Iranian Military

Iran's military capabilities and coastal defenses near the Strait of Hormuz make Iran a major player in international energy security. Iran's coastline is particularly important because tanker and shipping routes pass so close to Iran's land mass, the islands it controls in the Gulf, and its major naval bases.[i]

  • Recent Historical Background 
  • Iranian Military Structure 
  • Islamic Republic of Iran Army 
  • Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) 
  • Basij 
  • Military Leadership Positions 

Recent Historical Background

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) drove Iran's military forces down to minimal levels of equipment and increased its institutional disorganization.[ii] In particular, the U.S. Navy destroyed a large fraction of Iran's navy during one engagement, Operation Praying Mantis. As a result, the Iranian military, specifically its naval component, began a build-up following the war. Between 1989 and 1992, Iran rebuilt its air and ground forces with a later shift towards naval procurement.[iii]

As part of its naval build-up, Iran purchased a variety of naval (mostly anti-ship) equipment in the 1990s, including 15 fast attack craft, and 10 other French-made patrol boats, each outfitted with C-802 anti-ship missiles (120 km range).[iv] Iran may have imported more than 100 (Chinese-supplied) C-802 missiles.[v] Even though Iran has improved its navy, it has not yet rebuilt its forces to pre-Iran-Iraq War levels.

Iranian Military Structure

Iran's military structure is broken up into three branches, with the Ayatollah "╦ťAli Khamene'i as the commander-in-chief: Islamic Republic of Iran Army (the Artesh), Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij Resistance Force.[vi] In 1992, Iran established a new single office for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the General Command of the Armed Forces Joint Staffs, which effectively placed the Artesh and the IRGC under common command.[vii] Altogether, the forces total approximately 545,000 active personnel and 350,000 reserve personnel.

Although Iran's total military forces are larger than all other Persian Gulf armies combined,[viii] their overall quality has been limited by their convoluted structure, competing internal factions, and inferior equipment (relative to its neighbors).[ix] This qualitative deficiency is due in large part to Iran's inability to access Western military technology and Iran's economic and budgetary constraints.

Islamic Republic of Iran Army

The Islamic Republic of Iran Army is Iran's conventional military force. The Artesh is comprised of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, which are responsible for defending Iran's borders and maintaining internal order. Various sources differ widely in their reports of Iranian force structure, order of battle, and unit identifications. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 2008 Military Balance, Iran has five Corps-level regional headquarters, four armored divisions, six infantry divisions, a special forces brigade, two commando divisions, an airborne brigade, six artillery groups, and aviation forces.[x]

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)

The IRGC was established in 1979 in conjunction with the Islamic Revolution. The leaders of the revolution, especially Ayatollah Khomenei, were concerned that the Shah's military would not be loyal to them, so they established their own military.[xi] Originally, the IRGC was responsible for enforcing the new government's Islamic codes and morality.[xii] However, its responsibilities have evolved to protect the regime as a whole, including national security, protecting the borders, internal security, and law enforcement.

The IRGC is about one third the size of the Artesh, with 125,000 men.[xiii] The IRGC boasts air and naval forces as well.

The IRGC focuses on less traditional defense duties, particularly those that involve unusual missions or capabilities. These duties range from preventing smuggling and controlling Iran's missile forces to preparing to close the Strait of Hormuz.[xv]

The IRGC Navy consists mainly of ten Chinese Houdong-class missile boats and more than 100 small boats, shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and a large combat swimmer (naval special warfare) force. (The regular navy controls Iran's twelve major surface combatant ships and three submarines.)[xvi] Currently, the IRGC's naval forces include roughly 20,000 men, including marine units of approximately 5,000 men. These naval forces control facilities at Al-Farsiyah, Halul (an oil platform), Sirri, Abu Musa, Bandar-e Abbas, Khorramshahr, and Larak (island).

Basij

Although the Basij were involved in many of the frontline attacks during the Iran-Iraq War, the Basij's military function has steadily decreased since the end of that war. During the 1990s, the Basij took on an internal security role of quelling domestic dissent against the regime and maintaining security in large urban centers. Although the regime's official policy attempts to, generally speaking, divide labor between the Artesh, the IRGC, and the Basij, this policy is rarely followed: the IRGC remains the dominant player in Iran's military apparatus.

Today, the Basij are rarely seen as Iran's third military pillar. Even the IRGC, which once relied heavily on the Basij, no longer view them as important, largely because they do not meet the IRGC's level of professionalism. The Basij have in effect been stripped of all military related duties and would be unlikely to carry out attacks in the Strait of Hormuz.

Military Leadership Positions

Political Military Leadership

  • Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces 
  • President 
  • Minister of Defense 
  • Head of the Armed Forces General Command Headquarters 

Military

  • General Commander of the Military 
  • Chief of the Joint Staff of the Military 
  • Commander of the Army 
  • Commander of the Air Force 
  • Commander of the Navy 

IRGC

  • Commander-in-Chief of the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards 
  • Chief of the Joint Staff of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards 
  • Commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Ground Forces 
  • Commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Air Force 
  • Commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Navy 
  • Commander-in-chief of the Mobilized Basij Forces 
  • Quds Force 
  • Secret Unit 

[i] Anthony Cordesman, Iran, Oil and the Strait of Hormuz, (CSIS Publication, March 26, 2007).

[ii] James M. Esquivel, "Iran and the Strait of Hormuz: Varying Levels of Interdiction," (Masters Thesis, Naval Post Graduate School, December 1997), p v. Online. Available: http://stinet.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA342027&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf. Accessed: April 30, 2008.

[iii] James M. Esquivel, "Iran and the Strait of Hormuz: Varying Levels of Interdiction," (Masters Thesis, Naval Post Graduate School, December 1997), p 1. Online. Available: http://stinet.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA342027&Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf. Accessed: April 30, 2008.

[iv] Congressional Research Service, Iran: Arms and Technology Acquisitions (June 22, 1998), p. 4.

[v] Congressional Research Service, Iran: Arms and Technology Acquisitions (June 22, 1998), p. 4.

[vi] Michael Eisenstadt, "The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran: An Assessment," Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal, vol. 5, no. 1 (March 2001), p 17.

[vii] However, the new office was held by prominent Pasdaran member Hassan Firouzabadi; reflecting the Pasdaran's continued prestige within Iran's military apparatus. Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Jerrold D. Green, Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era, (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001).

[viii] These countries include Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. James Hackett, ed., International Institute for Strategic and International Studies, The Military Balance 2008 (London: Routledge, 2007), pp 224-226.

[ix] Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Jerrold D. Green, Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), pp 31-44.

[x] James Hackett, ed., International Institute for Strategic and International Studies, The Military Balance 2008 (London: Routledge, 2007), pp 224-226.

[xi] GlobalSecurity.org, Qods (Jerusalem) Force /Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: IRGC - Pasdaran-e Inqilab. Online. Available: http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/world/iran/qods.htm. Accessed September 25, 2007.

[xii] GlobalSecurity.org, Qods (Jerusalem) Force /Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: IRGC - Pasdaran-e Inqilab. Online. Available: http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/world/iran/qods.htm. Accessed September 25, 2007.

[xiii] Robin Wright, "Elite Revolutionary Guard Broadens Its Influence in Iran: Unit that Captured Britons Has Sway in Politics, Economy," Washington Post (April 1, 2007), sec. A, p. 21.

[xiv] Anthony Cordesman, Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the Al Quds Force, and Other Intelligence and Paramilitary Forces (Washington, D.C.,: Center for Strategic International Studies, August 16, 2007). Online. Available: http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/070816_cordesman_report.pdf. Accessed: April 30, 2008.

[xv] "Jane's World Armies: Iran," Jane's Defense News (August 29, 2006). Online. Available: http://www.janes.com/defence/news/jwar/jwar060829_1_n.shtml. Accessed: April 24, 2008.

[xvi] Michael Eisenstadt, "The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran: An Assessment" Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal, vol. 5, no. 1 (March 2001), p 17.

This page last modified in August 2008