Iran's military power: What you need to know

Iran may suffer from military disadvantages, but that doesn't stop it from being a major military player in the Middle East. DW breaks down Iran's military strengths and three parts of its asymmetric defense strategy.

Iran is a major military power in the Middle East, with an estimated 534,000 active personnel in the army, navy, air force and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Global Firepower Index, an online military ranking website, ranks Iran No. 13 in the world out of 136 countries. Their listing is based on more than 50 factors including war-making potential in conventional (non-nuclear) forces, manpower, geography and finance. To compare to other regional powers, Turkey ranks ninth, Egypt 12th, Israel 16th and Saudi Arabia 26th.

Read more: What is Iran's Revolutionary Guard?

Iran's population of 82 million means that it can draw on a deep well of manpower. This is a key factor in sustaining long wars of attrition such as the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. 

IRGC General Qasem Soleimani is the head of the Quds Force, the elite unit responsible for overseas operations.

However, at $16 billion (13.4 billion) in 2017, Iran's defense budget falls short of individual regional rivals and is minuscule in comparison to the combined defense spending of countries it is most likely to come into conflict with: Israel's $18.5 billion (plus $3.5 billion in military aid from the US); Saudi Arabia's $76.7 billion; and the United States' nearly $600 billion. 

Asymmetric strategy answer to disadvantages

Shiite Iran is outgunned financially by those it perceives to be its main military threats — the United States, Israel and Sunni Gulf Arab states. It also nearly encircled by United States military bases and lacks the security guarantees its regional Gulf Arab rivals and Israel receive from the United States. 

In addition, Iran has been under a four-decade-long US arms embargo and UN arms restrictions since 2006. This has forced Iran to rely largely on the domestic production of weaponry. Meanwhile, Iran's regional rivals are provided cutting-edge Western military systems.

In order to compensate for its relative weakness, Tehran relies on asymmetric capabilities and cost-raising deterrence measures.

Read more: SIPRI: Global military spending rose to $1.7 trillion in 2017 

Forward defense

One plank of Iran's defense strategy is "forward defense," led by the special operations Quds Force of the IRGC. The strategy involves the use of regional allies and proxies, known as the "axis of resistance," as leverage to weaken, bog down, deter or fight Iran's enemies away from its soil.

Such groups include the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq fighting the "Islamic State"; foreign Shiite militias fighting on behalf of Iran's ally Syria; the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah; Houthi rebels in Yemen; and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran is also one of several regional countries exerting influence on the Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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Although aligned with Iran politically and militarily, these groups have to varying degrees their own agency and local political interests where they operate.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Rise of Hezbollah

Hezbollah, or Party of God, was conceived by Muslim clerics in the 1980s in response to the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 1982. The Shiite group has a political and military wing.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

National support against Israel

Hezbollah emerged in the 1980s as an amalgamation of Shiite militias and played a major role in the Lebanese civil war. It used guerrilla warfare to drive Israeli forces out of South Lebanon — Israel withdrew in 2000. Israel and Hezbollah fought another war in 2006. Its defense of Lebanon against Israel had won it cross-sectarian support and acceptance in Lebanese society.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Backed by Iran

Since its creation, Hezbollah has received military, financial and political support from Iran and Syria. Today, Hezbollah's military wing is more powerful than Lebanon's own army and has become a major regional paramilitary force.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Political apparatus

Hezbollah turned its focus to politics following the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. It represents a large section of the Lebanese Shiite population and is allied with other sectarian groups, including Christians. Their political development has mostly come under Hassan Nasrallah (pictured), who became the group's leader in 1992.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Armed wing

Unlike other parties in Lebanon's multi-sided 1975-1990 civil war, Hezbollah did not disband its armed wing. Some Lebanese political groups, such as Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Future Movement, want Hezbollah to put down its arms. Hezbollah argues its militant wing is necessary to defend against Israel and other external threats.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Terror group?

A number of countries and bodies, including the United States, Israel, Canada and the Arab League, consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. However, Australia and the European Union differentiate between its legitimate political activities and its militant wing.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Hezbollah enters Syria's civil war

Hezbollah has been one of the main backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war. Its entrance into the war helped save Assad, one of its chief patrons; secured weapons supply routes from Syria and formed a buffer zone around Lebanon against Sunni militant groups it feared would take over Syria. As a result it has won considerable support from Shiite communities in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Sectarianism

Lebanon has long been at the center of regional power struggles, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, Hezbollah's military and political ascendancy, as well as its intervention in Syria, have also helped stoke Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions in Lebanon and across the region.

Hezbollah, Lebanon's Iran-backed paramilitary organization

Renewed conflict with Israel?

Iran and Hezbollah have increased their political and military strength through the war in Syria. Israel views this as a threat and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iran/Hezbollah targets in Syria. Israel has vowed to not let Iran and Hezbollah create a permanent presence in Syria. There is growing concern of another war between Hezbollah and Israel that could draw in Iran.

Ballistic missiles

A second plank of Iran's military strategy is short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel, Gulf Arab states, US military bases in the region and parts of Europe.

As the International Crisis Group notes, Iran views these ballistic missiles as a deterrent against Israel and, in the event of an attack on Iran, as a means to hit enemies on their own soil or US military bases in the region. While Iran presents ballistic missiles as defensive weapons, its enemies consider them an offensive threat.

Ballistic missile policy can be combined with the forward defense policy, such as with Houthi ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in response to its war in Yemen and Iran's arming Hezbollah with an array of missiles in Lebanon. Iran denies providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles or components. 

In a show of strength, the IRGC launched six Zolfaghar ballistic missiles in June 2017 from western Iran. The missiles targeted the "Islamic State" group in Syria.

Bringing the world economy to a standstill

A third means of Iranian deterrence is the threat to choke the world economy by shutting down the flow of oil in the event of conflict. Around one-fifth of the world's traded oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Iran's strategy is to block the chokepoint through mines and employ asymmetric and unconventional naval tactics against enemy warships, such as swarming enemy warships with small, low-cost watercraft and speedboats armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

Iran may be developing a similar policy in Yemen, calculating that in the event of a conflict with a regional enemy, the Quds Force and its Houthi partners could shut down shipments in the Red Sea through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, through which 4 percent of the world's traded oil passes.

Read more: Yemen rebels hit Saudi tanker in Red Sea, Saudi Arabia claims

In this February 2015 photo, IRGC speedboats swarm a mock US aircraft carrier in large-scale naval drills near the entrance to the Persian Gulf

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