This post was originally published in 2015. In light of recent events, I think it’s worth taking another look.
One of the first challenges faced by Iran’s new regime was to gain control of weapons that had been captured by individuals and groups involved in the attacks on military arms depots in the last days of Iran’s revolutionary conflict. The head of the new Provisional Government, Mehdi Bazargan, repeatedly called for the surrender of arms, but with no success.
Armed groups were aware of the vacuum created by the loss of effective police and military forces. Moreover, the police and military could not be rapidly reconstructed because of fears that they would not be loyal to the new government.
A third body, the Pasdaran militia, emerged to counterbalance the disorganized troops and act as guardian of the revolution. Also known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), they were
. . . entrusted with control of the ‘army of 20 millions’, so-called because its aim is to group all civilians, adult men or women, who might volunteer to defend the country. Thus, the partisans’ numbers, estimated at some 200,000 trained commandos and one million undergoing training, are far superior to those of the regular army (200,000 men on the various fronts).
Nevertheless, pressures to completely eliminate the regular military were unsuccessful.
A perception of external and internal threat made some level of formal military preparedness essential. Still, efforts to reeducate and Islamicize the military resulted in purges and marginalization.
Only when faced with Iraqi invasion did the government stop the execution of top and mid-level officers and call some air force officers out of retirement.
At the same time, however, the IRGC was expanded into a parallel military group structured like the regular army troops with its own army, navy, and air force. Although the IRGC was divided into many subgroups according to the “ideological and political preferences of its leadership and membership,” it was able to present a unified front against the professional military “when strategic and tactical differences surfaced in the course of the Cold War.”
In fact, the IRGC was successful in putting the blame on the traditional security forces for Iran’s inability to sustain a major offensive against Iraqi troops.
Government officials invariably favored the IRGC in conflicts with the armed forces because of the former’s perceived loyalty to the regime.
Fracturing remained the norm until 1988 when military setbacks in Iran’s war with Iraq spurred the formation of a General Command of the Armed Forces. This organization “was to coordinate actions of the army and the IRGC, merge parallel organizations, combine the resources of defense industries, enforce military laws, and punish offenders.” Subsequently, however, the reluctance to merge the security groups remained entrenched due to continuing suspicions of disloyalty, leftist sentiments, and nationalist tendencies.
As late as spring 1991 — after the end of the Cold War — the IRGC seemed to be consolidating itself into an elite military unit committed (as always) to defending the revolution.
Clearly, in the wake of the revolution, the military became much more politicized and divided ideologically. However, because of the Iran-Iraq War, the public seemed more cognizant of security needs. As a result, both the IRGC and the regular forces gained in legitimacy. Moreover, even critics of the shah’s military buildup were now required to give some credence to his perception of threat.
Critics of the shah’s military buildup and weapons procurement program argued that Iran could not put up a credible defense against the Soviet Union under any circumstances and that there were no regional threats to Iran’s security. Over the course of the 1980s, however, this thinking proved erroneous. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq’s aggression against Iran convinced most of the need for a strong defense.
At the same time, Iran’s military strength was in decline with “Iran’s military, especially in equipment and training . . . behind those of its immediate neighbors, such as Pakistan, Turkey, and, in some regards, even Saudi Arabia.
However, the necessary upgrading could not be accomplished domestically since heavy industrial production has been switched from defense to civilian needs.
Iran not only faced fiscal constraints but foreign policy constraints since it was difficult to obtain the needed capability without dealing with the West.
Photograph by Ensie & Matthias.
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