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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The United States and the Iranian Policy of Escalation

A billboard displayed in Tehran in May 2019 and posted on Supreme Leader Khamenei’s webpage showing U.S. and Israeli ships ablaze in Persian Gulf waters.

Executive Summary

  • The wave of demonstrations in Iran following the regime’s decision to raise the price of gasoline by 50 percent is the most important manifestation of the impact of the “Maximum Pressure” policy of the United States toward Iran. It reflects the shortage of resources available to the regime due to the shrinking of its oil exports income and the widespread animosity of the Iranian people toward the Islamic regime, and it adds to the challenges Iran is facing in maintaining its grip over two of its most important assets would-be colonies, Iraq and Lebanon.
  • Even if the Iranian regime manages to repress the popular outrage against it on all fronts, the recent events, combined with Israeli continuous attacks on Iranian military targets in Syria and allegedly also in Iraq and in Lebanon, and the imposition of even more American sanctions on Iran, put the Mullahs’ regime in Tehran under unprecedented pressure, vulnerability, and concern.
  • The harsh Iranian response was revealed in the impressive military attack on the Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, 2019, and the resumption of uranium enrichment in the Fordow deep underground facility. The Iranian offensive steps reflected the Iranian leadership’s frustration after the failure of its escalating brinksmanship policy. That desperate policy included attacks against American allies such as Israel, adopted after the “maximum pressure” sanctions were applied in May 2019 in an attempt to force the United States out of the “comfort zone” of a tough sanctions regime.
  • After the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, the United States understood the nature of this familiar Iranian trap and its twisted logic and was careful to avoid retaliation. This American policy, which seemed to many as counterintuitive, earned President Trump considerable criticism, including from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
  • As the policy of escalating brinksmanship backfires on Iran, and with the growing tensions with the IAEA after the agency confirmed Israeli claims about the presence of unaccounted for and undeclared enriched uranium in Turquzabad, it is not clear what decisions will be taken by the Iranian leadership. The extreme radical elements in it may call on Iran to take even higher risks. On the other hand, the realistic radicals in the Iranian regime, led by President Rouhani, may advocate a resumption of negotiations with the United States, fearing that as time goes by, the opening position of Iran – that is already weak – may become even weaker.
  • The Iranian regime believes it can pursue its goals of survival, spreading the Islamic faith, and preventing foreign intervention in its area of influence, in spite of its limitations, as long as it can shape the conflict with the United States and its allies as a war of attrition of which it has built up its capabilities for a very long time. Yet the American cautiousness may make these capabilities less relevant.

* * *

The wave of demonstrations in Iran following the regime’s decision to raise the price of gasoline by 50 percent is the most important manifestation of the impact of the “Maximum Pressure” policy of the United States toward Iran. It reflects the shortage of resources available to the regime due to the shrinking of its oil exports income and the widespread animosity of the Iranian people toward the Islamic regime, and it adds to the challenges Iran is facing in maintaining its grip over two of its most important would-be colonies, Iraq and Lebanon. Even if Iran manages to repress the popular outrage against it on all fronts, the recent events, combined with Israeli continuous attacks on Iranian military targets in Syria and allegedly also in Iraq and in Lebanon, and the imposition of even more American sanctions on Iran, put the Mullahs’ regime in Tehran under unprecedented pressure, vulnerability, and concern.

The harsh Iranian response to the pressure was revealed with the impressive Iranian military attack on the Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, 2019, using weapons that were introduced for the first time by Iran (a special kind of attack UAV and the “Quds 1” cruise missile that was until then used only by the Houthis) to maintain deniability. Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment in the Fordow deep underground facility was another manifestation of Iran’s pushback on the pressures. They were striking expressions of how deep and painful were the pressures on Iran caused by the American sanctions. The Iranian offensive steps also reflected the Iranian leadership’s frustration after the failure of its escalating brinksmanship policy adopted after the “maximum pressure” sanctions were applied in May 2019 to force the United States out of the “comfort zone” of a tough sanctions regime.

damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Abqaiq
A satellite image showing damage to oil/gas Saudi Aramco infrastructure at Abqaiq, in Saudi Arabia in this handout picture released by the U.S. Government, September 15, 2019

Initially, Iran attempted to take measures in the nuclear and military realms. Iran encouraged its proxies in the region to act against their common opponents, who are also U.S. allies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. The nature of the attacks indicated that Iran was not looking for a direct confrontation with the United States or its partners, including Israel. The Iranians hoped that these measures would convince Europe to provide Iran with a safety net that would enable the regime to overcome the sanctions. Tehran also hoped that the risk-averse U.S. president would ease the sanctions to avoid the resulting deterioration and a war of attrition conducted by Iran and its proxies. This is a familiar arena for Iran – Iran’s comfort zone – in which Iran has certain advantages. Iran’s interest is to avoid any escalation into a full-scale war, in which the United States would enjoy a clear advantage, but to push the brinksmanship to the point where it appeared that Iran retained the option of full-scale war. At a certain point, such attrition was avoided thanks to President Trump’s aborting a military attack against Iranian targets 10 minutes before launching the retaliatory strike for the downing of a U.S. drone.

After the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, the United States understood the nature of this familiar Iranian trap and its twisted logic and was careful to avoid it. Instead, the Americans decided to lever the Iranian move and put more pressure on Iran by imposing even harsher economic sanctions. On October 31, 2019, the United States sanctioned the Iranian construction sector and banned a list of materials that can be used by Iran for its nuclear program. The United States also urged the Europeans to convey to Tehran the message that it has to resume negotiations on a new nuclear deal and regional security while the sanctions remain in place. France is considering imposing sanctions on Iran due to its breach of the JCPOA. (France24, November 27, 2019)

At the same time, widespread protests broke out in Lebanon and Iraq, countries that Iran sees as client-states that it can control and manipulate to challenge the United States and its allies. The protests were directed against Iran and its local proxies and have rapidly developed into a threat to the Iranian grip over the governments in Lebanon and Iraq. Economic demonstrations in both countries were catalyzed by the sanctions on Iran that had a direct impact on the Lebanese economy and Iran’s ability to support its Hizbullah and Popular Mobilization Forces surrogates in Lebanon and Iraq, respectively.

This American policy, which seemed to many as counterintuitive, earned President Trump considerable criticism, including from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Trump’s decision not to use force coincided with his decision to withdraw American troops from most of northeastern Syria and expose the Kurds, who had fought with the United States against ISIS, to a Turkish offensive. In this case, too, Trump tried to protect the Kurds by threatening to impose economic sanctions on Turkey if Ankara went beyond a reasonable use of force, and the United States continued cooperation with the Kurds on other issues (fighting ISIS and securing the oil fields). Arguably, the deterrence power of the United States was damaged, and critics raised doubts about the reliability of the United States as a superpower and an ally. However, American policy seems to succeed in putting more pressure on Iran, and in fact, the two cases are quite different. After defeating ISIS, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict was not considered anymore by Trump as a critical national security matter, whereas Iranian behavior remains a significant national security challenge for the United States.

Burning U.S. battle ship
A close-up of the Iranian billboard posted in downtown Tehran in May 2019.

As the policy of escalating brinksmanship backfires on Iran, and with the growing tensions with the IAEA after the agency confirming Israeli claims about the presence of unaccounted for and undeclared enriched uranium in Turquzabad, it is not clear what decisions will be taken by the Iranian leadership. The extreme radical elements in it, led by Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, may argue that the failure is due to the fact that not enough was done to counteract American pressure and call on Iran to take even higher risks. The main area in which Iran moves in this direction is the nuclear realm. With the reactivation of 1,044 centrifuges in the Fordow deep underground facility and the first activation of a large cascade of IR-6 centrifuges, the Iranians are shortening considerably with every passing week the time they need to produce enough fissile material for a first nuclear device – so far with no repercussions from the IAEA and from the Europeans, Russia, and China – the parties committed to the JCPOA. Other possibilities include another attack on oil facilities, on Israel (most probably from Syria or Iraq), or an attack on American targets in the region that may force a wide-scale American reaction that Supreme Leader Khamenei is trying to avoid. The possibility that Iran may choose this line of action is probably the reason political and military Israeli leaders are concerned about an Iranian attack against Israel as Iran has already tried several times recently with zero successes while sustaining several casualties and loss of significant equipment within its ranks. In a way, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad efforts to escalate the situation in Gaza, which led to the killing of its key terror operative, Baha Abu Alataa, by Israel, was a reflection of his understanding of the expectations of Iran and particularly Soleimani, from its proxy.

On the other hand, the realistic radicals in the Iranian regime, led by President Rouhani, may advocate a resumption of negotiations with the United States, fearing that as time goes by the opening position of Iran – that is already weak – may weaken further, and the outcome may be more dangerous for the regime, not less, than the ongoing sanctions. Whatever Supreme Leader Khamenei decides, the most immediate challenge he has to deal with is the widespread popular protests in Iran. They seem to be wider and more intense than previous rounds of protest and may not only erode the regime’s image and power projection but endanger the regime’s stability, and the protests in Lebanon and Iraq. In both these countries, the Shiite communities – Iran’s natural allies – joined or even led the protests. This doubles the risk and the embarrassment to the ayatollahs’ regime.

Escalation in Alternating Comfort Zones in the Iran-U.S. Confrontation

The Basic Logic and Capabilities of Iran

How come Iran, which is far from being a superpower of the same magnitude of the United States, is ready to confront America (and U.S. allies) with all its might? Is it an uncalculated risk taken by Iran due to frustration and despair, or is there more than what meets the eye?

To begin with, it stems from its self-perception as the Islamic Republic, a country motivated and fulfilling a Divine mission to spread the message of Islam to humankind. This means that Iran is destined to be victorious, as it is inconceivable that Allah will abandon his nation of followers, especially when Iran is facing decaying societies of disbelievers, who, with their sanctions, are proving the believers to be righteous. The Quran is very clear in stating that “permission (to wage Jihad) is given to those who are fought against because they are vindicated, and God is capable of helping them” (Quran 22, 39). Muslims are allowed to exercise caution and delay confrontation as Prophet Mohammad did when he decided not to enter Mecca in 628 and concluded the Hudaybiyya Agreement with his opponents because he realized that his chances to win a war against them were slim. But ultimately, Muslims cannot give up their strategic goals. When it was propitious, well before the agreement expiration date, Mohammed voided the Agreement, entered Mecca and took it over without a fight. What the United States demands from Iran is interpreted in Tehran as a fundamental change of its identity by relinquishing its mission to spread Islam. Giving up the nuclear ambitions is seen as the first and most important proof of that since the well-documented goal to have a military nuclear arsenal is destined to help Iran fulfill its Divine mission.

This means that the option of real change in Iranian policy under this regime is almost impossible. The real goal of the U.S. Administration – from the Ayatollah’s perspective – is to change the regime, even if it does not overtly declare it. The Islamic government is, therefore, ready to use all means to protect itself against this American plot supported by Saudi Arabia and Israel. With Allah’s help and the wisdom that Allah endowed on his earthly representative, the Supreme Leader Khamenei, Iran will emerge victorious without a doubt. To achieve this goal, the Iranians believe that it is allowed to dissimulate (a practice called Taqiyya, and this may explain many of their lies).

But even with Iran’s religious zeal and divine support, which are essential for success, it may not be sufficient for Iran to undertake this policy of escalation. The other reason they feel able and confident is that Iranians believe that they know something about their own capabilities that the enemy, namely the United States, does not know. The Iranian leadership and especially the hardliners within it believe they are prepared on all relevant aspects for the kind of conflict that could unravel, specifically their readiness for prolonged attrition through asymmetric warfare. In this, Iran believes it is superior to the Americans who lack both the spirit and the capabilities for fighting the kind of war that Iran is going to shape and that Iran has already spent years preparing. They may be wrong, but they should not be underestimated. Iranians consider the eight-year-long Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988) to be their “Holy Defense War,” in which they lost as many as 500,000 soldiers.

Ever since the Islamic Republic was established, and especially after the war with Iraq, it developed its capabilities to achieve three objectives:

  1. Protect the regime against domestic threats, which are the most dangerous. For that purpose, the Islamic Republic built the Revolutionary Guards, the home guard Basij (“The Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed), and other capabilities whose task is to suppress ruthlessly any Iranian opposition at home and abroad.
  2. Spread the Islamic faith as the regime perceives it in the region, establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran as the hegemon power in the Middle East and within the Islamic world so that globally, its ideology will replace Western values as the basis of the world order. The primary tools Iran applies for this purpose are the Quds Forces of the Revolutionary Guards, led by Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the various Iranian proxies in the Middle East and around the globe (most prominent among them is the Lebanese Hizbullah), and the military nuclear program. Another important tool in this respect is the robust array of media, education, and cyber tools Iran and its proxies developed and use for the cognitive campaign to spread their ideology.
  3. Prevent hostile foreign intervention by the West, and primarily by the United States, to foil Iran’s efforts to achieve the former two goals. This is to be done by taking advantage of the West’s weaknesses displayed in its reluctance to risk the lives of its soldiers and civilians and by building an Iranian force that can exact a price on the West it is not prepared to pay, if it dares to try to force Iran to give up any of the two previous goals.
Missile from a recent Iranian test launch. “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth” reads the inscription in Hebrew. (Iran’s Fars News Agency)
An Iranian missile upon which is written in Hebrew “Israel must be erased off the face of the earth.” (Iranian press)

All the military resources mentioned above are relevant to achieving this goal, but in addition to them, especially until Iran has a nuclear weapons arsenal, other means were acquired. For instance, an impressive naval capability has been built to exact a price on any hostile navy (submarines, fast explosive boats, land-to-sea missiles, drones, cruise missiles, long-range ballistic missiles, submersible weapons, and maritime mines). In addition, Iran has an impressive capability to attack American forces in the region and U.S. allies (by using the proxies and the vast stores of advanced missiles, including cruise missiles and a variety of Iranian-designed UAVs and drones). And utilizing the dormant terror cells Iran has deployed around the world, including in key Western countries, the Iranians may try to harm the West on its own territory. Iran has also improved its air defense posture, based on advanced Russian systems and locally produced anti-air missiles, and on a broad scale, Iran can physically protect strategic assets after building extensive underground facilities. On top of that, Iran has developed a strong capability to conduct cyber warfare to complement and support war efforts.

The Iranian regime realizes that the probability of a ground assault against it is minimal, and that is why, since the war with Iraq, Iran is not investing much in conventional military capabilities, such as tanks and the Iranian air force. Instead, Iran invests in capabilities, which are necessary for achieving the three above-mentioned goals – defend against domestic opposition, block foreign intervention, and spread the Iranian Shiite faith.

This analysis reflects the fluctuation of comfort zones between Iran and its adversaries. As long as the West allowed Iran to promote its goals under the shadow of the United States’ risk aversion, Iran was in its comfort zone and proceeded with its relentless efforts to advance them. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reflected the Western fear of confrontation with Iran and created a situation that guaranteed a prolonged period in the comfort zone for Iran that would enable it to acquire a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. In this comfort zone, Iran effectively promoted its strategic goals.

But the re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran aggressively forced Iran out of its comfort zone. The sanctions undermined the Iranian regime’s ability to perform as it was accustomed to regarding the protection of the regime and spreading its ideology. The tools prepared by Iran through all these years cannot cope with sanctions. This was already evident in 2012-2014 when international sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations with the P5+1 that led to the JCPOA.

The natural Iranian response, therefore, is to try to reframe the situation so that it will return Iran to its comfort zone, in which its capabilities will become relevant again. Iran tried to no avail to do it by escalating on several fronts – specifically, the nuclear, maritime oil exports, and the U.S. allies’ fronts – hoping that this will convince Europe to compensate Iran for the losses it suffered due to the American policy of maximum pressure. Tehran could return to its previous comfort zone or force the U.S. government to act militarily in a limited manner, thus providing Iran a pretext to employ its capabilities in a new comfort zone – an asymmetrical war of attrition. Iran has prepared itself for such a conflict for so long, and, though it would rather avoid it, Iran may use it to overwhelm the American sanctions.

President Trump was wise not to fall in the Iranian trap and avoided a military response to the interception of an American UAV. By doing so, he kept both sides in the American comfort zone and raised the pressure on Iran. The Iranian regime is concerned that it will not be able to avoid the impact of the Maximum Pressure on its stability until after Trump leaves office (the wait-out option), and looking at what happens in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, it is worried. The frustration in Iran was first translated into further brinksmanship and controlled escalation that is manifested by more severe breaches of the JCPOA and more daring acts against Israel. When these efforts failed, the frustration led to the operationally impressive, yet risky and poorly disguised attack against the Saudi oil facilities. The Iranian regime may have believed that these actions would enable it eventually to force the United States to react militarily and lead eventually to negotiations with the United States about a future deal from an Iranian position of strength, but as the United States decided to avoid the trap, the result may be the exact opposite. Washington could keep up the maximum pressure and further strengthen it by showing the credibility of its military option, so that eventually the mullahs will have to enter negotiations from a weak starting point, to save the Islamic regime and to minimize the compromises they may have to be ready to make.

Appendix – Iranian Capabilities and Their Logic

Iranian military doctrine is geared towards a strategy in which all its capabilities are utilized in a joint approach to maximize the effectiveness of these three goals. These capabilities themselves can be split into internal and external measures, although there is some overlap given the holistic goals discussed above. Internal measures, in the form of violent and non-violent suppression, are designed to protect the regime from domestic threats, while asymmetric warfare constitutes the regime’s external measures for the spread of Islam and deter Western (primarily U.S.) intervention. These capacities can be broken down thus:

Internal Measures

Aim: Protect the regime


  1. Intelligence and Policing – IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), MOIS (Ministry of Intelligence), and LEF (Law Enforcement Force)
  2. Suppression and Intelligence – IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps)
  3. Training and Indoctrination – The Basij (a paramilitary volunteer militia of the IRGC)
  4. Crowd Violence and Intimidation –Vigilante Organizations
  5. Preventing attempts to promote democratization – Exercised through the Islamic Political System


External Measures (Asymmetric Warfare)

Aim: Low-cost, high-impact method for deterrence, exacting a painful price, increasing influence, spreading the Islamic faith within the region and globally, and suppressing exiled opposition


  1. Nuclear Program – Political leadership, MOD (Ministry of Defense), IRGC, AEOI (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran)
  2. Terrorism (including against dissidents) – IRGC, including Quds Force, MOIS
  3. Missiles and UAVs – IRGC and Military
  4. Insurgency and involvement in other conflicts – Military and IRGC Quds Force
  5. Air Defenses – Military
  6. Navy – Military and IRGC
  7. Aggression against oil pipelines and tankers – IRGC
  8. Military capabilities development – MOD military industry and procurement division
  9. Cyber – Military and IRGC
  10. Concealment of Capabilities – Government, Military, and IRGC

It is important to break down these two elements of Iranian capabilities in order to better understand and analyze how they complement each other to form this joint approach, which is designed to achieve all three objectives. Each capability forms one part of an integrated overall strategy, and as such, they often overlap on the goal they are attempting to achieve.

Internal measures include constant repression against the Iranian people, yet it would be incorrect to assume that these capabilities are separate from the doctrine outlined above. The infrastructure these capabilities provide enable the regime’s survival, so that it can continue to further its aims of spreading Islam and reducing the influence of Western states and culture, despite the severe sanctions imposed upon it. These internal measures ensure the survival of the regime by quelling dissent through both violent and non-violent means, and through control of state apparatus, resources, and political power. Despite the complex Iranian system through which power and authority are given, power is primarily concentrated within the office of the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC):

Iran's National Security Establishment

The above diagram (Democracy Arsenal) is perhaps the best formal way to break down the different forces and factions within the Iranian political and security establishment, with its understanding of the relative sizes and connections to each other (Wehrey, et al., 2009b; 44). It fails, however, to present the importance of the IRGC by putting it underneath the secular political offices of the president, for it suggests that the Joint Armed Forces General Staff are in control of it. The IRGC and its elite organization, the Quds Force, report directly to the Supreme Leader, bypassing the regular military who enjoy significantly less control over the internal security of the state, as well as receiving substantially less funding relative to their size. With this understanding, it is easier to analyze the internal security capabilities, which help ensure the success of the first goal: the survival of the regime.

Undoubtedly, the largest and most important internal security role is focused upon intelligence and policing, with the aim of suppressing dissent against the regime, thereby securing its stability. For this, the MOIS (Ministry of Intelligence) and LEF (Law Enforcement Force) hold significant importance. MOIS boasts a force of 30,000 operatives tasked with collecting intelligence and espionage and was before the year 2000 was involved in foreign assassinations, although this has since been curtailed (ibid; 47). As an internal force, they work with the LEF on a diverse portfolio, which ranges from counter-narcotics to serious crime and corruption, as well as anti-regime dissent (ibid). The focus upon serious crime is vital in upholding the legitimacy of the regime, in its ability to provide security for its citizens on these issues, as well as the danger it sees these aspects in undermining velayat-e faqih (the divine justification for the authoritarian rule of the Iranian government), as a form of Western secular largesse. In gathering intelligence on anti-regime dissent, it is able to violently suppress it, either directly through the LEF gendarmerie or indirectly through its sponsorship of vigilante organizations. The U.S. Treasury has designated the LEF as Iran’s national police and claims that its primary function is as one of the “main security apparatuses for maintaining domestic stability,” for which they have been used to crack down on protests (U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2011). In the aftermath of the June 2009 election, they used heavy-handed violence and mass arrests to quash the pro-reform protestors angry at President Ahmadinejad’s victory, some of whom were housed at the Kahrizak detention center, which has been the site of numerous human rights abuses (ibid). For this violence, in 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated both the MOIS and LEF as perpetrating human rights abuses (ibid).

Through the sponsorship of vigilante groups, these organizations are further able to informally enforce the regime’s velayat-e faqih. The RAND Corporation has described these groups as “poorly-educated hooligans” who meet dissent with violence, and while such a view may be accurate, it diminishes their importance within the security system (Wehrey, et al., 2009b; 47). In opposing all foreign and non-Islamic teachings, they are the backbone of the type of Islamic state the ayatollahs are attempting to create, as a physical manifestation of the punishment citizens can receive should they flaunt these rules (TRAC, 2019). As unaffiliated bodies, they can also utilize force without risking a reaction among reformist groups, as they do not officially represent the government, and are therefore able to go beyond enforcing laws. For example, they are often at the center of specific vigilante incidents on campus, such as attacking students for not adhering to strict dress code (despite the lack of formal laws in Iran on the subject) and those protesting unemployment and women’s rights (Track Persia, 2019). Their work with the Basij in attacking student protestors with knives, tear gas, and electric batons has resulted in them being specifically targeted by U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, much like the MOIS and LEF (Al-Jazeera, 2018). Their actual sponsorship by the aforementioned organizations is deep enough to make them semi-official agents of the internal security system. These groups are not loose organizations but have the training and capability to be unleashed when those bodies need them most. Ansar-e Hezbollah, the most infamous of Iran’s vigilante groups, has a level of organization, which suggests government sponsorship, and their roots in the Iran-Iraq war, as well as liberties allowed, confirm this. Whereas citizens are only permitted motorbikes of up to 250cc, security services utilize 1000cc, and as a result so do Ansar-e Hezbollah given their IRGC sponsorship (Rubin, 2001). Other more covert groups are even named after former MOIS operatives; the Saeed Emami Gang is named after a former MOIS deputy accused of murdering intellectuals and dissidents, and they utilize similar tactics to their martyr (Ibid; Goodman, 2010; 106). These organizations are designed to undermine moderation and modernization and polarize the Iranian political landscape. They retain a specific focus on internal issues rather than external, in order to prevent a strong reformist movement against the Islamic state, and thus maintain the security of the regime.

It should be noted, however, that despite the size of the MOIS, the IRGC has mostly replaced it as the primary intelligence organization within Iran over the last decade, primarily because it reports directly to the Supreme Leader. While the MOIS, LEF, and vigilante groups utilize solely violent measures, the IRGC is powerful enough to quell dissent through less-violent means as well, such as arrests and control over much of the country’s infrastructure. Arrests are commonplace, although they are rarely used on a mass-scale and focus largely upon foreign nationals or dual citizens that the security forces believe are working to undermine the regime. These arrests also serve a secondary, external role in punishing countries seen as acting against its aims. The arrest of dual British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe accused with little evidence on charges of spying is one case of a U.S. ally being punished for their alliance with it against Iranian wishes, and U.S. and Swedish dual citizens have also been charged (BBC News, 2019b). In total, 30 dual nationals have been arrested since 2015, mostly on espionage charges, with no evidence provided in order to punish other countries.

Yet of greater importance is the IRGC’s near-monopoly over much of the country’s infrastructure, which they use to ensure their wishes are forced upon citizens and also prevent the dissemination of dissent and Western ideals. In the wake of the 2009 protest, all intelligence agencies were consolidated under the control of the IRGC Intelligence Organization, therefore bringing the intelligence community under their purview (Banerjea, 2015; 94). Following the privatization of the internet in the same year, the IRGC bid for a large provider share, and now has control over the internet and telecoms, through which they are able to directly post public denouncements of suspected dissenters (Ibid; 102-104). IRGC officers also preside over supposedly independent organizations such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), ensuring that all forms of media within the country are sympathetic and share, as well as export, the same interests as the IRGC itself (Wehrey, et al., 2009a; 37). Further, their control over critical aspects of the economy have enabled them to mold Iran in the way the Supreme Leader desires, and it is estimated that they control a third of the Iranian economy, although other estimates place this number even higher (BBC News, 2019). The privatization initiative in Iran led to the selling off of $120bn of public assets, 83 percent of which became owned by quasi-governmental agencies such as the IRGC (Ibid).

Consequently, the organization controls pipelines, airports, illegal jetties, and a major bank, while the Khatem al-Anbiya engineering firm (controlled by the IRGC) receives massive infrastructure projects such as the $342m Chah Bahar seaport in 2007 and $850m oil and gas development project in 2010 (Banerjea, 2015; 104). The Ghorb engineering wing handles these contracts and employs tens of thousands of Iranians, further integrating themselves within Iranian life and linking loyalty to the regime to financial security (BBC News, 2019). Despite criticism within Iran – some from Ayatollah Khamenei himself – regarding this monopoly, it seems unlikely it will end in the near future, and even partially explains the Iranian response to U.S. sanctions. The Revolutionary Guards’ involvement in the economy has made their leadership vulnerable to sanctions, and consequently, the aggressive approach towards the United States has been shaped by the financial impact (Banerjea, 2015; 104-105). Through this economic control, they are able to exert pressure on the Iranian populace to be loyal to the regime and themselves. Those who show this loyalty gain employment, money, and status, whereas dissenters face public humiliation and potential arrest. The result is consolidation of the regime’s internal security by pressuring citizens through a reward versus punishment system to show loyalty and in so doing provide legitimacy while minimizing dissent against the regime.

Not all these security services are designed for intimidation or top-down control, however. The Basij serves an important internal security function through its training and indoctrination operations, which use soft authority to make loyalty to the regime more appealing, and also serve a further external function (Wehrey, et al., 2009b; 47). Their main goal is “instilling in [their membership] devotion to the Iranian regime and its politicized interpretation of Shi’a Islam,” and for this there are significant social and financial benefits (Ostovar, 2013; 347). Members gain some training in weaponry, but this is largely inconsistent and therefore, remains on the “human wave” level utilized within the Iran-Iraq war. At the same time, benefits to network, privilege, and monetary gain are major draws for citizens to join and stay loyal to them and the regime (Ibid; 348). Such benefits are in line with the Basij’s transformation since 2009 to focus primarily on social and internal matters, as opposed to their military role. Brig.-Gen. Mohamad-Reza Nadi, Basij chief, epitomized this shift in a 2009 interview, in which he claimed that:

The word ‘force’ [niru] has military connotations, and the Basij is an entity that goes far beyond just military affairs…This change [to ‘Organization’] was aimed at helping us to become free from military work, which…took up a lot of the organization’s time and energy. Therefore, in order for us to be able to pay sufficient attention to the other aspects of our work and plan ahead for them, the military dimensions of the Basij’s work were transferred to the ground forces of the IRGC…. In this manner, the Basij will be more involved in the social, scientific, and development arenas, and will make endeavors to ensure continual and systematic progress in the country’s development (Ibid; 350).

It should be noted, however, that despite the shift away from their military role, this “soft” authority is utilized in combination with physical suppression. In overseeing civilian behavior, part of the Basij role includes “emergency management” which means the suppression of dissident gatherings, such as in 2009, where they were responsible for the deaths of seven anti-Ahmadinejad protestors (BBC News, 2009). The Basij are also seeking a greater role abroad, and as such, they are one of several “internal” forces that serve multiple objectives. They, alongside the Quds forces and other Iranian foreign-militia proxies, were heavily involved in the fighting in Syria, in order to find future IRGC commanders within their ranks and bolster their abilities to fight in the event of major domestic or external disturbances (Nadimi, 2016).

It is difficult to fully comprehend fully the impact of the Basij on Iranian society, or whether they would pose a significant defensive volunteer force against a potential U.S.-motivated and supported wide unrest or invasion (as has been claimed by members of the Iranian regime), due to the impossibility of accurately assessing its membership. Iranian officials claim it has a size of up to 20,000,000, whereas the Centre for Strategic and International Studies places this number at closer to 1.5 million, with 90,000 full-time staff, 300,000 reservists, and 1,000,000 affiliates (BBC News, 2009). Other assessments believe the organization has 3,000,000 regular members, 800,000 active members, and 200,000 social members, for a total of 4,000,000, although claim it could be anywhere between 1.5 million and 15 million (Ostovar, 2013; 345). Thus, the Basij serve a multi-functional role within the Iranian military-security nexus, through their soft focus on training and indoctrination, repressive measures in emergency events, and fighting abroad to cement the regime’s interests in other regional powers.

Finally, the realization of velayat-e faqih (the divine justification for the rule of the Iranian government) limits internal dissent through the centralization of power in the Islamic political system, in which democracy plays a minimal role. Table 3.2 (above) is correct in placing the elected president and his ministers below the office of Supreme Leader; although there are elections for these positions, their role (and so the input of Iranian citizens) is always lesser than that of the Ayatollah. Perhaps the best example of the lack of political power within the political realm came in 2011, when President Ahmadinejad fired incompetent intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi, only to be forced to reinstate him when Khamenei publicly reinstated him(Banerjea, 2015; 98).

By protecting itself from domestic threats, the regime is able to focus its resources towards the achievement of goals two and three – spreading the Islamic faith and preventing hostile foreign intervention by the West – despite the severe conditions its citizens suffer as a result of its policies and the civil unrest this causes. These capabilities also form a significant part of the regime’s external measures, through the major control exercised over them and foreign policy more generally by the IRGC and Quds Forces, and thus form a joint approach overseen by the latter organizations.

Iran practices asymmetric warfare because while it is far too weak militarily to defeat the United States, it can still have a significant impact upon the United States and its allies, as well as furthering its own goals by influencing other countries and exacting from the United States a high price for interfering in the pursuit of its goals. Undoubtedly, the most obvious example of this is Iran’s nuclear weapon’s program; not only does it negate the disparity in military strength between Iran and the world’s primary superpower, it has also enabled Khamenei’s regime to strengthen its domestic position with the lifting of sanctions under the JCPOA. Yet, despite the global focus on the issue, Iran is able to pose a more direct threat through its sponsorship of terrorism. This sponsorship has expanded significantly over time and involves proxies within the Middle East, as well as worldwide sleeper cells.

Iran sponsors its proxies Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terror organizations in Gaza, the Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen with the objective of increasing its influence within the region, spreading the revolution, and threatening major U.S. allies. Some of these organizations focus upon Israel, frequently attacking Israel via rocket attacks in the hope of causing damage, weakening the resilience of its Jewish-Zionist population, and provoking an Israeli military response to delegitimize it, as occurred in the 2014 Cast Lead Operation. Other groups have enabled Iran to attack Saudi infrastructure without bringing consequences upon itself. Having these militant groups situated on the borders of a U.S. ally also acts as a deterrent against Western offensive action against Iran, with the violent retaliatory threat posed by these groups to crucial allies. Yet of perhaps equal importance is the political infiltration these proxies have enabled. Both Hizbullah and Hamas effectively run their respective territories, allowing Iran to pursue its interests far from its border, not merely with regard to assaults upon Israel, but also undermining the domestic politics of other Arab states to their own advantage, providing it with a physical presence beyond Iran’s borders, and preventing anti-Iran unity between Middle Eastern states. Support for insurgent groups is thus a natural extension of exporting the revolution while reducing the influence of the United States within the region (Nader, 2013; 25-27).

Further afield, Iran has engaged in the development of both active and sleeper cells in an asymmetric fashion to advance the objectives outlined above. Iranian active sleeper cells have attempted to enact numerous attacks against Jews and Israeli nationals abroad, as punishment for Israeli actions against both Iran and its proxies, to act as a further deterrent, and exact a high price from the United States for its intervention within the region. Undoubtedly, the most notable Iranian sponsored attacks, in which Iranian officials were directly involved, were the 1983 attacks in Beirut against the U.S. Embassy (63 people murdered), the U.S. Marine compound (241 people killed) and the French force compound (58 people murdered); the 1996 Khobar Tower bombing (19 people killed); and the two attacks in Buenos Aires against the Israeli embassy (1992, 34 people murdered); and the AMIA bombing (1994, 86 people killed).

The attacks against U.S. and French targets proved to be very successful from an Iranian point of view as they led to the withdrawal of these countries’ forces from Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The attacks in Argentina deliberately targeted Jewish and Israeli sites, reflecting Iran’s interest in antagonizing and punishing the Jewish state, its citizens, and Jews worldwide. Iran never paid any price for these attacks. Other attacks have been attempted around the world: in Bulgaria, Thailand, Kenya, and others (Levitt, 2019). The majority of these have been foiled by state security agencies, occasionally assisted by the Israeli intelligence, as occurred recently in Uganda (Kampala Post, 2019), yet the frequency and breadth of states targeted suggests the regime’s reach and ability, and occasionally, some of them materialized and caused Israeli and other casualties.

Sleeper Cells

Sleeper cells pose a different deterrent, as they can be activated whenever Iran wishes to strike back against those who act in opposition to it. The main threat they pose is as a homeland option to strike against the United States, should it directly threaten Iran’s internal stability (as it currently does with sanctions and its withdrawal from the JCPOA) or its attempts to spread and export the revolution. This homeland terror option was expounded by a captured Hizbullah operative in the United States, Ali Kourani, in 2017. He claimed that Iran was “determined to give itself a potential homeland option” through the elite Hizbullah Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO), otherwise known as the 910 unit or “Black Ops of Hizbullah” (Levitt, 2019). These have been more active in Canada than the United States, yet their relatively easy border crossings and laxer Canadian security enable planning of operations upon U.S. soil to be launched from within Canada. As such, Hizbullah surveillance operations have targeted airports, with vulnerable staff persuaded to consciously or unconsciously provide security details for these targets. By increasing their presence in nearby countries such as Canada and Guyana, Iran has gained a malevolent capability close to the United States, from which attacks can be enacted (Levitt, 2016). Such attacks have been attempted, including the 2011 attempt on the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors in Washington, D.C. (Esposito and Ross, 2011). More worrying is the willingness of South American countries to enable terrorism planning for their own financial gain, as has happened with the cover-up of the AMIA attack by senior Argentine government figures for the benefit of a lucrative trading deal with Iran. While this may merely be an outlier, the worsening relations between the Trump administration and some Central and South American countries may make this option more appealing.

Other sleeper cells perform similar functions in threatening U.S. allies and trading partners but have moved into the organized crime industry to fund themselves, undermine these countries further, and gain recruits for their operations. The most notable example of this is Brazil, in which large-scale weapons smuggling has benefited the gangs and cartels across Brazil. This, along with the recruitment, brainwashing, and training of local youths through “cultural” centers and Shiite mosques have provided Iran with a high number of armed and ideologically-driven youth who represent a new generation of native operators in Brazil, ready to attack when required (Ibid). Kourani also admitted to activities outside of operational ones, with significant efforts to engage in money laundering and weapons smuggling to create ties with domestic U.S. gangs, thus cementing their place within the organized crime system and providing them access to valuable allies within the United States itself (Levitt, 2019). Consequently, while former IRGC commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari’s claim that Iran could mobilize up to 200,000 armed youth abroad may be hyperbole, the truth is that Iran is developing a strong network of operators abroad, ready to strike in the event of war with the United States. These operatives are becoming engrained within the criminal world and pose a dangerous homeland threat (and thus deterrent) to the United States (Levitt, 2019).

In this way, Iran’s strategy of terror is perhaps their most critical operational capability. Not only are they able to exert influence, or even control within other Middle Eastern states (and so, export the revolution), they are able to threaten U.S. allies and wield a deterrent, which they have proved willing to use around the world. The development of a homeland option, though incomplete, provides Iran with an immediate strike-back option should the United States threaten their internal or external objectives, while the threat their proxies pose to U.S. allies offers yet another deterrent to US offensive action.

It is also convenient for Iran to further its goals through the sponsorship of other dictatorial regimes, for which it exacts a high price. Along with Russia, Iran has ensured the survival of the Assad regime in Syria from internal rebel forces, ISIS, and foreign threats; without its support, the Assad regime could not have survived. For its invaluable assistance, Iran has built several permanent military bases in Syria, housing tens of thousands of soldiers subordinate to Iran to expand its physical sphere of influence and striking-capacity hundreds of miles outside its own borders (Bachner, 2018). It also enabled Iran to provide Hizbullah with the technology and means to upgrade its rocket capabilities, through which their proxy’s capabilities are further enhanced. Some of these bases are located close to Syria’s border with Israel, one of the United States’ major allies in the region, and thus pose a more direct threat to anti-Iranian interests (Ibid). In combination with its sponsorship of Hizbullah in Lebanon and militant factions within Gaza and the West Bank, Israel is now faced with hostile and determined military forces on four of its borders, posing a significant threat to its security. The same pattern characterizes the way Iran is taking advantage of the weakness of the government of Iraq to become the dominant player in the Iraqi political and military scene and to use Iraqi territory to its advantage. Iran played a key role, directly and through local Shiite militias, in containing ISIS and the Kurds and forcing the Iraqi government to legitimize the militias (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) and integrate them into the Iraqi military. Iran sought to use Iraqi territory for its purposes like delivering weapons to Syria, attacking Saudi Arabia and American targets and interests, and accumulating arms that can hit Israel from afar but cannot reach Israel from Iran itself. The Iranian support to the Houthis in Yemen is a similar case too. Such bases enable Iran to exert pressure and expand its own influence across the region through the physical manifestation of its military power large distances outside of Iran’s borders.


Ballistic Missiles


Range (Km)

Warhead (Kg)



Zelzal 1





Fateh 110

200-300 (Depends on generation)




Khalij Fars





Hormuz 1/2





Fateh 313





Zelzal 2





Qiam 1





Ghadr 101





Shahab 3


























Improvement of Shahab 3



Shahab 4



Shahab 5




Shahab 6




The development of ballistic and cruise missiles and long-range rockets poses a genuine threat to the United States and its allies; despite the supposed ban of ICBM development, the IRGC holds the capacity to target not only U.S. allies in the region, but poorly-defended U.S. strategic military bases. On top of that, the Iranian missiles can hit with precision sensitive strategic targets in the region, such as oil facilities, transportation, and communication centers that may affect the security of the United States and its allies. Iranian missile capability can be broken down thus:

Cruise Missiles


Range (Km)

Warhead (Kg)


Ya Ali




Quds 1 (resembles the Ya Ali or the Soumar; was used by the Houthis from Yemen and by Iran in the attack against Aramco)1










Soumar and Quds 1 missiles
Note the general similarity of the the Soumar missile (top) to the Quds 1 (bottom).

There are two essential aspects highlighted by this list. Firstly, the alternate designations of many missiles suggest these missiles have been reverse-engineered for Iran to produce its own missiles; many systems bear a striking similarity to several foreign weapon imports (Global Security, 2019; Lewis, 2019). This is in keeping with Iran’s desire to locally produce its own weaponry and equipment for propaganda purposes, as well as lowering production costs and ensuring a supply of up-to-date weaponry development regardless of sanctions. Secondly, the lack of available ICBMs represents a major weakness in Iran’s nuclear program. As the list suggests, however, the regime is attempting to develop its own and has been for the past few years. Despite Khamenei’s claim in December 2017 that Iran would not develop missiles with a range exceeding 2000km (i.e. ICBMs), reports suggest that space launches could provide a pathway to ICBMs, hence the focus upon space technology over the last few years (Davenport, 2017; 31-32). Despite two failed satellite launches in January and February 2019, as well as a fire at their space agency, Iran plans to launch three satellites by March 2020, the development of which will aid the regime’s long-term goal (Gambrell, 2019; Mehr News Agency, 2019). Should the regime develop ICBM capabilities, it will pose a threat to U.S. national security, regardless of whether their nuclear program is weaponized, by presenting a strike-back option which can strike U.S. soil.

Further, in combination with a successful nuclear program, this could create a scenario similar to that of the Cold War should the regime develop a sufficient number of nuclear armaments. Yet even without ICBMs, missiles with a range of up to 2000km can still strike key U.S. positions and allies within the region, such as military bases and targets within Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, both from proxies in other countries and even from within Iran itself (Sankaran, 2015; 10). Such a capability acts not merely as a deterrent upon U.S. action, but threatens all Middle Eastern countries, stifling attempts to interfere in its proxies and sympathetic Shiite communities and cultural centers which can help perpetuate Iranian interests across the region.

Air Defense

Iran’s new air defenses pose yet another threat to the region and the security of U.S. interests. The recent shooting down of a sophisticated Global Hawk U.S. drone proves that Iranian missile systems are significantly more developed than previously assumed, assisted by the purchase of 32 advanced S-300 systems from Russia in 2015 (Moutot, 2019). More important than the systems themselves is the ability of Iran to reverse-engineer them to create Iranian systems, such as the Bavar 373 long-range road-mobile surface-to-air missile system (recently unveiled by President Hassan Rouhani, and with the ability to detect 100 targets and activate six weapons systems at once), SAM Tabas and SAM Raad (Ibid) (Reuters, Associated Press and Chris Dyer, 2019). These are significant for several reasons: first, they pose yet another threat to any possible invasion by threatening opposing air forces, and they limit intelligence-gathering by intercepting surveillance UAVs. Second, the more crucial element to the air defense development is that these can be copied, reproduced, and sent to Iranian proxies around the region, thus increasing their capabilities and further Iranian influence and objectives.

Iran’s leadership unveils the Bavar-373 missile defense system
Iran’s leadership unveils the Bavar-373 missile defense system in August 2019, which they claim is more advanced than the U.S. Patriot system or the Russian S-300. (Tehran Times, August 23, 2019)

UAV and Drones

The development of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) has similarly been a focus of the regime’s military development process, due to their low cost yet impressive capacity. The capture of U.S. technology has assisted this development. Iran can now utilize aircraft to strike at targets more than 1000km away from its borders, including U.S. targets and interests. Iran can cheaply and effectively arm its Shiite proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen (Staff, 2018c). These UAVs have grown in quantity and quality. They have been used for the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, forays into Israel, Houthi attacks against Saudi infrastructure such as airports, monitored US aircraft carrier movements and carried out attacks against Kurdish militias in Iraq, which had targeted the IRGC (Frantzman, 2019).

Attack UAVs


Range (km)

Service Ceiling (m)

Payload (kg)


Qods Saeghe












Ababil 2















Mohajer 6





Saegheh 2





Shahed 129

1,700 (control likely limited to 300-400)




Unnamed delta-shaped wings UAV produced by Shahed Aviation Industries2



These developments form part of an ongoing process for Iran to produce its own weaponry and equipment. In the short-term, this reduces their capability and effectiveness, yet in the long run, it will enable the regime to arm itself with high-level weaponry on a far more cost-effective and independent basis. These armaments and equipment not only protect the regime from external threats, but they also represent a new and efficient way to export the regime ideology and influence through its proxies and target both the US and its allies in the region.

Iranian delta-winged UAV
One of the Iranian delta-winged UAVs used in the attack on Saudi oil facilities.

Naval Capabilities

Other regular military capabilities are utilized asymmetrically to maximize the cost it can exact from its adversaries. It uses these to great effect, as can be seen recently with the seizure of a British oil tanker and the attacks upon others. The importance of the 21-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz, through which 34 percent of global crude oil exports, and 45 percent of global liquid natural gas pass, provides a choke point which Iran uses. The threat to seize tankers alone provides it with a strong negotiating position, and if this fails, it is willing to take action (The Economist, 2019). Its navy is designed for the Strait, with a high number of lightly-equipped, rapid craft and small submarines, as opposed to conventional military vessels. These relatively inexpensive vehicles are perfectly designed to harass, board, and even attack these vessels, as occurred with the attacks in May 2019 upon UAE, Saudi, and Norwegian ships, the sabotage of two U.S. tankers in June 2019 with limpet mines, and then the seizure of the Stena Impero in July 2019. Such attacks are not merely warnings to not interfere with Iranian intentions, but also have caused economic damage to major U.S. allies, and hint at the harm Iran could inflict were it to close the Strait to all trade. Such an economic attack is retaliation for the near-collapse of the Iranian economy due to sanctions, and as such, has been utilized in an attempt to move the conflict into a new Iranian Comfort Zone. By Iran refusing to show weakness, it is engaging in brinkmanship, testing whether the West is willing to retaliate against Iran or not. If the West chooses to de-escalate the tension, this will ultimately benefit Iran (Ruffini & Reals, 2019).

Such capacity is enabled by the growing capabilities of Iran’s navies, both the IRGCN and IRIN. The former focuses upon fast attack craft, small boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and mines designed for the tight spaces of the Strait of Hormuz. This involves a dedicated naval commando force operating a large number of craft equipped with torpedoes, missiles, and machine guns designed to quickly overwhelm traditional naval vehicles in the tight and shallow depths of the Hormuz (ONI, 2017; 28). These fast attack crafts can reach speeds of 40-50 knots, while Iran’s fast inshore attack craft the Seraj-1, is supposedly the fastest military vessel in the world, reaching 80 knots, and thus perfect for harassing merchant vessels (Ibid; 29). The Siraj is based on the British-made and record-breaking Bradstone Challenger speedboat that was smuggled to Iran and reverse engineered to a militarized craft mass-produced by the IRGC Naval Force.

Iran’s fast boat, the Seraj
Iran’s fast boat, the Seraj, copied from the British Bradstone Challenger, one of the fastest speed boats in the world. (Iran press)

By contrast, the IRIN retains a more traditional navy based upon surface ships and submarines for operations further afield; yet while these ships maintain their functionality, there has been little investment in them since before the Iranian Revolution (Ibid).

One important function, however, carried out clandestinely by Iran’s conventional navy is the provision of weaponry and materiel to Iran’s proxies. After commercial ships, such as the Klos C, Victoria, Francop, and Karine A, were interdicted on the high seas carrying missiles, mortars, ammunition, and anti-ship missiles, Iran sought a new conveyance. The task fell on the Iranian Republic of Iran Navy. Large Navy supply ships such as the Kharg or the Bushehr, accompanied by an Iranian destroyed, docked in Port Sudan and transited the Suez Canal to visit Latakia in Syria, presumably to unload weapons for proxies. (Ben-David, Iran’s Navy, JCPA).

The charts below illustrate the capabilities of both navies:

IRGCN – Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy



Order of Battle


Fast Attack Craft, Missile



Patrol Craft, Coastal, Torpedo



Patrol Craft, Coastal, Missile



Patrol Craft, Coastal, Missile


MK 13

Patrol Craft, Coastal, Missile


C 14

Patrol Craft, Coastal, Missile



Patrol Craft



Patrol Craft, Inshore



Patrol Craft, Inshore



Patrol Craft, Inshore

Multiple – UNK


Patrol Craft, Inshore

Multiple – UNK


Patrol Craft, Inshore

Multiple – UNK


Patrol Craft, Inshore

Multiple – UNK


Patrol Craft, Inshore

Multiple – UNK


Patrol Craft, Inshore

Multiple – UNK


Patrol Craft, Inshore



Landing Ship



Landing Ship



Support Ship








IRIN – Islamic Republic Of Iran Navy
Class Role Order of Battle
Kilo Fast Attack Submarine 3
Fateh Coastal Submarine 1
GHADIR (YONO) Midget Submarine 14
NAHANG Midget Submarine 1
MOWJ (Jamaran) Corvette 2
VOSPER MK 5 Corvette 3
BAYANDOR (PF 103) Corvette 2
KAMAN (COMBATTANTE II) Fast Attack Craft, Missile 13
HENDIJAN Patrol Craft, Missile 3
PARVIN (PGM-71) Patrol Craft, Missile 3
KAYVAN (CAPE) Patrol Craft, Missile 3
US MK III Patrol Craft, Coastal 10
US MK II Patrol Craft, Coastal 6
C 14 Patrol Craft, Coastal 9
FB 40 Patrol Craft, Inshore 6
HENGHAM Landing Ship, Tank 3
KARBALA Landing Ship, Logistic 6
WELLINGTON (MK 4) Hovercraft 2
WELLINGTON (MK 5) Hovercraft 4
KHARG Replenishment Ship 1
BANDAR ABBAS Fleet Supply Ship 2
DELVAR Support Ship 6
SHAHSAVAR Training Ship 1

* Exact numbers are not known, but the IRGCN has hundreds of small boats throughout the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.

Two naval projects have been underway since the turn of the Millennium: Project Sina (initiated in 2003) and the development of the Jamaran-class warships (Ibid; 30). These are designed to replace the aging capital-class battleships and patrol-craft, which severely limit the IRIN’s ability to carry out long-range operations far from Iranian shores. The expiration of UNSCR (UN Security Council Resolution) 2231 in 2020, will further enable the acquisition of sophisticated foreign weapons systems, which it can then reverse engineer to increase capabilities of its naval forces beyond its current means (Ibid; 42).

Several upgrades to existing equipment have recently been implemented, including its first advanced warship defense systems (Staff, 2018a). It is important to note, however, that while the Strait of Hormuz represented the most important aspect of Iranian naval policy, Navy Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi admitted, in announcing the latest upgrades, that they would only be fitted to ships “that carry out missions in deep and distant waters” (Ibid). This is vital, as it suggests that Iranian naval goals are not limited to protecting the homeland and disrupting trade along the Strait of Hormuz, but are intended to pursue Iranian political goals abroad. They are not focused on passive defense, but on preparations for war. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence’s report on the Iranian navies highlights the offensive goals held by both command structures (ONI, 2017; 25):

Iran Coastal Defense Cruise Missle (CDCM) Ranges
Irin Strategic Vision and Out-of-area Port Visits

This Golden Triangle, confirmed by Iranian officials as their sphere of influence, covers a significant area of Asia, North-Eastern Africa, and the Middle East. The map suggests that Iran’s export of the revolution is not merely limited to the Middle East, but includes other areas of interest, which also hold large Muslim populations who may be sympathetic to their cause. The Iranian navies have a significant ability to disrupt economic activity within the Strait of Hormuz and conduct foreign operations, through which it can pursue its goals of exporting the revolution and limiting Western ability to operate within these waters against their wishes. Despite this doctrinal sphere of operations however, it is important to note the relative investment in each of the Iranian navies and their respective areas of operation.

Iranian tanker Saviz with fastboats on the deck
Iranian tanker Saviz with fastboats on the deck, in a semi-permanent anchorage in the Red Sea.

One large and mysterious cargo ship, the Saviz, is probably under the command of the IRGC Navy. The ship has been stationed in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen for several years, an unusual occurrence. Fast boats are lashed to the ship’s decks, high caliber machine guns are on deck, and the mast is adorned with sophisticated antennas suitable for communications, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and possibly directing drones. Serving as a “mother ship,” the Saviz may have provided targeting information to Iranian proxies. (Al-Arabia, 2019)

IRGCN and IRIN Areas of Responsibility

The IRGCN has control over the Persian Gulf and shares the Strait of Hormuz with the IRIN. By contrast, the IRIN has control over operations within and beyond the Gulf of Oman, providing them with the foreign offensive operations mandate. The IRGCN has defensive policy primacy in defending Iranian shores and engaging in asymmetric warfare within the Strait. They also serve an internal function, in the form of policing and anti-smuggling, to ensure that prohibited materials are not entering, or sensitive information leaving the country (Ibid; 23). This is the secondary reason for such a heavy naval investment – maintaining the IRGC’s control over internal intelligence and security. Naval investment is also utilized to increase the capabilities of Iran’s proxies; the Chinese-made C-802 land-to-sea missiles Iran provided to Hizbullah proved effective in increasing Iranian influence in the region with the attack on the Israeli INS Hanit off the coast of Lebanon in 2006, while Houthi rebels in Yemen are able to threaten civilian and military shipping with mines and missiles along the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a key maritime trade route at the opening of the Red Sea (Babbin, 2006) (Knights and Nadimi, 2018). Consequently, interest in pursuing foreign policy objectives abroad has increased, as shown by the increase in investment to the IRIN, which conducts these operations. It would, however, be inaccurate to suggest that this is the primary focus of the naval strategy, given the far higher investment in the IRGCN, and the ability of asymmetric naval warfare to exact a high price to Western interference revealed recently with the ongoing oil tanker seizures and attacks.

Cyber Warfare

Iran does have other, less traditional, military capabilities it can employ to ensure gradual escalation with the United States, such as cyber warfare. The regime has invested heavily not merely in cyber defenses but in offensive capabilities, as can be seen from the below tables, which rates countries’ cyber abilities:

Nation Cyber Offense Cyber Dependence Cyber Defense Total
U.S. 8 2 1 11
Russia 7 5 4 16
China 5 4 6 15
Iran 4 5 3 12
North Korea 2 9 7 18

Nations Intent Offensive Capabilities Intelligence Rating Total
China 4.2 3.8 4 4
U.S. 4.2 3.8 4 4
Russia 4.3 3.5 3.8 3.9
India 4 3.5 3.5 3.7
Iran 4.1 3.4 3.4 3.6
North Korea 4.2 3.4 3.3 3.6
Japan 3.9 3.3 3.5 3.6
Israel 4 3.8 3 3.6
South Korea 3.5 3 3.2 3.2
Pakistan 3.9 2.7 2.6 3.1

Source: Coleman, K., The Weaponry and Strategies of Digital Conflict, in Armstead, E. L (eds.), The Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Information Warfare and Security, (The Air Force Institute of Technology, Ohio; 2010). p. 498.

The tables highlight the progress Iran had made within the cyberwarfare realm even before the Stuxnet attack in 2010; registering at 3.6 (see above) it registered on the same level as Israel and Japan, higher than Pakistan and South Korea, and not significantly below the capabilities of the United States itself (Boo, 2017; 106-107). Despite this, it remained significantly more vulnerable to attack. Over the last eight years, it has also invested heavily in its cyber defenses, which are central to the regime’s internal stability as it relies upon the security of its nuclear program and the regular military-industrial complex (Staff, 2019). By limiting the capabilities of attacks such as Stuxnet, the regime is able to defend those capabilities which enable it to pursue its objectives and maintain its control over the state itself. The success in hiding the intent to carry out the attack on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia testifies to that. With regards to offensive measures, these represent a relatively effective and largely risk-free method to employ, and thus global security analysts believe that further escalation with the United States would certainly lead to destructive cyber-attacks against infrastructure, banking, and security. Iran has already utilized cyber espionage to great effect, as a form of retribution against the United States for Stuxnet. Through a combination of cyber warfare and intelligence specialists, they were able to create and maintain a plethora of online identities across social media and networking sites, designed to gain trust and thus access to valuable security information from those close to the administration (Siboni & Kroenfeld, 2014; 1). Although Iran is behind in these capabilities when compared to the United States, or even China and Russia, their skills (both defensive and offensive) have developed significantly over the last decade. They are adequate to challenge the United States on a non-military, asymmetric platform, to protect themselves and threaten intelligence leaks and even attacks upon cyber infrastructure should the current crisis escalate further. They further have one clear advantage over their Western counterparts in their far lower dependence upon cyber technologies, which makes the United States and allies such as Israel far more vulnerable to attack (Boo, 2017; 106).


These capabilities are all assisted by the exaggeration, obfuscation, and inconsistency employed by Iranian military sources regarding their capacities (Wehrey, et al., 2009b; 41-42). Any Iranian statement on their military prowess is likely to be underpinned by this doctrine, and as such there are innumerous examples. Over the last year, Iran has claimed the ability to destroy Israel within 30 minutes, to have military capabilities extending from Israel’s borders to the Mediterranean Sea, been caught claiming an old 1970’s Northrop made-in-America F-5F was a new, locally-produced fighter jet, and was caught lying over the extent of the offensive development of their nuclear program (Reuters and Israel Hayom, 2019; Ahronheim, 2019; Reid, 2018; Visser, 2019). Similarly, there are other capabilities that are regularly repeated by Iran to perpetuate them as truth. The Basij are regularly invoked as an example of armed, popular resistance should any foreign power decide to invade or challenge Iran militarily, and the regime states that up to 20,000,000 could be mobilized for this cause, even if other experts put their numbers at closer to 300,000 or up to 1.4 million even when reservists are taken into account (BBC News, 2009; Wehrey, et al., 2009b; 44).

On the other hand, the regime has no problem denying its malignant and illegal activities. They deny their actions in the nuclear realm as exposed by Israel through the Iranian nuclear archives, and they deny their responsibility to many of the attacks against Israel and Saudi Arabia and especially the attack on Aramco facilities. This goes along well with the Shiite concept of Taqiyyah [dissumulation, lying, or concealment to protect one’s interest or life).

The difficulty in analyzing these lies, is that sometimes there is an element of truth within them. Despite the lies over the domestically-produced fighter jets, the Iranian military program has begun to develop genuine examples of aircraft (Staff, 2018b). Similarly, while Iran’s claim to be able to destroy Israel in 30 minutes may be bravado, the military bases they control in Syria and militant proxies within other states bordering Israel and further away like Iraq, hint at a very real and dangerous capacity. Outside of the strength of these capabilities is their location; military sources hide, obstruct, and change where capabilities are positioned so that in the event of an invasion, or even an attack upon these capabilities, it is difficult to accurately target the majority of their installations. The refusal to openly admit their military capabilities is effective because it works on two levels: exaggerating some and hiding or denying others. It is difficult for Western states to truly understand the threat posed by Iran, and as such, they are unlikely to act against their interests without fully comprehending the risks they or their allies face. Without a comprehensive understanding of Iran’s military capabilities, states risk undeterminable costs for intervention in Iranian policy goals, and thus this rhetoric alone acts as a form of deterrent against any action.


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1 The Quds 1 has a diameter of 350mm. Its length is 5.5 meters (4.8 meters without the accelerator). Its width is 2.75 meters. It weighs 350-400 Kgs. It has an explosive warhead of about 100 Kgs. Its range is probably 700 Km in low altitude flight mode. Its velocity is 0.6 Mach and its accuracy 1-3 m. It has a GNSS navigational system and a Czech Jetstream engine. When it flies, the engine is located on top of the missile and it has a significant IR and radar signature. It is probably launched from a ground track. Note the general similarity of the the Soumar missile (top) to the Quds 1(bottom).

2 The UAV was used in the Iranian attack on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia in September 2019. It is powered by an Iranian propeller that resembles the Israeli Harpy. It has delta-shaped wings and a rounded nose. It is 2.2 meters long and has a width of 2.75 meters. Its weight is 135-150 Kgs and the weight of its explosive warhead is 15-20 Kgs. It flies at 180 Km/h and dives eventually in 75 mps. Its maximum range is 700-1,000 km. It flies at an altitude of 100 meters. It is guided by a GNSS (combination of American GPS and Russian GLONASS) and altimeter.