- Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces, and: The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps
Ongoing tensions between the West and Iran over the latter's nuclear program have generated a rash of publications on Iranian national security and foreign policy issues. Within this rapidly expanding corpus of literature, it is perhaps surprising that relatively little work has been done on Iran's armed forces. Two noteworthy exceptions are Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces by Stephen Ward and The Rise of the Pasdaran, by Frederic Wehrey et al.
Immortal provides a welcome introduction to the history and capabilities of Iran's military. It is ambitious in scope, tracing the evolution of Iran's armed forces from the Achaemenid period (6th-4th centuries BC) up to the modern day. Arguing that historical developments "can help explain the current and future course of [Iran's] Revolutionary Guard and regular military," (p. 299) Ward surveys the course of Iranian military history and extrapolates several enduring themes. One of these pertains to the geography of Iran, which, because of its extensive natural defenses and strategic depth, acts as a natural barrier for would-be invaders. Alluding to the logistical nightmare posed by Iran's terrain, one Russian officer in the 19th century quipped, "Persia can be conquered with a single company without firing a shot; with a battalion it would be more difficult; with a whole regiment it would be impossible for the entire force would perish of hunger" (p. 82).
According to the author, "national pride, religious beliefs, and insecurity" (p. 312) are the foremost influences that have contributed to the shape and quality of Iran's armed forces. With the admonition "despise not your enemy," (p. 99) Ward frequently alludes to the bravery and ingenuity of the Iranian common soldier, who is often hamstrung by poor leadership, ideological constraints, and incompetent statecraft at the national level. Iran's rulers, who were often more worried about the possibility of an internal coup than external invasions, frequently pitted elements within the military against each other, discouraging initiative and inhibiting horizontal links between the services. Predictably, this was to have disastrous results in terms of battlefield command and control, especially during the Iran-Iraq War when the Artesh (Iran's regular military) often operated at cross-purposes with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Immortal contains some factual errors — for instance, when 24 senior IRGC commanders signed a letter urging the Iranian executive to quash protesters in the wake of the 1999 university demonstrations, the letter was addressed to President Muhammad Khatami, not Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamene'i (p. 307). Additionally, the Strait of Hormuz is 29 nautical miles at its narrowest point, rather than 20-25 miles, as Ward has stated (p. 269). But these minor errors should in no way detract from the book's overall value. As eloquent as it is insightful, Immortal is readily accessible to Iran specialists and non-specialists alike.
The second book, The Rise of the Pasdaran, focuses specifically on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In contrast to various studies which have focused on the external military aspects of the Guard Corps, this monograph, which is a publication of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, assesses the broad ranging domestic roles of the Guard Corps and the scope of that organization's influence over Iran's political culture, economy, and society. It begins with an overview, situating the IRGC within the wider context of Iran's political and security landscape. The study then traces...