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Iran: Status in National Life
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Armed Forces and Society > Status in National Life


Since 1979 Iran has witnessed political and military changes with long-lasting domestic repercussions. The shah relied on the country's considerable military strength to implement his policy goals. When his rule was replaced by a theocratic regime with a new domestic agenda, political power presumably rested in the hands of Khomeini and a group of cautious clerics bound by deeply conservative religious values. In the turmoil of the Revolution, the regular armed forces lost their preeminent position in society primarily because of their close identification with the shah.

The military was paralyzed by fast-moving events and incapable of effective action, and its downfall was accelerated when a number of key senior officers fled the country, fearing reprisals from the revolutionary regime. The public trials and executions of high-ranking military officers further tainted the military's image. On February 15, 1979, three days after the official declaration of the republic, a secret Islamic revolutionary court in Tehran handed down death sentences on four generals. Five days later the regime ordered the execution of four more generals. Other military officers were executed for the Islamic crimes of "causing corruption on earth" and "fighting Allah," according to an interpretation of shariat. The new regime considered these officers as Pahlavi holdovers, lacking proper Islamic credentials and therefore potential instigators of military coups. When protests were voiced about summary executions, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, the cleric in charge of the komitehs, replied, "We must purify society in order to renew it." The resulting leadership vacuum in the military took several years to fill.

Mobilized to fight a foreign enemy, the armed forces by 1981 were gradually developing autonomy and an esprit de corps, despite their acrimonious infighting with the Pasdaran, whose independent military power acted as a check on any possible coup attempts by the armed forces. The Khomeini regime, aware of its dependence on the armed forces, adopted a new strategy aimed at assimilating the military into the Revolution by promoting loyal officers and propagating Islamic values. Leaders recognized that as long as the country was at war with Iraq and was experiencing internal political turmoil, they would need a loyal army on the battlefield as well as the loyal Pasdaran on the homefront. Despite the need for military support, however, the revolutionary regime continued to exercise tight control over the armed forces and to regard them with some suspicion.

Political rivalries notwithstanding, the regular armed forces' professionalism and impressive performance in the war stood as clear alternatives to the early "human-wave" tactics of the Pasdaran and Basij, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives and achieved little. The armed forces' respectable military performance also helped exonerate them from the role they had played during the Pahlavi period. Since September 1980, the military has demonstrated that it could and would defend the country and the legitimate government.

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

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