A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces

Steven R. Ward

"It would behoove today's military planners to absorb these important lessons from the past as they prepare for current contingencies." — Michael Connell, Middle East Journal
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Immortal is the only single-volume English-language survey of Iran’s military history. CIA analyst Steven R. Ward shows that Iran’s soldiers, from the famed “Immortals” of ancient Persia to today’s Revolutionary Guard, have demonstrated through the centuries that they should not be underestimated. This history also provides background on the nationalist, tribal, and religious heritages of the country to help readers better understand Iran and its security outlook.

Immortal begins with the founding of ancient Persia’s empire under Cyrus the Great and continues through the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) and up to the present. Drawing on a wide range of sources including declassified documents, the author gives primary focus to the modern era to relate the build-up of the military under the last Shah, its collapse during the Islamic revolution, its fortunes in the Iran-Iraq War, and its rise from the ashes to help Iran become once again a major regional military power. He shows that, despite command and supply problems, Iranian soldiers demonstrate high levels of bravery and perseverance and have enjoyed surprising tactical successes even when victory has been elusive. These qualities and the Iranians’ ability to impose high costs on their enemies by exploiting Iran’s imposing geography bear careful consideration today by potential opponents.

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Iranian Phoenix

1. Heritage of Greatness, Legacy of Loss
2. Powerful Predecessors: The Safavids and Nader Shah
3. Laughingstock: The Qajar Military
4. Nationalism Unleashed: From Revolution to the Great War
5. Two Paths: The Birth of the Modern Iranian Armed Forces
6. Sidelined: The World at War in Iran
7. Cold War Pillar: The Rise of the Imperial Armed Forces
8. Old Guard, New Guard: Iran’s Armed Forces in the Islamic Revolution
9. Horrible Sacrifice: The Iran-Iraq War
10. Despise Not Your Enemy: Iran’s Armed Forces in the Twenty-first Century





"It would serve well anyone closely following the developments in the present diplomatic row between Iran and the West to read Immortal. It is an excellent overview of Iran's military history—a comprehensive examination of their military forces from which both specialists and generalists can benefit . . . [The] wealth of information he was able to provide is an excellent resource for those seeking to understand the country's military in a historical context."—ASMEA Newsletter

"It would behoove today's military planners to absorb these important lessons from the past as they prepare for current contingencies."—Middle East Quarterly

"Immortal provides a welcome introduction to the history and capabilities of Iran's military. It is ambitious in scope, tracing the evolution of Iran's armed forces from the Achaemenid period (6th-4th centuries BC) up to the modern day. . . . As eloquent as it is insightful, Immortal is readily accessible to Iran specialists and nonspecialists alike."—Michael Connell, Middle East Journal

"Steven Ward’s Immortal is a narrative of Iran’s wars from the time of Cyrus the Great to the present. It is an exceptionally well-informed military history that conveys a sense of the sweat and sacrifice, and of the grandeur and the blunders."—Paul R. Pillar, The National Interest

"Brings solid credentials and unquestioned regional expertise. In a single-volume survey, Ward might be expected to present only the most cursory examination of such a vast period and to offer little in-depth analysis. In fact, the opposite is true. . . . Ward has produced an excellent book that should be read by anyone interested in the region. It will be especially useful for those wanting insight into Iran's military capabilities and the role heritage plays in their development. It excels at being informative while lacking the dryness of a standard academic tome."—Major Todd M. Manyx, USMC, Joint Forces Quarterly

"The title of Immortal refers to soldiers who were known for their military prowess and their loyalty, the famous elite corps of the ancient Persian rulers. . . . The book provides a long historical perspective of Iranian military culture beginning with the fabled Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great and continuing with the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians. . . .The book’s most original and revealing aspect is its analysis and evaluation of Iran’s military since the Islamic Revolution. It treats the war with Iraq in detail and includes a thorough discussion of the main campaigns, battles, and strategic problems. . . .Ward has provided a valuable addition to the literature on Iran’s military. . . . Military officers and national security professionals would do well to read this book - highly recommended."—LTC Prisco R. Hernandez, USAR, Fort Leavenworth, KS, Military Review

"This study is the only comprehensive history of Iran’s military and as such it is a must-read for students of Iranian history and those looking to understand the factors that drive Iranian strategic thinking and mistrust of the United States and the West. It is an excellent source book for graduate and undergraduate students studying Iran."—Judith S. Yaphe, International Journal of Middle East Studies

"One of the often-quoted excerpts from Sun Tzu asserts that a successful battlefield commander must know his adversary as well as—if not better than—he knows his own forces. In the current strategic environment, one of our adversaries, for good or ill, is Iran. Steven Ward’s book, Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces, provides a valuable starting point for developing an understanding of that particular adversary. The book is strong on narrative, well written, and engaging. It provides a coherent historical framework for those seeking to begin developing an understanding of twenty-first century Iran."—Gary Hobin, Army History

"This is not only a timely book, and one that fills a gap of information and analysis on the Iranian military, but it also cogently argues that policy makers involved with the Middle East take a cautious approach to Iran. . . . What sets this historical study apart is the depth of the research, the synthesis of political-military factors relevant to each era, and the quality of the writing, making it possible for non-academics or those without special Middle East backgrounds to profit from reading it."—Colonel Norvell B. De Atkine, Us Army (ret), Proceedings

"Beginning with ancient Persia’s feared corps, known as the “Immortals,” and continuing through today’s Revolutionary Guard, Ward offers a panoramic view of Iranian military history—and explains how Iran could still use its geography against its enemies."—Foreign Policy

"Ward, a senior intelligence analyst for the CIA, reminds us that although Iran’s armed forces have not fared well in the past two centuries, they have demonstrated qualities that bear some consideration. . . . Those studying Iran and its military will want this."—Library Journal

"Perceptive and intriguing look at Iran’s military history. . . Ward assesses Iran’s use of military force in both internal and external wars, as well as its legacy of corruption, politicization, and religious interference."—William D. Busnesll, Military Officer

"Immortal is a superbly written and researched work. Steven Ward has delivered a critically important contribution to understanding the Persian military. This is a must read for those who want to understand Iranian military thinking, heritage, and capability."—General Anthony C. Zinni, United States Marine Corps (Ret.), and former commander, U.S. Central Command

"Before we rush headlong into another Middle Eastern quagmire, it is critical for Americans to develop a greater appreciation for Iran's military history and capability. Steven Ward's Immortal comes at a critical moment, when its subject—the military development of Iran—is one of the most important issues confronting our nation. There are few Westerners who possess Ward's experience and understanding of the Iranian armed forces, and he has done us all a great service by placing his wealth of knowledge at our disposal. Immortal is a thoughtful, fascinating and extremely informative study of Iran's military from the past to the very present that will finally allow us to fill a large gap in our understanding of one of the most pressing foreign policy problems of the twenty-first century."—Kenneth M. Pollack, author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America

"Far too often, Americans ignore history and leave military history to a narrow range of experts. The choice of peace or war in dealing with Iran, however, is far too important to make without an understanding of Iran's military history and how its forces have evolved. Steven R. Ward's Immortal provides essential background to making that choice."—Anthony H. Cordesman, Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies


Supplemental Materials


One of 40 jackets and covers selected by the 2010 Book, Jacket, and Journal Show of the American Association of University Presses

About the Author

Steven R. Ward is a senior CIA intelligence analyst who specializes in Iran and the Middle East. He was the CIA Visiting Professor to the US Naval Academy from 2010 to 2012, and he previously served as the deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East on the National Intelligence Council and on the staff of the National Security Council. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and a retired US Army Reserve lieutenant colonel.

400 pp., 6 x 9
11 maps
ISBN: 978-1-58901-258-5
Mar 2009

400 pp., 6 x 9
11 maps
ISBN: 978-1-62616-032-3
Mar 2009

400 pp.
11 maps
ISBN: 978-1-62616-065-1
Mar 2009

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