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What We Know About Iran’s Military as It Threatens Israel


The possibility of a direct military confrontation between Iran and Israel has brought renewed attention to Iran’s armed forces. Early this month, Israel attacked a building in Iran’s diplomatic compound in the Syrian capital, Damascus, killing seven of Iran’s senior commanders and military personnel. Iran then threatened to retaliate.

Here’s a look at Iran’s military and its capabilities.

After Israel attacked the Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, Tehran responded with a threat to avenge the killings of its military personnel. Israel has said the compound was a legitimate target because it was being used by military commanders.

Officials from the United States and Israel assessed that Iran’s response was likely to be launched from its own territory.

That was what the Iranians did after President Donald J. Trump ordered the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in 2020, firing ballistic missiles at two American military bases in Iraq and wounding over 100 American soldiers.

Israeli officials have said they will respond to any attack by Iran with a counterattack, which could prompt more retaliation from Iran and possibly expand into a wider regional war. There is even a chance that a conflict of that sort could drag in the United States, although Washington has made clear it had nothing to do with the Damascus attack.

While Iran is expected to mount an attack within days on Israel, U.S. and Iranian officials said Friday that they did not expect the United States or its military forces to be targeted.

In any case, President Biden has pledged “ironclad” support for Israel in the event of an Iranian assault.

Analysts say that Iran’s adversaries, primarily the United States and Israel, have avoided direct military strikes on Iran for decades, not wishing to tangle with Tehran’s complex military apparatus. Instead, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a long shadow war via air, sea, land and cyberattacks, and Israel has covertly targeted military and nuclear facilities inside Iran and killed commanders and scientists.

“There is a reason Iran has not been struck,” said Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and an expert on Iran’s military. “It’s not that Iran’s adversaries fear Iran. It’s that they realize any war against Iran is a very serious war.”

The Iranian armed forces are among the largest in the Middle East, with at least 580,000 active-duty personnel and about 200,000 trained reserve personnel divided among the traditional army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, according to an annual assessment last year by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The army and the Guards each have separate and active ground, air and naval forces, with the Guards responsible for Iran’s border security. The General Staff of the Armed Forces coordinates the branches and sets the overall strategy.

The Guards also operate the Quds Force, an elite unit in charge of arming, training and supporting the network of proxy militias throughout the Middle East known as the “axis of resistance.” These militias include Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, militia groups in Syria and Iraq and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

The commander in chief of Iran’s armed forces is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all major decisions.

While the proxy militias are not counted as part of Iran’s armed forces, analysts say they are considered an allied regional force — battle ready, heavily armed and ideologically loyal — and could come to Iran’s aid if it was attacked.

“The level of support and types of systems Iran has provided for nonstate actors is really unprecedented in terms of drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles,” said Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iran’s military at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Berlin. “They could be viewed as part of Iran’s military capability, especially Hezbollah, which has the closest strategic relationship with Iran.”

For decades, Iran’s military strategy has been anchored in deterrence, emphasizing the development of precision and long-range missiles, drones and air defenses. It has built a large fleet of speedboats and some small submarines that are capable of disrupting shipping traffic and global energy supplies that pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran has one of the largest arsenals of ballistic missiles and drones in the Middle East, Mr. Ostovar said. That includes cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles, as well as ballistic missiles with ranges up to 2,000 kilometers, or more than 1,200 miles. These have the capacity and range to hit any target in the Middle East, including Israel.

In recent years, Tehran has assembled a large inventory of drones with ranges of around 1,200 to 1,550 miles and capable of flying low to evade radar, according to experts and Iranian commanders who have given public interviews to the state news media. Iran has made no secret of the buildup, displaying its trove of drones and missiles during military parades, and has ambitions to build a large export business in drones. Iran’s drones are being used by Russia in Ukraine and have surfaced in the conflict in Sudan.

The country’s bases and storage facilities are widely dispersed, buried deep underground and fortified with air defenses, making them difficult to destroy with airstrikes, experts say.

International sanctions have cut Iran off from high-tech weaponry and military equipment manufactured abroad, like tanks and fighter jets.

During Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, few countries were willing to sell weapons to Iran. When Ayatollah Khamenei became Iran’s supreme leader in 1989, a year after the war ended, he commissioned the Guards to develop a domestic weapons industry and poured resources into the effort, which was widely reported in the Iranian news media. He wanted to assure that Iran would never again have to rely on foreign powers for its defense needs.

Iran’s military is viewed as one of the strongest in the region in terms of equipment, cohesion, experience and quality of personnel, but it lags far behind the power and sophistication of the armed forces of the United States, Israel and some European countries, experts said.

Iran’s greatest weakness is its air force. Much of the country’s aircraft date from the era of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who led Iran from 1941 to 1979, and many have been disabled for lack of spare parts. The country also bought a small fleet from Russia in the 1990s, experts said.

Iran’s tanks and armored vehicles are old, and the country has only a few large naval vessels, experts said. Two intelligence gathering vessels, the Saviz and Behshad, deployed on the Red Sea, have aided the Houthis in identifying Israeli-owned ships for attacks, American officials have said.

The assassinations are expected to have a short-term impact on Iran’s regional operations, having eliminated commanders with years of experience and relationships with the heads of the allied militias. Nevertheless, the chain of command for the armed forces inside Iran remains intact, experts say, and those leaders would be the ones directing strikes on Israel or other targets and defending Iranian territory if war were to break out.

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