Iranian army troops march during a parade just outside Tehran, Iran, on April 18, 2017. (AP)

October 4, 2021

On Thursday, September 23, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, a former IRGC commander and current speaker of the Iranian parliament, claimed: “Iran is one of the top 10 military powers in the world.”

Speaking at a ceremony commemorating those killed during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), he told his audience: “We had every logical reason and excuse not to fight that war, but we stood by divine traditions. Now today we are one of the top 10 countries in the world.”

Similarly, in 2020, Basij Resistance Force commander General Gholamreza Soleimani, boasted that “Iran ranks among the top military powers in the world.” At the time, IranWire thoroughly debunked this claim. Twelve months on, is Iran now a leading military force? With some exasperation, IranWire tries to answer this question (again) in the following report.

Military Might  

The most simple way to evaluate Ghalibaf’s claim is to look at raw military strength. This involves considering a range of quantitative factors, such as the number of active personnel, tanks, attack helicopters and submarines.

While Iran, as the 17th most populous country in the world, naturally has a large standing army, a 2021 report by Credit Suisse has listed the world’s 20 strongest militaries as those of the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, France, South Korea, Italy, the UK, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Taiwan, Israel, Australia, Thailand, Germany, Indonesia and Canada.

No mention of Iran.

Iran’s Role in the International Arms Market

Aside from pure firepower, a country’s military might is also related to its access to equipment and ability to operate it.

Iran is neither a significant importer nor exporter of military equipment. Partly owing to sanctions, the country has not been able to bring in arms from abroad or sell its products on international markets for decades. According to the World Bank, Iran imported just US$2 million worth of arms in 2020. Indeed, the total value of Iran’s arms imports from 2009 to 2018 was equivalent to just 3.5 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s in the same period.

The same goes for exports. In 2017, arms exports from Iran were worth a paltry $20 million – compared to Israel’s international arms sales of $7.2 billion in the same year. This has hamstrung Iran’s ability to expand its military with revenue from arms sales.

A report by Geospatial World confirms the state of Iran’s arms trade. It lists the US, Russia, China, France, Germany, UK, Spain, Italy, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, South Korea, Turkey, Norway, Belarus, South Africa and Australia as the top exporters of military equipment.

Again, Iran is not on the list.

Neither does the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) include Iran among the 40 biggest international importers of armaments. In other words, Iran’s access to outside military equipment is limited, to say the least.

This leaves us with what was imported before the 1979 revolution. While much of this has been lost in regional conflicts or simply worn out, some military hardware has also been destroyed by “friendly fire”. In May 2020, the Konark navy vessel was hit by a new anti-ship missile from the Iranian frigate Jamaran during military drills.

To cover up its feeble arsenal, Iranian officials often report that “overhauled” military equipment has been delivered to the armed forces. Usually these are old armaments that were repaired and renovated by the country’s defence industry.

The Domestic Arms Industry

Iran, of course, is still able to manufacture its own military equipment. An important element of this is air power, which has long been a weak point of Iran’s military. Despite the country’s efforts to renovate its alling air force, most of this equipment has been dismissed as copied Western technology.

A good example is the HESA Kowsar fighter jet, which was modelled on the US’s F-5. Despite the Iranian-state media’s claim that it is ‘state-of-the-art’, Western defence analysts have labelled the fighter a ‘big joke’. Likewise the Shahed 285 attack helicopter made by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) is a copy of the American Bell 206 Ranger helicopter.

One exception is missiles and drones. Iran is ranked as one of the most powerful countries in this field, partially because of its fleet of Saeghed drones. In 2019, a maritime drill dubbed the “Way to Jerusalem” highlighted the threat posed by these drones to the US and other countries. This aspect by itself, however, is not enough to elevate Iran’s armed forces into the top world powers.

Iran’s Defense Budget

As per World Bank data, Iran’s military budget is not in the global top ten either. This is despite the fact that relative to GDP, the country spends more than the international average on its military: a total of 2.3 percent of GDP in 2019, falling to 2.2 percent in 2020. That same year, average military spending in the European Union was 1.6 percent of GDP, while it stood at 5.5 percent in the Arab world.

In 2014, GlobalPost reported that Iran’s military budget was $17.7 billion, the 15th largest in the world. But more recent reports show Iran’s military budget has since decreased. As of May 2021, SIPRI estimated that Iran’s military expenses in 2020 amounted to around $16 billion: three percent less than in 2019.

Although Iran invests a high percentage of its GDP in the military, no Iranian defence company is listed among the top 100 in the world. SIPRI has published a list of 100 leading defence companies, which belong to the US, UK, France, Germany and Russia (amongst many others). Iran’s military spending is evidently not having the desired effect.

Nuclear Power

Another important indicator of military power is whether a country possesses nuclear weapons. In 2021, SIPRI listed the countries in possession of nuclear weapons as follows: the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran is not on this list and does not claim to have nuclear weapons either.

Radar Power

In 2020, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force, claimed Iran was “one of the top 10 countries in the field of radar”. An IranWire investigation found there was no evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, several reports indicate that Iran is dependent on Russian and German-made radars. Again, sanctions have contributed to significant problems for the country’s meteorology and aviation industries, as they cannot easily upgrade their radar technology.

Iran’s Security Index

Has Iran’s supposed military might, such as it is, led to a considerable improvement in the safety and security of its citizens?

According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, which calculates 12 indices of safety and security such as personal freedom, living standards and access to education, alongside threats of war, terrorism and crime, Iran ranks 120 out of 167 countries. Increased military spending has improved neither the individual nor collective security of Iranians.

Conclusion

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of the Iranian parliament, claimed on September 23 that “Iran is one of the top ten military powers in the world”. IranWire’s research shows that:

  • There is no credible evidence that proves this claim.
  • Iran is not an important player in the world’s armaments market. It is neither a major importer nor an exporter of military equipment.
  • Iran is not a nuclear power.
  • Iran’s military budget as a percentage of its GDP is around the same as the world average. It is not even among the top 15 countries with the highest military budgets.
  • No Iranian defence company is among the top 100 in the world. In fact, all of these 100 companies are owned by 20 countries.
  • Iran is not among the top 10 countries in the field of radars.
  • Iran’s military might, whatever it might be, has not assured a high level of security and safety for its people. On the contrary, Iran ranks 131 among 167 countries internationally.
  • IranWire has already debunked this claim.

Therefore, IranWire awards Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of the Iranian parliament, a “Pinocchio lie” badge for his claim that “Iran is one of the top 10 military powers in the world.”

Pinocchio lie: A statement that has been proven to be untrue, or which has, based on existing research and evidence, been refuted. In other words, a blatant lie.

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.