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I'm reading one of Paul Theroux's books, which was published in 2006 during the height of the second Gulf War, and there is a passage in it in which the author apparently claims the activity described in the title of this question:

“We were a Turkoman family in Iraq,” a woman said to me, and introduced herself as Professor Emel Dogramaci of Cankaya University. “We were powerful in Kirkuk.”
...
“We know Rumsfeld!” the woman said, snorting at the name. “He was supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. He was supporting Saddam! He was telling us to do the same!”
From their home in Kirkuk her family had observed Donald Rumsfeld paddling palms and pinching fingers with Saddam, and selling him weapons, among them land mines. The Iranian response was to send small children—because children are numerous, portable, and expendable—running, tripping into the minefields to detonate the bombs with their tiny feet, to be blown to pieces.
Theroux, Paul. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar (p. 61). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Several people have disputed this claim, saying it is extremely unlikely that this happened. I have no information that it did or didn't, and although there is a a documented case of a 12-year-old voluntarily blowing up a tank in the Iran-Iraq conflict, killing himself (see Mohammad Hussein Fahmideh), I can't find anything elsewhere about a more general version of this disturbing practice, if it existed. Note that a young Iranian acquaintance is shocked and horrified to hear the suggestion, though he acknowledges that Fahmideh is touted as a hero in Iran even today.

Addendum I see a couple of excellent answers, but Theroux seems to imply that smaller children were involved ("running, tripping into the minefields to detonate the bombs with their tiny feet"). Is he perhaps misinformed, exaggerating for effect, or being somewhat disingenuous?

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    @JoeW: Not necessarily in a tactical sense. Maybe they only wanted to clear an avenue for an advance.
    – Robusto
    Sep 12, 2022 at 16:19
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    But I'm not looking for what may be reasonable to assume. I'm concerned about facts. Nothing about illogicality or impracticality can verify that an abomination is true or not.
    – Robusto
    Sep 12, 2022 at 16:23
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    @DanRomik: I suppose that is one possibility, but asking an author to assert that he has his facts right isn't exactly independent verification.
    – Robusto
    Sep 12, 2022 at 18:05
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    @JoeW says "many more mines than children". The goal isn't to eliminate all the mines; it's to create a safe path through the field. Sep 12, 2022 at 18:55
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    I am an Iranian and my dad was one of those children.
    – Node.JS
    Sep 13, 2022 at 22:29

4 Answers 4

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Yes.

This use of child suicide minesweepers by Iran seems to be well-documented and discussed by academic scholars in reputable sources. Here are some examples I found:

  1. Helen Brocklehurst, a social scientist from the University of Derby, in her 2006 academic book "Who's Afraid of Children? Children, Conflict and International Relations" (Chapter 2, the section titled "Warfare"), writes:

    During the Iran-Iraq war, children's immaturity was deliberately employed to the Iranian army's advantage. Thousands of children were sent out into the battlefields as 'kamikaze' mine-sweepers. 73 [...] As a human rights lawyer has observed: '[t]hey received inetnse religious indoctrination, emphasizing the value of martyrdom to the Islamic faith. These children were sent into the minefileds to clear mines for the advancing Iranian army, armed only with keys around their necks for opening the gates of heaven.' 75 [...]

    I viewed this excerpt on Google Books so I am unable to look up the references 73 and 75 (the footnotes being referred to are not shown by the Google Books preview feature), but it at least seems that the author has documented her sources to the standards of academic writing, so that anyone who wishes to pursue the trail of references knows where to go look.

  2. Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist and historian, wrote a long article (which was published in 2006 in The New Republic) with several detailed references to the usage by Iran of children to clear and denotate mines, and considerably more detail about the cultural and religious context within which these events took place. It makes for fascinating (though quite disturbing) reading material, here are a couple of excerpts:

    [...] Khomeini sent Iranian children, some as young as twelve years old, to the front lines. There, they marched in formation across minefields toward the enemy, clearing a path with their bodies.

    [...]

    “In the past,” wrote the semi-official Iranian daily Ettelaat as the war raged on, “we had child-volunteers: 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. They went into the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, one saw clouds of dust. When the dust had settled again, there was nothing more to be seen of them. Somewhere, widely scattered in the landscape, there lay scraps of burnt flesh and pieces of bone.” Such scenes would henceforth be avoided, Ettelaat assured its readers. “Before entering the minefields, the children [now] wrap themselves in blankets and they roll on the ground, so that their body parts stay together after the explosion of the mines and one can carry them to the graves.”

  3. The book "Defying the Iranian Revolution: From a Minister to the Shah to a Leader of Resistance", by Manouchehr Ganji, a scholar, political activist, and former Iranian government minister, also contains a reference to "children used as minesweepers" on page 126 (I got this from the index, Google Books won't let me view that page), as well as this captioned photograph on page 110:

enter image description here

Searching for "Iran child minesweeper" on Google Books brings up many additional references. To summarize, what Paul Theroux wrote in his book appears to be based on well-documented historical fact that no one is seriously challenging or denying.

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    +1 Interesting find. Would be even better with the original Ettelaat but that requires knowing Farsi and probably access to paper archives of the newspaper... Aside: I see That newspaper won a photo Pulitzer for showing a mass execution of Kurds in Iran, so it has rep for not being squeamish with such details. Sep 14, 2022 at 8:15
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    A bit more googling finds that it's the 30 January 1982 issue of Ettelaat that has that passage, according to other citations of it. Sep 14, 2022 at 8:24
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    @Fizz I don't know. This Ettelaat newspaper is the kind of press we don't give any credibility at all, except when it suits our own bias. The idea of children wrapping themselves on blankets then rolling over 200 or 300m of a minefield looks like obvious war-time propaganda to enhance the fanaticism of the readers. Sure, Iran used human-wave attacks similar to the ones that the URSS and Japan made in WWII, so it's only logical many thousands of them died by mine, bullet or shell, but the claim of being specifically, or exclusivelly as minesweepers is an overstretch.
    – Rekesoft
    Sep 15, 2022 at 11:50
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    @Rekesoft it’s interesting that others are saying in the comments that we shouldn’t trust Iranian exiles since they are biased, and now you are saying we shouldn’t trust a pro-Iranian regime newspaper for the same reason. A bit of a catch-22, isn’t it? Anyone who was there would be biased in some way. But if both the Iranian government and their opponents claim that Iran used suicide child minesweepers, and no one is denying it, and this is documented in many places, what reason is there to doubt the claim? (As for the blankets specifically, I agree that detail may be reasonable to question.)
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 15, 2022 at 20:33
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    @DanRomik: ironically, sometimes both sides of a conflict may have reasons to magnify the same issue/events, compared to reality. Recent example (IMHO): Zaporizhzhia. Sep 16, 2022 at 6:22
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Yes, according to the 07 July 1987 article For Iran's child soldiers, capture by the Iraqis is a mixed blessing from the Christian Science Monitor:

SHIRZAD lasted about 24 hours on the battlefield. He'd been sent out ahead of his countrymen - a 12-year-old boy ordered to be a human minesweeper, setting off mines by poking them or jumping on them so that the adult soldiers behind him could advance safely.

During his one day of war, Shirzad saw boys around him being blown up. He was blinded in one eye by a mine shard and captured by Iraqi troops.

"I didn't have any arms to fight," he recalls. "So I surrendered."

See also the 18 January 1988 article CHILDREN KHOMEINI'S CANNON FODDER from the Washington Post.

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    The first linked article has a headline that doesn't match the narrative in the article's body. The whole article is speculating that they're just putting on a show with a few children, while the conditions in other camps may be much different. Why should one trust any part of Shirzad's story?
    – M.A.R.
    Sep 12, 2022 at 19:54
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    I'm not entirely convinced by this CSM article. The essential passage, "ordered to be a human minesweeper", is not explained. It sounds like interpretation. Second, it is said in the article itself that various children in the camp tell the same story about certain events. The Iraqi wardens have an interest in letting the captured child-soldiers say certain things to Western journalists, so say aid organisations quoted in the article.
    – Cerberus
    Sep 12, 2022 at 19:58
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    The WP article is more like an opinion piece, without mentioning any source or specific events, let alone time or place. The children mentioned also seem older than "small children". In addition, I think there is a difference between a.) using child-soldiers as regular minesweepers, the way normal soldiers in any army sweep mines, without harming themselves if things go well, and b.) sending them into minefields as suicide mine sweepers.
    – Cerberus
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:04
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    @Cerberus Is it really that much less horrific to use 12-year-olds than, say, 8-year-olds? I agree that they may be exaggerating for emotional effect by calling them "small children", but they're still children.
    – Barmar
    Sep 13, 2022 at 16:25
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    @Cerberus You said The children mentioned also seem older than "small children". This suggests that it's important whether they're small children or big children. I don't see the point of that distinction in discussing the veracity of this claim.
    – Barmar
    Sep 14, 2022 at 16:26
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This is backed up by Terence Smith's 1984 NYT article:

THEIR TICKET TO PARADISE IS the blood-red headband and the small metal key that they wear into battle. "Sar Allah," ("Warriors of God"), some of the headbands read in Farsi script, identifying the wearers as divinely designated martyrs who will use their keys to go directly to heaven if killed in the holy war against Iraq declared by their leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The headbands and the keys are worn by young boys, aged 12 to 17, who are recruited by local clergy or simply rounded up in the villages of Iran, given an intensive indoctrination in the Shiite tradition of martyrdom, and then sent weaponless into battle against Iraqi armor. Often bound together in groups of 20 by ropes to prevent the fainthearted from deserting, they hurl themselves on barbed wire or march into Iraqi mine fields in the face of withering machine-gun fire to clear the way for Iranian tanks.

The article continues, specifying the source of the information:

In dozens of interviews conducted by this reporter in recent weeks with Iranian exiles, academics and government and intelligence officials in the United States and Europe, the blind faith of these teen-age martyrs was frequently cited as symbolic of the fanaticism that is part of life today in the Islamic Republic of Iran. An East European journalist who witnessed one of these human-wave assaults, in which tens of thousands of young Iranians have gone willingly to their deaths, could hardly believe what he was seeing, as first one boy, and then another, detonated a mine and was hurled into the air by the explosion. "We have so few tanks," an Iranian officer explained to the journalist, without apology.

I found similar information on Refworld citing "The Abuse of Human Rights in Iran, London: House of Commons, Parliamentary Human Rights Groups, 1986, p.41." but I couldn't find that to follow up. It says they used "[b]oys as young as nine".

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    I have read that article as well, but it seems to rely on information by an unnamed source. I wish we had a named source, more specific data such as place and time, a detailed account, and reason to think this happened on more than one occasion. In short I am not convinced by what Smith suggests happened in Iran in the war.
    – Cerberus
    Sep 12, 2022 at 19:49
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    Iranian exiles are not an unbiased source. I find the whole 'Kool Aid' argument -- that they ran through minefields so they would go to heaven -- unconvincing. The version depicted on Iranian media is of voluneers clearing a path through a minefield, when no minesweepers are available, so the rest of the troops can move through unharmed, and I find that a more reasonable explanation. Of course, the young age of most of the Iranian army during the war (say, 15 to 20 yo, even 13) is well-known.
    – M.A.R.
    Sep 12, 2022 at 20:02
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    It's well known that the Iranians used "human wave" tactics such as sending minimally-trained troops running toward enemy guns hoping to use force of numbers to get past them. Running through minefields might fit with that - but the goal is that some will get through, not that they will all blow up.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 13, 2022 at 13:27
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    @M.A.R. please read the article by Küntzel that I also cited in my answer. He provides a lot more nuance about how the Iranian military leaders took very cynical measures to overcome the natural fear of dying of their soldiers. Sure, you are right that it's not as simple as "they drank the kool aid", but I think you're underestimating how successfully people (even adults, not to mention impressionable children) can be brainwashed and manipulated even to put themselves at a near-certain risk of dying.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 14, 2022 at 7:07
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    "Backed up" is strong: The NYT article talks about teenage soldiers, in a country where probably many kids pretty much do adult work starting at 14 or so, the same way it was in Europe until the 1900s. The claim "small children [...] with their tiny feet" is simply not supported by the NYT article. It's terrible and abominable and an abuse of religion and power and everything -- but it's not small children with tiny feet. Sep 14, 2022 at 15:56
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There's an interview with a 14-y.o. soldier (Mehrdad Azizollahi) filmed by Iranian armed forces themselves in which he says he took part in demining (and names battles etc. where he did this--Operation Ramadan etc.), although details of what demining entailed exactly are absent from that interview. "Running over" mines will probably not be easily confirmed from Iranian government sources themselves, I suspect. I'm posting this in case you're looking for some kind of confirmation from non-Western/non-exiled sources.

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    Demining is an utterly different thing from "running, tripping into the minefields to detonate the bombs with their tiny feet, to be blown to pieces" "because children are numerous, portable, and expendable".
    – benrg
    Sep 13, 2022 at 8:02
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    Ramadan used human wave attacks where you send a lot of troops in, expecting some will die and some will get through by force of numbers. This would be effective against minefields (if you don't mind losing some soldiers), but is very different to the OP, which specifically suggests sending children in to demine, rather than as part of a general human wave attack. (And there's the fact that you lose the element of surprise if you send in deminers before an attack.)
    – Stuart F
    Sep 13, 2022 at 13:32

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