The Gulf and Iran’s Capabilities for Asymmetric Warfare

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Much of the reporting on the clashes between Iran and the United States that began in late December 2019, that led to the strikes that killed the commander the Iran’s Quds force, Qasem Soleimani, and led to Iranian missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iran, have focused on the Quds force and treated it as the dominant element of Iraq’s military forces and Iran’s asymmetric capabilities. The Quds force is only part of a much broader and steadily growing mix of Iranian asymmetric warfare capabilities. Its role must be kept in careful perspective in evaluating the threat of any major escalation in the tensions and military exchanges between Iran and the United States and the risk of a major war in the Gulf.

Furthermore, much of the recent news reporting on Iran has misstated the nature of Iran’s forces and capabilities. It is critical to assess Iran’s actual military capabilities, and the developments in its approach to asymmetric warfare, as accurately as is possible at the unclassified level and put them in the broader context of the capabilities that the U.S. and its Arab strategic partners can bring to bear in deterring and defending against Iran.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a briefing entitled The Gulf and Iran’s Capabilities for Asymmetric Warfare that is available on the CSIS web site at

This analysis focuses on both Iran’s overall capabilities for asymmetric warfare and the overall military balance in the Gulf – including U.S. and Gulf Arab military forces. It provides a wide range of maps, charts, and tables to illustrate key aspects of Iran’s capabilities and the regional balance. It looks at Iran’s overall mix of forces, rather than focusing on the Quds Force, and draws on a wide range of outside sources to illustrate the range of different expert views – including work by the IISS, SIPRI, work by the CSIS Missile Defense Project, and material drawn from other think tanks and key news reports.

Its primary sources include the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s recent survey of Iran’s overall military establishment in a document called Iran Military Power, 2019, This report is the focus of the analysis of Iran’s capabilities because it represents an official U.S. government estimate presented in unclassified form and is the most authoritative source available. It is excerpted at length in each of the areas where Iran has major asymmetric warfare capabilities.

In addition, it draws upon a major recent analysis of Iran’s capabilities by Seth G. Jones – Containing Tehran: Understanding Iran’s Power and Exploiting Its Vulnerabilities – which was issued on January 6, 2020 and is also available on the CSIS site at

Major areas of uncertainty of remain. All of the major sources used in this analysis are careful to note that Iran conceals many of the details of its military developments, exaggerates some of its capabilities, and simultaneously is quietly making major improvements to many of its asymmetric warfare capabilities – particularly in its ability to influence foreign non-state actors. Accordingly, the analysis does present comparatives data and metrics in some areas – although there is no practical way to address the full range of difference between sources and the many uncertainties involved in much of the data now available.

Accordingly, this report must be view as a working paper – a qualification which applies to virtually all analysis of this subject given the level of information warfare involved, the changes taking place in the forces involved, and the interaction between Iran and the overall instability in the MENA region and the role of outside powers. Any suggested corrections or additions would be most helpful and should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at

Finally, the Burke Chair has issued matching studies of the U.S. role in the Gulf, the trends in U.S. forces, and the relative burden and cost-benefits the U.S. faces in continuing its present role in the region. This analysis is entitled Staying in the Gulf: The Changing Cost and Strategic Advantages and is available on the CSIS web site at

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy