How have Iran’s military capabilities developed since 1979?
Dubai - Iranian retired brigadier-general Mohsen Rafiqdoost, a former minister for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and prominent figure in military circles, recently provided unprecedented insight into Iranian wartime imports during its 8-year war with Iraq, which broke out in 1980 when the Iranian regime was just a year old.
Traditionally, Iranian officials avoid sharing much detail about the logistics of their defence affairs because it would shed light on sensitive Iranian dependence on its partners. This is problematic because it contradicts the self-reliance post-revolutionary leadership in Iran tried to instil in the country’s institutions and people from the beginning, especially in military affairs.
The 1979 revolution in Iran had huge repercussions for the Iranian military. A purge of officers regarded as loyal to the shah or resistant to the revolution, combined with an abrupt end to relations with Iran’s traditional defence suppliers to radically alter the landscape of Iranian defence set-up.
Under the shah in the 1970s, Iran was going through a massive modernisation programme and its armed forces were being equipped with best-in-class technologies mostly manufactured by the United States and Britain. The revolution meant that any outstanding orders or deliveries were cancelled by Western suppliers and stringent measures were taken against companies or countries from providing Iran with spare parts or technical assistance equipment Iran had in-service.
Iran did not have to rebuild its defence capabilities entirely from scratch but a radical strategic redirection for its military was the only assurance for survival. Independence, self-reliance and Iran’s new revolutionary ideals were together to guide this new approach to defence, in which the IRGC, rather than the regular armed forces, became the lead force.
The post-1979 Iranian leadership developed a new defence doctrine to embrace these realities and transformed Iran into a regional “resistance” force. Asymmetric warfare rather than conventional force superiority was the new guiding principle for Iran where tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) became more important than the performance parameters of equipment itself.
Though the long war with Iraq proved testing and threatened the survival of the regime in its earliest days, it was also crucial in highlighting military vulnerabilities to the Iranian leadership, helped streamline capacity-building efforts and lead the IRGC to the blueprints of the military model it was to adopt.
As Rafiqdoost’s recent interview shows, despite Iran’s revolutionary ideals espousing self-reliance, the country had little other option but to equip itself initially with weapons it could source from North Korea and Eastern bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Syria and Libya also became weapons suppliers to Tehran for geopolitical reasons, despite ideological divergences.
The watershed moment for Iran’s defence was when Tehran connected with China. As Iran began buying in high volume directly from China, it gradually moved away from Eastern bloc suppliers and, according to Rafiqdoost, it was this bourgeoning Iranian-Sino defence relationship that prompted Russia to begin selling weapons to Tehran.
Since then, Iran became the most important export market for Russian defence products, including fighter aircraft such as the MiG-29 and Su-24, submarines such as the Kilo-class, and air defence systems such as the recently delivered S-300 — even if business has not always been smooth.
China, which eventually sold more strategic weapons such as cruise missiles to Iran, essentially helped Iran lay the foundations for its indigenous missile programme. The Iranian missile programme, which is the cornerstone of Iranian defence strategy and deterrence, emerged after Iran learned the art of reverse engineering missiles it had acquired from different sources. Here is where Iran really developed self-reliance in defence.
There is another crucial dimension to Iranian defence — its asymmetric warfare doctrine aims to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy, compensate for technological inferiority through effective use of surprise and deception and create a complex battlefield that makes sustained operations difficult for its adversaries.
It is in this perspective that Iran’s regional alliance with Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis, can be properly understood from a perspective of military strategy and its ability to fight by proxy.
Iran’s conventional armed forces, such as its regular air force and navy are not a reflection of the military capabilities of Iran — they are limited in terms of quality and quantity. However, when analysed as a whole, Iran’s defence and deterrence are robust — the IRGC, its missile programme, Iranian doctrine and TTPs and alliance with non-state actors around the region, combine to posit one of the most complex threats a country could pose to its technologically more superior adversaries.