08 January 2020

Islamic Republic of Iran’s Special Operations Forces- Qods Forces

Daniel Ilie

Iranian military power | In an intelligence report published by the US Defence Intelligence Agency, which presents details on Iran’s objectives, strategy, plans and intentions in military and defence field, the organization, structure or capacity of its army to actually support these goals, but also the infrastructure and industrial base easing their achievement, one can also find a series of details on the Iranian Special Operations Forces (SOF). Although technologically inferior to many of its competitors, the Iranian army made lots of progresses in the last decades, managing to adapt their military doctrine and capabilities to new challenges posed by US and its allies’ evolution. Iran continues to rely on its unconventional war and asymmetrical capabilities elements (a combination of conventional lethal capacities and proxy forces) to ensure deterrence and force projection (limited expeditionary capabilities), seen as a persistent threat in Middle East. Iran’s conventional weapon highlights the niche capabilities and guerrilla fight tactics against its technologically advanced enemies. Its important ballistic missile arsenal is conceived so that to neutralize US and its regional partners. Its swarms of small boats large inventory of naval mines, and arsenal of antiship missiles can severely disrupt maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz—a strategic chokepoint critical to global trade.

Image source: Mediafax

Main Iranian security and military institutions

The Supreme Council for National Security

The highest forum which elaborated security and foreign affairs policies is the Supreme Council for National Security, which is controlled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamanei, who makes the final decisions and is armed forces’ supreme commander.

Armed Forces

Iran’s armed forces consist of two separate, parallel militaries—the Artesh, or regular forces, created long time ago by Iranian Revolution (Islamic Revolution-1979) being responsible with defense against external treats and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, formed from different armed militias during the revolution, in a single force loyal to the new regime and which is responsible with protecting and defending the regime and its Islamic governance system against any internal or external threat. Furthermore, Iran’s national police force and the Law Enforcement Force (LEF), is also considered part of the armed forces. Additional to these, there are also the Basij paramilitary organization reservists (450.000 members) controlled by IRGC.

The access to IRGC resources (a smaller active personnel number gets 29% of the defence budget, comparing to 12% for Artesh), the overlaps between roles, responsibilities’ and missions, as well as the competition for influencing regime’s decisional elements are creating tensions between the main elements of the Iranian Armed Forces, Artesh (430.000 active soldiers) and IRGC (190.000 active soldiers).

Artesh is composed of Ground Force, Navy, Air Force, Air Defense Force, and IRGC of Ground Force, Navy, Aerospace Force, Qods Force (execution capabilities of clandestine external operations) and Basij.

Unconventional forces

The Qods Forces of IRGC (Qods meaning “Jerusalem”) are Iran’s primary means for conducting unconventional (clandestine) operations abroad, with connections of varying degrees to state and nonstate actors globally. Among these partners, proxy and affiliated forces, there are Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, Houthi Shiite Yemenite militias, some Palestinians groups and Bahrain militias. Iran wants a better coordination of these networks, a consolidation of its presence in Middle East and the use of irregular fight methods to ensure the necessary bridges for “plausible denial”, providing political, financial, material and training methods to regional Shiite militias, ideologically alike. Iran’s provision of military hardware has included small arms, ammunition, explosives, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), vehicles, antitank guided missiles (ATGMs), man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), unmanned aircrafts vehicles (UAV) etc. Qods personnel is estimated to 5.000 military men, however it is noteworthy that Qods forces can rapidly increase their number by recruiting other IRGC military men or from other proxy forces they support. Qods are mainly funded from Iranian defence budget, but they are getting more funds through a global affiliate companies network, some of them being internationally sanctioned due to their interferences in terrorist activities and armament proliferation.

 In the national command-control chain (C2), Qods forces are officially controlled by IRGC Command, however, unofficially these are capabilities directly controlled by Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, army’s supreme commander. Until the deliberated elimination made by the US army, Qods forces were commanded by general major Qassem Soleimini.

Special operations forces

According to their own military strategy and doctrine, mostly based on deterrence and the combat capacity against any attacker, Iran has a complex set of military and security provision capabilities (both conventional and unconventional), like the Special operations forces (SOF).

Iran's first SOF units formed in the late 1950s under the tutelage of U.S. advisers and, during the Iran-Iraq War, SOF units expanded to meet operational requirements. IRGC SOF would regularly conduct reconnaissance of enemy lines to identify weak points and launch night attacks to initiate major offensive operations before the armed forces started to conduct large scale offensive. Iranian airborne brigades also conducted airmobile operations in advance of Iranian offensives to seize key objectives and overrun enemy forces in rear areas.

Both the regular army (Artesh) and IRGC have Ground SOF, but also MARSOF(Maritime SOF).

Regular Army (Artesh) SOF

Artesh SOF are controlled by Islamic Republic of Iran Ground Force-IRIGC SOF, and MARSOF by Islamic Republic of Iran Navy –IRIN MARSOF.

IRIGF Ground SOF

IRIGF Ground SOF include three types of capabilities: airborne, commando and special forces. These include several commando brigades, the 55th Airborne Brigade, the 35th Special Forces Brigade, and the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade, also known as the NOHED (Persian abbreviation for “airborne special forces”) brigade, which is the most elite. The 55th and 65th are jump-qualified, and commando brigades deploy via airmobile insertion. Recently, several commando brigades transitioned into special forces and rapid reaction brigades, including the 35th and 25th.

Based on their U.S. Army Special Forces lineage, the report estimates that IRIGF SOF share similar mission sets, including unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, and hostage rescue. Some of these units also provide a quick-reaction force that can deploy rapidly anywhere inside Iran or potentially abroad. As of April 2016, Iran had deployed personnel from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade to Syria, part of the IRIGF’s first external deployment since the Iran-Iraq War.

Regular Army (Artesh) MARSOF

The MARSOF of IRIN operates an SBS based on the British Royal Navy SBS, which provided training for IRIN special forces personnel before the Islamic Revolution. The IRIN SBS probably is trained in a variety of capabilities, including combat diving, parachuting, amphibious assault, airborne assault, underwater demolitions, special reconnaissance, and maritime visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations. IRIN SBS personnel are also capable of covert insertion from the IRIN’s midget submarines.

IRGC SOF

IRGC SOF are included in Ground Forces and Nay Forces. A particular case of the existence of SOF structures within Basij, controlled by IRGC.

IRGC Ground Forces SOF

The IRGCGF maintains several SOF units— called Saberin (“patient ones”). These include the 110th Salman Farsi Commando Brigade, the 33rd “Al Mahdi” Airborne Special Forces Brigade, and the elite Saberin Special Forces Brigade (or Saberin Special Unit). Some regular IRG - CGF divisions and brigades at the provincial level also have dedicated Saberin detachments directly subordinate to them.

The IRGCGF is upgrading select SOF units, transforming commando units into special forces units. The 33rd Al Mahdi Brigade also transitioned from an airborne to a special forces brigade. With these changes, Iran is attempting to create a more agile and responsive force, particularly following the rise of ISIS and Iranian combat deployments to Syria.

IRGCGF Saberin units are highly trained in specialized capabilities, such as raiding, hostage rescue, and heliborne assault (Mi-17). Some Saberin personnel use ultralight aircraft and are capable of conducting operations in a wide range of terrain and environmental conditions, including mountains, deserts, and swamps. Saberin personnel have also deployed to Syria to support Iranian combat operations

IRGC Navy MARSOF

The IRGCN has a MARSOF component known as the Sepah Navy Special Force (SNSF). The unit is based on Forur Island, strategically located near the Strait of Hormuz. SNSF personnel train in combat diving, direct action, counterterrorism, special reconnaissance, underwater demolitions, amphibious assault, hostage rescue, and maritime VBSS operations.

 Among the unit’s missions is to protect Iranian commercial vessels, and SNSF personnel have deployed to the Gulf of Aden to assist with Iranian counterpiracy operations. Some IRGC MARSOF are training and exercising to execute “hit and run” attacks against superior size enemy ship, supported by light ships conducted in the form of swarm ships.

IRGC Basij SOF

Basij SOF is known as Fatehin special forces battalions (“conquerors”), apparently specialized in supporting resistance movements. Some of them were dislocated in Syria and Iraq to support IRGC operations.

Instead of conclusions

Iranian policymakers have realized the importance of committing a possible enemy in a competition below the armed conflict’s level, in state power fields like diplomacy with neighbor states and international structures, economy through its ability to influence energy’s global market, intelligence and psychological operations and conventional and unconventional military presence and posture. It seems that Iranian SOF are some of the important tools that consolidate Iran’s conventional and unconventional military presence and posture in the area, to support its ambitions and goals in becoming Middle East’s most important power.

Translated by Andreea Soare