New Delhi: The recent killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a US airstrike in Baghdad and the subsequent retaliation by Iran against American troops in Iraq has sparked off a debate on military capabilities of the Gulf republic.
While some analysts have said statements made by US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani have signalled a desire to avoid further conflict, others have argued otherwise.
“Iran claiming it’s done with its retaliation allows it to deny involvement if/when proxies launch their own attacks. So, let’s not take it at face value that we’re done here,” tweeted Ariane Tabatabai of the RAND Corporation, a US-based think tank.
As I’ve been saying, Iran claiming it’s done with its retaliation allows it to deny involvement if/when proxies launch their own attacks. So, let’s not take it at face value that we’re done here. https://t.co/cmpvKJRGFT
— Ariane Tabatabai (@ArianeTabatabai) January 8, 2020
Iran has failed to develop a strong and sophisticated arsenal of modern weaponry due to international sanctions and restrictions on the country on arms import.
“To compensate…Iran has developed ‘asymmetrical’ responses — ballistic missiles, deadly drones and a web of militia allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, among other things,” notes a report in the Reuters.
Regardless of how the latest round of the US-Iran conflict evolves, these ‘asymmetric capabilities’ of Tehran have been the key bone of contention for the Trump administration.
Iran’s military strength and decision-making structure
Iran has nearly 500,000 active personnel, which includes 125,000 members of the elite-Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Iranian Army, also known as the Artesh, account for another 350,000 personnel. There are about 20,000 members in the naval force.
“The IRGC was set up 40 years ago to defend the Islamic system in Iran and has become a major military, political and economic force in its own right. Despite having fewer troops than the regular army, it is considered the most authoritative military force in Iran,” noted a report in the BBC.
Iran’s decision-making structure, meanwhile, is a better indicator of the country’s broader strategy. While the ‘Supreme Decision Making Council’ is officially the topmost decision-making body of the country, its supreme leader is the final arbiter of military strategy.
Decision-making in specific areas is also taken by specific structures.
“The IRGC and the executive branch have the most sway over specific national security issues; the IRGC largely dominates decision-making on regional portfolios, while the executive branch has more sway over the country’s approach to international powers, such as European nations, Russia, and China,” wrote Tabatabai.
Iran has been incapable of developing military capabilities that can rival its regional counterparts such as Israel and Saudi Arabia due to international sanctions.
“From a conventional military perspective, they would get absolutely hammered. Their conventional military is very, very sparse and quite old and quite out of date,” a former British military commander told Reuters.
Iran has hence invested all its resources in trying to develop asymmetric means of power — that can help deter attacks from its adversaries.
“If you look at ships, tanks, jet fighters, Iran looks very weak. But if you’re looking at anti-ship missiles, ballistic missiles, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and things like that then it looks a lot more capable,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor for Jane’s Defence Weekly.
But the two key elements of Iran’s deterrence strategy includes ballistic missiles and support for ‘proxy’ actors across the region.
Ballistic missiles and drones
To compensate for its relative weakness in terms of airpower, Iran has invested heavily in building missile capabilities. Today, it has the largest stockpile in the region which comprises mostly short and medium-range missiles with ranges between 300 and 2,000 km.
Following supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s orders, Iran had begun making serious investments into developing its ballistic missiles program nearly a decade ago.
“The result is a line of short and medium-range missiles that can deliver warheads with an accuracy range in the tens of meters…,” noted a report in The Washington Post.
To further boost the country’s power, Iran has, more recently, made heavy investments into building high-tech drones. This combination of ballistic missiles and drones has improved its capabilities immensely.
“The 14 September strike on two Saudi Aramco (allegedly carried out by Iran) oil facilities used armed drones and cruise missiles that are both highly manoeuvrable and difficult to stop with antimissile batteries,” noted The Washington Post report mentioned earlier.
Most foreign intelligence officials consider Iran’s support for various state and non-state actors as the single biggest driver of the country’s regional influence. A special unit of the IRGC, known as the Quds Force, which was until now headed by General Soleimani, is responsible for financing and training these groups.
From the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran has a long list of proxies it has helped prop up across the region.
“In the past, Tehran frequently tasked pro-Iranian militant groups — chiefly the Lebanon-based Hezbollah but also proxies and sympathisers based in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain — with carrying out a wide range of covert actions on its behalf, including bombings and missile strikes, kidnappings and cyberwarfare,” notes another report in The Washington Post.
Iran currently does not possess nuclear weapons and the current crisis between Tehran and Washington stems back to US’ withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
The 2015 deal between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, was meant to restrict Tehran from developing a nuclear capability. Since May 2019, Iran has withdrawn from parts of the 2015 deal and announced a revival of its nuclear programme.
“Under the nuclear deal, it would have been many years before Iran could increase enrichment, the size of its uranium stockpile or the number of its centrifuges,” wrote Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, and in The New York Times. “By destroying a deal…the Trump administration has created a situation in which Iran may soon end up with no nuclear restrictions at all.”