A New Era for Iran’s Military Leadership
Iran is reshaping its military command structure to enhance its ability to deploy and use conventional military power throughout the Middle East. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently reorganized the military’s chain of command with a series of appointments and structural changes that will better enable it to plan and conduct military operations using all branches of Iran’s conventional military forces. These changes signal the regime’s intention to rebalance its conventional forces from their historically defensive posture toward a more active role in supporting Iran’s expeditionary operations. They suggest that Iran may develop a conventional force-projection capability that would pose a new challenge to U.S. allies and interests in the region.
A recent interview with Major General Hassan Firouzabadi provides rare insight into how and why the regime altered its command structure in mid-2016. Firouzabadi is well-positioned to explain changes to Iran’s military command. He served as the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, Iran’s top military body, from 1989 until June 2016, when Khamenei appointed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General Mohammad Bagheri to replace him as part of the larger shakeup to Iran’s military leadership. Firouzabadi’s remarks during the interview form the basis for the following assessments, which are contextualized by recent developments in Iranian military activity. For a full translation of Firouzabadi’s remarks, please see the appendix.
The changing roles of the Iranian military
The various branches of Iran’s armed forces maintained relatively distinct operational focuses until recently. Tehran’s premier fighting force, the IRGC, is formally tasked with protecting the Islamic Revolution against internal and external threats, as well as exporting the revolution beyond Iran’s borders. The IRGC’s clandestine paramilitary wing, the Quds Force, has historically assumed sole responsibility for conducting Iran’s military activities abroad. The IRGC’s service branches--the ground forces (IRGC-GF), navy (IRGC-N), and air force (IRGC-AF)--have focused on protecting Iranian territory against external and internal threats since the Iran-Iraq War. The Artesh is Iran’s conventional military. The Iranian constitution tasks it with the much more limited mission of defending Iran’s territorial integrity rather than defending, let alone expanding, the revolution. These operational distinctions are starting to fade, however.
Iran’s growing commitments at home and abroad have placed new demands on the IRGC. The Quds Force is currently managing Iran’s military activities across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Its model of expeditionary warfare, which partners local proxy forces with a small number of Quds Force trainers and advisors, proved inadequate on the battlefields of Syria. Iran’s leadership decided instead to develop a quasi-conventional model of expeditionary warfare relying on the IRGC conventional forces in addition to the Quds Force and its proxies. Combat formations drawn from the IRGC-GF’s conventional brigades and divisions have therefore been supporting Iranian proxies and Quds Force activities in Syria and to a much more limited extent in Iraq for more than a year. IRGC-GF units also combat unrest along Iran's borders and among restive ethnic minorities, however. Containing unrest in Iranian Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchistan province, for example, create significant drains on IRGC resources.
Iran’s military leadership has expanded the use of the Artesh in Iranian military operations abroad, partly in response to these growing force requirements. The Artesh is an important component of Iran’s military capability, although it has long been overshadowed and obscured by the IRGC. The Artesh has greater manpower and fields much of Iran’s more advanced conventional weaponry. Iran’s coordinated military campaign against ISIS in Iraq, for example, required cooperation between the IRGC and Artesh at least at the strategic level, although some reports also indicate the possible use of Artesh Air Force airframes to conduct strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq.
The trajectory of Artesh-IRGC cooperation indicates that the Iranian regime has decided to re-posture elements of the Artesh force structure toward supporting the IRGC’s military operations abroad. Recent rhetoric hints at a fundamental transformation in the Artesh’s orientation away from its previous mission of static defense. Senior Artesh commanders, for example, have come to redefine their constitutionally designated mission of protecting Iran’s borders to include expeditionary deployments as part of a larger preemptive doctrine. The Artesh rank-and-file have probably welcomed the evolution in their mission in order to prove their relevance to state officials, argue for greater resources, and gain combat experience. 
Artesh forces have already demonstrated a limited capability to support IRGC activities at the operational level. They did so most clearly when Tehran assigned Artesh ground forces to the direct command of the IRGC in at least two separate deployments around Aleppo during the first half of 2016. The precise extent of the Artesh’s involvement in Syria remains unknown, although it is certainly broader than these two deployments. Transport planes owned by the Artesh Air Force operate in support of IRGC-backed activities in Syria, for example.
The structure of Iran’s armed forces
The armed forces’ command structure has been poorly designed for the task of coordinating the cross-branch military operations increasingly required for Iran’s regional military activities. The Artesh and the IRGC retain separate chains of command and joint staffs. The long-standing rivalry between the two services has exacerbated the command and control issues inherent in managing two parallel military structures.
Khamenei is the commander-in-chief of this bifurcated structure, but he does not exercise direct control. The Supreme Leader instead develops major national security decisions in collaboration with the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), on which civilian leaders and the commanders of the Artesh and the IRGC sit. The burden of coordinating the activities of both services in combat in several theaters was probably heavier than the SNSC and its staff could manage easily.
Iran’s military has formal structures for limited coordination across the military branches. The Supreme Leader relies on Iran’s top military body, the General Staff, to deconflict Artesh and IRGC affairs, ensure readiness across the armed forces, and advise him on military matters. The General Staff has limited ability to manage tensions between the services in combat operations as it is not within the military chain of command. A formally separate body, Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters, is within the chain of command, however, and charged with inter-service control of IRGC and Artesh units. Khatam ol Anbia played an important role in managing Iran’s military operations during the Iran-Iraq War and many of Iran’s top military officers served at Khatam ol Anbia in that period. After the war, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi was “dual-hatted” with command of both the newly-created General Staff and Khatam ol Anbia.
The Iranian military’s capability to conduct joint operations through this structure was limited, however. Firouzabadi had little military experience and was actually a veterinarian by training. His lack of military expertise was not particularly an issue for his position as General Staff chief, which is formally removed from the military chain of command and therefore not directly involved in military operations or planning. Firouzabadi’s close relationship with Khamenei gave him the authority to act as the Supreme Leader’s loyal advisor and deputy in overseeing activity across the military leadership. The fact that he neither hailed from the IRGC nor the Artesh may have actually allowed him to arbitrate between the two services more effectively from his position in the General Staff.
But Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters’ effectiveness in directing military operations almost certainly suffered during Firouzabadi’s tenure. Firouzabadi says that the difficulties he encountered managing his responsibilities in the headquarters forced him to deputize IRGC Major General Mohammad Bagheri to help manage Khatam ol Anbia and the General Staff. The headquarters’ command staff appears to have lacked a dedicated leadership and formal structure, however. The fact that Iranian officials made almost no mention of this headquarters while Firouzabadi was at its helm indicates its limited importance in military decision-making. The Supreme Leader was probably forced to manage joint operations either through the SNSC or directly with the Artesh and IRGC joint staffs, a cumbersome process that complicated the regime’s efforts to boost the interoperability of its armed forces. It appears that these institutional demands persuaded Khamenei to streamline the chain of command for joint military operations in mid-2016.
Khamenei restructures the military command
Khamenei institutionalized Khatam ol Anbia’s role in the chain of command by separating its leadership from the General Staff and staffing the headquarters with long-time professional officers in June and July of 2016. This structural change was likely an attempt to allow the General Staff and Khatam ol Anbia to manage their competing and overlapping tasks more efficiently and below the level of the Supreme Leader or the SNSC’s focus.
Khamenei’s appointments to Khatam ol Anbia reflect the renewed importance of the headquarters in Iranian military operations. He tapped IRGC Major General Gholam Ali Rashid to serve as commander of Khatam ol Anbia. Rashid is a member of the IRGC’s senior leadership network and is regarded as a central figure in the development of Iranian military strategy and planning. He is thus a natural fit for the highest operational command under the Supreme Leader. Khamenei also selected Artesh Major General Hossein Hassani Saadi, a General Staff deputy and one of the most seasoned Artesh officers, as the second-in-command of the Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters. The appointment of an experienced IRGC officer to the highest operational command and a top Artesh commander as his deputy signals the regime’s intention for the IRGC to continue to spearhead Iranian military activity, but now with an increasing amount of Artesh support.
Khamenei's changes to the high command were not limited to the leadership of Khatam ol Anbia, however. The Supreme Leader also appointed IRGC Major General Mohammad Bagheri as head of the General Staff. Bagheri selected a prominent Artesh commander, Brigadier General Abdolrahim Mousavi, as his deputy. Bagheri’s appointment signals the IRGC’s expanded role in the train-and-equip duties of the General Staff. These are the efforts involved in recruiting, training, equipping, and preparing a military to fight, but short of actually leading it in combat. The leadership of the Iranian Armed Forces General Staff therefore plays a similar role to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is not in the chain-of-command of the U.S. military. The train-and-equip function allocates resources among services and service components. The IRGC and the Artesh have long been at loggerheads about how resources are allocated between them. It appears that the IRGC won a round with the appointment of one of its own to head this staff, but the prominent Artesh deputy represents a significant institutional compromise.
These changes to the military leadership hint at a larger shift in the regime’s perception of its threats and interests and the possible military requirements that may flow from them. The bulk of the Artesh’s and the IRGC’s regular combat units have historically focused on population control and defense against ground invasion, primarily from the U.S. Iran’s military prioritized the development of asymmetric capabilities against this type of threat, as its leadership recognized that Iran could never compete with the U.S. on a purely symmetric level. Iran’s military also adopted a decentralized model of command and control. Different lines of authority insulated the regime against a U.S. “decapitation strike” and ensured that military units were able to respond to domestic security threats quickly. They also generated inefficiency, particularly in the employment of conventional military forces in coordinated operations.
The regime appears to be de-prioritizing the threat of an invasion in favor of focusing on meeting its increasing force requirements abroad. The nuclear deal has at least temporarily limited the chances of a U.S. military strike on Iran. Iranian officials’ growing claims that Iran faces no meaningful threat from land invasion suggest that they are internalizing this fact. The re-emergence of a dedicated command authority under Khatam ol Anbia suggests that the regime now discounts the threat from a “decapitation” strike at least enough to invest resources in strengthening a central command-and-control node. Khamenei’s efforts to integrate the Artesh and the IRGC into a single usable combat structure indicate that the regime wants to field a conventional force-projection capability, however much it couches such operations in defensive rhetoric. The Supreme Leader’s recent blessing for Iran to develop both “offensive” and “defensive” military capabilities is yet another sign that Iran intends to develop its capabilities to project power in a relatively conventional fashion.
Iranian military capabilities are far from able to match those of the U.S. or some of its allies. The Iranian military still suffers from outdated equipment and poor interoperability between services, despite the handful of documented cases of combined operations. But if Iran’s military is able to overcome the command and control issues of its bifurcated structure, the regime’s ability to conduct symmetric military operations would significantly increase. It will be important to monitor the activities of Khatam ol Anbia and further organizational changes within the Iranian order of battle, particularly at the lower-levels of the Artesh and the IRGC, to assess the extent of the regime’s efforts to improve the armed forces’ ability to conduct conventional operations.
U.S. policymakers must ensure that Iran does not acquire the weapons platforms Tehran needs to increase its conventional military capabilities to near-parity with other regional powers. The most likely source of such weapons would be Russia, which has entertained delegations of Iranian defense officials eagerly requesting fighter aircraft, cruise-missiles, and other advanced weaponry. As Iran ramps up its military activities in the region, the U.S. must work aggressively to deter Russia from helping transform Iran into a conventional regional power. A symmetrical Iranian military capability -- coupled with Iran’s existing asymmetric abilities -- would pose a major strategic challenge for U.S. policy and strategy in the Middle East.
Please find the translation of the relevant portions of the interview with Major General Hassan Firouzabadi below. For an analysis and translation of other portions of Firouzabadi’s interview, please see, “Supreme Leader's Adviser Discloses Details on Iranian Efforts Abroad.”
Reporter: You were chief of the General Staff for 27 years. What is the role of the General Staff in coordinating the [different branches] of the armed forces?
The General Staff is like a coin with two sides. On one side of the coin is the fact that one of the Supreme Leader’s duties is being commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and he therefore wishes to issue orders to command them. But every commander has a staff and thus the Supreme Leader created the General Staff in order to command the IRGC, the Artesh, the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF), and the other armed forces that exist in the country.
The General Staff therefore operates as the Supreme Leader’s staff. In other words, the Supreme Leader sends the General Staff his commands, his procedures, and his policies, and the General Staff implements these executive policies in accordance with the missions of the army, the IRGC, the police force, the Ministry of Defense, and the other elements of the armed forces.
The General Staff has another duty. It must coordinate the actions of the services of the armed forces, including the army, the IRGC, the police force, the Ministry of Defense, and others. These different forces must operate harmoniously. Therefore, the mission of the General Staff in the defense sector is to align the forces in solidarity and against threats.
The General Staff has two tasks. One is to maintain security and the other is to repel threats, whether through deterrent or offensive action.
In order to achieve a united defense, the Artesh cannot have its own command while the IRGC, the police force, and the Ministry of Defense also do their own work.
The General Staff must bring together and coordinate these people. In other words, the General Staff must utilize all the weapons that exist in Iran as well as all the units harmoniously.
The Artesh’s mission is to defend borders, territory, and airspace. The IRGC’s job is defending the political system and the Islamic Revolution. The LEF does police work within the country and at the borders. These forces have three missions. For the nation and the Supreme Leader, however, these missions are considered a single mission, which is ensuring security for the nation.
The Supreme Leader is able to perform his duties relating to the armed forces easily due to the General Staff. In other words, the Supreme Leader sends his orders to the General Staff chief at the national level and the General Staff implements these policies.
On the other hand, the General Staff is the military staff of the Islamic Revolution. The General Staff propagates Islamic culture across the armed forces. We are the defenders of religion, and the General Staff must train our forces to be pious and possess Islamic ethics. The General Staff organizes and manages the books, educational pamphlets, colleges, and training centers for the armed forces along these lines.
Therefore you can see that the General Staff is an operational school in the defense and security sector, and at the same time it makes policy for all the armed forces.
Reporter: There has been little discussion so far about the Khatam ol Anbia Central Headquarters. Please talk about this headquarters’ duties and responsibilities. Is this base managed by the General Staff?
I must make a point about the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters so that I can correct this mistake. As long as I was General Staff chief, I was also in charge of the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters. I did not sign orders twice [with two different positions]. I always signed once. As General Staff chief, I propagated operational orders through the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters.
Of course, the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters was separate from the General Staff in that the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters implemented its own duties and the General Staff implemented its own duties. However, I always issued commands as General Staff chief because this was a way of managing the armed forces.
The Supreme Leader, however, has decided in this “new era” to separate the positions of General Staff chief and Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters. So do not interpret the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters as being part of the General Staff. The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters operates alongside the General Staff. So we have a General Staff chief and a Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters chief.
The General Staff manages the armed forces and makes policy for them. The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters is the operational base for the armed forces. This base commands military, training, and war operations.
The General Staff chief is not in the chain of command. The General Staff chief is the chief of the staff, and his commander is the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader makes commands and the General Staff chief makes policy, organizes executive affairs, and coordinates the forces based on those commands.
The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters chief is at the top of the operational chain of command. The commanders of the armed forces are under the orders of the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters for operations. Of course, the Supreme Leader is also the commander of the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters. The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters must follow the commands of Supreme Leader, but armed forces commanders must follow [the commands] of the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters in war exercises and operations.
The General Staff therefore makes policy, conducts training, and equips the armed forces. The General Staff prepares the armed forces. The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters utilizes these forces. So in the event of war, the General Staff does not get involved. Instead, the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters assumes command.
Reporter: So when there are operations, the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters is involved with these military activities, and the General Staff becomes a part of the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters in these situations?
Yes, during operations the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters gets involved and the General Staff must cooperate with the Headquarters. The headquarters sets the priorities and the General Staff propagates them.
On the other hand, the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters stipulates training priorities and notifies the General Staff. Based on these priorities, the General Staff trains and equips the forces, conducts maneuvers, and prepares the forces, and then the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters combines these forces for operations.
Even if we only had one military organization, we would still need the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters because the base employs the forces. So how does this Headquarters operate within our strategy? Our strategy is that the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters designs operations based on the threat. The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters determines the scale of this threat, its trends, and how much must be invested to eliminate it. The Headquarters tells each military organization to deploy which units to which region and what operations to organize.
The Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters commands the operations, and it sends a combination of the Artesh, the IRGC, the air force, the ground force, the navy and the Basij to the region, wherever it is necessary. Therefore our defensive power becomes a combined and united force against any type of threat.
If the threat is small, the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters sends our forces to the region to the extent needed. If the threat is large and transregional, the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters combines the Artesh, the IRGC, the LEF, the Basij, the air force, the navy, the ground force and the Quds Force and converts them into a small or large army for opposing the threat.
Reporter: Sir, your longest period of service was in the armed forces. If you would, please talk about the reasons behind your transfer from chief of the Armed Forces General Staff.
At first I was only supposed to serve for several years as chief of the General Staff. But after 15 years and heart and kidney disease, I told Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that my body was weak and suggested 10 people to him for this job. The Supreme Leader told me that I was still young and should persevere, however. After another five years, I wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader suggesting 10 people for the job and their work records. He again told me to remain as the General Staff chief for the time being.
I had no problems managing the General Staff in normal circumstances, but since I was also the Supreme Leader’s deputy in the Khatam ol Anbia Headquarters, I calculated that in the event of a crisis I might not have the ability to maintain an active presence in the operational areas while managing the secondary headquarters at the fronts. I therefore wrote another letter to the Supreme Leader and presented a number of individuals to replace me. I said if he deemed it advisable he could make one of the people in these groups chief of the General Staff, but again he did not agree.
Therefore, I made a temporary change in the structure of the General Staff. I created a cabinet deputy position, and Commander [Mohammad] Bagheri occupied this position. Afterwards, I told the Supreme Leader that this deputy would be my second-in-command and would manage the General Staff with my authority. The Supreme Leader accepted this proposal. For four years, I was alongside Commander Bagheri as he performed the duties and convened meetings, until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decided for there to be a transition in the month of Tir [June-July 2016]. This transition was completely peaceful and was the result of wise planning.