At times, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks (and acts) like someone ready for his own show on Cartoon Network (Mahmoud, Mahmoudd & Mahmoudy? The Terrorist Adventures of Little Hitler and the Supreme Leader?). From his goofy appearance to his outlandish pronouncements, Ahmadinejad often resembles something from the storyboards of Danny Antonucci, Maxwell Atoms, or Craig McCracken. But alas, Iran's best-known cartoon figure is very real, and very determined to acquire nuclear weapons. So his rantings can't be totally dismissed.
But they can be quantified and deflated, as require. Consider Ahmadinejad's recent announcement that his army has attained "self-sufficiency," and boasts that recent U.N. sanctions have no affect on the Iranian armed services. As proof of this, the stenographers at the Associated Press obligingly published Ahmadeinjad's claims, and supposed examples of an expanding arms industry:
"Since 1992, it has produced its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles and a fighter plane. It announced in 2005 that it had begun production of torpedoes."
But that doesn't mean the stuff is any good, or that Tehran has actually achieved self-sufficiency in military production. In fact, a closer examination reveals that the Iranian claim is full of holes, but you wouldn't know that by reading the AP dispatch.
We'll begin with that Iranian "fighter plane," nicknamed "Saegheh," the Farsi word for "thunderbolt." As we observed last September, this "new" fighter is nothing more than a re-manufactured U.S. F-5, which has been in the Iranian inventory for more than 30 years. Aside from a second vertical stabilizer (and a slightly expanded nose cone), it appears to have little in the way of new features and capabilities; it is certainly not a match for U.S. F-16s or F-18s, as Tehran boasted last September. Given its modest performance (in comparison to fourth and fifth-generation western jets), we suggested that a better name might be the Farsi term for "target."
Additionally, Iran shows no signs that it will mass-produce the Saegheh. That means that aging, U.S.-built F-4 Phantom IIs and F-14 Tomcats will remain the backbone of Tehran's fighter fleet, at least for the near term. At last count, the Iranian Air Force had only 30 "operational" Phantoms, and only a half-dozen F-14s that were flyable. Making matters worse, there are indications that none of the Tomcats have a functional air-intercept radar (used for tracking and engaging enemy aircraft), and none of their long-range Phoenix missiles work, either. If Iran was truly self-sufficient, you'd think they would have found a way to keep more of their fighters in the air.
And similar problems exist among Tehran's other, foreign-produced aircraft, including the MiG-29 Fulcrum (made in Russia), and the Chinese-manufactured F-7 (a copy of the MiG-21 Fishbed). Mission-capability rates among both jets remain dismally low, despite the supposed availability of Russian and Chinese advisers, spare parts, and good, old-fashioned Iranian "know-how." So much for self-sufficiency, at least in the skies.
Iran's missile program is a cause for greater concern. Thanks largely to North Korea, Tehran has a growing arsenal of short, medium and intermediate-range missiles, along with various models of battlefield rockets. But the accuracy of these systems leaves much to be desired; one reason that Iran is actively pursuing WMD is because its current missiles (and rockets) are incapable of precision strikes with conventional munitions. Tehran's crowning achievement in missile technology (the medium-range Shahab-3) is essentially an extended range SCUD, with a CEP of three kilometers or more at long range. And all of Iran's existing missile systems are vulnerable to intercept by ballistic missile defenses in the region, reducing their potential effectiveness. Iran could probably sustain some semblance of the current program without outside assistance, but improving range and accuracy will still require foreign expertise.
Readers may also recall that Iran's "advanced" high-speed torpedo (also mentioned in the AP article) is largely based on a World War II-era Russian design. If you've watched a classic submarine movie like Run Silent, Run Deep, you've got the idea. For the torpedo to work, you've got to develop a primitive firing "solution," then hope the target doesn't maneuver or dispense counter-measures. Against a modern warship, employing existing ASW measures, the Iranian torpedo is anything but a world-beater.
In the air defense arena, Iran can perform limited maintenance on its I-HAWK system, acquired from the U.S. in the 1970s. But the number of available missiles, launchers and support equipment have declined steadily in recent years, reflecting the problems associated with an aging system--and the Iran's modest ability to keep the system in service. Similar problems exist among Tehran's other "legacy" air defense systems, the Russian-made SA-5 and the Chinese-produced CSA-1. Iran probably has higher in-service rates for its newer SAMs, including the SA-6 and SA-15, the product of Russian contractor support that came with those arms sales. But those missiles are limited in number; the I-HAWK remains the backbone of Tehran's air defense network, and the system is hardly a sterling example of Iranian self-sufficiency.
As for the ground equipment, Iranian-produced main battle tanks (Zulfiqr 1/2/3, Safir 74) are either copies of existing designs (the Safir is a duplicate of the China Type 59 tank, which in turn was copied from the Soviet T-54/55 series), or a blend of older western and Russian designs. The Zulfiqr, for example, blends technology from U.S. M-48 and M-60 tanks (dating from the 1950s and 60s), along with components from the Russian T-72. Hardly a match for the U.S. M-1 Abrams, or Russia's T-80 for that matter.
Still, the Iranians derive some benefit from these claims. From the hardware perspective, these programs provide a starting point--a potential springboard for building better systems somewhere down the road, with continued external assistance. From a propaganda standpoint --Ahmadinejad's real aim--the boast reinforces perceptions of Iran's growing military power, and raises concerns about the potential "cost" of a military conflict with Tehran. And, as we've noted on many occasions, the Iranian president's wild assertions go virtually unchallenged by the western press. So, from his vantage point, it makes perfect sense to continue the propaganda game, offering cartoonish claims about growing military power and self-sufficiency that have only a marginal basis in fact.