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Iran's Military Potential

Is Iran strong enough to face down the United States and Britain? Speculations about Iran's military strength are currently keeping think tanks and internet fora busy. Opinions vary a great deal. Much of Iran's equipment is old and in disrepair because of lack of spare parts; some of it having been purchased in the Shah's days. However, the mullahs invested quite heavily in armaments after the near-disaster of their 1980-88 war against Saddam Hussein. They purchased modern armaments from a wide range of countries — including North Korea — and set up production facilities for missiles, mines and other gear. However, the Western think tank gurus — chastised by their past overvaluation of Iraqi defenses — are cautious in assessing the Iranian military potential.

Two things can be taken for sure: Iran can field some 100,000 well trained and fanatic Pasdaran elite troops and probably close to a million regulars. Also, Iran can attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz through which most Near Eastern oil exports and Allied military equipment pass.

Would Iran dare to invade eastern Iraq? The possibility should not be excluded since the obsession with “liberating” the Shiite holy places of Najaf and Kerbala in Iraq is day and night on the Iranian clergy's minds. Normally, Persian and Arab culture mix as badly as oil and water, as is exemplified by the continuous unrest in Iran's mixed province of Khuzistan (formerly known as Arabistan). However, if you inject a heavy dose of Shia fanaticism it will act as an emulgator: oil and water would, at least temporarily, become a cream.

It is difficult to imagine what would happen if a million Iranians crossed the border into Shiite Iraq. Many of them have learned some Arabic in school — to be able to read the Q'uran in its original language — and would meld with the local population, making it difficult for the Allies to repel the attack. Also, it is not known how many Iranians have already infiltrated the predominantly Shiite regions of the South and East.

During the war with Iraq, the mullahs threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz to impede Iraqi oil exports and arms imports. However, they did not take much action, presumably for two reasons: one were the strong Western protests because the West considers the strait an international waterway. The other reason was the fact that any blockade would also impede Iranian trade and oil exports.

Iranian infatuation with the idea of blocking the strait goes back to the days of the Shah and Premier Mossadegh. The Shah's military occupied several small and sparsely settled islands in the strait which are still claimed by Ras al-Khaimah, a sheikhdom of the UAE.

The blockade of the strait is, in fact, a device as powerful as the atomic bomb. The West has, for a long time, been painfully aware of this threat and has built a number of pipelines from Iraqi fields to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, Iraqi insurgents can be trusted to disable these pipelines the very moment the Iranians would close the strait. Most of the Near Eastern oil export would come to a standstill, and instant panic would grip the global oil market and the world economy. The old Iraq-Saudi pipeline to the Red Sea has been out of service since the first Iraq war, and has been expropriated by the Saudi government. Restoring it to service would require time and investment.

Strangely, no pipeline has been built from the Gulf through the Omani desert to Muscat or Dhofar on the Arab Sea, thereby avoiding the strait. The reason must be the cost of building and operating a huge capacity pipeline when sea transport is so much cheaper.

Although at least two generations of Iranian strategists have mulled plans for closing the strait it is not clear to which extent the Iranian military would be able to implement any such plan. In the past they focused on fast gunboats armed with antiship missiles (ASM).

The strait is, at the narrowest point, some 21 miles (35 km) wide. Since both the Persian Gulf and the waterway are very shallow there are only two 1 mile wide lanes for inbound and outbound traffic separated by a 2 mile dividing strip. Sinking a few tankers in the lanes would make navigating in the resulting heavy oil spill very difficult.

According to the Iranian point of view, the country claims sovereignty not only over the Strait of Hormuz but also over parts of the Gulf, for instance Bahrain. Iran never quite dropped its territorial claims which can be revived at wish. In 1997, Iran expressed support for free traffic through the strait but reserved its right to revoke this pledge in case of an aggression.

However, a few well armed high-speed gunboats, hovercraft and the existing coastal artillery are not going to close the strait. They would be easy prey for the U.S. air force. Submarine use is excluded by the shallow waters. Airplanes, armed with missiles and flying a few yards above the water, would only repeat the sacrifice of the Japanese kamikaze of World War II. The formerly impressive Iranian hovercraft fleet is obsolete and is said to have been replaced by new types of semi-submersible catamarans.

Iran is producing its own “Tondar” version of Chinese C801 and C802 cruise missiles with a range of 25 to 80 miles which permit hitting any target in the shipping lanes not only from coastal batteries but also from an inland distance of between 18 miles (30 km) and perhaps 50 miles (80 km). The strait is about 180 miles (300 km) long which allows Iran to use a narrow corridor for hiding hundreds of missile launching pads.

Unsurprisingly, Iran has developed capabilities to produce or has purchased a wide range of mines from non-magnetic and magnetic to floating, acoustic and remote-controlled types. According to, a Virginia-based online defense research firm, the mullahs also tried to purchase Chinese rocket-propelled self-rising mines. In short, the Iranians have explored all possibilities of intercepting the tanker and navy traffic in front of the island of Hormuz. The Sultan of Oman, who shares the opposite estuary with the Sheikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah, is not able to face the Iranians.

There is also an ancient technology available which Omanis and their neighbors used mainly for smuggling: wood-hulled boats modeled after Portuguese 16th century caravels. These small but bulky vessels, when sailing at night, escape the attention of most radar and infrared surveillance.

Although Iran would probably be able to block the traffic through the strait at least temporarily — at heavy expense, Serbian or Iraqi style — the question remains how much immolation they would inflict on their own trade. Iran has two ports on the Oman Sea, Bandar Jask and Bandar Beheshti, through which foreign trade could theoretically pass if the strait is blocked. Jask is a charming old fishing port known for its beaches and Mithraic antiquities. Bandar Beheshti in Baluchistan, however, has in recent years become Iran's main navy station outside the strait but is not much of a commercial port because of long distances to Iran's central regions and poor transport infrastructure.

In conclusion, Iran's potential of creating mischief in the Gulf is considerable but, in the face of Allied military power, not likely to be sustainable, and certain to be accompanied by heavy losses.

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—— Ihsan-al Tawil