Originally posted November, 2011

Ravaged, intimidated, and gutted to the core in a series of purges after the 1979 Revolution, the remnant of the Shah’s military, renamed the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, known generally in Persian as the Artesh, put itself together as best as it could to face invading Iraqi forces at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war.

Eight years prior, during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, commenting on the relative strength of states in the Persian Gulf region, considered Iran “militarily much the strongest.”[1] The IISS appraisal also pointed out that the Iranian Air Force was more than a match for the entire Arab forces in the Persian Gulf. 

After masterminding a counter-offensive which led to the retaking of the port of Khorramshar in May 1982, a turning point in the Iran-Iraq (1980–1988) war, the clerical regime, mistrustful of the Artesh, assigned it to play second fiddle to the rising Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for the rest of the eight-year war. By mid-1982, all areas lost to Iraq were recovered but the clerical regime decided to topple Saddam’s regime by launching offensive operations, often with disastrous results, spearheaded by the IRGC. 

Marginalized, Apolitical

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the assigned role of the Artesh has not changed much. Numerically three times the size of the IRGC, the Artesh continues to be on the periphery. In sharp contrast to the IRGC, the Artesh wields very little influence in the regime’s political centers of power and therefore it is in a disadvantaged position in terms of securing resources and funding.

Besides being the Islamic regime’s Praetorian Guard, the IRGC as a political-military organization runs a host of economic and business entities and exercises great influence through its former members in the three branches of power, including the Defense Ministry and Defense Industries Organization. Having its finger in every pie, the IRGC interferes in political, economic, social, military, and foreign affairs of the country. Meanwhile, the Artesh has been forced to remain apolitical and confine itself to its mission within the military doctrine of the Islamic Republic. 

Islamization and Leadership Syndrome

In line with Articles 143 and 144 of the Constitution, the Artesh must be committed to Islamic ideology and it is responsible for guarding the territorial integrity of the country as well as the order of the Islamic regime.

On the basis of these articles, all military personnel were subjected to the process of Islamization implemented by the Ideological and Political Organization (IPO) of the Artesh.  The IPO, which continues its religious education and political supervision of the personnel in the Artesh, is managed by a representative of Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Clerics attached to the IPO, very much like political commissars of the Soviet era, are present at every unit of the Artesh.

Today, with the exception of the commander-in-chief of the Artesh, Major-General Ataollah Salehi, all other commanders are post-1979 trained officers who in military colleges received heavy doses of indoctrination in Islamic beliefs and allegiance to the principle of velayat-e faqih (the governance of the jurisprudents, the basis for Iran’s theocracy).

Officer ranks of the Artesh, at least its senior commanders, like that of the Shah’s era, suffer from what is known as the “leadership syndrome.” They show or feel obliged to express undivided allegiance to Ayatollah Khamenei and the Islamic regime. His portrait, in various poses, as the Supreme Commander of the Iranian Armed Forces and as spiritual leader adorns military websites, journals, offices, and establishments. Senior commanders of the Artesh in most ceremonies praise his leadership qualities and evoke his sayings to give weight to their own speech or comments. In most cases, in order to ward off controversy, commanders utter no official words in the front of a camera without Ayatollah Khamenei’s picture in the background.

Command, Structure and Doctrine

The Artesh has four services: the Ground Forces, the Navy, the Air Force, and the newly-established Air Defense Force. Though it has its own command and control and joint staff, the access of the Artesh to the Supreme Commander, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the IRGC is via his personal staff called the Armed Forces General Command Headquarters. Almost all senior officers in this HQ are from the IRGC and all proposals of the Artesh in terms of planning, resources, operations, and logistics have to go through these officers to the supreme commander.

The overall doctrine of the Armed Forces (the IRGC and the Artesh), which has been heavily influenced by the lessons of the Iran-Iraq war and the shifting perceptions of threats around Iran, is based on deterring a technologically superior adversary, like the United States.

Mission, Overall Capabilities

In the context of this doctrine, the Ground Forces of the Artesh, with some 350,000 men (220,000 conscripts), are to form the first line of defense against invading forces. In contrast, the IRGC’s Army, with a strength of some 150,000 together with the omnipresent Basij Resistance Force is to establish the second line of defense and act as a stay-behind force in case of foreign aggression. 

The IRGC’s Army units have been divided into 32 parts, two for Tehran Province and one for every other province, to effectively maintain domestic security of the country in peace time — the main concern of the Islamic Republic. Although labor is divided between internal and external security, the Artesh tends to be sidelined while the overt activities of the IRGC’s Army go beyond the country’s border. The latest incursion of the IRGC into northern Iraq in the summer of 2011 in pursuit of PJAK (Free Life Party of Kurdistan) fighters is a case in point.  In fact, the security of some volatile border provinces, like Khuzestan, Sistan va Baluchestan, Kurdistan, and West Azerbaijan, are entirely in the hands of the IRGC Army. 

Contrary to Iran’s claims of self-sufficiency in producing major weapons, the Ground Forces of the Artesh are, to a large extent, dependent on arms purchased by the Shah and on relatively low-grade weapons imported from China, North Korea, and Russia. The quality of its personnel and training is mediocre because of heavy reliance on conscripts. Nevertheless, the Ground Forces of the Artesh together with the IRGC’s Army have significant capabilities for asymmetric warfare and irregular operations, though they are neither trained nor organized for power projection or operations outside Iran.

The 18,000-man Navy of the Artesh is charged with the responsibility of forming the first line of defense in the Gulf of Oman and beyond. In spite of its efforts in maintaining and refitting its ships, this Navy suffers from obsolesence. With the exception of three Russian-made Kilo class submarines and one home-made destroyer, the rest of its ships, acquired by the Shah over 40 years ago, are old and their capability for sustained operations are limited. The same applies to the Navy’s air arm in terms of maritime patrol aircraft and anti-submarine helicopters. Although the IRGC’s Navy has steadily improved its capabilities to support unconventional warfare and defend Iran’s offshore facilities, coastlines, and islands in the Persian Gulf, not much has been done to equip the Navy of the Artesh to carry out its mission as an effective “blue water” navy. In spite of claiming to be capable of operating in the northwest quarter of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and even in the Atlantic Ocean, there is a huge gap between the assigned mission of the Navy and its capabilities.

The Air Force of the Artesh, with 37,000 personnel charged with the responsibility of defending Iranian airspace, relies largely on aging US-supplied aircraft purchased by the Shah. With the exception of some 65 Russian-made Su-24, Su-25, and MiG-29, for bombing, close air support, and deterring aggression, the sustainability and operational capability of other aircraft are doubtful.  It is estimated that between 40–60% of aircraft in the inventory of this force are non-operational. It is doubtful whether the current rate of modernization to offset the aging aircraft can remedy some of its major operational shortcomings. In addition, this force has many qualitative weaknesses, including the lack of advanced training facilities and questions about the effectiveness of its new generation of pilots.

The Air Defense Force was established in February 2008 to give a sharper focus on Iran’s deterrent doctrine. With 15,000 personnel, the force operates air force radars, anti-aircraft guns, and a variety of Russian, Chinese, British, and US surface-to-air missile systems acquired before and after the 1979 Revolution. Iran has also deployed its own domestically-manufactured missile systems. It also managed to purchase from Russia several batteries of the low-altitude Tor-M1 missile system, though Moscow, in spite of a previous agreement with Tehran, has refused to equip Iran with the advanced long-range S-300 missile system.

There is no clear indication how Iran deploys its air defenses and which of these systems are operated by the IRGC. However, the IRGC seems to be in possession of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missiles, including Sejjil 2, which makes up the strategic arm of Iran’s air power and its primary deterrent. It also appears to be responsible for the air defense of nuclear sites in the country.

With its inadequate number of defense systems and in view of the size of Iran, the Air Defense Force can only provide limited air defense for key installations. Currently it cannot provide long-range medium-to-high altitude coverage of these installations, though a number of IRGC commanders claimed that Iran is in the process of making its own S-300 system. The IRGC also claims to operate a home-made long-range radar that monitors low-altitude satellites.

Accordingly, there are strong indications that Iran lacks an integrated air defense system and an overall radar network. It is also susceptible to electronic countermeasures. To remedy some of its shortcomings, on September 1, 2011 the Air Defense Force chief, Brigadier-General Farzad Esmaili, said that Iran had tested a home-made radar with a range of several thousand kilometers and made noticeable advances in electronic warfare.[2]

Bottom Line

Iran’s doctrine and strategy are primarily defensive. It does not seek military confrontation. Currently, the clerical regime is using its unconventional capabilities and proxies to advance its interests in the region.

In the process of developing the doctrine, Iran’s Armed Forces have been polarized under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei. With the ever-rising power of the IRGC, the Artesh has been sidelined and Iran retains divided armed forces by a command structure that restricts the flow of information through a rigid line of control. The clerical regime has not been able to modernize the Artesh. With the exception of some land-based naval weapons, the regime has not been able to import large arms consignments and instead has made efforts to produce or assemble weapons at home. It also popularized the idea of moving towards self-sufficiency in arms production. However, none of these arms have modernized the Artesh and there is a huge gap between its overall mission and its fighting capabilities. Not being able to modernize the Air Force of the Artesh, the clerical regime has chosen an affordable and short-cut approach to develop a deterrent capability by investing and focusing on its missile industry through assembly, modification, and reverse engineering of imported North Korean and Chinese weapons. In other words, replacing weak conventional forces with asymmetric forces. That said, and at least in comparison to its immediate Arab neighbors, the Artesh remains a major conventional power in the Persian Gulf region.  


[1]. IISS, Strategic Survey 1971, p.40, p.45

[2]. “Commander: Iran to Deploy Home-Made Destroyer in Red Sea,” FARS News, .