International Affairs Forum: Historically, what characterizations (if any) of the Iranian military forces can be made? [e.g., fighting effectiveness, strategy, ineffectiveness, profile of the average Iranian fighter]
Steven Ward: In doing the research for Immortal I was struck by how Iran’s leaders over the centuries wrestled with many of the same problems in creating strong national armed forces and avoiding the decay that contributed to the fall of earlier dynasties. The most consistent characteristics that have served Iran well are the hardiness, bravery, and patriotism of the average Iranian fighter. When ably led and supported, Iran’s warriors have surmounted great odds to gain victory. Iran’s armed forces, however, have not always been led or supported very well, a situation I think exists today except for a few pockets of excellence among Iranian missile, naval, and special forces.
In addition, the Islamic Republic, similar to preceding Iranian dynasties, has two military structures. The first is the regular military or Artesh, which emerged from the pre-revolution armed forces. The second is the Revolutionary Guard, the ideological fighting force that is the pillar of the current regime’s power. As in the past, when Iran generally had the central government’s military services and irregular tribal forces, this dual structure interferes in the transformation of the basic strengths of Iranian military personnel and their arms into effective fighting power.
Iranian dynasties in the past usually succeeded when they developed warfighting doctrine that optimized their strengths and minimized their limitations. The horse archers and the tribal cavalry of the Iranian plateau over the centuries have practiced what we today call asymmetric warfare. They regularly confounded and defeated stronger foes. Iran in recent years has made progress in bringing its doctrine more in line with its capabilities and presents an irregular warfare threat, combining a mix of conventional and nonconventional capabilities, that can seriously challenge Western military planners.
IA-Forum: Did efforts to assist with military modernization by other countries (e.g. Russia, England, Sweden) in the nineteenth century to World War II years have any lasting effect with the Iranian military into the post-Cold War era?
Mr. Ward: The Iranians, I think, would say definitely not, and I would generally agree. Most Western observers during the nineteenth and early twentieth century reported that European reforms did not take. Worse, the reforms tended to undermine Iran’s irregular tribal cavalry, which had been the source of its military effectiveness for most of its modern history. As Sir Percy Sykes noted in his classic history of Persia, the attempt “to drill Persians on European lines, praiseworthy as it was, contributed to the ruin of the country.”
The Swedes with help from Morgan Shuster, an American, had the greatest success in the years before World War I through the mid-1920s in turning the Iranian Gendarmerie into a fairly professional, loyal, pro-democratic, and corruption-free military service. Unfortunately, the Gendarmerie was later crushed by Reza Khan, a Russian-trained Persian Cossack officer, who became the first Pahlavi shah and the military dictator of Iran from 1926 to 1941. I think that the US military advisory effort between 1942 and 1979 as well as the example shown by the US armed forces in the decades since still influences the structure, operations, and administration of Iran’s regular military forces. The Revolutionary Guard is more unique, but even it has been quick to adopt contemporary US military jargon in its statements and publications.
IA-Forum: Your book devotes a chapter to the rise of the military under the last Shah of Iran including limited U.S. involvement in modernizing Iran's military in the 1950's to a dramatic increase in the early 1970s. In hindsight, from the U.S. perspective, what went right and what went wrong in these efforts, including any contributing factors in the rise of anti-American sentiment?
Mr. Ward: What went right is that we succeeded in getting the Soviets out of Iran after World War II and, despite many problems, kept Iran as an ally and key listening post during some of the worst years of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, we failed to understand Iran’s culture fully or all of the implications of the shah’s ambitions. This was especially true after he helped engineer the rise in oil prices in the early 1970s and went on an arms buying spree with our eager acquiescence. The shah’s attempts to modernize his country while limiting its political freedoms managed to antagonize just about every sector of Iranian society. Added to this was the popular view that the shah was beholden to Washington and the economic and social impact of tens of thousands of American technicians and their families living in Iran to support the shah’s new weapon systems. Also, I think the historical memory of Russian and British domination earlier in the century played a role in popular support for the revolution.
Of course, there was more than a little political cynicism, in my view, on the part of the revolutionaries. Ayatollah Khomeini recognized that the military had to be neutralized. But, he wanted it done in such a way that the military’s capabilities could be salvaged to protect the new government he planned to establish. Fostering anti-Americanism helped to undermine the armed forces’ loyalty to the shah. Because of the US advisory effort, Iranian military personal were acutely aware of their vulnerability to charges that they were close to, if not aligned with, the American “infidels” in the contest between the regime and the revolutionaries.
IA-Forum: How did the Islamic Revolution re-shape the structure and capability of the Iranian military?
Mr. Ward: Interestingly, the regular military reborn from the last shah’s armed forces has retained its structure and has tried to re-build most of the conventional capabilities it possessed in the 1970s. The Artesh is still just a shadow of the imperial armed forces. Its main mission is to defend Iran’s borders and waters and, thanks to the United States, Iran’s two worst enemies, Saddam’s Iraq and a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, are no longer a threat.
The big change has been the creation and rise of the Revolutionary Guard, the ideologically militant counterpart of and counterweight to the Artesh. The Guard is mostly a light infantry force oriented toward internal security. But, it possesses most of the key capabilities that form the foundation of Iran’s deterrence-based national security strategy. These are Iran’s ballistic missiles, naval forces posed to shut down critical Persian Gulf oil export routes, and special operations forces that, in conjunction with militant Islamic groups, are prepared to attack the interests of Iran’s enemies anywhere in the world.
One thing that the revolution failed to change was the Iranian military’s historical role in politics and governance. The true successors to the last shah’s military, however, have been the Revolutionary Guard. Guard generals, like their imperial forebears, are heavily involved in politics and in Iran’s economy; many have become among Iran’s richest citizens through their legitimate and corrupt business interests.
IA-Forum: The Iran-Iraq War took an enormous toll on Iran's military and the country. How would you assess Iranian military efforts over the course of the conflict?
Mr. Ward: In general, I think Iran’s tactical performance was commendable, but it failed badly at the operational and strategic level of war. It was nothing short of amazing—admittedly aided by the good fortune of facing an incompetent Iraqi military at the beginning of the war—that less than two years after the revolution the shattered Iranian military and newly formed revolutionary forces stopped the Iraqi invasion of September 1980. Despite the loss of tens of thousands of U.S. technicians needed to support Iran’s advanced equipment and a vigorous international arms embargo, the Iranians were able to fight on for eight years. The regular military and revolutionary forces nearly prevailed by putting so much pressure on Iraq that Baghdad repeatedly offered to end the conflict on terms favorable to Tehran.
It was the incompetent statecraft of their theocratic leadership and the Guard’s desire to prove its new “Islamic way of war” would eventually prevail that denied Iran’s fighting men a triumph. The Islamic Republic overreached in its objectives and wore down its own forces in pointless offensives. It also unnecessarily expanded the conflict and brought US and NATO naval forces into the warzone. Finally, Iran compelled the Iraqis, by giving them no option but victory, to create the improved military forces used to win the war in 1988.
The Iranians view this “Imposed War” as a victory. As I write in Immortal, the Iranian military deserves no shame for losing the conflict, which ended with a return to the pre-war status quo. While virtually isolated and relying almost totally on its own resources, Iran held out for nearly a decade against a regional military power backed by generous Arab allies and both Cold War superpowers.
IA-Forum: What has been done to regain Iranian military strength since the war? How successful have those efforts been?
Mr. Ward: Iran’s procurement efforts over the past twenty years have left the bulk of its armed forces reliant on aging or outmoded weapon systems. Defense spending has fluctuated because of the rise and fall in Iran’s oil revenues and the growing pressure from demographic changes; Iran’s population nearly doubled between 1980 and 2000, increasing the need for social spending. The military’s share of government revenues has remained low relative to the shah’s era. By some estimates, the Islamic Republic has been spending as little as twenty-five percent of what is needed to modernize and recapitalize the armed forces to the level of Muhammad Reza’s 410,000-man military with current generation armor, artillery, aircraft, and warships.
Still, the Iranians have been smart about focusing on those forces that provide it the most deterrence for its investment. Despite its military shortcomings, in the twenty years between 1988 and 2008, Iran has become more threatening to Western interests in the Middle East and to world energy security. America’s intelligence chiefs over the past several years have reported in open session to Congress that Iran had the air and naval capability to close temporarily the oil export route through the Strait of Hormuz and threaten key U.S. allies and Persian Gulf oil production facilities with its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Tehran also continues to be designated by the United States as the foremost state sponsor of terror. Its history of conducting terrorist attacks makes it a significant threat to regional peace and stability. And, the United States and its key European allies remained seized with concern that Iran is determined to use its nuclear energy program to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
Iran’s military strategy and doctrine are primarily defensive, however. Its ability to project power and threaten its neighbors with anything but unconventional capabilities is limited. But, as it has so many times in the past, Iran will emphasize its ability to withstand losses while avoiding decisive defeats to prolong the war and prevail in a contest of wills. As I write in my book, I think Iran in the near term may prove capable of “punching above its weight” on the strength of its strategic location, its control of oil and gas resources, and its unconventional and missile deterrent capabilities.
IA-Forum: What has been/is the Iranian military's impact on groups sympathetic to the current regime, such as Hizbollah? How much of a threat do you see this in the Middle East and in the global context?
Mr. Ward: The Revolutionary Guard and its external operations arm, the Qods or Jerusalem Force, have played a major role in arming, training, and developing various radical groups such as Hizbollah, HAMAS, and militant Iraqi Shia militias. Iran views unconventional warfare and terrorism as key elements of its strategic deterrent.
Support to terrorist groups has represented some of the clerical regime’s most active peacetime ventures to project Iranian influence and protect Iranian national interests. Iran characterizes its support and these groups’ operations as “resistance” to Western oppression, which is part of the regime’s revolutionary ideology. Iran has used and will continue to use the threat of terrorism and other forms of political warfare to divert its enemies and increase its standing in the Muslim world. Iran also will go to great lengths to prevent its allies from being defeated so that they can continue to pose a deterrent threat to the US and its allies.
The threat of Iranian-supported terrorism will remain a destabilizing factor in the region, limited only by Iran’s historical propensity to avoid raising the stakes so much that it provokes a decisive confrontation. The problem is that Israeli, Iraqi, Gulf Arab, and US redlines are not set in concrete and the groups Iran supports often have their own agendas that limited their responsiveness to Iran’s requests. None of us can be sure when conditions might shift such that Iranian-sponsored violence at levels that were previously tolerated will escalate into a wider conflict.
IA-Forum: Your book documents incidents by Iranian military personnel to overthrow Iranian leaders over the years. Should such a coup be successful in the near future, would you speculate on some possible states of Iran under military leadership?
Steven Ward: I think the prospect of Revolutionary Guard officers becoming even more predominant political actors by virtue of their actual or threatened use of force is growing. The divide and rule policies of the Islamic Republic and the clerics’ other methods to maintain the military’s loyalty, however, have decreased the threat of coups. But that will not stop the Guard, which already can be fairly described as praetorians, from carving out an even greater role in politics where it can intervene at will and force its preferences on the regime’s various religious and elected bodies. The regular military services, meanwhile, have remained apolitical and probably would stay on the sidelines in the event of a more overt power grab by the Guard.
The Guard’s current politicization in favor of the ruling hardline conservative order is likely to cast the shadow of militarism over Iran well into the future. Iran’s conservative elite has become increasingly composed of “second generation” hardliners, whose formative experience was service in the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war. These and other second-generation leaders appear to be taking the country in a more nationalistic and assertive direction.
I am speculating, but I think the Guard’s leadership will prefer to be the power behind the throne in order to maintain their revolutionary ideology. They still seem to support the role carved out in this ideology for a learned and respected clergyman to be Iran’s titular leader. Beyond that, however, I believe an Iran under the sway of the Guard or directly led by a Guard general would view its interests in the region and in maintaining control over Iran’s population very much in the same manner as the current theocratic regime.
Steven R. Ward is a senior CIA intelligence analyst who specializes in Iran and the Middle East. From 2005 to 2006 he served as the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East on the National Intelligence Council, and he served on the National Security Council from 1998 to 1999. He is also a graduate of West Point and a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel.
Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces is available here
from Georgetown University Press
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