Small Wars Journal

Evolution of the Immortals: The Future of Iranian Military Power

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 5:26am

Evolution of the Immortals: The Future of Iranian Military Power

Michael McBride

Iran has a long, proud tradition of military might dating back to the armies of the Achaemenid Empire under Darius the Great and Xerxes.  Throughout its history, Iran has often been a significant regional military power.  However, during the reign of the Qajar dynasty, a period wrought with corruption, economic stagnation, and lack of modernization, Iran saw its standing in the international community wane as the wave of European colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries flooded its territory.  At the conclusion of World War II, under Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran received substantial military aid from the west, particularly from the United States and the United Kingdom, which coupled with revenues generated from the sale of oil enabled Iran to field a sizable military with modern equipment.  However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought new political leadership in the form of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei and likeminded religious clerics that would drastically alter the form and purpose of Iran’s military.

Iran today poses a potential threat not only to the region, but also to the international community as it is believed to be pursuing nuclear weapons, maintains an arsenal of chemical weapons, funds, trains, and equips terrorists and paramilitary proxies, and threatens to disrupt the global economy by obstructing the vital shipping lane through the Strait of Hormuz.  While Iran does not currently possess the military might to realize its goals of becoming a regional hegemon and a significant powerbroker in the international community, it is clear that the regime is attempting to expand its influence through asymmetrical and unconventional means of projecting military power.  However, changes in the character of modern warfare and trends within Iranian society pose major threats to the regime’s ability to achieve its goals.  International isolation, economic stagnation, and politicization of the military will cause Iran to become militarily less powerful over the next 20 years. 

In order to evaluate the future trajectory of Iranian military power, an overview of the regime’s current capabilities is necessary.  Iran’s military power is divided between two parallel military structures, the conventional forces known as the Artesh and the asymmetric Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami.  The Artesh traces its lineage back to the Iranian National Army under Reza Shah Pahlavi, while the IRGC was formed out of several militias that emerged during the Islamic revolution in order to act as a counterweight to the Artesh and protect the newly formed Islamist regime against a military coup.  Particularly since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC has positioned itself as the pre-eminent service within Iran’s military apparatus reaffirming itself as the “guardians of the revolution” responsible for maintaining internal stability as well as “exporting the revolution.”  However, in 2007 Major General Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander in chief of the Islamic IRGC announced that its primary focus would shift from external defense to internal security.[i]

The Artesh’s primary responsibilities include deterring, defending against, and defeating foreign aggressors.[ii]  While nominally a professional military, clerical leaders within the regime ensure Islamic ideological indoctrination within the ranks and promote officers on the basis of political loyalty.  Since seizing power, the Islamic regime maintained control over the military in what Dr. Ken Pollack has termed “commissarism,” which he defines as “heavy-handed efforts on the part of the regime to ensure the loyalty and obedience of the military.  The regime seeks to make sure that the military will execute the orders the regime issues and, more importantly, that the military will not turn against the regime and try to oust it.”[iii]  To maintain absolute control over the military, officers in the Artesh are promoted on the basis of loyalty to the regime and political reliability rather than merit or effectiveness.  The ruling clerics ensure the indoctrination of the military in its Islamic ideology, particularly the concept of valiyat-e faqih, which advocates total control over the country by the religious leadership and demands absolute loyalty to the Supreme Leader.  The guiding principles for the military, codified in 1992, ensured that Islamic ideology would be the basic precept for organizing and equipping the military.[iv]  Within the IRGC, the Office of the Representative of the Guardian Jurist to the Guards controls commissars positioned within each unit at all levels of the guard to ensure ideological conformity and political loyalty to the Supreme Leader, who also serves as the commander in chief of the armed forces.[v]

While perhaps small in comparison to the world’s largest militaries, Iran has a sizeable conventional ground force.  The Islamic Republic of Iran Army consists of 350,000 active duty soldiers with an additional 350,000 available from the reserves, the IRGC consists of an additional 100,000 men, and the Basij Resistance Force, an all-volunteer paramilitary force under the IRGC, in theory can mobilize up to 1 million more men which can draw on a nominal force of 11 million additional potential conscripts.[vi]   The army is equipped with roughly 1,600 tanks, mostly consisting of domestically manufactured Zulfiqars, 480 aging versions of the Soviet-designed T-72, a small number of Townsan light tanks, and 140 Boragh armored personnel carriers.  Iran possesses approximately 3,200 major artillery weapons, the majority left over from the Iran-Iraq War and 900 multiple rocket launchers.[vii]

While quantitatively this may seem like a sizeable force, Iran lacks modern military equipment; much of its current inventory was acquired either during the time of the shah over 30 years ago or what was imported from China, North Korea, and Vietnam during the Iran-Iraq War.  Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been unable to import new, advanced western military technology or the necessary repair parts to maintain its existing western equipment.  As a result, Iran’s conventional army is ill equipped and what modest weapons systems it does possess, especially those leftover from the days of the shah, suffer from lack of maintenance and limited operational effectiveness.  Iran’s army has the ability to defend its territorial integrity from regional adversaries, but would likely be handily defeated by the world’s larger, more modern conventional armies.  Iran is unable to conduct sustained combat operations outside of its borders. 

Due to Iran’s relative conventional weakness, it has developed and come to rely on the Qods force within the IRGC to project military power internationally, primarily through aiding terrorist and paramilitary organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.  The Qods force is, “an elite unit that conducts clandestine operations outside Iran; provides training, financial, and other support to Islamic militant groups; and collects strategic and military intelligence against Iran’s enemies, especially the United States.”[viii]  This form of asymmetric power projection through semi-independent but reliant proxy groups is a pillar of Iran’s national military strategy.

Perhaps the weakest branch of Iran’s military is the air force.  Iran has an inventory of just over 300 aged aircraft, the majority purchased by the regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi manned by approximately 25,000 to 35,000 members of both the conventional Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) and the IRGC air branch.  Again, partly due to the inability to purchase replacement parts and lack of technical expertise to maintain western aircraft because of embargoes since 1979, an estimated 40% to 60% are not mission capable at any time and the air force is unable to conduct a sustained air campaign.[ix]  To provide for air defense, Iran relies on Russian made air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and modern short-range man-portable systems.  While Iran has attempted to deploy a modern radar-based air defense command-and-control system, it is extremely vulnerable to electronic countermeasures, anti-radiation missiles, and has no ability to defend against stealth equipped aircraft or cruise missiles.[x]  Iran also possesses rudimentary unmanned aerial vehicles that are likely capable to carry conventional warheads, although it is unclear as to their effectiveness and operational capability. 

While its conventional airpower may be weak, Iran possesses a formidable ballistic missile arsenal.  Iran’s investment in ballistic missile capabilities dates back to the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s during the phase of the war known as the “War of the Cities” as both sides targeted each other’s major population centers in an attempt to terrorize the population and erode domestic support for continuation of the war.  Today Iran has, “the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East,” which falls under the command and control of the IRGC and primarily consists of short and medium range missiles.[xi]  While much of Iran’s missile technology is based on imports from North Korea, the Iranians have demonstrated a keen ability to modify acquired technology to increase ranges.  Currently, Iran does not possess any Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), but it did demonstrate the ability to launch a satellite into space in 2009.[xii]

Iran’s naval power faces similar constraints to its ground and air forces.  The 18,000 man strong Islamic Republic of Iran Navy is augmented by the 12,000-15,000 Naval Guards under the IRGC.[xiii]  Iran lacks modern warships, forcing them to depend on four obsolete frigates and three obsolete corvettes from the shah’s era with limited modernization and uncertain combat readiness; these vessels are limited to operating within the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Caspian Sea.  However, Iran does possess significant mine warfare capability including submarines capable of deploying the estimated 2,000 modern magnetic, acoustic and pressure-sensitive mines, which it can produce domestically.  In addition, Iran possesses land based anti-ship missiles as well as a formidable fleet of small patrol boats equipped with torpedoes and anti-air missiles that are difficult to detect by radar. [xiv]  While certainly this small navy is incapable of mounting a naval offensive in international waters or challenging any modern conventional navy, it would be capable of blocking the key shipping lane through the Strait of Hormuz for a period of perhaps weeks.

An overview of Iran’s current military capabilities and the trajectory of their development since 1979 reveal several trends that are likely to continue for the next two decades.  The fear of a coup by the Artesh motivated the ruling clerics to politicize the military and establish a parallel military structure in the form of the IRGC, whose power and influence has grown considerably.  However IRGC has marginalized the commissars that were put in place by the ruling clerics to ensure their loyalty to the regime and has become increasingly involved in decision making both domestically and with regards to foreign affairs.  As the IRGC becomes more powerful and influential in the political realm, the “commissarist” system that exists today will become more “praetorian” in nature.   In order to maintain their legitimacy and power, the IRGC needs to maintain the perception of threats to the regime both domestically and externally.  Accordingly, in the coming decades the IRGC will continue to produce state controlled media portraying the United States as an existential threat and devote increasing resources and attention on rooting out any internal dissent at the cost of developing its offensive and defensive capabilities against an external force. 

Since 1979, Iran has faced embargos and economic sanctions from the United States and the west as a whole that have had significant impacts on the regime, the military, and the entire country.  During the same period, conventional warfare has undergone what some have termed a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that is based on advanced military technology, such as the Global Positioning System, precision guided munitions, night vision, thermal imaging, and cutting-edge command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems combined with the ability to incorporate these new technologies to conduct combined arms operations, integrating sea, air, land, cyber, and space domains seamlessly.  The RMA has largely been driven by innovation and the military-industrial complex in the United States and other western countries.  However, embargoes against Iran have prevented it from modernizing its conventional capabilities to keep pace with the changing character of warfare as a result of the RMA.  Iranian military personnel have also been denied opportunities to receive professional military education and training in the new concepts that drive modern warfare.  Should recent negotiations over the cessation of Iran’s nuclear weapons program prove successful that would ease economic sanctions against the regime, given its intense antagonism towards Israel, a major non-NATO ally of the United States, and more subtle geopolitical rivalry with Saudi Arabia, another longtime ally of the United States, it is implausible that embargoes on advanced military technology will end.  As a result, the gap between Iran’s conventional military capabilities and those of United States and other modern militaries will continue to widen in the next two decades.

Economic sanctions have had a crippling effect on Iran’s economy.  Iran’s official inflation rate is about 40%, there has been a massive plunge in the value of Iran’s currency, the rial, and the regime’s major source of revenue, oil exports, have been devastated as the European Union joined the embargo on Iranian oil.[xv]  Accordingly, Iran has been unable to maintain a large enough defense budget to afford advanced modern military technology.  Iran is unable to remain competitive with other countries’ defense spending in the region; Iran’s defense budget is estimated at between $12 and $14 billion dollars annually, a mere 25 percent to 33 percent of Saudi defense spending, and only 20% of the amount spent by the six sheikhdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran’s major geopolitical rivals in the region.[xvi]  As a result, Iran’s conventional military power will continue to erode relative to both international and regional adversaries over next two decades.  Even if economic sanctions are lifted by the United States and the west, this trend will continue as burgeoning revenues will need to be spent on domestic economic development.

As economic sanctions continue to burden the Iranian people, dissent will continue to foment and draw more supporters for the so called “Green Movement.”  As discontent burgeons in the face of continued political disenfranchisement, harsh domestic security measures, and economic hardship the regime will be forced to devote additional resources, personnel, and focus on internal security to preserve the regime.  As a result, funding priorities will be diverted away from conventional capabilities, furthering the gap between the Iranian military and that of its adversaries. 

The inability to afford expensive, advanced modern technology, increased focus on internal security, and the burgeoning power of the IRGC will push Iran away from improving conventional capabilities and towards increasing state sponsored terrorism, training, equipping, and employing proxy groups like Hezbollah, developing ballistic missile technology, and continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.  These capabilities offer Iran cost effective solutions to provide for regime security both domestically and internationally.  So while Iran’s conventional military power will continue to erode in the coming decades, their asymmetric capabilities will increase.  The IRGC’s clandestine and overt intelligence gathering, ability to stand up, equip, train, and sustain proxy groups throughout the globe will improve beyond its notable current capabilities.  Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal will expand as they acquire additional short and medium range missiles and their range will be extended as they seek to strengthen their deterrence against Israel and Europe.  Iran will continue to invest in area denial weapon systems to threaten closing the shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz and defend against an air campaign.  In the next two decades, Iran will field both armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles.  The extent to which Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons will depend on the level of internal dissent fomented by economic hardship due to sanctions.  Due to the effectiveness of the sanctions, it is likely that Iran will scale back its nuclear weapons program to ease economic pressure and satisfy domestic criticism of the regime; however it will not abandon its program completely.  In the next two decades, Iran will not possess a nuclear weapon, but it will be much closer to developing such a capability. 

Iran possesses the foundation necessary to become a major military power once again.  Iran has a highly educated population with a strong sense of nationalism, oil reserves to generate revenue for the state, and enjoys a strategically valuable geographic location at the crossroads between South and Central Asia and the Middle East.  In order to take advantage of its potential, Iran would need to end its adversarial relationship with the United States, Israel, and the west.  Given recent policies, historical animosities, and the regime’s paranoia regarding perceived efforts by the west to oust the regime, this seems highly unlikely.  However, if the current regime were overthrown in a revolution or military coups and replaced with a new ruling elite that sought to integrate into the international community and restore ties with the United States and the west, it would be possible for Iran to return to the global stage as a significant military power and influential state, although this seems unlikely as well given the brutal crackdown during the failed “Green Revolution” in 2009. 

Iran has a long, proud heritage of military strength that dates back to the age of the Persian Empire.  However, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran’s military power has slowly eroded due to politicization of the army, embargoes on advanced military technology, and crippling economic sanctions.  While Iran’s potential to return as a strong military power is great, the policies of the current regime will prevent this from coming to fruition.  As a result, in the coming decades Iran’s conventional military power will continue to decline relative to its adversaries both internationally and regionally, although its asymmetric capabilities will remain formidable.  The regime will devote the majority of its defense budget to developing longer range and more accurate ballistic missiles, improving its already substantial ability to stand up, train, equip, and sustain proxy groups such as Hezbollah, and acquiring a nuclear weapon, although they will not be successful in the next two decades.  While Iran will not pose an existential threat to the United States in the coming decades, it will continue to threaten regional and international stability which will require continued engagement from the international.

End Notes

[i] Ali Alfoneh, Iran Unveiled, (Washington DC:  The AEI Press, 2013), 47.

[ii] Steven Ward, Immortal: A Military History of Iran and its Armed Forces, (Washington DC:  Georgetown University Press, 2009), 301-302.

[iii] Kenneth M. Pollack, “The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness,” Ph.D. Thesis, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 1996, 87.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Alfoneh, Iran Unveiled, 79-81.

[vi] Anthony Cordesman, “The Conventional Military,” United States Institute of Peace The Iran Primer.  Accessed April 20, 2014.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ward, Immortal, 303.

[ix] Cordesman, “The Conventional Military,” United States Institute of Peace The Iran Primer.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Michael Elleman, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” United States Institute of Peace The Iran Primer, Accessed April 20, 2014.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Cordesman, “The Conventional Military,” United States Institute of Peace The Iran Primer.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Uri Berliner, “Crippled By Sanctions, Iran's Economy Key In Nuclear Deal,” National Public Radio, November 25, 2013.  Accessed April 27, 2014.

[xvi] Cordesman, “The Conventional Military,” United States Institute of Peace The Iran Primer.


About the Author(s)

Michael McBride is a former Army Infantry Officer with multiple combat deployments.  He holds a B.A. in History from Brown University and a M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.  He currently works as a consultant for the Department of Defense.