The List: Sizing up Iran’s Military
Even before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for wiping Israel off the map, his more moderate predecessor Mohammed Khatami had promised “if the invaders reach Iran, the country will turn into a burning hell for them.” Blustering about national military prowess, it seems, is a bipartisan tactic in Iran. With the impasse over Iran’s nuclear ambitions driving speculation about a military confrontation, analysts are taking a new look at Iran’s military hand. FP breaks it down.
At 350,000 strong, the Iranian army is one of the largest in the neighborhood. But its size may not matter. More than half of the army is conscripts who are reported to be undisciplined, unmotivated, and poorly trained. In a war, many of them may be on foot as well. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the majority of Irans armored vehicles were captured or destroyed. Nearly three decades of arms sale restrictions have kept Iran from acquiring the spare parts and equipment it needs to maintain even its diminished inventory.
Iran is no naval power, but it does have enough capabilities to play the spoiler. In the event of war, Iran would likely try to jam up waterways by conducting unconventional operations, including deploying small attack boats to strike at shipping tankers. Nearly a quarter of the global oil supply is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz every day. But shipping lanes would grind to a halt if Iran put its seven mine warfare ships to work.
In April, the Iranians tested what was reported to be the worlds fastest underwater missile, capable of eluding radar and traveling up to 233 miles per hour. Most experts scoffed at the announcement as little more than chest-thumping. More seriously, Irans navy has purchased three Russian Kilo-class submarines, whose quiet diesel engines could make them dangerous to Western warships. As with so much else about Irans military, however, there is a catch: The subs dont seem to run well in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf.
The Iranian Air Force has been in a tailspin since the shah fled his palace in 1979. International restrictions on arms purchases have made it nearly impossible for Iran to obtain spare parts for its planes, and experts suggest that fewer than half of the 300 aircraft in its inventory are airworthy. Tehran recently unveiled plans for a domestically produced fighter jet, but the first prototype wont be completed before 2008too late to play a role in the current crisis. Its not just the planes that are in disrepair. The Islamic government purged U.S.-trained pilots after the revolution, and the Air Force has never recovered. Its been more than 15 years since Iranian pilots have been able to participate in air-to-air combat simulations or other realistic training. Any combat over Iranian airspace would likely be quick and one-sided.
Information about Irans missile force is often as imprecise as the missiles themselves. Tehran likely has between 250 and 300 Scud B missiles (180-mile range) and more than 60 Scud C missiles (310-mile range). It is currently testing an 800-mile range Shahab-3 missile based on North Korean technology, and developing the Shahab-4 with a potential range of 1,250 miles. In January 2006, Janes Defence Weekly reported that Iran had acquired intermediate-range ballistic missiles from North Korea. Those missiles can carry nuclear warheads and travel up to 1,550 milesnot far enough to hit Western Europe, but more than enough for Jerusalem. Ubi Rubin, former director of an Israeli missile defense organization, notes, Iran has been careful not to develop capabilities that would threaten Europe. Regional rivalsand any Western military forces in the areaare vulnerable, however.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
As the United States has discovered in Iraq, the regular military is not always the toughest opponent. Groups of diehards, like the Fedayeen in Iraq, can live on even after the main army has crumbled. Irans equivalent is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also known as the Pasdaran.
A paramilitary force independent of the regular military, it was formed by the clerical regime soon after the revolution. In essence, the military protects the country, and the Pasdaran protects the regime. It has some very prominent alums: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and more than 80 parliamentarians are former Pasdaran members. The group also has some unsavory international contacts. The Pasdaran is widely believed to train groups such as Lebanons Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Numbering around 120,000 men, the Pasdaran controls most of Irans missiles, fields its own navy and air force, and trains several special operations groups. According to John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, the Pasdaran would likely resist an invasion fiercely, mainly through attacks on naval units and on commercial shipping.
It is hard to envision Irans ramshackle forces giving a modern Western force the burning hell Irans leaders have promised. Only Iranian ingenuity has kept the military from falling into complete disarray, according to Pike. Their understanding of war is about a century behind Americas understanding of war, he says. Given that reality, it is not surprising that Iran may want the ultimate defense: a nuclear weapon.
Compiled by Foreign Policy researchers Davide Berretta and Andrew Kamons, who would like to thank Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic International Studies and John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org for their help.
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