How Strong is the Islamic Republic of Iran?

How Strong is the Islamic Republic of Iran?

Catastrophic Iranian air and naval mishaps reveal severe military shortcomings.

Ari Lieberman

The Islamic Republic of Iran frequently boasts of its military prowess. Periodically, the regime will showcase what it characterizes as an indigenously produced piece of military hardware, bragging about its supposed sophisticated features and uniqueness. But it’s often the case that the unveiled weapon system is either a painfully obvious, unworkable plastic model dressed up to look like something really cool or a poor replica of vintage American hardware, readily apparent to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of military hardware.

In 2013, Iran showcased its Qaher F313, which it touted as a fifth generation fighter with stealth capabilities similar to the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Military experts immediately identified the aircraft as a fake, and a poor one at that. Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute dryly noted that “It looks like it might make a noise and vibrate if you put 20 cents in.”

In 2018, the Iranians tried to pull off a similar hoax with their unveiling of a purportedly domestically produced twin seat fighter jet called the “Kowsar.” The Iranians boasted that the aircraft was “completely indigenously made,” and featured “advanced avionics.” The plane was showcased before Iran’s “moderate” president, Hassan Rouhani, who boasted that the United States is fearful of Iran’s power.

Rouhani’s bombast notwithstanding, the plane was actually a copy of an American F-5F, which was unveiled by the Northrop Corporation in 1974, and is based on the single seat version of the F-5E, which had its first test flight in 1972. Iran purchased a number of these aircraft during the Shah’s reign and cannibalized many of them for spare parts. It is now trying to pass off half-century old, copied technology as its own. Rather than projecting military prowess, Iran’s efforts here come across as not only disingenuous but desperately pathetic.

The Islamic Republic is also a big fan of televised military parades. In these brash displays of purported military might, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps gunmen are seen marching in unison with oversized, menacing-looking sunglasses and pretty uniforms, while their mullah overlords wave approvingly.

These faux displays of prowess are designed for public and domestic consumption but they are in fact a telltale sign of weakness. When thinking of the Iranian military, the idiom, “bark is worse than its bite,” immediately comes to mind.

Iran might be good at recruiting terror cells, organizing proxies to fight its battles, suppressing internal dissent and sabotaging oil tankers, but when it comes to command and control, command discipline, and battlefield management, the IRGC and its subordinate arm, the Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh), demonstrate severe military shortcomings.

Two very serious incidents occurring this year underscore these deficiencies. On January 8, Iranian air defense units shot down a Ukrainian commercial Boeing 737-800 killing all 176 passengers and crew members. The majority of passengers were either Iranian citizens or maintained dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. The colossal blunder occurred as jittery Iranian air defense units had been bracing for retaliation after the IRGC fired ballistic missiles at two military bases in northern Iraq housing U.S. military personnel. But the IRGC air defense command never bothered to coordinate its activities with civil aviation authorities and crucially, never bothered shutting down Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport to avoid such mishaps.

The downing of Ukraine Flight 752 demonstrated a clear lack of discipline, inadequate training and poor command and control. Iranian military authorities compounded their error by attempting to obfuscate their true role in the disaster. Bulldozers were quickly dispatched to sanitize the scene of the crime and to this day, Iranian authorities are refusing to hand over flight data and cockpit voice recorders. The lack of transparency is demonstrative of a regime that cannot accept criticism, cannot engage in constructive introspection and therefore cannot learn from mistakes.  

Then on May 11, the Iranian naval support ship called Konarak was obliterated by an Iranian missile boat firing a Chinese C-802 ship-to-ship missile. The Konarak was placing targets for use by other naval vessels when struck. According The War Zone, the launching warship is said to have been the Moudge class frigate, Jamaran. The Iranians initially admitted to the loss of only one sailor but perhaps learning from their experience in their downing of Flight752 and subsequent failed cover-up, revised their casualty count, acknowledging the loss of 19 sailors and the wounding of 15 others. Other sources placed the number of dead at 40.

These two incidents highlight the Iranian military’s serious deficiencies in conventional warfare. In the cyber theatre too, the Iranians come up woefully short of their Israeli and American nemeses as demonstrated by the recent devastating Israeli cyberattack on the Shahid Rajaee port facility in the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas that completely shut down the facility. The attack was in retaliation for a failed Iranian cyberattack on Israel’s water infrastructure.  In June and September of 2019, the U.S. launched cyberattacks against the IRGC in retaliation for Iranian aggression, and in 2010 the U.S.-Israeli designed Stuxnet virus severely damaged Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which retarded Iran’s nuclear program.

These Iranian deficiencies certainly do not minimize the threat posed by Iran’s theocratic leaders to world peace. Iran is still forging ahead with its nuclear ambitions and maintains a formidable ballistic missile capability. Iran is still fomenting regional trouble and has proved adept at recruiting and organizing proxy militias to do its bidding. And Iranian cyber vandals remain very active as demonstrated by their recent attempt to damage Israel’s water infrastructure.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the Islamic Republic’s military shortcomings. Iran is not a superpower. It is a third world country with a failing economy and fragile, vulnerable infrastructure. The aging Iranian air force still utilizes fighter jets of 1960s and 1970s vintage and deadly plane crashes are routine. Following the U.S. liquidation of Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, the establishment, anti-Trump media went into full gear echoing Iranian threats of punishing forthcoming retaliation. But Iran’s response to the killing of its top military commander, whose power was second only to Iran’s Supreme Leader, was relatively muted. This is because the Iranians are cognizant of their limitations.

Military strategist and author Sun Tzu noted that it is important to “appear… strong when you are weak.” Iran’s incessant barking, through its genocidal threats and faux displays of power, is evidence that the mullahs have read his book.

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Photo credit: Reza Dehshiri