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[Editor's note: the following is the second installment of a three-part series. Part III will appear in tomorrow's issue. To read Part I, click here.]
With the Middle East being swept by revolutionary chaos, Iran is the power that stands to gain most from the outcome. The countries affected by the turmoil, their strategic location, the large Shia populations in many of these nations and Iran’s close ties to Sunni Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could give Teheran a hegemonic position in the region. Already, there is evidence to indicate this is occurring. On March 2, President Ahmadinejad warned the Saudi government not to move against that country’s Shia minority—numbering 2 million—on the planned “Day of Anger” protest set for March 11. This was followed the next day by Iran’s criticism of the Saudi decision to raise oil production by 500,000 barrels a day, to meet the shortfall caused by the fighting in Libya. The fact that Iran has so publicly stated its position regarding Saudi domestic and economic policy indicates growing confidence in Tehran regarding its status as a regional power.
A primary reason for Iran’s growing assertiveness is its capacity to use force. This includes not only Iran’s considerable armed forces, but also the capabilities of its surrogates. This combination enables Iran to wage war throughout Southwest Asia, and in key regions beyond.
Iran’s regular armed forces number some 290,000, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) providing another 155,000. Together, these forces field nearly 2,000 tanks, 340 fighter-bombers and over 200 naval vessels. The regular armed forces are tailored for conventional warfare. The IRGC is considered the most sound branch of the military. While it is tasked with defending Iranian territory, its air force controls Iran’s ballistic missiles, ensuring regime control over this vital component.
While Iran has older equipment in its inventory, it also deploys considerable quantities of modern weapons. These include some 500 T-72 tanks, 25 MiG-29 fighters and 30 Su-24 strike aircraft, and three Kilo-class attack submarines. Older equipment has been modernized, including F-14 Tomcats supplied to the Shah in the 1970s. Iran’s defense industries have also produced tanks and combat aircraft, and have reportedly developed a variant of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile, embargoed by Moscow. Cooperation with foreign nations, including North Korea and China, has also taken place.
As for ballistic missiles, Iran is estimated to have 1,000 in service. Most worrisome is the Shahab 3, which has a range of 2,100 km, enough to reach the Aegean Sea. There are estimated to be several hundred Shahab 3s in service. The Shahab 5, developed from North Korea’s Taepodong 2, has a 6,000 km range, covering all of Europe (although it’s not been confirmed if these missiles are deployed).
Then there is the matter of WMD. In a report for Canada’s Mackenzie Institute, its president, John C. Thompson, notes that Iran has produced chemical weapons since the 1980-88 war with Iraq. As for nuclear weapons, while Iran’s program has suffered setbacks due to cyberwar attacks (namely Stuxtnet), Thompson states that “Iran has certainly had ample opportunity to amass a stockpile of radioactive material. They might not yet be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to Tel Aviv, but they could strew hundreds of kilos of radioactive dust over it.” The same could be said for any point in the Gulf.
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