INTERVIEW: Iranian Tank Commander

Military History (Herndon, VA.) Apr 2004. Vol. 21, Iss. 1; pg. 44, 6
pgs

Filled with revolutionary pride and fresh from the university, Adar
Forouzan found himself transformed into a tank commander on the front
lines of the Iran-Iraq War.

The Iran-Iraq War, also known as the Persian Gulf War, started in
September 1980, lasted eight years, killed and maimed countless
thousands of people, destroyed large parts of both countries, but in
the end settled little. The effects of the war are still being felt
today both regionally and internationally. Adar Forouzan served as a
tank company commander in the Iranian army during the initial stages
of the war, from the spring of 1981 to the late autumn of 1982, while
it was still a war of movement. Forouzan completed his tour of duty
before the conflict degenerated into its later phase of attritional
trench warfare. He was also spared the brutal Iraqi chemical attacks
that became commonplace during that stalemated stage. Nevertheless, he
endured more than his share of severe combat experiences in the
sprawling armored engagements of the war’s first few years. In an
interview with Ed McCaul, Forouzan shared his memories of those
battles. They, and his conclusions about war, are straightforward and
unadorned, like those of most veterans everywhere.

MILITARY HISTORY: You were a college student when Muhammad Reza Shah
Pahlavi was overthrown on January 16, 1979?

FOROUZAN: That is correct. The revolution occurred in the last years
of my undergraduate study of engineering in Aryamehr University. We
had a lot of strikes and protests while I was a student, and it took
me six years to graduate because of them.

MH: When did you join the army?

FOROUZAN: In the autumn of 1980. By law every male had to perform two
years of military service. I did not have to do this while I was a
university student, and after graduation there was a period of time
before we had to register. It was during this time period that I was
working in Lorestan, a very poor province, helping them make roads,
schools and access to clean water. When I registered the war had
already started.

MH: How did you become an officer?

FOROUZAN: By regulation any university graduate could automatically
become an officer. Because I had only a bachelor’s degree I had one
star and was a second lieutenant. Those with a master’s, or Ph.Ds,
were given two stars and were first lieutenants. When I registered, I
was told to report to a military base in Tehran for three months of
training.

MH: What sort of training were you given?

FOROUZAN: It was basic military training. We were told about the rules
and regulations, and rights. Of course, in the military you do not
have any rights except to accept the orders of those over you.

MH: Where did you go for advanced training?

FOROUZAN: It was in Shiraz. There I was trained to be a commander of a
Chieftain tank. I believe that I was there for about three months. The
training was very complete. When I was finished, I felt that I knew
how to operate the Chieftain tank at all levels. I could drive it,
load the gun and shoot it. We had a crew of four on the Chieftain, the
driver, the loader, gunner and commander. We were taught the theory,
then had training on simulators and then practiced on real tanks. We
did not do any real shooting but we did shoot on the simulators. We
also learned about the engine and the radio, as well as many other
things. We were tested after each phase of the training and had to
master each position before we went to tactical training. Everyone
knew we had a chance of being allocated to a frontline unit, and so we
all tried to learn as much as we could. Some students tried very hard
in hopes that if they did well enough, they could choose their unit,
and hoped to pick one located in their home province. Even though I
was a good student I did not try my hardest, as somehow I knew that it
did not matter how well we did. I was correct. All of us ended up at
the front.

MH: Did you go directly to the front?

FOROUZAN: No. We were given leave and I used it to visit my family. I
never told my mother that I was at the front in the fighting. I always
told her that I was in a safe city and very happy. I knew there was
nothing she could do, and I did not want to make her sad. After my
leave was over, I joined my tank unit at the front in the spring of
1981.

MH: How many tanks were in your unit?

FOROUZAN: I was the commander of a company of tanks. We only had 10
tanks out of the 15 we were supposed to have. The other five were
damaged and not battle-ready. Some were used for spare parts. There
were three other lieutenants in the company, and we rotated the
command. I would be in command for one week, then in a rest camp for
two weeks and on leave for one week. When we were in the rest camp, we
could go to a town to make a phone call and take a shower. We had at
least twice as many people as tanks. Everyone rotated, not just the
officers. We would rotate entire tank crews, not individuals. Two of
the other officers were career army officers, and the third was a
university graduate in English. He was just like me in that we both
were counting the days until we were out of the army. There was a
battle about two or three days after I joined the group. I did not do
any fighting during that battle because they told me that I knew
nothing about the real war. Gradually, I became familiar with combat,
and the group had been in a few battles before I was put in charge.
But it was a gradual process. The first time I went to the front line
there was not any fighting.

MH: How did you like the Chieftain tank?

FOROUZAN: When I first went in the army I did not know anything about
the different types of tanks, but other soldiers in the group,
especially those in the regular army, told us that the Chieftain tank
was not any good. The more I learned about the Chieftain tank the more
I agreed with them. The biggest problem with it was that in hot
weather the engine would overheat. Consequently, in hot weather we
would not move it for a long period of time because we had to give the
engine time to cool. all the fighting I was in was in southern Iran,
so the overheating problem was a major drawback. It would get so hot
in the summer you could not touch the body of the tank for very long.
The engine in the Chieftain was underpowered for the weight of the
tank, and we could not move as fast as we needed or wanted. It was
just not as good as other tanks we had, such as the American M-60.

MH: What Iraqi weapon did you fear the most?

FOROUZAN: The Iraqis were equipped with some new T-72 tanks. It had
good speed and targeting capability, and had armor protection against
the RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] carried by our infantry. The T-72
was a very dangerous threat to us.

MH: Did you ever have to fight the T-72s?

FOROUZAN: Yes, during my first combat experience. We started a battle
against the Iraqis in Dasht Abbas close to Dezful [part of Operation
Fatah al Mobin, in the spring of 1982]. I was in command when our
company was ordered to move toward an Iraqi unit at midnight. We did
not have any night vision devices, though other units did, so
traveling at night was difficult. The distance we had to travel was
about five kilometers, which is not very far, but we hit a minefield
on our way. Luckily, they were antipersonnel mines, as my tank
exploded one of the mines. We kept moving, and I instructed everyone
to stay in their tanks and not to get out. However, hitting the
minefield reduced our speed and got me disoriented. When morning came,
a higher-ranking officer told me that we had not reached our assigned
position and that we had to move faster. After we got to our assigned
position, we started shooting at the retreating Iraqis. My gunner hit
two Iraqi trucks. Everyone was very happy, and we were cheering. I
began to wonder what would happen if we moved forward, liberated more
land and kept the Iraqis retreating. Perhaps the higher-ranking
commanders did not know that we could follow the retreating Iraqis. I
convinced the personnel in my tank and two other tanks that we should
go forward some more.

MH: You did not order all your tanks to go with you?

FOROUZAN: You have to remember that I had just been a soldier for a
little while and was not used to ordering people to do things. We
tried to change their opinion. The common army regulations were not in
effect during this time period. I was not ordering so much as
convincing. So, I was only able to convince my tank crew and two other
crews to go forward. We probably went another five kilometers beyond
our assigned position. I had a very good regular army gunner in my
tank. His hobby was hunting, and he was an excellent shot. He was
looking around while we were moving forward, which was good because I
had a lot to learn. I was careless and not yet aware of the hall
danger. He saw a group of tanks coming toward us, and he asked me if
they were Iranian or Iraqi. I looked where he told me they were, and
there was a huge number of tanks coming at us. Through the periscope
they looked very small, and it looked like an entire army of ants was
coming at us. I could tell that they were not Iranian. I told my
gunner they were Iraqi, and he said that we were in danger, and we
needed to retreat back to the others as quickly as possible. I told
the other two tanks that we needed to retreat. While we were
retreating, my tank got hit in the engine. The pressure inside the
tank became so great that it tore my helmet off my head. Luckily, I
had the hatch open, otherwise I could have been killed. All of us knew
the danger of the tank exploding when we were hit, and all of us
jumped out of the tank. The tank was still moving when I hit the
ground. We had to escape by foot. I cannot tell you how far we had to
go, but it seemed very far to me. The Iraqis kept shooting at us, and
at times it seemed as if it was raining bullets. We would lie on the
ground when they were firing at us and run when they were not.

MH: Did the other two tanks get away?

FOROUZAN: Yes, they did.

MH: Was anyone in your crew injured?

FOROUZAN: None of us was hurt. I was criticized by the others in the
company about my decision to go farther forward, and then my decision
to return rather than fight it out. I was prepared for questioning,
but the higher officers did not ever question me about it. After the
battle, which took about one month, some top-ranking officers came to
visit our unit because we had been a loser in the battle while all of
the other Iranian units had been winners. They told us we had been
selected to be a target to absorb the T-72 tanks and that was why we
had been ordered to start our attack before anyone else. While we were
keeping the T-72s busy the other groups could make their attacks and
be successful.

MH: How many tanks in your company were hit?

FOROUZAN: Only mine. But when the battle was over, I saw a lot of
knocked out Iranian tanks from other units. In all of the battles I
was in, except the last, one, we beat the Iraqis and were able to
recapture our lands. The last battle I was in took place in Iraqi
territory.

MH: So, your time in the army was not extended until the end of the
war?

FOROUZAN: No, it was not, but originally I was only required to spend
1 year in the army. Due to the war I was ordered to stay another six
months.

MH: Was your tank ever hit again?

FOROUZAN: Yes, during the last battle, in October 1982. We had
captured an Iraqi border checkpoint called Zeid and the Iraqis were
trying very hard to recapture it. One afternoon while in command I was
told that the Iraqis would attack the next day, and they did attack,
with T-72 tanks. I was selecting one of them to shoot at, but they
fired at me before I could shoot at them. I was behind a pile of sand
with just the turret of my tank exposed. All of a sudden I could not
see out of my periscope, so I stuck my head out of the tank to see
what was going on. I saw that part of the pile of sand was no longer
there and that there was a cloud of dust all around us. When I looked
at the front of the tank I saw a spot on the turret where a shell had
hit us after it had gone through the sand. Luckily, it did not go all
the way through our armor. I backed the tank up so that we were hidden
from view. We had many volunteer soldiers with us that day. There were
two main Iranian groups at the front. Normally, the volunteers were
armed with RPGs or automatic rifles, nothing more. They were not
worried about dying, and when they were issued steel helmets they
would not wear them. Because they were volunteers they were very
effective. They were very cheery and happy, having volunteered to
defend our country and the revolution. You have to remember that the
revolution was only a few years old, and there were many people
willing to defend it. The volunteers were willing to do anything.
Usually every battle that we started was begun by the volunteers, and
we would follow them. We were not the front-liners. The number of
casualties they suffered was much greater than ours. The volunteers
would clear the mines in front of us with their bodies. Even so, they
were very cheery and always making jokes. In my last battle, by midday
about 70 percent of the volunteers who were with us had died, and some
of my tanks were on fire. It was a very sad day. We held the line, but
took heavy casualties. Everywhere you looked you could see dead bodies
lying on the ground.

MH: How many of your company’s tanks were lost during that battle?

FOROUZAN: About five of my tanks were knocked out, and the others were
not shooting. We realized that there were too many Iraqis for us to
handle, and there was no one coming to help us. It was like there was
a moving army of T-72s. Luckily, we had good support from our
artillery. They had forward observers on the front line to direct
their fire. The artillery fire on the Iraqis after midday was so heavy
that they were forced to retreat. Our artillery won that battle.

MH: How good was the Iraqi army back then?

FOROUZAN: I can say that the T-72 unit was very good. They were
mobile, very flexible, and there were a lot of them.

MH: During your year and a half at the front how many battles were you
in?

FOROUZAN: I was in five major battles. Most of them took place in
Iran, where we were freeing our cities one by one. It was not a
continuous war, as there was time between each battle when we did not
do any fighting.

MH: How good was your support-the maintenance, food and other things
you needed?

FOROUZAN: Our support was excellent. We always had enough parts and
good maintenance for the working tanks. Food and personal requirements
were absolutely good. We were supported not only by the army but also
by donations from the people. Clothes, food and gifts were presented
to units on the front line as well as at special centers to which we
could go. The gifts would be things like sleeping bags, wallets,
books, sweets, just a just anything you can imagine a man living at
the front could use. The people were in full support of soldiers and
doing anything they could to make it easier for the men at the front.

MH: How did the pay system work for the army and the volunteers?

FOROUZAN: The volunteers were not paid anything. They just came to give their lives, not to earn anything. As an officer on obligation, I

was just paid enough to buy a few things when I was in the city, but
never enough to live on. I was given food, clothes and other things I
needed, so I did not need much money. The people in the regular army
were paid much more than we were.

MH: How often would you see Iraqi soldiers other than their tankers?

FOROUZAN: I saw them as prisoners, and when I was in the front lines
during the fighting I could see them about one to two kilometers away.
Then there were many times when there was no fighting going on at the
front. Sometimes the lines were very close to each other. The closest
I was to the Iraqi lines was less than 300 meters. We were close
enough we could hear them if they made a loud noise, or if it was a
mild wind and it was blowing from their lines to ours. We could easily
see each other with our naked eyes. One morning I started singing, and
they fired three mortar rounds that landed all around me. I quickly
stopped singing. It was a very dangerous location, and we were there
for about three months. While we were there, we were always worried
about a surprise night attack, especially on very dark nights. Another
time we were about two kilometers from the Iraqis. I tried to look at
their lines from a small hill. I went to the top of the hill to see
them better with my binoculars. They could see me with the naked eye
and started firing at me. I jumped down from the hill and thought
about retaliating with a .50-caliber machine gun that was nearby. I
could have easily hit them with it, as I could see them, but decided
not to. While it was war between us, I knew that they had families
just like mine, and I could not hate them.

MH: Do you recall any specific incidents during the other three
battles you were in?

FOROUZAN: Luckily, in those battles I was in reserve and not in the
front line. During those battles we were responsible for keeping the
land that was recaptured. I remember one time during an off period
when I went back home. My city was well known for a certain type of
sweet, and I would always bring some back with me for everyone to
share. When my men would see me returning, they would always start
shouting and yelling that they wanted to get some of the sweets. When
I returned one time, no one shouted, and one man pulled me aside and
told me not to act happy, because while I was gone there had been
fighting and one of the regular army men had died, and the men were
very sad about it. He told me that I should just go and say my
condolences. The man who died had gone outside the tank to be able to
see better during the fighting, and he had been hit in the head by a
bullet. Our forces had been successful and had recaptured some more of
our land from the Iraqis. I congratulated them on that, and they
criticized me for congratulating them because one of them had died. It
was very confusing because I did not know whether to congratulate them
or to offer them my condolences.

MH: What would you do during your two weeks in the rest camp? Did you
have any duties?

FOROUZAN: No, it was just waiting time. I would study. Some would play
Volleyball, others would work on their hobbies and others would have
discussions. Sometimes the Iraqis would attack our rest camps with
aircraft and artillery fire. The Iraqis had a lot of air support. I
could often see their planes and saw that they were French-built
Dassault Mirage FIs. However, they stayed at a very high altitude
while they bombed us. So, we were not completely safe back in the rest
camps.

MH: Did you do any training during the weeks off?

FOROUZAN: Nothing specific. I spent a lot of my time studying
engineering as well as cultural books, which many of the other men
thought was very strange. I would go to a quiet place every day and
just study. I completed my tour and left the army in the late autumn
of 1982.

MH: Any concluding thoughts?

FOROUZAN: War is a very sad experience. If you survive uninjured, it
gives you an opportunity to think about your opinions and wishes, as
well as your responsibilities. So many people who are a country’s
greatest assets are killed or wounded. While I did not personally
experience the chemical warfare that came later, I saw the men in
hospitals who had been wounded by the chemicals. A man who is wounded
and disabled is usually disabled for his entire life, and in a war
there are a lot more men wounded than killed. For those who die, their
death has an impact on their family for many years. I saw many cities
in my country that were completely demolished because of the war. I
entered some of our palm forests that were deliberately and completely
destroyed. Unfortunately, wars will happen again in the future because
of the aggressive and greedy nature of some human beings. Because of
that, many countries are trying to build more and stronger weapons.
The politicians need to solve problems by negotiations as much as
possible rather than by war. That is my conclusion from the time I
spent fighting. MH

Ed McCaul is an Ohio-based writer and a frequent contributor to
Military History. For further reading, he recommends The Gulf War, by
John Bulloch and Harvey Morris.