Iran's military authority: from lacking barbed wire to destroying Al-Assad

Which governments succeeded in achieving military authority and maintaining Iran's territorial integrity? Was it the Qajar, the Pahlavi, or the Islamic Republic?

One of the matters that Iranians log most in their historical memory and regard as the most important basis of their historical judgments is the question of their country's territorial integrity. Iran lost parts of its native land through the many years under the rule of various dynasties, and this continued until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Preservation of the territorial integrity of Iran was achieved only after the victory of the Revolution in Iran when Iran was emancipated from foreign occupation due to the cessation of foreign dependencies. This article presents a comparative-analytical report on the preservation of the territorial integrity of Iran. The main emphasis here will be on the period of modern Iranian history, i.e. the Pahlavi regime and the Islamic Republic.

The Pahlavi era is, in many ways, a contradictory period in contemporary Iranian history, and this contradiction is more prominent in the question of territorial integrity. The Pahlavi regime had a seemingly significant military power, but it was repeatedly and severely ravaged by foreigners during its rule. As Reza Khan came to power, the number of Iranian army servicemen increased from 30,000 to 120,000. Along with this 400% increase in the size of the army, its budget also increased to more than 50% of the country's total budget (Majd, 2011: 100)[1]. Nevertheless, when the Allies decided to enter Iran, this army could not survive even for one day. As Imam Khomeini articulated, the army failed to resist even for three hours—according to what they themselves had announced[2]. This violation of Iran's territorial integrity also resulted in an evident violation of Iran's political integrity, and the occupiers took control of all the affairs of the country, from food distribution to the suppression of dissidents[3]. The inefficiency of the Pahlavi army in countering the external aggression and defending the country's borders, particularly when huge expenses were imposed on the general public for expanding and equipping this army, made many Iranians angry and hopeless (Ward, 2014: 169)[4].

 Reza Khan had trained the army for internal repression rather than defining a national role and organizing military forces to deal with an external enemy. Therefore, the army didn't even show the least possible defence against aggression.

This passivity was not limited to dealing with the great powers during Reza Khan's period. Even in the face of regional powers such as Turkey, the Pahlavi regime could not protect its borders without giving concessions. The extensive concessions given to Turkey in the case of Little Ararat and the northwestern borders are historical examples of such concessions. Similar conceding of borders are recognizable in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan, which are indicative of Iran's lack of border sovereignty in the past.[5]

During the reign of Mohammad Reza, the son of Reza Khan, Iran appeared to be a sovereign power in the region because of its many equipment purchases from the West. However, the greatest historical loss of Iranian territorial integrity after the Qajar rule occurred during the rule of the second Pahlavi monarch. During the Nixon and Ford administrations overall, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi bought more than $ 12 billion of arms (Crist, 2013: 10)[6]. In 1977 alone, Iran's weaponry dependence on other nations amounted to more than $ 5.5 billion, with $4.5 billion accounting for the U.S. share of these exports to Iran. Over 31% of the country's budget at that time was spent on arms purchases, while the World Bank reported 46% of Iranians were below the poverty line at that time[7]. Nevertheless, the worst shameful events of Iran's 50-year history, namely the separation of Bahrain from Iran, happened at the Second Pahlavi Period. In this affair, the Pahlavi regime, despite opposition from many local nationalist politicians, accepted to relinquish Bahrain under international pressure, especially from Western countries, following a referendum organized by the Western powers.

In view of the issues mentioned above, the examination of the Islamic Republic of Iran's record of preserving its territorial integrity highlights its significance. Right after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran faced one of the problems that lingered on after the Pahlavi era. Border disputes with Iraq, which had not been resolved during the Second Pahlavi era, became Saddam's pretext for invading Iran. Hence, Saddam imposed an eight-year war with the green light from the U.S. and support from more than 80 countries around the world[8].

During this war, Saddam received arms support from most Western countries, including the United States, Britain, France, and Germany. At the same time, almost all Arab countries except Syria and Oman supported Saddam. In this regard, in 2013, Foreign Policy, citing newly leaked CIA documents, wrote: "In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defences. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent."[9] And this is just a small portion of the U.S. and some European countries' support for Saddam against Iran.

After eight years of unequal war, Saddam not only failed to seize even a centimetre of the Iranian territory but also acknowledged his weakness by accepting the Security Council resolution on a ceasefire before Iran. The outcome of the war for Iran was that it achieved its first victory in its modern history, and led to the advancement of military capabilities, the preservation of territorial integrity, enhanced its national pride and dignity, and developed an experienced military. For the first time since Qajar's rule until 1990, all international powers and most regional powers together failed to undermine Iran's territorial integrity.

It is noteworthy that during the Iran-Iraq war, not only did Iraq enjoy the full support of the West, the U.S. at its core, but Iran was also sanctioned and couldn't receive the slightest military and non-military assistance from most countries around the world. The scale of the sanctions was so extensive that, according to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, "I said once that we wanted to import barbed wire from abroad. The cargo had to be delivered through the Soviet soil, but the Soviet Union would not allow the cargo to be delivered through their soil in spite of the fact that it was neither a military cargo nor could it be used for aggressive purposes. It was just barbed wire. This shows how many restrictions they had imposed on our country"[10]

Nonetheless, post-Islamic Revolution Iran—that, on the one hand, had based its work on independence in the field of politics and thought, and on the other hand, had experienced eight years of brutal war— fully understood the path to military power and sovereignty passed via blocking out hopes in the superpowers of the world and relying on domestic power and creativity. In this regard, the Islamic Republic of Iran made every effort to achieve military self-sufficiency and independence, and this was perhaps the greatest outcome of the U.S. war executed by Saddam against Iran.

As a result of adopting that approach, Iran has restored and enhanced various military dimensions and has made significant progress especially in the areas of missile power, armoured vehicles, combat helicopters, submarines, and ready-to-serve force training. Accordingly, Military Watch Magazine ranks Iran as the world's 11th military power[11]. The crucial point about the growth of Iran's military power after the Islamic Revolution is that much of this growth has been without reliance on imports and with emphasis on localizing military science and technology. According to the World Bank, Iran's military imports in 2018 were around $4 million, a figure that is very small compared to most countries in the world, as it accounts for 0.01% of the world's total arms imports.

This endogenous growth and authority led Iran to further maintain its successful record of defending its territorial integrity after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. Despite the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan and their aggressive tendencies, the Islamic Republic powerfully determined the borders of its territory for the Taliban, and they were not able-- even temporarily-- to violate Iran's territorial integrity.

Iran's military authority and political independence in the region, like two powerful arms, have given so much dignity to Iran in the region that even if the world powers violate Iran's air, land or sea, they will be reprimanded and punished. Representative examples of this growth and military-political reign of Iran are quite evident in the following cases:


  1. Arresting a number of U.S. soldiers who had whether intentionally or unintentionally trespassed Iran's borders;
  2. Hacking and landing 170 RQ super spy drone in 2011;
  3. Detecting and destroying the expensive and technically-advanced U.S. "Global Hawk" stealth drone in 2019;


And the list goes on.

After ISIS came to power in Iraq and Syria, Iran always reacted to events in a range of 40 km away from its border. Therefore, the ISIS military has never been able to get closer than 40 kilometers to the Iranian border. This shows the real sovereignty of the Iranian military that has not been boasted about and does not come in the form of propaganda.

After ISIS—the terrorist group created by the U.S., as the current U.S. president acknowledged it in his election campaigns—came to power, a wave of horror and murder swept the West Asia region. Country after country was attacked by the terrorist group. Iran's military forces in the region, led by Major-General Qasem Soleimani and other Iranian military commanders, along with Russia and countries invaded by ISIS, engaged and were able to nearly completely rid the region of the US-backed terrorists.

Iran's role in confronting ISIS is so significant and undeniable that even the U.S. media had to admit it. Newsweek published an article entitled, "If Iran weakens, ISIS will rise again." In another example, CNN highlighted this fact, reporting that "Soleimani's role in countering ISIS must be remembered."[12]

The last, and perhaps most prominent manifestation of Iran's territorial integrity is Iran's reaction to the assassination of Major-General Soleimani. Even if the assassination of General Soleimani took place outside the Iranian border, since this noble martyr was an official of Iran and he had travelled to Iraq on an official trip, his martyrdom is considered a violation of Iran's national sovereignty.

Hence, Iran’s response in the form of the attack on the U.S. military base comes as defending Iran's territorial integrity and national sovereignty. It represented an unprecedented attack on the United States and its bases since World War II, during which dozens of U.S. military staff were killed and hundreds were injured—even though the U.S. government tried to hide the number of casualties.



[1] Majd, Mohammad Gholi. Great Britain & Reza Shah: the Plunder of Iran, 1921-1941. University Press of Florida, 2011.

[2] https://bit.ly/393ASQK

[3] https://www.historytoday.com/archive/feature/iran-cold-war-crucible

[4] Ward, Steven R. Immortal: a Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces. Georgetown University Press, 2014.

[5] Bahmani Qajar, Muhammad Ali. Iran's Territorial Integrity: A History of the Borders of Iran. Institute of Political Research and Studies, 2012.

[6] Crist, David. The Twilight War: the Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran. Penguin Books, 2013.

[7] Toufanian, Hassan. Memoirs of former General Hassan Toufanian. Ziba Publishing, 2003.

[8] Islamic Revolution Document Center

[9] https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/

[10] http://english.khamenei.ir/news/5778/Imam-Khamenei-s-anecdote-of-barbed-wire-sanctions-against-Iran

[11] https://militarywatchmagazine.com/forceapp/countries

[12] https://www.newsweek.com/if-iran-falls-isis-may-rise-1475818


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