Iran has successfully pursued an asymmetric strategy of militarily offsetting the US and its Persian Gulf neighbors, but a UN ban on selling high-end weapons to Tehran expires in less than a year, potentially opening the floodgates to Iran becoming a much more formidable adversary, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“Iran Military Power,” unveiled by the DIA Nov. 19, said Iran has built credible deterrence and attempted hegemony of the Persian Gulf region relying on a unique triad of capabilities: ballistic missiles, a diverse and large naval presence in the Gulf, and special forces/support of proxies in its near-abroad. While it has not yet developed nuclear weapons, its pursuit of a nuclear program has taken it in some ways beyond the limits that would have been imposed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action abandoned by President Donald Trump, and this progress remains a “significant concern” for the US, according to the report.
“We see Iran’s goal here as trying to deter attacks on Iran, and we also see Iran wanting to be able to project its power and influence in the region and secure that dominant regional presence,” said a defense official, briefing reporters at the Pentagon.
Iran has made up for having a third-rate, largely obsolescent air force by fielding a largely modernized ground-based air defense system, some of which is now home-grown; a reasonably well-equipped and trained army; and developing a large number of indigenously produced unmanned aerial systems for use in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or limited precision attack, the DIA said.
“Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability to dissuade its adversaries from attacking Iran,” Christian Saunders, DIA’s senior analyst for Iran, said at a Pentagon press conference. Iran’s ballistic missile force is the largest in the Middle East, he said, with short-, medium- and long-range missiles, the latter of which are able to hit targets as far as 2,000 km away. Iran is adding to its missile inventories and developing new, more accurate and long-ranged systems, including land-attack cruise missiles, Saunders noted.
However, Iran may no longer have to pursue an asymmetric approach starting in October, 2020, when UN Security Resolution 2231 expires, Saunders pointed out. Under that rule, Iran can’t buy most kinds of conventional weapons, but when UNSR 2231 runs out, Tehran will have the “opportunity to acquire some advanced capabilities that have been beyond its reach for decades.”
Among these, the report said, are advanced fighters and other combat aircraft, which Iran has been discussing with China and Russia for several years. Iran’s air force today is comprised largely of western aircraft bought during the reign of the Shah, small handfuls of Russian MiG-29s, SU-24s, and Su-25s—largely acquired from Iraq—and some up-gunned F-7 Airguard jets, the Chinese version of the MiG-21. The most recent of those aircraft entered Iran’s inventory in the late 1990s. Though Iran has rolled out some interesting-looking aircraft mockups it claims are stealthy, the report dryly observes that these programs remain “aspirational.” Absent legal partnerships with other countries, the DIA deems Iran incapable of developing advanced aircraft on its own.
The expiration of the embargo would also allow Iran to upgrade its nearly 2,000-strong tank forces, which are predominantly 1980s-vintage Russian T-72s. Altogether—providing Tehran has the cash—it could sharply increase its military options with a few well-chosen modernization programs if the UN doesn’t renew the embargo.
Iran has built “layered maritime capabilities” ranging from large combat vessels to small boats, submarines, mines, unmanned aerial vehicles, air defense systems, and coastal missiles, Saunders asserted, employing “asymmetric tactics” to “overwhelm an adversary’s naval force.”
Iran also funds and trains numerous “partners, proxies,” and other forms of “unconventional warfare” in the broader Middle East. These include the Houthi rebels in Yemen; Hezbollah; Iraq Shia militants; the Taliban in Afghanistan; Bahraini Shia; and some Palestinian groups. This network operates as far afield as Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and several other Gulf countries. An attack on Saudi oil refineries earlier this year was attributed to Iran—or Houthis using Iranian equipment—with Iranian UAV wreckage offered as evidence.
Saunders said Iran’s “rapid progress” in developing UAVs is a “point of concern.” The report described eight types of platform “families” with 14 different variants, able to fly ISR missions throughout the region or conduct limited but precise attacks with small munitions.
Iran’s air defense systems provide layered coverage of about 60 percent of the country, focused mainly on protecting Tehran, Persian Gulf naval bases, and Iran’s nuclear development sites. In addition to old systems, such as the American Hawk and British Rapier acquired in the pre-revolutionary days, Iran has “invested heavily in domestically developing and producing” surface-to-air missiles, radars, and command and control systems, according to the report. It has developed a solid capability to upgrade the old systems with modern elements, and routinely conducts exercises demonstrating that its air defense system is indeed integrated, although the report notes that in recent years, Tehran has emphasized that units be able to operate autonomously, without direction from central control.
“Iran is developing the long-range Bavar-373 SAM system, which it claims is more advanced than the Russian S-300,” the report notes, and it has deployed the Russian S-300 (SA-20) as well. Other air defense systems include the SA-5 (S-200) missile and the SA-15.
In acquiring the SA-20C in 2016, Iran obtained “its first capability to defend itself against a modern air force,” Saunders noted. Still, the greater concern is that Iran now has a domestic capability to develop both liquid- and solid-fueled precision-guided missiles on its home soil.
Iran is also making substantial progress in developing an indigenous space launch vehicle program, which could translate into a truly intercontinental missile capability. The two-stage liquid-fueled Safir space launch vehicle has been in development since 2008 and has achieved several successful launches. The Simorgh SLV, which is designed to carry satellites to higher orbit, is also a two-stage rocket and could be the basis of an ICBM.
Saunders didn’t say much about Tehran’s known offensive cyber capabilities, except to note that Iran views cyber operations “as a safe, low-cost method to collect information and retaliate against perceived threats,” and is continuing to up its game in this arena.
He noted that Iran’s ground forces are largely centered on homeland defense, but it has in recent years “taken steps toward developing a limited expeditionary capability” through its operations in Iraq and Syria, against ISIS.
The report marks DIA’s third foray into providing a detailed but unclassified military assessment of a potential adversary. It started in 1981 with the first edition of “Soviet Military Power,” which was discontinued at the end of the Cold War but returned in 2017 as “Russia Military Power.” That was followed by this year’s “China Military Power.”