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Analysis | Newfound Status for Iran's Regular Armed Forces

by ALEX VATANKA in Washington, D.C.

22 Nov 2011 05:08Comments
634386639178995139.jpgSupreme Leader puts them on near-equal footing with Revolutionary Guards in apparent bid to build unity, loyalty.

[ analysis ] To fully appreciate the political standing of Iran's regular armed forces, the Artesh, in today's Islamic Republic, the key is to take into account the impact of the ongoing feud at the top ranks of the regime. The feud, pitching the factions of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against one another in a bitter contest for power, means the Artesh is an entity that neither can afford to ignore. Given that Khamenei is the final arbiter, the true commander-in-chief, in Iran's constitutional setup, he appears to be succeeding in his attempts to shape the Artesh with the aim of further consolidating his grip on power.

As Khamenei has set out to appeal to Artesh commanders, as well as the rank-and-file, two developments are evident. First, the Artesh is increasingly idealized by the state-controlled media. This is a noteworthy trend because the regime has largely sought to ignore or sideline the regular armed forces over the Islamic Republic's 32-year history. By contrast, the Artesh is now periodically put in the spotlight when the regime in Tehran seeks to show off its self-declared military capabilities. Until recently, the Artesh had rarely if ever been given the chance to outshine the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its politically favored military counterweight.

Second, there are now a growing number of joint Artesh-IRGC military exercises and operations. This development in particular suggests that Khamenei's efforts to bring the Artesh under his tutelage might go beyond mere rhetoric and public relations campaigns by the state-run media.

In the limelight

When it comes to the Iranian armed forces, the Western media has traditionally focused on war games and the IRGC's testing of ballistic missiles, which occurs at least once a year to much fanfare within Iran. On the last few occasions, however, that the Iranian military has made headlines in the West, it was not the IRGC that was involved, but rather the naval branch of the Artesh.

The most recent development came in early October, when it was announced that Artesh naval forces had begun patrolling international waters off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen. The mission was hailed by both military and political officials as one that would catapult Iran into the ranks of the world's leading military powers. On October 9, Rear Admiral Habibullah Sayyari, head of the Artesh Navy, declared his command a regime vanguard and said that "Iran's naval forces are considered strategic." Sayyari further stated that the Artesh Navy's presence in "international waters will act to defend the policies of the Islamic Republic." This sort of rhetoric and political boastfulness by a senior Artesh commander has been rare and unquestionably reflects a new phase in the regime's approach toward the regular forces.

Senior Artesh commanders, long hungry for attention and respect from a theocratic ruling class that has viewed the regular forces as relatively uncommitted to the regime, likely welcome such new high-profile military missions. The drawback, however, is the reputational cost for the Artesh, which has benefited from its image within Iran as a nonpoliticized force.

The Artesh's new bravado, echoing the sort of bluster usually associated with the IRGC, was exemplified by Sayyari's announcement in late September that the Artesh Navy plans to "establish a powerful presence near the marine borders of the United States" and that Iranian naval forces would be deployed in the Atlantic Ocean close to the U.S. coast.

Such far-fetched goals, which scarcely reflect the Navy's actual capabilities, do not fit the Artesh's traditional defense posture; they do, however, make a nice fit with the Tehran regime's propaganda efforts. Whereas military-related propaganda has hitherto been centered on the IRGC, Khamenei has evidently opted to involve the Artesh closely as well. At least ostensibly, this is seen as amplifying deterrence of the West through the presentation of a united front among Iran's military forces.

Furthermore, Khamenei evidently enjoys associating himself with Iran's military progress and takes credit as the visionary behind the policy of self-sufficiency, or khodkafaei. When Iran launched Jamaran, its first domestically constructed destroyer, in February 2010, the Supreme Leader was present at the high-profile event at the port of Bandar Abbas and repeatedly stressed that it was he who advocated for military production when the prevailing opinion was that Iranian scientists were not up to the job. In a predictable stroke, Khamenei cast himself as the prophetic leader, if not the savior, of the Iranian people, while handing over one of Iran's biggest military production achievements to the Artesh.

There have been a number of other recent cases where the Artesh has been exalted to the point where its long-time subordinate status is hardly apparent. For example, on September 28, Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, himself a senior IRGC commander, made an important symbolic gesture when he announced the simultaneous delivery of new anti-ship cruise missiles to both the Artesh and IRGC navies.

In another case, it was an Artesh commander who took the lead in promising new measures to defend the country against external threats. This past April, the chief of the Artesh's ground forces, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, announced that his command would undergo structural changes and, given that Iran faced a "new phase of threats," the decision had been made to construct "new bases and garrisons in many border areas of the country." The fact that an Artesh commander was tabbed to take the lead on the national stage concerning such an important political-security issue was telling.

Recent signs that the Artesh might be handed a more significant role in military affairs were also corroborated with the announcement that ground forces from the Artesh and IRGC had staged joint operations in northwest Iran in July against the militant Party of Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK). Although there is hardly any public record of joint Artesh-IRGC operations since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, it has been assumed that they cooperate in anti-insurgency efforts in restive Baluchistan province and elsewhere in the country's ethnic-minority-dominated border regions. Of some note, however, is the timing of the announcement, which occurred in the midst of the campaign against PJAK. The IRGC has customarily taken the glory in the operational realm, relegating the Artesh to a secondary role. All of a sudden, the Artesh was placed on an equal footing with the IRGC and involved in the sort of anti-insurgency campaign to which IRGC commanders have long laid virtually exclusive claim.

Sustaining the momentum

The role of the Artesh and its ongoing transformation is a topic that has been almost entirely ignored, including within Iran. There are hardly any major studies devoted to the force in either the Persian or English languages. Furthermore, there is very little current, reliable data on the regular armed forces. What is left for the analyst is to monitor developments and hope to uncover significant trends affecting the Artesh's status in the Islamic Republic.

That and deduction from the historical record point to the strong likelihood that Khamenei has set about to much more seriously integrate the regular armed forces both with the IRGC and the ruling system as a whole. There appear to be two primary motivations for this:

First, at a time when Iran faces the heightened possibility of armed conflict with the United States and its allies, it seems natural to want to consolidate the ranks of the country's different military branches.

Second, and probably more importantly, there is the fear of insubordination among the Artesh rank and file when Khamenei needs them most -- for example, in times of internal political turmoil. This factor was clearly demonstrated when reports emerged of Artesh troops' widespread sympathy for the opposition Green Movement in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections and the popular protests that followed.

Whether the Artesh's star continues to rise will depend almost entirely on how Khamenei and his camp -- which, at least for now, includes the IRGC's top leadership -- perceive the internal and external threats faced by the Islamic Republic. After all, it is changes in just those perceptions that have led to the Artesh assuming a greater public profile and operational role.

Alex Vatanka, a native of Iran, is an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He is also a senior fellow at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School. A different version of this article was first published as a Viewpoint by the Middle East Institute on November 18, 2011.

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