Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has duplicated almost all state institutions. It retained the institutions that existed under the old regime while creating new Islamic agencies to perform the same tasks. The Iranian armed forces did not escape this process. Under the monarchy, the armed forces were called the Artesh Shahanshahi or Imperial Army. Although called the “Army,” or Artesh, the force consisted of the three main services (army, navy, and air force) plus the Imperial Guard Divisions (Gard-e Javidan) and the Army Aviation Command (Hawa Nirouz).
Before his victory in the Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who enjoyed great support among the population, urged the Artesh to put an end to its “humiliating behaviour” of following the dictates of US military advisers based in Tehran. Using a nationalist tone to rally the armed forces, he argued that “the Artesh is not under the command of our nation and does not benefit our nation; it is an instrument of repression in the hands of the Shah.” He called upon the commanding officers and soldiers to “save their dignity” by rejecting both the Shah and the monarch’s US ties. Khomeini and his close associates considered the Army to be weak in its belief and consequently totally dependent on the Shah and the Western powers. He wanted the “grandeur of the nation, the greatness of the country and that of the army, to be connected.” He expressed his affection for the soldiers, calling them “our children that we love,” and urged the Artesh to “return to the nation.”
In the dying days of the monarchy, on February 11, 1979, the Artesh Supreme Council announced that the armed forces would observe neutrality in the confrontation between Shahpour Bakhtiar, appointed earlier as Prime Minister by the Shah, and the revolutionaries led by Khomeini. The armed forces withdrawal allowed the revolutionaries to take control of the government. All military units were ordered to return to their barracks, assuring Khomeini of the impartiality of the armed forces in political clashes between the revolutionaries and the remaining royalists. Concerned about internal strife and foreign threats to the new Islamic system, he resisted the leftist and Islamist guerrilla organizations’ call for banning the Artesh.
In a decree issued a few months after the victory, he proclaimed April 18, 1979 to be “Army Day,” and ordered the military to parade across the country as a public display of its support for the Islamic Republic and the people. He ordered the armed forces to “be ready to sacrifice their lives for the independence and protection of the country’s borders.” The military and citizens should “join their forces to end the evil wrongdoers, hypocrites, counter-revolutionaries, troublemakers and corruptors on earth.”
As the opportunistic realist that he was, Khomeini decided to keep the intimidated, divided, and humiliated Army, especially in the absence of a replacement Islamic force. His grand strategy was to transform and rebuild the Army through a process of indoctrination to protect the emerging regime. With the consolidation of the new clerical authority, loyalty to the revolution and its leadership and achievements became the criterion for separating friends from foes in the entire society, including the Army. For Khomeini, maintaining the Islamic system should be the primary responsibility of the nation and its armed forces.
The brotherly treatment of military promised by Khomeini did not last long. The clerical leaders of the revolution pushed aside their slogan of “brothers-in-arms” and launched a vast purge amongst the Artesh’s high command. Several generals, among them marshals and lieutenant generals, were hastily executed by a revolutionary tribunal while many others went into exile. The leadership of the Army was decapitated with the sole exception of a few officers who were known for their Islamic or mild nationalist credentials.
Despite the Islamic adjective it carries, the Army largely remains a “national” institution. It remains the Islamic Republic’s second-class armed forces. The brunt of the defense budget goes to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is by far the preferred military instrument of control, support, and protection of the Islamic regime. With the exception of one episode, the Islamic Republic Army has been completely absent from political debate and upheavals that shake up the Iranian society.
The failed “Nojeh Coup” of July 9, 1980 was launched by a group of servicemen who deeply resented the Islamist regime and sought a return to secularism. The coup attempt was, however, uncovered and foiled before it began. More than 150 military and civilians involved in, or accused of participating in, the coup were executed. Executions started even before the planned day of the coup and continued long after the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980.
Khomeini’s gamble of not dismantling the Artesh paid-off when Iraq invaded Iran. In spite of the waves of purges, the Artesh defended the country for eight years. Its cooperation with the IRGC was not always easy; there were several moments of high tension between them during the Iraq-Iran war, such as the IRGC’s confiscation of the Artesh base and their equipment in Do-Kouheh. A poorly-trained and disorganized force, driven by ideological zeal, the IRGC ordered a number of operations that ended in disaster in the Iranian Kurdistan region.
Conservation of the Army’s old structure did not, however, improve its fortunes. It remains an accessory to the IRGC in defending Iranian territorial sovereignty. The Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei, recently decided to move the Navy arm of the Artesh out of the Persian Gulf and entrusted its security to the IRGC. This proposed transfer to the Sea of Oman was, however, ordered before adequate port facilities had been placed.
Perpetuating incongruity between the politically-motivated desires of the Commander-in-Chief to expand the Iranian naval presence to international waters and the technical obstacles Tehran faces in attaining such a goal, Lieutenant General Gholam-Ali Rashid, Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently strongly expressed his dismay. He exposed the inconsistency by stating that “without developing adequate port facilities and infrastructure we cannot strengthen Iran’s naval position in the world. Without doing all this we cannot speak of building a powerful navy.”
The most important and influential unit within the entire Artesh is its vast Ideological-Political Organization (IPO), headed by a cleric who is directly appointed by Khamenei. The main unwritten task of the organization is to control all activities of the Army, indoctrinate its personnel, and intervene in any institutional matter when necessary on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief. In other words, the trusted representative, who is invested with absolute power, is to monitor the forces and keep them in line with and subordinate to the Leader’s wishes.
According to Article 14 of the Laws of the Islamic Republic Army, the promotion of religious and political awareness of the Army staff, providing ideological and political training; publishing journals, books, and other cultural products and art; maintaining control of the implementation of the Islamic principles; and all functions of public relations in the Army are part of the responsibilities of the political and ideological organization. The stated mission of the Organization is to strive to create an exemplary Islamic Army by observing all human, ideological, and military ways.
Despite three decades of intense Islamification efforts, it seems that the formation of an ideal “Islamic Army” as envisaged by Khomeini remains an unreachable goal. After the disputed presidential election in 2009, Major General Salehi, Chief-Commander of the Army, asked the IPO to intensify its campaign of indoctrination of soldiers. Referring to the post-election events and their impact on the Army, Salehi indicated that during his visit to the garrisons he saw the pictures of Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, leaders of the opposition, in the rooms of some soldiers. Instead of confronting the soldiers, he asked the IPO representatives to educate the recalcitrant soldiers such that they, themselves, take those pictures down. The Army thus remains enigmatic; it seems wrong to believe that the Artesh will forever keep its distance vis-à-vis political developments in Iran, but they have not been put to the test.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini...urged the Artesh to put an end to its “humiliating behavior"