Could Iran Survive a Foreign Attack?

On Wednesday, July 31, the US Treasury Department said that it was imposing sanctions on Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s chief diplomat and present foreign minister. The sanctions led against Zarif would freeze any assets or interests he has in the United States or which are controlled by US entities.

The Iranian official responded by asserting that he had nothing as such in the United States, and that the sanctions were imposed on him after he had turned down a White House invitation.

For decades, Tehran and Washington have been locked in a spiral of mistrust and dichotomy. Their feud has reached an unprecedented level following the Trump administration’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal.

“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” declared Trump as he announced the withdrawal from the nuclear treaty.

Trump’s move meant further pressure on Iran by means of resuming economic sanctions, once halted during the Obama-made deal, and which aim at bringing the Iranian regime to its knees, compelling it to give up its nuclear weapon programme and its meddling in current Middle Eastern conflicts.

Whereas the Obama administration believed that Iran could be integrated internationally as a normal modern state, subsequently through negotiations and mutual compromise, Trump’s has opted for “maximum pressure” in order to either reach a new, sterner deal with Iran at last, or bring its economy to collapse by cutting its oil revenues to zero.

Last year, prior to the first set of economic sanctions, Iranian oil exports were at approximately 2.5 million barrels a day. They have drastically dwindled to about 500.000 a day presently.

However, “Iran never negotiates under pressure,” Javad Zarif said in a CNN interview recently. “You cannot threaten an Iranian and expect them to engage. That will never happen. If there is an interest in engagement, the way to do it is through respect, not through threat,” he added.

Dangerous escalations

Last May, Iran denied accusations of attacking four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Two of the oil vessels belonged to Saudi Arabia and one to the United Arab Emirates – US major allies in the region and avowed enemies of Iran –  whereas the fourth vessel belonged to a Norwegian company.

The acts of sabotage were carried out with what appeared to be explosives, leaving however no human casualties, and have reportedly taken place near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes. Iran has often threatened to block traffic in the Strait of Hormuz in response to the sanctions.

Later in June, a US drone aircraft was downed near the same sea passage – this time with no denial from Iran. The Revolutionary Guard Corps said the incident occurred after an “intruding American spy drone” had entered into Iranian territories. US officials, for their part, maintained that the aircraft had been flying in international space before the shoot-down.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in chief, Hossein Salami, later declared that Iran did “not want war with any country,” but was nonetheless “completely, and totally, ready and prepared for war.”

Although crippled by economic sanctions, Iran has often proved defiant in the face of its – even more truculent –  adversary, the United States. On many occasions, it was accused of directly attacking US forces in conflict-torn Syria and Iraq through proxy groups.

It has even grown so much as to represent a patent threat to many neighboring countries – Middle Eastern, Sunni-majority monarchies that have sworn alliance to the United States, and Israel.

Iran’s geopolitical influence stretches as far as Yemen, where it supports Houthi rebels, Lebanon, through Hezbollah, Syria, where it stands for al-Assad’s regime, and Iraq, where it funds Shia militias. But even if Iran has been able to meddle in as big a regional scope, analysts still find it hard for it to stand up to a foreign offensive.

Iran’s peculiar armed forces

The Iranian Armed Forces are divided into two major pillars – the Revolutionary Guards Corps, also known as Sepah, and the conventional Islamic Republic of Iran Army, called Artesh. Both have multiple branches, such as ground force, air force and navy.

As one, the Sepah, is highly elitist, favored, and is equal to conducting large-scale operations throughout the region, Artesh remains a victim of a lame economy, marginalized and under-armed for the most part.

“Artesh is thought of as a classic defensive army,” wrote Akram Kharief, journalist and publisher of MENA Defense, whereas the Revolutionary Guards Corps “is meant to serve the ideology of the Islamic Republic.”

Although strong in men (523,000), Artesh, the conventional army, disposes of but little sophisticated weaponry  – save missiles and airspace protection – compared to its potential belligerent, the United States.

Artesh’s most powerful tank is the Soviet-produced T-72, which was designed in the 1970s. Its armored division is by and large formed of Chieftain and Patton tanks that sometimes date from as far back as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Only about sixty-five fighter aircrafts, some of which date back from the Shah era – like the Northrop F-5 and the US-made McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II – form its air force.

In contrast, however, the Revolutionary Guards are believed to hold hundreds of drones, some of which have the capability to bear missiles – such as those used by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Iran’s dominance of the Persian Sea and its manifest aggressiveness in the Strait of Hormuz draws from its having, in addition to the swarms of drones, one of the fiercest maritime forces with locally-built speedboats, midget submarines and ground-effect vehicles with the ability to sustain low-level flight over water.

Iranian observation drones had filmed US ships and aircraft carriers on many occasions between 2010 and 2017 in the Persian Gulf, Washington Post reports revealed in 2017.

Iran also bears one of the world’s most efficient territorial air defense systems —Russian-made Rezonans radars, and Avtobaza passive ELINT systems, among many other classic Russian and Chinese systems. Its main manufacturers remain Russia, China and North Korea.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Iran also possesses around 100 Shahab-3 and Ghadr missiles with a range of over 1,000 kilometres, as well as others, such as Soumar and Sejjil, with even a greater range of up to 2,500km, which put US regional bases, as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel, within plain reach.