Iran’s regular military, the Artesh, receives virtually no attention from international media or scholars on Iran. By contrast, its political rival, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, also known in Persian as the Pasdaran), is scrutinized constantly by analysts for its visible, high-profile role in Iran’s political system, its economic resources and corporate activities, and its role as a spearhead of Iran’s regional policies.
This imbalance in relative importance persists even though the Artesh fields more men under arms than does the IRGC (350,000 Artesh soldiers versus about 125,000 IRGC), and even though the Artesh still controls the preponderance of heavy ground armor (tanks, etc.) that Iran possesses. The dichotomy in press and analytic attention has reached the point where the casual scholar of Iranian affairs might not realize that the Artesh still exists at all.
This contradiction is, to some extent, justified. The Artesh is avowedly apolitical. It is a national institution, created and maintained to defend the nation against external threats. Unlike the IRGC, it is not a revolutionary institution and does not interpret its mission as defending the Islamic regime that came to power in 1979. Artesh leaders repeatedly assert that they are loyal to whatever regime is in power at the time.
Even if the Artesh is not politically influential, it cannot and should not be dismissed. It survived early consideration of its abolishment as an anachronism and as a potential threat to the nascent Islamic Republic. The Artesh’s nationalist and apolitical character enabled it to derail such efforts — the clerics saw the Artesh as a useful counterweight to the likely political excesses of the IRGC, which was run by non-clerics. More accurately, Ayatollah Khomeini and his aides believed that the Artesh and the IRGC were useful as checks and balances against each other.
Having survived the early challenges to its existence, the Artesh was able to continue to maintain its independent identity during the Iran-Iraq war and beyond. During and after the war, the Artesh was unable to prevent the imposition of IRGC officers into senior Artesh command posts. Successive defense ministers, including the current one, Ahmad Vahidi, have been derived from the IRGC, and not the Artesh. The regime has also attempted to “Pasdaranize” the Artesh, with mixed success, with political and ideological training and through recruitment of former IRGC volunteers into Artesh ranks.
After the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, the Artesh suffered major new indignities. The regime judged that its lack of advanced heavy weaponry was at least partly responsible for the loss of the war. This judgment should, by any measure, have benefited the Artesh, who articulated that view during the war. The Artesh leaders were proven right in their assessment that the IRGC-led human wave offensives were not an appropriate or effective response to Iraq’s advantages in armor and organizations. After the war, the regime decided to purchase major weapons systems, including tanks, combat aircraft, submarines, and sophisticated patrol boats, from China and Russia. However, much of the new weapons, particularly the naval systems, went to the IRGC, and not to the Artesh. The IRGC Air Force was in clear control of Iran’s growing arsenal of ballistic missiles. By 2010, senior US military officers were asserting that the IRGC Navy had assumed primary responsibility for Iranian operations along the Persian Gulf, and the IRI Navy (regular Navy) had taken a back seat on that mission, even though it still controlled Iran’s largest ships.
The political strength within the regime, or lack thereof, was a decidedly minor issue until 2009, when it became clear that a significant proportion of the population was willing to demonstrate its opposition to the regime. At that point — the point at which major street demonstrations over the June 2009 election galvanized into the “Green Movement” — an analysis of the array of security forces willing and able to defend the regime moved front and center.
The Green Movement challenge in 2009, and attempted revivals in 2011, raised questions as to which security forces the regime would turn to in order to suppress the challenges. As the force most loyal to the Islamic regime, the IRGC, particularly its popular militia, the Basij, were expected to aggressively suppress demonstrations and riots and ensure that demonstrators could not seize government buildings or entire cities. Their intervention was required to suppress some of the larger demonstrations in 2009; smaller ones were handled by the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), Iran’s regular police.
However, uncertain of the ultimate scope of the popular unrest, in 2009 and 2010 there were indications in press sources that the regime might also ask the Artesh to intervene against demonstrators. That notion was disabused on December 10, 2009, the height of the Green Movement challenge. Commanders of several units of the regular military, including army aviation, the regular Air Force, and various training colleges of the Artesh, reportedly released a letter criticizing the IRGC and the Basij for using force to suppress demonstrations and threatening to intervene against those forces if their abuses continued.
Green Movement demonstrations continued subsequent to this letter, including the December 27, 2009 “Ashura uprising,” in which demonstrators captured numerous LEF personnel and vehicles, and in which LEF and Basij elements withdrew from certain locations. However, neither in this or in subsequent events did the Artesh carry out its purported threat to intervene to protect demonstrators. That observation could suggest that the Artesh letter was less an actual threat than a clear statement that it would not, if called on, help the IRGC, Basij, and LEF suppress demonstrations. Others might argue that the Artesh threat was never realistic, in large part because the Artesh are located in garrisons outside major cities, and its ability to partake in urban political events is limited.
The implications of the Artesh’s political role are clear. Should the Green Movement revive its demonstrations, and should such demonstrations ever seize control of entire cities or neighborhoods, the regime’s ability to rally suppressive armed force will be uncertain and potentially counterproductive.
The Artesh will not, under any conceivable circumstance, deploy its ground armor to wrest back control of territory for the regime. The LEF, Basij, and IRGC have proved sufficiently strong, to date, to suppress the Green challenge. However, that capacity has not been tested in Iran to the extent it has in, for example, Libya and Syria, where demonstrators and armed rebels have taken control of entire territories (and in the Libyan case, prosecuted a successful rebellion). The Islamic regime in Iran’s ability to defend itself against a massive, sustained popular challenge remains unproved.