How have Iran’s military capabilities developed since 1979?

Sunday 16/10/2016
Iranians take pictures of the Simorgh (Phoenix) satellite rocket during celebrations in Tehran to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, last February.

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.