The Middle Eastern Military as a Factor in Domestic and Regional Conflict and Violence: A Case Study of the Iranian Army
Stephanie Cronin, History, University of London
Research Grant, 1999
The research project consisted of a case study of the political and social role played by the Iranian army in the recent history both of Iran itself and of the Persian Gulf region. Beginning with the collapse of the army following Riza Shah’s abdication in 1941, my research dealt substantively with the years of Muhammad Riza Shah’s power, and concluded with an assessment of the impact of its history on the structure of the Iranian army in the Islamic republic, its military effectiveness, and its political reliability. The project incorporated a strong comparative element and a discussion of the lessons of the Iranian experience for understanding and predicting the behavior both of the Iranian and of other Middle Eastern armies.
The case study aimed at drawing lessons from the Iranian experience regarding issues such as: under what circumstances armies decide to resort to force to influence the political arena; the impact of western military assistance; the nature and consequences of programs of weapons acquisition and the prospects for arms control; and the role played by military force, actual and potential, in regional relations.
It seems, firstly, that political tendencies within the Iranian army were always more variegated than has been assumed; that communist or Tudah party affiliations among individual officers or groups of officers were mainly significant as an expression of radical nationalism; and that elements comparable to the "Free Officers" of the Arab world may be identified in the late 1940s and '50s.
The research fell into three chronological periods: 1941–53, 1954–79, and post-1979. The first chronological period focused on the army as a factor in domestic Iranian politics and examined the interaction between army, shah and political opposition, beginning with an examination of the response of the officer corps to the deposition of its chief, Riza Shah, and the political impact on the army of the Allied invasion of 1941. The second chronological period of this research focused on the twin processes of the consolidation of Muhammad Riza Shah’s control over the army and the consolidation of his army-based regime’s control over the country. The third period examined the role played by the professional army under the Islamic Republic. The research has posited a number of conclusions, of which the most important may be summarized as follows. It seems, firstly, that political tendencies within the Iranian army were always more variegated than has been assumed; that communist or Tudah party affiliations among individual officers or groups of officers were mainly significant as an expression of radical nationalism; and that elements comparable to the “Free Officers” of the Arab world may be identified in the late 1940s and ’50s. Clearly, between 1941 and 1954, the most senior reaches of the officer corps contained individuals and groups possessing political ambitions that were independent of the shah, though not politically radical, and that the stifling of such tendencies as the shah consolidated his power was partially responsible for the army’s paralysis in 1977–9. Indeed, the measures employed by the shah to protect himself from any emerging military ambition resulted in the army’s political paralysis in 1977–9, and in its failure to generate an alternative leadership capable of replacing the shah but preserving secular nationalist rule in Iran, an idiom to which it had historically been wedded.
The research also argues that the army’s competence and effectiveness in its conventional military capacity was, and remained, problematic, and that, although Iran claimed a regional role based on military strength, this strength was largely illusory, as was demonstrated for example by the counter-insurgency operations in Dhofar in the 1970s. Furthermore it seems that considerable confusion resulted from a shift away from the army’s traditional role, of safeguarding internal security, towards regional concerns, while the regime yet continued to rely on the army to suppress domestic opposition, a task for which it was no longer being trained or equipped. The research has found that the army was a crucial vehicle for the replacement of British influence in Iran by US influence and that the shah was the most suitable candidate for facilitating the increasing US domination of the army, senior military officers themselves often wishing to distance the army from the US military missions and retain control more securely in their own hands. The “Americanization” of the army was, furthermore, one of the most important factors tarnishing the army’s nationalist credentials and ultimately discrediting the regime itself. The research has concluded that a professional army has survived the vicissitudes of revolution and war in Iran but that it has played and will continue to play a subordinate political role in the Islamic republic, and that mechanisms are in place to protect the regime from any military challenge.
Cronin, Stephanie (eds.)."Riza Shah and the Paradoxes of Military Modernizarion in Iran." The Making of Modern Iran: State and Society under Riza Shah, 1921-1941. New York: Routledgecurzon, 2003.
Cronin, Stephanie "Riza Shah and the Paradoxes of Military Modernizarion in Iran." Oriente Moderno. forthcoming.