Infantry Armour within the Iranian Armed Forces
Infantry body armour is one of the signs of growing profesionalization within any army. When soldiers are dime-a-dozen conscripts, there is little incentive to provide individuals with armor. Not only is the equipment alone prohibitively expensive, it just makes no sense to protect someone with no valuable skills or training . However, as armies invest more and more into making soldiers skilled, giving them control over powerful (and expensive) equipment, there is a need to protect this investment. It no longer becomes a question of a $10,000 conscript, but instead somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, historically at least, would seem the antitheseis of this theory. Practical considerations aside, Iran is always rated high on scale of communalism compared to individuality. Iranian culture places high value on sacrifice for the community as well as existing as a greater unit then simply an individual. This is a gross oversimplification of centuries of cultural evolution, but it is basically is true when speaking from a grand perspective. This manifested itself in the Iran-Iraq war when light infantry reigned supreme and the notion of martyrdom became ingrained in the national psyche. Iran, like no other country, honours those who have served and paid the ultimate price.
This is to say nothing of the practical consideration. During the height of the Iran-Iraq war, volunteers were sent to the front with minimal, if any training and were often far from the most desirable soldiers - the Basij was famous for being composed of old men and boys. While prior to this, Iran wasn't exactly rushing to equip their soldiers with armour (no country was at that time), the legacy of such tactics - reliance on revolutionary fervour and light infantry - undoubtedly postponed the creation of a professional army.
For some time, Iran was probably incapable of producing on an industrial scale the materials needed for modern armour, and were prevented from importing them. However this is conjecture and no specifics can be implied.
However, this has shown signs of changing in recent years, accelerating as this decade comes to a close. Ballistic vests and helmets are now becoming more and more common among the services.
This piece is a review of common types of infantry body armor found within the Iranian Armed Forces, excepting some of the lighter-duty armors found in the IRIP.
The most common protective gear across all branches is the venerable M1 'Steel Pot' helmet which saw service in the US from WWII up through the mid-1980's. It's distinctive shape is recognizable almost anywhere.
The helmet features a steel shell to protect from fragmentation and a rigid plastic liner similar to a hard-hat. It has a two-point chin strap and is frequently used with a camouflage covering.
Iranian M1's are most often of an early design with a less pronounced 'S-curve' in the brim then found in later model Vietnam-era US models. Though this is by no means a rule and several less common subtypes can be found.
The M1 offers poor protection in the modern battlefield, effective only against light shrapnel. Sometimes, the helmets used are in poor shape, even reusing those which have bullet holes in them!
(IRIA soldiers wearing M1s during exercises in south-west Iran in 2004. Image Source: Fars News)
Starting to replace the M1 are composite ballistic helmets which, while unnamed, are extremely similar in style to the US PASGT helmet which succeeded the M1 in US service. This is largely inevitable though due to the limited number of designs a ballistic helmet can physically have.
The outer shell is made from layers of Aramide (generic name for Kevlar) and polyethylene ballistic fabric. It features a prominent upturned front brim, and a three-point chin straps, though two and four-point systems are occasionally seen. These are most often accompanied with ladderlock buckles, though some other types are also rarely seen. The basic colour of the helmet is olive drab, though is most often seen painted or with a camouflage helmet cover.
The helmet is rated to level IIIA under NIJ (National Institute of Justice) guidelines which covers the vast majority of handguns loads, including .357 and .44 calibre bullets. However, the official ballistics rating is somewhat confusing. According to Modlex, the helmet is offerred in four distinct weights - not sizes - four distinct types, each presumably with their respective range of sizes from small to large. Specifically, the medium sized helmet is offered in a 1.30, 1.35, 1.40 and 1.55 kg models, with the ability to resist projectiles travelling at 550 m/s, 610 m/s, 620 m/s and 680 m/s respectively. This is even more confusing as it doesn't specify the type of projectile, whether they're FMJ, soft-lead, or just shrapnel. There is also the possibility that something was lost in the transliteration and the four distinct varieties are merely the different sizes available. At any rate, the weight and protective qualities are largely comparable to modern western designs.
(IRIA soldiers on parade wearing relatively new ballistic helmets. Image Source: ISNA)
Ballistic vests undoubtedly form the centrepiece of any army's, including Iran's, infantry armour loadout. However, with Iran, identifying a specific type is often difficult because there exists so many little differences between different models. Regardless, the design does not appear to be a copy of, or influenced by any foreign design.
At the most basic level, Iranian military ballistic vests are side-opening models, with some having over-the-shoulder closures. They're soft vests, most likely made of aramide (Kevlar) fabric with two large plate carriers, one for the back and one for the front.
Older models are fastened with a cummerbund-style hook and loop (Velcro) fasterners that wrap around front on either side of the torso. Another hook and loop fastener is found on the left shoulder. The only other features are the above-mentioned carriers for chest and back plates. These models have only ever been observed in three-colour desert camouflage.
(An older model ballistic vest during a demonstration at Army Day 2009 in Tehran. Note the lack of over-the-shoulder closure on the right hand shoulder as well as the hook and loop cummerbund. Image Source: Jamejam Online News)
The newer model, which is by far the most commonly seen swaps out the hook and loop cummerbund for two large side-release plastic buckles per side. Meanwhile, hook and loop fasteners are now featured on both shoulders and are attached to padded handles that are presumably included to facilitate dragging of an incapacitated soldier. On the front of the vest, on either side of the plate carrier, are D-rings which can be used to attach pouches to with snap hooks. These snap hooks and pouches are also found on the back of the vest, but without the D-rings. Also added is a groin protector which is most often seen folded up against the chest plate carrier. This model is most commonly (but not exclusively) seen in 3-tone woodland or desert camouflage.
(The most common model, as seen offered for export. Image Source: Modlex)
The soft vests themselves are rated to the same IIIA level as the composite helmets detailed above, when combined with polymer plates, the level is raised to III (rifle ammunition such as 7.62x51 NATO)
(non-ceramic plate during testing of the HS .50 sniper rifle during Great Prophet wargames. Image Source: Youtube)
The vests, weight anywhere from 5 kg to 12 kg, depending on exactly what comprises their loadout.
(The same vests worn by soldiers from the 23rd commando division, note the folded groin protector as well as the over-the-shoulder hook and loop fasteners. Image Source: Fars News)
Besides this, several other appliqué features exist that are sometimes glimpsed on, or can be added to the other models of vests including different types of plates (either ceramic or polyethylene), and additional soft armour as well as plates for the neck, groin, shoulders and arms. They also serve nominally as tactical vests with some newer models carrying PALS-styled (though not a direct copy of) webbing.
(A new style of vest, with webbing across the front, neck guards, but lacking hook and loop shoulder fasteners in use with IRGC airborne troops on parade during Sacred Defense Week 2010 in Isfahan. Image Source: Mehr News)
There also exists slight variations of each of the vests mentioned above, indicating that they're still in development and that nothing written here should be taken as 100% concrete or static.
Rate of Use
Use of personal armour within the ranks of infantry in Iran is still limited, though it appears to have exploded in the last few years. This comes with the caveat that this conclusion can only be arrived at if one takes the rate of armor use in parades as at least somewhat representative of use across the country which is a large assumption in and of itself. However, in the total absence of other information, including the drop off of pictures from infantry in ground-forces exercises.
It appears to be more common within the IRGC for low-level units to be effectively outfitted with armour, then within the IRIA, a problem likely traceable to funding disparities. However, within the IRIA, ballistic vests and helmets appear standard in at least some specific commando units, including the 23rd division, and possibly some of the units on the western border. Again, these assessments come only from parade photographs and cannot be assumed to be written in stone. For the broad majority though, armour remains limited to M1 helmets and the thin cloth of BDU's.
(1) "Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran's Culture and Customs" Sofia Koutlaki. 2010
(2) M1 Helmet. Wikipedia.org
(3) Miscellaneous. Modlex.ir
(4) Ballistic Protection Levels. Bulletproofme.com
(5) General research on body armor through various wikipedia articles