Key Point: Despite sanctions, Iran's military has improved its capabilities over the years.
With the possible exception of North Korea, no country in the post–Cold War era has sought to challenge the United States as much as Iran. From the Middle East to Central Asia to Latin America, Tehran has never missed an opportunity to antagonize the U.S. and limit its influence.
This is an inherently risky strategy. Not only has the U.S. encircled Iran with military bases on all sides, but America’s military spending in recent years has been twice the size of Iran’s entire GDP. In any conventional military conflict, Iran wouldn’t stand a chance against the U.S. armed forces.
To compensate, Iran pursues a deterrent-based military doctrine premised on three types of capabilities: an expansive ballistic missile arsenal, asymmetric naval warfare (particularly the threat of closing down the Strait of Hormuz), and ties to non-state militant groups. Although many weapon systems go into implementing this doctrine, five capabilities are particularly crucial:
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The most blunt instrument in Iran’s military doctrine is its large inventory of ballistic missiles. Of these, the Shahab family of ballistic missiles, which are based on North Korean designs, are the best known.
The Sejjil-1 (and its successor, the Sejjil-2) should be the most feared, however. The Sejjil-1 is a two-stage, medium range surface-to-surface ballistic missile that Iran first tested in 2008. Unlike the Shahab missiles, the Sejjil-1 missile is solid-fueled, greatly reducing its launch time while enhancing its mobility.