A Review of Combat Power of the Iranian Army

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ali Ghafouri 

* Powerful Army, Harbinger of Peace and Sustainable Development

If you seek peace, you should be always ready for war. [Imam Ali (AS)]

This paper contains no classified information and is based on domestic and foreign reports as well as military policies.
The international system in the 21st century and even before that, in the middle of the 20th century, has been established on the basis of force and combat power of various countries. Under these conditions, it is only defensive as well as offensive capacities of a country which would prevent foreign invasions. Iran is no exception to that rule. A country like Iran enjoying special political, geographical, and economic situation, is more in the focus of attention of  international powers, especially the United States and has to boost its defensive power in parallel to developing an active diplomacy to head off invasion. The following paper has been written on the occasion of the Sacred Defense Week about the combat power of the Iranian army and aims to introduce part of the country’s defensive power to its readers.

The biggest military entity in the region

The Iranian army is one of the main three defensive forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran along with Basij and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, which is supposed to defend 1.648 million square kilometers of the Iranian territory in a region which has been continuously turbulent since 3,000 years ago. Military authorities maintain that the Iranian Army has the biggest ground forces in West Asia, as well as the biggest armored units and artillery, and the most numerous motorized units in the Middle East. The important point is that the total budget spent on this vast army along with Basij and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is only one-third of the military budget in Saudi Arabia and half of the budget allocated to the Israeli army. Last year, chief of the joint staff announced that per capita defense expenses in Iran amounted to 106 dollars while corresponding figures stood at 154 dollars for Turkey, 280 dollars for Syria, about 1,000 dollars for Saudi Arabia and 726 dollars for Oman. The Iranian army enjoys all characteristics of a trans-regional military force and is much more powerful than 1979 (when foreign military advisors left Iran and the Islamic Revolution became triumphant) or at the end of war with Iraq in 1988. Existence of two huge mountain ranges, that is Zagros, which extends from northwest to south and Alborz which extends from northwest to northeast in addition to big deserts in east of the country, thousands of mounds and hills as well as long rivers have designed Iran's military geography in such a way that the Iranian Ground Forces are capable of heading off any invasion in cooperation with air and helicopter units. In comparison to Iraq, Iran's geographical conditions are like a rocky path compared to a highway.

Since thousands years ago, Iranians have demonstrated their fighting skills. Defeating Roman armies for 700 years and Ottoman army for 500 years were examples of how easy it is for the Iranian army to keep its enemies in check as evidenced in modern times by failure of the Iraqi army during eight years of war from 1980 to 1988.

Ground Forces of the Iranian Army

Ground Forces have been the spine of the Iranian Army during the past years. It has been defending Iran along with professional units of the revolutionary guards and Basij since 1980. It should be noted that war is a multifaceted phenomenon and it needs ships, airplanes, missiles and other weaponry, as well as men who will be capable of fighting; men who would adapt to many years of new life in bunkers as occurred during the war with Iraq in which some military men stayed at warfronts for more than 8 months at one time.

The Ground Forces of the Iranian Army are now much more prepared than October 1980, when they engaged with 12 divisions of the Iraqi forces with only two divisions in west and south of the country. The Iranian Ground Forces are currently taking advantage of tens of experienced divisions comprising the most powerful commando units and special forces some of whom have, at least, four decades of experience. In addition to powerful and streamlined Chieftain tanks, the Iranian Ground Forces also avail of more advanced tanks (manufactured by domestic industries). Although the exact number of the Iranian tanks has not been announced, foreign media and specialized magazines have given figures such as 3,000 to 5,000. However, since Iran directly manufactures tanks that it needs, its statistics are naturally classified. Of course, there is no doubt that Iran outnumbers all other countries of West Asia in terms of tanks, even Turkey and Israel. The main feature of the Iranian tanks is that they have been refurbished after eight years of war with Iraq while most armies in the world have worn-out armored combat units.

Another important feature of the Iranian Ground Forces is high power of maneuver. In military maneuvers codenamed "Velayat", "Zulfaqar" and similar war-games, domestic and foreign observers witnessed rapid transfer and deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and thousands of tanks over long distances.

Havanirooz (Iranian Army Aviation)

Iran's geographical conditions call for presence of a special helicopter unit along with Ground Forces. Iran's helicopter power increased after 1960s and the country had large numbers of powerful Cobra, 212, 214, 206, and 205 helicopters in 1978.

At the beginning of the war with Iraq, when Basij and revolutionary guards were still nascent and Ground Forces were disorganized, this force managed to use its choppers, of course at the cost of losing many of its personnel, to slow down the progress of the Iraqi armored units.

Through technical capabilities of defense industries and its experts, the helicopter unit of Ground Forces has been rebuilt and has manufactured new helicopters. They have also produced many missiles and rockets used by helicopters through reverse engineering. In an interview conducted with commander of the helicopter unit some three years ago, he emphasized that the capacity of the helicopter unit, both in terms of quality and quantity, was not comparable to what it has been in 1978.

Iranian Air Force

Although most foreign and even domestic observers maintain that withholding military assistance to the Iranian Air Force since 1979 and destruction of 70 percent of the Iranian fighter planes during the imposed war from 1980 to 1988, has dealt drastic blows to the Iranian Air Force, the reality is different. Iran has paid special attention to its Air Force from 1988 up to now because the authorities have not forgotten the important role played by the Air Force during the war years in annihilating the Iraqi Air Force (which was, at least, refurbished three times before the end of the war) and also prevented serious attacks by armored units of Iraq.

Today, the Air Force of the Iranian army, along the air force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps constitutes a powerful strike force. Many experts outside the country have studied Iran's air capabilities during the past few years and have even considered it the main threat to the American Navy in their articles. While criticizing the US government for withdrawing F-14s from the Navy, so that, Lockheed Industries could sell them its new F-18s, they have noted that Iran is currently the only country in the world having F-14s and can be a very serious threat to any foreign foe. Some critics have even noted that taking F-14s back from the Navy and replacing them with F-18s was an act of treason and the involved authorities who have received commissions to do that. They maintain that Iran has used its F-14s and has been helped by the Russians to establish the most powerful interception force in the region, which can intercept all American fighters like F-16s, F-18s and F-15s, even when they cannot detect the Iranian fighters (F-14 can intercept enemy fighters from a distance of 90 km) and hit the American fighters. Other Iranian forces can pose a serious threat to the American Navy under the protective cover of those fighters. Critics are not exaggerating because after the American engineers and advisors left Iran in 1978, the country has been capable of overhauling F-14 fighter plane without their help and has destroyed 80-100 Iraqi planes using Phoenix missiles. Iran has successfully built Phoenix and Sparrow missiles through reverse engineering.

At present, the Iranian Air Force has been estimated by westerners to have a large number of airplanes most of which is operated by the Air Force of the Iranian Army (exact figures should be announced by official sources). The intelligence units of the Israeli army and Western sources have claimed that Iranian Air Force also avails of Mirage F-1, MiG 23, Sokho 24, and Tupolev 22. Of course, the Air Force has successfully overhauled F-4, and F-14 airplanes in addition to purchasing MiG 23 and Sokho 24 fighter planes, thus increasing its air defense power considerably through establishing more than 10 fighter planes bases across the nation.

The power of the Iranian Air Force has increased to such remarkable extent during the past few years that two western analysts wrote a detailed report on it and warned the American army about ignoring that power.
However, the true value of the Air Force depends on its loyal personnel who managed to keep it going on a budget which was far less than the budget allocated to it under the former government of the Shah. It should not be forgotten that the previous regime of Iran spent billions of dollars per year on its Air Force alone. The Shah allocated 5.2 billion dollars in 1973 for buying 80 F-14 fighter planes from the United States. In that year, each Phoenix missile was worth 2 million dollars (now the value of every US dollar is about one-third of its value in early 1970s).

Iranian Navy

The Islamic Republic of Iran is still manning the biggest military vessels in the Caspian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Some of those vessels are very big and are able to prove Iran's supremacy in these waters.

The Iranian Navy is currently working along the marine forces of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps to establish a powerful and common force equipped with heavy cruisers and destroyers and corvettes and speed boats which are capable of implementing various missions.

Having big Tareq submarines and smaller submarines called Qadir and Nahang, the Iranian Navy is capable of targeting enemy vessels and prevent huge Western warships from using their guns or warplanes. Tareq submarines are especially powerful. Every one of them can carry up to 18 torpedoes and can destroy a whole fleet of invading ships.

The Iranian Navy is now capable of increasing the number of its submarines through defense industries and makes them according to its specific needs. The Iranian Navy also avails of dozens of other vessels which are specially made for war.
Iran had envisaged in its military plans to reach the ability to transport a full division and importance of this scheme becomes more clear when we know that enemies have always thought of invading Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian Navy also avails of experienced marines and commandoes that can be transferred to any scene of conflict in the least possible time onboard hovercrafts (which are the most rapid amphibian vessels in the world). The Iranian Navy has a two-month conflict with the Iraqi navy on its record. During those months (from October to December 1980), the Iraqi navy was wiped off the Persian Gulf for good and ever.

Review of Iranian Army abilities during recent maneuvers

a.    Zarbat Zolfaqar War Games

Last year, the Iranian army launched huge war games codenamed Zarbat Zolfaqar in air, land and sea. The Iranian navy demonstrated the power of its vessels, helicopters and submarines over an area of 250,000 square kilometers from the eastern part of the region (Gwadar Bay in western part of Pakistan) to Khorramshahr in western part of Persian Gulf.

The Army transferred 120,000 soldiers in a single day, which means transfer of eight divisions in a day (90 percent of regional armies do not consist of even five divisions).

In that maneuver, the army covered 16 provinces and, for the first time, Iranian soldiers used bullets that even pierced bulletproof vests. The Air Force demonstrated its Saeqeh (Lightening) fighter planes for the first time. It is similar to F-15 in appearance (of course, somehow bigger with two vertical rudders like F-18) and flew alongside hundreds of F-14s, MiG 29, F-4s, and F-5s to prove Iran's military power.

b.    Grand Prophet (PBUH) maneuver

Grand Prophet (PBUH) war games in April was another move by Iran to warn foreign powers about military capabilities of the country. The operations which were carried out by the Iranian Army, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and Basij, clearly proved Iran's power on land as well as air and sea. Observers maintained that none of the Middle Eastern powers were capable of deploying so many soldiers in a single maneuver. Hut, Misaq, Kowsar and Fajr missiles have raised serious concerns among invading, trans-regional armies, especially rapid missiles traveling at a speed of 100 meters per second which can destroy any vessel in flash. The mentioned maneuver, which was carried out 40 km deep inside the Iranian territory over an area of 100,000 marine miles, clearly demonstrated the power of the army and the revolutionary guards.
Iran's high capacity to transport troops by helicopter was observed by military analysts. Thousands of commandos and paratroopers jumped on the predetermined targets under heavy artillery fire in the shortest possible time, while the Iranian fighter plane called "Saeqeh", which has a powerful engine and high maneuvering powers, proved to military experts that Iran is capable of manufacturing its essential fighter planes.

Review of new weapons made by Iran

1.    Toufan 2 anti-armor missile

This missile would be used against tanks with heavy armor and can hit its target with a precision of up to 95 percent. It first penetrates into the tank armor before setting the whole tank alight. Similar to the American Taw missile, it can penetrate 76 cm into tank armor and, therefore, destroy advanced M1 A1 American tanks which weigh 80 tons like an eggshell. Toufan 2 has been mounted on many military vehicles used by the Iranian Army.

2.    Kowsar sea missile

This is an intelligent missile similar to the American Cruise missiles which can be fired from land to sea. It is manned by the Iranian Army and is similar to the Chinese missile, FL-8.

3.    Nour anti-ship missile

This is a more advanced version of the Chinese Silkworm missiles and is as destructive as Western missile like Harpoon and Exocet. The missile was fired by Alvand Destroyer (belonging to the Navy) during Zarbat Zolfaqar war games. It can hit targets as far as 120 km and constantly changes altitude. The missile goes off only after penetrating a ship. This missile is used both by the Navy and marine forces of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

4.    Ra'd anti-ship missile

Western analysts maintain that this is a very dangerous missile and due to very high speed, the target could show no reaction. The missile can hit targets in a range of 8 m up to 200 km and its warhead weighs more than half a ton.


The Iranian Army is similar to the Iranian nation; both are peaceful, but would strongly defend their county when the need arises. They have done it for the past 26 centuries. The Iranian Army has been present in many maneuvers during recent years and has tried to work as the defender of the Iranian nation. The Army has demonstrated its skills with regard to symmetric as well as asymmetric warfare during the past 15 years and its power is now the most important source of assurance for the Iranian nation. This big military entity, along with revolutionary guards and Basij, has developed and increased defensive powers of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the extent that it would discourage any army, even if it belongs to the world's number one military power from trying to attack Iran. Perhaps it is due to presence of such a major force that maximum threats posed by our enemies are remote attacks or missile attacks as well as throwing bombs at high altitude. Western as well as Russian military experts have been warning the United States since many years ago that the transportation of forces into the Iranian Plateau would mean opening the doors of Hell to naked American troops.

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