Iran and the Changing Military Balance in the Gulf - Net Assessment Indicators
March 26, 2020
The Burke Chair at CSIS is issuing a working draft of a new net assessment of the security situation in the Persian/Arab Gulf. This net assessment is a book length analysis entitled Iran and the Changing Military Balance in the Gulf - Net Assessment Indicators. It is available on the CSIS website here .
The assessment covers the policies and security forces of Iran, the Arab Gulf states, and the U.S. role in the Gulf. It sets out the baseline conditions now shaping the balance and addresses three major changes in the Gulf military balance:
- First, the changing strategic relationship between Iran and its Arab neighbors and the uncertainty of the future U.S. role in the Gulf.
- Second, Iran’s growing capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf area.
- Third, the impact of Iran’s success in creating conventionally-armed, precision guided missiles and more effective air defenses.
The assessment presents a mix of narratives, quantitative data, maps, and charts that address each aspect of these changes in the balance. It draws heavily on data provided by the reports from IISS and SIPRI, excerpts from official U.S. government sources like the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Energy Information Administration (EIA), as well as a wide range of work from other institutions, think tanks, and media sources.
Setting the Stage: Clashes, U.S. Commitments, and Comparative Resources
The analysis in this section of the assessment sets the stage by highlighting the dynamics of the growing crisis in U.S. and Iranian relations that have driven the steadily rising confrontation between Iran, the United States, and the Arab Gulf states. It then highlights a chronology of the patterns in the most recent tensions and clashes between Iran; the United States; and the Arab Gulf states, the current level of U.S. forces in the region, and the growing uncertainties in the U.S. commitments to the Gulf.
The narratives, tables, and charts in this section highlight the impact of the varying different levels of resources available to Iran and its Arab neighbors and the scale of the arms race that has shaped the relative capability of Arab Gulf, Iranian, and U.S. forces over the last decade – including the relative military expenditures and the trends in arms imports of Iran and the Arab Gulf states.
It should be noted that the Coronavirus may have a massive future impact on U.S. deployments and national security expenditures, Arab military expenditures and arms imports, and Iranian military expenditures and domestic military production.
The United States saw a major rise in its future projected national debt and interest payments, driven by civil entitlements expenditures, even before the virus became an issue. It is now considering initial annual economic stimulus and recovery payments of $2,000 billion to pay for the impact of the virus – costs which compare with Department of Defense (DoD) estimates of the total cost of both the Afghan and Iraq-Syria wars as ranging from $2,002.4 billion to $2,106.2 billion between FY2001 and FY2019. The total costs of dealing with the impact of the virus may have a major impact on future U.S. spending in the Gulf region, on power projection forces, on aid, and all the other aspects of national security.
Key national economies affecting the balance were already “failed states” with weak or nearly bankrupt economies even before the virus began to have an impact. These included Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. There currently is no way to estimate how serious the impact of the virus will be, and the United States has continued to place new economic sanctions on Iran.
As is shown later in this analysis, “oil wealth” is very limited in terms of per capita income in many of the Gulf states and the value of petroleum exports has varied sharply and unpredictably over time. This section warns that the wealthiest petroleum exporter in the Gulf – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – are spending very high percentages of their GNP on national security – some close to 10% – as is at least one less wealthy state: Oman. The virus has already sharply cut demand for petroleum and petroleum prices. Sustained cuts could force even the wealthiest states to reduce national security spending, arms imports, and efforts to reform their economies and cut their dependence on petroleum exports.
These trends are so uncertain, however, that any effort to estimate their impact now involves little more than speculative guesswork. Accordingly, the analysis that follows warns that it is not possible to estimate the detailed impact of the Coronavirus, but they are certain to be all too real.
The First Key Shift in the Military Balance: Changes in in the Regional Struggle for Strategic Control and Influence
The analysis then addresses the first major set of changes in the balance. These include the shifts in political and strategic alignments of the United States, the Arab Gulf states, and Iran – shifts that go far beyond the Gulf. These shifts reflect the impact of three major regional wars, a series of civil wars and political upheavals, and two decades of conflict with extremism and terrorism.
These events have led to changes in the levels of national influence and the military balance that extend from Israel and the Levant to Yemen and the Red Sea. They also reflect the impact of the growing political-military struggle between Iran (and its supporters) and the United States and most Arab Gulf states, a growing emphasis on asymmetric and gray area conflicts, and major changes in the role of outside powers like Russia and Turkey.
These changes have made Iraq the critical strategic prize in the struggle between Iran and the United States and its Arab strategic partners. At the same time, Iran has expanded its influence and its confrontations in the Gulf to now include Yemen, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea.
It is also clear from the history of these shifts that Iran, the United States, and its Arab strategic partners have been reluctant to enter into another major war. Instead, it has been gray area operations and hybrid warfare, along with efforts to exert political struggle for influence, that have driven their efforts to gain regional control and influence – and wars of intimidation and lower-levels of violence have become an enduring part of the balance in the Gulf.
The Second Key Shift in the Military Balance: The Rising Impact of Iran’s Asymmetric Forces
The next section of the assessment addresses the second major set of changes in the balance. These are changes driven by Iran’s development of a broad range of asymmetric warfare capabilities in the Gulf and nearby waters in the Gulf of Oman, Indian Ocean, and Red Sea.
This part of the assessment not only assesses the naval balance, it looks beyond the current focus on the Al Quds Force to include all of the asymmetric elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the regular Iranian military forces or Artesh, and other key parts of the Iranian government. It also uses maps and charts to highlight the fact that these forces are sometimes more important in terms of their ongoing political and strategic impact than their potential impact on large-scale war fighting. This is further illustrated by a graphic and map analysis of the critical strategic importance of the flow of petroleum and liquid natural gas exports.
The analysis also puts the land force balance in a different perspective. All of the major powers involved have developed large land forces for nations of very different sizes. The geography and broader balance of joint warfare capabilities in the region do, however, sharply limit their capability to carry out sustained offensive and maneuver warfare outside their own territory, and invading and occupying either Iran or Saudi Arabia is scarcely likely to give the “victor” any meaningful form of victory.
The Third Key Shift in the Military Balance: The Impact of Iran’s Missile Forces
The final part of the assessment examines changes in the balance that have been driven by the impact of Iran’s growing missile and rocket warfare capabilities as well as by the growth of Iran’s wide range of conventional, precision-strike capabilities. It shows how these changes affect the air and land-based air defense balance, as well as how they affect key shifts in the relative balance of Iranian and Gulf Arab deterrent and war fighting capabilities.
It shows that these changes are interacting in ways that as of yet remain uncertain and difficult to predict, but that they may significantly improve Iran’s position relative to the U.S. position, that of its Arab strategic partners, and that of their coalition allies. At the same time, it highlights critical weaknesses in the open source literature and data involved that have produced critical gaps in the analysis of Iran’s capabilities.
These gaps are critical because it is not possible to determine the speed with which Iran will be able to carry out decisive attacks on fixed Gulf military targets, petroleum facilities, and critical infrastructure. The same is true of the evolving impact of Iran’s missile forces on the broader air warfare, air/missile defense, and the overall offensive missile and air strike capabilities on both sides. One particularly important issue is the extent to which Iran’s missile forces will be able to suppress operations from U.S. and Arab Gulf airbases.
There is at least the possibility, however, that conventionally armed precision strikes could replace weapons of mass destruction with weapons of mass effectiveness. A major war could do some much damage to the economies of both sides that it would be the economic equivalent of “mutual assured destruction.” If so, as long as all sides control their level of escalation to the levels that best suit their strategic advantage, they will avoid major exchanges of this kind and continue to focus on wars of influence, as well as gray area and hybrid strikes and operations. That said, military history warns that Sarajevo-like scenarios and failure to limit escalation are all too possible.
Finally, the analysis address Iran’s possible progress in developing nuclear warheads, and the lack of reliable data on its chemical and biological warfare programs. It should be stressed that all of the current trends in both Iran’s missile forces and in the speculation regarding its efforts to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction continue to assume that the Iranian regime will give priority to military forces over civil needs in spite of the steady hardening of U.S. sanctions and the growing impact of the Coronavirus. They also treat U.S. and Arab Gulf reactions as if they could continue to devote the same levels of resources to national security. Neither set of assumptions may prove to be correct.
Downloading the Net Assessment
The net assessment is a broad mix of narratives, excerpts, tables, maps, and graphs. Its narrative content is relatively limited, but the entire document is over 200 pages long in PDF format. As a result, the document is being circulated both as an entire report and in the form of separate documents for each major section. It is suggested that users download and at least briefly examine the entire document regardless of their particular focus and interest, but this may also present problems for some users with limited Internet access.
The following downloads are available:
- Iran and the Changing Military Balance in the Gulf - Net Assessment Indicators – Full report. The full report may be downloaded on the CSIS website here.
- Setting the Stage: Clashes, U.S. Commitments, and Comparative Resources. This section may be downloaded on the CSIS website here.
- The First Key Shift in the Military Balance: Changes in in the Regional Struggle for Strategic Control and Influence. This section may be downloaded on the CSIS website here.
- The Second Key Shift in the Military Balance: The Rising Impact of Iran’s Asymmetric Forces. This section may be downloaded on the CSIS website here.
- The Third Key Shift in the Military Balance: The Impact of Iran’s Missile Forces. This section may be downloaded on the CSIS website here.
Commenting on the Net Assessment
This in many ways is a rough working draft. Comments, suggestions, and possible additions will be gratefully received. Please send them to Anthony H. Cordesman, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Burke Chair Studies addressing aspects of the Gulf balance
- The Gulf and the Challenge of Missile Defense: Net Assessment Indicators , February 24, 2020
- The FY2021 U.S. Defense Budget Request: A Dysfunctional Set of Strategic Blunders , February 13, 2020
- Staying in the Gulf: The Changing Cost and Strategic Advantages , January 8, 2020
- America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East: Losing Iraq and the Gulf , January 2, 2020
- Iran and the Gulf Military Balance , October 4, 2016
- Iran, Iraq, and the Changing Face of Defense Cooperation in the Gulf , November 1, 2010
Iran and the Changing Military Balance in the Gulf - Net Assessment Indicators: Executive Summary
The Changing and Uncertain Roles of Key States
This assessment is being distributed at a time when the it is clear that the Coronavirus could have a major impact on the regional balance, but that impact is still so unclear that it is not possible to address in any detail. Even if one only examines the major ongoing trends that now affect the Gulf balance, however, it is clear that changes are taking place in virtually every aspect of the political and strategic alignments that shape the balance. The days in which a relatively simple set of divisions between a bloc formed by the United States and the Arab Gulf states, and a smaller bloc of states and non-state actors led by Iran, are long over. The major changes reshaping the Gulf balance include the following trends, many of which have come to favor Iran:
• Iran’s politics have become steadily more hardline in dealing with its neighbors and the United States. The recent election of its legislature (majlis) has been manipulated to be dominated by conservatives, by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), and by hardliners around its Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – who has also gained in power. Iran has escalated its level of tension and the level of its clashes with the United States and the Arab Gulf states by using gray area political, asymmetric, and missile/rocket threats and attacks. Iran has also returned to levels of uranium enrichment activity that do not comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the P5+1 following the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. At the same time, the future of Iranian regional influence over states like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – all of which are unstable “failed states” – is uncertain. Iran’s economy is also under severe stress as a result of the return of U.S. sanctions. Iran’s economy is also under severe stress as a result of the return of U.S. sanctions. Iran faces a drop in global demand for petroleum and in petroleum export revenues, and – like all of the states in this analysis – it faces massive challenges of coping with the Coronavirus or COVID-19 virus and its impact on global and national economies.
• The future role of the United States in the Gulf region and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is far less clear than it has been for decades. There is growing uncertainty over the future role of the United States in the Gulf over the size of its forward deployed forces, its role in Iraq and Syria, and its level of commitment to its Arab strategic partners. So far, the United States has continued to maintain large forward deployed forces and supports its Arab partners with reinforcements whenever a new clash or confrontation in Iraq takes place, but it is making major cuts in the forces it has deployed to meet the threat posed by ISIS. Moreover, the United States has steadily cut its forces in Syria and Iraq and has made it clear that it is examining major force cuts in the MENA region and redeployments to other regions. The United States is actively seeking to reduce the burden posed by its deployments to the Gulf by asking for new Gulf Arab arms purchases and the expansion and modernization of Gulf Arab forces. The future role of the United States in fighting extremist forces, in countering Iranian influence in Iraq, and in defending the Arab Gulf states is far from clear, as is the U.S. strategic focus on ensuring the secure flow of Gulf petroleum exports.
• Tensions between Arab states now critically limit their collective capability to deter and defend against Iran. In theory, the forces of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are united in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that collectively has far greater resources than Iran and the potential to dominate the Gulf military balance. In practice, a long history of rivalries between these Arab states has left the GCC the hollow shell of a military alliance rather than the predicted reality. The petty feuds of ruling princes have placed critical limits on the GCC’s real world level of interoperability and integration, and their feuds have grown steadily worse since 2011.
• Qatar has been isolated by several of its neighbors. It has been boycotted since June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and a number of other Arab states over its tolerance of the Moslem Brotherhood and its support of Al Jazeera. The full list of these boycott states includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Mauritania, the Maldives, Djibouti, Senegal, the Comoros, the Tobruk-based Libyan government, and the Hadi-led Yemeni government. All have severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and banned Qatari airplanes and ships while Saudi Arabia has blocked Qatar’s only land crossing. However, only two states – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – cooperated together actively in creating this boycott, in building up some major aspects of their military forces, and in fighting a war in Yemen. Even these two Arab states, however, have their own tensions over issues like how the war in Yemen should be fought and over the role of the UAE outside the Gulf.
• Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority has become steadily more dependent on Saudi Arabia for security in dealing with the country’s Shi’ite majority and need for outside aid and financial support of its petroleum sector and industries.
• Relations between Oman and Saudi Arabia are more distant. The two nations have never been close partners, and Oman has further distanced itself from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while quietly supporting Qatar. Oman has also stood aside from the Saudi-UAE involvement in the Yemen civil war and has been more flexible in dealing with Iran.
• Kuwait has attempted to be a neutral arbiter and to bring the Arab Gulf states together but is now relatively isolated militarily from the other Gulf states. It faces some internal tensions within its royal family and also problems with Iranian pressure.
• Iraq has become the most serious Arab “wild card” in Gulf security. Its “victory” in breaking up the ISIS “caliphate” has neither eliminated ISIS nor Islamic extremists, has not united the country, and has not prevented the near collapse of the Iraqi government. Tensions between and within ethnic factions – like Arabs and Kurds – and sectarian factions – like Sunni and Shi’ite – remain critical sources of tension and conflict. The future alignment of given factions with Iran, the United States, the Arab states, and Turkey are all issues, as is the development and unity of Iraqi military and security forces – and various “popular” militias. Iraq’s future alignment with Iran versus the United States and the Arab states and how it affects Iraq’s ability to rebuild effective national defenses is one of the most critical single issues shaping the future military balance.
• Arab states outside the Gulf play a token role in supporting the Arab Gulf states. For all the talk of broader Arab security and counter-terrorism alliances, key Arab states outside the Gulf – like Egypt and Jordan – increasingly focus on their own stability and security issues, and they do not play a major role in Gulf security. Arab unity remains a myth, and such alliances are largely pointless and dysfunctional.
• Syria still remains the scene of what may be a victory by the Assad regime in defeating its largely Sunni opposition, and the regime has made progress in gaining control over Syria’s Kurds in the northeast . Syria’s economy has been nearly destroyed by its civil war, and the Assad regime is still dependent on outside support from Iran and groups like the Hezbollah while fighting between Syria and Turkey has added a new dimension to the war. Nevertheless, the Assad regime seems to be the “winner” by both surviving and winning control over most of the populated areas of the country, and it has greatly benefited from Iranian, Russian, and Iranian support. The fight over Idlib has now expanded to include serious clashes between Turkish and Russian-Syrian forces and at present, does remain unsettled – so does the fate of the Kurdish area in the Northeast. However, the combination of Assad and the Russian presence in Syria may make Assad the de facto victor, although some form of enduring tensions and jockeying for power between Assad/Russia and Erdogan seems likely to continue – so does Assad’s alignment with Iran and the Hezbollah.
• Turkey has become another key wild card in the region. President Erdogan has backed hardline Islamic movements in Idlib and in the fighting against the Assad regime. It also has renewed its conflict against its own Kurds and attempted to keep Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds from becoming supporters of Kurdish separatists in Turkey. It has distanced itself from the United States and NATO, reached out to Russia with very mixed results, and supported Qatar against the Saudi-UAE boycott.
• Lebanon has virtually self-destructed as a government and economy although its military forces and the Hezbollah remain largely intact. Iran’s future level of influence remains unpredictable.
• Britain and France also have an uncertain role. They retain power projection facilities and capabilities in the region and are modernizing some of their power projection forces, but they continue to cut the total size of their forces and their overall power projection capabilities.
• China and Russia are committed to increasing their strategic role and forward deployment capabilities in the region. Russia’s base in Syria has made it a major player in regional security, and China has acquired its first regional base in Djibouti.
The Changing Military Aspects of the Balance
These shifts have interacted with other important shifts in the regional power. First, they have allowed Iran to become a far more successful competitor than its military resources might indicate. If one examines the balance in abstract terms, the United States and the Arab Gulf states should have a decisive advantage.
Force Trends in Military Spending, Arms Transfers, and Force Numbers
The force comparisons throughout this analysis show that the Arab Gulf states alone have more capable conventional forces than Iran, and the tables that follow show that that the Arab Gulf states are spending and modernizing their forces far more quickly than Iran, and that there are many areas where the total forces of the Arab Gulf states now have much larger and more modern total forces. If one examines U.S. force and power projection capabilities, once again, the United States alone has the military strength to dominate the region. The combination of total Arab Gulf and U.S. forces are vastly superior in both quantitative and qualitative terms, and allies like Britain and France can deploy significant additional power projection forces.
The tables comparing Iranian and Arab Gulf military spending and arms imports show that the United States and its Arab strategic partners have vastly outspent Iran in funding force modernization, and it is the Arab Gulf states that have been able to freely import some of the world’s most modern weapons and technology. Later tables comparing the balance and quality of weapons show that Iran has fallen far behind in building up its conventional air forces, missile defense forces, and navy.
Iran effectively lost the Iran-Iraq War in a series of major defeats in mid-1988 for many reasons. They included Iraq’s near monopoly on the use of poison gas and ballistic missiles, but the key reason was that Iran faced an embargo and other limits on its ability to import modern weapons and technology from 1980 onwards. This embargo began as a result of the fall of the Shah and the Iran hostage crisis. As the tables and charts on military spending and arms transfers show, however, it has continued ever since because of Iran’s continuing threats to its Arab neighbors, its development of missile and asymmetric forces, and its ongoing nuclear weapons program.
As the charts and tables in this analysis show, the impact of the original U.S. embargo has now been reinforced by a UN embargo that still sharply limits Iran’s access to arms imports and modern military weapons and technology. The also reflect the fact that the impact of the embargo has been compounded by severe U.S. and other economic sanctions, as well as by poor Iranian economic policies.
While Iran has sought to obtain advanced arms and military technology from Russia, China, and North Koreas and has tried to build a major military industrial base, it has experienced only a limited and highly selective success. As a result, Iran’s force development has had to focus on creating a defense in depth capability that mixes a poorly equipped conventional army with irregular reserves like the Basij.
In contrast, the United States and its Arab partners have taken advantage of their superior resources and access to modern weapons and military technology to create a decisive lead in modern airpower and conventional war fighting capability – one that has been greatly reinforced by the reimposition of U.S. sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018.
Forces numbers, however, can also be misleading. As the previous analysis has shown, they do not reflect the growing instability in the Gulf region – particularly among the Arab states – or the complex impacts of Iraq’s invasion of Iran and the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 and 1988. The Iraq invasion of Iran did help to create more effective and united Iranian forces, and it also began Iran’s long confrontation with its Arab Gulf neighbors and the United States. At the same time, it was a war where Syria’s rivalries with Iraq led the elder Assad to make Syria the only Arab state that backed Iran against Iraq. And, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 helped to create the Hezbollah and gave Iran influence over another major non-state actor.
Moreover, while Iran faces budget pressures of its own – driven by tax cuts and the steadily rising cost of its civil entitlement programs long before the virus became a global issue – the United States has inadvertently aided Iran by failing to develop anything approaching a cohesive U.S. regional strategy in the Gulf.
The United States has also pushed its Arab strategic partners into spending more on military forces and arms transfers without focusing on what missions really need additional spending or the the strain this imposes on their economies and stability. Even the wealthiest Arab Gulf states face challenges in sustaining their current defense spending – which often reach heights of nearly 10% of their GDPs or more.
Their spending on security comes at the cost of spending on their civil needs, dealing with cycles of low petroleum prices and export revenues, and now their ability to deal with the impact of the Coronavirus on both their domestic economies and global demand for petroleum imports. “Oil wealth” already is all too relative – and all too limited – in a region that spends so much on force and that has such a rapidly growing population, needs for diversification, and need to create new jobs.
Iraq’s Shift from Dominant to Weak Military Power
Iraq has been the exception to these trends in Arab Gulf forces. In spite of its success in the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq survived a major series of blunders and defeats in the Iran-Iraq War after 1982 because it received extensive Western and Russian aid in reorganizing, modernizing, and expanding its military forces, and massive aid from its Arab neighbors. As a result, Iraq was able to defeat Iran to the point where Iran was forced to withdraw from its gains in Iraq after 1984 and accept a ceasefire in 1988. It was Iraq that emerged as the dominant military power in the region.
Fortunately for Iran, Iraq lost most of the forces it built up before and during 1980-1988 in the following two wars in 1990-1991 and in 2003. Iraq's military development has since fallen behind most of its major neighbors. The first war was driven by Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990, which led to the creation of a joint U.S.-Saudi coalition that decisively defeated Iraq in the First Gulf War in 1990-1991.
The second war had very difference causes. Saddam Hussein survived his defeats in 1991, but his efforts to resist outside limits to his power after 1991 and the U.S. fears he was again developing weapons of mass destruction led to a second major U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This round of fighting not only rapidly drove Saddam Hussein from power, it destroyed Iraq as a major military power. Since that time, a series of newly created Iraqi security forces have faced 17 years of fighting against Sunni Islamist extremists, often suffered serious defeats, and have only survived because of U.S. military support – although U.S. failures as an occupying power in Iraq and in developing and supporting Iraqi forces and political and economic development have had a major impact.
Today, Iraq is still a relatively weak military power that is organized more to defend itself against internal extremist threats than outside powers, and where Iraq’s forces include independent militias and armed factions with strong ties to Iran. It lacks effective and honest government at every level, and it was nearly bankrupt as CIA, IMF, and World Bank reporting indicated that Iraq had one of the worst managements and structure economies in the region even before the Coronavirus began to have a major impact.
This near power vacuum in Iraq has made the current U.S.-Iranian struggle for influence in Iraq a critical part of the current military balance, and it is a struggle that is far from clear that the United States and the Arab Gulf states will win.
The Broad Regional Arms Race from 1980 to 2020
It is Iran that has exploited many of the fault lines between Arab states with growing success. Iran has steadily exploited the internal divisions in Lebanon and the rise of the Hezbollah since the Israeli invasion in 1982. The political upheavals that began in 2011 divided Syria in ways that have allowed Iran to steadily expand its influence within Syria ever since. Iran has also been able to take advantage of divisions in the Arab Gulf over how to deal with the rise of extremist movements – like the Moslem Brotherhood – and has successfully exploited the civil war in Yemen that began in 2015.
Over the last decade, Iran has shown a steadily improving capability to support and win influence over states – like Syria – and non-state actors – like the Houthi and Hezbollah – by exploiting hybrid and gray area political-military struggles. It has used tools like its Al Quds Forces, arms transfer, “volunteers,” and cash aid to take advantage of the Arab struggle with Islamic extremism and with sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi’ite as well as ethnic divisions between Arabs and Kurds.
Asymmetric Warfare Capabilities
Iran has taken advantage of military developments as well. The most immediate Iranian step forward has been to develop a wide range of affordable asymmetric warfare capabilities and capabilities for gray area and hybrid warfare. These capabilities range from the Al Quds force – and the ability to support foreign military forces and non-state actors – to major naval-missile-air capabilities to threaten and attack naval targets, shipping/tankers, and coastal-fixed targets in the Gulf.
The Iraqi invasion that began on September 22, 1980 led the Iranian regime to create an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that relied heavily on asymmetric tactics weapons while the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 led Iran to restructure its national defense forces to combine regular military forces, IRGC forces, and popular resistance forces called the Basij, to provide both defense in depth and the ability to carry out sustained irregular warfare against any advancing or occupying power – a critical threat in a large nation of over 80 million people.
As the charts and tables in this analysis show, Iran’s forces have steadily improved in training, arms, and capability over time. They have given Iran a steadily improving capability to threaten the flow of petroleum out of the Gulf and to intimidate or attack shipping and naval movements throughout the Gulf, at the Strait of Hormuz, and increasingly in the Gulf of Oman, Indian Ocean, Bad el Mandeb, and Red Sea. This poses a critical threat to the export of some 20% of the world’s petroleum supplies and large portions of its natural gas liquids (NGL) exports.
Missile Warfare Capabilities
Iran is also now in the process of carrying out another critical set of military developments by improving its missile and rocket forces. Ever since the Iran-Iraq War, Iran has developed ballistic missiles in an effort to compensate for its inability to modernize its air force and air defense capabilities and offset its reliance on aging U.S. combat aircraft, export versions of Russian and Chinese aircraft, and decades old designs of surface-to-air missiles. As various sections of this report show, Iran demonstrated in 2019 that it had made major advantages in conventional precision strike capability in both its ballistic missiles and in its air breathing cruise and unmanned combat aerial vehicles when it executed precision strikes on a U.S. occupied base in Iraq and on Saudi oil facilities. It also has shown that it can deploy systems that can be used by allied non-state actors like Hezbollah and the Houthi.
Iran is now developing and deploying a growing range of land, sea, and air based ballistic and air breathing systems that can attack key military targets – and that some experts feel will become precise enough to destroy key U.S. and Arab military targets and potentially suppress enemy air bases and operations using conventional warheads. It already can achieve a significant degree of “mutually assured destruction” – or MAD – by striking critical fixed civil targets like key petroleum production and export systems, and Iran may be able to do major damage to critical infrastructure like electric power stations, desalination facilities, utilities, and major buildings. It also is deploying these systems on a wide range of launch platforms from ship to mobile land-based TELs to aircraft, and it is shifting to solid fueled or smaller systems that allow high levels of dispersal, mobility, and quick reaction.
Development of Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Weapons Capabilities
Iran’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction have had a more uncertain impact. Reporting by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has made it clear that Iran had an ambitious nuclear weapons program that evolved to the “break out” point in terms of weapons design and weapons-grade nuclear enrichment in the period between the first time Iraq began to use chemical weapons as well as long-range missiles against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War and an agreement on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (China France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on July 14, 2015.
So far, the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the agreement has not triggered a decisive Iranian return to nuclear weapons development and production, but Iran is able to exploit its progress in becoming a nuclear power to threaten its neighbors and give it potential leverage in deterring an major conventional attacks on Iran if it can actually deploy such weapons without triggering preventive U.S. or Israeli attacks. Moreover, Iran’s efforts to develop a satellite launch capability – and tests of potential launch vehicles on January 15, 2019; February 5, 2019; August 29, 2019; and February 8, 2020 – indicate that it may be developing a future ICBM.
At a different level, Iran remains a declared chemical weapons power and has the technical base to develop advanced biological weapons. The CIA stated that Iran had manufactured and stockpiled blister, blood, and choking agents in combination with the bombs and artillery shells needed to deliver chemical agents in 1997, and the U.S. State Department stated that Iran was in non-compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2019. The United States has not provided any unclassified details about these programs or updated assessments of Iran’s biological weapons programs – if any. It should be noted, however, that Iran’s steadily improved cruise missile and UCAV programs to give it a greatly improved capability to deliver such weapons through line source area dissemination at long-ranges.
Probable Patterns of Deterrence, War Fighting, and Escalation
The developments do not mean that a U.S-led coalition could not achieve a decisive military defeat of Iran, or that the United States alone could not destroy much of Iran’s war fighting capability and economy. The Arab Gulf states can also reverse many of these trends if they can achieve some degree of real unity, preserve their alliance with the United States, develop effective missile defenses, and establish forces better tailored to countering Iran’s growing asymmetric warfare capabilities. They certainly have the ability to continuing their outspending of Iran, and the balance would also shift in their favor if Iraq emerged as a real strategic partner – or even as a strong enough independent nation to deter and defend against Iranian pressure and influence.
At the same time, the Arab states are currently losing the decisive advantage that their investment in airpower gave them in striking against Iran between roughly the mid-1990s and the present. Iran’s improving missile forces may soon give the advantage of being able to strike critical Arab civil targets and critical Arab and U.S. military point targets. If so, the end result may be a military balance where no country or combination of countries will want to escalate a conflict to the point where it threatens its own economy, endangers its long term ability to export the flow of petroleum out of the Gulf, and forces that country to deal with the cost of a major war.
The term “mutual assured destruction” has a very different meaning in the Gulf than in a superpower nuclear exchange, but high levels of mutual escalation will become increasingly costly to each side. Moreover, any form of “victory” is becoming steadily more unlikely.
As the United States learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, occupying another power – with a different culture and mix of values – is an immensely costly and uncertain affair. This would be as true, however, of any Arab occupation of Iran or an Iranian occupation of an Arab state. It would be particularly true for Iran simply because it has such a large territory, a well-established national identity, over 80 million people – not to mention it would require immense amounts of aid to recover from a truly major war. Iran may be able to transform itself, but trying to transform it from the outside seems like a recipe for turning any military victory into strategic defeat.
In short, it is far from clear that the ability to win a major war is the proper measure of the Gulf military balance. The Gulf needs the strategies and tactics of Sun Tzu, not Clausewitz. It is the ability to use military force to influence and intimidate, to support other state and non-state actors, and to carry out gray area operations that reflects the practical limits of how force can best be used in the region. Here, somewhat ironically, Iran’s other military weaknesses have forced it to learn how to best use its power within these limits. In far too many ways, the Arab states have learned to be fractured, divided, and dysfunctional while the United States has focused on counterterrorism, arms sales, and – increasingly so – reducing the burden of deploying to the region.
The one key caution that must be applied to such a “rational bargainer” view of the balance is the “Sarajevo scenario.” The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand demonstrates that one irrational and unpredictable action can create a domino effect to a major conventional war such as the First World War. As such, the possibility of war with Iran is not beyond the realm of possibilities, but as the following analysis suggests, it will be less likely to occur compared to conflicts executed at the gray zone level.
Whatever strategy should be, history is far often the predictor on how to prevent major failures, limit escalation, calculate the risks in war, and operate in meaningful strategic terms. Given the history of war in the Gulf since 1980, it is dangerous to assume that anyone learns from history even if they do bother to remember it.
And yet, events may also change behavior. The Coronavirus may have a massive future impact on how the Gulf state perceive their security challenges and the relative priority of civil versus national security expenditures. It may lead to cuts in U.S. deployments, Arab military expenditures and arms imports, and Iranian military expenditures and domestic military production.
The United States saw a major rise in its future projected national debt and interest payments, driven by civil entitlements expenditures, even before the virus became an issue. The total costs of dealing with the impact of the virus may have a major impact on future U.S. spending in the Gulf region, on power projection forces, on aid, and all the other aspects of national security.
Key national economies affecting the balance were already “failed states” with weak or nearly bankrupt economies even before the virus began to have an impact. These included Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. There currently is no way to estimate how serious the impact of the virus will be, and the United States has continued to place new economic sanctions on Iran.
“Oil wealth” is very limited in terms of per capita income in many of the other Gulf states and the value of petroleum exports has varied sharply and unpredictably over time. This section warns that the wealthiest petroleum exporter in the Gulf – Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – are spending very high percentages of their GNP on national security – some close to 10% – as is at least one less wealthy state: Oman.
The virus has already sharply cut demand for petroleum and petroleum prices. Sustained cuts could force even the wealthiest states to reduce national security spending, arms imports, and efforts to reform their economies and cut their dependence on petroleum exports. As has been noted earlier, however, these trends are so uncertain, however, that any effort to estimate their impact now involves little more than speculative guesswork. Accordingly, the analysis that follows warns that it is not possible to estimate the detailed impact of the Coronavirus, but they are certain to be all too real.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.