Are there Lessons for the Military in the Arab Revolts?

By Judith S. Yaphe, PhD and Michael Eisenstadt


Egyptian Protesters in Cairo in front of flagMany Middle East observers professed great surprise at the virtually bloodless but sudden removal of Husni Mubarak as President of Egypt. Why, they asked, was there no warning? Is this another intelligence failure? Their attention then shifted to comparisons. It must have been the military which, seeing the growing and unstoppable challenge from the streets of Cairo, withdrew its support from Mubarak and thus secured a relatively peaceful transfer of power. Just like Iran in 1978-1979, they say, when the military tilted the balance in Tehran by refusing to obey the Shah’s orders to shoot on the crowds demonstrating against him.

This is the wrong comparison. The situation in Egypt in 2011 is not the same as Iran in 1979. Contemporary Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resembles Mubarak’s Egypt in that both had weathered periods of protest and political violence. Mubarak was accused of rigging the 2005 presidential election, when he received nearly 90 percent of the votes, and the 2010 parliamentary elections, when all of the Muslim Brother candidates who were running for a seat lost.(1)   Ahmadinejad was accused of rigging the 2009 presidential election to insure for himself a landslide victory. In Egypt the crowds chanted “Enough”; in Iran anti-regime demonstrators demanded “Where’s my vote?” The difference would seem to be that Iran’s military elite in 2009 moved quickly and harshly to suppress any sign of opposition, believing that any sign of weakness would result in the fall of the regime. In 1978, they did nothing. In Egypt, however, the military elite were willing to discard Mubarak to placate the crowds and survive.

Iran’s military in 1978 was not the same cohesive and determined force as its 2009 successor nor as Egypt’s in 2011. The armed forces were the main pillar of the Shah’s rule and were believed by many inside and outside the country to be strong, well-trained, and effective. The Shah carefully cultivated the loyalty of the officer corps through lavish gifts of land, promotion, and wealth and the latest military equipment. Senior officers received generous salaries, subsidized housing and commissaries, free education for their children, generous pensions, and in some cases, plum jobs in retirement as provincial governors, in government ministries, or as managers of state enterprises. Promotion was generally based on loyalty rather than competence.

The Shah also exercised tight control over the armed forces. All promotions above major needed his approval and he required all service chiefs to report directly to him. He prohibited coordination among the service chiefs (they rarely met together in any venue), and he fostered rivalry and mistrust among them to prevent them from plotting against him. He periodically reshuffled and cashiered officers to prevent power blocs from emerging within the military. Anybody with decision-making authority was closely monitored by military and civilian intelligence and security services. Finally, the Shah had to approve all troop movements and military flights, thereby stifling initiative among his commanders. This system of control served the Shah well in normal times, but proved fatal for him during the revolution.

The Shah’s goal was the transformation of Iran into the dominant regional power in the Gulf. As a result, he oversaw a dramatic expansion of the armed forces. By 1978, the Iranian armed forces had surpassed Egypt as the largest in the region and the most sophisticated after Israel.(2)   They lacked, however, proper training and equipment to deal with domestic unrest. They used overwhelming force in 1978 to dispel demonstrators against the Shah, killing or wounding hundreds. Over the next year, the military was used to quell anti-Shah demonstrations using violence while the Shah alternately tried threats of repression and vague attempts at reconciliation to end the confrontations. He was increasingly seen as ineffective and weak, and the protests grew. In December 1978 during the holy month of Moharram, with millions of people protesting in the streets of Tehran and other cities, the military staged its first act of rebellion when army conscripts killed or wounded a number of officers at the Lavisan Barracks in Tehran. This incident inspired mutinies and acts of rebellion elsewhere, and many units were confined to their barracks.

With the departure of the Shah, the senior military leadership was unable to decide what to do: continue their support for Prime Minister Bakhtiyar’s government, throw their support behind the Islamic opposition, or launch a coup and impose military rule? Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979; four days later he appointed a provisional government under the leadership of Mehdi Bazargan. The military did not attempt to block Khomeini’s return, and on February 11 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces declared its neutrality in the struggle between the government and the opposition, in order to preserve the integrity of the armed forces. The revolution was over.

The new regime used the military to suppress unrest among Iran’s Kurd, Turkman, Baluch and Arab minorities while it consolidated its power. Never completely trusted by the new regime because of their suspected loyalty to the Shah and the United States, military leaders were arrested, purged, tried, and executed or fled to exile in Iraq and Turkey. The rest of the military underwent Islamicization. In March 1979 Khomeini ordered the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); their mission was and remains protection of the regime and the Islamic revolution. They cooperated with the regular military after Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980 and after the war expanded to become the primary military force, security and intelligence service, superseding the regular army, navy and air force. Within a decade, the IRGC had become a major political and economic power in Iran, overshadowing the regular armed forces as well as many traditional merchants and bazaaris who had once been the backbone of the government.

Why did the military fail to prevent the revolution or protect the short-lived moderate government led by Bakhtiyar, Bani Sadr, or Bazirgan? The failure of the Iranian armed forces to quash the Islamic revolution can be attributed to a number of factors:

The Shah’s weak and vacillating personality: The military was psychologically dependent on the Shah, and was therefore unable to act without direction from him. Moreover, for their entire careers, the Shah had barred cooperation among his service chiefs, and had fed petty personal and professional jealousies among his officers in order to preclude such cooperation. With or without the Shah, they were unable to act as a cohesive, unified group.
Dysfunctional and inept military leadership, which was forced to confront the demonstrators without proper training and equipment, without an effective strategy, and without permission to use the most effective means they had at their disposal except in extremis. And when they did so, they were savagely criticized in the media and by the Shah. When the Shah left Iran, the military was paralyzed by indecision and unable to act on its own either to preserve the regime or to promote its corporate interests. In the end, it tried to ride out the storm as best it could, in the hope of preserving the institution of the armed forces and their privileges.
Social divisions in the armed forces that were effectively exploited by the opposition through a successful propaganda campaign. Like Egypt’s military in 2011, the most senior officers in Iran’s Armed Forces were mostly loyal to the Shah due to their privileged status and benefits; the middle ranks were drawn primarily from the middle and lower-middle classes and split between upwardly mobile officers who identified with the armed forces and those who identified with the general population or the opposition; and the junior officers, who had attended university in Iran in the 1970s, had been exposed to the various political currents present on campus and may have been influenced by opposition propaganda. The enlisted ranks were split between the professional NCO corps, which was largely loyal to the Shah, and the technical specialists and conscript force, which was drawn from the peasants and urban poor, and contained the largest number of opposition sympathizers.
Successful co-optation of members of the Armed Forces by the clerics. Soldiers were urged not to open fire on demonstrators and promised a warm reception if they joined the opposition. They were also constantly reminded of Khomeini’s religious decrees providing religious sanction for opposition and threatening punishment for those who refused to break with the regime.

Are there lessons in the Iranian military’s experiences for Egypt and the other Arab governments now in various stages of revolution? Egypt’s military, like Iran’s military in 1978-1979, appears to be a strong, united, and cohesive force whose decision on where to put its support is critical to regime survival or regime change. It is a key social and economic institution in that it is based on conscription and provides employment, food, housing, and other humanitarian benefits for a significant proportion of population. A decision to support Mubarak could have led to a sustained violent confrontation with the street and still might do so if the crowd demands removal of the senior military officers Mubarak appointed to take control in his absence.(3)   The decision of the military not to fire on demonstrators in late 1978 and not to defend the Shah or his successors in 1979 sealed its fate under Khomeini’s Islamic Republic. Similarly, strong and precipitate action by the IRGC to squelch rebellious students in 1999 and government critics in 2009 were key to the regime’s ability to contain massive street protests.

Dr. Judith S. Yaphe is a distinguished research fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. Mr. Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Comments and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

(1) Egypt held its first multi-party presidential election in 2005. The results were Mubarak (National Democratic Party) 88 percent, Ayman Nour (Tomorrow Party) 7 percent, and Nouma Gumaa (Wafd) 3 percent. Before parliamentary elections were held in Egypt in 2010, Muslim Brothers held 88 seats out of 454. After the first round of the election, the Brothers had no seats; they chose to boycott the runoff round of elections and, as a result, no members of the Brotherhood are in the current parliament.

(2) Iran’s armed forces included 413,000 men (285,000 in the army, 100,000 in the air force and 28,000 in the navy).

(3) Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, who was appointed by Mubarak when he left office, resigned on 3 March 2011. Protestors are demanding the removal of all Mubarak-era ministers; Shafiq’s replacement served as Health Minister in the previous Cabinet. .


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