Iran’s Military and the Security Challenges to A Successful Negotiation

  • Sep 26, 2013

    Far too much of the analysis of Iran’s search for nuclear weapons treats it in terms of arms control or focuses on the potential threat to Israel. In reality, Iran’s mix of asymmetric warfare, conventional warfare, and conventionally armed missile forces have critical weaknesses that make Iran anything but the hegemon of the Gulf. Iran’s public focus on Israel also disguises the reality that its primary strategic focus is to deter and intimidate its Gulf neighbors and the United States – not Israel.

    It has made major progress in creating naval forces for asymmetric warfare and developing naval missiles, but it has very limited air-sea  and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (IS&R) capabilities. It lacks modern conventional land, air, air defense and sea power, has fallen far behind the Arab Gulf states in modern aircraft and ships, and its land forces are filled with obsolete and mediocre weapons that lack maneuver capability and sustainability outside Iran. Iran needs nuclear weapons to offset these facts.

    Iran’s Al Quds forces and efforts to build up regional forces like the Hezbollah have been highly effective, but it lacks any real amphibious capability force for entry. It is able to spend far less on military forces than the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and only a fraction of what they can spend on arms imports. It has large numbers of short range rockets and growing missile forces, but these lack the accuracy and lethality to pose a major threat to any Gulf state but Kuwait – and Iran is far weaker in every warfighting dimension than a combination of U.S. and GCC forces.

    Nuclear weapons change this situation to an important degree. Nuclear armed missile forces pose a major threat to every Gulf state, even if they have missile defenses. Many have only one major population center and all have critically vulnerable facilities. All – along with the United States – will have to be far more cautious in escalating to major attacks on Iran if it uses its asymmetric forces and pay far more attention to Iranian threats and efforts at intimidation.

    As for Israel, Iran has long found it convenient to use the Israeli “threat” to justify actions. There is no question that some of Iran’s leaders do see Israel’s existence  as a serious ideological issue, but it is far from clear whether Iran will ever take serious risks in dealing with a strong Israel, or be able during the next decade to pose as much of a nuclear threat to Israel as Israel now poses to Iran.

    It will be years after Iran can first assemble some form of nuclear device and test it that it will have significant nuclear forces. Iran has no immediate prospect of creating missile defenses; it cannot come close to matching the lethality of Israel’s probable holding of boosted and thermonuclear weapons, and in many ways is as vulnerable to a major strike on Tehran as Israel is to a strike on Tel Aviv.

    These strengths and weaknesses in Iran’s military forces are summarized in a new brief by the Burke Chair called Iran’s Present Day Military Capabilities and Military Aspirations in the Middle East.

    Iran’s mix of strong asymmetric forces, and weak or limited capabilities in other areas, present key reasons for acquiring effective nuclear forces and not simply a nuclear breakout capability or token forces. They also pose at least, and probably a greater, political and military threat to Iran’s Arab neighbors and the United States than Israel.

    These realities do not preclude a successful negotiation that could end or severely constrain that part of Iran’s nuclear programs that have military applications –and Iran does have other important strategic incentives to reach such an agreement. These incentives are addressed in  Negotiating with Iran: The Strategic Case for Pragmatism and Real Progress.

    The Burke Chair has also issued a series of far more detailed studies of Iran’s military capabilities that address these issues and deal with Iran’s incentive for acquiring nuclear weapons, and the relative capabilities of U.S. and Arab Gulf forces:

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Anthony H. Cordesman