Iran and Saudi Arabia have been locked in an escalating dispute after Saudi authorities announced the execution of prominent Shia Muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on sedition charges. Riyadh’s action prompted demonstrators in Teheran to attack the Saudi embassy, which in turn led the Saudi government to break diplomatic ties with its neighbor. Amid the standoff, Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of intentionally launching airstrikes against its embassy in Yemen.
It seems the two largest Middle East countries are pretty much in a touch-and-go situation right now. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is among the closest allies of the US in the region and armed with state-of-the-art western weapons, if war was to break out between the two neighbors there is a good chance that Iran may have the upper hand. That is because Iran is probably the strongest military power in the region second only to Israel.
In fact Iran is currently one of the major arms suppliers in the third world, exporting a wide variety of weapons to over 60 countries. The Middle Eastern nation’s annual arms sales hit US$200 million in 2014.
The country’s strong industrial base dates back to as early as the 1960s, when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last king of Iran, ordered the establishment of the Military Industries Organization (MIO), a governmental organization charged with the responsibility of overseeing the development of the arms industry in the country.
After the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists led by Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, the operation of the MIO immediately ground to a halt. It wasn’t until the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 that the new Islamic regime in Tehran reopened the MIO in order to rebuild its national defense industry in face of Iraqi invasion.
In 1981 the MIO was reorganized and renamed the DIO (in Persian, “Sasadjah”). Since then it has begun to develop and produce a wide variety of weapons ranging from small arms, military vehicles, missiles, tanks, artilleries, anti-air guns, missile boats and even small submarines.
Despite the fact that Iran has been under US sanctions for decades, it didn’t stop the country’s national defense industry from continued expansion, thanks to the help of Russia, China and North Korea. Today the DIO has achieved both diversity in its products and self-sufficiency in terms of technological development and production capability.
Among the various types of weapons produced by Iran, land-based and ship-born anti-ship missiles have been considered the most eye-catching by military observers. Since Iran has a coastline of over a thousand kilometers and is lying on the north coast of the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategically important shipping routes, the development of anti-ship missiles has therefore been on top of Tehran’s agenda.
Iranian leaders are well aware that having a strong land-to-sea strike capability means their country can blockade the strait at any time, giving them the necessary political leverage against the West in times of crisis.
Over the years the Iranian military has developed a formidable anti-ship strike capability, and it owes much of its success to China, which has played a pivotal role in Iran’s tactical missile program since the 1980s.
In 1987 China secretly exported a substantial number of HY-2 anti-ship missiles (often known as the “Silkworm” missiles) to Iran, and in just a few years’ time Iran was able to turn out its license-built equivalent, the “Raad” missile, with a maximum firing range of up to 360 kilometers.
In 1995 Tehran acquired the more advanced C-802 anti-ship missiles from China, thereby greatly boosting its land-to-ship strike capability. In 2012 Iran announced that it successfully test-fired a new generation of anti-ship missile known as the “Noor”. With a maximum firing range of 130 kilometers, the Noor is considered a deadly weapon since it can fly at a very low altitude above sea level before hitting its target, making it very hard to be detected by ship-born radars.
It is estimated that Iran has deployed at least 400 land-based anti-ship missiles along its coastline off the Persian Gulf, posing an enormous threat to marine traffic in the gulf region.
Another type of weapons to be reckoned with in Iran’s arsenal is its ballistic missiles. It’s been almost an open secret that since the 1980s North Korea has been helping Iran with its own ballistic missile program in exchange for oil and hard currency. According to confirmed reports, Pyongyang exported a number of its “Hwasong” (華城) series short-range ballistic missiles (the North Korean equivalent of the famous “Scud” developed by the former Soviet Union) to Tehran in 1987 and 1991, and sent a team of specialists to Iran to help it establish its own assembly line.
However, it was the medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) with an operational range of over 1000 kilometers that Iran was desperately after, and it finally got what it wanted when it acquired the Rodong 1 (勞動1型) missile from North Korea in 1996.
A single-stage, nuclear-capable medium range ballistic missile with an maximum firing range of up to 1400 kilometers, the Rodong 1 (designated the “Shehab” by the Iranian military) gave Iran a strategic strike capability that covers Israel and Saudi Arabia, its main rivals in the region.
In 2006 Iran took one giant step further and acquired a dozen of “Musudan” (舞水端) mobile intermediate range ballistic missiles from North Korea. In 2009 Iran claimed that it successfully test-launched its own mimicked version of the “Musudan” missile, and massive deployment began in 2011. Designated the “Sejil”, this two-stage, liquid-propellant and terminally guided missile has an operational range of up to 3500 kilometers, enabling Iran to strike as far as the Balkans, Ukraine and even Italy.
It is believed that when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, hundreds of Iraqi nuclear experts fled to Iran and sought asylum there, thereby greatly enhancing Tehran’s nuclear capability. It is without question that Iran has the potential both in terms of hardware and expertise to become the next nuclear power in the Middle East after Israel.
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