Iran’s conventional military forces — ground, air, and naval — once stood tall as the best armed military forces in the Middle East aside from those of Israel. The United States lavished the most sophisticated military hardware on the Shah, who was willing and able to tap his financial resources from Iran’s oil wealth to buy modern conventional arms. The Shah had the ambition, the financial means, and the political-military backing of the United States to turn Iran into the Persian Gulf’s most formidable military power.
The United States, for its part, was eager to support the Shah’s militarily modernization. President Richard Nixon saw Iran as a Cold War bulkhead against the Soviet Union’s possible designs on warm-water ports in the Gulf for Soviet naval power as well as on Iran’s oil wealth.
The United States relied on Iran’s military as a critical component of its “Twin Pillar” strategy for holding at bay Soviet expansion in the Middle East. President Nixon saw Iran as the first pillar and Saudi Arabia as the second pillar. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter saw Iran in the same light, and lavished the Shah’s military with American arms and training, the scope and depth of which was not given to any other American security partners save Israel. The United States, for example, sold the Shah the most capable combat aircraft in the American arsenal at the time, the F-14.
President Carter too announced a doctrine in which Iran played a central role. After the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Carter declared the “Carter Doctrine” which warned that the United States would not stand idly by should a hostile power — a veiled reference to the Soviet Union — make a military drive into the Middle East, the most likely route to which laid in Iran. The Carter Doctrine was widely perceived to include a threat of American nuclear weapons to deter Soviet military designs against Iran and the Middle East.
Notwithstanding the massive infusions of American training and arms, the Shah’s military was a Potemkin village. It may have paraded beautifully, but it collapsed during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in part, because it had no direction from the cancer-stricken and ailing Shah who later died in exile. The implosion of the Shah’s military left it vulnerable to purging from the Islamic clerics who took power in Tehran.
As journalist Robert Fisk recalls, every general had been retired — more than 300 of the Shah’s senior officers were relived in three weeks — and much of Iran’s British- and American-supplied military equipment, such as tanks, were inoperable due to poor maintenance. The Revolution had purged 7,500 of the Shah’s officers in just two months after the revolution and at the time of the Iraqi invasion Iran’s military might have lost as many as 12,000 officers purged by Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolutionary regime had only some confidence in the air force because its cadets had played a support role during the revolution and, after the Shah’s fall, the air force was the only armed service whose members were allowed to wear their uniforms outside their bases.
Saddam’s Husayn’s invasion of Iran temporarily halted the revolution’s dismantling of the Shah’s military. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 with attacks at four points along a 700-kilometer front with Baghdad sending about half of its combat-ready manpower and most of its 12 divisions across the Iranian border, but the Iraqi offensive had stalled inside Iran with the onset of seasonal rains that immobilized Iraqi armor. Kenneth Pollack judges that Saddam wanted to seize Iran’s Khuzestan province to ignite a new revolution in Iran to oust Ayatollah Khomeini and replace him with a regime friendly to Baghdad and one that would allow Saddam to keep Khuzestan with its considerable ethnic Arab population and sizeable oil wealth.
Iran relied on its superior troop numbers to hold at bay the smaller but amply-supplied Iraqi forces. While Iran had lost its main weapons supplier in the United States because of the Revolution, Iraq continued to receive financial assistance and arms from the Gulf Arab states and Egypt that feared an Iranian conquest of Iraq and Kuwait and domination of the Middle East. The Soviet Union also continued to supply Iraq with military hardware. The United States too weighed in on Iraq’s side during the conflict and provided invaluable intelligence to Iraq and gave Iraqi high command warning of Iranian preparations for offensives against Iraqi forces along a long battle front. Robert Fisk reports that American intelligence secretly provided the Iraqi General Staff with detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning, and bomb damage assessments.
The nature of the conflict was a battle of attrition along static and long battle lines. The Iranian military repeatedly prepared and instituted offensive campaigns that ousted Iraqi forces from Iranian territory, but were unable to drive deeply into Iraq or threaten Baghdad and Saddam’s regime directly. By the later stages of the war, Iraqi forces, both regular military and elite Republican Guard forces, became increasingly proficient at marshalling and executing offensive operations against Iranian forces.
The Iraqis also became expert at integrating chemical warfare into their battle plans. The Iraqis would saturate Iranian front lines and rear areas with chemical weapons delivered by aircraft and artillery. These Iraqi chemical fires would wreak havoc with Iranian forces that would break and collapse because Iran was not prepared with equipment and training needed to fight in a chemical warfare environment. Only at the later stages of the war was Iran capable of rudimentary use of its own chemical weapons against Iraqi forces, but by then it was too late to stave off defeat.
Iraqi forces also inflicted pain and suffering on Iran with ballistic missile attacks, which Iran’s air force and air defense forces were unable to stop. The Iranian Air Force was largely knocked out of the war by the Iraqi Air Force, and Iraq was well supplied with surface-to-surface Scud ballistic missiles by the Soviet Union. Iraqi forces modified the Soviet-supplied Scuds to increase their range in order to attack Tehran and threaten the seat of Iran’s power. The Iranians had more limited supplies of Scud missiles. The Iran-Iraq war saw a “war of the cities” with both Iraq and Iran trading ballistic missile barrages in attempts to raise fear among civilian populations and undermine the political support for both Baghdad and Tehran.
The Iranians lost conventional military power during the Iran-Iraq war at the hands of American forces. The United States began naval escort operations to protect Persian Gulf shipping from Iranian attacks and harassment. The Kuwaitis had initially turned to the Russians for help and asked Moscow to fly Russian flags on Kuwait oil tankers, but the United States retracted its earlier refusal and agreed to protect Kuwaiti shipping. Clashes with American forces added pressure on Iran, and the Iranians and the Americans in April 1988 had their largest naval clash. The American frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine which wounded ten sailors and the US Navy retaliated by executing “Operation Praying Mantis” in which it destroyed three offshore oil platforms that the IRGC had been using as bases to attack Gulf shipping. The Iranians tried to counter American forces with light aircraft and F-4 aircraft attacks; the Iranian missile boat Joshan was sunk after it unsuccessfully fired a US-made Harpoon anti-ship missile against American forces. The Americans also sunk the Iranian frigate Sahand and crippled its sister ship the Sabalan.
The Iraqi concoction of chemical weapons and offensives against Iranian lines proved damaging and led to a series of battlefield and territorial losses. The toll in men and arms for the Iranian military after eight years of war was horrific. It lost a good share of the American military equipment purchased by the Shah. Iran also lost a sizable share of a generation of youth in battlefield losses. Losses on the battlefield were compounded by Iraqi ballistic missile attacks that increased hardships for Iranian city dwellers on top of the overall deterioration of Iran’s economy and society over the course of eight years of war. The cumulative impact of these factors led Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the poison chalice” as he called it and publicly accept defeat in 1988.
Weak Military Pulse Today
The Iranian regular military still has not recuperated from the Iran-Iraq war. It lacks major weapons systems needed for it to be revived and modernized into an effective force. International sanctions have hampered major weapons producers from selling Iran the major weapons infusions it would need to repair its conventional military forces. To cope, Iran’s military is forced to cannibalize — make some ground and air force equipment into spare parts — to help keep other units functioning. The overall effect of cannibalization is a further reduction in the amount of forces that the Iranian military could field or fly in a future conflict.
The regime, moreover, is building the IRGC into a heavy force to more than compete with the regular army. Iran’s IRGC have some 125,000 troops while the army has 350,000 troops. The caliber of IRGC commanders and rank-and-file on balance is superior to those in the army’s ranks. The army, for example, only has about 130,000 professional soldiers, while the remaining bulk of some 220,000 soldiers are less well-trained conscripts.
Iran’s air power, too, is obsolescent. It has about 281 combat aircraft, of which about 60% of the American-supplied aircraft are serviceable while about 80% of the Russian- and Chinese-supplied aircraft are serviceable. The most sophisticated combat aircraft in Iran’s inventory include some 25 F-14 Tomcats, 65 F-4 Phantoms, and 60 F-5 Tigers from the Americans, 24 F-1 Mirages from Iraqi pilot defections during the 1991 Gulf war, and 13 Su-25 Frogfoot, 30 Su-24 Fencer, and 25 Mig-29 Fulcrums from Russia.
The Iranians are working strenuously in a clandestine black market to buy spare parts to keep their forces operational. Many attempts by individuals in the United States to smuggle older F-4, F-5, and F-14 aircraft parts to Iran have been uncovered. US law enforcement officials say that Iran has only been able, through reverse engineering, to produce about 15% of the parts needed for F-4, F-5, and F-14 aircraft. But these are drastic stop-gap measures and insufficient to support effective aircraft operations. Even the United States decided to retire the F-14 aircraft from its forces because they were too labor intensive and prone to mechanical problems to sustain. If the United States had problems keeping its F-14s airborne, the Iranians are going to have far greater trouble. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the Iranian air force today is a greater threat to itself than to Iran’s neighbors or the United States. The Iranians frequently lose aircraft due to mechanical and maintenance problems.
Iran today no longer has a military edge over its Gulf Arab neighbors. Iran’s mix of Russian and Chinese-supplied weapons is qualitatively inferior to the modern American and Western weapons systems in Arab Gulf State inventories. Although Iran once had more combat experience in mobile conventional warfare than their Gulf Arab State rivals, Iran’s experience is rapidly aging. The Iranians that fought in the front lines during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 are retired. The majority of Iran’s population, moreover, is under 25 years of age and has no direct personal memory of the Iranian Revolution.
If Iran’s military is even going to be resuscitated into a modern and capable fighting force, it will have to significantly expand its purchases of armaments from foreign suppliers. The Iranians make great public fanfare out of their indigenous weapons production capabilities. Tehran announced in November 2007, for example, that it had launched its second submarine built in Iran which it claimed could fire missiles and torpedoes simultaneously. Public relations aside, Iran’s domestically-produced armaments are far less sophisticated than those of the United States and Western Europe, and even than those of Russia and China.
Russia, China, and North Korea loom large as Iran’s best foreign military backers. These states have done hefty loads of business with Iran in the recent past and are poised to do more in the future. Iran has flirted on-and-off with Russia about Moscow selling Tehran sophisticated surface-to-air missile defense systems, the deployments of which would complicate American efforts to hold at-risk Iranian targets in a future conflict. The Iranians between 1991 and 1997 bought roughly $1.4 billion of military equipment from Russia, including Kilo-class submarines, Su-24 combat aircraft, MiG-29 fighters, and advanced naval mines. Tehran also spent about $1.3 billion on anti-ship missiles, missile patrol boats, air-to-surface missiles, and ballistic missile technology from China, while North Korea provided Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles and technology for Iran’s development of Shahab ballistic missiles.
Iran’s arms purchased are aimed, in part, to counter American naval supremacy in the Gulf. Moscow sold Tehran three Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines which are relatively modern in that they became operational in 1980 and are very quiet, small, and ideal for operating in the Gulf’s shallow waters. “The Kilo can carry a mix of 18 homing and wire-guided torpedoes or 24 mines.” The Iranians too are building up their naval irregular warfare capabilities. They have purchased at least three one-man submarines designed for covert demolition and infiltration operations and, in 1993, obtained some midget submarines from North Korea.
Iran, for its part, will likely play Moscow and Beijing against each other in order to squeeze the most capable military hardware out of both. The Chinese notably have sold Iran dual-use technologies that could be used to produce chemical and biological weapons and “China has been resistant to the idea that transfers of missiles represent a danger qualitatively different from other conventional arms transfers.” As China scholar Bates Gill points out, China’s arms sales to Iran in the 1980s and 1990s was for strategic reasons as well as profit and that China’s arms trade with Iran has been “more quantitatively and qualitatively comprehensive and sustained than that with any other country, with exceptions of Pakistan and possibly North Korea.”
The modernization of Iran’s conventional military capabilities would be a long-term process. However, the regime is unlikely to turn its attention and affection away from the IRGC and Basij militia forces in order to make the necessary resources available for Iran’s regular armed forces. This is especially true now that the clerical regime is growing ever more dependent on the IRGC and Basij forces to hold domestic opposition in check.
Iran’s military pulse will likely remain weak while the regime stuffs resources into the IRGC. Yet, the regime probably will keep the regular military on life support to hedge against a traditional mobile-conventional military threat coming from Iran’s neighbors or the United States. Such a contingency would not appear in the near term as Iraq and Afghanistan are consumed by their own internal security problems while the United States is drawing down its forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran, moreover, is likely to see the pursuit of nuclear weapons as the best “quick remedy” for its conventional military woes and as the best means for countering superior Arab and American conventional forces in the Persian Gulf.
Iran today no longer has a military edge over its Gulf Arab neighbors.