What Does America Have To Fear About Iran's Large Army?

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: Much like China’s army in the 1980s, the Iranian Army and other ground forces are large but poorly armed.

One of the most powerful and influential countries in the Middle East is undoubtedly Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran sits astride several key strategic—and often volatile—regions, including the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Caucasus. Iran is primarily a land power, and has invaded and suffered invasion from other peoples and countries over the past several thousand years. As a result, Iran retains large ground forces, both in the Iranian Army itself and the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The commander in chief of the Iranian Armed Forces is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Like many states, there are two armies: the Iranian Army, loyal to the country itself, and the IRGC and its Basij militia, which is loyal to the regime and the spirit of the revolution. Unlike most states with two armies, the Iranian Army and the IRGC suffer from less role and capability duplication, in large extent due to the Iranian Revolution.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 deposed the monarchy under the shah and imposed a theocratic revolutionary state. The new rulers of Iran, skeptical of long-standing institutions historically loyal to the shah, allowed the Army to survive as an organization but developed the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a counterweight. While the Army would guard the country’s borders and defend against external threats, the IRGC would guard the regime itself. As a result, the Army was arrayed generally towards Iran’s primary enemies at the time—Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia—and placed mostly near the Iranian border. The IRGC, on the other hand, maintains significant garrisons in Iran’s major cities and towns.

In 2013, the Center for Strategic and International Studies assessed the Islamic Iranian Ground Forces as consisting of 350,000 active duty troops, including 130,000 professionals and 220,000 draftees. These troops are organized into four armored divisions, two mechanized infantry divisions, four light infantry divisions, six artillery groups, two special forces/commando divisions, an airborne brigade, three to four commando brigades, an unknown number of aviation units, and other separate armored and infantry brigades.

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