The dialogue surrounding Iran leading up to, and in the wake of, the recent nuclear arms deal has included heavy anxiety from Congress, as senate Republicans warn of threats to Israel, the United States, and of a “decade of chaos” emerging from the agreement. This panic has significantly undermined testimony from top military leaders like Army Gen. Mark Milley and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, appointed to be the next Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, who agree that Iran is not currently the top threat to the United States.
J. Dana Stuster, a policy analyst at the National Security Network think tank, recently went so far to say the rhetoric supports “an alarmist mischaracterization of Iran’s role in the geopolitics of the Middle East.” The conflicting arguments illustrate the schism in perspective regarding Iran’s ability to cause the United States and its allies harm.
Stuster cites political motives for some of the postering from American congressional leaders hoping to discredit the recent nuclear deal with Iran, and Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, admit political motives may be present. Both insist the qualitative superiority of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and a confidence that the recent deal was a success.
The consensus within reports released by the Department of Defense is that Iran’s military doctrine is strictly defensive. Iran is aware of the increasingly wide gap in technology, international support, and resources between itself and the West, and launching any marginally successful assault against its enemies is considered impossible. Yet, Goldenberg told Task & Purpose, “the threat is exaggerated, but it is real.”
As a result of Iran’s consciously insufficient military power, its government has spent the decades since the Iran-Iraq War developing tactics for asymmetric warfare; tactics that are specialized in resisting attacks of overwhelming opposition. Should the Islamic Republic of Iran be the subject of attack by a larger force, it is prepared to defend itself and its sphere of influence remarkably well considering its resources — the sole purpose to make such an altercation as undesirable as conceivable.
No matter how undesirable the conflict, it is clear Iran poses very little threat to the United States. “It’s conventional capabilities don’t come anywhere close to our conventional capabilities,” Goldenberg said. This is very easily illustrated by the amount of money that is spent on their respective militaries. In terms of dollars spent, Iran’s total gross domestic product is less than the amount of money the United States spends on its military. With a GDP under $415 billion, Iran can only afford to spend around $20 billion on defense. The United States spends just around $600 billion on defense alone, dwarfing Iran’s monetary contributions to develop a modern military force.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman published a report on on the Persian Gulf detailing the estimated strengths of each nation. “It is scarcely surprising,” he writes, that the Gulf Cooperation Council is “outspending Iran nearly 10:1.” For both the United States and its allies in the Gulf, this means that the technology and weapons they own are far superior to that of Iran, he says. Goldenberg seemed to believe, however, that in at least in the case of Saudi Arabia, they often purchase an advanced military weapon system but “don’t train their military to effectively deploy it.” Conventionally, he says, Saudi Arabia is more advanced than Iran, but may truly have tactical issues that allow Iran to take them off-guard.
Cordesman reports Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ superiority over Iran in every aspect of military strength, other than raw number of troops, naval vessels in the gulf, and stockpiled artillery. The United States’ Gulf allies surpass Iran in air power, technology, training, and they also have the backing of the world’s only superpower. Iran is not without its strength, but it does not have a military advantage over the U.S. or its allies in terms of their respective military capabilities. Nonetheless, Iran’s strengths should not be overlooked.
Snapshot of Gulf Cooperation Council and Iranian Military Strength
(Estimates from CSIS report The Arab-U.S. Strategic Partnership and the Changing Security Balance in the Gulf)
Total Manpower (1000s)
Main Battle Tanks
Submarines / Submersibles
Destroyers / Frigates / Corvettes
Patrol Boats (All)
According to Goldenberg, the most threatening aspects of Iran are its navy, its missiles, and its support for terrorism. Iran is capable of using unconventional tactics to make an enemy’s attack slow and expensive. “If we wanted to, we could sink their entire naval fleet,” assured Goldenberg. “It would be expensive, but we could very handily do it!” However, as is apparent above, Iran has significantly more materials available to wage war.
Obstacles exist because Iran could use its naval power, including its short range missiles, to effectively close the Strait of Hormuz. By employing mines, missiles, and what Stuster calls “swarming tactics” using their patrol craft, Iran can raise the risk of passing through the strait so that no one will want to.
This strategy, Goldenberg says, is more of a deterrent, because “if they actually close the Strait of Hormuz the entire world, including China, including all of Asia, comes down against them.” It is extremely unlikely that the Iranians would ever attempt such a feat unless the regime was at risk of impending attack.
However, Cordesman states that Iran’s mine stockpile is immense, between 2-20 thousand, and Iran can lay most of these with any vessel that can carry them. Its stockpile includes hard to detect dumb mines, like the one that nearly sunk the USS Samuel B Roberts in 1988, and as well as smart mines that are capable of firing torpedo-like warheads carrying 1,100 kg of high explosive.
Iran’s high volume of small craft can lay mines considerably fast, and although the U.S. and the GCC are capable of detecting and disabling these mines, it is costly and time consuming. Iran has the capabilities to lay mines faster than they can be detected and removed.
The Strait of Hormuz is part of what Iran claims is its sphere of influence. Its repeated threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz make it a highly important point of consideration when evaluating the security of the region. The value of the strait includes a shipping lane for roughly 20% of the world’s oil. In 1980, Iran shut down the strait using mines and small speedboats, and today, Iran stands much more capable of doing so again. However, it is unlikely the United Nations Security Council powers would allow Iran to flex that muscle for too long, individually or collectively. The economic losses sustained around the world would be too significant for them to hold back from intervening. Goldenberg noted that the one thing Iran could to “alienate everyone, is to close the Strait of Hormuz.”
Three islands in the Persian Gulf recognized internationally as territory of the United Arab Emirates — Lesser Tunb, Greater Tunb, and Abu Musa — were effectively commandeered by Iran in 1971. These islands are exceptionally important to Iran’s defensive strategy as their position allows for the establishment of territorial waters to the degree that would almost completely shut off the Strait of Hormuz.
The Straight of Hormuz, a key naval passage along Iran's southern coast.Image via Wikimedia Commons
International maritime law codified by the United Nations Convention on law of the Sea, which qualifies as universally binding customary international law, states that territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the coast of a nation. As the Strait of Hormuz is so slim that already ships must pass through either Oman or Iranian territory to enter the Gulf, forcing its sovereignty over the Tunb Islands and Abu Musa would considerably strengthen Iran’s argument for legitimacy in the control of the strait. These islands are now home to military bases from which Iran can oversee operations. In Iran’s primarily defensive military strategy, these islands are priceless.
Iran views the Strait of Hormuz and the entire Persian Gulf as its sphere of influence, and this is hazardous to the world’s oil markets. Yet, Iran’s influence abroad is floundering, as is the power its allies maintain. Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas are facing diminished influence in the Middle East, weakening Iran’s overall hold on the region.
When the United States entered Iraq in 2003, intelligence reports released by Wikileaks pointed out Iran’s significant presence there. Even now, Iranian influence in Iraq is strong as the country takes on a leading role fighting the Islamic State on the ground, with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps taking lead advising roles in military activities. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, originally founded by the Supreme Leader of Iran as a people’s army to provide balance opposite the Iranian National Army, now behaves similar to an intelligence organization, mobilizing foreign proxies.
But Iran has spread itself thin protecting each and every ally in their own respective protracted conflicts. Iran has spent billions cultivating small militia groups that Stuster says is Iran’s “greatest strength.” He predicts that when the volatile regimes fail, these militias will still play a prominent role in Iran’s foreign policy, and maintain the influence Iran already has.
Iraq and Syria face considerable challenges in their fight against the Islamic State, and the costs for Iran will keep rising as the conflict continues. At the current rate, this will cost Iran approximately $10 billion in weapons sales to Iraq, and between $6 and $15 billion propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The increasingly drawn-out conflict works more to Iran’s detriment every day as its allies become weaker.
Iran’s alliances to stateless militant groups is one of Iran’s greatest strengths says Stuster.
Hamas, the de facto power that controls the Gaza Strip, faces its own struggles since Iran reduced its financial support after the group left Damascus. As a result, it now looks to Qatar and Turkey for support. However, this is not to say Iran does not play a large role in Hamas operations, as their relationship remains close.
Iran also built up Hezbollah, a Lebanon based Shiite militia group, to be a “decisive political and military force in Lebanon” over the last three decades, wrote Stuster in a July 9th report on Iran. However in its support of the Assad regime, Hezbollah has been significantly weakened by sending the majority of its troops to Syria. An April 2014 report on Hezbollah by Marisa Sullivan, for the Institute for the Study of War, estimates the entire strength of its troops to be around 20,000, fighters and reservists combined. Of that force, Sullivan estimates 4,000-5,000 were deployed to Syria in 2013, and believes that number has continually increased since.
As Iran’s state allies decrease in power, more militia groups sponsored by Iran continue to develop. Stuster mentioned this will most likely continue to happen over the next decade as Iraq and Syria employ their services to battle the Islamic State. He theorized that perhaps Iran has developed its own doctrine to develop these groups and create an interconnected network of Shiite militias to strengthen its hold on the region. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ paramilitary arm, the Quds Force, is known to actively train and recruit these proxy groups, as well as sanction terrorist activities such as the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States in 2011.
Goldenberg mentioned the capacity of these groups to employ terrorist activities as Iran’s primary offensive capability. Numerous advantages of employing terrorism as an offensive tactic is, said Goldenberg, that they are “very difficult to deter, and very difficult to respond to in an effective manner.” This reduces the significant costs to Iran. This “foreign internal defense” is something that Iran will continue to develop and take advantage of. “You can view it as Iran is stuck in a bunch of quagmires; its strongest ally in the Middle East is Syria, and its falling apart.” Iran is investing “billions into all these conflicts and it’s not winning.” On the other hand, Goldenberg says, you can view it from the perspective of Iran now having major influence in some of the biggest capital cities in the region. Iran has plenty of influence, he is sure, but he questions how stable that will be in the long run.
Iran has approximately $100 billion in frozen assets from the sanctions placed on it by the West and as time progresses and Iran is acquiescent to the recent nuclear deal’s stipulations, the money will steadily be released. However, fears of Iran spending this money on defense are not well-founded, says Stuster. Citing an understanding of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s hopes to revitalize Iran’s economy, Stuster claims Rouhani ran for president on the nuclear deal improving Iran’s economy, and he believes it is highly doubtful Rouhani will spend the money on anything other than economic stimulation.
As the sanctions are removed from Iran, foreign markets will open up and Iran will have the opportunity to raise its gross domestic product. If Stuster is correct in his assertion about Rouhani’s priority, then it is most likely that Iran will use that income reinvest in the economy. On the other hand, if Iran does invest in its military with its renewed economic power, Goldenberg does not see it “as being a game-changer,” as it already has the financial capacity to do this.
Iranian allies in the Middle East have been severely weakened, and Iran cannot afford to flex its muscle alone. It is strengthened by its large number of ground forces, naval vessels, mines, and unconventional capabilities, but it has significantly less available funds, conventional military capabilities, allied strength, and technological capacity compared to the United States and its allies.
However, Iran spouts considerably inflammatory rhetoric regarding the United States and Israel, which would explain the conceived threats expressed by some representatives in congress, Israeli leaders, and other parties.
“Whenever anybody says that their mission is to destroy you,” Goldenberg says, “You sort of have to take that seriously.”