Along with Egypt and Turkey, Iran is one of the most populous countries in the Middle East. Aware of its strategic significance and millennium-long civilization, Iranian leaders have always aspired to assume a leadership role on regional and international issues and pursued an assertive policy to reach their country’s potential. This ambitious strategy requires, among other things, strong military forces.
Iran’s modern army (the Artesh) was established in its present form in the mid-1920s, shortly after the end World War I and the ascendancy of the Pahlavi dynasty. Similar to Kemal Ataturk’s efforts to create a strong and modern Turkish army, King Reza Shah Pahlavi had a grand vision to make Iran a regional power. He sent thousands of officers to foreign military academies and hired Western officers to train the then-small and growing Iranian armed forces. These efforts laid the foundation for the creation of a modern air force and navy.
Mohamed Reza Shah followed his father’s military and strategic ambition and wanted to make his country the strongest military power in the Middle East and South Asia. The backbone of this strategy was to create large, strong, and modern armed forces. This strategy was based on a close cooperation and partnership with Western powers, particularly the United States. Huge arms deals were signed between Washington and Tehran. This unofficial alliance proved crucial in containing the Soviet influence in the region. The Iranian army also played a significant role in defending the Sultan of Oman and defeating the leftist-separatist rebellion in Dhofar.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution altered the strategic dynamics fundamentally. First, suspicious of the armed forces’ loyalty to the Islamic Republic, the new leaders created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is better equipped and funded than the regular army. Second, Iranian forces were engaged in an eight-year-long war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. In this war, the conservative Arab countries, the United States, and indeed most of the world supported Saddam Husayn against Iran. Third, since 1979, the Islamic Republic has been under a variety of US economic and diplomatic sanctions as well as a number of UN sanctions. These sanctions mean that Tehran’s capability to import arms from Western countries was severely constrained. Iran was left with two options — import weapons from Russia, China, and North Korea; and develop indigenous military industry. Iran has since pursued these two options simultaneously.
Fourth, and probably most importantly, Iran’s security environment and landscape have fundamentally changed. For many years the goals were to protect Iran from real and potential enemies such as Saddam Husayn in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan and their regional and international protectors. These two hostile regimes in Baghdad and Kabul were overthrown by the US-led international coalitions. Tehran was left surrounded by unstable countries on both sides and American forces and bases in all directions. This heavy US military presence and the threat of attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations by the US and/or Israel are the main challenges facing not only the armed forces but the entire military and political establishment in Tehran.
Against this background, one can understand the Islamic Republic military forces’ doctrine and strategy. Unlike some neighbors (such as Iraq), Iranian leaders both before and after the Revolution have been satisfied with the general configuration of their country and have rarely, if ever, expressed serious interest in invading or annexing any foreign territories. Furthermore, the decades-long sanctions imposed on the country have taken their toll on the armed forces. Though the Iranian armed forces are among the largest in the Middle East, they are poorly equipped and poorly trained to carry out a sustainable attack on any neighboring adversary. They have almost no modern armor, artillery, aircraft, or major combat ships. Finally, the few skirmishes the Iranian Navy had with the American Navy close to the end of the 1980–1988 war with Iraq taught the Iranian military leaders to avoid direct confrontation with superior adversaries.
All these historical, geopolitical, and military experiences have shaped the armed forces’ largely defensive doctrine. Overall, Tehran enjoys peaceful relations with most of its neighbors. The perceived threat now comes from the United States and Israel — Iran’s military build-up in the last few decades has aimed at deterring both Washington and Tel Aviv from attacking the Islamic regime. This broad objective helps to explain Tehran’s heavy investment in missile capabilities and the ambiguity of its nuclear program.
From an Iranian perspective, having the capability to reach targets in Israel and US military bases and troops in the Persian Gulf region is likely to make Washington and Tel Aviv think twice before attacking Iran. Again, the goal is not to confront any of these two more powerful adversaries; rather, it is to conduct irregular warfare and carry out asymmetric operations. A clear illustration of this strategy is the recently launched naval reorganization strategy. In 2007, Iranian leaders redefined the primary duties and operational areas for both the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and IRGC Navy (IRGCN). Since the establishment of the IRGCN in 1985, the two navies shared overlapping responsibilities in the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Caspian Sea. The reorganization ended the duplication, “giving the IRGCN sole responsibility for defense within the Persian Gulf, and giving the IRIN responsibility outside of the Gulf, projecting Iranian power far beyond Iran’s shores.” Giving the IRGCN primary responsibility in the Gulf amplifies the natural benefits of a small, fast, unconventional force operating in its own backyard. Meanwhile, the more traditional and less modernized regular navy was given the responsibility to project the nation’s power in less critical theaters.
The fact that Iranian military forces have not taken part in any war or military confrontation since the end of the war with Iraq in 1988 makes it hard to provide an accurate assessment of their real fighting capabilities. Still, comparing the Islamic Republic’s military budget and the size of its active armed forces with those of neighboring states in the Persian Gulf and with Israel, Tehran’s main regional adversary, can be used as a rough indicator.
The figures show that, with more than 75 million people, Iran is by far the most populous country in the Persian Gulf and, along with Egypt and Turkey, among the most populous in the entire Middle East. Not surprisingly, the Islamic Republic has the largest military forces in the Gulf. Despite these demographic advantages, Iran’s military budget is very modest compared with its immediate neighbors and Israel. These figures underscore the conclusion that Iranian military forces do not have the military capability, and probably not the political will, to launch an attack on any of its neighbors or Israel. Rather, as discussed above, the goal is to deter its rivals from attacking the Islamic Republic.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.