Overview: The Military
Support for all of Iran’s security forces increased dramatically during the Cold War period, especially after the rapid escalation in oil profits facilitated spending. According to Thomas M. Ricks, regarding the military:
He [the shah] increased its size from 200,000 men in 1963 to 410,000 in 1977; the army went from 180,000 to 200,000; the gendarmerie from 2,000 to 25,000; the air force from 7,500 to 100,000; the navy from 2,000 to 25,000; the elite commando unit from 2,000 to 17,000; and the Imperial Guard, which served as a praetorian force, from 2,000 to 8,000. He also increased the annual military budget from $293 million in 1963 to $1.8 billion in 1973., and, after the quadrupling of oil prices, to $7.3 billion in 1977 (at 1973 prices and exchange rates. )
Superficially, it seems unlikely that all of the increases were related to Cold War necessity. For example, the gendarmerie provided internal protection while the Imperial Guard served as guarantor of the shah’s personal safety. However, when viewed in the context of the shah’s opinions regarding Iran’s defense needs, the connection becomes quite clear. A staff report to the US Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance noted the following five areas of concern surrounding Iran’s security: threats to oil; the Soviet threat; the Arab threat; the threat from the East and the Southeast; and the internal threat. Each worry will be treated briefly below. The discussion is drawn from U.S. Military Sales to Iran: a staff report to the Subcommittee on Foreign Assistance of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 1976. The report was prepared by Robert Mantel and Geoffrey Kemp. Those desiring more detail should consult the document in its entirety.
The impact to Iran’s economy of any interruption in the flow of oil to the Western world could be expected to have considerable political, economic, and military impact. Thus, the shah spent a great deal of money to ensure the security of supplies. The threat was quite complex since Iran’s oil is exposed at different points in the oil flow cycle: the oil fields, the collecting system, the local terminal facilities, and the oil sea lanes which transport supertankers from Iran to the West.
Although each of the vulnerabilities required a different type of military preparedness, there were some common elements. These included:
- the need for air defense and anti sabotage measures
- contingencies to protect the sea lanes through maritime capability and a basing structure
- a need for counterinsurgency forces to protect the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz
- the use of land forces with logistics support and reconnaissance provided by air and naval elements.
The Soviet Threat
Iran’s 1,250 mile border with the Soviet Union led most Iranians to regard “that country as its most serious potential adversary because of the history of Soviet-Iranian relations and Iran’s generally pro-western stance. However, given the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, the Iranians believe that in the event of direct military confrontation between the two countries, they, standing alone, would not stand a chance.” Their coping strategy in this regard was designed to delay a direct Soviet attack, then accept defeat or wait for the United States to intervene. Iran was also fearful of indirect Soviet support for Iraq, Afghanistan, and India as well as for potentially dissident internal forces.
The Arab Threat
Iran perceived a threat from its West, especially from Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The regime deduced the possibility of conflict with Iraq over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, and/or a revolution in Saudi Arabia that would put a more extremist anti Western regime in power. Later events proved Iran’s understanding of threat from Iraq to be accurate.
The Threat from the East and the Southeast
Iran was concerned about conflict involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The regime was especially concerned about problems within the Baluchestan regions of southeast Iran and Pakistan. In order to deal with these concerns, new basing programs were initiated by the Iranian armed forces in the central and southeastern sectors of the country.
The Internal Threat
Internal threats to Iran were thought to come from three primary sources: left wing Communist guerilla groups; right wing Moslem guerilla groups; and separatist movements, especially in Baluchistan.