Iranian Special Forces
After many years of international sanctions that crippled the Iranian army’s ability to modernize, Iran has come to rely heavily on its light infantry and special forces. These forces are instrumental in providing security on the troublesome stretches of the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. They also protect Iranian interests abroad, and will have a major role to play in the event of an armed conflict breaking out with a regional adversary.
Iran does not have an independent special operations service. The structure of its forces is unique; it consists of two major independent branches — the Armed Forces (army) proper, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Both of these branches have their own special forces units (the Takavaran) in the ground and naval services. In addition to special forces units, the Revolutionary Guards also have a separate division called the Quds Force for special operations abroad.
The exact numerical strength of all the Iranian special forces is unclear, but it must be in the tens of thousands. Given such a large size and diverse composition, the level of training and the quality of equipment varies significantly from one special forces unit to another. The 65th NOHED Independent Airborne (Parachute) Special Forces Brigade is widely believed to be the best-trained and equipped of the army special forces units. The regular army “commando” brigades, meanwhile, look more like light airborne assault units in terms of their composition and hardware.
It is not quite clear how the Iranian special forces are manned. The Revolutionary Guards units are fairly straightforward: all the Guards forces are manned by professional soldiers. The army units, meanwhile, have a mixed system of conscription and professional service. All Iranian males are supposed to serve two years in the army or the security forces upon reaching 18.1 Conscripts therefore seem to account for the bulk of the Iranian army’s numerical strength — but some of the army special forces units (especially the 65th Brigade) are manned only by professionals.
There is next to no information about the special forces units of the Ministry of Information (intelligence), which is the main Iranian foreign political intelligence and counterintelligence agency. Information about the ministry itself is scarce and unreliable.
The Iranian ground forces have the most numerous special forces units, some of them dating back to the Shah’s rule. These include the 55th and the 65th independent airborne brigades, the 23rd and the 58th Commando divisions, and the independent 25th, 35th, and 45th Commando brigades.
The best-known Iranian special forces units are the 23rd Commando Division and the 65th NOHED Independent Airborne Special Forces Brigade, which are both based in Tehran. They date back to the 1950s, when the first Iranian soldiers took a parachuting course in France. The first Iranian parachute battalion was set up in the late 1950s. It later became the core of the 23rd Brigade, which was turned into an independent airborne special forces brigade in the 1970s.
The Iranian special forces training programs relied heavily on French and U.S. specialists and instructors at the time. The first combat use of the Iranian special forces took place in Dhofar, Oman, in the early 1970s, where Iranian troops helped the Sultan of Oman to quell an uprising.
In 1991 part of the 23rd Division was spun off to become the core of the new 65th NOHED Airborne Special Forces Brigade. The 65th is believed to be the most capable of the army brigades, specializing in fighting terrorism and special operations abroad. In the spring of 2016, volunteers from the 65th Brigade and several other Iranian army units were set to Syria to help the Assad government.
The second Iranian airborne brigade is the 55th, which is based in Shiraz. It was also set up before the 1979 revolution — but, unlike the 65th, it specializes primarily in airborne assault operations proper. Its soldiers paradrop from Lockeed C-130E/H Hercules transports, which are stationed at the 7th Air Force Tactical Airbase near Shiraz, and from Army Aviation helicopters. Commandos of the 65th Brigade can be recognized by their green berets, whereas the color of the 55th is black.
The 23rd Commando Division itself was preserved ’ albeit in a truncated form — after some of its forces were used to set up the 65th Brigade. There is also the 58th Zulfiqar Commando Division, which is stationed near Shahrud in the northeastern Semnan province.
The other three independent commando brigades are stationed along Iran’s western border with Iraq. They are the 25th Brigade in the Western Azerbaijan province in northwestern Iran; the 35th Brigade in the western province of Kermanshah; and the 45th Brigade in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.
Fresh commando recruits from all units are given a two-month basic training course at the Lashkarak training center. They are then sent to their units to complete their training.
The Iranian commando units are more heavily armed than the airborne units. For example, they have their own artillery, making them similar in that respect to infantry brigades. Unlike infantry, however, the commandos are trained and armed as light airborne assault forces specializing in rapid airlift operations or raids deep inside enemy territory using helicopters or light vehicles (bikes, quad bikes, and light off-road vehicles). The scenarios of their training exercises include such unusual skills as bikers boarding and disembarking from helicopters without getting off their bikes.
All Iranian military training programs include a strong ideological and religious component. Article 144 of the Iranian constitution stipulates that the country’s armed forces should be Islamic, and that they should be manned only by people committed to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.
As of 2011, the approximate composition of an average Iranian commando brigade was as follows: the HQ, three commando infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, an air defense battalion, a training battalion, and a supply and logistics battalion.2 The commando brigades are therefore more heavily armed than the airborne units (for example, they have their own artillery, just like the infantry brigades).
Naval special forces
The Iranian Navy has four large marine units. There are three marine brigades stationed in the south, in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz. One of them is near the main Iranian naval base in Bandar Abbas, another in Jask, and the third in Konarak. There is also a marine unit in the north, on the Caspian coast, which is part of Zone 4 of the Iranian Naval Command.
Just like the army commandos, the Iranian marines lack their own armored vehicles. Neither are they very numerous, which makes them ill-suited for such tasks as storming well-equipped coastal defenses or holding forward bases against the enemy’s mechanized units for any length of time. Their main tasks are therefore two-fold: contributing to coastal defense, and sudden landings in unexpected places using helicopters or speedboats, including hovercraft.
The Iranian marines also specialize in reconnaissance and sabotage, including submarine operations. To that end, the marine brigades have special squads of marine commandos. They are involved, among other things, in the Iranian Navy’s operations to protect shipping from Somali pirates. In April 2012 they conducted an operation to the west of the Maldives to free the Eglantine freighter, which was seized by pirates as it was sailing for Iran with a cargo of sugar. Thirteen Somali pirates were disarmed, arrested, and brought to Iran for trial.
Special force units of the Revolutionary Guards
Revolutionary Guards ground forces
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have their own rapid response forces, the Saberin. These forces specialize in countering internal threats and drug trafficking. They were set up following a rapid deterioration in Iran’s relations with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in 1999.
The need for the Revolutionary Guards to have their own special forces was recognized after the end of the war with Iraq, during which the Guards worked very closely with the army special forces. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Revolutionary Guards became the main force in charge of providing security and countering various threats in those situations and/or parts of the country where the regular law enforcement agencies were failing. Iran seems to have a policy of not involving the army in domestic security matters, whereas the Revolutionary Guards stand ready to counter any external as well as internal threats to the Islamic Revolution.
The Iranians studied the experience of 11 various special forces, including Britain’s SAS, when they set up the Saberin. Candidates have to take grueling fitness tests, and are carefully selected for intelligence. For example, the tests include a 54-km march in full gear; alpine tests at 4,000m altitude; trekking 300km through forest and 500km through desert; and rock climbing at an altitude of over 1,200m. Candidates also take psychological and intelligence tests.
The largest military operation in which Saberin units have taken part was a 2011 operation against the military wing of the banned Kurdish PJAK party. The operation targeted the rebels’ training camps in the mountains on the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. Saberin is also involved in fighting militants on the border with Pakistan. In addition to domestic security operations, Saberin provides assistance to government troops in Syria and Iraq.
Revolutionary Guards naval forces
The Revolutionary Guards operate special naval forces that are separate from the Iranian Navy. The Guards and the Iranian Navy units have their own areas of responsibility: the Guards are responsible for the Persian Gulf, whereas the Navy has the Strait of Oman and the Caspian Sea.
The Revolutionary Guards’ naval units are geared for asymmetric warfare; they lack any large ships, and rely instead on a large fleet of light missile, torpedo, and gun boats. Their training scenarios include operations to seize and plant booby traps on enemy ships and oil platforms using speedboats and divers.
The Quds Force
The Quds Force is sometimes mistakenly described as one of the Iranian commando units. It is in fact a specialized intelligence branch of the Revolutionary Guards, which serves primarily as an instrument of exerting covert influence and conducting sensitive foreign-policy missions. In particular, it provides organizational, financial, training, and technological assistance to various pro-Iranian parties and movements, as well as Iran’s international allies.
The Quds Force dates back to the 1980s, when, during the war with Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards took over an existing HQ for irregular operations using Kurdish and Iraqi Shia fighters. At about the same time, Iran began to ramp up its influence in other Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon and Afghanistan; the Guards played a prominent role in those efforts.
The Quds Force was set up as a Revolutionary Guards division some time in the 1990s, after the end of the war with Iraq, as a result of reforms in the Iranian intelligence community and a consolidation of the forces used in foreign operations.
The Quds Force is believed to be about 10,000-20,000 strong. Its personnel are trained at special centers in Shiraz and Tehran. They also take a religious and ideological course in the city of Qom, Iran’s main religious center, after which they are sent on training field missions lasting several months to Iraq and Afghanistan.3
The Quds Force is one of Iran’s key instruments of influencing the politics and the general situation in the Middle East. The chief of the force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, is well-known in the region. The Quds Force has played a particularly notable role in the wars in Syria and Iraq, where Gen. Soleimani and his units are at the forefront of fighting the anti-government forces.
In Iraq, the Iranians helped to set up and arm the Shia militias that later formed the core of the People’s Mobilization Forces, created in the summer of 2014 after a series of catastrophic defeats inflicted on the Iraqi army and police in the northwest of the country by the so-called Islamic State.
In Syria, Iranian specialists helped the government organize the numerous disparate pro-government militias, which were poorly trained and armed, into the National Defense Force, which provides support to the Syrian army.
Iran also participated in sending squads of volunteers from the Iraqi Shia militias to fight in Syria on the side of the Assad government. Gen. Soleimani himself has shown up in Syria and Iraq on several occasions to help coordinate the forces fighting the rebels.
Iranian special forces’ weapons and equipment
In addition to international sanctions, the Iranian armed forces also suffer from inadequate financing. Even the commander of the Iranian army, Gen. Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan, said in 2015 that in the current circumstances, his forces needed more funding than they were getting at the time.4
This situation is unsurprising; Iran has the most numerous forces among all the Gulf states ’ but its defense spending is only a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s. Even the United Arab Emirates spends a lot more on its army than Iran does.5
Denied the opportunity to buy advanced combat planes, helicopters and other weaponry abroad, Iran is forced increasingly to rely on its own missile program. That program, we believe, is the largest single spending item in the Iranian defense budget. Incidentally, the Iranian missile units are operated by the Revolutionary Guards ’ and the Guards have long received more funding than the Armed Forces,6 even though the latter are the more numerous of the two.
The technology-heavy branches of the Iranian forces, such as the Army Aviation service or the tank troops, are the hardest-hit by the sanctions and inadequate financing. The special task forces, however, are by no means immune to these problems.
One of the key missions of the special forces operated by the Revolutionary Guards is to counter various internal threats amid the growing pro-opposition sentiment among ordinary Iranians — especially the young and the intelligentsia.
Meanwhile, the special force units assigned to the Iranian army suffer from insufficient combat training and lack of experience of real fighting. That lack is now gradually being addressed by means of sending the special forces operated by the Armed Forces and the Revolutionary Guards to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Another problem faced by the Iranian special operations forces is inadequate weaponry and equipment; this is mainly a result of international sanctions.
Finally, the best-trained and the most capable of the Iranian special forces is the Quds Force.
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)