Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States – Part One
Conventional, Asymmetric, and Missile Capabilities
Iran’s Accelerating Military Competition with the US and Arab States – Part One
The tone and content of Iranian military competition with the US and Arab states continues to move in a hardline direction. Iran’s ongoing efforts to enhance its asymmetric warfare capabilities and its accelerated R&D in its ballistic missile and nuclear programs have been accompanied by increasingly defiant statements from the regime.
These developments reflect Iran’s stated goals of building a deterrent capacity, establishing its capability to close the Gulf, and influencing the political, religious, and social environment of the region toward the likely end-goal of asserting itself as the dominant regional power. Although the regime often affirms peaceful regional intentions, a net assessment of its push to expand the aforementioned capabilities is necessary. Repeated assertions that the Gulf is “Persian” and belongs to Iran, threats to “close the Gulf,” and menacing rhetoric concerning Israel signify Iran’s intentions to vigorously compete with the U.S. and other regional actors.
The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a two-part net assessment of these developments, and how they affect the U.S., Arab states, and Israel. It examines their ramifications for the strategic landscape in the Gulf region, and potential U.S., Israeli, and other regional responses to Iran’s burgeoning efforts to compete strategically in the Gulf.
The first of these two briefings is now available. It has the following title and web address:
Iran’s Strategic Competition with the US and Arab States – Conventional,
Asymmetric, and Missile Capabilities. It is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/Iranian%20Strategic%20Competition%20pt.1%207.28.11.pdf
Iran’s Shifting Strategic Priorities
The briefing shows the impact of Iran’s shifting strategic priorities, many of which are reflected in several recent statements by leading Iranian officials and officers:
- “Iranian forces are in complete control of the Strait of Hormoz and the Sea of Oman.” – Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, commander of the IRGC navy, December 10, 2010.
- "Iran's military strategy is defensive in nature, while our tactics are offensive." – Brigadier General Hossein Salami, Lieutenant Commander of the IRGC, June 28, 2011.
- “The Persian Gulf will continue to be a major focus for regional and international states in the next decade and will be a cause of much tension and competition.
- Iran seeks Persian Gulf security through cooperation and coordination with its southern Persian Gulf neighbors even amid foreign attempts to destabilize this brotherhood Iran has with southern Persian Gulf states.” – Major General Yahya Safavi, former IRGC commander and current military advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, February 28, 2011.
- “We must exploit the chaotic situation and accelerate the arming of the resistance groups in Palestine.
- Groups like HAMAS and Islamic Jihad should be armed with high-quality, modern weapons from Iranian production.
- In order to purposefully exert influence on the next Egyptian Government, we must support Shiite forces in the region and establish an anti-American axis.” – A report provided to Supreme Leader Khamenei by the Iranian National Council, April 20, 2011.
- “The [P]GCC should not put the blame for the ongoing developments in Bahrain on Iran. The Islamic Republic seeks peace in the region.
- Iran's policy on Arab countries in the Persian Gulf has not changed and we still believe in good relations with these states.
- The Islamic Republic of Iran is the most influential country in the region which tightens regional security and has played a valuable role in defusing crisis and establishing security.” – Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, April 17, 2011.
- "The Arab dictatorial regimes in the Persian Gulf are unable to contain the popular uprisings.
- Instead of trying and failing to open an unworkable front against Iran, these dictators should relinquish power, end their savage crimes and let the people determine their own future.
- The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran.
- With the arrival of the British and later the Americans in the region, plots were hatched to try and change the name with fake identities... to distort the history and identity of the Persian Gulf." – Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of Iran’s armed forces, April 30, 2011.
- “Whenever there is a problem, they [U.S.] take out their guns." – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, April 11, 2010.
- "As the Commander-in-Chief (Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei) has emphasized, our fingers should be kept on the trigger for deterrence." – Lieutenant Commander of the IRGC Ground Forces, General Abolqassem Foroutan, July 13, 2011.
Practical Shifts in Methods of Competition
The new briefing shows that the practical shifts in Iran’s regional strategy and military capabilities are complex and multifaceted. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, Iran has sought to export its revolution, build regional influence and power, and strengthen its deterrent capabilities. Iran has sought to consolidate influence, legitimacy, and power in the Gulf in the following ways:
- Claiming legitimacy as a representative Islamic state.
- Employing proxies to manipulate political and social developments in neighboring states and grief U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Establishing itself using intimidation, leverage, status, deterrence rather than warfighting. Methods used to achieve these ends include:
- Direct and indirect threats of using force (i.e. proliferation).
- Irregular forces and asymmetric attacks.
- Proxy conflicts using terrorist or extremist movements or explouiting internal sectarian, ethnic, tribal, dynastic, and regional tensions.
- Arms transfers and the use of covert elements such as the Qods force.
- Harassment and attrition through low level attacks, clashes, and incidents.
- Demonstrative attacks to increase risk, intimidation.
- Striking at critical nodes or infrastructure.
- Further developing its nuclear program, the mere existence of which is enough to intimidate and threaten rivals and regional competitors.
Building Up in Asymmetric Capabilities in the Gulf
Iran has announced a wide range of new systems and military capabilities in the Gulf. While some affect the conventional military balance, the primary focus has been on asymmetric or irregular warfare. Examples of such statements include:
- “All divisions of the Islamic Republic’s military pay close attention to events in neighboring states and incorporate these into their asymmetric warfare training. For example, if we train pilots in aerial combat, we actively link those lessons with asymmetric warfare.” – Brigadier General Ataollah Salehi, commander-in-chief of the Iranian army, January 12, 2011.
- “The Kaviran meets our needs in asymmetric warfare. Its high rate of fire could enhances our ability to confront helicopters and low-level planes.” – Brigadier General Ahmad-Reza Purdastan, commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army Ground Force regarding the development of the new Kaviran all-terrain vehicle and its 7.62 mm Gatling gun, September 23, 2010.
- “Asymmetrical warfare... is [our] strategy for dealing with the considerable capabilities of the enemy. A prominent example of this kind of warfare was [the tactics employed by Hizbullah during] the Lebanon war in 2006... Since the enemy has considerable technological abilities, and since we are still at a disadvantage in comparison, despite the progress we have made in the area of equipment, [our only] way to confront [the enemy] successfully is to adopt the strategy [of asymmetric warfare] and to employ various methods of this kind." – Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC.
- "The Revolutionary Guards [Corps] will invest efforts in strengthening its asymmetrical warfare capabilities, with the aim of successfully confronting the enemies.” – Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC.
- "After September 11, , all [IRGC] forces changed their [mode of] operation, placing emphasis on attaining combat readiness. The first step [towards achieving] this goal was to develop [a strategy] of asymmetrical warfare and to hold maneuvers [in order to practice it]." – Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC.
These statements help explain many of the trends in Iran’s actions, force posture, patterns in key exercises, and developments in military technology. Other open source evidence also shows that Iran is building an increasingly capable asymmetric capability that relies on light fast-attack watercraft, midget submarines, anti-ship missiles, smart mines, light guided weapons, and UCAVs – all effective asymmetric tools – to counter the superior conventional forces of its neighbors.
These assets include small, mobile, hard-to-detect platforms such as the Qadr-SS-3 midget submarine, high-speed combat boats such as the Seraj-1 and Zolfaqar, the Bavar-2 flying boat, the Kaviran all-terrain vehicle, and the ATV-500 Jaguar, among others, all of which fit into the IRGC’s asymmetric doctrine.
These systems, while low-tech and lightly-armed, are not capital-intensive and are intended to offset superior military technology through sheer numbers and high mobility. As Iran understands that the country cannot reasonably fight the U.S. in a frontal confrontation, these assets are designed to strike at vulnerable targets and critical infrastructure, such as Gulf shipping, oil tankers, oil platforms, and coastal desalination facilities. As the Strait of Hormuz is a critical chokepoint for global petroleum shipping, checking Iran’s power in the region remains strategically vital for the U.S. and its Gulf allies.
Iran’s Nuclear Programs
The briefing shows that Iran still sees its nuclear program as key tool in competing with the US and its Arab neighbors, and that it has made steady progress, despite setbacks caused by the Stuxnet virus and international sanctions. Iran currently remains at a nuclear threshold level, and is increasing its efforts to building a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%.
Additionally, a heavy water processing facility has been built at Arak. While Iran may soon be able to produce a rudimentary fission device, it is unknown which, if any, steps the country as taken to develop an effective delivery vehicle (i.e. a bomb or missile). The mere existence of a nuclear program, however, is enough to produce a major effect on regional perceptions and influence.
While Iran denies it has a nuclear weapons program, its officials have made several striking statements about its nuclear efforts:
- "No offer from world leaders could stop Iran enriching uranium." – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, June 7, 2011.
- "If we do want to make a bomb, we are not afraid of anybody.” – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, June 23, 2011.
- “Iranian nation cannot be defeated. Not only should we be able to use all our capacities and potentials in nuclear technology, we should also export nuclear know-how.” – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, April 11, 2011.
- "Iran plans to build four to five new reactors with a capacity of 10 to 20 megawatts in different provinces within the next few years to produce radio-medicine and perform research.
- Fuel production or uranium enrichment to a purity level of 20 percent will not be halted. Iran will produce fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in due course.
- To provide the fuel for these reactors, we need to continue with the 20-percent enrichment of uranium." – Fereydoon Abbasi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, April 12, 2011.
- "We will transfer the 20 percent enrichment from Natanz to the [Qum] site this year, under the supervision of the (International Atomic Energy) Agency.
- We will also triple the (production) capacity. The 20 percent enrichment will not be stopped at Natanz until the production level is three times higher than its current rate." – Fereydoon Abbasi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, June 8, 2011.
- "The day after the first Iranian nuclear test for us Iranians will be an ordinary day, but in the eyes of many of us, it will have a new shine, from the power and dignity of the nation." – Excerpt from a text entitled "The Day After the First Iranian Nuclear Test -- a Normal Day," which was posted on the IRGC-run Gerdab website, June 9, 2011.
Iran’s Missile Programs
These developments occur at a time that Iran is also making matching advances in ballistic missile technology. Iran has invested heavily in diversifying and expanding its ballistic missile capability, and possesses rockets with varying ranges and payloads, from the Shahin-1 SRBM with a 13km range, to the Sajjil-2 MRBM with a 2,200-2,400km range and a potential payload of 750kg. Along with the country’s asymmetric capabilities, these missiles are intended to provide a deterrent to the superior conventional forces of Iran’s regional competitors. During the Great Prophet 6 war games that commenced in late June, 2011, Iran not only tested new missile designs, but revealed the existence of and tested static missile silos that house large missiles capable of striking Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf.
Although Iran possesses limited ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities, they do not match those of Israel U.S. regional allies in the Gulf. In response to the Iranian missile threat, the U.S. has furnished Israel and Gulf states with the PAC-3 Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system, which is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. Additionally, the U.S. Navy operates a number of Aegis BMD-equipped warships to the Gulf to protect against potential Iranian missile launches. In Israel’s case, these systems are complimented by the indigenously produced Arrow-2 system.
Once again, Iranian officials and officers have made striking statements about Iran’s missile programs:
- "Our missiles have tactically offensive and strategically deterrent and defensive features… Our fingers are still kept on the trigger, but the number of these triggers has increased." – Brigadier General Hossein Salami, Lieutenant Commander of the IRGC, June 28, 2011.
- "We feel to be threatened by no county but the US and the Zionist regime and the ranges of our missile have been designed based on the distances between us and the US bases in the region and the Zionist regime." – Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Division, June 28, 2011.
- "The mass production of the Qiyam missile, the first without stabilizer fins, shows the Islamic Republic of Iran's self-sufficiency in producing various types of missiles." – Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, May 22, 2011.
- “As the enemy’s threats will likely come from the sea, air, and by missiles, the Revolutionary Guard has been equipped to neutralize the enemy’s advanced technology.” – Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC on a new anti-ship ballistic missile that Iran has allegedly developed, February 7, 2011.
- “Iran is mass producing a smart ballistic missile for sea targets with a speed three times more than the speed of sound.” – Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, February 7, 2011.
- “The operational capabilities of the missile unit of the IRGC Aerospace Force will be remarkably enhanced.” – Iranian Minister of Defense Ahmad Vahidi regarding the new indigenously produced Fateh-110 ballistic missile, September 21, 2010.
Other Burke Chair Reports on Iran and Gulf Security Can be found here: