Iran and the Gulf Military Balance: Parts I & II: Tenth Edition

The US faces major challenges in dealing with Iran, the Iranian nuclear and missile programs, conventional and unconventional warfare, the threat of terrorism, and the tide of political instability in the Gulf. To address these concerns, the Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS has recently updated two comprehensive reports on US-Iranian competition in the Gulf; Part I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions, and Part II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions.

This 10th major update to parts I and II of the Gulf Military Balance follow visits to the region by Anthony Cordesman and discussions with top US, Gulf, and European experts. These updates include analysis of the asymmetric and conventional balance, Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, mitigation and preemptive attack scenarios, theaters involving US and Iranian competition, and US strategic interests in the region. 

Part I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions is available on the CSIS website at:

Part II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions is available on the CSIS website at:

Part I focuses on the Gulf militaries’ balance of conventional forces with Iran, detailing Iran’s ground, sea, air, and air defense forces, with a renewed emphasis on the ability of the Revolutionary Guard to use asymmetric tactics for offensive action against the sea lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. Major updates include a far more comprehensive view of Iran’s air-defense network, including Iran’s deteriorating long-range SAM coverage and Iranian efforts to rebuild and reinforce that coverage with imported and domestically-improved foreign systems.

Iran maintains a large conventional force with significant capabilities to threaten and influence its neighbors. It is improving its ability to deter US naval and air operations, as well as potential operations by Israel and other states, and it has significant military options it might use against Iraq, targets in the Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. As the Israeli-Hezbollah War and use of shaped-charge IEDs in Iraq have shown, Iran has also strengthened its proxies in other areas where it is engaged in direct and indirect competition with the US.

Part I also highlights Iran’s growing reliance on asymmetric warfare. Absorbing the lessons of US counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has sought to employ the guerilla techniques of land warfare to other forms of conflict. Assessing US and US-equipped and trained GCC forces as its major rivals, it has built its force posture around surviving their conventional superiority, denying them access to the Gulf, threatening commercial traffic, and targeting critical infrastructure in Gulf states.

The updated report also addresses important developments affecting issues that may become major flashpoints in future US-Iranian competition, including proxies, drones, and cyber warfare. While all three of these have only emerged in the past year as aspects of true competition (the use of proxies employed almost exclusively by Iran, while drone use and cyber capabilities employed by the US), they provide a lower-cost but high-stakes avenue for the US and Iran to target each other. Combined with increased tension over the nuclear program and the Western-led sanctions regime, these irregular methods of competition have become the newest frontline in the indirect yet costly US-Iranian strategic completion.

Part I, “US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions” is available on the CSIS website at:

Part II of the Gulf Military Balance, “US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions”, highlights the difficulty in knowing the exact specifications and details regarding Iran’s missile and nuclear programs. It shows that despite exact information, Iran has been inventing and improving both domestic and international missile designs that can be used as a counter attack in the face of a strike against its nuclear program. The updated report also highlights new information regarding the direct negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, their prospects, and Iranian and US statements. Part II also includes new sections on Israeli strike options, the effectiveness of missile defense in preventing Iranian retaliation, details regarding internal Israeli deliberation on strikes, and the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama.

This new update examines the details, threats, and options for the US on Iran’s missile forces and nuclear program. It focuses on the major challenges facing the US in dealing with Iran’s current and future missile capabilities, data and metrics regarding Iran’s nuclear breakout capacity and materials stockpile, strike options for the US and Israel, and possible reaction by Iran to such strikes.

Iran’s existing missile forces give it the capability to attack targets in the Gulf and near its border with conventionally armed long-range missiles and rockets, and Iran can attack targets in Israel, throughout the region, and beyond with its longest-range ballistic missiles. Most of Iran’s missiles are relatively short-range systems, and have limited accuracy and lethality. However, Iran could still use conventionally or chemically armed missiles and long-range rockets as terror weapons, striking against large area targets like cities.

Iran’s nuclear programs present the most controversial and uncertain aspect of its military efforts and competition with the US and its neighbors. There are many possible motives behind Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear capabilities, but there are no “smoking guns” that absolutely prove it is seeking nuclear weapons, or that indicate how Iran might deploy them and use for political or military purposes. However, data does seem to indicate that Iran has been moving closer to a point where stockpiled material could be enriched to bomb-grade within a matter of months. Yet if Iran would be able to machine this material into a weapon is unknown.

War and preventive strikes are scarcely a desirable option and the US and its allies are now focused on finding a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear efforts, and the US has pressed Israel to wait to see if such negotiations can be successful. Nevertheless, there is a risk that Israel might launch preventive strikes against Iran’s nuclear programs at some point in the next few years, and that the US might exercise a “military option” if Iran does not negotiate an agreement to abide by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Part II, “US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions” is available on the CSIS website at:

In addition to Parts I and II of the Gulf Military Balance, the Burke Chair has issued a third part of this series that covers US security cooperation specific to the Southern Gulf states. That report is titled “Gulf Security and the Arabian Peninsula”, and is available on the CSIS web site at:

This third study, examines the growing US security partnership with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE - established the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It analyzes the steady growth in this partnership that has led to over $64 billion in new US arms transfer agreements during 2008-2011. It also analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the security cooperation between the Southern Gulf states, and their relative level of political, social, and economic stability, and the need for enhanced unit and security cooperation between the individual Gulf states.

Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at

These reports are part of a comprehensive survey of US and Iranian competition which were published as an electronic book in early March. It is currently being updated, and the revised version will appear shortly. The current version does, however, provide an analysis that is current in most respects. Other chapters include:

US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions - This chapter looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.

US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions – This chapter looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.

US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen - This chapter examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.

Iraq After US Withdrawal: US Policy and the Iraqi Search for Security and Stability - This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan - This chapter examines US and Iranian interests in the Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria. The military balance is also analyzed.

The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus - This chapter analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan - This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia - This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran and the US.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States - This chapter looks at the role the EU, and in particular the EU3, have played as the U.S.’s closest allies in its competition with Iran.

U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa - This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.

Alexander Wilner, Michael Gibbs, Bryan Gold and Scott Modell