TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Expanding Strategic Reach
August 24, 2016

Iran’s Expanding Strategic Reach

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• The latest annual Defense Department report on Iran’s military power assesses that Iran is expanding its capacity to project power and deny access to its territory. 

• Iran has increased its ability to employ countervailing power against the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia through both conventional and unconventional means.

• Iran’s naval and anti-ship missile capabilities raise questions over longstanding assumptions that Iran could not close the highly strategic Strait of Hormuz for prolonged periods.

• Iran’s growing arsenal supports efforts by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to accomplish key Iranian objectives in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Lebanon.

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In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Defense released the summary of its annual report on Iran’s military strategy and capabilities. This year’s report was the first to account for the effects of the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran. Though the summary is brief, it revealed a considerable amount about the strategic threat that Iran continues to pose to the U.S. and its allies, in spite of the nuclear deal.  

The clearest conclusion the report reaches is that Iran is developing a wide variety of missiles—as well as an offensive cyber warfare capability—in order to project power far beyond its borders. Iran is developing a large arsenal of short-range missiles, both ballistic and cruise, to be able to deny an adversary control of the waters around Iran. When combined with what the report describes as Iran’s acquisition of naval attack craft—‘small but capable’ submarines, a large arsenal of ‘advanced naval mines,’ and armed unmanned aerial vehicles—Iran is positioned to threaten military and commercial shipping in the vital Strait of Hormuz. About one-third of all seaborne traded oil flows through the Strait daily. Iran’s capabilities call into question longstanding assertions by U.S. and allied naval commanders that Iran does not possess the capability to close the Strait of Hormuz for prolonged periods. The assessment has direct relevance; in mid-August, the IRGC reiterated its threat to close the waterway if Iran were attacked.  

Iran’s long-range missiles could place a wide array of U.S. and allied targets within striking distance. Iran’s existing ballistic missile arsenal can already reach all of Israel, as well as U.S. bases in Turkey and southeastern Europe. The Pentagon report mentions Iran’s intent to conduct a launch of its Simorgh space vehicle later in 2016—a vehicle that could be capable of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) ranges (3,000 miles or more) ‘if configured as a ballistic missile.’ An Iranian ICBM would immediately put all of Europe, and perhaps even the U.S. mainland, within Iran’s reach. Still, given Iran’s shortfalls in missile accuracy, these missiles would mainly serve to terrorize civilian populations in targeted countries rather than destroy hardened military targets.         

What is particularly noteworthy about Iran’s advances is that the gains have come primarily from within country. Iran’s missile programs began in the 1980s, largely with technology and skills provided by RussiaChina, and North Korea. Missile assistance to Iran has been precluded by international sanctions since 2006, although there continue to be reports of Iran-North Korea missile cooperation in violation of these restrictions. Conventional arms sales and military training for Iran were banned in 2010, and remain so until 2020 under U.N. Resolution 2231, which implemented the Iran nuclear deal.  While Iran-Russia military cooperation in Syria has deepened and the countries have discussed new arms sales to Iran, Russia has not shown any inclination to violate the resolution outright. The resolution does not prohibit joint military activities such as Russia’s use of Iran’s airbases for bomber strikes or Russia-Iran ground cooperation in Syria. 

The Pentagon report also addresses a key question that has clouded the nuclear deal since its inception—how Iran’s regional strategy and activities might change as a consequence of the deal. The report assesses that ‘Iran’s covert activities also are continuing unabated. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) remains a key tool of Iran’s foreign policy and power projection, particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.’ This assessment contradicts more hopeful assessments that the nuclear deal would moderate Iran’s behavior and suggests that Iran is harnessing its expanding weapons arsenal in efforts to increase its regional influence. Iran’s weapons supplies to its regional allies and proxies have helped keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power; empowered Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen against a Saudi-led coalition; supported 80,000 Shi’a militia fighters in Iraq; and enabled radical underground Shi’a factions in Bahrain to conduct successful improvised explosive device attacks on security forces. All of these activities have put military and political pressure on Iran’s foremost regional rival, Saudi Arabia, which is undertaking activities opposed to those of Iran in virtually all of these theaters. Iran has been known to provide advanced weaponry to its key proxy, Lebanese Hizballah, in the past. The transfer of even modest amounts of its most sophisticated missiles to Hizballah will likely ensure that any new Israel-Hizballah war could escalate into a regional, and potentially even global, conflagration.

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