Russia, China Expected to Equip Iran With Fighters and Tanks When Arms Embargo Lifts

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khordad 15 iran missile battery
This photo, released by the official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry on une 9, 2019, shows the Khordad 15, a new surface-to-air missile battery at an undisclosed location in Iran. The system uses locally made missiles that resemble the HAWK missiles that the U.S. once sold to the shah and later delivered to the Islamic Republic in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

Iran has built up the largest arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the Middle East -- surpassing Israel's -- to deter and threaten the U.S. and regional adversaries and make up for shortfalls in its aging air forces, a senior defense intelligence official said Tuesday.

U.S. sanctions and the United Nations embargo on arms sales to Iran have squeezed the regime's ambitions to achieve military dominance in the region, said the official, who made the remarks in a Pentagon background briefing on the newly released annual "Iran Military Power" report by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But Russia and China are expected to supply new fighter aircraft and tanks when the embargo lifts next year.

In addition, Russia's sale of the SA-20c surface-to-air missile system "provided Iran with its first capability to defend itself against a modern air force," the official said.

Currently, Iran has no nuclear weapons, according to the official, "but its nuclear program remains a significant concern for the United States."

Related: Is It Time to Withdraw US Nuclear Weapons from Incirlik?

Since the U.S. withdrew in May 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limiting Iran's nuclear programs, Iran has exceeded restrictions on fissile material production and threatened to continue the buildup "unless it receives sufficient sanctions relief," the official said.

Iran is also looking to develop an "expeditionary" capability for its military, but for now is focused on supporting its conventional and unconventional partners in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the official added.

However, Iranian naval forces have participated in joint operations off China and South Africa and in the Mediterranean Sea, said the official.

In his preface to the 117-page report, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the DIA director, said that the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran through its 40-year history "has remained implacably opposed to the United States, our presence in the Middle East, and our support to Israel."

"While attempting to strengthen its deterrence against foreign attack and influence, Tehran has committed itself to becoming the dominant power in the turbulent and strategic Middle East," he said.

Iran has skillfully "played the cards" dealt to the regime by the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Ashley said. In Iraq, weapons supplied by Iran were responsible for the deaths of 603 U.S. service members from 2003-2011, according to the report.

In addition, Iran plays off a perception in the region that the U.S. is "disinterested and disengaged," despite a buildup of U.S. forces in the area, including the carrier Lincoln's battle group, Ashley said.

Iran's military consists of parallel forces -- the conventional ground, naval, air and air defense forces currently number about 420,000, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), committed to the defense of the Islamic system of government at home and abroad, number about 190,000.

The strengths of Iran's military are its large ballistic missile inventory, its littoral naval capabilities and its partners and proxies; its vulnerabilities were its mix of conventional and IRGC forces and its lack of access to modern weapons and technology, the report said.

Consequently, Iran's "way of war" stressed the need to "avoid or deter conventional conflict while advancing its security objectives in the region, particularly through propaganda, psychological warfare, and proxy operations," the report said.

Iran retains close military-to-military ties with Iraq and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has military cooperation agreements with Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Oman, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela, the report said.

The main suppliers of military equipment to Iran through arms purchases, according to the report, are Russia, China, North Korea, Belarus and Ukraine.

"Military cooperation between Russia and Iran has grown significantly in recent years," the report stated, and Russia and Iran have coordinated to prop up Assad in Syria.

The result of the military cooperation agreements, and the arms purchases, has been that in recent years Iran "has shown itself capable of sending small groups of conventional forces --including ground forces, military airlift, and UAV operators -- into permissive allied countries to support larger operations," it continued.

Another concern for the U.S. was that Iran's nascent space program for the launch of satellites could be used as a testing ground to develop long-range ballistic missiles, the defense intelligence official said.

"We're looking at their space program as we determine what could be used for military means," the official said. The development of space launch vehicles "could also serve as a testbed for the development of [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] technologies."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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