August 13, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Strategy and Military Power

As of mid-August 2012, stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is one of the highest Western foreign policy priorities, especially for the United States and the European Union. For over thirty years, the West — particularly the U.S. — and Iran have been at odds in the region. The U.S. supports Israel and several moderate Sunni Muslim states in the region while Iran seeks to overturn the existing power structure, perceiving that structure as serving Israel and preserving the status of Shiite Muslims as an economic and political underclass in the region. (Note: Shiites are a clear minority across the Middle East, although a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, and a strong minority in Lebanon. A Shiite offshoot — the Alawites — has been dominant in Syria).

Iran's foreign policy — one that some view as primarily defensive — appears to be based on three primary national security interests: protect itself from foreign, primarily U.S., interference or attack; prevent any efforts to cut off its ability to export oil; and exert regional influence that Iran believes is commensurate with its size and concept of nationhood.


Overall Threat Perception and Iranian Strategy

Although containing Iran's nuclear program is at the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, there are indications Iran is increasingly focused on developing its conventional military capability. Iran's armed forces have always been substantial, with about 460,000 personnel under arms, of which the regular ground force accounts for about 220,000 and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ground force an additional130,000. The IRGC also controls the Basij (Mobilization of the Oppressed) volunteer militia that has been the main instrument employed by Tehran to repress domestic opposition protests, and the IRGC-Qods Force that operates outside Iran's borders to support militant movements in the region, such as Lebanese Hezbollah. While the IRGC and the regular military (Artesh) both report to a joint headquarters, the Artesh has no role in internal security and is deployed mainly at bases outside major cities.

Together, the ground forces field about 1,800 tanks, including 480 Russian-made T-72's. Although these ground forces appear formidable — and are more than sufficient to deter or fend off any threats from bordering states such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan — Iran lacks the logistical ability to deploy ground forces much beyond its borders. They do not, for example, pose a significant invasion threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman).

To compensate for the lack of ability to project power on the ground, Iran is increasingly focused on a sea and air denial capability designed to address the asymmetry between its forces and those of the West. To do so, it is favoring systems fielded by the IRGC Navy and regular Navy (Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, IRIN). The two are distinctly separate forces: the IRIN, with its approximately 20,000 personnel, has responsibility for the Gulf of Oman, whereas the IRGC Navy, equivalent in personnel size to the IRIN, has responsibility for the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.

Together, the two forces operate over 100 ships, including 4 Corvette and 18 IRGC-controlled Chinese-made patrol boats. The IRGC also has  several hundred small boats with which it has pioneered "swarming" tactics designed to overwhelm the defenses of U.S. or other conventional warships. The IRGC Navy also is believed to control Iran's hard-to-detect "midget subs," possibly purchased assembled or in kit form from North Korea. In addition, the IRIN controls three Russia-supplied Kilo-class subs, as well as most of the larger conventional ships.

A U.S. Defense Department report on Iran's military power released in July 2012 referred particularly to Iran's naval capability in its overall assessment that Iran's conventional capabilities "continue to improve." This is a contrast with previous Department reports and statements that have tended to disparage Iran's equipment and forces as antiquated, poorly trained, and likely overmatched by U.S. and allied capabilities. The report adds that Iran may have acquired additional ships and submarines over the past two years, even though U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 of June 2010 bans sales of major military systems to Iran. The Defense Department did not stipulate whether the ships and submarines were acquired abroad or produced indigenously.  

Iran's regular Air Force (about 52,000 personnel) controls most of the country's approximately 330 combat aircraft , including 25 Russian-designed MiG-29s and 30 Su-24s, as well as U.S.-produced F-4s, F-5s and F-14s that were purchased during the Shah's era. The IRGC Air Force (about 5,000 personnel) has come to focus primarily on developing Iran's ballistic missile capabilities (discussed further below), a topic that was also a significant focus of the Defense Department report.


Growing Missile Arsenal

The Defense Department report was sober in its discussion of Iran's focus on its ballistic and anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) forces, indicating that these systems give Iran an increasing capability to close or deny international use of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, where an estimated one-third of all seaborne traded oil flows. This issue has gained greater urgency in 2012 as Iranian leaders and commanders talked openly of trying to close the Strait in retaliation for international sanctions against Iran's oil exports. The tone of the Defense Department report suggests the Department assesses a higher level of Iranian threat to U.S. forces, particularly the large U.S. ships in the Gulf at all times, as compared to a similar DoD report released in April 2010. Specifically, the report notes that Iran is steadily expanding its missile and rocket inventories, and has "boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems with accuracy improvements and new submunition payloads." However, the report did not alter the longstanding U.S. estimate that Iran would likely not be able to fully develop a missile of intercontinental range until 2015.

Specifically, the April 2012 Defense Department report focused on several types of Iranian missiles that it sees as growing threats to U.S. interests:

Shahab-3. The Shahab-3, with an 800-mile range, is fully operational, and the April 2012 Defense Department report indicates Tehran has improved its lethality and effectiveness, tempering previous assessments by experts that the missile was not completely reliable.  

Shahab-3-Variant (Sijjil/Ashura). These missiles reportedly have a 1,200-1,500-mile range, putting at risk large portions of the Near East and Southeastern Europe in range, including U.S. bases in Turkey. The Defense Department report indicates these missiles, which use solid fuel, are increasing in "range, lethality, and accuracy."  

Short-Range Ballistic and Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles. The Defense Department report paid particular attention to those missiles that Iran could use directly against U.S. and allied warships in the Gulf. According to the report, Iran is fielding increasingly capable, short range ballistic missiles that can home in on and target ships while in flight. One version could be a  short-range ballistic missile named the Qiam, tested in August 2010. Iran also has continued work on a 200-mile range "Fateh 110" missile (solid propellant), which it again tested in early August 2012.

These missiles add to longstanding U.S. worries about Iran's anti-ship cruise missiles that are highly mobile, commonly ship-deployed, and can be employed to potentially devastating effect against Western ships in the Gulf. Iran has long been able to arm its patrol boats with Chinese-made C-802 cruise missiles. Iran also has Chinese-supplied Seerseekers and C-802's emplaced along Iran's coast. The C-802, fielded by Lebanese Hezbollah, did severe damage to an Israeli ship during the 2006 Israel – Hezbollah war. While U.S. ships possess ample defensive capabilities, American military officials are said to worry that Iran can mount a multi-directional attack using ASCMs that could penetrate U.S. defenses and do severe damage.

A decade ago, containing Iraq's ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction became the focus of vigorous political debate in the U.S. and elsewhere. A similar obsession with Iran's nuclear capability has taken center stage in the current U.S. presidential campaign. What seems to be of less interest has been Iran's progressive improvement of its multifaceted conventional military capability. Even if Iran were to be stymied in his march toward building a nuclear weapon  — or voluntarily terminated its program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions — its robust conventional military capability will still pose a significant threat to Western interests in the Gulf.




Also available: TSG Specialized Reports: The Soufan Group's world-class network of intelligence analysts produces specialized geopolitical and risk assessment products tailored to the unique needs of our clients in the public and private sectors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your requirements and explore how our intelligence services can assist you in achieving your strategic objectives. For more information, please contact us at:

 Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM