The importance of the armed forces in Iran flows from Iran's
long history of successive military empires. For over 2,500 years,
starting with the conquests of the Achaemenid rulers of the sixth
century B.C., Iran developed a strong military tradition. Drawing
on a vast manpower pool in western Asia, the Achaemenid rulers
raised an army of 360,000, from which they could send expeditions
to Europe and Africa.
Iranian early military history boasts the epic performances of
such great leaders as Cyrus the Great and Darius I. The last great
Iranian military ruler was Nader Shah, whose army defeated the
Mughals of India in 1739. Since then, however, nearly all efforts
to conquer more territory or check encroaching empires have failed.
During much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Iran
was divided and occupied by British and Russian military forces.
When their interests coincided in 1907, London and St. Petersburg
entered into the Anglo-Russian Agreement, which formally divided
Iran into two spheres of influence. During World War I, the weak
and ineffective Qajar Dynasty, allegedly hindered by the effects
of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1907, could not prevent
increasing British and Russian military interventions, despite
Iran's declaration of neutrality (see World War I , ch. 1).
In 1918 the Qajar armed forces consisted of four separate foreign-commanded
military units. Several provincial and tribal forces could also
be called on during an emergency, but their reliability was highly
questionable. More often than not, provincial and tribal forces
opposed the government's centralization efforts, particularly
because Tehran was perceived to be under the dictate of foreign
powers. Having foreign officers in commanding positions over Iranian
troops added to these tribal and religious concerns. Loyal, disciplined,
and well trained, the most effective government unit was the 8,000-man
Persian Cossacks Brigade. Created in 1879 and commanded by Russian
officers until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, after which its
command passed into Iranian hands, the brigade represented the
core of the new Iranian armed forces. Swedish officers commanded
the 8,400-man Gendarmerie (later the Imperial Gendarmerie and
after 1979 the Islamic Iranian Gendarmerie), organized in 1911
as the first internal security force. The 6,000-man South Persia
Rifles unit was financed by Britain and commanded by British officers
from its inception in 1916. Its primary task was to combat tribal
forces allegedly stirred up by German agents during World War
I. The Qajar palace guard, the Nizam, commanded by a Swedish officer,
was a force originally consisting of 2,000 men, although it deteriorated
rapidly in numbers because of rivalries. Thus, during World War
I the 24,400 troops in these four separate military units made
up one of the weakest forces in Iranian history.
Upon signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany and Turkey
on December 15, 1917, Russia put in motion its eventual withdrawal
from Iran, preparing the way for an indigenous Iranian military.
A hitherto little-known colonel, Reza Khan (later known as Reza
Shah Pahlavi, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty), assumed leadership
of the Persian Cossacks Brigade in November 1918, after the expulsion
of its Russian commanders. In February 1921, Reza Khan and Sayyid
Zia ad Din Tabatabai, a powerful civilian conspirator, entered
Tehran at the head of 1,500 to 2,500 Persian Cossacks and overthrew
the Qajar regime. Within a week, Tabatabai formed a new government
and made Reza Khan the army chief. Recognizing the importance
of a strong and unified army for the modern state, Reza Khan rapidly
dissolved all "independent" military units and prepared to create
a single national army for the first time in Iranian history.
Riding on a strong nationalist wave, Reza Khan was determined
to create an indigenous officer corps for the new army, though
an exception was made for a few Swedish officers serving in the
Gendarmerie. Within a matter of months, officers drawn from the
Persian Cossacks represented the majority. Nevertheless, Reza
Khan recognized the need for Western military expertise and sent
Iranian officers to European military academies, particularly
St. Cyr in France, to acquire modern technical know-how. In doing
so, he hoped the Iranian army would increase its professionalism
without jeopardizing the country's still fragile social, political,
and religious balance.
By 1925 the army had grown to a force of 40,000 troops, and Reza
Khan, under the provisions of martial law, had gradually assumed
control of the central government. His most significant political
accomplishment came in 1925 when the parliament, or Majlis
(see Glossary), enacted a universal military conscription law.
In December 1925, Reza Khan became the commander in chief of the
army; with the assistance of the Majlis, he assumed the title
of His Imperial Majesty Reza Shah Pahlavi (see The Era of Reza
Shah, 1921-41 , ch. 1).
Reza Khan created the Iranian army, and the army made him shah.
Under the shah, the powerful army was used not only against rebellious
tribes but also against anti-Pahlavi demonstrations. Ostensibly
created to defend the country from foreign aggression, the army
became the enforcer of Reza Shah's internal security policies.
The need for such a military arm of the central government was
quite evident to Reza Shah, who allocated anywhere from 30 to
50 percent of total yearly national expenditures to the army.
Not only did he purchase modern weapons in large quantities, but,
in 1924 and 1927, respectively, he created an air force and a
navy as branches of the army, an arrangement unchanged until 1955.
With the introduction of these new services, the army established
two military academies to meet the ever-rising demand for officers.
The majority of the officers continued to be trained in Europe,
however, and upon their return served either in the army or in
key government posts in Tehran and the provinces. By 1941 the
army had gained a privileged role in society. Loyal officers and
troops were well paid and received numerous perquisites, making
them Iran's third wealthiest class, after the shah's entourage
and the powerful merchant and landowning families. Disloyalty
to the shah, evidenced by several coup attempts, was punished
By 1941 the army stood at 125,000 troops--five times its original
size--and was considered well trained and well equipped. Yet,
when the army faced its first challenge, the shah was sorely disappointed;
the Iranian army failed to repulse invading British and Soviet
forces. London and Moscow had insisted that the shah expel Iran's
large German population and allow shipments of war supplies to
cross the country en route to the Soviet Union. Both of these
conditions proved unacceptable to Reza Shah; he was sympathetic
to Germany, and Iran had declared its neutrality in World War
II. Iran's location was so strategically important to the Allied
war effort, however, that London and Moscow chose to overlook
Tehran's claim of neutrality. Against the Allied forces, the Iranian
army was decimated in three short days, the fledgling air force
and navy were totally destroyed, and conscripts deserted by the
thousands. His institutional power base ruined, Reza Shah abdicated
in favor of his young son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
In the absence of a broad political power base and with a shattered
army, Mohammad Reza Shah faced an almost impossible task of rebuilding.
There was no popular sympathy for the army in view of the widespread
and largely accurate perception that it was a brutal tool used
to uphold a dictatorial regime. The young shah, distancing Tehran
from the European military, in 1942 invited the United States
to send a military mission to advise in the reorganization effort.
With American advice, emphasis was placed on quality rather than
quantity; the small but more confident army was capable enough
to participate in the 1946 campaign in Azarbaijan to put down
a Soviet-inspired separatist rebellion (see World War II and the
Azarbaijan Crisis , ch. 1).
Unlike its 1925 counterpart, the 1946 Majlis was suspicious of
the shah's plans for a strong army. Many members of the parliament
feared that the army would once again be used as a source of political
power. To curtail the shah's potential domination of the country,
they limited his military budgets.
Although determined to build an effective military establishment,
the shah was forced to accept the ever-rising managerial control
of the Majlis. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, backed by strong
Majlis support, demanded and received the portfolio of minister
of war in 1952. For the better part of a year, Mossadeq introduced
changes in the high command, dismissing officers loyal to the
shah and replacing them with pro-Mossadeq nationalists. With the
assistance of British and United States intelligence, however,
officers dismissed by Mossadeq staged the August 1953 coup d'état,
which overthrew the prime minister and returned the shah to power
(see Mossadeq and Oil Nationalization , ch. 1).
In a classic housecleaning, several hundred pro-Mossadeq officers
were arrested, allegedly for membership in the communist Tudeh
Party. Approximately two dozen were executed, largely to set an
example and to demonstrate to the public that the shah was firmly
in command. Within two years, the shah had consolidated his rule
over the armed forces, as well as over the much-weakened Majlis.
Separate commands were established for the army, air force, and
navy; and all three branches of the military embarked on massive
modernization programs, which flourished throughout the 1960s
Nonetheless, the shah's military was probably crippled as early
as 1955. Mohammad Reza Shah, mistrustful of his subordinates as
well as his close advisers, instituted an unparalleled system
of control over all his officers. Not only did the monarch make
all decisions pertaining to purchasing, promotions, and routine
military affairs, but he also permitted little interaction among
junior and senior officers. Even less was tolerated among senior
officers. No meetings grouping all his top officers in the same
room were ever held. Rather, the shah favored individual "audiences"
with each service chief; he then delegated assignments and duties
according to his overall plans. This approach proved effective
for the shah, at least until his downfall in 1979. For the Iranian
armed forces, it proved devastating.
As internal security agencies assumed the critical role of maintaining
public order, the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces (IIAF) were charged
with defending the country against foreign aggression. First among
threats was the Soviet Union, which shares a 2,000-kilometer border
with Iran. The shah feared that Moscow would try to gain access
to warm-water port facilities, a Russian goal since Peter the
Great, and seek to destabilize what the Soviets surely perceived
to be a pro-Western, if not pro-American, regime. The majority
of Iranian troops, therefore, were stationed in the north for
the better part of the early 1960s. The resulting high level of
tension between two mismatched neighboring forces was not a satisfactory
arrangement for the politically and militarily astute monarch.
Taking a pragmatic approach, the shah pursued economic cooperation
to improve relations with the Soviet Union and thereby reduced
military tensions along the border. Having softened Iran's Cold
War rhetoric in relation to Moscow, the shah focused his attention
on the Persian Gulf. When in 1971 Britain terminated its treaties
of protection with the several small Arab shaykhdoms or amirates
of the Arabian Peninsula, the shah's primary security concerns
shifted to the border with Iraq.
When petroleum exports from the Gulf expanded rapidly in the
1970s and British withdrawal from the conservative shaykhdoms
created a security vacuum, the Iranian military expanded its plans
to include the defense of sea-lanes, especially the Strait of
Hormuz, although navigation through the strait generally takes
place entirely in Oman's territorial waters. Iran has always considered
the forty-one-kilometer-wide strait vital to its oil exports and,
since 1968, has made every effort to exert as much influence as
possible there. The shah referred to the strait as Iran's "jugular
vein," and the revolutionary regime has been similarly concerned
with its security .
In March 1975, Iran reached a geographic-political agreement
with Iraq. This pact, called the Algiers Agreement, accomplished
two important military objectives. First, because the existence
of the agreement allowed Iran to terminate aid to the Kurdish
rebels in Iraq, Iran could deploy more of its forces in areas
other than the Iraqi border. Second, Baghdad's acceptance of Iran's
boundary claim to a thalweg (the middle of the main navigable
channel) in the Shatt al Arab settled a security issue, freeing
the Iranian navy to shift its major facilities from Khorramshahr
on the Iraqi border to Bandar Abbas near the strait and to upgrade
its naval forces in the southern part of the Gulf.
Despite frequent public expressions of reserve, the weaker conservative
Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf supported the shah's military
mission of guaranteeing freedom of navigation in and through the
Gulf. They strongly objected, however, to Iran's military occupation
in November 1971 of the islands of Abu Musa, belonging to Sharjah,
and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, belonging to Ras al Khaymah.
These two members of the United Arab Emirates could offer no resistance
to Tehran's swift military action, however. The Iranian navy used
its Hovercraft to transport occupying troops, and it eventually
installed military facilities on two of the islands. Despite its
earlier agreement to respect Sharjah's claim to Abu Musa, Tehran
justified the occupation of Abu Musa and the Tunbs on strategic
grounds. Located near the strait between the deepest navigation
lanes, the islands offered ideal bases from which to watch over
shipping in the Gulf.
This action was only the precursor of other regional operations
by which a strong Iranian military would deter foreign, especially
Soviet or Soviet-inspired, incursions into the Gulf. Twice, during
the 1970s, the shah provided military assistance--to Oman and
Pakistan--to overcome internal rebellions. By doing so, he established
Iran as the dominant regional military power.
The most significant combat operation involving Iranian (along
with British and Jordanian) troops took place in Oman's Dhofar
Province. Iran aided Sultan Qabus in fighting the Popular Front
for the Liberation of Oman, which was supported by the People's
Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Soviet Union.
Starting with an initial force of 300 in late 1972, the Iranian
contingent grew in strength to 3,000 before its withdrawal in
January 1977. The shah was proud that his forces had participated
in the defeat of the guerrilla rebellion, even though the performance
of Iranian troops in Oman was mixed. The air force received the
most favorable reports from the battle zone. Reconnaissance flights
provided valuable information, and helicopters proved effective
in the rugged Dhofar region. Ground forces fared less well, suffering
significant casualties, with 210 Iranian soldiers killed in 1976
alone. The high casualty rate was attributed to the overall lack
of combat experience. Nearly 15,000 Iranian soldiers were rotated
through Oman during the five-year period.
In 1976 Iranian counterinsurgency forces, relying on helicopter
support, were deployed in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province to combat
another separatist rebellion. This operation, albeit small and
limited, was of considerable concern to Iran, which had a large
Baluch population of its own. The shah sought to buy insurance
against a possible insurrection in Iran by helping Pakistan crush
a Baluch uprising.
The shah continued to assist his allies in Oman and Pakistan
after 1977. More important, Iran had served notice that it would
engage its military to preserve the status quo in the Persian
Gulf region, a status quo that was heavily tilted to its advantage.
On more than one occasion, the shah stated that he would not refrain
from maintaining the security of the Gulf, whether or not his
troops were invited to intervene.
Iran had also come of age in the larger context of the Middle
East. Between 1958 and 1978 Iran participated in war games conducted
under the auspices of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO),
which grouped Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Britain (with the United
States participating as an observer). Although CENTO declined
in significance over the years, its military exercises, especially
the yearly Midlink maritime maneuvers, provided useful training
for the Iranian armed forces. The shah also participated in United
Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, sending a battalion to the
UN buffer zone in the Golan Heights as part of the United Nations
Disengagement Observer Force in 1977. The bulk of this force also
served in southern Lebanon following the Israeli invasion of 1978.
The Iranian contingent in the United Nations Interim Force in
Lebanon was withdrawn in late 1978, however, following several
desertions by Shia Muslim soldiers sympathetic to the local population.
On January 16, 1979, as the shah was preparing to leave Iran
for the last time, he was still confident that his army could
and would handle any internal disturbances. Still under the impression
that the Soviet Union and Iraq were the greatest threats to his
country, he left behind a United States-designed army prepared
for external rather than domestic requirements.
Data as of December 1987