Now that Iran is inching towards its nuclear breakout time, its combat capabilities should be taken more seriously.
The Iranian regime has often threatened the U.S., Israel and its other adversaries both directly and indirectly over the years.
Just back in late-March, Iranian-backed militants launched a lethal drone attack targeting U.S. personnel in Syria and killed an American contractor. One month prior, Iranian officials threatened to use its fleet of airframes to respond to any potential flare-up with Israel.
While many of Iran’s self-proclaimed formidable airframes and military equipment are second-rate at best, the regime does possess a handful of weapons that could prove to be lethal.
Russia’s use of Iranian-made combat drones in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine has proven to aid its offensive war efforts. Tehran has supplied its rogue ally with various lethal unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including those laden with explosives. The Shahed-136 loitering munition, powered by the Chinese-produced MD550 engine, has been used in at least dozens of attacks carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine. Iran’s arsenal of suicide drones has also been used quite extensively throughout the region vis-à-vis proxy groups. In Syria and Iraq, Iranian-linked militant groups have carried out lethal drone attacks frequently over the years. In 2023 alone, these proxy groups have launched over 100 barrages-including drones- targeting U.S. assets in the region.
Since the former Trump administration withdrew from the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has ramped up the development of its ballistic missile program. The Sejjil family of missiles is perhaps the regime’s most advanced ballistic missile as it can deliver a payload of around 700kg to its 2,000km range. Industry analysts believe that this family of solid-fueled medium range ballistic missiles would be Iran’s first choice to carry nuclear warheads once the regime finalizes that capability.
Iran’s largest and most advanced submarines are its three 3,000-ton diesel-electric Kilos. At least two of these massive vessels are operational at any given time. Dubbed the “Black Hole” by the U.S. Navy, the Kilo-class vessels are silent underwater. The submarines’ shape and lack of vibration due to intentional designs make it extremely difficult to locate. While that capability is significant, the Kilo-class does possess one major flaw- the Iranian Navy cannot sail these vessels in all of the waters off the Iranian coast. Much of the Gulf is very shallow, making the Kilo-class’ 164 feet of depth requirement quite the hurdle. In fact, the Kilo-class submarines cannot sail in nearly two-thirds of the entire Gulf.
While Iran’s Ghadir-class of miniature submarines may not be as quiet as the Kilo-class vessels, they can actually sail across the entirety of the Gulf. This capability is paramount for the regime since the strategic Strait of Hormuz is positioned on the Gulf and more than a fifth of the world’s oil production passes through it each year.
Although technically not a physical weapon, Iran’s loyal militias across the region perhaps represent the regime’s more dangerous weapon. Iran has exploited power vacuums and domestic turmoil in order to further entrench itself in several neighboring countries. Iranian-backed proxy groups function in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Gaza strip. Funded and supplied with weaponry by Iran, these militant groups carry out drone, rocket and missile attacks in order to serve the interests of the regime.
We would be remiss if we did not mention that Iran still flies the Top Gun legend F-14 Tomcat. Can those old fighters compete with, say, the F-22 or F-35? No. But, nonetheless, we had to mention it for at least nostalgic reasons.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.