Iran and the Gulf Military Balance – I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions

By Anthony H. Cordesman, Alexander Wilner

Jun 25, 2012


In the wake of recent failed negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, it seems increasingly unlikely that a political solution will be reached regarding Tehran’s increasing uranium enrichment. As a result, some form of military clash between the US and Iran, while by no means certain, is becoming increasingly likely. Such a clash can take many different forms, and each presents different levels of risk.

Although many reports and analyses tend to focus on Iran’s missile forces and burgeoning nuclear capability, Iran’s steady build-up of asymmetric forces presents a threat to both Gulf commerce and the military forces of both the US and its regional allies, at least in the opening stages of a conflict. Unlike Iran’s missile forces, these forces are difficult to detect and counter, and can be used with a degree of deniability to harass or disrupt military operations and commerce in the Gulf.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has substantially updated and expanded its analysis of Iranian military forces to reflect recent events, as well as comments on the previous draft. Moreover, unlike previous versions, this analysis includes extensive reporting on arms transfers to the US’ Gulf allies in the last decade, which have had a significant impact on the balance of forces in the Gulf. The first part of this analysis is entitled “Iran and the Gulf Military Balance I: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions.” It is available on the CSIS web site at:

Introduction    5

The Historical Background    5

Current Patterns in the Structure of US and Iranian Military Competition    13

Differing National Perspectives    17

Key Uncertainties in Assessing the Details of US and Iranian Military Competition    27

Competition in Conventional Military Forces    29

Ground-Based Air Defenses    43

Iran’s Largely Defensive Land Forces    47

Iran’s Naval Forces and Their Role in Asymmetric Warfare    51

Measuring the Overall Balance of US and Iranian Military Competition    63

Competition in Asymmetric Forces    67

Iran’s Growing Asymmetric Forces    67

Conventional Weakness vs. Asymmetric Capability    70

Iran’s Growing Mix of Asymmetric Warfare Forces    71

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)    74

The MISIRI, MOIS, or Vevak    93

Other Asymmetric Forces    96

 “Closing the Gulf:” Iran’s Real World Military Options for Asymmetric Warfare    102

The Potential  Strategic, Energy, and Global Economic Impacts of the Iranian Threat    104

Iran’s Growing Military Assets for Such a Mission    110

Iran’s Submarines and Submersibles    110

Iran’s Bases and Other Assets for “Closing the Gulf”    114

US and Arab Gulf Options for Competing with Iranian    128

US Forces in the Gulf    128

The US Partnership With Southern Gulf, Other Regional, British, and French forces    131

Changing the Ground Rules: What If Preventive Strikes – Not Sanctions – Trigger Iranian Efforts to Close the Gulf    173

Implications for US Policy    174

The second volume of this analysis is entitled Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II: The Missile and Nuclear Dimensions.  It is available on the CSIS web site at: . Both reports are working drafts of chapters in a comprehensive survey of US and Iranian competition made possible through the funding of the Smith Richardson Foundation, and which are to be published as an electronic book in early March.  Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at

Below you will find each chapter on the CSIS website. Select the chapter title to download the PDF.  The complete book is available below to be read in 2 parts.

  1. Introduction (
  2. Types and Levels of Competition ( This chapter looks at the various arenas in which Iran and the U.S. compete for influence.
  3. US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Conventional and Asymmetric Dimensions ( – This chapter looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.
  4. US and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Missile and Nuclear ( – This chapter looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces.
  5. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change ( – This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.
  6. US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen ( – This chapter examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.
  7. The Outcome of Invasion: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq ( – This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it.
  8. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan ( – This chapter examines US and Iranian interests in the Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria.  The military balance is also analyzed.
  9. The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus (…) – This chapter analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
  10. Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan (…)  – This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
  11. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia (…) – This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran and the US.
  12. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States ( – This chapter looks at the role the EU, and in particular the EU3, have played as the U.S.’s closest allies in its competition with Iran.
  13. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa (…) – This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.
  14. Policy Implications



The Anti-Islamist Texts the Free World Needs to Use

The free world is in dire need of texts that can mount a challenge to the Islamist ideology. At long last, they’ve arrived. Dr. Zuhdi Jasser‘s A Battle for the Soul of Islam and The Illusion of the Islamic State by several Indonesian authors, including former President Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001), are unused weapons in the ideological battle. Western governments, interfaith groups and activists should use these books to guide their choices of Muslim partners.

The two books have different but complimentary styles. Dr. Jasser’s book tells his story, helping readers grasp the Islamist ideology and why he turned out differently. He addresses the Islamist interpretation of numerous Islamic passages. This is a book that touches you on the personal level. The Indonesian book is more academic. It illustrates how Islamists infiltrated the country in a process that is eerily similar to what we see taking place in Europe and the U.S. and, as the subtitle states, “How an Alliance of Moderates Launched a Successful Jihad Against Radicalization and Terrorism in the World’s Largest Muslim-Majority Country.”

The Illusion of an Islamic State is more of a policy paper than a book. It is the end product of a study where 27 academics traveled across Indonesia and interviewed nearly 600 extremists in order to define the motivations, strategies and weaknesses of Islamists. The authors’ stated goal is to confront the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabism and Hizb ut-Tahrir and turn Indonesia into an ideological launching pad against them.

The authors are a formidable foe for the Islamists. Former President Wahid had been called “the single most influential leader in the Muslim world” by some. One of the contributors leads Nahdlatul Ulama, a 40-million-strong organization founded in 1926 in response to the Wahhabist conquest of Mecca and Medina. Another author led Muhammadiyah, another anti-Islamist group with 30 million members.

The book is young, only published in Indonesia in May 2009, but has had a tremendous impact. The project was funded by a single American donor and a Swedish government grant. The Gulf governments, on the other hand, spend billions promoting Islamism. The success of The Illusion of an Islamic State is frustrating in a way. If a relatively small expense could do so much good, then what would happen if real money and support was put behind it? The authors lament that they lack the resources to turn their momentum into an organized civil society movement and are disappointed that the U.S. and other Western countries are dropping the ball.

The common theme of the two books is that Sharia is meant to be a spiritual path based on an individual’s relationship with God, not a system of governance that actually stands between man and God. Both believe that nationalism does not contradict Islam, whereas the Islamists view the ummah, or the entirety of Muslims, as a single nation-state and single political party. Both believe in critical thinking and questioning the teachings of imams. Islamists believe only the imams are qualified to tell you what God wants for you. From a young age, Jasser was taught to examine the texts independently as his father spoke classical Arabic and made his own translations. He was taught that imams aren’t political authorities and to be aware when their spiritual instruction crossed that line.

One major problem is the treatment of Muslims as a single entity, an obstacle Dr. Jasser partially attributes to the influence of Arab tribal culture. Muslims who speak out against those within the ummah often become outcasts, much like would happen in a tribe. Dr. Jasser and other anti-Islamist Muslims know this all too well. This has negative effects when it comes to security. The Fort Dix terror plot was foiled with the help of a Muslim informant working for the FBI. Instead of being celebrated, he was out-casted because, as he describes it, “For Muslims, we are all brothers, and I betrayed a brother.”

This leads to double-standards where Muslims rage against real or imagined transgressions against their own but rarely speak a negative word about the co-religionists like Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a hugely influential cleric whose extremism is plain for all to see. Another example would be how Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent American preacher, answered when he was recently asked about Hizb ut-Tahrir, an anti-American group openly hostile to democracy that advocates resurrecting the Caliphate. His criticism was limited to their belief that a Caliphate would cure the ills of the Muslim world, followed by instructions to Muslims to not publicly criticize or “vilify” the group. This stands in sharp contrast to his fiery rhetoric about the U.S.

The most powerful moment for me in Dr. Jasser’s book was his story of how his family wanted to construct a mosque in Wisconsin but public opposition stalled it. After they went to the media, the attitude changed and it was built. Rather than showcase the incident as proof that Muslims are oppressed in American society, as CAIR would, Jasser’s family marveled at how American liberties allowed them to win. “My parents always told us that the struggle and uncertainty about Muslims were human but their victory for religious freedom was American,” he writes.

One of the barriers to Islamic reform is opposition to ijtihad, the independent interpretation of Islamic doctrine. The general consensus is that the “gates of ijtihad” were closed by 1258 A.D. It was declared that the qualified Islamic scholars had answered all the necessary questions. New questions are to be answered through analogical reasoning.

The result is that, in the words of Professor Ziauddin Sadar in, “serious rethinking within Islam is overdue” because the doctrine is “frozen in time.” He writes that this has led to “three metaphysical catastrophes:  the elevation of the Shari`ah to the level of the Divine, with the consequent removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the State.” Tunisian professor Dr. Muhamed Al-Haddad likewise writes, “Daily life has evolved radically since the last millennium, but there has been no accompanying development in mainstream Muslim legal theory.”

Middle East expert Harold Rhode argues “For the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no” to the question of whether the gates can be reopened. However, there are Muslims arguing for the revival of ijtihad and there are Muslims who argue that they were never really closed to begin with.

Malcolm Jardine, for example, wrote a paper arguing that the belief that ijtihad has ceased “needs to be contested vigorously.” Irshad Manji has started Project Ijtihad to promote critical thinking and cites the Nawawi Foundation’s Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s paper that argues that Islam “never had a doorkeeper to close it in the first place.” Former Islamist Tawfik Hamid reported in January 2011 that a group of 25 scholars, including some from Al-Azhar University, had called for the formal continuation of ijtihad. They listed 10 points in need of re-examination including jihad, separation of mosque and state, women’s rights and relations with non-Muslims.

It is Muslims like Dr. Jasser and the now-deceased Abdurrahman Wahid who need to be upheld and promoted. Interfaith groups would be wise to seek out those like them, rather than working with the more easily-accessible Islamists that spout their ideology and promote feelings of victimization, separatism and identity politics that undermine bridge-building. On this topic, there is one part of The Illusion of an Islamic State that truly impacted me as a Christian.

C. Holland Taylor writes how she brought her Pentecostal friend to meet Wahid when he came to the U.S. in May 2008. He was here to accept the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor for calling Iranian President Ahmadinejad a liar after he denied the Holocaust. Her friend said, “Holland, I keep asking myself: how do these Muslim leaders you introduce me to, know what I know?”

Taylor asked what she meant. “It’s obvious that President Wahid is filled with the Holy Spirit,” the friend answered. She continued, “Well, I wouldn’t be comfortable saying this to anyone at church…but the only explanation that makes sense to me, is that Jesus is far, far greater than I ever realized.”

She didn’t have to believe in Wahid’s faith to believe that God was using him for good. God isn’t limited to only using Christians or believers in whichever faith you belong to.

You may or may not agree with that analysis, but the bottom line is this: The Islamists are promoting texts and leaders preaching their beliefs. Why aren’t we promoting the texts and leaders preaching against their beliefs?

This article was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Ryan Mauro is Family Security Matters’ national security analyst. He is a fellow with, the founder of and a frequent national security analyst for Fox News Channel. He can be contacted at

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Jordan Islamists Seek to Emulate Morsi’s Victory

Muslim Brotherhood hopes for success despite political set Abdullah Omar

AMMAN, Jordan — The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan celebrated the election of Islamist Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt as if he was one of their own, opening their offices across the kingdom to hand out sweets and gloat before shocked Jordanian authorities.

“What we saw in Egypt clearly shows that reform is coming. It is a matter of time,” said Ali Abul Sukkar, president of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The victory of Morsi in the elections is a great boost for the Islamist movement and a wake up call for the regime to implement reforms as promised,” said Abul Sukkar.

Minutes after it was confirmed that a fellow Islamist Morsi won, the leadership of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement calling on supporters to join their celebrations spilling out of its 24 branches across the kingdom.

King Abdullah II sent a cable of congratulations to Morsi, stressing Jordan’s commitment to continued efforts to boost its relations with Egypt in all domains and in a manner that helps activate Arab and Islamic cooperation, a Royal Court statement said.

Diplomacy aside, analysts say the Islamist movement will be emboldened by the victory of a major ally and could harden its stance with authorities over demanded reforms. At the moment, the Islamist movement is set to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections later this year.

While authorities are still assessing the impact of Morsi’s victory on the local scene, some Jordanian officials have already voiced concerns that the local Muslim Brotherhood movement could be seeking to emulate their Egyptian counterparts.

To the dismay of opposition parties including the Islamist movement, the parliament on Sunday endorsed a controversial election reform bill that has been described as backward and anti-reform legislation and an effort to kick start the long overdue reforms promised since the Arab Spring swept the region 16 months ago.

The bill kept the balance of power in the hands of conservative tribes loyal to the regime and made sure political parties have minor, if any, representation in the legislature.

Opposition parties say the amendments will continue to enable pro-regime candidates from tribal dominated areas and influential businessmen to win at the expense of party candidates.

Zaki Bani Rashid, senior leader from the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, said his group is planning to create a shadow government and a shadow parliament after having given up on reform promises.

But Islamist leaders say the government is delaying the inevitable.

In Jordan’s first free elections since 1989, the Islamist movement swept parliament seats and enjoyed a slight majority, before authorities amended the law in favor of Bedouin tribes and loyalists.

King Abdullah is expected to sign a royal decree in coming days to officially pass the bill as law, paving the way for elections by the end of the year.

Analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman believes that authorities are adamant to maintain their grip on the country without giving concessions.

“It is too late, we missed the train. We wished results of the Egyptian elections were announced before the elections law was endorsed,” said Abu Rumman, warning against what he believes are inevitable and dire consequences to the political current political stand off between the regime and the Islamists movement.

“Are we going to rectify the situation or wait to pay a heavy price?” Abu Rumman pondered.

Hamzah Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, sent a veiled message to authorities, saying his group was headed for victory in the style of its larger Egyptian sister.

“I think victory is a temptation for another victory and encourages success. Victory of the Egyptian people will have an impact on the governments of all of the Arab and Islamic countries. They must reconsider their policies and respect the will of their people,” Mansour said.

Morsi defeated former general Ahmed Shafiq in a run-off last weekend by a convincing 3.5 percentage points, or nearly 900,000 votes, taking 51.7 percent of the total, officials said, ending a week of disputes over the count which left nerves frayed over who was going to be named the leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Shafiq has since reportedly fled Egypt for a Gulf state.

Morsi succeeds Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown 16 months ago after a popular uprising. The military council which has ruled the biggest Arab nation since then has this month curbed the powers of the presidency, meaning the head of state will have to work closely with the army on a planned democratic constitution.