How Coup-Worthy are the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic?

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By Reza Parchizadeh

Amir Hatami, the Islamic Republic Minister of Defense, in IRGC Uniform

In response to President Trump’s recent designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist entity, a number of Iranian army generals publicly appeared in IRGC uniforms to express solidarity with the branded Guards. This unity between the two major military forces in Iran is nothing new.

The eclectic shoulder strap that the Iranian army personnel above the rank of brigadier general wear indeed demonstrates the most honest and precise expression of the status of the “Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic” in Iran. On the inner side of this shoulder strap stand the branches and the swords of the Revolutionary Guards encasing the calligraphic “Allah” of the Islamic Republic; while on the outer side lies the dwarfed, less glamorous star(s) of the regular army used all over the world.

This means that in Iran under the occupation of the mullahs, the army – and by extension all the so-called armed forces – is actually subsumed under the Revolutionary Guards. There are no shoulder straps, chevrons and insignia in the armed forces and other military institutions and organizations in contemporary Iran that have not been stamped with the ideological symbols of the Islamist regime.

The mass purges after the 1979 revolution in Iran also devastated a large section of the imperial army’s high command. A great number of army commanders such as Nematollah Nasiri, commander of the Imperial Guards and head of SAVAK; Amir Hossein Rabii, commander of the imperial air force; and Manouchehr Khosrodad, head of imperial army aviation, were immediately and openly prosecuted and executed on the vague charge of “sowing corruption on earth.”

Habibollah Sayyary, deputy commander-in-chief of the army; and Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of the Islamic Republic

On the other hand, another group of commanders including Muhammad-Vali Gharani, chief-of-staff of the army (February 12 to March 27, 1979); Valiollah Fallahi, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (June 1980 – September 1981); and Ali Sayad Shirazi, commander of the army ground force during the Iran–Iraq War, were saved from prosecution and execution by joining the revolutionaries and initially serving the Islamist system, but were later gradually removed from command or killed under highly suspicious circumstances.

As a result, what remained of the classic army was a headless body that did not have a clear identity. After the war between Iran and Iraq that spanned the entire 1980s, the second Supreme Leader of the Islamist regime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed a large number of Revolutionary Guard officers as army commanders. The Guards were the ideologically-driven military force that was created by Islamists after the 1979 revolution in Iran with the express aim of “guarding the Islamic Revolution,” apparently distinct from the task of the regular army, which is protecting the country against foreign threat or invasion.

A notorious instance of assigning an army command to an IRGC officer is the case of Ali Shamkhani, who is today secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei, one year after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989, while fully transferring Shamkhani from the IRGC to the army, appointed him commander of the regular navy. Back then, many veterans in the navy would quietly make fun of Shamkhani, saying that while he had not even played with paper boats in the pool in their house, he was now the commander of the navy. As a result of such tactical and systematic appointments, the already decapitated army virtually became an unannounced subsidiary branch of the Revolutionary Guards.

In addition to posting the IRGC commanders to various army units, Khamenei only raises in rank and gives command to those from within the ranks of the army who are either close and loyal to his person or are ready to publicly promote the idea of the overlap between the duties and aspirations of the Guards and the army, as well as defending the Islamist ideology of the regime and the expansionist strategy of the Islamic Republic in the region and the world. Significant instances of such an approach are Abdorrahim Mousavi, the commander-in-chief of the army; Habibollah Sayyary, former commander of the navy and deputy commander-in-chief of the army; Kioumars Heidari, commander of the ground forces of the army; and Amir Hatami, Minister of Defense and Support of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic, who in recent years have openly and vigorously advocated for a more Khamenei- and IRGC-friendly army.

Abdorrahim Mousavi, commander-in-chief of the Iranian army

The whole process, in the span of three decades, has increasingly stripped the army of its existential philosophy and practical functionality as the classic defense force of Iran. I would argue that based on that background and approach, if President Trump wanted to adopt a more strict position on Iran, in addition to the IRGC he could also designate the Islamic Republic’s army as a “terrorist force.” As such, the fact that during the past three decades many have set their eyes on the army to stage a coup against the system indeed proves to be wishful thinking. I have said many times that if the SS and the Wehrmacht staged a coup against Hitler, and if the Red Army staged one against Stalin and Brezhnev, the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian Army would also stage a coup against the Supreme Leader.

One technical point should be considered here, which is, during the modern history of Iran, the army has always been an arm of the system in power; and as such very rarely has the army taken action against the government in Iran. In other words, the Iranian army is not the Turkish or the Egyptian armies that have almost always maintained a relatively independent structure and system of command from the civil government. It is for this reason that we see the army stages only one fully-fledged coup in the history of contemporary Iran, and that is the Coup of March 1920 that brought Reza Khan to power, who himself virtually created the modern military system as the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty. The notorious “coup” of August 1953 against Mohammad Mossaddegh was not a genuine coup in the technical sense of the term. Finally, Operation Mask or the Nozheh Coup d’état in July 1980 was very limited in scope and was actually nipped in the bud.

In view of this historical/structural background, many should have realized that counting on the army to overthrow the Islamist regime was like betting on a dead horse. Add to this background and structure the fact that the lower-rank army personnel, from NCOs to officers, today have second and third occupations, and sometimes drudge as workers and taxi drivers, to be able to meet the demands of their families’ daily life. Put it another way, this army, which is also constantly under the gaze of the regime’s security apparatus, has neither individual willpower nor independence and collective capacity to stage a coup against the regime.

A meeting of the commanders of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei

As such, the correct and practical way of focusing on the army with the aim of overthrowing the Islamist regime in Iran is to invest in the separation of its body from the system and its integration with the opponents of the regime and the disenchanted people of Iran; and this is very different from the idea of a “coup from inside the system.” As evidence suggests, President Trump intends to do exactly that. As I have said over and over again, the current US administration has the good of the ordinary Iranians in mind, and is determined to do the right thing at any cost after four decades of American inaction towards or miscalculation in regards to the Islamist regime in Iran. May God bless them all!

Views and opinions expressed in the above blog are the authors’ own and not those of ISICRC.

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Reza Parchizadeh

Reza Parchizadeh is a political theorist and analyst. His area of expertise is the Middle East, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. Reza has contributed to a number of international publications and other media worldwide. On October 2, 2018, Reza defended his doctoral dissertation in English Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) under the title “The Recurring Progress of English Political Thought in Shakespeare’s Histories,” with a concentration on political thought, history of ideas, philosophy of history, cultural studies and Shakespeare, and passed it with distinction.

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