An Iranian long-range shore-to-sea missile called Qader (Capable) is launched during Velayat-90 war game on Sea of Oman's shore near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran January 2, 2012 (Reuters).

September 04, 2015

Iran's Leaders Say They Will Expand Their Military Capabilities

The Iranian regime and military appear united in a determination to use the easing of sanctions to expand the Islamic Republic’s conventional and unconventional military power, including its ballistic missile program. The finely-reasoned arguments of some supporters of the deal that Tehran will prioritize economic growth over military spending require ignoring almost everything Iran’s leaders are telling each other and their people.

Suggestions that the Iran nuclear deal imposes (or retains) restrictions on Iran’s missile program or that it heralds some détente with the West have sent the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s regular military into a frenzy.  Senior Iranian officers have issued a flurry of statements over the last few weeks announcing exercises, the fielding of new missiles, plans to purchase materiel from Russia and elsewhere, and bombastic insistence that Iran’s military might will grow. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has encouraged this burst of militarism, and even President Hassan Rouhani has nodded to it.  No major regime figure has pushed back on it.

The IRGC, Iran’s air defense command, and Iran’s conventional army (the Artesh) all announced on August 31 that they would be conducting exercises between now and the end of Iran’s year (March 2016). The IRGC Navy announced on August 26 that it would hold two “specialized” exercises.  The Artesh commander had announced two days earlier that Iran’s regular ground forces would conduct six wargames before March 2016 and that they will include “missile drills.”  The IRGC Air Force, which controls Iran’s missile program, declared that it would hold “a major ballistic missile exercise in the near future” on August 21. 

The Iranian security forces normally conduct exercises in the fall and winter, and often boast of them publicly—so neither the exercises (which were surely planned some time ago) nor the announcements of them are noteworthy in isolation.  The almost frenzied way in which all of the services have rushed to announce and describe their intentions, not only to conduct exercises, but also to involve Iran’s missile programs in them one way or another, however, is extremely unusual. It is almost certainly part of a larger effort by the IRGC and the Iranian military to push back against the idea that the nuclear deal or the UN Security Council Resolution that embodies it from the standpoint of international law constrain Iran’s hard power in any way.

August 22 was Defense Industry Day in Iran, by a happy coincidence, moreover, and many senior Iranian officials took the opportunity to discuss their plans for strengthening Iran’s military power.  Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and others have repeated that Russia will deliver the S-300 (and even S-400) surface-to-air missile system in the coming months so many times that they might almost believe it (Russia has been both promising and withholding that system for many years). They are now also saying that Iran is in talks with Russia to buy Sukhoi fighters—which would be a clear violation of the continuing ban on weapons transfers to Iran.

They are also describing progress they are making in their indigenous missile production programs, unveiling a new, reportedly solid-fueled Fateh 313 missile with a range of over 300 miles, on August 22.  Solid-fuel missiles are concerning because they can be launched more rapidly than liquid-fueled rockets, among other things. Defense Minister Dehghan inaugurated a production line for an air-launched cruise missile three days later. He had explained earlier in the month that increasing the ranges of its missiles has been Iran’s priority.  Former IRGC Commander and Senior Military Advisor to Khamenei, Yahya Rahim Safavi, boasted that Iran’s missiles can already reach targets 2,000 kilometers away.

The Supreme Leader exhorted his military leaders to greater efforts on September 1. Addressing his air defense commanders, he said: “vital defense sensitivities and concerns indicate that you should identify vulnerable points and all possible enemy methods and work out specific plans and ways to confront all of them.” Even President Rouhani identified “providing security” as the “first priority” in the “post-sanction period,” describing improving the economy only as the first of “two other important tasks.” Speaking at a Defense Industry Day event on August 22, he explained: “Our policy of reducing tensions, ‘convergence,’ and confidence-building does not conflict with the defensive power of military industries in the country; if a country does not have strength, independence, or stability, it cannot pursue real peace.” He added, “We must strengthen the defensive power of the country in order to ensure the stability of the nuclear deal and security in the country,” concluding: “Before the [Islamic] Revolution, we were only consumers of weapons and foreign equipment…praise be to God, in recent years, we have made huge steps in design, construction, and equipment; we are moving towards complete self-sufficiency; every day there is a new achievement.” This is not the language of an Iranian “peace dividend.”

There is nothing surprising or irrational about Tehran’s determination to use some of the lucre it expects soon to receive for strengthening its conventional and unconventional military prowess. Military strength had been a priority for the regime before the agreement and, as its leaders constantly repeat (and as we will explore in more detail in subsequent writings), the regime sees no change in its strategic environment after the deal. The only thing surprising and irrational in all this is the determination of some in the West to persuade themselves and others that it is possible to put more resources in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran without thereby strengthening its terrorist-supporting armed forces.