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Iran: Historical Background
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Armed Forces > Historical Background

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND


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.

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.

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 harshly.

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.

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'├ętat, which overthrew the prime minister and returned the shah to power.

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 and 1970s.

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 emirates 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




Last Updated: December 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iran was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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