06 Mar 2018





By Robert Ashley, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

March 6, 2018



Iran remains a primary nation-state challenger to U.S. interests and security within the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Iran’s national security strategy focuses on deterring and, if necessary, defending against external threats, securing Iran’s position as a dominant regional power, and ensuring continuity of clerical rule, economic prosperity, and domestic security. Iran is engaged in the region’s conflicts to further its security goals and expand its influence with neighboring countries, at the expense of the United States and U.S.-aligned regional partners.

Following Iran’s implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency continues to verify and report that Iran has not enriched uranium above allowable levels, maintains limits on centrifuge numbers, and allows monitoring of nuclear fuel and heavy water stocks. We expect that the regime has distributed some financial gains resulting from the JCPOA to its security forces, although we believe domestic social and economic expenditures will remain the priority for Tehran in the near term, particularly in the wake of recent unrest sparked by economic conditions.

UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA, established benchmarks for lifting UN restrictions on the import and export of certain advanced conventional weapons and ballistic missiles through 2020 and 2023, respectively—pending Iran’s continued compliance. Iran will look to Resolution 2231 dates as opportunities to expand its military modernization, and we believe Iranian military leaders are preparing their forces to begin receiving some advanced conventional weapons once UN restrictions are lifted by 2020.

Iran’s conventional military strategy is based primarily on deterrence and—if deterrence fails—the ability to retaliate. We believe that Iran’s military forces are incorporating lessons learned from operations in Syria and Iraq to refine some of their tactics, which could improve Tehran’s ability to combat terrorism and domestic insurgencies.

Iran continues to improve its conventional capabilities to deter adversaries, defend its homeland, and control avenues of approach—including the Strait of Hormuz—in the event of a military conflict. We expect Iran’s modernization priorities to remain its ballistic missile, naval, and air defense forces, with new emphasis on the need for more robust combat air capabilities. In 2017, Iran tested and fielded its Russian-made SA-20c surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, providing Iran the flexibility of a highly mobile, long-range, strategic SAM with a generational improvement in capabilities over its other legacy air defense systems. Both Iran’s regular Navy and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy will field increasingly lethal platforms and weapons—including more advanced mines, small submarines, fastattack craft, and ship- and shore-based antiship cruise missiles—which further complicate U.S. freedom of navigation throughout Iran’s littoral.

Iran has the region’s largest ballistic missile arsenal, consisting of close-, short-, and medium-range systems that can strike targets throughout the region up to 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s border. Iran continues to improve the range, lethality, and accuracy of its missile systems to increase the systems’ effectiveness, which Iran probably believes enhances their deterrent and operational value. Tehran is pursuing long-range, precision land-attack cruise missiles, which present a new type of threat in the region. Iran is also developing more powerful space launch vehicles—boosters that would be capable of ICBM ranges if configured for that purpose—and technologies that enable development of long-range missile subsystems.

As Iran perceives that the threat to its allies is diminishing and Damascus and Baghdad consolidate control over their respective countries, we expect Iran to transition to efforts that secure and increase its long-term influence and to look for new opportunities to challenge its regional adversaries. In Iraq, Iran will leverage its aligned PMF and Shia militia groups as well as its longstanding political and societal ties as its main avenues of influence to pressure Baghdad to expel U.S. and coalition forces and prevent Kurdish separatism. In Syria, Iran will continue to work with Russia to administer deescalation zones while simultaneously supporting Syrian regime operations on the peripheries of these zones. Iran’s presence in Syria not only benefits the Assad regime, it represents a key step toward Iran’s goal of a land bridge from Tehran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. This increases Iran’s operational reach in the region, enabling greater support to its proxies. Increased lethal support to Lebanese Hizballah in particular is likely to amplify tension with Israel.

In Yemen, Iran will proceed with its low-cost, high-payoff support of the Huthis against the Saudi-led coalition, including through the provision of lethal aid, to expand Iranian influence while also indirectly confronting Saudi Arabia. Iran has helped the Huthis improve their military and missile capabilities, demonstrated through Huthi missile launches against targets in Saudi Arabia and Saudi-led coalition ships in the Red Sea. We expect Tehran will refocus on stabilizing its allies and look for new opportunities to challenge its regional adversaries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iran remains committed to modernizing its military; building the capacity of its partners across the region; and forging new partnerships, while balancing a desire to gain from its reintegration into the global economic system.


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