Immortal: A Military History of Iran and its Armed Forces
by Steven R. Ward
Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009. 361 pp. $27.95
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
Iran has had more than its share of wars; its history can, to a large extent, be understood by studying the military operations on its soil. With only brief interludes, Iranian leaders during the last century have seen the military as the centerpiece of their rule. That was as true of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1921-41) and his son as of the Islamic Republic, which uses its Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guard, to maintain its iron grip on the country.
CIA analyst Ward provides detailed accounts of the grand martial dreams envisaged by these regimes—dreams that came crashing down in costly failure. When Iraqi forces unilaterally withdrew from Iranian soil in 1982, for example, the Islamic Republic could have ended the war with Iraq on terms no worse—arguably better—than what it was offered in 1988. By fighting on, the Islamic Republic lost about 200,000 citizens and exhausted its people, who no longer were prepared to sacrifice for the revolutionary cause.
Ward skillfully illustrates how the Islamic Republic in many important ways continues the millennia-long trends of its forebears. He recalls historian Sir Percy Sykes's comment that the ancient Sassanians, the last pre-Islamic Persian empire, "consider[ed] the altar and throne as inseparable," pointing to its continuing relevance to many Iranian regimes, especially today's mullocracy. Another theme is the eventual intervention of the military in political affairs, seen once more in the Revolutionary Guard's assertion of greater control at the expense of clerics and elected leaders.
Finally, he observes that few Iranian regimes have done well in incorporating state-of-the-art technology in an effective manner, noting the dangers for the Islamic Republic in its reliance on a small inventory of uncertain missiles and weapons of mass destruction, which among other things, invite preemptive attack. Most striking is the same pattern displayed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq: Dedicated, self-sacrificing Iranian soldiers undercut by poor leadership, stingy support, and outright maltreatment at the hands of rulers who took a cavalier attitude toward their soldiers' sacrifices. It would behoove today's military planners to absorb these important lessons from the past as they prepare for current contingencies.
If the lessons of the past hold, the ordinary Iranian soldier will perform valiantly and the Iranian commanders will be not especially competent or caring about their men.
Related Topics: History, Iran | Patrick Clawson | Fall 2010 MEQ
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