With time for nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the U.S., UK, Russia, China, France and Germany) running out, and with the White House scrambling to cobble together some sort of deal with Tehran, it's perhaps not surprising that Pentagon's latest annual assessment of Iran's military capabilities has so far garnered little attention, either within the Washington Beltway or outside it.
The study, submitted to the U.S. Congress earlier this year (with an unclassified summary made public in recent days), is minimalist in nature, providing only the broadest contours of the contemporary challenge posed by Iran. Even so, it contains some useful insights into the current state of Iran's military capabilities — and, by inference, what they might mean for American security and U.S. interests abroad. Here are a few takeaways:
Iran's president is still just window dressing. The rise of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency last summer brought with it widespread hope that Iran had at long last turned over a new political leaf. This perception has only been strengthened by the soft diplomatic tones of Mr. Rouhani himself, and by the Iranian regime's newfound willingness to talk to the West about its nuclear effort. The Pentagon report, however, helpfully reminds us that Mr. Rouhani is simply the hired help, and that Iran's Supreme Leader holds that title for a very good reason. "Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains unchallenged atop Iran's power structure as both the political-spiritual guide and the commander in chief of the armed forces." In other words, for all of his reformist political rhetoric and overtures toward the West, Mr. Rouhani isn't the ultimate arbiter of Iran's nuclear flexibility or its global interests — or of much else, for that matter.
Iran remains a source of regional instability. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has made the "export" of its radical vision of global Islamic revolution a key regime priority. Thirty-five years on, those efforts are still going strong. Iran's covert and asymmetric activities are "continuing unabated in countries such as Syria and Iraq," the Pentagon study points out. This includes massive ongoing military support (in the form of snipers and drones, among other things) for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, as well as an extensive footprint on Iraqi soil — one that is once againgrowing in response to the advances of Sunni extremists.
Iran's international troublemaking, meanwhile, is on the rise. The Qods Force, the elite paramilitary unit of Iran's feared Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), "has continued efforts to improve its access within foreign countries and its ability to conduct terrorist attacks," the study notes. This presence now extends far beyond the Middle East to include Latin America, Asia and Europe, making the IRGC a truly global threat actor.
Iran's military capabilities are steadily growing. The Iranian regime may now be negotiating with the West over its nuclear effort, but it is simultaneously arming for regional dominance. "Tehran is quietly fielding increasingly lethal symmetric and asymmetric weapon systems," the Pentagon report notes. These include "more advanced naval mines, small but capable submarines, coastal defense cruise missile batteries, attack craft, and anti-ship ballistic missiles" — tools that are intended to allow Iran to more effectively and completely control the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway through which nearly a fifth of world oil transits.
These capabilities, U.S. officials have warned in recent years, are already robust enough to allow Iran to close the Strait for brief periods of time, even with a sustained U.S. military presence in the region. But Iran's continued build-up guarantees that in the event of a regional conflict, America will need to contend with an Islamic Republic with its hand squarely on the global oil spigot.
Iran is bolstering its ballistic missile arsenal. Recent U.S. government estimates have warned that the Islamic Republic could potentially develop a intercontinental ballistic missile by next year. The Pentagon report qualifies this somewhat, stating that "Iran has publicly stated it may launch a space launch vehicle by 2015 that could be capable of intercontinental ballistic missile ranges if configured as a ballistic missile." That change in phraseology reflects internal questions within the U.S. government about the pace of Iran's missile development.
What isn't in doubt, however, is the Iranian regime's intent to become a global missile power. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has made heavy investments in both its ballistic missile and its space programs — technologies that, if fused together, would allow the regime to rapidly field an ICBM. The Iranian government, moreover, has consistently rejected any constraints on its ballistic missile capabilities as part of negotiations with the P5+1 powers. The message is clear: Iran sees missiles as inextricably linked to its global status, and isn't willing to give up on either.
Although the Pentagon report on Iran is modest in both scope and depth, it nonetheless conveys the unmistakable impression that the Iranian regime — which not long ago was on the ropes as a result of Western pressure — has gotten a new lease on life. So, too, have its military capabilities, with all that this implies for the Middle East, and for us.