Hopes in the Iranian army as a force for change are misplaced – just like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the army should be sanctioned for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
With the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic in full swing and the regime teetering on the verge of collapse, some are hoping that the Iranian military could bring about change with a coup. In this scenario, the military ousts the Supreme Leader and puts an opposition figure in his place while retaining much of the regime’s security apparatus and military structure. This approach has been advocated by Iran’s former Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, whose endearing tweets to the Islamic Republic of Iran Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are well known on the Farsi web.
After the IRGC’s designation as a state terrorist force by the US in 2019, the army is increasingly being considered as a possible instrument of change in Iran. However, the army’s record clearly demonstrates that when it comes to ideology and oppression, there is hardly any difference between it and the Revolutionary Guards. In fact, like the IRGC, the army has been an instrument of imperialism in the Middle East and of oppression inside Iran, and as such is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the mass purges by the revolutionary government devastated the toppled Shah’s Imperial Army high command. A great number of army generals were either immediately eliminated or first prosecuted in kangaroo courts and then executed on the vague charge of “sowing corruption on earth.” On the other hand, the commanders who cooperated with the new regime were initially saved from prosecution and served the Islamist regime for a few years, but were gradually removed from command or killed under highly suspicious circumstances.
After the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, the regime’s second Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed IRGC officers as army commanders. Khamenei has since promoted and given command to army officers who are close to him and are ready to publicly promote the regime’s ideology and expansionist agenda. Over four decades, this process has increasingly stripped the army of its existential philosophy and practical functionality as the classic defense force of Iran. As a result of such systematic restructuring and appointments, the army has become an unofficial subsidiary branch of the IRGC.
Both the army and the IRGC supported the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during the ongoing bloody war in Syria that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions. In April 2016, General Ali Arasteh, deputy coordinator of the Army Ground Force, announced that Brigade 65 of NOHED, the so-called green beret elite forces of the army, has been stationed in Syria to bolster Assad’s regime, adding that other army units have also been deployed in unspecified locations in Syria. The regime has largely avoided publicizing the deployment of the army in Syria because the Islamic Republic’s constitution forbids the deployment of the Iranian defense forces outside Iran’s borders for any purpose.
On top of this overseas military adventurism, the army has been instrumental in suppressing popular protests in Iran. Army commanders have publicly defended crackdowns against peaceful protests, and army units were seen suppressing the more recent uprisings. In January 2018, the army Commander-in-Chief Abdorrahim Mousavi wrote a strongly worded open letter to the police commander Hossein Ashtari in which he praised the police force for suppressing the ongoing protests and said that the army is ready to suppress this “sedition” alongside the police, the IRGC, and the Basij, at the behest of the Supreme Leader.
During a new round of protests in November 2019, the army joint chiefs of staff issued an announcement that praised the police and the security forces for suppressing what they called a “conspiracy” by the enemies of the Islamic Republic. During the same protests, in which the regime is accused of massacring thousands of civilians, mechanized army vehicles and helicopters were deployed in cities across Iran. In December 2019, the police chief Ashtari praised the army for helping suppress the protests.
The idea that the Islamic Republic Army will stage a coup against the Islamist system and install a secular opposition figure in its place is therefore wishful thinking. This plan demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the situation on the ground. Just as the Wehrmacht and the Red Army did not oust Hitler and Stalin despite their enemies’ hopes, the Iranian army will not oust the Supreme Leader.
Indeed, the Iranian army and the Revolutionary Guards are one and the same. In response to President Trump’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization in 2019, Iranian army generals publicly appeared in IRGC uniforms to express solidarity with their branded brothers-in-arms. In view of all this, along with the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Republic Army should be designated and sanctioned by individual nations and international organizations for war crimes and crimes against humanity.