As two of the Middle East’s military heavyweights edge closer to a shooting war, Israel boasts one of the world’s most effective militaries backed by a nuclear arsenal, but Iran has 10 times the population and an increasing number of ways to strike back asymmetrically.
The Iran military’s total force is reported to be 934,000 active-duty and reserve troops, while the total number of Israeli troops comes in at 615,000, according to figures compiled by GlobalFirepower.com. Expanding the aperture to include all fighting-age citizens, Iran still holds the advantage with over half of the country’s population of 84 million eligible to fight, compared with 3.6 million in Israel.
But the age of high-tech warfare and armed drones is where Iran’s advantages end in terms of conventional warfare, military analysts say.
In a conventional ground war, Israeli forces would dominate Iran with an arsenal of over 2,700 tanks and heavy artillery against Tehran’s force of just over 1,600 heavy ground weapons in total. Israel would hold a similar advantage in the air, with a fleet of nearly 600 fighter jets and attack helicopters, compared with the 500 combat aircraft in the Iranian air force, which consist mostly of trainers, supply helicopters and cargo planes.
Iran’s advantages are more indirect, analysts say. The military relies on its ability to enlist proxy forces and target strategic chokepoints to counter Israel’s conventional advantages. Iran’s prolific abilities to raise, train and equip formidable proxy forces across the Middle East remains the country’s greatest advantage.
Iranian-trained Houthi rebels, the Shiite sect waging a civil war against the Yemeni government and its backers in Saudi Arabia, has stood firm in the face of blistering air and ground firepower from the Saudi-led coalition. In Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah movement has long been a strategic ally of Tehran and poses a far more formidable enemy for Israel than it did in the brief border war 12 years ago.
Iranian troops and allied militia are well-established in Iraq and Syria, a byproduct of Iran’s aid to both countries in the fight against Islamic State. Several Israeli sorties against suspected Iranian outposts inside Syria is one key reason many analysts say the two longtime adversaries are on a collision course.
Israeli officials say Tehran has fostered a 80,000-member proxy force, trained and equipped by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, inside Syria and is funneling heavy weapons and materiel to those forces via the so-called Shiite Crescent — Iran’s long-sought land bridge linking Iran to Lebanon through Syria and northern Iraq. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from domestic hard-liners and strategists to strike at Iran before it can complete the land bridge.
Should a conflict break out between Iran and Israel, Iranian military commanders could open up multiple fronts against Israel via its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, stretching Israeli forces thin. The introduction of Iranian-built medium- and long-range missiles to those Shiite paramilitaries could make those forces even more formidable to Israel.
“Iran is investing in qualitative improvements to its missiles’ accuracy and lethality,” according to an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Tehran “has also become a center for missile proliferation, supplying proxies such as Hezbollah and Syria’s al-Assad regime with a steady supply of missiles and rockets, as well as local production capability.”
Tehran has no fewer than 16 mid- to long-range missile and artillery systems fielded or in development, with effective ranges upward of 800 miles, the CSIS analysis states. One long-range missile under development by Iran — the Khorramshahr — is estimated to have a range of over 1,200 miles.
The Khorramshahr would be akin to Israel’s Jericho-2 missile, which has an estimated range of 900 to 2,100 miles. The Jericho-3 intercontinental ballistic missile has a maximum range of just over 4,000 miles.
Although proxy forces are Iran’s best chance to offset Israel’s military prowess, Washington and Jerusalem could not rule out the scenario of direct action against Israel, with the influx of Iranian military hardware and a growing presence of Iranian troops in Syria.
“We should really consider it,” retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yaacov Ayish said last week during a teleconference with reporters, held by the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
“At the end of the day, it does not have to be a [conventional] campaign. … It could just be a drone, a rocket launcher, an air-defense system they are controlling,” said Gen. Ayish, who served as Ground Forces Command Chief of Staff and head of operations for Israeli forces.
“This is a whole new ballgame,” he added.
The long-standing shadow war between Iran and Israel has burst violently into the open, with both countries taking unprecedented military action against each other.
Over 30 Israeli fighter jets unleashed a barrage of airstrikes into Syria this month, hammering suspected weapons storage facilities, ammunition depots and intelligence hubs used by Iranian-backed militias and advisers from Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their paramilitary wing, the Quds Force. It was Israel’s largest retaliatory strike since its 2014 war with the militant Palestinian Hamas movement.
Israel claimed pro-Iranian forces had launched a large-scale attack on Israeli military targets in the Golan Heights.
The recent round of strikes and counterstrikes between Israel and Syria marked a blatant escalation of a war that had been carried out “under the radar,” Gen. Ayish said. “For decision-makers [in the region], they should not consider this as the end. I will be very much surprised if the Iranians will give up so easily.”
Iran’s relatively muted official response, analysts say, reflects the realization among Tehran’s leaders that the country is still not prepared to take on Israel. Iran’s political leadership has also been consumed by the fallout from the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal.
Shipments of missiles and other advanced weaponry to Iranian proxies in Syria in late April put the U.S. and Israel on alert, triggering the chain of events leading up to last week’s explosion of violence, retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror said during the same teleconference.
Up until then, Israeli forces had been executing a campaign to contain pro-Iran elements in Syria coming too close to Israel’s borders, said Gen. Amidror, who served as military secretary for the Defense Ministry. Iranian forces have been in the country to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s brutal 7-year-old war, in which Mr. Assad has been scoring major victories.
In April, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel made a low-key visit to Israel, and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Pentagon chief James Mattis talked later that month. The contacts, Gen. Ayish said, were in direct response to Tehran’s efforts in Syria.
“We understood this was the next stage [of escalation],” he said.