What are Iran’s military capabilities?

The U.S. military’s Jan. 2 airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the subsequent Iranian missile strikes on two Iraqi air bases that host U.S. forces have placed Washington and Tehran on the brink of war and focused attention on Iranian military capabilities. 

Here are what the armed forces of the United States’ longtime rival in the Middle East look like.

How is Iran’s military organized?

Technically Iran has two militaries: the Artesh, which is the regular military that traces its lineage back to the 1920s, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was created in the wake of the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and established the Islamic Republic. “The Artesh is tasked with defending the homeland and the IRGC is in charge of preserving, protecting and defending the Islamic Revolution,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on the Iranian military at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Since its creation in 1990, the Quds Force has been responsible for building up, advising and supplying the various Shia militias that act as surrogates for Iran across the Middle East. Its closeness to the regime and perceived ideological purity means the IRGC has the larger share of the military budget and gets the better equipment, making it “the star of Iran’s military,” Taleblu said. Nested inside the IRGC is the Quds Force, which Soleimani commanded and which combines intelligence collection, covert action and special operations missions.

Iranian troops march during the army parade commemorating National Army Day in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iranian troops march during the army parade commemorating National Army Day in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iranian troops march during the army parade commemorating National Army Day in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

How many people are in the Iranian armed forces?

The Artesh has a strength of 420,000, the vast majority of which (350,000) are in the Islamic Republic of Iran Ground Force, the remainder being split between its air force (37,000), navy (18,000) and air defense force (15,000), according to “Iran Military Power,” an in-depth overview published last year by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. The IRGC ground force has an estimated 150,000 troops, its navy has 20,000 personnel, while 15,000 are assigned to its aerospace force.

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Iranian warships sail in the Sea of Oman during the second day of joint Iran, Russia and China naval war games on Dec. 28, 2019. Tehran has been seeking to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid unprecedented economic sanctions from Washington. (Photo: Iranian Army via AP)

Iranian warships sail in the Sea of Oman during the second day of joint Iran, Russia and China naval war games on Dec. 28, 2019. Tehran has been seeking to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid unprecedented economic sanctions from Washington. (Photo: Iranian Army via AP)

Iranian warships sail in the Sea of Oman during the second day of joint Iran, Russia and China naval war games on Dec. 28, 2019. Tehran has been seeking to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid unprecedented economic sanctions from Washington. (Photo: Iranian Army via AP)

The Quds Force, although the best-known Iraqi military element abroad, is by far its smallest, with an estimated 5,000 personnel. However, through its vast network of Shia militias, the Quds Force adds tens of thousands of fighters to Iran’s real combat strength. The Quds Force, for example, has managed Iran’s role in the Syrian war, which together with Russia’s intervention in that conflict, enabled Bashar Assad to remain in power.

To fill their ranks, the Artesh and the IRGC both rely on Iran’s universal conscription, which requires men over the age of 18 to serve for two years in a branch of the security services.

What type of military gear does Iran use and where is it from?

The Artesh and the IRGC are equipped with a mix of Soviet/Russian, Chinese and American equipment, the latter dating back to the United States’ support of Shah Reza Pahlevi. “It is a grade-A 1970s military,” Taleblu said. This means, according to “Iran Military Power,” that the Islamic Republic is the only country in the world still flying U.S.-made F-14 Tomcats, which form part of a motley fleet of fixed-wing attack aircraft that also includes U.S. F-4 and F-5 fighters, Russian MiG-29 Fulcrums and Su-24 Fencers, and Chinese F-7 Airguards. (Iran gained some of its Russian-made aircraft when the Iraqi military flew at least 115 jets to Iran during the first Gulf War).

Iran's F-14 fighter jets fly during the annual Army Day military parade in Tehran on April 17, 2012. (Photo: Atta Kenare AFP/GettyImages)

Iran's F-14 fighter jets fly during the annual Army Day military parade in Tehran on April 17, 2012. (Photo: Atta Kenare AFP/GettyImages)

Iran's F-14 fighter jets fly during the annual Army Day military parade in Tehran on April 17, 2012. (Photo: Atta Kenare AFP/GettyImages)

Iran’s ability to modernize its armed forces has been hobbled by a Western arms embargo and a United Nations ban on selling conventional weapons to the Islamic Republic. However, according to Taleblu, the U.N. ban is scheduled to end in October. “There is much speculation as to when the arms ban lapses what will Iran do,” he said. “Some people say that Iran will go on a shopping spree and become a conventional military power overnight.” But according to Taleblu, it is more likely that Iran will continue its policy of “selective modernization,” focusing on capabilities like cruise missiles.

What are Iran’s military strengths and weaknesses?

Iran’s military strength does not lie in its conventional forces, despite their size, something that Iranian leaders fully realize, according to Taleblu. “Never have I seen a country more cognizant of its conventional military deficiencies,” he said. Iran’s leaders know their obsolescent fleets of aircraft and armored vehicles are no match for the modern equipment fielded by their Arab rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, let alone Western armed forces. Out of necessity, therefore, Iran has focused its resources and energies on developing what the Pentagon calls “asymmetric” capabilities that allow Iran to counter its enemies’ strong conventional forces. These capabilities include the Quds Force and its network of Shia militias, as well as what a Brookings Institution report described as “the largest and most diverse missile force in the Middle East.”

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Iran's servicemen on a BTR-80 amphibious armoured personnel carrier during the 2019 International Army Games at Khmelevka test site. (Photo: Vitaly Nevar/TASS via Getty Images)

Iran's servicemen on a BTR-80 amphibious armoured personnel carrier during the 2019 International Army Games at Khmelevka test site. (Photo: Vitaly Nevar/TASS via Getty Images)

Iran's servicemen on a BTR-80 amphibious armoured personnel carrier during the 2019 International Army Games at Khmelevka test site. (Photo: Vitaly Nevar/TASS via Getty Images)

Dating back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, there has been “an aura about missiles in Iranian political and military culture,” Taleblu said. In an indication of their value to the regime, the missiles fall under the control of the IRGC’s air force, not the regular military.

The longest-range ballistic missiles in Iran’s inventory have a range of about 2,000 kilometers, meaning they can target locations virtually anywhere in the Middle East and as far away as Russia, India, western China and southeastern Europe, according to “Iran Military Power.” Iran’s missiles “are both military weapons and political weapons,” said Taleblu, adding that simply developing and flight-testing the missiles was designed to send a political message, while their use, particularly in the hands of Iran’s proxy forces in the region, “is designed to affect local outcomes.”

A Sayyad 2 missile is fired by the Talash air defense system during drills in an undisclosed location in Iran in 2018. (Photo: Iranian Army via AP)

A Sayyad 2 missile is fired by the Talash air defense system during drills in an undisclosed location in Iran in 2018. (Photo: Iranian Army via AP)

A Sayyad 2 missile is fired by the Talash air defense system during drills in an undisclosed location in Iran in 2018. (Photo: Iranian Army via AP)

The missile force has delivered a high return on investment, according to Taleblu. “By investing in something like ballistic missiles, which can be relatively cheap, it can force its adversaries to spend larger sums of money on ballistic missile defense,” he said. 

“Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability to dissuade its adversaries in the region – particularly the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia – from attacking Iran,” says “Iran Military Power.” It was missiles from this arsenal that Iran used Tuesday night to strike at U.S. forces at Erbil and al-Asad air bases in Iraq. The strikes caused no U.S. casualties, but satellite photographs appear to show significant damage to the bases, giving an indication of the missiles’ accuracy.

Iran’s strategy for the past 20 years has been to use its asymmetric capabilities “to bait and bleed America in different theaters in the Middle East,” Taleblu said. “In this kind of fighting, raw capability – numbers, assets – matters a lot less than resolve.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a military parade held to mark the National Army Day in Tehran, Iran on April 18, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a military parade held to mark the National Army Day in Tehran, Iran on April 18, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a military parade held to mark the National Army Day in Tehran, Iran on April 18, 2019. (Photo: Iranian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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