Militarization in Iran

One of the first challenges faced by Iran’s new regime was to gain control of weapons that had been captured by individuals and groups involved in the attacks on military arms depots in the last days of Iran’s revolutionary conflict. The head of the new Provisional Government, Mehdi Bazargan, repeatedly called for the surrender of arms, but with no success.

Armed groups were aware of the vacuum created by the loss of effective police and military forces. Moreover, the police and military could not be rapidly reconstructed because of fears that they would not be loyal to the new government.

A third body, the Pasdaran militia, emerged to counterbalance the disorganized troops and act as guardian of the revolution. Also known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), they were

. . . entrusted with control of the ‘army of 20 millions’, so-called because its aim is to group all civilians, adult men or women, who might volunteer to defend the country. Thus, the partisans’ numbers, estimated at some 200,000 trained commandos and one million undergoing training, are far superior to those of the regular army (200,000 men on the various fronts).

Nevertheless, pressures to completely eliminate the regular military were unsuccessful.

A perception of external and internal threat made some level of formal military preparedness essential. Still, efforts to reeducate and Islamicize the military resulted in purges and marginalization.

Only when faced with Iraqi invasion did the government stop the execution of top and mid-level officers and call some air force officers out of retirement.

At the same time, however, the IRGC was expanded into a parallel military group structured like the regular army troops with its own army, navy, and air force. Although the IRGC was divided into many subgroups according to the “ideological and political preferences of its leadership and membership,” it was able to present a unified front against the professional military “when strategic and tactical differences surfaced in the course of the Cold War.”

In fact, the IRGC was successful in putting the blame on the traditional security forces for Iran’s inability to sustain a major offensive against Iraqi troops.

Government officials invariably favored the IRGC in conflicts with the armed forces because of the former’s perceived loyalty to the regime.

Fracturing remained the norm until 1988 when military setbacks in Iran’s war with Iraq spurred the formation of a General Command of the Armed Forces. This organization “was to coordinate actions of the army and the IRGC, merge parallel organizations, combine the resources of defense industries, enforce military laws, and punish offenders.” Subsequently, however, the reluctance to merge the security groups remained entrenched due to continuing suspicions of disloyalty, leftist sentiments, and nationalist tendencies.

As late as spring 1991 — after the end of the Cold War — the IRGC seemed to be consolidating itself into an elite military unit committed (as always) to defending the revolution.

Clearly, in the wake of the revolution, the military became much more politicized and divided ideologically. However, because of the Iran-Iraq War, the public seemed more cognizant of security needs. As a result, both the IRGC and the regular forces gained in legitimacy. Moreover, even critics of the shah’s military buildup were now required to give some credence to his perception of threat.

Critics of the shah’s military buildup and weapons procurement program argued that Iran could not put up a credible defense against the Soviet Union under any circumstances and that there were no regional threats to Iran’s security. Over the course of the 1980s, however, this thinking proved erroneous. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq’s aggression against Iran convinced most of the need for a strong defense.

At the same time, Iran’s military strength was in decline with “Iran’s military, especially in equipment and training . . . behind those of its immediate neighbors, such as Pakistan, Turkey, and, in some regards, even Saudi Arabia.

However, the necessary upgrading could not be accomplished domestically since heavy industrial production has been switched from defense to civilian needs.

Iran not only faced fiscal constraints but foreign policy constraints since it was difficult to obtain the needed capability without dealing with the West.

Photograph by Ensie & Matthias.

Introducing Islam

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by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on March 23, 2015


Known as  ‘Arabia Felix’ or Arabia’s ‘land of happiness’, Yemen has been hard hit by war and other misfortunes. The story, spanning at least 1,500 years, involves everything from early Islamic politics to Arab nationalism and the Cold War. Today, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East.

A Short and Superficial History

In part, the problems in Yemen mirror the schism that has divided Islam almost from its beginning. (For more detailed information on this topic, sign up for the Cold War Studies course on Islam.)

In brief, more than 13 centuries ago, the Muslim world split over who should rule it. Should the rulers of Islam be direct descendants of Mohammed? Or should they come from other tribally-based backgrounds? The Shi’a — always the minority in Islam, took the former view, while the majority group, the Sunnis, took the latter. Not surprisingly, there were further divisions within each of the larger groups.

The majority Sunnis became the establishment throughout most of the Islamic world. Many of their rulers were despots, so the Shi’a managed to position themselves not only as Mohammad’s descendants, but also as opponents of tyranny. Some Shi’a sects even began their life as revolutionary movements. One such sect established itself in Yemen and was known as Zaidism.

In Yemen, a succession of Zaidi states — ruled by their own imams — rose and fell.

Over the centuries of Ottoman occupation, some Zaidi rulers became nationalist leaders fighting foreign occupation.

Northern Yemen was never colonized by a foreign power and the Ottoman occupations were incomplete and temporary.

In the 1920s,  Yemen’s imamate was transformed into a hereditary monarchy. There were unsuccessful revolts in 1948 (when the imam was assassinated) and 1955.

The imamate system was overthrown in an army coup in 1962. A bitter 8 year civil war involving the Saudis, the British, the US, and Egyptian backed groups followed, costing at least 100,000 lives. Zaidi royalists were the losers.

Yemen’s Zaydi Shi’as take their name from the fifth imam, Zayd Ibn Ali. They are doctrinally distinct from Iran’s Twelver Shi’as.


Until 1955, Soviet arms transfers had been small, scattered, and directed only to Communist alllies like North Korea. After 1955, the floodgates opened. In 1956, Syria and Yemen received arms supplies. In 1956, also, Czech and Soviet military advisers went to Yemen.

In 1962, a pro Nasser coup in Yemen brought an end to Yemen’s 1,000 year old Shi’a imamate. Nasser’s (Egyptian) army became involved in a prolonged intervention.

From November 1977 through February 1978, Cuban and East German troops appeared in South Yemen.

Upheavals in Yemen in 1978-1979 produced a pro-Soviet regime in south Yemen and pulled the traditionally more moderate North Yemen into a closer relationship with Moscow as well.

South Yemen was advised to thoroughly reorganize along Leninist lines with a centralized, dsciplined party, a broad political organization, a Marxist-Leninist ideology, a centrally planned economy, and a drive to squeeze out the private sector and any political pluralism. The Cuban and East German advisers, who helped organize a disciplined and loyal secret police, were especially valuable in the process of consolidating power.

In 1967, the left took control of South Yemen, a region that had been a British colony/protectorate for over a century. Two years later, the South moved further left and allied itself with the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba. The Soviet Union took over the military training of the South Yemeni army, and the South Yemen capital, Aden, became a Soviet naval base.

During the Cold War when the country was split, North Yemen faced multiple threats from the far left.

In the 1970s, the South — known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen — began arming and funding leftist rebels in North Yemen.

Despite this military build-up, peaceful relations were temporarily established and, in 1990 after 300 years, North and South were reunited as one country.

Four years later, southern leftists tried unsuccessfully to secede in a North/South civil war that cost several thousand lives.

Perceptions of external interference in Yemen  distract attention from the internal factors driving the brutal stop-start violence in the country. Looting, drug smuggling, gunrunning, people trafficking, and tribal feuds also contribute to the violence in some sectors of the country. Terrorist networks are, of course, a contributing factor.

Hopefully, the above recounting of Yemen’s turbulent history helps to put today’s happenings in context. It seems clear to me that Yemen could never be a stable “ally” of the United States — or anyone else for that matter. Internal schisms, the intrusion of terrorist networks, and external pressures have resulted, instead, in a country plagued by political and social instability and poverty.

For those of you who may be interested, here are a few selected resources for further research and study.

A History of Modern Yemen by Paul Dresch

The Birth of Modern Yemen by Brian Whitaker

A Tribal Order by Shelagh Weir

Yemen Chronicle by Stephen Caton

Peripheral Visions by Lisa Wedeen

For those of you who prefer fiction, why not try Nelson Demille’s  The Panther.

According to Amazon:

Anti-Terrorist Task Force agent John Corey and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, have been posted overseas to Sana’a, Yemen-one of the most dangerous places in the Middle East. While there, they will be working with a small team to track down one of the masterminds behind the USS Cole bombing: a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative known as The Panther. Ruthless and elusive, he’s wanted for multiple terrorist acts and murders-and the U.S. government is determined to bring him down, no matter the cost. As latecomers to a deadly game, John and Kate don’t know the rules, the players, or the score. What they do know is that there is more to their assignment than meets the eye-and that the hunters are about to become the hunted.

Filled with breathtaking plot turns and told in John Corey’s inimitable voice, THE PANTHER is a brilliant depiction of one of the most treacherous countries in the world and raises disturbing questions about whether we can ever know who our enemies – or our allies – really are.

Photo by Gareth Williams.



March 18, 2015

As might be expected, Isfahan changed rapidly as the Americans withdrew and skilled workers migrated to other sections of the country. The many Iranians who had been employed as support staff — drivers, gardeners, housekeepers, guards — saw their economic prospects diminish. In addition, many Isfahanis also left Iran. Brain Drain and Redistribution The loss […]

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February 23, 2015

  The Sugar Campaign directly impacts Havana. In 1968, in conjunction with the campaign to achieve a record breaking sugar harvest, the revolutionary regime mounted a final assault against private enterprise in Cuba’s capital city, Havana. The remaining 57,000 private businesses — principally small retail shops, handicraft stores, service and repair centers, bars and cafes […]

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January 19, 2015

In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, one of the seminal events in Cold War history. But Afghanistan’s problems actually began long before this happening. And the repercussions of the Soviet intervention — and later American actions — haunt us today as concerns about terrorism spread. Perhaps a look back will increase our understanding of today’s […]

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December 2, 2014

  Throughout the 1970s, Iran was concerned with dangers that emanated from both the region and the Soviet Union. Engaged in a strategic, economic, and political alliance with the West, Iran was trapped in its image as a US surrogate. This impression served to thwart Iran’s championship of Third World goals and objectives. At the […]

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October 27, 2014

Cold War Studies is proud to announce the publication of our new e-book titled COLD WAR UNVEILED: ARMS RACE TO ZDANOV DOCTRINE. The book is now for sale on Amazon and I hope you’ll check it out. COLD WAR UNVEILED: ARMS RACE to ZDANOV DOCTRINE is meant to provide a quick, easy to read, introduction to […]

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September 17, 2014

1970: Hafiz al-Asad seizes power. He represents the rise of a new rural elite who claim power at the expense of the established urban politicians and merchants. His regime is authoritarian, based on the military and the Ba’ ath Party. Holding absolute power, al-Asad becomes the object of a personality cult. He adopts socialist economic policies and stands […]

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