CRS Report II: Iran’s Nuclear and Defense Programs

The following are excerpts from a recently published report by Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, on Iran’s foreign and defense policies.

Iran has pursued a wide range of defense programs, as well as a nuclear program that the international community perceived could be intended to eventually produce a nuclear weapon. These programs are discussed in the following sections.


Nuclear Program

 Iran’s nuclear program has been a paramount U.S. concern in part on the assumption that a nuclear armed Iran would likely become more assertive in the region and internationally. A nuclear-armed Iran might conclude that the United States would hesitate to use military pressure against it. U.S. policymakers also have asserted that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would produce a nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions and that Iran might transfer nuclear technology to extremist groups or countries. Israeli leaders describe an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to Israel’s existence. U.S. officials have asserted that Iran is fully implementing the JCPOA and that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has receded.

Iran’s nuclear program became a significant U.S. national security issue in 2002, when Iran confirmed that it was building a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water production plant at Arak. The perceived threat escalated significantly in 2010, when Iran began enriching to 20% U-235, which is relatively easy to enrich further to weapons-grade uranium (90%+). Another requirement for a nuclear weapon is a triggering mechanism that an International Atomic Energy Agency report on December 2015, based on years of investigation, concluded Iran researched as late as 2009. The United States and its partners also have insisted that Iran must not possess a nuclear-capable missile.

Nuclear Weapons Time Frame Estimates

Estimates have varied as to how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, were there a decision to do so. Prior to JCPOA implementation, Vice President Biden told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (April 30, 2015) that Iran could likely have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon within 2-3 months of a decision to manufacture that material. According to testimony and statements by U.S. officials, the implementation of the JCPOA has increased the “breakout time”—an all-out effort by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon using declared facilities or undeclared covert facilities—to at least 12 months.

Missile Programs and Chemical and Biological Weapons Capability

Iran is widely believed unlikely to use chemical or biological weapons or to transfer them to its regional proxies or allies. Iran’s missile programs, which the 2016 Defense Department report on Iran’s military power assesses as growing in sophistication, pose a realistic and significant threat to U.S. allies in the region, as well as to U.S. ships and forces in the Persian Gulf. The reported re-transfer by Iran of such missiles to allied forces in the region such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthi rebels in Yemen appear to enhance Iran’s ability to project power in the region. Iran’s ballistic missiles enable Iran to threaten regional adversaries directly from its own territory.

Conventional and “Asymmetric Warfare” Capability

Iran’s leaders have repeatedly warned that Iran could and would take military action if it perceives it is threatened, and Iran’s armed forces appear able to deter or defend against any aggression from Iran’s neighbors. Iran’s forces are almost certainly incapable of defeating the United States in a direct military confrontation. Iran generally lacks the ability to deploy concentrated armed force across long distances or waterways such as the Persian Gulf. But Iran is able to project power—including against U.S. and U.S.-allied interests in the region—through its support for friendly governments and proxy forces.

Organizationally, Iran’s armed forces are divided to perform functions appropriate to their roles. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, known in Persian as the Sepah-e-Pasdaran Enghelab Islami) 40 controls the Basij (Mobilization of the Oppressed) volunteer militia that has been the main instrument to repress domestic dissent. The IRGC also has a national defense role and it and the regular military (Artesh)—the national army that existed under the former Shah— report to a joint headquarters. On June 28, 2016, Supreme Leader Khamene’i replaced the longtime Chief of Staff (head) of the Joint Headquarters, Dr. Hassan Firuzabadi, with Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri. Bagheri was an early recruit to the IRGC and fought against Kurdish insurgents and in the Iran-Iraq War. About 56 years old, Bagheri has not publicly expressed strong views on major issues.41 The Artesh is deployed mainly at bases outside major cities and its leaders have publicly asserted that the regular military does not have a mandate to suppress public demonstrations and will not do so.

The IRGC Navy and regular Navy (Islamic Republic of Iran Navy, IRIN) are distinct forces; the IRIN has responsibility for the Gulf of Oman, whereas the IRGC Navy has responsibility for the closer-in Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. The regular Air Force controls most of Iran’s combat aircraft, whereas the IRGC Air Force runs Iran’s ballistic missile programs. Iran has a small number of warships on its Caspian Sea coast. In January 2014, Iran sent some warships into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time ever, presumably to try to demonstrate growing naval strength. In July 2016, the commander of the regular Navy, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, said that Iran would establish a presence in the Atlantic of unspecified duration.


Military-Military Relationships and Potential New Arms Buys

Iran’s armed forces have few formal relationships with foreign militaries outside the region. Iran’s military-to-military relationships with Russia, China, Ukraine, Belarus, and North Korea generally have focused on Iranian arms purchases or upgrades. Iran and Russia are cooperating in Syria to assist the Assad regime’s military effort against a multi-faceted armed rebellion. The cooperation expanded in August 2016 with Russia’s bomber aircraft being allowed use of Iran’s western airbase at Hamadan to launch strikes in Syria. This appears to be the first time since the 1979 revolution that a foreign military has been provided use of Iran’s military facilities. A provision of the House version of the FY2017 NDAA (Section 1259M) requires an Administration report on Iran-Russia military cooperation worldwide.

Asymmetric Warfare Capacity

Iran appears to be attempting to compensate for its conventional military weaknesses by developing a significant capacity for “asymmetric warfare,” both directly and through the use of regional proxies and allies. The 2016 Defense Department report, referenced above, states that on Iran continues to develop forces and tactics to control the approaches to Iran, including the Strait of Hormuz, and that the IRGC-QF remains a key tool of Iran’s “foreign policy and power projection.” Iran’s naval strategy appears to be center on developing an ability to “swarm” U.S. naval assets with its fleet of small boats and large numbers of anti-ship cruise missiles and its inventory of coastal defense cruise missiles (such as the Silkworm or Seersucker). It is also developing increasingly lethal systems such as more advanced naval mines and “small but capable submarines,” according to the 2016 DOD report. Iran has added naval bases along its Gulf coast in recent years, enhancing its ability to threaten shipping in the Strait. In 2013, Iran constructed an additional naval base near Iran’s border with Pakistan, on the Sea of Oman.

Click here for the full report.