A missile is displayed by the Iranian army in front of a portrait of supreme leader Ali Khamenei during a parade in Tehran, April 18, 2013. (AP)

By Pezhman Tahavori

September 23, 2020

“By the reckoning of strategic research institutes in the world, we are currently among the superior powers and have the strongest armed forces.”

This from Brigadier General Gholamreza Soleimani, commander of the Basij Resistance Forces, at a meeting of high-ranking officials in the Ghadir district of Tabriz on Wednesday, September 17. The paramilitary chief did not specify exactly which “institute of strategic studies” had named Iran as one of the world’s top military powers, or indeed, what was meant by “superior power”.

Can Iran be counted among the top five military powers in the world? Can Iran even be counted among the top 10? Does the Iranian military rank higher than others in the region? In this report, IranWire tries to establish if this claim can be verified.

How Can We Measure Military Strength?

At first glance, because of the Iranian leadership’s intensive focus on building military capability – and devoting a large portion of Iran’s public spending to institutions affiliated with the Islamic Republic’s armed forces – Brig. Gen. Soleimani’s claim almost seems plausible.

But a cursory review of expert analyses and publicly-available data from global security institutions suggests otherwise. For the purposes of this study, IranWire has researched some of the metrics used to map out countries’ military might. The aspects of Iran’s military we will be analysing here are:

  • The size of Iran’s ready-to-serve army;
  • The size and power of the Iranian air force;
  • The level of financial resourcing of the Iranian military;
  • Iran’s nuclear power.

How Many Soldiers Does Iran Have?

International statistics indicate that the Iran’s strongest military accolade is the size of its army. In its 2020 report on the world’s largest armies, the Germany-based Statista Institute reported Iran has 523,000 active military personnel on its books: putting it some way behind Russia (1million), the US (1.4m) or China (2.18m), but still enough to afford Iran a place in the top 10 worldwide, and crown it the country with the largest army in West Asia.

The Statista Institute ranks the world’s top countries by army size thus:

The size of an army is, by itself, a crude measure without knowing its resourcing. North Korea, for instance, comes fourth in the world for its army size alone, with a total of 1.28m military personnel at its disposal. But as far back as 10 years ago half of the North Korean army was widely reported to be starving, a situation that has continued into 2020– and it is not clear how well-trained or well-equipped these soldiers are to face combat.

Iran’s Air Power in Context

In the 21st century, one of the most important criteria in measuring a given country’s military might is the size and strength of its air force.  military power of the countries of the world. In other words, the most important element in determining the ranking of countries in military power is the strength of their air force.

On paper, Iran has one of the biggest air forces in the world, with more than 350 fighters at its disposal. But as the Washington-based think-tank National Interest reports, many of these aircraft are now old and worn-out, daring back to between the 1970s and 1990s, and the Islamic Republic has not been able to replace them with advanced fighters. Newer domestically-produced aircraft, the report claims, are in essence copies of the old American F-4 and F-5 fighters, which are considered obsolete today.

In addition to fighters and helicopters, Iran has been manufacturing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAVs, better known as drones – since 2010 and deployed them extensively in Syria and Iraq. In a separate analysis, the National Interest introduces Iran as the fourth most effective power in the world for the acquisition and use of drones, behind the United States, Israel and China, and followed by Russia.

The public policy think-tank New America has generated the following map showing when different countries entered the drone industry. Based on its first unveiling of the new hardware inside the country, Iran began equipping itself with drones a whole nine years after the US, but three years before Russia.

Iran’s Comparative Military Spending

Military spending is an important indicator of a country’s overall military strength. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that in 2018, Iran ranked 18th in the world in this regard, spending a grand total of $13.2 billion that year. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, spent $67.6bn in the same period and was also the world’s biggest importer of military hardware.

Iran’s spending on the military has been on the decline year on year since 2006, with the steepest fall in 2012-13, after the European Union imposed financial sanctions on the country. Sanctions mean Iran’s also struggles to modernize its military and its supplier base has shrunk, with Russia now practically Iran’s sole arms supplier.

The Stockholm Institute has determined that Iran is neither a significant importer nor exporter of military hardware. It cites two countries in the region, Israel and Turkey, as having been notable exporters and Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Australia and China as the world’s most heavyweight importers between 2015 and 2019.

The World’s Top Nuclear Powers

Access to nuclear weapons has a massive role to play both directly in countries’ military capabilities and indirectly in terms of their influence on the global stage. Iran has spent untold amounts trying to access this technology for two decades now, and is still only in the embryonic stages of producing nuclear energy, let alone a weapon.

According to the Stockholm Institute’s 2020 report, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are the world’s nine foremost nuclear powers.

Shifts from West to East

Approaches to military matters have changed in different countries over time. For much of the 20th Century Germany, France, and Britain spent vast sums of money on their  military capabilities and were among the world’s top military powers, but today have been superseded by other developed or developing nations such as India, China, and Saudi Arabia.

A January 2020 analysis by National Interest assessed the world’s top five military powers as being the United States, Russia, Britain, China, Japan and India based on their naval, land and air forces.

Conclusion

Iran’s Basij commander, Gholamreza Soleimani, claimed on Wednesday, September 17 that Iran had the “strongest armed forces” in the world. He did not specify how this was being measured or which institute of strategic studies had named Iran such.

By examining international reports on countries’ respective military resourcing and expenditure, IranWire has reached the conclusion that Iran is not among the top 10 military powers in the world.

Iran’s sizeable air force is weaker than it appears at first glance and is not competitive with advanced fighters. The size of its military or relative success with drones are not enough to mitigate this. Nor does Iran have nuclear power, and nor is it either a significant importer or exporter of military technology – unlike many of its neighbors in the MENA region and the Gulf.

Therefore, IranWire defines Mr. Soleimani’s claim as not true: a statement that cannot be proven using the available facts and evidence.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.