All the Shah’s Men: The Imperial Iranian Brigade Group in the Dhofar War

The King’s College Research Centre for the History of Conflict will be hosting a symposium, ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War: Operations and Legacies’, at the JSCSC in the Tedder Lecture Theatre on 13th July 2016. All staff and students are warmly invited to attend.

 DR GERAINT HUGHES

In the autumn of 1972 Shah Reza Pahlavi, the Emperor of Iran, send 150 special forces soldiers from his armed forces (the Artesh) to Oman, commencing an intervention that culminated in the deployment of a brigade group to assist the British-led Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) in their counterinsurgency campaign in Dhofar against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). At least 15,000 Iranian soldiers, sailors and airmen were deployed to Oman between 1972 and 1979, with over 700 being reportedly killed in combat. Few historians have written about the Imperial Iranian Brigade Group (IIBG) and its interaction with the British-trained SAF, and this subject will be addressed in a paper that I will present to the symposium on ‘Armed Forces and the Cold War’ convened by the Research Centre for the History of Conflict on 13th July 2016.

At a time when the UK and other Western powers favour a ‘light footprint’ in military interventions, the prospects are that British military trainers and advisors will be working with allies like the Artesh – with armed forces with little if any record of alliance interaction with the UK, and with specific weaknesses such as those originating from the coup-proofing of militaries by regimes. In Dhofar, the Iranians could provide the mass and manpower that the British – with their NATO commitments and the worsening crisis in Northern Ireland – could not deploy. They played an important role in winning the war against the PFLO, although the partnership between them, the Omanis and their British allies was not trouble-free.

In the late 1960s-early 1970s the Shah oversaw a massive expansion of Iran’s military might, his intention being to make his realm a regional superpower, filling the power vacuum left in the Persian Gulf by Britain’s ‘East of Suez’ withdrawals between 1968 and 1971. Reza Pahlavi also saw himself as a bulwark against revolution in the region, and was as determined as the governments of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson to save Sultan Qaboos bin Said from being overthrown by the Marxist-Leninist PFLO.

On paper, the Artesh was a powerful force, lavishly equipped as a result of US and (to a lesser extent) British military aid. However, Iran’s military expansion was constrained by several factors. The Shah’s armed forces had an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure, officers were appointed and promoted on the basis of loyalty to the imperial regime rather than professional competence, and the military and defence ministry was hampered by a shortage of key personnel – senior NCOs, trained staff officers, and also civil servants specialising in procurement.

There were also specific factors which made the Iranians awkward partners in Dhofar. Arab-Persian animosities, and the Shah’s territorial claims in the Gulf, meant that the IIBG’s presence was politically controversial as far as regional opinion was concerned. Traditional Anglophobia – deriving from Britain’s legacy of imperial meddling in Iran’s affairs – meant that British officers seconded to serve with the SAF faced the suspicion and mistrust of their Artesh allies.

Initially, the Iranians were also of questionable quality. The Shah’s special forces contingent attracted the ridicule of their counterparts from the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (22SAS), who had been deployed to Dhofar to organise the firqat forces (tribal militias). In December 1973 Iran sent a battalion of paratroopers to open up the Midway Road that linked Dhofar with the rest of the Sultanate; the road was quickly secured, but as the Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan’s Armed Forces (CSAF), Major-General Timothy Creasey, observed, the Iranian airborne soldiers were trigger-happy and quick to open fire on Dhofari nomads and their herds. While the Iranian Chief of the Army, General Golam Reza Azhari, wanted to confine his forces to Eastern Dhofar, Creasey feared that Iranian troops would antagonise Dhofari civilians with their heavy-handedness, and wanted the IIBG to be deployed in the less-populated West of the province, where the PFLO had its strongest presence. The CSAF was able to persuade Qaboos (and through him the Shah) that the Artesh should fight in the West, which meant that between December 1974 and December 1975 the IIBG became involved in a series of offensives that eventually swept the insurgents out of Dhofar.

The Iranians had a steep learning curve to climb. Their initial performance in combat showed that their soldiers often lacked basic infantry skills. They did not patrol, they did not site their defensive positions with interlocking fields of fire (a challenge in its own right because of the tough terrain) they were unable to fire and manoeuvre in battle, and under fire their troops tended to bunch, rather than disperse. However, their commitment to operations in the West played to their favour. The Artesh had been trained by its US advisors to fight ‘conventional warfare’, and the last year of the war against the PFLO was very much a ‘conventional’ fight. The final offensive in October-December 1975 (Operation Hadaf) involved two brigades of Iranian and Oman forces fighting pitched battles against the insurgents, and required artillery, naval gunfire support and rotary wing manoeuvre to work.

Creasey’s successor as CSAF, Major-General Ken Perkins, noted in December 1976 that ‘without Iranian assistance we would not have won the war’. The IIBG were awkward partners. British liaison officers found it difficult to get even basic information from their allies (such as the location of friendly units), and often felt that they got the blame for Iranian mistakes and incompetence. But the Artesh’s contribution demonstrated the adage, attributed to Josif Stalin, that ‘quantity has a quality all of its own’. The IIBG augmented an overstretched SAF, its helicopters supplemented the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force (which was constantly short of both machines and RAF-seconded pilots), its naval task force helped blockade the PFLO, and both the air base built at Manston (now Thumrait) and the air defence units Iran sent to Dhofar provided both a deterrent – and a potential counter – to any overt intervention by the insurgency’s sponsor, South Yemen.

However, thanks to the Islamic Revolution Iran’s intervention in Oman was to become a forgotten war. After the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979 the officer corps of the Artesh was purged and the Islamic Republic withdrew the limited contingent left in Oman after the PFLO’s defeat. Reportedly some Dhofar veterans saw action in the war against Iraq (1980-1988), but their actual contribution to that particular war, and their effect on operations, is difficult to determine.

Nonetheless, the IIBG’s involvement in combat operations in Dhofar remains worthy of attention, not least because of the parallels between the conflict against the PFLO, and the involvement of Coalition advisors, special forces and air power assisting the Iraqi armed forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga against Daesh. Furthermore, and in spite its own pronouncements on non-intervention, the Islamic Republic has sent its Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors to bolster both the Iraqi government and the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In this respect, the mullahs in Tehran are following in the Shah’s footsteps, using Iran’s military muscle both to protect clients, and to bolster the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and prestige.

I would like to thank Ian Buttenshaw, Ian Gordon and Mike Lobb for their sharing their knowledge and insights on Dhofar, and the Iranian role in that conflict.

Featured image: Iranian troops prepare to deploy on Operation Nader, Christmas 1974. Photograph provided courtesy of Lt Col Ian Buttenshaw, WKhM.

 

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