so different? This, according to analysts like Duss, is why the paradise keys matter.
“For U.S. hawks,” said Duss, “the keys function as a distillation of that ‘martyr state’ theory, a physical representation of Iran’s ‘irrational’ religious ideology.” Such efforts to dehumanize an enemy can prove doubly effective, says Duss, when the slaughter of children — possibly against their will — is offered in addendum to the plastic keys tale.
In other words, the paradise keys tend to say less about the tactics and intentions of modern-day Iran, and more about the Iran debate in Washington and other Western capitals.
“The keys fall into the legend category,” said Iranian-American journalist and author Hooman Majd, “but with enough circumstantial evidence to make it more than just a myth.” Though he has never personally seen one of these keys, Majd has heard the story enough to believe they likely existed — perhaps handed out only in certain circumstances, and by only certain mullahs.
So is the story true? Maybe. All wars have their share of exaggerated legends and tales rooted in shades of truth. Interpretations of how one side chose to win or lose a war — as demonstrated in the recent Yasukuni Shrine controversy — can have a lasting effect on foreign policy and relations years after the final shots have been fired. In the case of Iran, how the country chose to fight and defend itself in the Iran-Iraq War still holds policy ramifications to this day. Rational regimes can be contained, but can an irrational one? That is the more pressing question, keys or no keys.
Editor’s Note: Have you ever seen or owned a paradise key? Email me and tell us your story.