Rebuilding the Army

  February 23, 2022   Read time 3 min
Rebuilding the Army
The armed forces constituted the main pillar of the new regime. Reza Khan began work on the military immediately after the 1921 coup. He merged the Cossacks with the remnants of the gendarmerie and the South Persian Rifles to form a national army of 20,000.

He replaced the Russian, Swedish, and British officers with his Cossack cronies. He took charge of road tolls and opium taxes in order to pay for this new army. Within two years, he had five divisions totaling 30,000 men – separate divisions for Tehran, Tabriz, Hamadan, Isfahan, and Mashed. According to the British, he spent “the whole of 1921–23 building up a well-disciplined force... the first proper such force since the days of Fath Ali Shah in 1834.” This new army successfully crushed a number of provincial rebels – especially Kuchek Khan and the Jangalis in Gilan, Khiabani in Tabriz, Simku in Kurdestan, and Sowlat al-Dowleh in Fars. It also crushed gendarmerie mutinies led by Major Lahuti in Tabriz and Colonel Taqi Peysan in Mashed.

The armed forces continued to grow – especially after the introduction of conscription in 1925. The conscription law can be described as the regime’s central piece. With conscription came Iran’s first birth certification as well as mandatory family names. The conscription law required all able-bodied males over the age of twenty-one to serve two full years in active service and another four years in the reserves. The conscripts were drawn first from the peasantry; then from the tribes; and eventually from the urban population. By 1941, the military had eighteen full divisions totaling 127,000 men – one division in each of the twelve provinces with extra ones on the northern border with Russia. The cavalry and mechanized divisions contained some 100 tanks and 28 armored vehicles.

The air force had 157 planes; the navy 2 frigates and 4 gunboats. The services were coordinated by a newly created joint office of the chiefs of staff. In 1939, the war minister approached the British with an ambitious proposal to buy 30 Blenheim bombers, 30 Wellington bombers, 35 Hurricane fighters, and 30 American Curtis fighters. He argued that these planes could “come in useful for bombing Baku.” Such proposals would not have sat well with the northern neighbor.

The main burden of the taxpayer will continue to be the army. Tanks, artillery and other material are being acquired in increasing quantities, so much so that neighbouring States are beginning to wonder whether Iran may not be a potential aggressor in the future. The reasons which have led the Shah to spend so much on armaments are probably, however, quite simple: he had to have a sufficient force to keep order and, having acquired this, his natural wish, as a soldier, was to see his army provided with up-to-date material. Further, he has vivid recollections of the sufferings of a weak Persia in times of war and confusion, and is determined to avoid the recurrence of such a state of affairs.

Reza Shah also strengthened the rural gendarmerie and the urban police. He replaced Yeprem’s Armenians in the Tehran police department and the Swedish advisors in the gendarmerie with his own men. He expanded the police force into provincial cities. He substituted short-term detention jails with long-term prisons – institutions unknown in traditional Iran. He created two security organizations: the sharbani attached to the urban police; and the Rokn-e Dovom (Second Pillar), modeled after the French Deuxieme Bureau, attached to the army. The British minister feared that he was creating a police state: “Political suspects, however slight the ground of suspicion – an incautious remark or a visit to an unpopular friend – may find themselves in prison or banished to the provinces without any semblance of a trial.”

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