As the November 24 deadline nears for a possible nuclear agreement between Iran and the international community, Iran’s considerable but uneven conventional forces have received limited scrutiny, despite the threat they pose to United States allies in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Iranian leaders often seek to cloak their political ambitions and military strategy in mystery, but over time the accumulated evidence about what the regime has emphasized within its military establishment sheds light on the country’s overall strategic intentions.
Iran’s political goal is regional hegemony, but counter-intuitively its military path to that goal is unconventional, resting largely on its substantial investments in irregular proxy forces fighting outside of its own borders and in a missile program that provides cheap and abundant projectiles for use by proxies against Israel, and more significant weapons that can threaten neighbors and ships in surrounding waters, including the Straits of Hormuz.
Iran has significant shortfalls in the composition and readiness of its army, air force, and navy, which are not the hallmarks of a major military power but are oriented to supporting the defense of its borders and littoral areas.
Iran does not have a large standing army capable of undertaking major ground force operations beyond its borders. Moreover, for reasons largely related to an inability to acquire spare parts, Iran’s air force is far from the region’s most capable. The Iranian navy lacks any credible blue-water capability to carry out sustained operations far from Iranian borders.
But the navy does deploy a limited number of submarines such as the diesel powered Kilo class as well as small and fast frigates and corvettes whose mission would be to harass oil tankers or opposing naval forces transiting the narrow Strait of Hormuz. The sinking of even one tanker in the Strait’s narrow channels, through which twenty percent of the world’s oil transits, would send oil prices soaring.
Recognizing these shortfalls and with an economy reeling under the combined weight of poor management and international sanctions, Iran has refrained from seeking significant upgrades to its conventional forces, knowing it would take years to match Israel’s highly capable and robust ground and air forces, not to mention those of several Arab nations.
For Iran, the ultimate military equalizer would come from nuclear weapons. In the shorter term, Iran’s capabilities come from its investment in short-range and long-range missiles, many of which one day could be fitted with nuclear warheads.
Iran suffered heavy civilian as well as military casualties from Iraqi missile attacks during the war the two nations fought through much of the 1980s. That lesson was seared into Iranian military thinking. Iran places high priority on its missile forces and has invested heavily in them. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iran has a "major pool of steadily improving rockets and missiles."
Short range rockets such as the Fajr 1 and Fajr 5 can strike targets around Iran’s border while longer-range missiles can attack targets in the Gulf. As Cordesman notes, Iran also has supplied thousands of short-range rockets to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran also has devoted considerable resources on its longer-range missile program, benefiting greatly from years of Russian and North Korean assistance. The Qiam 1 has a range of 700-800 kilometers while the Shahab 3, based on a North Korean design, can reach targets at 2100 kilometers.
Iran probably is seeking to acquire even longer-range capabilities. Extended range variants of the Shahab missile, known as the Shahab 5 and Shahab 6, are believed by Western analysts to be in development. Once those missiles reach operational status Iran will be able to attack targets in Europe and Russia but even the currently deployed Shahab 3 and others in its class can strike targets throughout the region as far as Pakistan and Turkey.
Fearing possible Israeli or U.S. airstrikes, Iran has invested heavily in air defense weapons, notably short and long-range air defense missiles, but that has been thwarted by Russia’s refusal to sell Iran advanced S-300 air defense missiles.
Questions persist about the reliability and accuracy of most Iranian missiles but Iran appears committed to improving performance shortfalls with improved navigation and propulsion systems.
More than any other military asset, Iran’s missile program constitutes a formidable weapon of terror. Iran has chosen cleverly in identifying and funding its defense priorities. As a result, it has developed a regional defense strategy with three parts: it sows havoc through the use of proxies armed with Iranian rockets, defends Iran’s strategic interests in the Gulf and can threaten distant foes around the Middle East.