(Updated August 2013)
one of America's and Israel's foremost
enemies and the Islamic Republic has become one of the most
serious threats to stability in the Middle
East. Its military has developed the means to strike Israel with conventional weapons and intelligence assessments agree that the regime could reach the point where it can build and arm a nuclear weapons by the end of 2013.
Though few people truly believe that Iran is developing its covert nuclear program for peaceful purposes, the nuclear threat is not only military threat the regime poses to Israel. The spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran has already spurred nuclear proliferation across the Middle East, that exponentially increases the danger to Israel. Additionally, Iran is the patron for most of the world's Islamic terror organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
- Conventional Forces
- Ballistic Missile Threat
- Nuclear Proliferation
- Exporting Terrorism
Iran's Conventional Forces
Iran's conventional military capabilities continues to improve. Naval forces are adding new ships and submarines while expanding bases on the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. In additiona, Iran continues to expand the breadth of its naval operations. Iran deploys naval ships into the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea for counterpiracy operations and, in 2011 and 2012, deployed two separate groups to the Mediterranean Sea, right off the coast of Israel.
In early 2012, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Resistance Forces conducted a series of exercises in northeastern and central Iran. The exercises were the first significant exercises conducted by the IRGC-GRF since its reorganization in 2008. The exercises consisted of combined-arms maneuvers and were meant to show the unit's offensive and defenseive capabilities. (Annual Report on Military Power of Iran, Pentagon, January 2013).
As of August 2013, the approximate breakdown for Iran's conventional forces was as follows:
Infantry: 520,000 Active; 350,000 Reserve. Armor: 1,620 tanks; 1,400 APC's. Air Force: 320 planes; 570 combat helicopters. Navy: 256 warships; 14 submarines.
Ballistic Missile Threat
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), "Iran's ballistic missiles challenge U.S. military capabilities and U.S. influence in the Middle East." U.S. intelligence indicates that "Iran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, and is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload." The Pentagon also believes that Iran's missiles threaten "U.S. forces, allies, and partners in regions where the United States deploys forces and maintains security relationships." (Congressional Research Service, December 2012).
The National Council of the Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, said that, beginning in 1989, North Korea helped Iran build dozens of underground tunnels and facilities for the construction of nuclear-capable missiles (ABC News, November 21, 2005). According to an intelligence assessment from July 2005, Iran was aggressively trying to obtain the expertise, training, and equipment for developing a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe (Guardian, January 4, 2006).
Iran was the third most active country in flight-testing missiles in 2007, behind Russia and China. "They're developing ranges of missiles that go far beyond anything they would need in a regional fight, for example, with Israel," according to the head of the United States' missile defense program Lt. Gen. Henry Obering said. "Why are they developing missiles today that will be possible to reach Europe in few years?" (Associated Press, January 17, 2008). Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in September 2009: "The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected. This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies" (US Department of Defense, September 17, 2009). Iran claims the Shahab-3 is entirely Iranian-made, but U.S. officials say the missile is based on the North Korean "No Dong" missile design and produced in Iran. The United States also accuses China of assisting Iran's missile program.
In May 2009, Iran tested a new missile, the Sejil (Ashura), with a range of 1,200 miles, meaning that it could reach Israel, U.S. regional bases and southeastern Europe (The Peninsula, May 21, 2009). The Sejil is similar to the Shahab-3, which was unveiled in September 2007. That missile's range had been improved from 810 to 1,125 miles (JTA, September 23, 2007). The missile, which is capable of carrying a non-conventional warhead, could be stationed anywhere in Iran and reach Israel as well as parts of Europe. "I won't say the Iranians will be able to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles in the near future," said Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces, "but they will most likely be able to threaten the whole of Europe" (RIA Novosti, March 12, 2009).
Iran reportedly tested a Shahab-4 missile designed to have a range of 4,000 kilometers in January 2006. In addition, Iranian opposition figure Alireza Jafarzadeh told the AP that Iran is now producing 90 Shahab-3missiles, more than four times its previous production rate (Scotsman.com, March 2, 2006). In January 2007, the deputy director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said North Korea and Iran are cooperating in developing long-range missiles. Iran, he said, is also working on a space launcher that could allow it to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could hit the U.S. (Washington Times, January 30, 2007). Iran said in November 2007, it had built a new missile with a range of 1,250 miles (Reuters, November 27, 2007).
In 2010, the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that Iran "continues to develop ballistic missiles capable of targeting Arab adversaries, Israel, and central Europe, including Iranian claims of an extended-range variant of the Shahab-3 and a 2,000-km medium range ballistic missile (MRBM), the Ashura. Beyond the steady growth in its missile and rocket inventories, Iran has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems with accuracy improvements and sub-munition payloads."
British Foreign Minister William Hague told Parliament in June 2011 that Iran had conducted three secret tests of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929. It was reported that Iran launched a Shahab-3 missile and one or two Sejil-1 missiles. The UK believed Iran wanted to avoid attracting attention to the tests of these medium-range missiles (Associated Press, June 29, 2011).
Iran also reportedly has an arsenal of cruise missiles. In March 2005, Ukraine admitted that it had exported to Iran cruise missiles that are capable of reaching Israel and carrying nuclear weapons. In 2001, 12 Soviet-era X-55 cruise missiles with a range of 3,500 kilometers were exported to Iran. Israel is also concerned that Tehran is developing its own cruise missile to evade interception by the Arrow, the IDF's anti-ballistic missile defense system (Jerusalem Post, May 6, 2008).
CRS noted that a major concern is that Iran's neighbors do not have missile defenses or the ability to deter an Iranian attack. This could allow Iran to "blackmail such states into meeting demands, for example, to raise oil prices, cut oil production or even withhold cooperation with the U.S. on which their very survival depends." Any Iranian interference with Gulf oil exports would adversely effect oil prices and be difficult for the United States to prevent.
Iran has also made it difficult for any attacker to eliminate the missile threat by spreading launch complexes around the country.
Yet another concern is Iran's development of a space launch capability. Iran became just the ninth country to demonstrate this capability when it launched the Omid satellite from a Safir-2 rocket. Though the satellite ultimately crashed into the ocean, the launch was an indication that Iran was making progress toward developing long-range ballistic missiles. Additional satellites have been launched and more are planned with capabilities for communication, reconnaissance, remote sensing and imaging. CRS noted that the Iranian space launch program is "a matter of national pride and self-sufficency in space in the face of widespread international condemnation." CRS also warned that Iran, like other space faring countries, "will use space for a range of military purposes, such as for reconnaissance and comunications."
The CRS study concluded that "Iran has not shown that it is deterred or dissuaded by U.S. conventional military superiority, or by U.S. and international sanctions, or by the deployment of U.S. BMD [ballistic missile defense] capabilities."
In April 2013, "G8 Foreign Ministers expressed their deep concern regarding Iran's continuing nuclear and ballistic missile activities in violation of numerous UN Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions (G8 Meeting, April 11, 2013). Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast condemned the statement and said: "Iran's missiles program is in line with the country's defense doctrine for the legitimate defense and protection of Iran's national sovereignty and territorial integrity and it is not a threat to any country" (FARS News Agency, April 18, 2013). As if to prove the point, Deputy Defense Minister General Majid Boka'i said Iran has redesigned ground-to-ground missiles and developed homemade anti-ship ballistic missiles for targeting enemy ships (Siasatrooz, April 18, 2013).
Those who argue that the world can live with a nuclear Iran ignore the likelihood that a nuclear arms race is likely to ensue in the Middle East, which will exponentially increase the danger to the region and beyond. The cost of stopping Iran's drive for a bomb, therefore, must be balanced with the benefit of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
If Iran has nuclear weapons it can also pose an indirect threat by sharing the technology or an actual weapon with other Muslim countries or terrorists. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows the peaceful pursuit of nuclear technology, including uranium mining and enrichment, under oversight by the IAEA, but President Ahmadinejad raised worldwide concern about nuclear proliferation when he told the UN General Assembly in September 2005, "Iran is ready to transfer nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need." Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, repeated the proliferation threat several months later when he told the president of Sudan, "Iran's nuclear capability is one example of various scientific capabilities in the country....The Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to transfer the experience, knowledge and technology of its scientists."
If Iran succeeds in getting a bomb, it will also create a potential arms race as Arab states see the need to obtain weapons to deter the Iranians. "It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon," said President Obama. "Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe." Obama added: "The dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world."
In fact, since 2006, at least 13 Arab countries have either announced new plans to explore atomic energy or revived pre-existing nuclear programs (including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, and Syria) in response to Iran's nuclear program (Strategic Insights, Volume VIII, Issue 5, December 2009). Many Middle Eastern countries sought to strengthen their nuclear cooperation with other nations, such as the United States, Russia and France. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE signed nuclear cooperation accords with the United States, and Russia and Egypt have laid the groundwork for Russia to join a tender for Egypt's first civilian nuclear power station. Kuwait, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan announced plans to build nuclear plants as well. Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world announced plans to purchase a nuclear reactor.
Most Arab countries say publicly they are only interested in peaceful uses of nuclear technology, but the fear is that some or all may follow the Iranian example and work toward building a bomb. In fact, former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross said he was told by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, "If they get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons" (Haaretz, May 30 2012). The Saudi position was reaffirmed by an official close to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal who said in June 2011, "If Iran develops a nuclear weapon that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit" (The Guardian, June 29, 2011).
As one of the world's principal sponsors of terrorism, a nuclear Iran poses the danger of giving terrorists access to nuclear material. Iran provides weapons to Hezbollah, which has targeted Americans, as well as Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel. Imagine if either of these groups were given any radioactive materials.
Former President Bill Clinton noted, "the more of these weapons you have hanging around, the more fissile material you've got, the more they're vulnerable to being stolen or sold or just simply transferred to terrorists." He added, "even if the [Iranian] government didn't directly sanction it, it wouldn't be that much trouble to get a Girl Scout cookie's worth of fissile material, which, if put in the same fertilizer bomb Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City, is enough to take out 20 to 25 percent of Washington, D.C. Just that little bit." (Piers Morgan Tonight, September 25, 2012).
As Iran is demonstrating, it is not so easy to achieve a nuclear capability, especially with the whole world watching, but the region will become far more dangerous as the number of countries engaged in nuclear activities grows. A nuclear Middle East will also pose a threat to global peace and stability.
Iran is the patron - spiritually and financially - for most of the region's Islamic militants. It is the Iranian model of revolution, its institution of Islamic law and its anti-Western philosophy that characterize the rhetoric of many extremist groups. And it is Iranian money that often pays for the weapons, training and literature that are the backbone of Islamic extremist violence.
The United States designated Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984. According to the State Department's 2011 report on terrorism, "Iran was known to use the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and terrorist insurgent groups to implement its foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and support terrorist and militant groups."
In October 2005, a senior Palestinian intelligence official revealed that Iran promised a reward of $10,000 to Islamic Jihad if it launched rockets from the West Bank toward Tel Aviv. Iran also transferred money from Iran to Syria, from where Islamic Jihad's head of overseas operations forwards it to the West Bank (Sunday Times, October 30, 2005).
Tehran has been linked to numerous anti-West and anti-Israel terrorist attacks, ranging from taking hostages and hijacking airliners to carrying out assassinations and bombings. Some of these incidents include the taking of more than 30 Western hostages in Lebanon from 1984 through 1992, the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the French-U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the 1992 terrorist attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and on the Argentine Jewish communal building in 1994.
More recently, Iran has been increasingly active in attacking Americans. Iran provided weapons, training, funding, and guidance to Iraqi Shia militants as well as Iraqi troops and civilians targeting U.S. forces. Iran has also been supplying weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan and providing transit and temporary safe haven to members of al-Qaida, including senior leaders Yasin al-Suri, Saif al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri.
In 2011, the United States discovered that Iran conceived and funded a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States in Washington D.C. "The thwarted plot," the State Department reported, "underscored anew Iran's interest in using international terrorism - including in the United States - to further its foreign policy goals."
Moreover, Iranian agents have acted to perpetrate terrorist attacks in more than 20 countries around the world since 2010. Iran has been implicated in the July 2012 bombing in Bulgaria that killed 5 Israelis, the February 2012 attacks on Israeli representatives in Georgia and India, as well as the failed strikes in Thailand and Azerbaijan against Jewish targets. Israel's Mossad security service also noted that Iran was behind foiled plots to attack Jewish and Israeli targets in Kenya and Cyprus as well.
Deadly terror weapons have also been smuggled into the hands of Iranian-sponsored groups such as Hezbollah and used against Israeli civilians in commando-style raids. New rockets were delivered to Hezbollah by Iran and may be used to bombard northern Israel. Hezbollah fighters have also been trained in Iranian camps. Rearming Hezbollah after the 2006 Lebanon War is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Iran spent approximately $1 billion to rebuild southern Lebanon, and, according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, exponentially increased Hezbollah's rocket arsenal to as many as 60,000 rockets (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2008).
Israeli intelligence believes that the Quds Force and Hezbollah have divided responsibilities, with the former focused on official Israeli officials and institutions, such as ambassadors and embassies, while the latter attacks soft targets, such as Israeli tourists (IPT News, April 30, 2013).
In March 2007, the chief of the Shin Bet reported that Hamas had sent dozens of men from Gaza to Iran for military training (New York Times, March 6, 2007). During the conflict with Israel that led to Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, Hamas fired Iranian-supplied Fajr-5 rockets at Tel Aviv and after a ceasefire was declared Gazans publicly thanked Iran for its support.
Khaled Meshal, head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, said Hamas will maintain its close and strong relations with Iran and Hezbollah despite tensions over Iranian claims to be calling the shots in Gaza. High-ranking Iranian officials claim Hamas continues to answer to Tehran, and that even if Hamas's political leaders refused to obey orders from Tehran, Hamas's military echelon would continue to follow Iranian instructions. The statements followed the release of satellite images showing that Iran was rushing to rearm Hamas following Operation Pillar of Defense (Jerusalem Post, November 25, 2012).
Perhaps the most serious terrorist threat from Iran would arise if it succeeds in developing nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran may decide to transfer nuclear materials to either homegrown or foreign terrorists to threaten countries in the Middle East and beyond.