Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces

  • Published

Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces by Steven R. Ward. Georgetown University Press, 2009, 400 pp.

Steven Ward’s book Immortal is a detailed history of Iran’s military, starting with the Persians in 530 BC and ending with present-day Iran. A senior CIA intelligence analyst, the author researched many historical records prior to writing this interesting and complex history. Each chapter presents a specific time period up to the present. In addition to providing factual accounts, Ward includes anecdotes from eyewitness journals that bring the history to life. In the final chapter, he emphasizes the book’s historical relevance by tracing the current Iranian military to its past.

The ancient Persian empires began in 550–530 BC with Cyrus the Great, who trained and fielded a superior military force. Chapter 1 describes various alliances, conquests, and betrayals during that time. Ward offers detailed accounts of many battles, including flanking movements, encirclements, and lines of communication, all of which a true military historian will appreciate. At one point, Persian rule extended into Europe, India, and Egypt. (Indeed, some elements in Iran wish to reacquire this sphere of influence.)

The Safavid dynasty (1501–1760), the subject of chapter 2, encompassed Iran’s glory days. The first Safavid leader, Ismail, made the practice of Shia Islam mandatory in Persia and attempted to spread it beyond the country’s borders. Ismail’s crusade led to conflict with the Sunni-majority Ottoman Empire when he began to destroy Sunni religious sites. Ward provides gripping accounts of the initial interplay between the empires’ leaders. The ensuing battles for regional prominence dominated both empires. To win this conflict, the Persians requested British assistance to modernize their military.

Foreign assistance turned into outright interference during the Qajar dynasty (1794–1926), detailed in chapter 3. Weakened by civil war, the Qajars could not avoid Russian, British, and French encroachment. Europeans occupied territory and dominated the economy. Moreover, the Russians eliminated an Iranian nationalist movement that had successfully installed the nation’s first constitution. During World War I, Britain and Russia ignored Iran’s declared neutrality and occupied the country, forcing Iran to support the Allies. The desire never to become a pawn again remains central to Iran’s present foreign policy.

The Qajar dynasty also set the stage for today’s military. Ward aptly titles chapter 3 “Laughingstock,” reflecting the near impossibility of fixing the military. Modernization efforts failed, thanks to internal Qajar rivalries, conservative mullahs, and corrupt government officials. Since the regular army was hopeless, foreign advisors established new militaries: the Persian Cossack Brigade and the Gendarmerie, discussed in chapter 4.

In chapter 5, the author examines how the British helped put Reza Khan, a general in the Cossack Brigade, in position to take over the monarchy. Concerned with containing Bolshevism, the British supported Reza Khan’s coup to oust the parliament. After the coup, he became commander in chief of the armed forces and merged the Cossacks, Gendarmerie, and regular military to form the Artesh, which aided his “election” to shah and initiated the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty.

During World War II and the Cold War, the subjects of chapters 6 and 7, US involvement in Iran grew. Initially, World War II seemed almost a replay of World War I. That is, the Russians and British ignored Iran’s declaration of neutrality and invaded. American troops entered Iran, a key supply route to Russia, to provide aid and train personnel. Ward discusses how the Iranians learned to dislike the better-supplied Americans. At the start of the Cold War, the United States directly interfered in Iran’s domestic politics by executing Operation Ajax, which removed the prime minister and freed the shah to build up the military by purchasing weapons from the United States and other countries. Unfortunately, the shah’s eyes were too big for his country’s capacity, and his military had to rely on foreign suppliers for spare parts and technical expertise.

The shah’s focus on the military at the expense of his country led to the Islamic revolution, represented in chapter 8. Poor economic performance, income disparity, and lack of political freedom were the key reasons for unrest. To prevent military interference, revolutionaries attacked army outposts, and clerics issued edicts encouraging troops to desert or turn against their commanders. When the shah fled, the demoralized army stepped aside for Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers. Ward describes how the new regime purged the military by retiring, imprisoning, or executing most of its officers. As an additional check against the Artesh, Khomeini created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The lack of a strong, professional military left Iran vulnerable to Iraq’s invasion in 1980.

In chapter 9, the best part of the book, the author shows how the IRGC’s successful but costly human-wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq War forced it to work more closely with the Artesh, allowing the regular military to regain some prestige. He also depicts how Iran compensated for a weak navy by developing guerilla naval tactics that led to the “tanker war.” When a US naval vessel accidentally shot down a civilian Iranian aircraft, Khomeini feared that the United States would join the Iraqis. That incident, combined with antiwar protests in Iran, led Khomeini to reluctantly declare a cease-fire in 1988.

Although the final chapter discusses the present state of the Iranian military, readers looking for substantial information will be disappointed. Perhaps Ward wishes to prevent any compromise of classified material, simply linking past military experience to current force structure and strategy. The war with Iraq ensured the Artesh’s survival as well as the necessity of professional military training for both the Artesh and the IRGC. Iran’s military is neither weak nor small, but it cannot win a conventional battle against the United States. Consequently, Iran has focused many of its efforts on deterring regional competitors and developing nonconventional strategies to defeat US forces, particularly by means of its naval tactics and nuclear efforts.

Lt Col Shahnaz M. Punjani, USAF

Washington Institute for Near East Policy


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."