The rise of militants to power positions in Iran is raising new worries about Iranian military forces’ deploying new weapons that threaten oil supplies or future long-range nuclear or chemical missile strikes.
Military specialists say the Islamist regime in Tehran has not invested heavily in the past decade in new tanks, armored vehicles or warplanes, but instead focused defense spending on “asymmetric” warfare capabilities.
These include Iran’s covert nuclear program and new Shahab-3 and older Scud missiles that could deliver nuclear, chemical and biological weapons hundreds of miles away.
Iran’s military power is under scrutiny after new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently placed the country’s nuclear arms program under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which are charged with protecting the regime.
Iranian forces also have purchased and built large coastal forces equipped with high-speed, anti-ship cruise missiles that could be used to disrupt strategic oil supplies throughout the Persian Gulf.
“Their might comes not from large conventional forces but from asymmetric capabilities that are very robust and rooted in the ability to engage in subversion and terrorism,” said Michael Eisenstadt, director of security studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A defense intelligence official said Iran’s military has two parts. One is the conventional armed forces and the second is the Islamic shock troops that are the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
“Iran’s military is formidable enough to protect its borders [during conventional war] within the Gulf region states but would have difficulty against a larger superior Western force or to undertake operations beyond its borders,” the official said.
“They have looked at ways to enhance and modernize their warfighting capabilities to defeat a superior conventional force,” said the official, noting that Iranians have been developing new naval weapons.
The official said Iran feels pressured by the presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan “but will avoid direct conflict with the U.S. while exerting their influence in other Gulf Arab states.”
Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said advanced conventional forces are expensive and difficult to operate for states such as Iran.
Instead, Iran is shifting to specialty weapons.
“Iran very clearly is structuring its revolutionary guards, some elements of its conventional forces and a good part of its navy for asymmetric warfare,” he told a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing.
“And that includes the ability to at least temporarily threaten oil facilities in the Gulf and Iran’s neighbors.”
Mr. Eisenstadt said Iran has emerged as a key regional power without the forces that have defined such power in the past.
With a few exceptions, the Iranians have not built up large ground forces with tanks and armored vehicles.
The one exception is Iran’s long-range unguided rockets, which have been built indigenously. Some of the new long-range rockets can travel up to 124 miles.
Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies, told the House hearing that Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon is likely to be completed in the next 10 years.
Although Iran might not use its nuclear weapons, “the danger is that Iran can become more aggressive in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf states, more aggressive in supporting terrorists against Israel, secure in the knowledge that the nuclear weapon protects it from U.S. retaliation,” he said.
Beginning in the 1990s, Iran began buying and building fast-attack boats, including some equipped with Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles.
North Korea also has sold Iran large numbers of patrol boats and semi-submersibles, vessels that can be used as part of Iran’s covert-action military capabilities.
Iran also has three Russian-made Kilo-class submarines that could be used to sink large ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, where most oil from the Persian Gulf passes.
Large-scale mine warfare capabilities also have been developed that could be used against shipping in the Gulf.
Iran also uses its clandestine support for international terrorism, through arming and supporting such groups as Hezbollah, as power projection and deterrence, Mr. Eisenstadt said.
“You don’t need a lot of that to cast a very long shadow in that area.”
Edward Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute, said Iran poses the greatest challenge to the U.S. in the region.
“But Iran is not going to be challenging us unless we actually take military action in Iran,” Mr. Walker told the House hearing. “At that point, all bets are off.”
Iran’s ground forces are thought to include about 350,000 regular troops, up to 1,600 tanks, 1,400 other armored vehicles and as many as 3,000 artillery pieces, including multiple rocket launchers.