< Return to Articles Categories

What is the Real Threat from Iran?

The Potential Threat and the Actual Threat

The primary task for national intelligence is to provide accurate information for the security of the nation. The Intelligence Community (IC) does this by collecting data on foreign countries, organizations that pose a threat to the nation (such as terrorist groups), and alliances of nations and organizations that pose a threat to the United States.  The IC then analyzes the data and presents a report to decision makers. The process is straightforward but the execution to produce accurate and clear analytic results is seldom simple.

Intelligence management continues to evolve in the new era of the information world. The ‘all  source’ intelligence process now includes readily-available, low-cost OSINT (open source intelligence) alongside the high-cost, high tech space, land, and sea collection platforms that provide SIGINT, COMINT, IMINT, MASINT, and TECHINT, as well as the clandestine world of human spies (HUMINT). OSINT training takes an important role alongside the other all source methods to gain data for threat assessment. Vast amounts of information are posted daily on the Internet, which are supplemented by commercial satellites and commercial intelligence services that offer subscribers intelligence information and intelligence analyses for a few dollars per month.

Potential threats have two components: capabilities and intent. Enemies will attempt to obfuscate information about their capabilities and intent, utilizing deception and secrecy to mask the true nature of the magnitude, timing, and purpose of the threat. This complicates the task of the intelligence analyst in assessing capabilities and evaluating intent.

Military capabilities are an aggregate of many factors including military hardware, logistics, technology, manpower, combat experience, leadership, training, industrial base, and morale. The previous example factors are among many considered when making an assessment of ‘military capabilities.’  With regard to the Iranian military, Iran’s capabilities include two separate groups: The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, otherwise known to the West as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and the traditional armed forces, formed as an army, navy, and air force. In addition, Iranian military capabilities include a large paramilitary group, Basij, and militarized law enforcement units. The IRGC extensively employs various surrogate groups, including the powerful Hezbollah military forces; Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemenis, like the Houthi tribe; Shiite militia organizations, and even some Sunni groups such as Hamas.

Based on manpower and equipment numbers, Iranian military capabilities appear impressive, as compared with the various other military forces in the Middle East.  However, a comparison of Iranian and Saudi military forces illustrates the difficulty of assessing actual military comparability. Open sources differ on the Iranian/Saudi military comparison as Iran to Saudi Arabia: Iranian tanks 28951/16583 to Saudi tanks 10551/12103; Iranian aircraft 4071/1963 to Saudi aircraft 2871/388.3 The quantity of Iranian equipment, however, does not mean the quality is up to par.In fact, much of the Iranian equipment is old and likely in a low state of combat serviceability due to the decades-long sanctions imposed by the West.The Saudi equipment is modern and represents advanced technologies. Considering potential military manpower resources, Iran has a population base of 82,801,633 against a Saudi population of 28,260,273.4 Estimates of active-duty military personnel give Iran a major advantage with Iran 545,000 active duty personnel and active reserves of 1,800,000 versus Saudi Arabia active duty 235,000 and active reserves of 25,000.3 The qualitative analysis of each nation’s manpower suggests a different story as to the levels of training and potential combat effectiveness. Iran military forces have not engaged in a largescale war since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The Iran logistics support system is not considered capable of force projection for large scale combat operations outside of Iran, particularly sustained operations.

The military force comparisons are even more adverse for Iran when the sectarian Shia versus Sunni antagonisms enter the balance. While the Sunni Middle Eastern community is not united, all Sunni countries do share an animosity for the Persian Shia threat. Furthermore, the Sunni countries have inherent conflicts with Iran in strategic objectives; in example, Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran are historic enemies, with the hegemonic strategic goals respectively of Erdoğan and Khamenei being mutually exclusive. Iran and Turkey are comparable in the population bases and active duty personnel military forces but Turkey has more tanks, more aircraft, and in general the various Turkish military hardware are more advanced. As Iran, the Turkish military has not been involved in a large-scale war for decades. The IRGC Quds force gained combat experience on a limited scale in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The Turkish excursion into northern Syria shows a relatively low level combat performance by the deployed Turkish forces.

The conclusion from these basic comparisons is that Iran is at a serious disadvantage in a war situation against cooperating Sunni forces: Iran is numerically outnumbered; Iran combat equipment is technically inferior to the Sunni hardware; Iran has little capability to execute large-scale combat operations outside Iran.

Intent is the Fog of War

Despite the overall Iranian disadvantages against united Sunni forces, Iran still poses major threats to the Middle East and resultant threats to the West. Iran does pose an existential threat to Middle East neighbors and a major threat to the world economy. Although the Iranian navy is weak, Iran has the ability to mine two critical sea choke points (the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandab Strait), and use small boat attacks against commercial shipping. Iran also has land-to-sea missiles that can interdict shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. The Iranian wild card is the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability. This WMD capability requires a viable nuclear device and a delivery system. The cooperation between Iran and North Korea in both nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development is widely known.5 A nuclear-armed Iran would be a military game changer for the Middle East and the world.

Capabilities determine what is possible; intent determines what may happen. Assessing intent is perhaps the most difficult task for intelligence analysts as deception plays heavily in masking true intent. Building military capabilities suggests intent, but the actual intent determines the plan to take offensive military action. Iran poses a particularly thorny problem as there are inherent conflicts between Persian pragmatism and the governing theocracy belief system. Iran has taken risky actions in a quest to establish a Shiite ‘arc of influence’ from Iran across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, extend influence in Yemen, and support radical Islamic groups.6,7 Many argue Iran continues clandestine violations of the Iran Nuclear Deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and subverting the sanctions on the ballistic missile development program. The intelligence imperative to detect and understand the Iranian strategic intent will continue as a top priority for the U.S. and the Middle East nations.

Intelligence management and OSINT training: Essential for Jobs in the Security World

The U.S. security world of intelligence, law enforcement, the defense industry, and the military will have job opportunities for individuals who are prepared through targeted education including intelligence management and OSINT training. Online education is an excellent resource to obtain the qualifications necessary to successfully compete in the security and intelligence job markets. The top online schools provide faculty with practical operational experience, academic credentials, and offers a curriculum that focuses on intelligence management, terrorism and counterterrorism, strategic security, and protection management.


  1. Edsel, G. (2014).  Country vs country: Iran and Saudi Arabiacompared: Military stats.NationMaster. Retrieved from: http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Iran/Saudi-Arabia/Military
  2. Cordesman, A. (2015). Iran’s Conventional Military Forces. The Iran Primer. Retrieved from:       http://iranprimer.usip.org/sites/default/files/PDF%20Military_Cordesman_Conventional%20Military.pdf
  3. Global Firepower Staff. (2016). Iran Military Strength. Global Firepower. Retrieved from: http://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=iran
  4. CIA Staff. (2017). Iran. CIA World FactBook. Retrieved from:    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_ir.html
  5. Nagtegaal, B. (2017).  Experts: ‘Iran Is Progressing Toward Nuclear Weapons Via North Korea’. The Trumpet. Retrieved from: https://www.thetrumpet.com/14650-experts-iran-is-progressing-toward-nuclear-weapons-via-north-korea
  6. Salazar, V.A. (2014). Theocracy in Iran: From an Ideology to an Islamic Republic. SSRN. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2672828
  7. Ostovar, A. (2016). Sectarian Dilemmas in Iranian Foreign Policy: When Strategy and Identity Politics Collide. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved from: http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/11/30/sectarian-dilemmas-in-iranian-foreign-policy-when-strategy-and-identity-politics-collide-pub-66288




Join a Network of High Achievers

Henley-Putnam Faculty members are leaders from world renowned strategic security organizations:

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
National Security Agency (NSA)
US Secret Service Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)

Request Info

To request an application or get information about any of our strategic security programs, fill out the form below. An Admissions Advisor will be in touch within one business day to answer your questions.
Or contact us directly at 888-852-8746

Admissions Advising

admissionsadvising@henley-putnam.edu1.888.852.8746 ext. 1

Area of Interest*
First Name*
Last Name*