Iranian Way of War

My Paper presented at the 13Th ASMEA conference (virtually) Without footnotes ….Slides inserted in the paper.


 Historical Considerations in Understanding Iran’s Military and Their Way of War

 By Norvell B DeAtkine


Academic and media angst at the early January killing of Qassim Al-Soleimani, head of the Iranian state-sponsored terror organization, al Quds, by an American missile, exposed the long history of American ignorance of Iranian strategic objectives at every level of foreign policymaking by successive administrations. Many saw the event as portending a spiral of violence leading inexorably to all-out war. However, the unpalatable truth is that Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979, a fact well documented by David Crist in his book,The Twilight War.[1] The Iranians have mostly used surrogates to perpetrate a litany of terror attacks and provocations, which, until the killing of  Al – Soleimani, were usually met with angry denunciations but little action. In a region of the world where strength must be constantly demonstrated, the U.S. influence has declined precipitously. We have been unable to contend with an Iranian way of war that is ignored or submerged in a morass of academic and political wishful thinking. The fundamental problem is a prevalent one. Americans lack interest in history, and tend to view other peoples’ actions through the lens of our own culture. The manner in which different cultures fight should be the starting point in understanding our adversaries, especially one as crafty and intractable as Iran. There are many sources covering the direction of Iranian strategy, but generally they do not adequately cover the historical and cultural environment in which the Iranian way of war has developed.[2]


Way of war is best defined as a pattern of fighting which is recurrent in history of a people.   The weapons change, perhaps tactics, and newer ideologies are introduced, but underneath it all, the culture, inexorable, near immutable remains.  I hope to depict in this paper the continual cultural thread, which defines the Persian way of War. In doing this it critical to view the military history within the overall Persian culture. Military culture is a subculture of the general culture, and in fact it generally is more conservative and more resistant to change than other institutions. However, the concept that there is such a thing as a “way of war” is a contentious issue and applying it to specific peoples or cultures is fraught with the dangers of walking into an academic minefield, especially given the current academic inability to separate cultural studies from dark illusions of racism. This is particularly true in writing anything  seemingly critical of non- Western military cultures, which are apt to bring on charges of “military orientalism.[3] Nevertheless, one need not  be an anthropologist, or linguist in classical Greek, but merely a serious student of military history to understand that culture is the primary determinant of a way of war.  Edward T. Hall,[4] in his series of works on culture conclusively demonstrates that culture determines every aspect of our lives. It is illogical to assume that warfare is the exception.

This word “orientalism” has become a pejorative term in much of the Middle East scholarship, and has often clouded useful scholarship.  In other words, hoping to find continuity, in the current Iranian way of war to that waged by the Achaemenid Persians is too theoretical and fanciful.  Based on my personal on-the ground experience and many years studying warfare, it is true that one can find exceptions to a continuity of military culture, but they are rare.  It is not an aberration that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) looked back to the era of  early Islamic conquests to model their method of warfare. [5]  The Islamist concept of war as envisioned by the Pakistani Brigadier S.K. Malik in his much-read book, The Quranic Concept of War, laid out a doctrine that was fundamental to the ISIS conduct of its operations.[6]


In examining ways of war, several American military historians turned it into an analytical industry that continues to pull in increasing numbers of young psychologists, historians and innumerable pundits.[7] In his book, The Western Way of War; Infantry Battle in Classical Greece,   American historian Victor Davis Hanson, defined a Western way of war, exemplified by the Greek method of fighting  the Persians, who have been described as fighting an “eastern way of war.”  The western way of war was predicated on the spirit and martial élan of the citizen soldiers disciplined by military training and city-state loyalty. They were citizens with leaders elected or appointed on the basis of a meritocracy. This was in contradistinction to the Persian habit of leaders appointed on the basis of loyalty to the King or part of the royal family – a system followed by most Middle East countries today based on loyalty to the regime as the major factor.




There are massive volumes of work on culture including a number of approaches which often tend to obfuscate more than clarify.   Using a definition presented to my classes at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School by redoubtable professor Gary Weaver, of the American University, culture is defined as a “way of life of a people passed down from one generation to the next through learning.”[8]   Culture is formed by a myriad of factors, e.g., history, language, religion, geography etc. The people of a culture are shaped by the culture in the form of a bell-shaped curve, some totally, some not at all, but the vast majority to a considerable degree, resulting in a predominately common world view.  Moreover, as studies indicate, cultures change very slowly, especially in more traditional societies.


The Greek view of the Persians was usually derogatory[9], but often  because the Persians preferred to fight their battles in a different manner, eschewing the all-out frontal assault.  Many historians[10] analyzing the warfare of that era, including John Keegan, in his History of Warfare, have depicted the Persian way of war as one of evasion, delay, and indirectness, particularly gifted in psychological warfare, and the use of intelligence.  Because of these attributes, the Persians were usually pictured as effeminate, weak, fighting for pay only, and linked together by chains to prevent fleeing from the battle. Unfortunately, we do not get a full picture of the other side of the story as the Arab invasion of Persia[11]destroyed much of the narratives of earlier Persian history. Moreover, the multilingual aspects of the Persian Empire inhibited a large volume of historical narratives being produced, so the Persian version is largely unrecorded.  in his book, Shadows in the Desert, Dr. Kaveh Farrokh, [12]gives a more balanced view and points to the superiority of the Greek armor with their longer spears, and better swords to the inferior fighting equipment of the Persians. The Persians depended upon their mounted and infantry archers to decimate the enemy before having to close for hand-to-hand combat.[13] One of the major problems of the ancient Persians warring against the Greeks was the multilingual nature of the huge Persian armies. The linguistic issue inhibited transferring commands to the diverse national units who fought with different equipment, doctrine, and varying loyalty to the Persian royal house. Against the Greeks this was fatal.


It was Russell Weigley, in his American Way of War[14] that brought the theory into concrete reality, especially for American veterans who observed on the ground the accuracy of his analysis of the American way of war in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, which could be compared to in a large degree, to the Iraqi wars.  He and his acolytes hammered on the thesis that Americans demanded a total military victory, crushing the enemy with the use of overwhelming firepower, relying on technology, and mostly ignoring any ambiguities surrounding the issues involved.  From these cultural attributes the fascination with technology of weapons of war permeated the American way of war.  As many have pointed out, American dependence on technology was one of the primary problems of their forces in Vietnam and Iraq.[15]


To a degree the “Persian “way of war is the epitome of an Eastern way of war[16], and while it as certain similarities to the Arab way of war it has significant differences.  The ancient Persian method of war was centered on the archers, many of whom were mounted. They could “cloud out the sun” with cascades of arrows. In a modern sense, their way of war was based on standoff weaponry, preferring to win by decimating the enemy without close combat.  Fast forwarding to Iraq, the vast majority of American casualties against the Iraqi surrogates of the Iranian regime resulted from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and mortars – not close quarter combat. Also, in the Persian- Greek wars, the Iranians depended on surrogates as much as possible. This was not to say that the ancient Persians lacked courage or ability. As Herodotus wrote, they were proud men and brave fighters, and esteemed courage more than any other nation[17]



The military historian, John Keegan while acknowledging the importance of technology and other factors, basically and unequivocally viewed way of war as rooted in culture. He wrote, “Culture is nevertheless, a prime determinant of the nature of warfare, as the history of its developments in Asia clearly demonstrates.”[18] He expanded the thesis of Victor Hanson, demonstrating that the Muslim disrespect  and ignorance of Western Christianity and European culture debilitated their ability to defeat Western armies beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of   Egypt in 1798.[19]  The tenacity of Middle Eastern cultural values is evident in only superficial absorption of Western doctrines, military ethos, and techniques, which  has continued in Middle Eastern military establishments to the present day.[20]   For instance, many of the deficiencies of the Egyptian army recorded by Winston Churchill in The River Wars were still apparent to this writer[21] a hundred years later. The June 2014 dissolution of the Iraqi army in the face of a numerical smaller ISIS force, gave rise, belatedly, to the exasperated, “It’s the culture, stupid!”


World View


The elite of Iran see themselves as perpetual victims, surrounded by enemies, in a virtual state of siege. From this, they perceive Iran as insecure, and this is aggravated by a hidden sense of inferiority.[22] This sense of inferiority is often disguised by bellicose pronouncements of military[23] and national superiority. The elites see Iran as the indispensable and leading power in the Middle East, kept from their natural role by surrounding regional enemies and international great powers, in the most part of the last century, by Russia and Great Britain, and now the United States.[24] As Sir Percy Sykes so undiplomatically wrote, “Persians are remarkably vain, and they think so highly of their barren desert country they cannot conceive of any power failing to covet it.”[25] The renown historian of Iran, Richard Frye, wrote, “The central fact of this culture ……is the rather intangible feeling among the people that Persian culture – traditions, outlook on life, and the like – will always survive political domination and the onslaught of new ideologies.”[26]


Despite the plethora of invasions by alien peoples, Arab, Turks. Mongols, Afghans, and the later era, control by imperial Russians and British forces, the Iranians were able to maintain their distinct Iranian culture. But politically each era of foreign domination brought with it the factionalism of those who resisted and those who bought into it. The long history of foreign involvement in Iran has produced a strong element of xenophobia.[27]


 The Influence of Iranian National Character on their Way of War


There are many critics to the whole idea of a “national character” or the “modal character” or other appellations used by anthropologists to characterize a people. The quest to understand their politics, daily living patterns, and especially the below the water “ice berg” effect that often bewilders casual observers, and infuriates those who view Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword as racist or pseudo-science.   Without getting into the exotica and esoterism of cultural studies my study of military culture indicates, the near immutability of cultural norms, despite generations of changes in technology, political rule, foreign domination, and the much-ballyhooed “the global village.” This can be demonstrated by the observations of Iranian/Persian culture over the centuries.  The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines all saw the Persians as an implacable enemy possessing imagination, guile, and a disarming ability to suborn factions of their allies. Their ability to turn the Greek city-states into warring factions, using propaganda and diplomacy, was unmatched.  The historians noted the Persian use of intelligence, and psychological warfare, including “psychological profiling.“ Unlike the Greeks, who often buried their heads in the sand and hoped for the best, the Persians maintained agents moving about the city states, gathering information, dispensing stories to add fuel to the fires of the perpetual city -state rivalries and jealousies. Backing up their “soft power” the Persians intimidated their enemies using their ponderous armies, “that drank the rivers dry”[28] as they passed, terrorizing towns that lay in their path.


Darius the Great spoke for all the Persians when he identified himself as the center of justice and righteousness. Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire, wrote, the hubris exhibited by Darius was, “Closely reflecting how they (Persians) saw themselves. No people had a greater faith in their own virtue.”[29]     Other observers added that the Persians were so convinced of their superiority, they were susceptible to ridicule, often reacting in a thoughtless manner and given to raging desires of reprisal and revenge. They could tolerate the occupier’s foreign cultures, but at the same time viewed them with contempt.[30] They used this feigned tolerance to undermine their enemies by cunningly using their own traditions against them. The quick and inventive Iranian mind was captured in   the seminal work on Iranian society by J.J. Morier, The Adventures of Haji Baba of Isphafan,“ In the preface Sir Walter Scott wrote, “the genius of the Persians is lively and volatile to degree much exceeding other nations of the East.” [31]


The topography of Iran is a critical factor in the formation of an Iranian character. Iran is very large country with population centers mostly along a very narrow ring[32] around the sparsely populated central barren areas of Iran. The vast distances have created an insular culture among the Iranians, with a strong element of provincialism.[33] Creating an Iranian identity is still an ongoing process.

The diversity of peoples and city-centric town dwellers was observed by Edward G. Browne’s, A Year Among the Persians, one in which the inhabitants of one small city could not find a generic word for city, only the name of their city.  In the passage of a century, that has changed only incrementally.[34]


Critical to the study of the Iranian   national character is the hubris and self-confidence of the elites, long commented on by visitors and observers. As aspect of this among the elite, is the appeal of irredentism. They feel their place in the world has been stymied by Western powers and seek to redress it.  Graham correctly assessed the Persian elite’s sense of their place in the world as beleaguered, yet being the center of the universe.[35] When I traveled in Iran in 1968 and 1969, the elite of Shiraz and Isphahan, were not reticent in speaking of Basra as a part of Iran.  To them it could be considered as a sort of Anschluss with Iraq. Of course, in the Iran -Iraq war, the Shi’a of Iraq, much to the chagrin of the Mullahs, turned out to be more Arab than Shi’a.


The Impact of the Shi’a Clerics


Shi’a clerics have an immense impact on the national character.[36]  They were never dominated by the political leaders of Iran, and now constitute a critical part of the ruling class.  Reza Shah tried to secularize Iran and limit the power of the clergy by undermining them, with some success, but he realized he did not have power to destroy their power.[37] His son, Mohamed Reza Shah, however, tried to confront the clergy head on with disastrous results.[38] The immense power of the mullahs, fueled by their religious endowment money and popularity among the poor and urban lower middle class was something that the governing elite and Western intelligence agencies missed in 1979.[39] Historically, the Shi’a clergy,  has been a restraining influence on modernization, and dichotomous in terms of a unifying force.[40] As one of the unifying forces among the rural and poor Iranian people, their influence conversely, has also been a divisive factor.  Many of the more educated class have been agitating for an abolition of the overall authoritarianism of a state-imposed religion for close to a century. In fact, the irony of the secular vs. religious battle in Iran is that current rulers of the “Islamic” regime have gained total control of the religious clergy as in the words one authority on the subject, Mehdi Klalagi,

“Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the current supreme leader, or ruling jurist, of the Islamic Republic—has bureaucratized the seminaries and created a vast administration to handle every aspect of clerical life, including health insurance, student housing, curricula, clerical credentials and more. The establishment now has very strict rules regulating admissions, the issuance of credentials and granting permission to wear clerical clothing.”[41]

 Strategic Considerations.

 A critical aspect of the way of war is the military topography.   In this, despite the record of many foreign invasions, Iran enjoys a relatively favorable defensive military topography and climate. While psychologically paranoid about the aggressive intentions of the regional countries around them, and more emphatically, the Western powers, which in the Iranian mind includes Israel, the Iranians enjoy a favorable geostrategic environment that few in the Middle East do.  The Zagros, and Elburz Mountains, the forbidding interior, the lack of water, severe climatic conditions, and a mostly urban population, present tremendous obstacles to any modern invading army.  As those who have studied Middle Eastern urban warfare,[42]

including the Iraqi occupation of Khorramshahr, and the Iraqi retaking of Mosul from the ISIS can attest, it is a laborious and bloody operation. Therefore, paranoiac suspicions aside, the Iranian regime is relatively safe behind their topographical obstacles, giving them latitude to concentrate on their strategic offensive goals, fairly confident no one will be foolish enough to launch a land war against them. The addition of nuclear weapons, which will inevitably be added their arsenal, will give them additional freedom of maneuver.  Ironically, the nuclear agreement made by Western powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran by Western powers,[43] facilitated their capability to employ their unconventional way of war.[44] The relative safety offered by Iran’s military topography enables it to concentrate on its expansionist designs, an offensive strategy, rather than defensive posture.  It is a distinctly Iranian form of Lebensraum, ingathering the Shi’a of the world under the Iranian embrace. The weak Western and Gulf Arab response to Iranian provocations have created a vacuum in the Middle East and the West is not inclined to militarily challenge Iran.


Strategic Goals

 Michael Eisenstadt, an astute expert on Iran at the Washington Institute of Middle East Policy, defined the major strategic goals of Iran as first, attaining self-sufficiency, particularly in military industry, secondly, transforming Iran into a regional power projecting influence through the Middle East, and thirdly, building  up their military strength to preclude another tragedy such as the Iran-Iraq war.[45] Following the dictums of the early Persian kings, it is far better to intimidate enemies into submission that beat them into it. I would go a bit further. Iran wants to be on the world stage as a world power, perhaps a second tier, but a world power nonetheless.   Moreover, I would point out the fourth strategic goal as being the control of the Persian Gulf as a standalone objective. In my view it has been a primary goal of Iranian regimes for centuries. The view of Iranian elite, secular or religious, has always been that their well-being depends upon their control of the Gulf. Even using the term “Arab Gulf” infuriate them. To the Iranian elite, the Persian Gulf is considered a Persian lake. The media in Iran repeatedly hammered that theme.  From the time of the Achaemenid era, the Persians have regarded the Gulf as vital. An Iranian article from 1968 in their state – run media accurately conveys the Iranian historic view of the Gulf, and stands as an example of long-term objectives outliving regime change.  The media of Islamic regime could have been this written today:

“…Iran today represents the most important factor in the future of the Gulf, and that our population is more than twice the size of the Arab littoral states. Nevertheless, we are ready to collaborate with the sheikhdoms to safeguard the security of the Persian Gulf – but they must never forget, so long as Iran is there, the Persian Gulf will never be an Arab Gulf.”[46]


      Iranian Military Following the Achaemenid Empire

 After the destruction of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great in 331 BC  A measure of military glory was regained  by the successor dynasties, the  Greek Persian Seleucids, followed by the warlike  Parthians, a tribal nomad people from the East who destroyed the Seleucid dynasty  and created a diverse tolerant civilization and perfected long  distance warfare , being particularly adept on   horseback firing arrows that penetrated Roman armor. They were particularly famous for mastering the technique of being able to launch their arrows riding away from the battlefield, apparently quite effectively.[47]  The three Persian dynasties that followed the demise of the Achaemenid empire, the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanian continually fought wars against the Romans, the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire) and later the Arabs.[48]

The following empire, Sassanians, revived the old Persian empire, as many Persians saw the Parthians as foreigners.  The Sassanians introduced a number of military reforms such as the use of heavily armed cavalry and reestablishing units of elephant-borne infantry.  In fact, the East Romans adopted the Sassanian reorganization of military administration. The Sassanians continued the Persian traditional effectiveness with propaganda, the use of intelligence and surrogates for certain types of warfare.[49]  Their type of warfare struck the Arabs, who were beginning their wars against the Persians,  as effeminate and degenerate.[50]  The long Byzantine wars against the Persians prompted Maurice, one or the Emperors of the Byzantines, to sum up the lessons learned in the wars against the Persians whom he depicts as “wicked, dissembling, and servile,”[51] in his treatise Strategikon. At the same time, he pictured them as brave patriotic, obedient, prosecuting war with precision and persistence inducing a war-weariness on their opponents.[52]


After the Arab invasion of 641 until the buildup under Shah Mohamed Pahlavi, the bright spots in Persian military were that achieved by Abbas the Great (1588-1629) and Nadir Shah (from 1736-1747).   It is important to note that from 1055 to 1501 the Persians were ruled by Turks, and traditionally the Persians have seen the Turks as warriors but a dull unimaginative people.[53] Most of the wars fought by the “Persian” empires were by Turkish tribes and mercenaries.  However, the Safavid dynasty was of great importance establishing Shi’ism as the state religion, and establishing a strong central government which lasted for 200 years, but they were not successful against the Ottoman Turks in warfare.[54]



The Persian/Iranian Military in the Modern Era

 After humiliation by the Afghans in 1722 and the demise of the Safavid dynasty, the advent of the Qajar dynasty with the exception of the reign of the Shah Abbas and massive European intervention in Iran, Persian rule did not extend much beyond Tehran for two centuries. Throughout the colonialist period, the military units were either under British, Russian, or Swedish command.  Under the Pahlavi’s, despite the attempt of Reza Shah to build up his military, most observers at the time opined that it was only useful for parades and ceremonies.[55] The Persian army was ineffective against tribal pro-German uprisings in World War I and even worse in World War II.[56] The Iranian flirtation with Germany incurred the invasion by Russian and British forces to which the Iranian resistance lasted only 48 hours.  Despite the exorbitant taxes levied on Iranian merchants to build an effective army, the majority simply fled before the Soviet and British attacks.


The massive military buildup under Shah Mohamed Pahlavi, beginning in the Sixties, and continuing until his departure in 1978, primarily with American equipment and trainers, at one time reaching 35000 military and contractor personnel. The American training missions in Iran (ARMISH and GENMISH) did manage to instill a degree of professionalism in the Iranian military, especially the air force, but following the revolution, as is usually the case in the Middle East, Western training quickly dissipated,  but did  endure long enough to give Iran an advantage in the Iran-Iraq War.[57] The increased size and assumed prowess of his army prompted the Shah, at the request of the Sultan of Oman, to test out his military by deploying units to fight the Dhofari rebels in Oman.  These units were a combination of recruits bolstered by Special Forces, some of the best Shah had.  The results were mixed.[58]

The rapid collapse of the Imperial government in 1979, was brought about by a number of factors,[59] one of the most salient being the poor health of the Shah, his perpetual indecisive nature, and the authoritarian nature of the regime in which officials were unable to take bold action on their own.[60] From the military point of view, the lack of discipline in the military and the lack of leadership exhibited by the officer corps, especially senior leadership was striking. In the run up to the “Islamic” revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini the perfidy, cowardice, and treacherous nature of many senior leaders was repulsive.  But the cultural lesson imparted by General Robert Huyser’s  mission to put backbone into the Iranian military leadership was even more telling. The Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Staff, General Gharabaghi explained to him.

“You should understand that things are very different from your country. If you expect an individual to accomplish anything, you give him a specific order. Once the order is given, the person then has to be constantly supervised, otherwise you see no progress. People in my country have been trained that way for hundreds of years.”[61]

General Huyser’s observations, who had visited Iranian military prior to this visit, undercut his contention that the military could have created a military regime if allowed to by the Washington squabbling bureaucrats. I would suspect that General Huyser’s optimistic view of the Iranian military was colored by the very accomplished Iranian penchant for pageantry…the “dog and pony” shows always presented to VIPs, which were very impressive[62]


The Washington squabbling itself was true enough[63] and a difficult obstacle, but the real problem was explained by General Abbas Gharabaghi, and some of the other top military commanders; the military did not know how to work as a team because they had always simply awaited the Shah’s directives. No one wanted to take responsibility. Cross cultural analyses invariably point out that Iranian culture requires a visionary leader to lay out the plan and then direct the subordinates on how to accomplish it.[64] They eschew collective tasks and basically trust only their family or very close friends. Other experts on Iranian politics have pointed out the Shah’s regime was an edifice built on mistrust. He designed the structure that way – as most Middle Eastern leaders do.  One edge of the army sword points toward the enemy and the other toward the capitol


 The Iran-Iraq War

To some Western observers the Iranian military performance in the war was a surprise, fighting much better than had been expected [65](especially by Saddam Hussein) but my analysis is that the Iranians demonstrated their continued ineffectiveness fighting a conventional war. Their enemy, the Iraqi military, was “professional” in name only.  Iraq went to war with incompetent military leadership, mostly old and inadequate equipment, having only about a third of Iran’s eligible males to fight the war, a poor logistic system, total lack of strategic planning, and an army held together primarily with fear. The political leadership was unable to rouse a national war spirit in which most of the people referred to it as “Saddam’s war.” [66]

Despite the paeans of praise from Western pundits who had apparently expected the Iranians to crumble,[67] in conventional war Iranians were equally hapless., resorting to using young men in mass human wave attacks to open gaps in porous Iraqi defenses for the elite units to move through. While much of this ineffectiveness is laid at the door of Khomeini and his purge of the military, in reality, most of the senior army officer corps was deadwood anyway, and the Iranians would not have fared much better had all of them remained in the army. In fact, the imagination and effectiveness of the smaller Iranian units were a direct result of the field grade officer corps being drastically thinned allowing younger, more zealous officers to take the battle forward. The influence of years of American training given to the Iranians was valuable in this regard. Certainly, in the air force the Iranians were far superior in tactics and flying skill.


Where the Iranians did well were in the same fields as in Achaemenid times. They were superb in intelligence, propaganda, intrigue, deception and construction of military infrastructure to further their operations. They were much cleverer than their Iraqi opponents, usually one step ahead in planning and nimbler in meeting reverses.  They also had the immense advantage of fighting to defend the Motherland and Shi’a religion against the latter-day minions of Caliph Yazid[68] represented by the Saddam Hussein Sunni regime. Their tactics in the swamps of southern Iraq were extraordinarily well executed but were exceptions. In strategic planning and execution, however they exhibited the same problems that bedeviled the armies of Darius; over centralization, lack of coordination among elements of the ground forces, in this case the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)[69] and the Artesh (army), and an overwhelming hubris mixed with contempt for their Iraqi enemy.


The ingenuity of the Iranians at lower levels of command were respected by the Iraqis, e.g. the creation of bridges using cork just below water’s surface to conceal them from Iraqi detection, deception tactics, rapid reinforcement of penetrations of Iraqi lines, small unit infiltration tactics, and dependence on small unit leader’s initiative. The Iraqi officers professed a great degree of admiration for the Iranian imagination and ingenuity. which was obviously lacking on their side[70]


There was little Iranian command structure at the beginning of the war, and individual units were left to fight for their existence on their own, in urban areas like Khorramshahr.

However, later, as the Iranian command, reconstituted itself, the authoritarian nature of the Iranian culture reasserted itself and much of the small unit effectiveness was smothered under Iranian religious leader’s direction and lack of military knowledge.

As the war dragged on, the Iranian command structure reformed, and much less initiative at lower levels was apparent. The Iranians resorted to mass frontal “human wave” attacks, which they repeated again and again despite immense casualties, attacking Iraqis in well-fortified areas.  The Iranians were fighting out of their cultural parameters, mostly out of desperation, partly out of military ignorance. Conventional war and its requirement for combined arms requirements were well beyond them. They generally failed to bring their main advantageous cultural attributes in the fighting against the Iraqis.

In some areas the Iranian resemblance to early Persian Empire war fighting techniques is eerily similar.  The great king Xerxes moved huge armies of various nationalities to attack the Greeks, some of the contingents being little more than civilians with light weapons. This was repeated in the Iran-Iraq war. As Iraqi General Aladdin Makki told American interviewers, at the first (1982) battle of Basra, “They (Iranians) used thousands of people in a way we had never seen before:

Waves of civilians with light personal armor, wearing skirts or dishdashhara. had been told by their clergy that Najaf or Karbala was there.” As Makki continued, “they repeated this tactic five times.”[71]

 Iranian intelligence was excellent as might be expected, according to the head of Iraqi intelligence, Major General Mizher Rashid Rashid al Tarfa al Ubaydi. The Iraqi intelligence organization was riddled with Iranian spies – as they discovered after the war.[72] On the other hand, the noted volubility hubris of the Iranians, noted by all the observers of Iranian society through the years, was a major factor in the poor Iranian protection of sensitive information. They used non-secure communication between units, their mullahs gave away military information in their sermons, and the Iranian newspapers, anxious to present favorable narratives about operations, gave Iraqi analysts critical information.

 Following the war with Iran and Saddam’s ill-fated attack on Kuwait and involvement in subsequent wars against the West, Iraq was reduced to the level of an impoverished third world state, with three contending ethnic factions vying for control or self-governance.  The Iranian regime correctly saw their opportunity and renewed their bid for regional power reintroduced age-old Iranian imperialism rebranded as an alternate Islamist movement. A particular trend in the Arab world extolling Sunni triumphalism, as espoused by Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State presented the Iranian regime a ready-made opportunity to brand themselves as the protectors of Shi’ism, expanding their influence into Shi’a communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.


The Military Under the Islamist Regime

 the Iran – Iraq war and the IRGC absorbed the role of leading the Iranian worldwide offensive. Their specific function was as an expeditionary force using small detachments similar to the special operations force of the United States to assist and train other surrogates to do the dirty work of killing and destruction.[73] Their prize accomplishment was the training of the Hezbollah, and the reflected glory of purportedly driving the Israelis out of Lebanon. The successes of the Huthis in Yemen, Iraqi militia groups, the tenacity of the Hamas in Gaza, as well as their critical support of Assad in Syria, have added immensely to their reputation.

Their primary instrument was to constitute a force which contained all the attributes of those things Iranians have always excelled in, to wit; subversion, intrigue…in short…. political warfare executed with verve and professionalism.

The primary weapon of Iranian expansionism, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, (IRGC), a force composed primarily of ethnic Persians, with impeccable Islamic credentials initially was formed to serve as a counterweight to an Iranian military, tgat was not trusted by the Islamic regime. However, as the Iran-Iraq war dragged on, the IRGC was equipped with heavy conventional weapons to fight as a spearhead in several major Iranian attacks. The hyped effectiveness of the IRGC in the Iran -Iraq war, was largely the result of a media campaign, not only in Iran but also in the Western world, that gave them a luster not wholly deserved. [74]


The IRGC, as part of the strategy and doctrine of the Islamist regime, has been written about and analyzed in copious amounts of literature, but usually based more on current indicators than historical and cultural factors[75]. With the secrecy that surrounds all of the Islamist regime in Iran, hard information is difficult to acquire and much of it is what they want us to know.  However, some observers view the future utility of the IRGC with skepticism. Ostovar wrote, “Conflict has driven the IRGC’s institutionalization as a military, security service, political entity, socio-cultural force, covert operator, economic conglomerate, media mogul and mechanism of foreign and strategic policy.” [76] 

They also have psychological operations units, and civil affairs units for the tactical and operational levels, presenting soft power force multipliers that are of utmost importance to the Iranian way of war.[77] Human intelligence work is a special forte of the IRGC as well.  However, like most Middle Eastern countries there are multiple intelligence and security organizations overlapping and watching each other.  No one, or any organization, is totally trusted.  The non-lethal branches of the IGRC are critical in that it is a basic premise of the Iranians that they will be at war against a superior conventional military force and have to win wars avoiding head on clashes with the modern hoplites, eschew conventional war, and win using other means.



 In the evolution of the Iranian Islamic regime, the IRGC, and its spawn, the Basij, has evolved from a force to safeguard the Islamic regime to become inextricably part of the regime.  The IRGC spawned the Quds force as the ultimate weapon to continue the irredentist aims of the regime. Unable or unwilling, and smart enough to avoid fighting a conventional war, the Quds force has expanded and matured into a first-class subversion and terrorist organization, to continue  Iranian illusionary dream of becoming not just a regional power but one recognized as a world power.[78] The Quds force working within the culture of Iranian penchant for intrigue, indirection, and subtle maneuvering, has become the premier Iranian tool for advancing Iranian national goals.

The elite Quds force trains surrogate forces, as they have in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. They are also particularly masters and specialists in terrorism, so much so that the US Department of State considers Iran the world’s premier sponsor of state terrorism. In the 2019 report correctly singled out Iran as one of the world’s worst sponsor of terrorism. The regime has spent over 700 million a year to support terrorist groups that serve its proxies and expand its malign influence across the globe.”[79]

The Quds force is far more than a terrorist organization however, as it assiduously cultivates allies in the Middle East and throughout the world. Iran depends on these allies to carry Iran’s water in regional conflicts. As Afshon Ostovar wrote,” at the spearhead of this effort, Quds has become a pillar of Iran’s strategic and foreign policy.”[80] Unlike many terrorist organizations, they do not generally crow about their successes.  They also are very adept, as one might expect, in covering their tracks. For instance, the Iranian terror attack on the Khobar Towers in 1996 went cold as it took a year to pin it on the Iranians. For a number of years, a number of Western academics maintained that Iran was on our side in the war against the ISIS. This fiction was maintained (and still is by some) until it became clear the Iranians, consistently downplayed the ISIS threat, and were assisting the travel of ISIS terrorists through Iran into Iraq.  The enduring strength of Iranian support among the Western “informed” class is demonstrated by the persistent lament that the Iranian terrorism is simply a defensive weapon of the weak, or fearful, very similar to the appellation applied for so many years –by some of the same people- to Soviet aggression[81].

The Quds force was buoyed in influence by the mythical persona of Qassem Soliemani who had become the Che Guevara of the Middle East, popping up all over the trouble spots. Western media has embellished his image and warrior reputation, but he was undoubtedly a key and important asset for the ambitious Iranian regime.  His enlarged ego and propensity to seize authority not given to him by the Islamic government, was illustrated by his communication in 2008 with General David Petraeus offering to meet and work out a security arrangement for Iraq.   The Supreme leader was not amused and he was passed over for command of the IRGC but remained in command of the Quds force. His loss to the ambitions of the Iranian regime is considerable but not irreparable.

The Basij

A very important, although less glamorous organization, is the Basij organization. In the Iran-Iraq war they were the fanatically loyal cannon fodder of the Islamic regime. Their mission was to run through the Iraqi minefields and barbed wire fortifications, opening a path for the IRGC and army infantry to advance through. Today, nearly four million of them are engaged in public works, businesses, producing propaganda, and in their morality role, similar to that of the shorta el Din of Saudi Arabia, harassing women for improper attire, and maintaining ideological and Islamic purity of Iranian society. To do so they are embedded throughout all the towns of Iran and civil institutions of Iranian society. It is a strictly volunteer organization, and like the former Ba’ath party membership in Iraq, it is very helpful to members in pursuing other more lucrative employment. Its central role in the Iranian power structure has inevitably evolved into an institution evidencing corruption and massive nepotism. The diversity and sociology of Iran has always mitigated against unity and it is one of the missions of the Basij to remedy that problem., The Basij will be the ideology commissars among the people, informing, providing networks of security neighborhood watches, propagandizing the people with entertainment such as festivals,[82]

They have become their own huge monolithic industry and public service practitioners. Free from competition in bidding for the massive government contracts, their agencies, contactors, and public officials are everywhere.[83] Nothing ensures public support for a Middle Eastern regime more than a capability to provide employment, not even the fear of the security apparatus.  This is the primary reason for the bloated bureaucracies in the Middle East.  Having connections with the Basij is an important   factor in gaining employment, university entrance, and social elevation. They will also perform the disagreeable tasks of putting down sectarian and tribal disturbances with extra judicial punishments handed out randomly.


Surrogate Warfare

The Iranians use surrogate organizations like Hezbollah, Amal and Hamas to do their dirty work. The bombing in 1983 of the Marine barracks in Beirut is one example. Another is the 1994 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina. When that is not possible, they pay organizations or individuals to carry out the terror attacks.   Multiple organizations such as the PFPLF, the Abu Nidal organization, none of whom are Shi’a in composition, have been used.   For quite a while they tried to cultivate the PLO under Arafat but their wholehearted support of the rival HAMAS organization in the Gaza undermined that alliance. The Iranians used a Libyan connection to carry out the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, apparently in revenge for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by an American warship in July 1988. They usually maintain some plausible deniability, but their predilection to boast about their “successes” in these actions often undermine their credibility. All this is in consonance with great Persian empires who used the many dominated nations, and tribes as cannon fodder and auxiliaries.


The Shi’a factor in Iranian Military Culture

 Religion in the form of Islam is a great galvanizing factor in consideration of the Iranian Way of War. Islam and the near mystical power of the Prophet’s sayings and the Qur’an are difficult for Westerners to assess in estimating the combat abilities of Islamic armies.  However, the use of Qur’anic verses and slogans have been critical elements of success through the ages. Moreover, the Shi’a sense of martyrdom provides an additional emphasis to the power of Islam among the soldiers and officers. Shi’ism is the religion of sorrow and martyrdom. Martyrdom is a celebrated status among the Shi’a and is exemplified by one scene a Western observer recorded, noting the anguish of several Iranian soldiers, returned from Iraqi prisoner of war camps.  They were weeping at the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini, lamenting their guilt at being alive and not dying for their leader.[84]

The doctrine of the Shi’a revolves around the twelve Imams, all of whom, with the exception of the last, called the hidden Imam, were killed, allegedly by Sunni intrigue. The last Imam went into occultation (941 AD) and will someday reappear.  Until that time the Shi’a clergy evolved a system allowing clerics to guide the faithful until the Hidden Imam returns. With advent of Ayatollah Khomeini, this was further drastically modified to provide for a “government by the expert,” wilayet e- Faqih. This gave Khomeini, (the expert) dictatorial powers. So, in distinction from Sunni Islam, the Shi’a have a centralized hierarchy of authority, which crosses national borders. This gives the Iranians regime a particular and powerful source of power not available to the Sunni Arab leaders.[85] A third factor which gives the Shi’a clergy of Iran increased influence in all spheres of Iranian life is the use of Ijtihad a doctrine that evolved among the Shi’a scholars, providing the ability to basically reinterpret Islamic traditions and law – a factor theoretically not available to the Sunni. In this way the senior Shi’a clerics can and have

interpreted Islamic law to fit their military and political doctrine.[86] A fourth factor is the Shi’a use of taqiyya, which originally was to protect themselves from Sunni persecution often strays into a characteristic of Shi’a in a crisis allowing Shi’a to disavow their religion to protect themselves. [87]



The Artesh (Regular Army)

Most importantly many of the faults that plagued the Imperial army and the Islamic Iranian army in the Iran -Iraq war are still present. The mostly peasant soldiers are given mediocre training, suffer draconian punishment, are officered by second rate quality officers, and with the Islamic “Jihad” motivation fading, morale is low.[88]  Training is imparted largely by rote and most of the units are hollow in that they are severely under-equipped and under- manned.  The sectarianism of the Pahlavi era still exists and, in some areas, has been exacerbated by Basij fanatics imposing death sentences for “immorality.”  A major weakness is the lack of combined military operations, partially because of intra service and personal rivalries and also because the Islamic regime prefers it that way as a method of coup-proofing.  The embedded rivalry between the IRC and the regular armed forces remains as the primary obstacle to overall Iranian military effectiveness.[89]


The excessively large regular army (Artesh), an army of mostly rural peasants, barely literate, with health problems, particularly strength issues from lack of proper nutrition, exists primarily for intimidation purposes.[90] These weaknesses are compounded by leadership and command and control issues, the politicization of the officer corps, Iranian traditional distrust of anyone outside their family, unquestioning obedience to authority,  bureaucratized logistics system, a culture of people who generally waits for instructions, and a very thin layer of elite officers able to exercise initiative and operate without stultifying authority.[91]


In this article I have emphasized the Iranian use of deception, guile, indirection, and byzantine methods of warfare. Some would see this as simply a broad-brush demeaning of a people and their moral compass. It would require a thesis of considerable length to accurately compose   how the Iranian culture evolved into this type of warfare.  But suffice it to say that the Arab, Mongol, Turk, Afghan and more recently British and Russian rulers of Iran have left a residue of extreme xenophobia and a personality that hides behind subterfuge to maintain self-respect. It was Ibn Khaldun   who aptly described this characteristic among subjected peoples.[92]  Iran

way of war sets them apart from the Western made it difficult for Western leaders to recognize.  The subtle Iranian methods have prevailed from the time of the Achaemenids. Their irredentism, contrasted to the ham-fisted Turkish method of leveling Kurdish villages, is habitually concealed behind a benign face molded by the latest in soft power, and the ill-wlll residing in the Islamic world toward the West, especially the “great Satan”, the United States.    Behind this face will be an imaginative brain   featuring  programs of indirection, disorientation, dissimulation, Islamic piety, and the particular Iranian trait to be all things to all people. This approach allows the Iranians to support a Sunni Hamas organization as the ruling regime in the Gaza strip, a regime   beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that sees the Shi’a as little more than infidels.


Like the strategy of Darius, every Iranian move will be backed up by intimidating threats, belligerent boasts of power, and a well-advertised military with videos of Iranians firing missiles, conducting military training operations, [93] and a nuclear capability only coyly denied.    Meanwhile their well- funded lobbies and well-intentioned (some not so) supporters in Western capitols, will always be available to disseminate enough doubt to sabotage any strong reaction to Iranian provocations.[94] The elite of the Western world, comfortable in their environment, seemingly will grasp any exculpating argument, however weak, to avoid confronting Iran. The tepid Western response to numerous provocations has not gone unnoticed by the Islamic leadership.


 U.S. Army literature[95] on the Iranian methods of war-fighting concentrate on the traditional methods of war, apparently from study of Iranian training and operational manuals, going into detail on Iranian tactical offensive maneuver concepts, and movement to assembly areas etc.   There is also the usual bean counting e.g., numbers of tanks, artillery pieces etc. This is largely a waste of time except as exercises for tactical intelligence operators.   The Iranians are not going to fight a conventional war unless forced to do so as in the Iraq war. The grievous economic and human loss of the Iraqi war taught them the folly of that. Their culture society and economic structure cannot sustain one.

 It is very likely that the Islamic rulers in Iran will continue to instigate many small and perhaps some major disturbances in the Middle East and worldwide. The Islam regime survives on the fuel fed by their real and fabricated enemies. They need an enemy and the promotion of violence in order to stoke the flagging spirits of the faithful.  To always assume they will act as rational actors is a debatable point. [96]

An old Kurd addressed his people after hearing the great Persian Shah give fulsome promises of security and peace to his tribe.  (related in the great book describing the Persians, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Isphafan).

You have never had any dealings with them [Persians], and therefore you permit yourselves to be lulled into a sense of security by their flattering expressions and winning and amiable manners. But I have lived long among them and have learned the value of what they say. Their weapons are not such as you have been accustomed to meet in the bold encounter and open attack.; instead with spear and sword, theirs are treachery, deceit, falsehood…………Lying is their national vice.[97]





About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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3 Responses to Iranian Way of War

  1. shfranke says:

    Hi again, Tex.

    ** Hope you and yours are well and enjoy a festive Thanksgiving.

    ** Thanks for posting this insightful and (as usual) well-researched article.

    ** If convenient, send the footnotes to me [ shfranke (at) hotmail (dot) com ], as a number of those citations really resonate and pique my curiosity for related research.

    ** Ref Prof. Gary Weaver at The American University (as cited): best I recall, AU also operated its affiliated Special Operations Research Office (SORO) under contract to the DOD during the 1960s. SORO researchers produced a series of then-classified (later declassified) Guide to PSYOP in (COUNTRY). The SWCS Marquat Memorial Library had a batch of those repots in its archives when I was at 4th PSYOP Gp (Abn).

    ** Can provide you with some reinforcing / illustrative (ahem, with no pun intended or implied) “war stories” about the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War provided by Iranian graduate students I knew while at U of Virginia (Charlottesville) during 1982-1984). They stayed in close and constant touch with the “home front” and related pol-military developments. **The subject of my interrupted dissertation research at U Va. was a comparative study of the Soviets’ / Russians’ approach and “operational style” in advising, training, influencing, and otherwise modernizing (and lack-luster “Sovietizing”) foreign military forces in the MENA..

    Best regards,


    San Pedro, California

    “FAOs Forward!”

  2. shfranke says:

    Possible duplicate entry in this thread; if so, my apologies in advance to all), SH Franke

    Hi again, Tex.

    ** Hope you and yours are well and enjoy a festive Thanksgiving.

    ** Thanks for posting this insightful and (as usual) well-researched article.

    ** If convenient, send the footnotes to me [ shfranke (at) hotmail (dot) com ], as a number of those citations really resonate and pique my curiosity for related research.

    ** Ref Prof. Gary Weaver at The American University (as cited): best I recall, AU also operated its affiliated Special Operations Research Office (SORO) under contract to the DOD during the 1960s. SORO researchers produced a series of then-classified (later declassified) Guide to PSYOP in (COUNTRY). The SWCS Marquat Memorial Library had a batch of those reports in its archives when I was at 4th PSYOP Gp (Abn).

    ** Can provide you with some reinforcing / illustrative (ahem, with no pun intended or implied) “war stories” about the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War provided by Iranian graduate students I knew while at U of Virginia (Charlottesville) during 1982-1984). They stayed in close and constant touch with the “home front” and related pol-military developments. ** The subject of my interrupted dissertation research at U Va. was a comparative study of the Soviets’ / Russians’ approach and “operational style” in advising, training, influencing, and otherwise modernizing (and lack-luster “Sovietizing”) foreign military forces in the MENA..

    Best regards,


    San Pedro, California

    “FAOs Forward!”

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