Iran “remains a significant challenge to the United States within the Middle East and Southwest Asia,” according to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” On May 23, DIA Director and Lt. Gen Vincent Stewart briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the report’s findings. “The Middle East faces multiple, simultaneous challenges. Drivers of unrest include authoritarian leaders, civil conflict, ungoverned spaces, displaced populations and refugee flows, insufficient economic opportunity, and corruption. These factors are compounded by growing Iranian involvement, terrorism, and conventional military threats,” he said. The following is the Iran-related excerpt from the report.
Iran remains a significant challenge to the United States within the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Although it continues to implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran is engaged in the region’s conflicts to further its security goals and expand its influence with neighboring countries. To that end, Iran remains committed to modernizing its military; building the capacity of its partners across the region, including designated terrorist organizations; and forging new partnerships, while balancing a desire to gain from its reintegration into the global economic system.
Iran’s national security strategy continues to focus on deterring and, if necessary, defending against external threats, undermining the current regional security architecture, seeking new partnerships, and expanding its efforts to complicate U.S. actions. Competition with other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, could exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region beyond those already fueled by ISIS.
Iran also faces several significant domestic political and economic challenges, such as government and financial sector inefficiencies and state involvement in the private sector, that have consequences for Tehran’s security policies. Internal political debates between pragmatic conservatives led by President Ruhani and traditional conservatives, including several leaders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), will shape the outcome of Iran’s presidential election in 2017 and influence the degree of Iran’s integration into the global economic system.
The JCPOA has curtailed Iran’s nuclear program and has established benchmarks for the lifting of UN restrictions on the import and export of certain advanced conventional weapons and ballistic missiles through 2020 and 2023, respectively—pending Iran’s continued compliance. If the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reaches the “broader conclusion” that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful before those dates, these restrictions will end. Since implementation of the JCPOA, the IAEA has been monitoring Iran’s nuclear-related obligations under the agreement. The agency continues to verify and report that Iran has not enriched uranium above allowable levels, maintains limits on centrifuge numbers, allows the IAEA to monitor nuclear fuel and heavy water stocks, and has been conducting enrichment R&D within JCPOA-prescribed limits.
Iran will look to the UNSCR 2231 and JCPOA dates as benchmarks to expand its military modernization. The regime will also seek to distribute some financial gains from the JCPOA to its security forces, although we believe domestic social and economic expenditures will remain the priority for Tehran in the near term.
Iran’s conventional military doctrine is designed to protect Iran from the consequences of its assertive regional policy, spearheaded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps–Qods Force. Iran employs a complex set of military and national security capabilities, including unconventional military forces and cyber capabilities, which serve as force multipliers. Iran also dedicates elements of its military to counter localized insurgencies among its minority groups, particularly against the Kurdish and Baloch elements.
Iran continues to pursue new military capabilities and enhance existing weapon systems. In 2016, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated that Iran needed to enhance its defensive and offensive power, and he asked senior military officials to push forward the country’s arms development programs. We expect Iran to give priority to improving its ballistic missile, air and air defense, and maritime forces.
Iran has the region’s largest ballistic missile arsenal, consisting of at least five different systems. Tehran has claimed its missiles can strike targets throughout the region, up to 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s border. Iran will continue to improve the range, lethality, and accuracy of some of those systems and will pursue the development of new systems, despite restrictions placed on development of nuclear capable ballistic missiles by UNSCR 2231. Tehran has claimed it is also pursuing long-range, precision cruise missiles, which will present an increased threat in the region. In addition, Iran maintains the largest underground facility program in the Middle East and primarily uses this capability to protect and conceal many aspects of its missile program. In 2016, Iran publicly unveiled two new short-range ballistic missiles, which Tehran claims are capable of striking targets in a 500-km and 700-km range. Iran will continue to develop space launch vehicles—boosters that are capable of ICBM ranges if configured for that purpose.
We expect Iran to integrate the recently delivered Russian S-300 air defense systems into its network as part of an effort to strengthen its defenses against air and standoff munition attacks. Iran aspires to purchase an array of advanced conventional weapon systems, but we have no indication that any major purchases are imminent. Both the Iranian Navy and the IRGC Navy will field increasingly lethal weapons, including more advanced mines, small submarines, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, attack craft, and ship- and shore-based antiship cruise missiles.
Led by the IRGC–Qods Force, Iran’s regional efforts remain focused on operations in Syria and Iraq. We anticipate that large numbers of Iranian troops and Shia foreign fighters will remain engaged in proregime operations in Syria and that Tehran’s cooperation with Damascus and Moscow will deepen. Iran continues to support Shia militia forces in Iraq and provide training and equipment to the Iraqi government. Although the long-term nature of Iran’s relationships remains unclear, Iran has expanded its influence through the Shia militias in Iraq, and we expect that it will seek lasting influence in Syria.
The IRGC–Qods Force also is likely to maintain support to the Huthis in Yemen. Several coalition interdictions of Iranian shipments during the past year demonstrated Iran’s persistent efforts to support the Huthis, probably as a counter to Saudi Arabia and to expand Tehran’s overall regional influence
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