On September 21, 2009, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a book discussion with author Steven Ward, Senior Intelligence Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency, on his new book Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces. Introductory remarks were given by Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, who chaired the event.

In Immortal, Ward presents a comprehensive historical overview and analysis of Iran’s armed forces from ancient Persia to the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties, and through the Islamic Republic. Given the topical relevance of Iran and its military in current affairs, Ward focused the discussion primarily on Iran’s modern armed forces including the National Armed Forces, Revolutionary Guard, and Basij paramilitary organization. In addition, Ward offered insight into the lesser known history of US involvement in Iran during the twentieth century in order to highlight possible lessons on current quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ward discussed how the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) modernized Iran’s military. Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941) was at the helm of Iran’s modern military reforms. The First World War, said Ward, signaled the advent of a new, modern age in military and war, leading to the set-up of the first Iranian Air Force and Navy. Military reforms were next accelerated under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-79). According to Ward, several major events, such as the Second World War (1945), the declaration of the Truman doctrine (1947), the Soviet-Communist spread in Southeast Asia (1952) and the impending Cold War drew the United States and Iran into closer cooperation with one another. Various US military agencies, such as the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), were established to foster the budding US-Iran alliance, also in effort to promote democracy and secure regions deemed vulnerable to communist influences.

Ward then gave his five reasons why Iran’s armed forces, unlike Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, was able to steadily expand over the twentieth century: first, Iran did not have to worry about armed external threats; second, Iran was geared more toward institutional building than short-term augmentation of military capacity; third, Iran’s relatively stable infrastructure and personnel resources, set up with US and British aid, fostered the Shah’s long-term developmental goals; fourth, Iranian officers tended to be better educated and bilingual (in English); fifth, Iran has never lacked manpower.

US military assistance to Iran heavily expanded during the 1970s. In a decade, Iran’s military had doubled in size, expanding from 200,000 armed forces to over 400,000, thereby becoming the largest armed force in the Middle East. Under the Shah, these forces were mainly used to settle internal tribal conflicts and skirmishes along the Iraqi border. Nevertheless, Iran’s seemingly unshakable military “virtually collapsed” in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The United States, Ward contended, had essentially helped the Shah “sow the seeds to his own destruction.” Moreover, he added, the United States became complacent about Iran’s stability prior to the Islamic Revolution.

In closing, Ward made the point that, despite command and supply problems, Iranian soldiers “demonstrate high levels of bravery” and have enjoyed various military successes. Ward believes that the present administration needs to “think more about securing contingencies” in Iran as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. “It isn’t how many soldiers you train,” he concluded, “but how you train them, and how effectively resources are used.”

Drafted by Nader Mehran on behalf of the Middle East Program