Marine Corps Intelligence Activity

Cultural Intelligence for Military Operations:




Marine Corps Intelligence Activity
Cultural Intelligence for Military Operations: Iran




Cultural Field Guide on Iran





 Ethnic Groups
 Cultural Themes
         Historical Themes
         Persian Elitism
         Attitudes toward the United States
         Tribal Identities
         Citizenship and Nationalism
         Language in Iran
         Annual Calendar and Holidays
         Business and Leisure Customs
         Family Structures
 Societal Framework
         Social Structure and Authority Figures
         View of the State and the Rule of Law
 Military Culture

         The Artesh, the IRGC, and the Basij
         The IRGC-Clerical-Bazaar Connection


 Cultural Intelligence Studies
         Persians in Iran
         Azerbaijanis in Iran
         Kurds in Iran
         Arabs in Iran
         Lur/Bakhtiari in Iran
         Baluch in Iran
         Qashqai in Iran


 Military Culture and Society in Iran
        Key Points

        Cultural Style of Warfare
                Counter Insurgency
                Internal Security
                Foreign Cultural Influences
                Attitudes Toward Foreign Military Assistance
                        West-toxification: A plague from the West
        Cultural Influences on Military Effectiveness
                Doctrine and Strategy
                Operational Planning
                Small Unit Skills
                Logistics and Maintenance
                Unit Cohesion and Morale
                Technology and Innovation
                Culture of Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons

        Culture and Rank
                General Officers
                Junior Officers
                Noncommissioned Officers (NCO)
        Identities Within the Military
                Socioeconomic Class
        Military Values
                Treatment of Prisoners
                The Karbala Metaphor

        Military Culture of Organizations and Institutions
                Service Branches
                National Police

        Civic Values and Military Culture
                Authority and Loyalty
                Nationalism, Patriotism, and Citizenship
                Attitudes Toward Iranian Exiles and Diaspora
                Military Service and Social Status
                Ethics and Discipline
                Bravery, Courage, and Cowardice
                Victory and Defeat

        Role in the State and Society
                Military Authority and Civilian Authority
                Relationship to Civilians
                Military and the Economy
                Military and Politics
                Military and Religious Institutions




(U) Ethnic Groups

(U) Summary

This section describes the identity of all ethnic groups in Iran, including the Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchs, Lurs, Bakhtiaris, Qashqais, and smaller Turkic Groups.

(U) Persians make up the dominant ethnic group in Iran, representing about 35 million people or about half of Iran’s total population. Many Iranian Persians do not recognize themselves as having an ethnic identity aside from their Iranian identity, even though they are aware that there are minority groups in Iran that differ from them linguistically, religiously, or culturally. Persians consider themselves the political, economic, cultural, and geographical center of the country and take pride in their political superiority and cultural sophistication. For many, Iran is Persia and Persia is Iran. Persians speak Persian, also known as Farsi, an Indo-European language. Since many of Iran's ethnic minorities speak languages that are close to Persian, it has been easy to assimilate minority groups into the Persian identity. Persians live throughout Iran, but are concentrated in the central provinces of Tehran, Qom, Markazi, Isfahan, Kerman, Samnan, Yazd, Far, Hamadan, Chahar Mahali va Bakhtiari, and Khorasan.


(U) Azerbaijanis (also known as Azeris), ethnic Turks, are the second largest ethnic group in Iran. They number about 20 million, concentrated in northwestern Iran, Tehran, Tabriz, and Ardebil. Many are bilingual in Persian and Azeri and practice Shi’ism. Azerbaijanis consider themselves an integral part of Iran, contributing to Iran’s cultural, political, and military development. They are wary of attempts to impose the Persian language, but are proud to be part of Iran, although there is growing contact between Azerbaijan in Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan.


(U) The Bakhtiari and Lur are Persian-speaking Shi’ites who maintain ethnic identities separate from Persians because of their historically tribal lifestyles. They number 200,000 and 500,000, respectively, mainly in the rural Zagros mountain provinces. Indo-Aryan ethnicities have dark, almond-shaped eyes, black, wavy hair, oval faces and a pale olive complexion lighter than those of Arabs.


(U) The Qashqai of the Fars province and Turkomen of northeastern Iran are ethnically and linguistically related to the Azerbaijanis, but are nomadic and tribal. Neither have aspirations for political independence, but fear that the imposition of government control could destroy their language and culture. They number about 500,000 in each group. They are more Mongoloid in appearance, with darker skin and higher cheekbones than Persians, although generations of intermarriage have made many Qashqai indistinguishable from other ethnic groups.


(U) Three major groups in Iran are affiliated with nationalist movements that have, at various points, imagined succession from Iran: the Baluch, the Arabs, and the Kurds. The Baluch are doubly marginal to the Iranian state because they do not speak Persian and are Sunni Muslims. They number between 1.5 and 2 million and are concentrated in the southeastern provinces of Sistan va Baluchistan, Hormozgan, and Kerman. Their low level of socioeconomic modernization means that only a small minority of Baluch are educated. Many educated Baluchs live in exile outside Iran and aspire to unite with Baluchs in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Baluch are Middle Eastern in appearance, with dark eyes and prominent noses.


(U) There are about 4 to 7 million Kurds in Iran, mainly in the western provinces of Azerbayjan-i Gharb-i, Kurdistan, and Kermanshah. Iran's Kurdish population is 90 percent Shi'a, 8 percent Sunni, and the remainder are Christian and Yazidi. The Kurds have greater levels of education and development than the Baluch. The dominant attitude among Iranian Kurds has been to seek cultural and political autonomy within the structure of the Iranian state. Yet at different times, Iranian Kurds have sought unity with their brethren in Turkey and Iraq to form a greater Kurdish state.


(U) The Arabs in Iran are in a similar situation as the Kurds. Estimates on their numbers range from 1.5 to 5 million, with the Ahwazi Arabs (those living in Khuzistan) speaking an Iraqi dialect and the Bandari Arabs (those in Bushehr and Hormozagan) speaking a Gulf Arabic dialect. They are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Persians. Though most Arabs in Iran are Shi’a, most Arabs in the greater Middle East are Sunni. They too have shown some desire to join the pan-Arab struggle and to break away from Iran, but for the most part they have sought greater accommodation and political representation within Iran.


Ethnic groups in Iran Group





Connection to Outside State

Connection to an Outside Ethnic Group


Farsi (Persian)


35 million

central plateau; major cities




Azeri Turkish


20 million

Northwest; major cities





Shi’a (10%); Sunni (90%)

4 to 7 million

Near Turkish and Iraqi border; Khorasan





Shi’a (60%); Sunni (40%)

1.5 to 5 million

Khuzestan; Persian Gulf littoral






1.5 to 2 million





Turkish dialect







Turkish dialect


400,000 to 600,000

Southern Zagros




Persian dialect







Persian dialect








(U) Ethnic Groups in Iran


(U) Map of Major Iranian Ethnic Groups




Map of major Iranian ethnic group


(U) Cultural Themes

(U) Historical Themes

This section describes the periods in time that are important to the different ethnic groups in Iran.

(U) Several historical and cultural themes emerged in the course of Iranian history: first is the story of Persian imperial grandeur. Persians believe that their ancestors, beginning with Cyrus and Darius in the 4th century B.C., and on through the high Zoroastrian Sassanian empire (224 to 641 A.D.), were the cultural and political marvels of their days.

(U) Contemporary Persians read about this age of triumphant kings and heroes in the 11th century epic, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi. Even though defeated militarily by Alexander the Great and the Muslim armies, respectively, Iranians believe that their culture gave civility to these otherwise barbarian armies. A modern equivalent to this notion is the ongoing struggle of urbane Persians to bring order and civilization to tribal and nomadic peoples.

(U) To be Iranian, in the eyes of many Persians, is to accede to the superiority of the Persian’s elaborate literary and bureaucratic culture. Azerbaijanians, the most urban ethnic minority in Iran, have done their best to become Iranian. They adopted much of the the Persians’ view of Iranian heritage and identify themselves as partners in the civilizing mission of Iran. Other groups in Iran, like the Kurds and Lurs, also feel that they have participating in this Iranian national mission at points, but they have also expressed anxiety about being dominated by the Persians.

(U) Many consider the reign of the Safavid dynasty (1502 to 1737) as another Iranian golden age. The Safavid introduced Shi’a Islam to Iran, a crucial element of Iranian identity. Shah Abbas (ruled 1588 to 1629) repelled Ottoman and Uzbek invasions and used the common devotion to Shi’ism to incorporate ethnic minorities into the Iranian state.

(U) By adopting Shi’ism and propagating the myths of the Persian kings, Iran became religiously and culturally distinct from all other Muslim states. Even many of Iran’s minorities see Shah Abbas’ reign as a model period because he delegated power to local tribal leaders in return for political and military support, thus creating a precedent for ethnic autonomy in Iran. The Azerbaijanis, in particular, believe that the Safavids, who were originally of Turkic extraction, opened the door for Azerbaijanis to assume a role as political leaders in Iran equal with the ethnic Persians.

(U) Painting of a Safavid Prince


Painting of a Safavid prince

(U) The period following Shah Abbas’ death, however, is perceived as one of economic decline and political disorder, aggravated by the arrival of Portuguese, British, and Russian imperialism. Tribal minority groups see this as their heyday, when they were able to run their affairs without the intrusion of the central state and play off the outside powers against the central state. The Persians, on the other hand, see this period as a disgrace. They see the shahs as ruling arbitrarily and ineffectively, unable to enforce internal order or to defend Iran’s interests. They feel that Iran’s pride was sacrificed and resources, particularly oil, were squandered to benefit Western powers.

(U) In 1908, a coalition of diverse social groups united to force the Shah to accept a representative constitution and limited government. The Iranians take pride in this being the earliest constitution in the Middle East, a testament to the political ingenuity and independence of the Iranian people. They believe, however, that Western powers working in conjunction with reactionary forces in Iran subverted the liberal constitutional movement. Ultimately, they blame these two groups for dooming the constitution and opening to the door to more rule by despotic monarchs. A similar pattern was repeated in 1953, when the popularly-elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq was overthrown by a CIA-backed military coup. Again, Western powers and their reactionary allies inside Iran destroyed Iran’s best hope for freedom.

(U) In 1921, Reza Pahlavi, a colonel in the Russian-trained Cossack brigade, led a coup and established the Pahlavi dynasty of Shahs. He and his son, Mohammed Reza (ruled 1941 to 1979), are seen as the most cunning and illegitimate of all Iranian rulers. Both tried to associate their rule and the Iranian state with Persian ethnicity and secular heritage, purposefully excluding the religious and multi-ethnic dimensions of Iranian identity. They forced minority groups to enlist in the military and adopt sedentary life-styles. Many Iranians perceived Reza and Mohammed Reza as trying to impose a foreign culture upon them operated contrary to Islam and authentic Iranian traditions.

(U) Ayatollah Khomeini


Ayatollah Khomeini

(U) By the 1970s, resentment against Mohemmed Reza Shah ran high in a number of different social circles. Clerics despised the Shah’s secularism, the traditional landlords and merchants felt the Shah undercut their economic interests, leftists and students hated his alliance with the United States and Israel, and minority tribal groups saw him as destroying their heritage by forcing them to adopt sedentary lifestyles and learn Persian. Radical clerics, like Ayatollah Khomeini, came to lead a broad-based popular opposition movement against the Shah, which included nearly every Iranian social class.

(U) In 1979, popular protests forced the Shah from power and Khomeini returned to lead the new Islamic Republic of Iran. The ethnic minorities that had expected better treatment from the new regime were disappointed, however, as Khomeini established a political system dominated by Persian clerics. Baluch, Azerbaijanis, Qashqai, Kurds, and Arabs along with other segments of Iranian society engaged in uprisings in the early years of the Islamic Republic. Persians saw this as particularly treacherous because these internal disturbances coincided with the Iraqi invasion in 1980. The Persians believed that these ethnic minorities were disloyal to Iran and blamed the United States for instigating the war and the internal unrest.

(U) Everyone in Iran realizes that whoever controls the sale of Iranian oil possesses enormous economic and political power. Oil became a crucial component of Iran’s economy in the late 1800s. Many Iranians see the West’s exploitation of Iranian oil as symbolic of the West’s exploitation of Iran. Nationalizing oil was a crucial issue during the Mossadeq movement in the 1950s and the 1979 Revolution. While Ayatollah Khomeini did nationalize the oil industry, the beneficiary of the oil sales is still the Iranian state. In a mirror image of the general Iranian perception of the West’s exploitation of Iranian oil, Iranian Arabs see the state’s exploitation of oil resources, which are mainly located in their home regions, as indicative of the inequalities in ethnic relations. All of Iran’s ethnic minorities demand more equitable distribution of resources from the central government.

(U) Oil: Key to the Iranian Economy



Oil: key to the Iranian economy

(U) The cultural division of labor divides urban and rural Iranians. Urban Persians and the Azerbaijanis hold the most lucrative and prestigious positions in the public sector, in business, and in industry. Historically, minorities like Christians and Jews occupied specific niche roles in the Iranian economy, particularly as merchants and traders, but this function has reduced drastically in recent decades. Today the Iranian state is one of the primary sources of employment in the country. Rural Iranians, by contrast, are relegated to herding, smuggling, small scale farming, manual labor, and selling handicrafts. These goods and services are sold at very low prices to Persian merchants in the bazaar. The merchants resell the goods in larger cities at a profit. Many urban Iranians believe that the rural villages are only good to provide foodstuffs to the city, but that nothing of cultural value is produced outside the city. To city-dwellers, these rural folk are dim-witted, illiterate, and uncivilized. To rural folk, city-dwellers are greedy, effeminate, and weak.

(U) Attitudes


(U) Persian Elitism

This section describes the attitudes and actions of ethnic groups toward other ethnic groups.(U) Most Persians do not have a sense of their ethnic identity as being separate from Iranian national identity. This means that they do not call themselves Persians, but simply Iranian. They believe that their superior culture and civilization entitles them to rule Iran. From their perspective, others are primitive tribal barbarians who should adopt urban culture, the Persian language, and Shi’ism. Only in so doing can they become truly Iranian. Azerbaijanis have acceded to this vision and closely associate themselves with Iran's civilizing mission, although they want to retain their linguistic and cultural heritage.

(U) The other ethnic groups have not accepted the Persian perspective as readily. Therefore, they are suspected of seccessionist ambitions that undermine Iran’s unity. Neighboring states like Turkey, Iraq, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan, are seen as vassals, at best, or as outright enemies, at worst.

(U) Attitudes Toward the United States

This section describes the attitudes and actions of ethnic groups toward other ethnic groups.

(U) Many Iranians believe that foreign forces, both neighboring states, as well as superpowers like the United States, Russia, and Britain, are complicit in attempts to weaken Iran. Many Iranians see an American hand, coupled with a Jewish-Baha’i conspiracy, behind every misfortune that befalls Iran. To religious Iranians in the clerical establishment and the “children of the revolution” who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States is the Great Satan, an eternal foe to Islam and Iran. They believe that the United States instigated Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 as well as the subsequent ethnic disturbances.

(U) Still, younger middle- and upper-class Iranians like American consumer goods and admire aspects of American culture. Older Iranians also have fond memories of contact with the United States from the 1960s and 1970s, including access to the best in technology and education.

(U) Tribal Identities

This section describes the attitudes and actions of ethnic groups toward other ethnic groups.



(U) Baluch Woman



Baluch woman

(U) The smaller ethnic minorities, including the Qashqai, the Bakhtiari, and the Lur, object to the imposition of urban Persian culture upon them. They regard Persians as duplicitous, arrogant, and effeminate. Their main demand is for some kind of autonomy within Iran.

(U) For the Kurds, the Baluch, and the Arabs, who have ethnic kin across the border, cultural autonomy is a minimal demand, complete secession a maximal one. Furthermore, they think that they deserve an equal role in governing Iran as the Persians have. These groups also have ambivalent attitudes toward the United States. On the one hand, they are deeply skeptical because of the U.S. history of supporting autocratic regimes in Tehran. On the other hand, they see the United States as a possible ally in the struggle against the current regime.


(U) Citizenship and Nationalism

This section explains citizenship and nationalism perceptions in Iran.

(U) Two different strands are present in Iranian nationalism: the first focuses on the importance of Iran as the geographical vatan (homeland) for diverse communities. Anyone with roots in Iranian soil is necessarily and equally Iranian. An alternative notion of nationalism focuses on millat (citizenship), defining belonging culturally, so that only those who adhered to the norms and customs of urban Persians are considered fully Iranian.



(U) Voting after the 1979 Revolution



Voting after the 1979 Revolution

(U) Notions of belonging based purely on racial or blood ties are not particularly strong in Iranian nationalism and have been largely discredited because of some believe that Muhammed Reza Pahlavi was trying to move Iran toward this type of nationalism. However, negative stereotypes about Arabs, Turks, Africans, and others are still prevalent in Iranian society.

(U) Language


(U) Language in Iran

This section explains the different languages in Iran.

(U) The ability to read and write in Persian is a mark of civility and distinction in Iranian culture. The fact that Persian has persevered as a language, and is spoken not just in Iran but in many neighboring countries, is considered a testament to Iran’s ancient glory and heritage and the superiority of Persian culture.

(U) The ability to recite the great works of Persian literature, like the poetry of Hafez or Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, is a sign of high culture. Persian is an Indo-European language that has assimilated the Arabic alphabet and numerous Arabic and Turkish words into its vocabulary. Persian has a very large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar, making it an easy-to-use and easy-to-learn lingua franca. Members of ethnic minorities are expected to read and write Persian fluently in order to attain social rank. Bakhtiari and Lurs are native speakers of Persian, but are frequently illiterate, and thus perceived as not fully Persian.

(U) Hafez’s Tomb, Shiraz


Hafez’s tomb, Shiraz

(U) Azerbaijani is a Turkic language written in Arabic script. It is the first language of Iranian Azerbaijanis, many of whom are fluent in Persian as well. Its literary history is an as extensive as Persian, though, and some Azerbaijanis and Persians consider Azerbaijani to be an inferior language to Persian. However, Turkish is growing in popularity among Azerbaijanis.

(U) The Qashqai and Turkomen speak related southern Turkic dialects, but have no written script, since they are generally illiterate. They often speak Persian as a second language.

(U) Kurdish is an Indo-European language written in Arabic script. It is used by Iranian Kurds, although there are significant differences among the Kurdish dialects.

(U) Baluch is also Indo-European and fairly close to Persian. It is used by the Baluch, but it is seldom written down because few Baluch are literate.

(U) The Arabs in Iran speak two main dialects of Arabic: those of Khuzistan speak the Iraqi dialect and those of Bushehr and Hormozgan speak the Gulf dialect.

(U) Customs

(U) Annual Calendar and Holidays

This section explains the calendar and holidays in Iran.

(U) Iranians use three different calendars, representing three different strands in Iranian culture, and commemorate three different types of holidays: first, those derived from Shi’a Islam, which entail bitter expressions of grief and outrage over the murder of Imams Ali and Husayn and other Shi’ite martyrs; second, holidays derived from the ancient Persian calendar, like Nowruz, the ancient festival of the Spring New Year; and finally, holidays derived from the secular Western calendar.

(U) Religious Iranians have a great sensitivity toward the role of the calendar, bitterly remembering the Pahlavi attempts to replace the Muslim calendar with one dated from the founding of the pre-Islamic Persian empire during their anti-Islamic cultural campaigns. Religious holidays are kept on the lunar Islamic calendar, so every year they come at a different date on the Western calendar.

(U) Among Islamic holidays, the month of Muharram is the most significant in Iran. Muharram marks the period of mourning for the martyred Imam Husayn. Muharram culminates during the period of Ashura with passion plays and processionals. Many Iranians undertake pilgrimages to the shrines in Mashhad or Qom or to the Iraqi shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala, Samarra, and Kazimayn during this period. Unlike Sunni Muslims, Iranians regard Ramadan as an austere occasion to commemorate the murdered Imam Ali. During Ramadan, most Iranians have only small, solemn meals at night.

(U) During all Islamic holidays, government-appointed preachers give sermons urging Iranians to emulate the examples of the Shi’a martyrs and make sacrifices for the sake of religion. These speeches are mixed with explicit political themes.

(U) Nowruz, in contrast, is the festival of spring and the new year of the ancient Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on 21 March. It is considered a truly Iranian national holiday, since it predates the arrival of Islam. Both Muslim and non-Muslim Iranians share in its celebration, as do many ethnic groups in the surrounding region. During Nowruz, families gather for camping, bonfires, dancing, and sharing meals.

(U) Since 1979, the Islamic Republic has instituted a number of civic holidays marking important events in modern Iranian history, such as the day of the seizure of the American embassy and the commemoration of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. These are occasions for public rallies, military parades, and political speeches.

(U) Business and Leisure Customs

This section describes the business and leisure customs in Iran.

(U) Iranians have a lax sense of punctuality in both business and leisure. Hosts offer their guests tea or a small meal, but often insist that the guest take more. Iranian custom requires the host to flatter the guest with compliments and courtesy, a system known as ta’arof.

(U) It is expected that the guest will refuse most of these offerings unless the host is extremely persistent. Exaggerating one's subservience is a common tactic used to force a superior to grant a favor or request. If a guest accepts these offerings, it is expected that he will reciprocate later. In tribal societies, the status of being a host is so prestigious that hosts will often invite guests to come to meetings with them in order to show off their importance.

(U) Iranian business culture is heavily influence by the customs of the traditional bazaar, similar to the Arab souk. Business seems to be conducted leisurely, with the seller flattering the potential buyer, offering him food and drink, and talking about anything but prices. A seller’s common response to a first inquiry is that he could never sell such a low quality good to such a high quality person. Sometimes the seller will offer to simply give something away. In reality, however, both parties are shrewdly sizing each other up during these pleasantries. Offering something for free is just a preliminary step; the buyer is expected to demand the right to pay the seller.

(U) The business community is traditionally very powerful in Iran and has close family and commercial ties with the clerical establishment. Many times contracts are purely verbal, or if written down, are adjudicated by religious courts and enforced by the Basij or religious vigilantes rather than by the civil courts and police.

(U) Lifestyle


(U) Family Structures

This section describes the role of family in Iran and the value placed on family unit.


(U) Iranians place heavy emphasis on their nuclear and extended family ties. The family is sacred; an individual can express his true feelings without regard to stifling hierarchical deference and formality that dominates normal life. Betraying family secrets to an outsider is a grave violation that result in catastrophe. Men are idealized as heads of the family and primary wage earners. Women are seen as homemakers and mothers.


(U) Tribal Iranian Woman



Tribal Iranian Woman

(U) Both men and women are expected to adhere to the strict norms of Islamic modesty. For men, this entails wearing plain, long pants, and shirts that cover both the chest and arms. For women, modesty typically entails a hejab (veil) to cover her hair and possibly a chador (a long cloak). Some see the chador as a symbol of oppression and patriarchy and have developed ways to subvert it, such as by wearing it very loosely so it constantly slips off. Others see it as enabling Muslim women to participate in modern professions like teaching, law, medicine, and politics without the risk of being shamed. Rural and tribal women find the hejab and chador an urban custom. Unlike urban women, women in rural areas are often more involved in manual labor, like weaving or farming, which makes the chador impractical.

(U) Meals

This section describes the types of things Iranians eat and drink.

(U) For breakfast, Iranians eat flatbreads with jam, butter, cheese, and cream. Dinner and lunch take hours to prepare. Rice is the main food of these meals, supplemented by flatbread, dairy products, and seasoned lamb, beef, fish, or fowl, and stew. Iranians use mint, dill, parsley, and basil extensively in their food. Dates, apricots, and rice pudding are desserts. Iranians drink tea and doogh, a yogurt drink. In rural areas, much less meat and more dairy is eaten.

(U) Iranians believe that different types of food can influence a person's personality. “Hot” or expensive foods, like lamb and rice, make a person energetic and lively, but can also cause him to become too aggressive. Hot foods must be balanced with “cold” foods, like beef and bread, that can calm a person's spirits.

(U) Religious Iranians adhere to a very strict interpretation of halal, the Muslim dietary code. This entails eating no food that has any contact with pig products, alcohol, or that has been touched by Jews, Christians, or dogs. All meat must be slaughtered in a ritually proscribed manner.


(U) Clothing

This section describes the clothes worn by different ethnic groups in Iran.


(U) Urban Iranian Women



Urban Iranian Women

(U) In cities, Iranian men wear Western-style pants and button-down shirts. Neckties are seen as symbols of Western decadence and only non-conformists wear them. Urban women wear chadors (long black cloaks) in public, although many women have found ways to defy religious standards by wearing it very loosely.

(U) In rural areas, people mix modern and traditional tribal dress because it is more functional for outdoor life. Different ethnic groups have different traditional headgear, but they generally wear looser fitting clothes, cloaks, and tunics. Women in rural areas keep their hair covered with scarves, but don’t wear a veil unless they must.

(U) Societal Framework


(U) Social Structure and Authority Figures

Social structures and authority figures in Iran.

(U) Iranian culture is extremely hierarchical, with elaborate rituals of courtesy and deference built in to nearly every social situation. A person’s age, origin, level of education, wealth, and gender all contribute to one social rank. Different forms of address, different seating arrangements, and different manners of greeting are just some of the ways social standing is established.

(U) While inferiors profess subservience and deference to superiors, and superiors make gestures of beneficence and charity to inferiors, both sides tend to distrust the other. This distrust can paralyze collective social undertakings, as every individual is afraid of being sacked by a superior, swindled by a peer, or deposed by an underling.

(U) Seminarians in Qom



Seminarians in Qom

(U) In the midst of this social hierarchy, Iranian culture stresses true devotion to two different social groups: the immediate family, which includes parents, grandparents, and children, and the dowreh, a circle of close peers of the same sex. Dowrehs can form among schoolmates, those who serve in the same military unit, or those who frequent the same coffee house. A person can reveal his true emotions and views without concern for the stifling rules of flattery and social deference that dominate everyday life within these two social structures. Because of their intimacy, the family and the dowreh also become the primary networks for patronage and group advancement. A member of a dowreh or a family is expected to advance those within his group and expects that any advancement someone else gains will be shared by others in the group.

(U) The dowreh and the family are crucial for social mobility. While Iran has an extremely hierarchical society, individuals can rise to prominence through cunning and bravery. Iranians respect diligence, persistence, and hard work as ways to get ahead, but they also believe that conspiracy or intrigue through the dowreh or family ties can lead to advancement.

(U) The three traditional avenues for advancement are the clergy, the military, and business. The Islamic Republic has created a nexus between these three groups, particularly between the clergy, which is at the regime’s core, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and the traditional urban bazaar. Different types of relationships, by blood, by marriage, by peerage (dowreh), or by mutual interest (i.e. patron-client relationships) exist in this nexus, fostering the ascendancy of the urban lower-middle class and particularly those who were active in the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988).

(U) Rural and tribal Iranians place more emphasis on loyalty within the family and kin network and less on the construction of dowreh ties. They are more reliant on relationships substantiated by blood than on intimate friendship. It is this reliance on a tribal khan, who is related by blood to all members of a social unit, which differentiates the peripheral tribal groups from urban Iranian culture.


(U) Views of the State and the Rule of Law

Describes the rule of law and attitudes toward the state.

(U) Persians, and to some extent Azerbaijanis, make little distinction between the interests of the Iranian state and their interests as an ethnic group. They use family and dowreh patronage connections to get advantages such as deferential military appointment, admittance to the university, and special subsidies because they distrust the state’s corruption and inefficiency, not because it is ethnically or culturally alien.

(U) In contrast, tribal groups like the Baluch, the Bakhtiari, the Lur, the Qashqai, and the Kurds avoid resorting to state authority because it fundamentally undermines the authority of their tribal leadership and their ethnic cohesion by introducing an outside power to regulate their lives. They often rely on similar networks of patronage, but are conscious of staying within the tribe or ethnic community.

(U) Throughout Iranian society, the concept of the rule of civil law is extremely weak. Networks of clerics, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and members of the IRGC exercise real command in the government and the economy, overshadowing elected civil officials. Assassination, intimidation, arbitrary detention, and corruption are endemic in Iranian politics. In cities, Basij and Ansar-e Hizbollah, groups of religious police and vigilantes, respectively, arbitrarily harass or beat people seen violating Islamic codes of modesty. In rural areas, tribesmen try to avoid the imposition of government control and prefer to use intra-tribal methods of dispute arbitration.

(U) Military Culture

(U) The Artesh, the IRGC, and the Basij

Describes the Artesh, IRGC, and Basij culture.

(U) Iran maintains two separate armies, the Artesh and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), each has a distinct historical legacy and institutional culture. The Artesh represents the armed services (the army, the navy, and the air force) that served the Shah before 1979 and continues to serve the Iranian state after the 1979 Revolution. The Artesh’s mission is two-fold: to assert Iran’s traditional dominance in Asia and to defend Iran from external invasion or secession by the ethnic minorities.


(U) IRGC at the Front During the Iran-Iraq War



IRGC at the front during the Iran-Iraq War

(U) The Artesh considers itself professionally competent and disciplined, drawing on its history of American military training in the 1960s and 1970s. The Artesh draws much of its strategic culture from the Iranian national epics, which emphasizes the glory of individual warriors and the necessity of careful planning and guile.

(U) The IRGC, in contrast, was formed by the urban guerrillas who unseated the Shah in 1979. It considers itself both the defender and propagator of the Islamic Revolution at home and abroad. Due to its guerrilla origins, the IRGC was hesitant to adopt the more formal hierarchical command structures. Early leaders of the IRGC believed that high morale, faith in God, and local initiative could prevail over technical expertise and superior firepower.

(U) During the crucible of the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988), however, the IRGC developed a culture that mixed a style of improvisational, asymmetrical warfare with a new respect for technical competence and efficiency. The IRGC draws its strategic culture from revolutionary Shi’ite doctrine, which emphasizes the ideal of self-sacrifice in opposition to evil, even when missions are militarily futile. IRGC leaders hope that the example of bravery and submission to God will inspire Muslims around the world to rise up, join the Islamic Revolution, and cast-off oppressive, U.S.-backed governments.

(U) While the IRGC has evolved from a guerilla force and a home guard paramilitary into a regular fighting force, it is in charge of recruiting and training the Basij auxiliary force to fulfill much of its old domestic duties. The Basij is an all-volunteer institution. Teenagers, old men, or IRGC veterans from poor, rural or recently urbanized backgrounds make up its force. Basij volunteers provided the cannon fodder for the human wave frontal attacks on Iraqi positions in the 1980s. Their training consists of basic military techniques and heavy indoctrination.

(U) The animating ideology of the Basij is that the 1979 Revolution is incomplete until all social and political injustices in Iran and elsewhere have been rectified. They are motivated by greed and envy for the middle and upper class urban youth, whom they feel have betrayed Islam and the Revolution. Today, many Basijand vigilante groups like Ansar-e Hizbollah roam Iranian streets beating up or harassing those seen as lax in their piety or as enemies to the Islamic Republic.

(U) The Artesh regards the IRGC and particularly the Basij as untrained and low class and the IRGC sees the Artesh as elitist, hierarchical, and un-Islamic. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the Artesh and the IRGC have developed more compatible working relationships that allow for complex, multi-service joint-training exercises. The IRGC has developed some units whose emphasis on professionalism is acceptable to the Artesh, and the Artesh has proven its loyalty and value to the Islamic Republic through its service during the Iran-Iraq War. Still, conflicts and rivalries remain.

(U) Artesh Officers, Before the 1979



Artesh officers, before the 1979 Revolution

(U) The cultures of both branches have become even more similar as the IRGC began to accept conscripts in the 1990s like the Artesh. Since losing its all-volunteer base, the IRGC has been subject to the same cultural pressures of Iranian youth as the Artesh.

(U) Most Iranians see their 2-year military conscription obligation as a burden to be shirked if possible. Iranian youths pay bribes to get stationed close to home, so they can sleep in their family’s house rather than the barracks, or try to get deferment for university education. Men of tribal origin often desert their units or refuse to report; they have a strong warrior tradition that favors fighting to defend the tribe, but they dislike having to fight other people’s battles and living in unfamiliar places where they are looked down on by Persian city dwellers.

(U) Recognizing the limitation of soldiers from tribal areas, the Basij paramilitary has developed some rural village defense forces among the tribes instead of direct military induction. Overall, conscription has weakened the strong unit cohesion that characterized the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War and forced the IRGC to create special units that are considered more reliable in executing orders, particularly when those orders involve suppressing domestic disturbances. Many domestic security functions have been taken over by the Basij, who are considered more ideologically committed than the IRGC, less militarily competent, and less restrained by military professionalism.


(U) The IRGC-Clerical-Bazaar Connection

This section explains the links between the IRGC, the clerics, and the bazaar.

(U) The IRGC maintains close ties to Iran’s ruling clerical establishment and its allied bazaar merchant class. Ties of marriage, blood, ideology, and patronage connect the IRGC, ruling clerics, and the bazaar together, forming crucial pillars of support for the regime. The IRGC is the premier branch of the military, favored in the allocations of materiel and funds, and serves as a launching pad for political aspirants. This attracts junior officers with ideological devotion and the desire to get ahead.

(U) Senior IRGC officers proved their mettle during the Iran-Iraq War. These senior officers put themselves in the service of the clerical establishment led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They resent Iran’s cosmopolitan, upper-class, urban culture for betraying the Revolution and not redistributing wealth justly, as had been promised in 1979. These men are the backbone of the resurgent rightist movement led by President Ahmedi-Nejad. They occupy senior positions in the military and other branches of government, including the ministries of Interior, Intelligence and Services, as well as the police force. They also have close cultural ties with the Basij and the vigilante groups.

(U) Besides political ties, the IRGC has also developed commercial ties with ruling clerics that support legal and illicit business monopolies and drug and alcohol smuggling. Members of the IRGC and the Basij have been known to provide local muscle to protect the commercial interests of the clerics from outside competition. The revenue from these types of activities remains outside state coffers and is redirected to weapons procurement, improving living conditions, operational readiness for the IRGC, and for secret operations. The corruption, then, is not seen as a product of personal greed, but a desire to better the IRGC.


Cultural Intelligence Studies

Persians in Iran


(U) Key Points:




Azerbaijanis in Iran

(U) Key Points:




Kurds in Iran

(U) Key Points:


Arabs in Iran

(U) Key Points:




Lur and Bakhtiari in Iran


(U) Key Points:


Baluch in Iran

(U) Key Points:




The Qashqai in Iran


(U) Key Points:




Military Culture and
Society in Iran



(U) Key Points:


(U) Cultural Style of Warfare


(U) Offensive

This section describes the Artesh and IRGC offensive operations.


(U) The division of labor between the regular military and the IRGC has led to differing institutional cultures. The Artesh has a notion of projecting Iran’s power abroad, within the limits of damage control and risk minimization.


(U) The IRGC is more proactive, innovative, and interested in actively advancing the republic’s interests and its own institutional agenda. They see their mission as perpetuating and deepening the Islamic revolution at home and abroad. Increasingly, though, Islamic rhetoric is used to further what are essentially geopolitical calculations.


(U) The era of the Shahs (559 B.C. to 1979 A.D.), particularly the reign of Muhammed Reza Pahlavi (r. 1941 to 1979), gave Iran’s military a sense of its role in reclaiming the greatness of Iran’s imperial past. With the British forces’ withdrawal from the Gulf and the issuance of the Nixon doctrine in 1969, which named Iran as a pillar of regional stability, the military became the prime force in the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence. The Shah hoped to achieve major power status, lavishing the military with imported Western technology. His aim was to reconstitute the Iranian empire on the order of Cyrus the Great and Darius.


(U) The Navy established refueling stations as far away as Mauritius, and Iranian troops served in the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights. The regular military twice saw combat abroad under the Shah: In the late 1960s, 3,000 to 5,000 Iranian troops were dispatched to Oman to help suppress a leftist insurgency in the Dhofar region, and in the early 1970s, the military seized the disputed islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs in the Gulf. Additionally, Iranian pilots flew F-4s in Vietnam and provided helicopter support during Pakistan's suppression of the Baluch uprisings in the 1960s.


(U) Artesh Cadets Before 1979



Artesh cadets before 1979


(U) During the Iran-Iraq War, the Artesh maintained its tradition of carefully planned offensive operations designed to achieve large strategic objectives. After leading the counter-attack that forced the Iraqi forces from Iranian territory, the Artesh was content to consolidate its defensive position and fight a war of attrition until the Iraqis came to the peace table. Senior Artesh leadership advised against launching a more expansive attack to seize significant Iraqi territory or to destabilize the Iraqi regime, because they recognized the war had already cost Iran tremendously and feared becoming more isolated in the international arena. Still, Artesh units served alongside members of the IRGC and the Basij in several Iranian offensives throughout the war. Yet the Artesh remained interested in maintaining Iran’s presence in the Gulf. They refused to relinquish the strategically valuable Abu Musa and Tunbs islands.


(U) By 1982, the IRGC, in contrast, had become committed to a variety of offensive operations. After repelling the Iraqi invasion, the IRGC favored the expansion of Iran’s war aims to include toppling Saddam’s infidel regime and gaining control of the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The IRGC relied on the same strategy in attempting to conquer Iraq as it had to topple the Shah: a belief that a highly motivated populace could overcome a technically proficient but demoralized professional military. The IRGC believed Iraqi Shi’a were so disillusioned with Saddam’s regime that they needed only minimal support to rise up and start a revolution.


(U) To win over the Iraqi people, the IRGC was often more sensitive about inflicting casualties on the Iraqis than on the toll the war was taking on Iranians. Rather than claim any Iraqi territory, the IRGC supported the creation of an army-in-exile, the Badr Brigade of Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to liberate Iraq. The Badr Brigade served under the IRGC and tried to recruit members from among Iraqi POWs. With IRGC support, SCIRI and other Islamist groups launched sporadic terrorist attacks on Iraq’s political and military leaders. As soon as Iranian forces gained a foothold in Iraqi territory, SCIRI announced the formation of a provisional government-in-exile in the hopes of further rallying their supporters within the country. The IRGC believed that the culture of the Iranian Revolution was the most effective weapon at their disposal.


(U) The difference in culture between the Artesh and the IRGC led to a mix of conventional and unconventional offensive approaches. Artesh units mixed infantry and armor and relied on air support, particularly from helicopters, to execute maneuver warfare. The IRGC and its Basij auxiliaries conducted frontal infantry assaults that aimed at exhausting the enemy’s ammunition and destroying their morale before finally overrunning them. Iran alternated its offensive strategy from a static war of attrition to a breakout maneuver that was risky but could check the damage Iran had already received. They hoped to inflict damage while pursuing a political collapse of the enemy.


(U) Lessons of the Iran-Iraq War
(Click graphic for video)


(U) Since the late 1980s, there has been a general convergence between the IRGC and Artesh views of offensive operations. The IRGC has adopted the Artesh’s cautious view, recognizing that such operations require careful coordination and have strategic consequences. Still, the IRGC maintains faith in its ability to export the model of the 1979 Revolution abroad by relying on the sympathy and solidarity of the people to engage in Islamic struggle. The IRGC has the ability to project Iranian power through its training of Islamist insurgent groups like Lebanese Hizballah, Palestinian HAMAS and Islamic Jihad, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Brigade.


(U) Defensive


This section describes the Artesh and IRGC defensive theory.


(U) The Artesh and the IRGC both see themselves as defensive organizations. While the Artesh’s main task is to defend Iran’s territorial integrity, the IRGC’s aim is to defend the Revolution. The difference between these two missions has led the Artesh and the IRGC to be at odds and to focus on different military tasks.


"The mission of the army [Artesh] is the preservation of the territorial integrity of the country. The mission of the Guardians of the Revolution is to protect the Islamic Revolution, which may be from threats other than those across its frontiers."

Mohsen Rafiq-Dust, Minister of the IRGC, 1986



Mohsen Rafiq-Dust, Minister of the IRGC, 1986

(U) The Artesh has always believed it is the defender of Iran’s territorial integrity and political independence. The memories of the British and Soviet occupation of Iran in 1941 and of the Iraqi invasion of 1980 reinforce the importance of this mission. Many in the Artesh believe they proved their worth by repelling the Iraqi invasion after the IRGC proved too unprofessional and unskilled.


(U) The Artesh’s concept of national defense includes suppressing ethnic revolts in the peripheral provinces. This was part of the Artesh’s role under the Shah—they subdued frontier tribes and forced them to submit to central authority. However, it may draw a line at attacking what it defines as legitimate protests by Iranians.


(U) During the 1979 Revolution, the Artesh refrained from attacking the popular protests. As the Revolution gained ground, the Artesh council of senior commanders declared the army’s neutrality in the dispute, stating that it could not attack the Iranian people. They refused to carry out a military coup that would save the regime. Thousands of conscripts simply gave up their weapons and returned to their homes or even joined the protests. In 1980 and 1981, however, the Artesh had no second thoughts about putting down the Kurds and other secessionists. When sporadic student and worker protests erupted in Iranian cities in the 1990s, the regular military maintained its refusal to attack what it considered popular movements.


(U) At the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, the Artesh was badly demoralized and unfit for battle. Multiple purges had gutted the officer corps. The defenses waged at the outset of the war were improvised and lacked coordination. However, the initial defensive operation focused on static defense, leaving the Artesh units in place to absorb reinforcement, while IRGC militias moved into the urban areas to begin an insurgency-type campaign against the Iraqis. At that time, the IRGC was engaged also against the Iraqi army, ethnic secessionists, and opposition groups within Iranian cities.


(U) In all these sectors the IRGC used similar techniques to defend the Revolution: They allowed individual commanders to improvise operations, used a combination of intimidation and persuasion on the local population to gain provisions and intelligence information, and, most important, demonstrated greater resolve than the enemy in their acceptance of mass casualties.


(U) IRGC Members During 1979 Revolution



IRGC members during 1979 Revolution

(U) As the IRGC assumes more conventional force structures and assignments, however, it has shown greater affinity for the Artesh’s position opposing its use to suppress local disturbances. As a professional military force, the IRGC wants to focus on fighting Iran’s wars, not putting down minor riots. In 1994, some elements in the IRGC refused to fire on protesting workers in Qazvin. The regime was forced to use the Basij irregulars, resulting in 38 deaths in four days of fighting. IRGC commanders and Artesh officers wrote a letter to protest their assignment to suppress what they considered a legitimate popular movement.


(U) However, in the late 1990s, other senior IRGC officers published letters and gave speeches threatening to intervene if President Khatami did not take steps to secure the regime against popular protests. Ultimately, new IRGC units considered themselves ideologically pure and willing to apply force at the command of the Supreme Leader. Today it is mainly the Basij that patrol the streets to enforce the Islamic codes such as the segregation of men and women.


"In Islam, there are two kinds of war: one is called jihad, which is the conquering of [other] countries… and the other is war for the independence of the countries and expulsion of foreigners…. Islam has made it incumbent upon all men who have reached puberty and are not invalid or incompetent or foreign slaves to be ready to conquer countries and disseminate Islamic law through the world. [But] the Islamic conquest of [other] countries is very different from the conquest of lands by world conquerors. They want to conquer the world for their own personal gains. Islam wants to conquer the world for the benefit of the people of the world themselves…. Islam wants to conquer the world for the spiritual life and the preparation of the people of this world for the most glorious and blissful life in the other world."

Ayatollah Khomeini on Islamic Warfare



This section discusses the Artesh and IRGC’s view of conventional warfare.

(U) Conventional


(U) The Artesh considers conventional warfare its specialty. Even though they originally had different perspectives, the Artesh and the IRGC have reached a consensus on the importance of conventional warfare. The Artesh considers itself a primarily professional force with an army, navy, and air force to use for territorial defense and power projection. The Artesh puts great emphasis on its ability to conduct maneuver warfare operations that combine armor, infantry, and air power. The Artesh believes that conventional warfare and the ability to control territory will be decisive in its mission.


(U) The IRGC evolved from the anti-Shah guerrilla force; it doubted the efficacy of conventional forces against motivated irregular forces. However, the experience of the Iran-Iraq War forced the IRGC leadership to concede that it must include more conventional fixed formations in its battle plans. Many of the IRGC's ideas about conventional formations are drawn from observing the Artesh. Still, the IRGC remains flexible, using the Basij as an auxiliary force to fight a guerrilla-style war if necessary.


(U) Counter Insurgency

Section describes the Artesh’s distrust of counterinsurgency warfare and the IRGC’s proclivity for it.

(U) Due to different historical legacies and self-conceptions, the Artesh and IRGC have very different perceptions of the importance of counterinsurgency warfare. The Artesh prefers conventional warfare over counterinsurgency operations. In the 1960s, British observers stated that Iranian forces deployed to suppress the insurgency in Oman's Dhofar region underperformed, relying too heavily on their superior firepower and too little on tactical maneuverability. Iran's armed forces did not learn much about the nature of insurgency or how to combat it from their foray in Oman.


(U) The Artesh considers itself a national army comparable to the best fighting forces of the world and does not readily accept non-conventional assignments. Under the Shah, the Artesh counted among its peers other Western-oriented militaries, including Israel’s, that were using the best U.S. technology. Their aspiration was to make Iran into a regional or perhaps global power.


(U) The IRGC, in contrast, traces its origins to the anti-Shah insurgents of the 1960s and 1970s. After the 1979 Revolution, the IRGC became a home guard and assumed a more Islamic outlook. However, segments of the IRGC retain the memory of their original success as a guerilla force. This makes them both adept at counterinsurgency operations to carry out their mission and competent at exporting guerrilla training.


(U) IRGC as Guerilla Army
(Click graphic for video)



(U) The IRGC believes that with Iran's help, other oppressed Muslim people can replicate the model of the 1979 Revolution, where a guerrilla force and popular protests ended a U.S.-backed dictatorship. Originally they focused on training fellow Shi’a in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, thus cultivating ties among the clerical establishment. The IRGC has been instrumental in training members of Shi’a groups like Lebanese Hizballah and SCIRI's Badr Brigades. Both these groups have adopted the IRGC’s model of a professional fighting force with clerical leadership.The IRGC has also developed working relationships with Sunni Islamist groups in Palestine, Sudan, the Balkans, and elsewhere. Despite cultural differences in all these places, there is a shared commitment to remove Western domination and install an Islamic government.


(U) The Artesh and the IRGC believe they cannot win a regular, conventional war against the United States. They plan to exploit perceived asymmetries in the U.S. strategy, including launching a popular mobilization and guerrilla-style insurgency. Additionally, they plan to expand the confrontation from a regional to global theater. This entails using Iranian assets and allies abroad to attack U.S. interests and allies. The IRGC in particular hopes to spark a world-wide uprising of the Muslim masses against the United States and all U.S. allies.


(U) Internal Security

This section describes the Artesh’s limited role in internal security and the IRGC expansive one.

(U) The Artesh maintains a distinction between suppressing secessionist ethnic groups in the peripheral provinces and attacking a legitimate Iranian popular movement.


(U) During the 1979 Revolution, the Artesh often refrained from attacking the popular protests, but when it did, it responded with disproportionate force. The military noted that it was not trained or equipped for riot-control duties. The general command declared the military’s neutrality, stating that it could not attack the Iranian people. They think the Basij, who are more closely tied to the religious establishment, more ideologically-motivated, and less hampered by a sense of military professionalism in attacking civilians, should be used.


(U) In 1980 and 1981 the Artesh had no compunction about putting down ethnic secessionists. Suppressing secessionists was always seen as part of the army’s role in domestic security and state consolidation. Since the 19th century, the army had served the Shah in pacifying the tribes that threatened the Shah’s plans for a strong and modern Iran. The Artesh’s role in suppressing the Kurdish revolt in 1979 demonstrated its utility and loyalty to the revolutionary regime. Many senior Artesh commanders of the Iran-Iraq war first proved their mettle in this campaign. Some members of the Artesh believe the regime would never call on them to attack university students.


"In short, the army is not to be involved in the struggle against counter-revolution domestically while the Pasdar [IRGC] are."

Rafiq-Dust on Internal vs. External Struggle



Rafiq-Dust on internal vs. external struggle

(U) The IRGC has a much broader concept of its internal and external role in defending the revolution as a movement. Two factors contribute to this: First, the IRGC defends and propagates the Revolution both at home and abroad. Second, the IRGC’s historical institutional experience varies widely. After the 1979 Revolution, the IRGC transformed from an anti-Shah guerrilla force into a home guard for the protection of the nascent Islamic revolutionary regime.


(U) Members of the IRGC worked at television stations, police headquarters, and other governmental institutions. They saw themselves as the protectors of law, order, and public morality during chaotic times. As part of its self-conceived mission, they drew from the Qu'ran rules that promoted good and prohibited vice. Therefore, the IRGC also began to enforce new religious laws banning fraternization among the sexes, consumption of alcohol, and immodesty. This role continued until the early 1990s when their “moral” duties fell to the volunteer Basij militias.


(U) Foreign Enemies and Civil War
(Click graphic for video)


(U) Foreign Cultural Influences

This section describes the extensive contact between the Artesh and Western militaries and the IRGC’s close ties with Muslim resistance organizations like the Palestine Liberation Organization and with Lebanese Hizbollah and SCIRI.

(U) The Artesh has a long history of contact with foreign military advisors and experts, beginning with the arrival of a French military mission in 1807. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, advisors from Britain, France, Switzerland, the United States, Italy, Russia, and Sweden all worked with the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties to reorganize aspects of the Iranian military and police forces.


(U) Reza Pahlavi catapulted to power from his position as colonel in the Persian Cossack Brigade (a unit modeled on the Russian Cossacks) which proved to be the most effective fighting force in the country at the turn of the 20th century. During the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of Iranian officers were trained at French and German military academies, but the major foreign cultural influence on the Artesh was the United States. Until the Revolution, the United States provided Iran with state of the art weaponry and training. This helped Iran to become a major regional power and allowed its military to gain social prominence. In the mid-1970s, 11,000 Iranian military personnel received training in the United States under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.


(U) The 1979 Revolution brought an abrupt end to this type of contact. Older generations of Iranian officers, particularly in the Artesh, look favorably on the era during which they had access to state-of-the-art technology and equipment. They also miss international respect they once had for their professional forces. The Artesh maintains its loyalty to the regime, yet it begrudges the limits and sacrifices necessary to achieve ideological consistency. The Artesh also quietly question the regime's knowledge in military matters.


(U) Female naval cadets before the
1979 Revolution



Female naval cadets before the 1979 Revolution

(U) The IRGC’s cultural history runs in the exact opposite direction. Before the revolution, members of the IRGC trained in Lebanon with members of the Shi’a militia AMAL, with Palestinian guerrilla groups, and with the rebels in Dhofar, Oman. They worked in a global front to oppose U.S. imperialist projects. After the 1979 Revolution, the IRGC became an exporter of Revolutionary ideology to other groups, mainly Islamist in orientation, including Lebanese Hizballah, SCIRI, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other groups in Sudan, the Balkans, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The IRGC is the primary point of contact for Iran’s export of guerrilla warfare.


(U) The IRGC’s close connection to the Iranian clerical establishment is a great asset when it comes to dealing with other Shi’a groups, as the religious hierarchy requires believers to accept the edicts of supreme clerical authorities. The IRGC is convinced that it can export the model of the 1979 Revolution; they believe guerrilla warfare, combined with mass demonstrations, can unseat an U.S.-backed dictator.


"All the problems of the East stem from these foreigners, from the West, and from America at the moment. All our problems come from America. All the problems of the Muslims stem from America."

Ayatollah Khomeini on the United States



Ayatollah Khomeini on the United States

(U) Attitudes Toward Foreign Military Assistance

This section discusses the ambivalent attitudes Iranians have toward military assistance, including the effect of “occidentosis” or “west-toxification.”

(U) Even before the Revolution, the Artesh was a bastion of what Iranians call “occidentosis” or “west-toxication,” a Persian term invented in the 1950s that gained wide parlance by the 1970s. It means the alienation an Iranian suffers when mimicking the West. On the one hand, the Artesh achieved unprecedented international and domestic status due to its close contact with and assistance from the West. On the other hand, many felt that the Artesh, like the Shah, were imitating the United States and becoming too autocratic. Iranians were particularly incensed that foreigners were exploiting their oil and receiving extra-territorial protection from prosecution under Iranian law. Many Iranians felt that achieving military superiority was not worth losing Iranian culture.


West-toxification: A plague from the West


(U) Common Iranian prejudices against Arabs and Turks as unsophisticated and underdeveloped exist in the military. The religious hostility of Shi’as against Sunnis is tempered by ideals of Islamic egalitarianism and a sense of common purpose in opposing corrupt U.S.-backed regimes. Still, Iranian chauvinism means that other Muslim countries can only be subordinate to Iran, never equals.


(U) Iranians treat their indigenous Jewish and Christian communities as protected minorities, but regard non-Iranian Jews and Baha'is as part of a vast global conspiracy against Iran and Islam. For some religious Muslims, contact with a Jew or Baha'i is ritually unclean.


"Today you are isolated and today the Iranian nation is isolated and wronged. But their isolation and meekness does not mean weakness. We are very powerful today... We are alone in the world today. No power in the world supports us today... This oppression and loneliness should make feel stronger. I say this is a blessing from God. "

Ayatollah Khamenei on Iran’s Isolation



Ayatollah Khamenei on Iran’s Isolation


(U) Iranian culture harbors deep-seated suspicion and almost paranoia regarding Western conspiracies and hostile intentions.Iranians often speculate that foreign hands are behind every catastrophe that befalls them. This tendency is especially strong among the generation that came of age during the Iran-Iraq War. They often blame the West for supporting the Shah and instigating the Iran-Iraq War. In many ways, they do not even want to get to know the West, which they feel is only a corrupting influence.


(U) Iranian Views of Foreign Intervention
(Click graphic for video)



(U) Cultural Influences on Military Effectiveness

(U) Leadership

This section contrasts Iran’s combination of extreme social hierarchy and culture of flattery with the intimacy of peer groups (dowreh).

(U) Iran’s hierarchical culture creates complicated relationships between superiors and subordinates. Each side expects the other to be scheming to gain an advantage, even as they pretend to be totally devoted to one another. The distrust between superiors and subordinates undermines collective undertakings and paralyzes innovation and self-initiative because these things are always threatening to superiors. These characteristics are most prevalent in the Artesh.


(U) At the same time, Iranians form extremely intimate connections within peer-groups and families where each participant believes in their equality before God and connects their devotion to their peer as service to God. The IRGC uses this culture to promote self-sacrifice, improvisation, and risk-taking among its members.


(U) Iran is traditionally an extremely hierarchical society, social status is defined by age, occupation, and regional or class origin. Often a person’s manner of speech, gestures, or name alone is a tell-tale mark of his social rank Still, Iran has no history of caste or hereditary nobility; Iranians learn at a young age that even the lowest ranking person in society can rise to the top of social standing. Just as in chess, Iran’s national game, a well-played pawn can defeat the king. Leaps in social stature are achieved through cunning, cleverness, divine providence, or chance, just as through diligence or hard work.


(U) Reza Pahlavi



Reza Pahlavi

(U) Relationships between superiors and subordinates are characterized by deference and gratitude but also by cynicism and manipulation. Iranians expect their social inferiors are scheming somehow to oust or overthrow them, even though they profess allegiance and obedience. Each individual is afraid of being sacked by a superior, swindled by a peer, or deposed by an underling. Ideally, these social relationships are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing, with the inferior providing honor and respect for the superior and the superior providing material rewards or honors to the inferior. A subordinate can force his superior to offer him more benefits by feigning total subservience. The superior’s honor, then, requires that he comply with the request. The result of this distrust is a lack of collective action and initiative on the part of inferiors.


(U) There are two spaces in Iranian culture where truly equal relationships exist and where Iranians expose their inner emotions: in the family, which is the primary unit of socialization, and among the intimate dowreh (circle of peers). The dowreh are small groups, either all male or all female, of people who believe themselves equal and alike in some way. The basis of the dowreh can be common schooling, similar cultural interests, or common allegiance to a person or idea. While the dowreh is informal, each member is obligated to use his influence for everyone else.


(U) It is only within the dowreh or the family that individuals are free from the burdens of ritualized flattery and express their true thoughts and emotions. The dowreh and family connections create a diffuse network of allegiance and leadership within the military ranks that can have greater sway than formal hierarchy and rank.


(U) The IRGC captured the ethos of the dowreh and overturned (at least temporarily) the pre-Revolutionary social hierarchy. Initially, the IRGC was made up entirely of volunteers opposed to the Shah and in the service of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. This introduced new avenues for innovation, leadership, and social mobility. Unlike the Artesh, the IRGC was conceived as a decentralized popular militia in which there were no defined ranks or hierarchy.


(U) IRGC members owe their allegiance to God and the Supreme Leader, God’s representative on earth. IRGC members (and officers in particular) volunteer to take personal responsibility and initiative to ensure the success of the revolution. The martyrdom ethic stems from the sense of submission to divine commandment, thus absolving the believer of any social responsibilities or consequences. Unlike typical superior-inferior relationships, which are dominated by false flattery and affectation, Iranians show great reverence for those leaders regarded as truly honest and worthy. Ayatollah Khomeini was such a leader, as was Mossadeq, although though they were politically at odds.


(U) Even though the IRGC has adopted more of the professional attitude of the regular military, introduced a traditional system of ranks, and filled its ranks with conscripts, much of this ethos of egalitarian submission persists. The IRGC is less bound than the Artesh to traditional norms of bureaucracy and deference. They are more apt to improvisation, creativity, and leadership by example. For example, the IRGC exploited their morale advantage to send thousands of poorly-trained troops into direct frontal assaults on enemy positions, called “human waves.” However, these characteristics can also lead the IRGC to risky and counterproductive tactics. For example, during the Iran-Iraq war, IRGC members wore beards as an outward sign of their devotion to Islam, even though facial hair hindered the operation of gas masks.

(U) Doctrine and Strategy

Section describes the difference between the Artesh and IRGC doctrines.

(U) A military's fundamental doctrine is the core set of beliefs about the best way to conduct military affairs. These beliefs are informed by the cultural history of those who organize the military and their interpretation of historical experience. In Iran, the Artesh and the IRGC draw on two different sets of historical and mythical experiences within Iranian culture to develop their doctrine. The Artesh draws on Iran’s imperial legacy while the IRGC draws on the revolutionary tradition in Shi'ism. For many Iranians, the imperial and Shi’a cultural narratives are not separate, but are unified as a greater Iranian cultural history. The lessons and beliefs derived from one complement or reinforce the other. For the Artesh and the IRGC, then, focusing on one particular strand of historical experience does not require the denial of the other.


(U) The center of the Iranian imperial legacy is the myth of Rustam, the central hero of the Shahnameh, who protected the Shahs of Iran from barbarian invasion. The lesson frequently drawn from the story of Rustam is that it is good to be strong, but more important to be smart. Rustam is a great and honorable warrior who resorted to trickery and guile when necessary. This notion of tempering strength with cunning is also similar to chess, a game Iranians interpret as a close analogue to human strategic interactions: overpowering an enemy is rare, but careful planning through numerous scenarios, feigns, traps, and the judicious application of force can lead to ultimate victory. The Artesh’s conduct during the Iran-Iraq War was consistent with this understanding of warfare. The Artesh planned its maneuvers carefully and cautiously. Once the Iraq forces had been expelled from Iranian territory, the Artesh was content to fight a war of attrition until Iraq came to negotiate a peace settlement.


(U) The center of the Shi’a revolutionary experience is the figure of Imam Husayn and his martyrdom at Karbala. While there are many interpretations of the lessons of Imam Husayn’s death, Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology held that Husayn accepted death in order to confront an unjust oppressor. Husayn achieved a symbolic victory even though he and almost all of his companions were killed. The story of Husayn shows that zeal and faith can overcome an adversary’s numerical and technical superiority. This doctrine influenced the IRGC’s conduct in the Iran-Iraq War in a number of ways: First, it promoted the use of suicide missions and human wave assaults in which poorly trained but highly motivated troops were sent to attack Iraqi positions. Those who undertook these missions were considered martyrs and exemplars to future Iranians; second, it influenced the IRGC notion of a people’s war and their faith that civilians (both Iranian and Iraqi) would support their campaign against injustice. While the experience of combat during the 1980s dampened the IRGC's conviction that high morale could always overcome superior technical skill, the IRGC still exhibits its doctrinal emphasis on zealotry through its relationship with the Basij.


(U) The Artesh sees Iran as not just as a state but also a grand civilization and empire whose cultural reach extends beyond its political borders. Iran’s Arab and Turkic neighbors are deemed culturally inferior, even if they are militarily superior. So long as Iranians preserve their cultural heritage, mere military defeats are inconsequential, since all invaders eventually accede to Iranian culture. The IRGC’s revolutionary Shi’a legacy sees Iran as the standard-bearer for oppressed Muslims. Additionally, it interprets theUnited States as a modern day tyrant, an incarnation of Husayn's murderer. Conflict between the United States and Iran, therefore, is perpetual until the coming of the messiah, although it is not necessarily always violent. Implicit in these strategic views are different conceptions of the scope and nature of conflict. The Artesh fights primarily regional foes, imperial Iran’s traditional enemies, while the IRGC sees itself operating in a global theater between good and evil. There is agreement in both branches of the service, though, that challenges to Iran’s cultural integrity through attempts to influence Muslim “hearts and minds” are a grave threat.


(U) Since the Iran-Iraq War, the Artesh and IRGC have harmonized their doctrines. They recognize the United States as Iran's greatest security threat and acknowledge that Iran is incapable of winning a conventional war with the United States. Rather, they have adopted a doctrine of deterrence toward the United States that aims to raise the cost of warfare. Consistent with both the imperial legacy’s emphasis on guile and the Shi’a revolutionary legacy’s emphasis on the importance of morale, both branches aim to exploit perceived asymmetries between the United States and Iran, including launching a global guerrilla campaign using Iranian assets abroad, mobilization of the Basij, and focusing on strategic corridors. This campaign would combine naval, air, and land warfare on a variety of fronts.

(U) Operational Planning

Section describes Iranian plans and contingency plans during the Iran-Iraq War.

(U) The Iranian military is known for elaborate and careful operational planning. This includes developing contingency plans. Iranian operations of 1981 to 1982, the offensives against Basra in 1982 and 1987, and the seizure of al-Faw in 1986 were all extremely well-planned operations. This draws on the lessons of chess, where the best player draws up several plans of attack to be prepared for every possible move the enemy can make.

(U) Intelligence

This Section describes Iran’s proclivity for intelligence collection, but also for paranoid analysis.

(U) Iran is an avid intelligence collector, but often its analysis is flawed by the persistent cultural patterns of xenophobia (fear of anything foreign) and paranoia. Iranians prefer a convoluted explanation of an event, based on the existence of hidden hands and unseen powers to straightforward explanations. The IRGC and the Artesh maintain their own intelligence sections alongside Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Operations, but IRGC's influence extends to a number of different agencies.


(U) Small Unit Skills

Section describes how IRGC officers emerged as local commanders with great small unit skills, while Artesh is less skilled in small unit maneuvering.

(U) The small unit skills vary greatly in the Iranian military. Some units in the Artesh and the IRGC are of extremely high quality, able to act independently. However, considering hierarchical leadership structures in the Artesh, most junior commanders are unable or unwilling to improvise or take initiative beyond what is explicitly demanded by superiors.


(U) This is less often the case among senior IRGC officers, who emerged as local guerrilla commanders in the early days of the Revolution. They often rose to prominence through their own ingenuity and initiative during the Iran-Iraq War and often see the usefulness of empowering units under them.

(U) Logistics and Maintenance

Describes low technical skill of Artesh and IRGC conscripts, which is made up for by IRGC ability to improvise logistical solutions.

(U) The technical background of most Iranian conscripts, NCOs, and junior officers is insufficient to operate or maintain sophisticated foreign equipment. Shortages of basic supplies mean that only frontline troops are fully equipped, and little is left over for training or reserve forces. Conscripts with little motivation or little training often fill logistical and maintenance positions. Most want to leave the military as soon as their conscription term is up.


(U) In the 1970s, when Iran spent billions on the best U.S. weapons, U.S. military observers remarked that basic maintenance and logistical functions were haphazard. During the Iran-Iraq War, the military had to improvise a logistics and maintenance program to make up for the lack of American technical expertise and information flow. There is little reason to believe Iran’s capability has improved.


(U) During the Iran-Iraq War, Basij units and some IRGC units received only weapons and uniforms, not food or shelter. Religious leaders at the home front raised donations to support locally-raised units. While the IRGC has transitioned to a centrally-administered provisioning system, the Basij volunteers are still funded on a local basis, making the Basij units more closely aligned with specific ayatollahs and religious leaders who fund them.

(U) Training

This section describes training of IRGC, Artesh, and Basij units.

(U) The Iranian military has shown great variation in its approach to training. In general, Iranian training is of much higher quality than that of Arab armies. This is a carry-over from training experience with the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Many exercises run at night and in conditions of difficult weather and terrain. Still, some ground training exercises consist mainly of preplanned operations that invariably end in Iranian success. There is little emphasis on realistic exercises where the opposition has superior forces or a real chance of victory.


(U) The military has had difficulty integrating the training of the Artesh and IRGC due to their different institutional cultures. The Artesh regard the IRGC as under trained and unprofessional, while the IRGC see the Artesh as elitist, hierarchical, and ideologically suspect. Since the 1990s, there has been an increased emphasis on joint operations between the IRGC and the regular military, as well as inter-service operations that integrate the navy, army, and air force of the Artesh and IRGC. The air force uses realistic large-formation war-gaming scenarios involving amphibious landing and coordination with naval forces. The IRGC has developed at least some units whose professional ethic, training, and culture are comparable to the Artesh.


(U) The Artesh and IRGC maintain separate military academies and command colleges. The IRGC has a more elaborate training and education program. These begin with IRGC high schools located in every administrative unit in the country. The curriculum combines military education administered by the IRGC, regular studies taught by the Ministry of Education, and religious training given by clerics dispatched from the seminaries at Qom. The program lasts two and a half years and includes time in an IRGC training camp.


(U) In 1986, the IRGC opened Imam Hosein University, which graduated 800 students in 1988 trained in military science, engineering, management, and medical sciences. This university is now considered a top-tier university in Iran; students who are accepted agree to a number of years in service in the IRGC after graduation. This is complemented by a military think tank. The IRGC has also developed purely military training programs for underwater operations, flight schools, demolitions, and possibly other technical specialties. Many of the intimate connections between junior officers are developed in these settings. The education and training provided by the IRGC produces quality IRGC officers. The Artesh has no equivalent structure.


"As the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] said, 'The martyrs are the quintessence of our strength.' Therefore, we must educate and train forces ready to commit martyrdom attacks in order to counter the enemy."

IRGC Commander of the Necessity of Training Martyrs



IRGC Commander of the Necessity of Training Martyrs

(U) The IRGC is also responsible for training and indoctrinating the Basij. During the Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC training of Basij teenagers consisted of a mixture of brain washing and bribery. They brought their recruits from poor high schools or from religious schools. Those who refused to volunteer for service were vilified and asked if their parents were good Muslims. Young Basij recruits were kept isolated from their parents during training. The IRGC provided an incentive for parents to encourage their children to join the Basij by offering 6,000 tumans (then the monthly wage of the average Iranian) for service. Special financial subsidies were given if their child died in action. While this type and intensity of training is no longer in widespread use, the capability remains. The Basij training now focuses on military competency, particularly suppressing urban unrest. While the Basij are still mainly recruited from high school drop-outs, some are now taken from within the ranks of the IRGC. There are some reports that IRGC training of the Basij during the Iran-Iraq War was far more coercive, including forcing teenagers to raise and then slaughter animals to prove their imperviousness to emotional distress.



(U) Unit Cohesion and Morale

This section describes the diminishing morale of the Iranian armed forces since the Iran-Iraq War and the conditions of conscripts in the Artesh and IRGC.

(U) Morale and cohesion in the Iranian military has diminished since the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, but is still difficult to gauge. Today’s conscripts and junior officers are the “grandchildren of the revolution,” born and raised under the Islamic Republic. On one hand, they have been trained at every level of schooling to revere the 1979 Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini and support the system of the divinely sanctioned system of government he created. On the other hand, this same generation is witness to the regime’s failure to provide economic and political improvement in Iran. The regime still feels the need to dispatch religious officials to keep up the indoctrination and root out disobedience.


(U) Among members of the IRGC and the Basij the situation is different. These groups have close ideological, familial, and economic ties with the clerical regime. They have more to gain from good service and more to lose if the regime falters. They are more religious in their devotion to the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, they can use their service time as a spring-board to positions of economic and political power. However, even within the IRGC, junior officers and other career personnel are too young to have experienced the Revolution or to have seen combat in the Iran-Iraq War.


(U) The situation among enlisted men in both the Artesh and the IRGC is uncertain. About 80 percent of Artesh personnel and 60 percent of the IRGC are conscripts who serve 22 to 24 months in active duty; navy and air force personnel are mainly volunteers. While Artesh has been the typical destination for conscripts, the IRGC, too, augments its ranks through the draft. Some of the more ideologically fervent volunteer for the IRGC officer corps, but it is not clear if there is anything beyond a random assignment between the IRGC and the Artesh for conscripts. This means that some otherwise irreligious conscripts are forced to adopt more rigid religious habits during their service in the IRGC, which could cause some discontent and alienation. Most conscripts try to return home at night rather than sleep in the barracks. Not being allowed to leave military exercises in the evening and being confined to barracks for a night is considered a punishment. There are reports that some conscripts feel service in the Artesh is more arduous because it involves more physical labor such as marching, while discipline in the IRGC is more lax, allowing conscripts to get home more often.




(U) Iranian exile organizations suggest that about 70 percent of the men in both services supported the reformist candidate Mohammed Khatami in 1994, the same rate as the general population. While this is not surprising for the Artesh, it is for the IRGC, which is supposed to be extremely loyal to clerical conservatives. In the 1990s, new IRGC units had to be formed that were more obedient to the Supreme Leader.

(U) Technology and Innovation

This section describes Iranian desire for top technology but also to be authentic and home-grown. Also, this section describes the effect of Occidentosis and West-toxification on the IRGC’s doubt about the importance of technology.
(U) The Iranian military has an ambivalent attitude on the utility of technological innovation. This is driven by the conflicting heritage of Iran’s contact with western technology, which can strengthen the Iranian state but contradict Muslim doctrine. Since the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian military has taken pride in developing its own weapons systems, proving that Iranians were capable of matching the technological achievements of the West and no longer had to rely on superpowers like the United States.


Western states sold chemical to Iraq to attack us. They deliberately sold us faulty gas mask s... [the gas masks are a ] symbol of Western perfidy.

Soldier in the Iran-Iraq War



Soldier in the Iran-Iraq War

(U) The Artesh focuses on the need to have the most modern and effective weapons possible. The IRGC, on the other had, has doubts about the ultimate efficacy of high technology versus high morale during warfare. Part of the notion of West-toxification is that reliance on Western machines strips Iranians of their spirit and humanity. They become more like machines than men. Simply importing high technology wholesale was too easy and resulted in ostracizing the Iranian from his true culture. Soldiers who rely on the Western weapons lose their dignity as Muslims. Producing weapons domestically, rather then importing them, alleviates some of the anxiety about their dehumanizing effects; the IRGC succeeded in 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War using improvised weapons and techniques. In the IRGC’s culture, faith in Islam and willingness for self-sacrifice can be just as decisive (if not more so) than technological and material advantage. The Basij, whose training is more oriented toward indoctrination rather than weapons training, represent the ultimate expression of this belief in popular mobilization.


(U) Culture of Nuclear Technology and Nuclear Weapons

This section describes how different attitudes toward technology influence the different strains of nuclear strategy Iran might use.

(U) Iran’s nuclear policy is influenced by cultural concerns of prestige, Islamic doctrine, and perception of international and domestic threats to the Islamic Republic and the Revolution. Muhammed Reza Pahlavi began Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, by attempting to purchase nuclear technology from the United States and other western powers. The Shah was interested in nuclear weapons not because of a perceived security threat, but because he wanted to demonstrate his regime's modernization and regional supremacy. Immediately after the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini halted Iran’s nuclear program, stating that such utterly destructive weapons were degrading to humanity and taboo to Muslims. After the Iraqi invasion and the perceived threat to Iran’s survival, however, Khomeini ordered the resumption of nuclear research.


(U) Attitudes toward the development of nuclear doctrine are closely linked to different cultural outlooks in Iran and are influenced by the cultural practice of taqiyyah (dissimulation). These outlooks cut across different segments in the Artesh, IRGC, and civilian policymakers. Four different trends are visible: First, liberal Islamists continue to cite Ayatollah Khomeini’s original objection to nuclear weapons as un-Islamic and, therefore, forbidden. For them, Islam and Iran would be sullied by its association with such an evil and destructive weapon. This view is often professed in public by even the most hardline military and political figures, but it is only marginal in decision-making circles.


(U) Iran and Nuclear Weapons
(Click graphic for video)



(U) Second, defense-oriented strategists trained in strategic studies and Western military doctrine would pursue nuclear weapons to improve Iran’s deterrence capability and avoid a replay of the Iran-Iraq War, when Iraq invaded Iran with U.S. support.


(U) The blurring between offensive and defensive orientation in the Iranian military culture, however, means that simply possessing nuclear weapons could lead to a third option: offensive nuclear strategy. Offense-oriented strategists desire nuclear capability to defend the revolution and Iran’s sovereignty and to expand Iran’s influence and the Islamic revolution abroad. They envision using nuclear weapons for purposes of blackmail and extending Iran's nuclear umbrella to help fellow Muslims repel Western imperialism, possibly by proliferating nuclear weapons to other states. Additionally, they believe possessing a nuclear bomb would increase Iran’s prestige and demonstrate Iran's scientific advancement.


(U) Fourth, radical Islamists view the bomb as a mystical weapon. This is a relatively marginal view, but it has deep roots in Shi'a culture. The most radical Islamists believe that a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel or the United States to be a step toward Armageddon and the eventually revolution of the Muslim masses that will bring justice and peace to the earth. This belief is closely tied to faith in the return of the 12th Imam, or Mahdi, as a messiah figure.


"Political logic, morality, our own culture and above all the situation in today’s world does not allow us to have such deadly weapon s...Political wisdom asks us not to go for weapons which could cause devastation for humanity...Of course, we are for traditional weapons and that too just for self-defense...and that’s all."

Maj. General Mohsen Rezaie (IRGC) on Iran’s Nuclear Ambition



Maj. General Mohsen Rezaie (IRGC) on Iran’s nuclear ambition

(U) Among all these groups there is consensus that Iran is threatened by the U.S., Israeli, and Pakistani nuclear arsenals. There is also consensus that Iran has a right to nuclear technology for civilian energy use. They believe nuclear technology is not just a strategic but also an economic imperative, which the United States and others prohibit to prevent further development. For this reason, even hardliners seldom speak of Iran’s ambition to have an actual nuclear bomb, only to have a nuclear program or facility. However, they make their meaning clear with public displays of ballistic missiles, which have become proxy symbols for nuclear weapons.


(U) Iranian public opinion strongly supports Iran's right to have a nuclear program, but political leaders rarely speak of Iran's possession of nuclear weapons. There is great national pride associated with having an indigenously built nuclear program. The IRGC, which is in control of Iran’s nuclear and missile program, has given its ballistic missiles names and slogans drawn from Shi’a tradition. To the IRGC, nuclear weapons are not just weapons but also symbols to inspire the Revolution’s supporters and intimidate its opponents both at home and abroad. Additionally, the IRGC favors the expansion of the nuclear project as a way to further distinguish itself for the Artesh, which does not have a significant institutional presence in the missile or warhead programs.

(U) Culture and Rank

(U) General Officers

This section describes Iran’s generals and flag officers in the Artesh and IRGC who came to the fore during the Iran-Iraq War.

(U) General officers are the last generation in the Iranian military with first hand knowledge of the Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War. Revolutionary forces purged the upper echelons of the regular military, but some were reinstated during the Iran-Iraq War. The IRGC’s general officers came from the anti-Shah guerrilla movement and had less professional training and experience. Many received their ranks through field appointments. Those who survived the Iran-Iraq War did so by a combination of political connections and military effectiveness.


(U) Many high ranking IRGC officers are now better educated than their Artesh counterparts, having been exposed to both military and civilian educational systems and greater experience in the field. Since the 1990s, the Artesh and the IRGC have been reorganized under a single, combined command and the IRGC has put new stress on professionalism in its ranks.


(U) Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Full
Military Regalia



Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in full military regalia

(U) Through the mid-1990s, the IRGC has demonstrated some degree of political autonomy in the ability to resist the appointment of commanders whom the IRGC senior leadership does not accept. The IRGC requires its leaders be promoted from within, rather then appointed from outside. With the implementation of the unified command structure, the IRGC has been forced to submit to greater civilian control.

(U) Junior Officers

This section describes Iran’s junior officers, who have no memory of the 1979 Revolution or the Iran-Iraq War.

(U) Junior officers in the Iranian military were extremely weak before the Revolution and remain weak today. Few junior officers in either the Artesh or the IRGC who have seen combat or remember the 1979 Revolution. Superiors micromanage their juniors, who, in turn, display little initiative or ingenuity. IRGC officers tend to have greater ideological conviction and closer ties to the political centers of power; this by no means ensures high quality leadership or fighting skills. Officers in the regular military have little hope of gaining political prominence through service; especially in the navy and air forces, they are motivated by family tradition and the desire to gain technical training.


(U) IRGC at the Front



IRGC at the front

(U) Noncommissioned Officers (NCO)

This section describes non-commissioned officers (NCO) as technical specialists.

(U) The Iranian NCO corps mainly consists of technical specialists in aircraft and naval maintenance and other non-sensitive areas. Often these technical experts are from specific ethnic minorities, such as the Armenians who serve as technicians for the air force. These positions are reserved for groups who cannot be trusted with regular combat duty. In general, the NCO corps is extremely weak, caught between unmotivated conscripts and suspicious superiors.

(U) Enlisted

This section describes the social profile of enlisted men, their generally low morale and the differences between conscripts in the IRGC and the Artesh.

(U) Iranian males are legally eligible for conscription at age 18 and serve for 24 months. Those who are admitted to the university are allowed to defer until after graduation. However, males may begin military service as young as 16 for the Artesh and IRGC and even younger for the Basij militia. About 80 percent of Artesh personnel and 60 percent of the IRGC are conscripts; navy and air force personnel are mainly volunteers.


(U) It is unclear whether there is a significant difference between conscripts assigned to the IRGC versus the Artesh, but many believe conscripts are assigned at random. This means that some otherwise irreligious young men are forced to submit to the strict schedule of prayer, grow beards, and conform generally to the IRGC’s puritanical lifestyle, none of which prevails in the Artesh. In general, IRGC conscripts takes greater care of their uniforms, equipment, and outward appearances than their Artesh equivalents. IRGC conscripts wear short beards to indicate their Islamic outlook.


(U) The quality and orientation of the enlisted men in the Artesh and the IRGC are not easy to determine. Today’s conscripts are “grandchildren of the revolution,” with no memory of the Revolution and little of the Iran-Iraq War. On one hand, they have been brought up in the Islamic Republic’s education system to revere Ayatollah Khomeini and the theocratic system he created. On the other hand, they are a generation that has shown weariness of a closed cultural system that prohibits popular expression and true political participation. The incidence of social delinquency, such as intravenous drug use and related medical problems, including HIV infection, is significant among this age group. Many Iranians see conscription as a burden to avoid if possible. They try to use political connections or bribery to get out of service, to get a less onerous assignments closer to home, or to delay service by gaining entry into a university. The penalty for draft dodging and desertion in Iran includes prison time, fines, and disqualification from future government jobs. The government enforced these penalties as recently as 1996.


(U) It is next to impossible for an Iranian man to gather enough money to get married while he is in the army. Service is often seen as a distraction from money-making career opportunities. Most conscripts try to return to their family home in the evening after training is completed. Not being allowed home, whether because it is too far to travel or because a superior denies permission, is considered a serious hardship.


(U) The military skill of enlisted men is generally low. More than 90 percent of Iranian men in their 20s are literate, but significant disparities in opportunity remain between rural and urban areas. Also, the standard by which literacy is measured does not necessarily entail comprehension, only the ability to read. The military provides some remedial instruction mainly for non-native Persian speakers to learn military terms in Persian. With only two years in service for the typical conscript, they are not expected to obtain high technical or fighting skills.


(U) Identities Within the Military

(U) Regionalism

This section describes the role of regional identies and stereotypes in the military.

(U) The regular army under the Qajars (1794 to 1921) and in the early Pahlavi regime (1920s and 1930s) was mostly comprised of Persians and Azerbaijanis. Now, the advent and expansion of national conscription diminished the importance of regional distinctiveness of the Artesh within Iranian society. Regional stereotypes still persist, but are less important, as most regular military units tend to be regionally and ethnically diverse.


(U) During the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC’s battlefield formation corresponded to territorially organized units, with IRGC and Basiji members recruited from corresponding geographic regions. The size and strength of an IRGC unit depended on the mobilization potential of a given geographic region, with the corps drawing from densely populated Tehran more than rural provinces. This allowed the IRGC to maintain its dual role as a military force fighting against Iraq and an internal security organ. The implementation of conscription in the IRGC may have decreased the importance of regionalism within the IRGC, although units are still organized regionally.


(U) Family and regional ties are very important for the Basij. These volunteers tend to be teenagers and older men who volunteer for seasonal stints under local IRGC commanders. Often, Basij members come from the rural areas and can only serve when their labor is not needed for planting or sowing. Basij units can form out of loyalty to a particular ayatollah and function as his private bodyguard or vigilantes, becoming what is known as Ansar-e Hizbollah. Many times IRGC commanders allow these groups to use military equipment, including weapons.

(U) Ethnicity

This section discusses the role of ethnicity in the military, including the Sunni Baluch, Armenians, Bahai, Kurds, Persian.

(U) Iranians generally distrust people from ethnic groups that have not learned Persian or not adopted Shi'a Islam. Certain indigenous minority groups tend to specialize in high skill but non-combat positions. For instance, Armenian Christians tend to serve as air force technicians and mechanics. Other groups, like the Sunni Kurds, Turkmen, Baluchis, and Arabs, generally do not serve at all.


(U) During training, many Iranian soldiers learn to distrust people of certain ethnic groups who are suspected of disloyalty. Soldiers are taught to avoid Kurdish women, who might lure them into a trap where Kurdish guerrillas could kill him.


(U) Baluch Tribal Warriors



Baluch tribal warriors

(U) Conscripts from traditionally nomadic communities find military life particularly disagreeable. The sheer distance between their station assignment and their homes is bewildering. Many experience physical or psychological abuse and inadequate living conditions.. They resent the more cosmopolitan city-dwellers, who are often Persian. Tribesmen expect their chieftan to intervene with state authorities to get their tribesmen out of the military or even harbor tribesmen who are avoiding service.


(U) There have been reports that members of the Baha’i faith are persecuted within the military. While the Islamic Republic provides constitutional protection to the minorities it deems indigenous (Zoroastrians, non-Protestant Christians, and Jews), the Baha’i are considered apostates from Islam and are actively persecuted. Many Iranians believe a Baha’i-Zionist conspiracy orchestrates world affairs from behind the scenes. Estimates of their numbers in Iran range from 150,000 to 500,000. In 1997 a training officer shot and killed a Baha’i conscript. The officer maintain that the wepon was fired by accident and was released after a few days. Because the dead soldier was a Baha’i, the court excused the officer from paying the blood money normally required in such cases.


(U) Socioeconomic Class

This section describes class divisions with the military and the ability to dodge the draft.

(U) Khomeini depicted the 1979 Revolution as the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressors. The base of the IRGC came from the lower- and middle-class urban guerrillas who fought against the Shah. As the IRGC became more institutionalized and more prominent in the regime during the Iran-Iraq War, it began to attract volunteers from the urban slums. The opportunists joined the IRGC more for the benefits of social prestige and material reward than religious conviction, although they may have been sympathetic to the IRGC’s political message.


(U) The urban and rural poor gravitate toward the Basij militias. The Basij are animated by a sense of class hatred for the upper- and middle-class Iranians. They enjoy the power of being able to harass the sons and daughters of the rich for behaving in an immodest or un-Islamic manner. They can be bribed, however, to look the other way. When there are public protests on university campuses, the Basij take the opportunity to settle scores with their social superiors.


(U) Among the conscripts in both the IRGC and the Artesh, socioeconomic privilege still has sway. Those with money, either from the post-Revolutionary new elite or from old money families, can pay bribes to arrange for military assignments that are closer to home or involve less physical labor. Being stationed close to home means that a conscript can avoid sleeping in the barracks at night and instead return to his family home. Poorer conscripts, the Basij, and veterans who served in the Iran-Iraq War resent the privileges afforded to children of the rich, who can stay in the university to avoid service or get easy assignments.


(U) Gender

This section describes the military's attitude toward women and the different roles they play in Shii mythology.

(U) Women are not conscripted in the Iranian armed forces. Attitudes toward women in combat are also controversial, based on conflicting interpretations of the role of women during the days of the prophet and in the martyrdom of the Shi’ite saint, Imam Husayn. While jihad is incumbent on women, they may be able to fulfill their obligation through auxiliary services, like medicine, logistics, and teaching.


(U) Attitudes toward women’s roles in the military are affected by Islamic mores and customs. Yet these attitudes are changing in Iran. On the one hand, the Islamic Republic proscribes strict modesty for women, requiring them to be covered in public and not be seen with any males except for close relatives (husbands, fathers, and sons). They are generally required to remain subservient to males, particularly in the realm of politics. On the other hand, women are allowed to vote, stand for election in Parliament (although not for President), achieve high levels of education, and take professions. Still, it would be nearly impossible for Iranian women to work in a military setting except in units fully segregated by gender.


(U) Homosexuality

This section describes Iranian attitudes toward homosexuality and male bonding in the military.

(U) As in most Muslim societies, homosexuality is attributed only to the receiver of the sexual act, not the active partner. Homosexuality is condemned by the Qur'an and Iranian law lists flogging as its punishment. The accusation of homosexuality is also used as an excuse to punish people considered enemies of the Islamic moral order. Charges of sexual impropriety are often coupled with drug charges, making them a capital offense.


(U) Still, relationships among Iranian men may reach levels of intimacy which U.S. citizens would mistake for homosexuality. While these relationships are generally platonic, it is not uncommon for male intimates of the same dowreh (intimate circle of peers) to share a prostitute. This type of intimacy would only be practiced among equals, not between superiors and subordinates. Given the all-male environment, the fact that most Iranian men have their first sexual experience between the ages of 18 and 20, and that most men in the military are still unmarried, prostitute sharing and other sexual bonding behavior is likely prevalent in the military.

(U) Military Values


(U) Honor

This section describes the Iranian concept of honor, flattery, and punishment through silence.

(U) Iran’s hierarchical society emphasizes respect and deference by social inferiors toward superiors. The hierarchy is multidimensional, invoking gender, occupational status, class, regional or ethnic origin, age, and political affiliation. When Iranians meet for the first time, there is an elaborate set of social customs meant to probe the origins of each side and establish relative inferiority and superiority.


(U) Ideally, vertical social relationships are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing, with the inferior providing honor and respect for the superior and the superior providing material or emotional reward to the inferior. An inferior can force his superior to offer him more physical or material benefits by feigning total subservience and thus even more flattery. The honor of the superior, then, requires that he comply with the inferior’s request.


(U) If this system breaks down or one party feels that the other has failed to fulfill his obligation, the offender is cut off from all forms of communication. This punishes the perceived violator of norms of reciprocity and invokes sympathy for the person who has been harmed. Often a mediator from a higher social rank must intervene to encourage the parties to make up. This cultural practice is likely present in the military ranks, with subordinates who disappoint their superiors being cut off from communication instead of reprimanded or corrected. This silent treatment can also work in reverse: A subordinate can lash out by refusing to offer the requisite flattery to his superior.

(U) Secrecy

This section describes the Iranian differentiation between inner and outer emotions and the betrayal of secrets in the military to embarrass an enemy.

(U) Iranians believe there is a great difference between the public persona and inner emotions. Private thoughts are only revealed to close friends, relatives, and members of the same dowreh (intimate circle of peers). Within this dowreh, secrets are expected to be revealed as part of the mutually reinforcing process of bonding. To mere acquaintances, superiors, or strangers, however, a public façade of ritual courtesy is maintained. Iranians believe betrayal of inner secrets outside of the circle of family and intimate peers can be disastrous. Some groups in the Iranian military and political elite have betrayed military secrets in order to gain advantage over domestic rivals.

(U) Surrender

Describes the Islamic Republic’s ethos of martyrdom and ethos of surrender.

(U) The Islamic Republic tries to inculcate its troops with the idea of emulating Imam Husayn, who chose to die fighting rather than surrender and swear allegiance to an illegitimate power. This message has been accepted most readily in the IRGC and Basij, which were known to accept casualties and undertake very risky missions. During the Iran-Iraq War, mothers were expected to receive news of their son’s martyrdom with expressions of joy.


Death is better than life under oppression.

Husayn on Surrender



Husayn on Surrender

(U) Despite the government’s propaganda, tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers surrendered to Iraq during the 1980s. The willingness of troops to surrender during battle is probably just as much a function of variations in the attitudes of individual units and a small group sense of belonging. In that sense, an Iranian soldier is probably no less afraid of dying than any other soldier.


(U) Additionally, Iranians can justify surrendering or at least submitting to injustice by following the example of Imam Ali and Imam Hassan, Imam Husayn’s father and brother, respectively. They both decided that continuing to battle against unjust rulers was too destructive to the community and that it was better to make a temporary, unfair peace and set a personal example of living rightly despite oppression.

(U) Treatment of Prisoners

This section describes the military’s treatment of prisoners as hostages or as potential defectors, and describes the recruitment of the Badr Brigade.

(U) The Iranian military, particularly the IRGC, views prisoners as propaganda tools or potential new recruits for the Islamic Revolution. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran tried to indoctrinate Iraqi prisoners to turn against Saddam Hussein. This was consistent with Iran’s doctrine of “people’s war,” which predicted that Iraq’s Shi’a majority would rise up against the Sunni-dominated Ba’ath regime and join in the Shi’a Islamic revolution. The Iranian government dispatched Arabic-speaking preachers and teachers among the POWs, ostensibly as part of Iran’s Literacy Campaign, but their emphasis was on reading and analysis of the Qur'an. Despite these efforts, nearly 4,000 of the estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Iraqi POWs volunteered to serve in the Badr Brigade.


(U) When the IRGC seized British naval personnel on the Shatt al-Arab in 2004, they were forced to give videotaped confessions and apologies to Iranian television. They were, however, not mistreated in any other way and were given access to British consular staff until their release three days later.


(U) Veterans

This section describes Iran’s veterans of the Iran-Iraq War.

(U) While IRGC veterans have moved to politically and economically prominent roles in the Iranian regime, many common soldiers who fought in the Iran-Iraq War feel that Iran’s upper-classes look down on and neglect them. They feel they get insufficient respect or financial support for their sacrifices during the war, while many rich Iranians went abroad or stayed in the university to avoid service. These same rich Iranians are now running corrupt businesses that exploit the poor and underprivileged whom the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War were supposed to protect.


(U) IRGC veterans have become the back bone for new right-wing political movements. They tend to be involved in the Basij auxiliary or in the vigilante Ansar-e Hizballah and are extremely faithful to the founding fathers of the Revolution, particularly the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the ruling clerical establishment. For instance, in 2005, President Ahmadi-Nejad, along with 90 members of parliament, were IRGC veterans.

(U) The Karbala Metaphor

This section describes the role of the Karbala metaphor as models of military culture.

(U) The Battle of Karbala is the root metaphor of the Iranian military, and perhaps all of contemporary Iranian society. The battle occured near the Euphrates River (in present day Iraq) between forces loyal to Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who the Shi’a believe to be the Prophet’s caliph (rightful heir), and the forces of the usurper Yazid. Husayn’s army consisted of just 72 men and boys against Yazid’s 15,000, but they were miraculously able to withstand the initial onslaught. Encircled and starving, Husayn and his army refused to swear allegiance to Yazid. Husayn was overpowered by a mob of Yazid’s men and decapitated. Husayn’s head was carried on stake as a prize back to Damascus; all but one of his sons were killed, and his wife and sister were captured.


(U) Husayn's martyrdom is a seminal event in the Shi’a's faith, analogous to the crucifixion of Christ to Christians. Husayn’s death marks the beginning of the split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, with the Shi’a forced into hiding for upholding Husayn’s rightful claim. Husayn’s family line was carried on for two more centuries by a series of imams, until the Twelfth Imam went into hiding, fearing persecution by the Sunnis.


(U) The Shi’a await the return of the Twelfth Imam, who has taken on messianic proportions, to reestablish justice and the primacy of Husayn’s line. For a millennium, Shi’a have repeated and retold the story of Karbala in plays, recitations, and public marches during the month of Muharram, which reach an apex on Ashura, the tenth day of mourning of Husayn.


(U) While the basic story of the battle of Karbala is well known to all Shi’a, the interpretation and message is very flexible. Iran’s revolutionary clerics stress that the events of Karbala did not require passive spiritual mourning for Husayn but rather an active fighting for his social ideals. This contradicts the dominant conservative trend in religious thinking, which interpreted the Karbala story as demonstrating the necessity of passivity until the Twelve Imam returns to reestablish justice on earth. Nevertheless, the commemorations of Ashura in Iran equate Husayn’s martyrdom with the struggle of Muslims against oppression and unbelief. In contemporary Iran, Husayn and his followers represent the suffering masses—the third world, the working class, all Muslims, all Shi’a, or all Iranians—while Yazid’s army represents the forces of oppression and corruption, such as the United States, the Shah, Israel, capitalists, and imperialists. The ideology of the Revolutionary regime encourages citizens to emulate Husayn’s sacrifice as the greatest testament of faith.


(U) During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian leadership repeatedly used images and symbols associated with the battle of Karbala. In the mid-1980s, they code-named numerous Iranian offensives “Karbala.” Units assumed the names of various heroes from the Karbala story. New recruits were called “embarkers to Karbala” or the “caravan of Karbala.” The myth assumed an even more palpable form when the Iranian government announced that liberating Karbala from unbelievers was among their war aims.



Death to you, O Saddam Yazid!

Everyplace is Karbala, everyday Ashura!

Persistence of the Karbala Metaphor



Persistence of the Karbala metaphor


(U) The metaphor of Karbala and the connection with the martyrdom of Husayn is ubiquitous in Iran today. In addition to government-sponsored public acts of mourning during Ashura, memorials and graveyards display photos of the martyrs of the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq that liken the deceased’s sacrifice to Husayn’s. The martyrs are continuously invoked in memorials in public parks, city centers, mosques, newspapers, and radio broadcasts.


(U) Some of these displays are extremely graphic, with photographs of the young men alive contrasted with photos of their mangled corpses. Flags over the graves of martyrs indicate whether their death has been avenged: Green flags indicate that they have, red flags (like the one that flies over the shrine of Husayn) show they have not. The regime has constructed a cult around the war dead, who are connected to Husayn by their service to Ayatollah Khomeini.


He is gone, what have you done?

A martyr is a true man.

Martyrdom is another word for honesty.

Wall Slogans from Iran



Wall Slogans from Iran

(U) The symbols of Karbala are powerful and extremely flexible. The Basij use the slogan “We are not from Kufa, we will not abandon Ali,” which conflates the story of Karbala, in which the residents of the city of Kufa stood idly by when Husayn was slaughtered, with Ali, Husayn’s father, who, despite being a just and honest leader, was betrayed by the Muslim community. This deliberate misreading of the story allows the Basij to express their ongoing loyalty to the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

(U) Military Culture of Organizations and Institutions

(U) Service Branches

This section describes the competition between the Artesh’s professionalism and the IRGC’s ideological fervor as well as competition between the army, air force, and navy.

(U) Besides the intra-military rivalry between the regular army, navy, and air force, post-Revolutionary Iran has seen intense rivalry between the Artesh and the IRGC and its Basij adjuncts. Under the Shah, the army was always the largest branch of the service, but the air force was considered the Shah’s favorite, since the Shah himself was a pilot and was known to be enamored of high technology and of flying. The navy was the least regarded of the services, but as the Shah’s interest in force projection in the Persian Gulf grew, so, too, did his interest in the navy. The navy and air force continue to be manned by volunteers with higher technical skills than the conscript army.


(U) The IRGC distrusts the Artesh as a stronghold of royalist counterrevolution, elitism, and Occidentosis. The Artesh, in turn, views the IRGC as undisciplined and under-trained. As the purges of royalist officers and indoctrination of the lower ranks of the Artesh began in the early 1980s and as the IRGC began to focus more heavily on training for conventional warfare against Iraq, however, the effect of many of these stereotypes has decreased.


(U) Still, there remains a serious rivalry between the IRGC and the Artesh. The IRGC has developed its own naval and air forces alongside its land warfare units and is in command of Iran’s ballistic missile and WMD programs. The Artesh still claims greater professional expertise, but has tried to remain outside of the political fray. The Artesh navy continues to be the most secular branch of the military. The IRGC has increased its level of professionalism, but its main asset is its zealous loyalty to the Supreme Leader. The IRGC is far more active in political and ideological debates of the Islamic Republic and actively supports hardline conservative clerics, while the Artesh privately advocates for its own institutional interests, but does not take political positions.


(U) A crucial point of dispute between the Artesh and the IRGC remains over the role of the Basij. To the Artesh, the Basiji is an undisciplined mob at best, thugs and hoodlums at worst; they are unworthy of consideration in training and exercises. The IRGC, however, looks on the Basij as a strategic asset for mobilization in case of another large scale war and works with the Basij in training and indoctrination. However, some elements in the IRGC have come to view the Basij as a civilian body that should not be too closely integrated into the professional military ranks.


(U) In general, the different branches rise and fall according to current Iranian ambitions. When exporting the revolution abroad or consolidating it at home is considered crucial, the IRGC increases in prominence. With economic and ethnic unrest in the provinces, or geopolitical positioning in question, the Artesh becomes more significant.


(U) Reserves

This section describes Iran’s neglect of the reserves.

(U) The Islamic Republic carries on the tradition of the Shah in neglecting reserve forces. Technically, men can be called up from the reserves until age 44, yet these reserves are the very last resort for national defense. They receive little training and resources after leaving active duty. During the Iran-Iraq War, the regime opted to mobilize the Basij rather than call up ex-conscripts.

(U) National Police

This section describes how the national police have been detached from the military, but the IRGC and Basij still have police duties.

(U) Due to the complexities of political power in Iran, several agencies share responsibility for internal security. The IRGC exerts considerable influence within the national police, as they do other political institutions in Iran. Sometimes this influence is exercised when IRGC veterans are appointed to head organizations outside the IRGC, but other times IRGC officers receive joint appointments in the IRGC and a non-military organization simultaneously. Additionally, the Basij often serves to back-up law enforcement branches. The national police are nominally under the control of the Interior Ministry, but the Supreme Leader, not the Minister, selects the chief of police.


(U) Civic Values and Military Culture

(U) Authority and Loyalty

This section discusses Iran’s concept of a maktabi or Islamic army and the requirements of obedience. It also discusses potential conflicts between religious authorities and the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

(U) All members of the Iranian armed forces, whether in the Artesh or the IRGC, are expected to be maktabi, to follow Islamic precepts and be devoted to the Islamic Revolution. Throughout the 1980s, ideological officers were dispatched to all branches of the military to propagate this message. The maktabi military does not owe allegiance to a particular person, group, race, or party, but only to God, fulfilled through the practice of Islam. The maktabi soldier acts only for his responsibility to God and to his fellow Muslims, not for fear of reprisal or desire for earthly reward.


(U) Loyalty to Islam, however, took on a very precise meaning under the Islamic Republic. Acceptance of the rulership of the religious jurists and of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was required if one was to be loyal to Islam. Khomeini was an extremely charismatic leader whose edicts carried enormous weight in broad sections of the Iranian public. The constitution provides the supreme leader with supreme command over both the Artesh and the IRGC.


(U) The Assembly of Experts named and the Guardian Council approved Ayatollah Khamenei as the supreme leader after Khomeini’s death. This led to an ongoing crisis of religious and political authority. Khamenei is constitutionally entitled to the position of commander in chief of the military forces. However, Khamenei is not among the most senior or respected Shi’a clerics; more senior clerics have issued edicts critical of him. This opens the possibility for a contradiction between adhering to the authoritative teachings of Islam and following the constitutionally prescribed chain of command. The IRGC and Basij commanders especially form the regime’s praetorian guard, protecting the Supreme Leader at all costs.



(U) Loyalty of the Artesh vs. IRGC
(Click graphic for video)



(U) The issue is complicated further by the recognition that military discipline cannot be sacrificed in the name of religion. On the one hand, the volunteers who serve in the IRGC and the Basij take on a personal responsibility to protect Islam and serve the Islamic Republic. IRGC and Basij culture fosters a sense of individual duty and service and opposes hierarchy. On the other hand, military efficiency and order requires clear chain of command. It is not clear, then, whether individual soldiers may defy orders in the name of Islam. Such initiative is more likely in the IRGC and the Basij than in the Artesh.



Islam will not allow a military person to defy discipline on the grounds that he is a maktabi… the chain of command is also a common feature of both armed forces [Artesh and IRGC]. Even if the commander of a particular unit is not completely maktabi, this does not mean disregarding the chain of command.

Hojjat al-Islam Mohammadi Reyshahri, Minister of State Security



Hojjat al-Islam Mohammadi Reyshahri, Minister of State Security

(U) Nationalism, Patriotism, and Citizenship

The section discusses the role of Iranian nationalism in animating defense, alongside a weak sense of civic community.

(U) Iranian nationalism and patriotism is more muted, but still present, in animating the military alongside allegiance to Islam. For many, the idea of serving Islam and serving Iran is synonymous. While much of the Artesh was certainly disaffected from the revolution, the Iraqi invasion reinforced the cohesion of the regular military with the regime under the common bond of Iranian nationalism. Even as Islamic fervor could not motivate everyone, the desire to defend the homeland was a strong complementary motivator for a tough defense against Iraq. While nationalism is strong among Iranians, there is a weak sense of civic community and little sense of responsibility outside the family and friendship group. Iranians believe in defending the homeland from invasion, but not necessarily in protecting their fellow Iranians.


(U) Attitudes Toward Iranian Exiles and Diaspora

Discusses Iranians distrust of exiles and diaspora members who didn’t fight against Iraq, particularly the hated Mujahideen Khalq MKO.

(U) There is close contact between the Iranian diaspora and Iranians in the homeland. Many Iranians get important information about world events and popular culture from friends and relatives abroad. However, there is also distrust of the diaspora, as many Iranians consider those who fled Iran to be traitors. Iranians in the homeland particularly distrust the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a leftist-Marxist group that had participated in the revolution but soon turned against Khomeini and sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. They are now popularly described as “hypocrites” for deserting Iran in its time of need.

(U) Military Service and Social Status

This section describes social climbing through the military.

(U) Service in the regular military is still considered socially prestigious among the older generations in the upper- and middle-class. Aspiring social climbers in Iran traditionally choose between careers in the military, clergy, or business as avenues for advancement. The regular air force and navy continue to draw exclusively on volunteers, presumably young men seeking technical training or to carry on a family legacy. The regular military’s professionalism continues to be admired in Iran, even though it has lost much of its political influence.

(U) The IRGC has become a launching pad for political aspirants, but is still considered less prestigious. This is probably a result of the perception that the IRGC is manned by poor urban or rural youth who lack the manners and education of the professional armed forces. Still, in some segments of Iranian society, the IRGC is even more respected precisely because it is free from the Shah’s bureaucracy and is ideologically and religiously pure.

(U) Many veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, particularly of the IRGC, resent their treatment by richer Iranians, who they say avoided service by hiding in the university or using family connections. Veterans feel that the Revolution which promised to uplift the under-class is not yet complete and support right-wing groups that want to continue to redistribute social benefits to veterans and away from the corrupt, Westernized upper-class.

(U) Ethics and Discipline

Discusses the differences between Artesh and IRGC in the role of Islam and Western military.

(U) The Artesh and the IRGC have very different concepts of ethics and discipline. While both are generally charged with being maktabi (to follow Islamic precepts), much of the ethics and discipline of the Artesh stem from the lingering effects of Western military advisors. The IRGC, on the other hand, is much more closely tied to the Muslim code of law and more readily accepts the application of Islamic law within its service.

(U) Bravery, Courage, and Cowardice

This section describes two models of bravery in Iranian culture: Husayn, the martyr of Karbala, and Rustam, who uses guile to win. It discusses the various interpretation of these myths.

(U) Imam Husayn and Rustam are the primary exemplars of courage and bravery in Iran’s Shi’a revolutionary and Iranian imperial legacies, respectively, but aspects of both these heroic tales can also demonstrate the necessity of retreat and withdrawal until the opportunity for action is right. Iranians learn to revere these figures, along with many others, from a young age and to recite poems and songs about their exploits. The Revolutionary government propagates the image of Husayn in particular as a revolutionary leader who was willing to die to confront injustice.


(U) Popular interpretations of these legacies are not exclusively controlled by the state, however. There is some evidence that Iranians have grown weary of 25 years of incessant invocation of Husayn’s martyrdom as justification for the current regime. Additionally, there are alternative interpretations of these same myths that can be seen as justifying retreat or deception rather than confrontation. Until the 1979 Revolution, the dominant understanding of the story of Husayn was that the faithful should adopt political passivity and dissimulation in the face of injustice and not risk a battle that could destroy the community. Until the 1979 Revolution, most Shi’ite theologians taught patient perseverance until the Twelfth Imam returned to establish justice on earth. In the imperial legacy, Rustam was known as a great warrior, but when faced with a superior opponent, he retreated to fight another day. In this way, the same elements in Iranian culture can favor both bravery and retreat.


(U) Victory and Defeat

Discusses Iranian view that Husayn achieved a symbolic victory at Karbala, even though he was militarily defeated and how Khomeini used this notion in the Iran-Iraq War.

(U) The metaphor of Karbala provides an extremely flexible definition of victory. On a purely military level, Husayn failed to depose the usurper Yazid, leading to 1,500 years of persecution for the Shi’a. Still, on a spiritual level Husayn succeeded in demonstrating the evil of his opponents and, in so doing, achieved a symbolic victory in military defeat. The idea that Iran can achieve a symbolic victory by revealing to other Muslims and the world the treachery of its enemies reverberates in modern times.


(U) When Ayatollah Khomeini accepted the ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq War, he said he was ashamed to accept the ceasefire. Ultimately, martyrdom may be even more divine when achieved in a militarily futile or ineffective campaign. It is considered one more step in the progress toward a messianic victory of righteous Islam over unbelievers.


"We must choose one of two alternatives—either martyrdom or victory, which we both regard as victory….Happy are the disabled, the prisoners of war and those missing in action and the great families of the martyrs. And how unhappy I am because I have survived and have drunk the poisonous chalice of accepting the resolution, and feel ashamed in front of the greatness and sacrifices of this great nation."

Ayatollah Khomeini Accepting Defeat, 1988



Ayatollah Khomeini accepting defeat, 1988

(U) The notion that victory can be achieved symbolically rather than militarily is also found in Persian imperialist culture. In its long history, Iran has won and lost countless wars. Great conquerors including Alexander the Great, the Arab Islamic armies, and the Turkic hordes of Ghengis Khan, have all overrun Iran, but Iran has persevered through its cultural superiority. Ultimately, the conquering armies are attracted to Iran by Iranian high art, literature, and political sophistication. Therefore, after their victory, they adopt Persian culture as their own. Persian military loss is temporary as long as Iran is able to retain its cultural superiority. The West’s unwillingness to acknowledge Iran’s cultural space and heritage is as much a threat to Iran as any military venture.


(U) Role in the State and Society

(U) Military Authority and Civilian Authority

This section describes the connection between the military and clerical religious establishment. The IRGC has strong ties to the clerical establishment.

(U) Leadership in Iran is heavily influenced by personal and informal ties, rather than formal authority. Prominent individuals are often more powerful than their formal positions would indicate, particularly those with ties to the ruling clerical establishment. These factors create an unstable and chaotic chain of command, but one in which consensus among the key leaders is extremely important. Officers hesitate to make decisions or take initiative without prior approval by leadership circles.


(U) The highest military authority in Iran is the Supreme Leader, who is elected by the Assembly of Experts and subject to approval by the Guardian Council. Ayatollah Khomeini created the system to suit himself and his role as ruling jurist of the Republic and leader of the revolution. Khomeini’s charisma allowed him to combine religious, political, and military authority. Khomeini essentially handpicked the members of the Guardian Council. However, Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lacks Khomeini's outstanding qualities and has difficulty commanding the same respect. The Supreme Leader does, however, have the power to appoint military commanders and to oversee ideological indoctrination in the ranks.


(U) The IRGC and the Basij see themselves as followers and protectors of the Supreme Leader. They do not feel constrained by regular civilian authority. In fact, they often see their role as preserving the Revolution from reckless reformist politicians. They often claim to be following the path blazed by Ayatollah Khomeini, who remains greatly revered.


(U) Relationship to Civilians


This section discusses the growing distance between civilians and the IRGC and the Artesh and the debate about the role of the Basij.

(U) Both the Artesh and the IRGC see themselves as separate to some extent from civilian society. For the Artesh, this sense comes from the lesson of Rustam, who served the Shahs but never claimed the throne himself. The IRGC's culture makes less of a distinction between what is a military and what is a civilian matter, but as the IRGC adopts greater professionalism in its ranks, it too conceives of itself as separate from civilian life. The IRGC does, however, maintain a strong relationship with the Basij, which maintains no clear distinction between civilian and military societies. The Basij are only temporarily on duty and are answerable to the IRGC only when on duty. This means that they are free to participate in vigilante-type behavior with right-wing Ansar-e Hizbollah to intimidate opposition and reformists when off duty. The IRGC often tacitly supports the Basij by giving them access to weapons and vehicles.


(U) In almost all branches of the military, though, conscripts see their service in the military as a temporary imposition. Soldiers who are stationed close to home prefer to sleep in their family’s house rather than in the barracks. People can avoid serving in the military entirely if they are enrolled in higher education. Most conscripts want to return to civilian life as soon as possible.


Our army does not belong only to our brothers in the armed forces. Men and women, young and old in our country, are the members of the Islamic army, and are guardians of Islam.

Ayatollah Taleqani on the Islamic army



Ayatollah Taleqani on the Islamic army

(U) Military and the Economy

The section discusses the IRGC and Artesh’s plans to deny U.S. access to oil and the IRGC’s role as hired muscle for the bonyad revolutionary foundations.

(U) The IRGC and Artesh demonstrate a sensitivity to economics in their strategic thinking. They envision oil as a weapon to be used in conflict. The military also plays an important role in Iran's domestic economy. It developed its economic power within Iranian society through two avenues. First, the military is involved in domestic arms production industries. Second, the IRGC and Basij especially maintain close connections to the networks of bonyads (charitable foundations). Bonyads are essentially tax-exempt trusts under the personal control of the Supreme Leader and his supporters. With revenues in the billions of dollars, some IRGC officers and Basij commanders have connection to the bonyads, providing private security or protection to them, even going so far as to help smuggle drugs and alcohol. The revenues generated are used to boost quality of life in the IRGC, buy new weapons, and fund operations without the oversight of the civilian ministries.

(U) Military and Politics

The section describes the Artesh’s efforts to remain apolitical and the IRGC and Basij direct service to the ruling clerical establishment.

(U) There are different attitudes toward the military's involvement in politics. The Artesh generally adheres to the notion that it is the king-maker and the defender of the realm, but not the king itself. Many Iranians associate episodes of military coups, like the one that the brought Reza Khan to power and the deposed Prime Minister Mossadeq, as aberrations and disasters for Iran. This is consistent with the popular understanding of the myth of Rustam, who dutifully carried out the Shah's orders no matter how foolish they were.


(U) On the other hand, the IRGC and Basij see themselves as defending the Revolution, which requires them to be actively engaged in Iran's political and social life. Since so many of their members (both veteran and active) have close ties to the ruling clerical establishment, it is nearly impossible for them to remain politically neutral. Former members of the IRGC have been elected president of the republic and assumed high ranking positions in Parliament and senior positions in the clerical establishment. Experience with the IRGC, particularly during the Iran-Iraq War, is a highlight on an aspiring politician’s resume. Additionally, the IRGC exerts influence on other political institutions in Iran by having its officers placed as the head of other institutions, such as the national police and intelligence agencies.



The presence and propagatory role of the doctrinaires and those who are the rightful and loyal forces of the regime is necessary to combat individuals who are disrespecting Islamic decrees… The Basij must be the guardians of the revolution’s policies and its true values and the vehicle for implementing the policies sketched by the Leader.

Mohammed Ali Movahhedi-Kermani, on the New Revolutionary Guardians



Mohammed Ali Movahhedi-Kermani, on the new Revolutionary guardians

(U) The IRGC and its Basij auxiliaries play a role in campaigns of intimidation against those perceived as opponents or rivals, including student leaders, newspaper editors, and even reformist members of parliament. IRGC leaders often address Friday prayer sessions at the behest of the clerical establishment. They use the pulpit to issue statements or warnings to the president and other members of the national security establishment. The Basij are particularly active around election time because they, unlike the IRGC, are only temporarily in uniform and thus have more leeway to act in semi-official status in support of hardline candidates.


(U) Military and Religious Institutions

(U) Both the Artesh and the IRGC accept the chain of command set out in the Iranian constitution that makes the country's supreme religious leader the commander-in-chief of all armed forces. They differ in the extent to which each is connected to Iran’s religious establishment. The Artesh is cut off from the network of clerics that form the power center of Iran. The IRGC, by contrast, tries to increase its influence by deepening its ties to the clerical establishment. The IRGC, like the school system, is an agent for propagating Islamic values among the citizenry.


(U) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the right to control military as well as cultural, political, and economic affairs through agents and representatives. Khamenei’s representatives sit in the command councils for every branch of the military, the IRGC, and the Basij, head the national police force, and the combined general staff forces. In addition, Khamenei runs a division of ideological commissars to oversee military indoctrination and training at all levels. While the Minister of Defense may be appointed by the president and approved by the parliament, he can always be overruled by Khamenei’s delegates.


(U) The close intermingling of the IRGC and the clerical establishment surrounding Khamenei increases the IRGC’s influence. IRGC leaders frequently give speeches before and after Friday prayer. The pulpit of Friday prayer is profoundly important in the Islamic Republic because the mosque is a primary avenue through which the regime communicates with the public. In some cases, the regional prayer leader is more influential than the regional governor. IRGC leaders issue statements or warnings to the president and other members of the elite about national security and social policy. They can also use Friday prayer to signal to the Basij and its allied vigilante groups to take action.