The greatest deterrence & defence challenge world-wide

Since yesterday I'm in the mood to try my skill at the greatest challenge in deterrence & defence on this planet; how would Iran deter its (potential) enemies and defend itself in case this fails?

Iran is playing regional power out of an underdog position. It's a large and populous country in its region, but its list of potential enemies is peerless:
  • Saudi-Arabia
  • Kuwait
  • UAE
  • Qatar
  • Bahrain
  • Oman (not sure)
  • Pakistan
  • Turkey
  • Israel
  • U.S.
  • Russia
  • Afghanistan/Taliban
On top of this there's the potential for internal strife. This civil war potential (with ongoing low level insurgency in Balochistan) kept many more or less sane potential aggressors from invading Iran. Seriously, the internal divisions of Iran are so many that you need to pile Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria non top of each other to have an equivalent.

This map shows only the two biggest religious groups.
There are eight more substantial religious groups in Iran!
(The second map is from 1964.)

The biggest relief from the long list of potential enemies with no real ally in sight is that many potential aggressors have no interest in unleashing civil war chaos by breaking the Iranian state, so presumably they won't do it unless their leadership is idiotic or super ignorant *sigh*.

Now, let's group the potential threats:

Air raid threat
  • U.S. (cruise missile diplomacy)
  • Israel
Air war and naval blockade threat from the South
  • Saudi Arabia
  • UAE
  • Kuwait
  • Qatar
  • Bahrain
  • Oman
  • U.S.
Insurrection threat
  • almost all domestic groups except very devout Shia Persians and beneficiaries of status quo
  • U.S. (possible foreign sponsor)
  • all Persian Gulf pseudomonarchic kleptocracies (possible foreign sponsors)
Civil War spillover effects
  • Afghanistan (Taliban/Pashtu)
  • Iraq (Sunni insurgencies)
  • Kurds (from Iraq, Turkey)
  • Pakistan (if the Balochi rise up there for real first)
Distant scenarios
  • Russia (realistic only once quasi-imperial control of Caucasus region was regained)
  • Turkey (if Turkey becomes great power ~ Ottoman Empire again)
Full scale invasion threat
  • international coalition (only if they are really mad)

The current Iranian military is complicated and in large part a joke, with ridiculous claims and displays ranging from photoshopped missile launches to RPG gunners standing on motorcycles during parades to HAWK SAM repurposed as air-to-air missiles and a fake "stealth" fighter design.
So far this still served its purpose, though the air war inferiority across the Persian Gulf is no doubt unsatisfactory to the Iranian government. One should also keep in mind that the armed forces of such a state need not only serve legitimate purposes, but are also tasked more or less (varying by agency) with perpetuating the current political system (a theocracy with lots of democratic elements that are limited in their reform ability).

Again; even countries like North Korea, Russia or even Jordan have a simpler security environment!

Well, what would I recommend?

Air raid threat
This cannot really be protected against, for strategic and tactical surprise has to be expected and attackers would likely use the best equipment available to them. To go underground with the most likely targets is very expensive, and rather not feasible for many such targets (particularly the national government).

Air War and naval blockade threat
Iran's most important harbours are deep in the Persian Gulf. It's unrealistic to hope for the ability to export oil from there to world markets with less than about € 20 bn military spending for this air/sea war defence capability alone, and that's before taking into account a possible arms race with Saudi Arabia.
The threat of a protracted air war is a little different. The hostiles' air bases would mostly be in missile range (Iskander etc), so Iran wouldn't need to gain air superiority in the air or buy many expensive air defence systems. It could send an aircraft on a high altitude high speed run to quickly make some synthetic aperture radar imagery from afar, transmit the data to a ground station where officers decide which coordinates to shoot at with accurate missiles within minutes. The small combat aircraft inventories of Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain could be defeated this way. Saudi Arabia's air power is in a different league, of course.
The best defence might be a surprisingly cheap strategy; the less offensive air power potential Iran has, the less motivated the Southern neighbours might be to build up their own air power. This isn't reliable (who knows what the kleptocracies build up their mini air forces for at all?), of course.

A promising route might be to build a respected air defence cluster at Tehran (S-300 and short range SAMs, meant to limit the damage done in an air war), pursue some ballistic PGMs (instead of inaccurate 1980's style "War of the Cities" rockets) and once possible get some 40ish Su-3x fighters or Chinese equivalents* with air combat munitions only (but also SAR and datalink capability).

There's little point in trying to use anything of lesser quality (older SAMs, inaccurate rockets or worse fighters), for it would fail to deter and fail to defend unless procured and operated in uneconomical quantities.

Insurrection threat

The best way to address this threat would no doubt be to treat minorities well, and to ensure loyalty of the armed services (to the government). There is likely a tipping point of damage to the state and insurrection activity that would lead to multiple more groups rising up, so even though or if minor insurgencies may be unavoidable (or couldn't be ended, as in Balochistan) at least that tipping point needs to be avoided.

It makes sense to prefer Shia Persians for key positions in the armed forces, and even for basic training. The less military and paramilitary competence is available to potentially revolting minorities the less likely is their revolt (well, that's what I suppose). Munitions depots need to be guarded and locked up well, and the vast majority of munitions should be stored in territories that would rather not revolt (Shia Persians areas). Certain very reliable units need be positioned at or near Tehran, and be suitable to secure the capital and especially government organs. Western countries need such protection against airborne raids only, but governments such as the Iranian one also need to have domestic revolt in mind.

Low level uprisings should be countered with policing, with military forces in the region but only held in reserve as quick reaction force to back up the police forces. Police can investigate well with the training and equipment required. Intelligence service-like methods of intelligence gathering on (violent) opposition groups and their supporters without link to specific crimes need to be part of the repertoire, but preferably so in separate police units (not the investigating ones). Foreign sponsorship of insurrection or terrorism would need to be detected, investigated, understood, proved, potentially interdicted and then exposed.

Civil War spillover effects

This includes all measures from dealing with the insurrection threat plus no provision of safe harbours (no toleration of recruiting, fundraising, arms purchases) for foreign civil war factions and a lot more military presence. Refugee camps would be operated by the Red Crescent or whatever humanitarian NGO is available to do it, but these camps would need to be policed with proper identity checks and documentation of at least all male refugees. Ideally the camps would be created at some place where public construction projects provide employment opportunity for most adult male refugees. Lots of military-secured road police checkpoints, surveillance between roads by military-reinforced police or border guards and other visible measures would be taken to keep the peace on the Iranian side of the border. Border transgressions by armed forces would be dealt with by making an example on the first occasion; excessive firepower involving artillery fire should communicate a zero tolerance attitude towards armed border transgressions.

Distant scenarios
Back in the Shah's days Russia was kept out by buying large amounts of sophisticated weapon systems (F-14, F-4, F-5, tanks) from the U.S.. This was in part an effort to actually possess a conventional warfare capability and in part a signal of bloc membership; the latter was probably a better deterrent in combination with the ethnic and religious composition that would have made a forced "communist" takeover a worse quagmire than Afghanistan would become after 1979.
Russia might be deterred like this again in the long term, though cooperation (in regard to oil industry, arms purchases and even a real alliance) seems more achievable than getting a Western big brother to deter a schoolyard bully.
Long-term conflict with Turkey could not be deterred this way, for it would more likely than not be about the Kurds. Turkey has made military incursions into Iraq and Syria without those governments' public approval or even against their public disapproval. These incursions were mostly aimed at harming Kurdish separatist forces. The Kurdish successes in Northern Syria and the Kurdish proto-state in Northern Iraq may lead to a declaration of Kurdish independence, which might lead to all out war with Turkey. This might involve Iran with its sizeable Turkish minority in its Northwest, and might so at a scale that would be ill-described with a mere "civil war spillover". I suppose the ability to make a stand at the border with conventional forces would be required to protect Iranian sovereignty in such a case, regardless of how Iran deals with the Kurds itself.

Full scale invasion threat

This cannot be defended against, but it can be deterred. The public of the potential aggressor countries in question could be informed about Iranian ethnic and religious diversity and fracture lines. The risk of causing civil war and breeding ground for extremism that would last for decades should be too great for any invader coalition. This can be reinforced by ensuring that enough Iranians (Shia Persians) are trained as light infantry, and by a promise to open the arms and munitions depots in time to arm the people for a powerful insurgency against any occupation force.

Now, what forces would be advisable?
  1. Border guards with light arms (up to recoilless guns and mortars) and decent equipment for surveillance as well as sufficient border policing skills.
  2. An air force of 40+ Su-3x fighters, hundreds of ballistic PGMs (300-499 km range, warhead effective against hardened aircraft shelter), ground radar stations that could support the Su-3x, 20+ ground attack aircraft for counter insurgency (Su-25) and maybe two regiments of S-300 at Tehran supported by additional low level air defences.
  3. An army of maybe six mechanised brigades and ten small infantry-heavy brigades.
  4. A kind of national guard (not the current Basij or Islamic Revolutionary Guards) that ensures enough males of loyal demographics are equipped and qualified as light infantrymen and NCOs. This would help deter invasion and provide a foundation for a quick expansion of the regular army. These forces would -when mobilised- also allow the regular army to be massed in one region if necessary, taking over its security missions elsewhere.

Furthermore, an alliance either with Russia (in the medium term) or India (in the long term, particularly if Russia doesn't agree) would make much sense. An alliance with Shia-dominated Iraq should be self-evident and might - if approached with great skill and care - even create an open door to the West if and when Western leaders are not too close-minded.
The current Iranian policy of playing protector and supporter for more or less oppressed Shia abroad does more harm than good for Iran, in particular it ensures the hostility of the Persian Gulf kleptocrat states and provides excuses for Israeli and U.S. political hostility.

The old and by now obviously given-up strategy of deterrence though being close to becoming a nuclear power (essentially enriching Uranium more than needed for civilian energy purposes, but less than needed for fission warheads) should not be revived. The Iran nuclear deal framework is a huge success for everyone except the fearmongers and warmongers in the U.S. whose plans it sabotages.

The one thing that Iran needs to guard itself against the most are great power ambitions. Those can only cause trouble given the hardly permissive international environment. Great power ambitions would also be very expensive, and Iran has great need for investment in domestic economic development instead. It is also extremely wasteful to purchase and maintain capabilities that would not be critical to deterrence or defence success, such as old fighters or rather pointless naval forces. Unnecessary offensive systems are an even greater waste of resources, for they provoke additional political hostility and arms racing.

Last but not least; Iran needs to work for a better opinion of it in the Western world, or at least in Europe. Substantial domestic improvements (such as an end to the de facto Apartheid against the Bahá'í minority and some more womens' rights) and no more stupid sabre rattling would create a fertile soil for a ten-year image improvement campaign.


*: That's tricky. The PR China is close friends of Pakistan, and I don't know enough about the international relations between these three to guess whether the PRC would deliver Chengdu J-10B fighters, for example.

edit April 2017: I was surprised to see the U.S. governmetn to be in agreement with my assessment /assertion that the NK regime acts rationally within its own system of preferences.


  1. I generally like your 'out-of-the-box' approach of unbiased looking at the defense-situation of a country. But I think this analysis on Iran really shows the weakness of your approach to not put an emphasis on the political situation and the system of the analyzed country - and also on the ideology it is built on. The current Iranian leadership is still ideologically based on the 'Islamic revolution' and the Iran-Iraq War - Iran sees itself as the protecting power of Shiites (against Sunni Arabs) and of Muslims in general (against the "satans" USA, Israel and GB). To keep up this ideology (and thus the current power structure) "great power ambitions" are kinda necessary. Of course, all this hurts Iran (= the Iranians), but it helps the Iranian leadership, since it sustains the status quo.

    In my opinion, the Iranian leadership needs the Iranian nation to be threatened by the "satans" and the Arabian neighbors. Otherwise the big Persian middle class, who is doing quite fine (considering the bad economic situation) may "demand" domestic improvements more firmly. Especially big parts of the younger generations of this part of the society (the ones who haven't left Iran yet) are not loving the system that much – but are fairly patriotic nonetheless. The outcome of the last big Iranian revolution - which replaced one evil with another and weakened the country so that it was attacked by Iraq - is still present in many minds. Against this background, teasing potential enemies and keeping the tensions high, seem to be an effective (but of course risky) way to keep the country united. Sadly, your proposed "improvement campaign" for civil and human rights won't happen any time soon, since fears are big that small improvements would only lead to an increasing demand in more and more improvements.

    1. Of course, your articles mainly focus on military aspects of defense and deterrence in an utopian situation with a pacifistic mindset, which is of course interesting as a thought experiment. Some notes on the deterrence of Iran against direct threats from state actors:

      I. The ability to regionalize any potential conflict through militias in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as possible sleeper cells in the region - not to mention missile strikes on key targets. This kind of deterrence seems mostly focused on threats that not include a full-scale invasion ("naval blockade", "air war" and "air raid"), since it would bring the attacking country or at least its allies and nearby stationed troops under serious threat. On top of that, there is also a cyberwarfare threat that is very difficult to assess (possibly linked to the cyber-attacks on AMARCO in 2012).
      II. Your suggested S-300 air defense systems, as well as other indigenous systems, are already partly in place (in the past, mainly to defend nuclear facilities). The integration of these systems is probably the biggest challenge (as well as keeping up with the technology and buying the S-400 from Russia). So it's safe to say, that the air defense would be quite challenging for air-rades from the west and especially from the south.
      III. Iran's conventional navy could of course not force a lift of a naval blockade. But it's speed boat navy, small submarines and anti-ship missiles could seriously threaten enemy ships. Also, some key areas could be mined. Thus, Iran has the potential to block at least some oil and LPG exports of fellow gulf states and rise the costs for an enemy blockade (-> deterrence).
      IV. For the "full-scale invasion" scenario the above-mentioned deterrence, as well as the current national militias and armed forces seem to be sufficient. Biggest factors: the rough terrain, the size of the country, and the ability to cause even more chaos in the region, combined with very numerous, proud and patriotic Persian Shia inhabitants - in the last war, the use of chemical weapons against Iran (causing ten-thousands of fatalities) only seemed to motivate and unite the country). I doubt that any coalition (and even D. Trump) would risk an invasion - at least not without partnering with a promising coup of Iranian elements (such a coup is also very highly unlikely – at least nowadays).

      The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is the key element of Iranian deterrence (it also is the big economical and plotitical instance in the state-system): it is responsible for the missile forces, the unconventional navy, militias outside of Iran, the possible “Volkssturm” (Basij) and the potential insurgency against occupation forces. I suppose especially I. and II. deterred Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear structures in years before the nuclear deal (or motivated the US to lobby against such airstrikes).

    2. The "speedboat navy" is a poor idea, and was probably inspired by van Riper.

      Think about it; it's of hardly any use defensively because any aggressor would prepare against it. It's not hard to kill speedboats with helicopters and small missiles.

      It's also worthless as offensive asset becuase any attempt to wage a blockade war againstz the kleptocrat regimes would merely provoke some great power to send a navy and escort those tankers, as happened in the 80's. Next time it may be the USN or PLAN, but the strategy would fail. In fact, it could backfire; the uncertainty of supply would increase oil prices, and a marginally reduces oil export might be worth much more than without the blockade effort. Meanwhile, the Iranian exports would be almost guaranteed to be cut off.

      Even a great air force wouldn't be robust and ready enough to defend against a single raid, regardless of AEW, IADS and fighter force quality. Such assets matter only in a prolonged air war. They're rather targets to a single unexpected raid.

  2. In Soviet times, some people believed in official Soviet propaganda. But then formal head of state, Mikhail Kalinin, was in fact only powerless puppet tormented by dictator Dzhugashvili. - Today some people repeat the same mistake and believe that such weak figures like "president" or "minister" can reform Iranian theocracy.