By Alex Vatanka
To truly appreciate the political standing of Iran’s regular armed forces in today’s Islamic Republic, the key is to take into account the impact of the ongoing and unparalleled internal feud in the top ranks of the regime. The feud, pitching the factions of Supreme Leader Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad against one another in a bitter contest for power, has turned the Artesh into an inescapable entity that neither faction can afford to ignore. Given, however, that Ayatollah Khamenei is the ultimate 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 in Iran.
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 noticeable trend because the Islamist regime has largely sought to ignore or sideline the regular armed forces in the course of the 32-year history of the Islamic Republic. Instead, the Artesh is now periodically put in the front position when the regime in Tehran seeks to brandish its self-declared military capabilities. In contrast, up until recently the Artesh was rarely if ever 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 merely rhetoric and public relations campaigns at the hands of state-run media.
In the Limelight
When it comes to the Iranian armed forces, the Western media’s focus has traditionally been centered on war games and the testing of ballistic missiles carried out by the IRGC, which occurs at least once a year to much fanfare inside Iran. The last few occasions, however, when the Iranian military has made headlines in the West involved not the IRGC but rather the naval branch of the Artesh.
The latest development came in early October, when authorities in Tehran announced that Artesh naval forces had begun patrolling the international waters off the coasts of Somalia and Yemen. The mission was hailed as one of the Islamic Republic’s boldest military steps and one that military and political officials assessed would catapult Iran into the ranks of leading military powers. On October 9, 2011, Rear Admiral Habibullah Sayyari, the commander of the Artesh Navy, declared the force under his command as 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 is uncommon and unquestionably reflects a new phase in the regime’s approach toward the regular forces.
The Artesh senior commanders, for too long demanding attention and respect from a theocratic ruling class that has viewed the regular forces as largely uncommitted to the regime, likely welcome such new high-profile military missions. The drawback, however, is the reputational costs for the Artesh that has hitherto benefitted from having an image in the country as a non-politicized force.
The new bravado of the Artesh, echoing the sort of bluster usually associated with the IRGC, has recently included an announcement by Sayyari in late September 2011 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 close to the US coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
Such far-fetched goals, which scarcely reflects the actual capabilities of the Artesh Navy, do not fit the Artesh’s traditional defense posture — they do, however, fit nicely into the propaganda of the regime in Tehran. Accordingly, the important distinction is that, whereas the military-related propaganda of the Iranian regime has hitherto been centered on the IRGC, Ayatollah Khamenei has evidently opted to involve the Artesh in such indoctrination efforts that are ostensibly also seen to act as deterrence against the West by presenting a united front between Iran’s militaries.
Furthermore, there is little doubt that Khamenei enjoys associating himself with Iran’s military progress and takes credit as the visionary behind policies of self-sufficiency or “khodkafaei.” When Iran launched Jamaran, its first domestically-made destroyer, in February 2010, Ayatollah Khamenei was present at the high-profile launch at the port of Bandar Abbas and repeatedly stressed that it was he who advocated for military production in Iran when the prevailing opinion did not believe Iranian scientists were up to the job. In a predictable stroke, Khamenei cast himself as the visionary 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 lesser status to that of the IRGC might not be immediately apparent. For example, on September 28, 2011, Iran’s 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 Artesh and IRGC navies.
In another recent example, it was an Artesh commander who took the lead in promising new measures to defend the country against external threats. In April 2011, commander of the Artesh’s Ground Forces, Brigadier General Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan, announced that his forces will undergo structural changes and that given that Iran faced a “new phase of threats” it had been decided to construct “new bases and garrisons in many border areas of the country.” Again, the fact that an Artesh commander was left to lead on such an important political-security issue on the national stage was telling.
Recent signs that the Artesh might be handed a bigger and more important role in military affairs were also corroborated with the announcement that ground forces from the Artesh and the IRGC had staged joined operations in northwest Iran in July against PJAK, a militant anti-regime Kurdish group. Although there is hardly any literature in open sources about joint Artesh-IRGC operations after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, their cooperation is assumed during anti-insurgency operations in the restive Baluchistan province and similar cases.
Of some note, however, is the timing of the announcement of joint operations — occurring in the midst of the campaign against PJAK. The politically-influential IRGC has in the past customarily taken the limelight in the realm of military operations, pushing the Artesh to a secondary role. All of a sudden, the Artesh has been placed on an equal footing with the IRGC and involving an important anti-insurgency campaign that IRGC commanders are otherwise known to claim as their exclusive domain.
Sustaining the Momentum
The role of the Artesh and the force’s ongoing transformation is a massively under-covered topic inside Iran. There are hardly any major studies conducted about the force in either the Persian or English languages. Furthermore, there is very little raw data on the present regular armed forces. What is left for the analyst is the monitoring of developments and the hope of uncovering a noticeable trend when it comes to the status of the Artesh in the Islamic Republic.
That and the ability to deduct from the past record and experiences of the Artesh point to the strong likelihood that Ayatollah Khamenei has set about to much more seriously integrate the regular forces into the body of the Islamic Republic. Two clear reasons can be highlighted for such a decision by Khamenei. First, at a time when Iran is continuing to face the distinct possibility of a military conflict with the US and her allies, it can only be expected that the top leader in Tehran would want to consolidate the ranks of the different military branches of the country.
Second, and probably more importantly, it is a decision driven by a fear of insubordination by the Artesh rank-and-file when Khamenei needs them most — for example, in times of internal political turmoil. This was clearly shown to be a factor feared by the regime when reports came out of extensive sympathies for the Green opposition movement in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections and the popular protests that followed.
Whether the rising star of the Artesh can last will depend almost entirely on the perceptions of Khamenei and his cohorts, which at the moment includes the top leadership of the IRGC, about internal and external threats. After all, it was the change in such perceptions that has allowed the Artesh a greater public and operational role.
. “Iran Reiterates Wider Deployment in High Seas,” Fars News, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9007160282.
. “Hozour-e Nezami-e Iran dar Abhay-e Saheliy-e Amrika” [“Iran’s Military Presence in the Coastal Waters of America”], Jamejam Online, http://www.jamejamonline.ir/newstext.aspx?newsnum=100858850359&nc=1.
. “Iran Equips Army, IRGC Naval Forces with New Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles,” Fars News, September, 28, 2011, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9007040361.
. “Commander: Army to Reinvogarte Military Buildup along Iranian Borders,” Fars News, April 12, 2011, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9001231869.