Iran's Worsening Military Status

Bruce O. Riedel
        Iran's military leaders, both in the regular military and the Revolutionary Guards, cannot be pleased with trends in the regional military balance. They retain formidable retaliatory power both in missiles and militant allies, but the basics of the military balance are tilting further and further away from Tehran and towards a regional alignment that will contain Iranian power for the indefinite future. The United States is particularly tightening the noose.
        Start in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of Iran's rise in the last decade was a function of the American decision to remove Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar from power. With the departure of the Baathists and the Taliban, Iran was suddenly freed of two deadly enemies. Then chaos ensued in both countries as America mishandled two occupations and opened the door for Iranian interference. 
         But now both Iraq and Afghanistan are rearming and building formidable militaries. Both countries are still wracked by violence, yet the vacuum the United States created is gradually being filled by new U.S.- trained and -equipped armies. They don't threaten Iran like Saddam and Mullah Omar, but they do reduce its room for maneuver.
         Then look across the Persian Gulf. The United States is about to conclude a $60 billion deal to enhance Saudi Arabia's military capabilities.The Saudi National Guard is about to purchase over 150 new attack, utility and transport helicopters. The Royal Saudi Air Force is getting another 84 F15 warplanes and upgrading 70 more they already have. It will be the largest single arms deal ever signed by the United States. Iran's principal military rival in the Gulf is about to get a major leg up.
          And then of course there is Israel. Israel already has considerable capabilities to damage Iran, starting with its own nuclear arsenal, the best air force in the region and the best intelligence capabilities in the area.The Obama administration is about to further upgrade all of Israel's capabilities by providing the next generation in combat aircraft, F35 jets. Israel will be the first air force in the region with these advanced weapons.
          Iran, on the other hand, has never fully rebuilt its conventional military from the damage suffered in the Iran-Iraq war. It still relies heavily for air power on equipment purchased by the shah. Moreover, the new United Nations sanctions in Security Council resolution 1929 impose a very stringent arms ban on Iran.
          Virtually all significant weapons systems -- including tanks, aircraft, naval vessels and missiles -- are banned from sale or transfer to Iran. Training and technical assistance for such systems is also banned. In other words, even if Iran wants to try to improve its conventional military capability in the next few years with the help of foreign suppliers, the U.N. arms ban will make that close to impossible. And Iran does not have the capability to produce state-of-the-art weapons on its own, despite its occasional claims to be self-sufficient. 
         For Iranian generals, the world around them is rearming and upgrading, while they are stuck in the past. For a generation of officers who learned their trade in the longest conventional war in modern history, the eight-year Iran-Iraq conflict, it must be a grim picture.

Read Bruce Riedel's chapter on Iran and the Clinton administration in “The Iran Primer” 

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, was special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.