(Washington, D.C.) While Iran’s political and military leaders are not exactly known for making measured, reserved or unprovocative remarks, stating that “Israel could be blown up in a single operation,” would be considered an aggressive comment even for Iranians.
At the same time, Iranian national documents and philosophies do specifically call for the destruction of Israel, so these comments from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami do align with the kind of well-known, consistent anti-Israel rhetoric coming from Iran.
Hossein’s comments were also filled with hints and suggestions that his forces may have been behind a recent explosion at an Israeli plant for advanced weapons, according to a news report from AL-Monitor. Israel, the report specifies, said the blast hurt no one and took place during a “routine test.”
Hossein, according to the report, made many references to Israel’s supposed “vulnerabilities” to “domino-style” attacks. While easily dismissed as hyperbole in many respects, Hossein’s remarks as quoted by the report introduce a few interesting things to consider.
For instance, Israeli is without question very experienced when it comes to the realm of missile defense given its recent history, as it deploys systems such as Iron Dome and other kinds of ground-based systems. This reality might seem to make Israeli less vulnerable to Iran’s large arsenal of ballistic missiles, some of which potentially able to reach Israel should they be maneuvered within range. Israel is about 1,000 miles from Iran, a range which is just at the outer limits of the striking distance of most long-range ballistic missiles.
The distance between the two countries speaks to another, even potentially more pressing issue, such as how Iran could actually get close enough to the Israeli border to launch an attack. Iranian ground forces would need to travel through Iraq or Turkey, or somehow cross the Persian Gulf area to deploy on the other side of the Arabian peninsula. Any approaching Iranian force would, it goes without saying, be highly vulnerable to Israeli air attack. Therefore, apart from the concerning prospect of Iran at some point having nuclear weapons, there do not appear to be a wide sphere of ways Iran might actually be able to attack Israel with any measure of success.
Unless, of course, Iran were to employ terrorist tactics, something by no means beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, small, covert hit and run types of terror attacks may be the kind of thing Hossein was referring to by hinting that several targeted strikes could bring down Israel. Added to this equation is the well known fact that Iran has been, and likely continues to be, a state sponsor of terrorist organizations. However, just as is likely the case with air defenses, Israel is certainly experienced and likely adept at counterterrorism tactics for obvious reasons.
Iran regularly calls for, and threatens, the complete destruction of Israel, but what could it actually do about it? Apart from the obvious risk of some kind of future nuclear attack, and an ongoing threat of terrorism, what kind of actual threat would Iran pose to Israel? Clearly Iran does not have comparable air power, given that Israel is already expanding its operational fleet of 5th-Gen F-35s and operates a formidable Air Force. Iran would have trouble getting in position to launch missile attacks into Israel, which might not succeed in reaching targets anyway given Israeli defenses.
Does this mean Iran’s best hope for actually destroying Israel would be to launch a ground invasion? Provided of course its force could get into position to attack without first being destroyed from the air.
While Iran does, at least on paper, appear to have a larger ground force, particularly when it comes to tanks and armored vehicles, that does not in any way mean that its land force would in any way be equivalent to Israel. Globalfirepower’s 2021 military assessments for instance, list Iran as having 3,700 tanks compared to Israel’s 1,600 tanks. However, having 2,000 more tanks than Israeli does not by any stretch ensure military overmatch, as sheer numbers of tanks may prove to be much less of an advantage should a smaller tank force be equipped with vastly superior sensors, weapons, computing and targeting. This may well appear to be the case with even a cursory look at how Israel’s well known and highly regarded Merkava tanks would compare against Iranian upgraded Soviet-era T-72s.
An interesting report in “21st Century Asian Arms Race,” states Iran has German-built Leopard tanks as well as Russian T-90s and even some Abrams. Iran’s first widely report indigenous tank called the Farrar has emerged in recent years, a platform said to be based upon an upgraded Iranian T-72S chassis. The Iranian tank, reported to operate with an electro-optical fire control system, laser rangefinder and ballistic computer, would at least on the surface appear to most likely be vastly inferior to the Israeli Merkava. An interesting report from The National Interest in 2017 raises the question as to whether the Israeli Merkava is, in fact, the most advanced in the world. It can carry infantry or injured soldiers, leverage a rear exit hatch for dismounted operations or safety escape and, perhaps of greatest significance, its main gun tube can itself fire anti-tank missiles, according to the TNI report. The Merkava also has top-attack missiles potentially useful for attacking helicopters and other targets potentially out of range for a standard tank shell. What much of this amounts to is simply that even if it operates as many as 2,000 fewer main battle tanks compared to Iran, Israel may indeed operate a vastly superior land force. During the Gulf War’s famous tank battles, for example, U.S. Abrams advanced thermal sights were able to detect, find and then help destroy Iraqi T-72 before they were in range to even be detected or seen by Iraqi tanks. Therefore, large numbers of Iraqi tanks were disproportionately destroyed by far fewer Abrams armed with long-range, high-fidelity targeting sensors.
Iran is also reported to operate about 1,000 more armored vehicles than Israel. Iran is listed in the Globalfirepower 2021 assessment as having 8,500 armored vehicles, compared with Israel’s 7,000. Again, any size deficit is likely to be less consequential, unless the technological capacity were in any way comparable. While a lot of details regarding any kind of particular technical comparison may not be available, the advanced technologies built into the Israeli Merkava might make it seem unlikely that Iran has vastly superior infantry carriers and armored vehicles. Furthermore, without superior tanks able to break through the proactive barriers or defensive configurations of an Israeli force, any Iranian advance might be less likely to succeed.
Meanwhile, virtually all of this would of course rely in large measure upon an ability to establish any kind of air superiority, something that would be necessary for Iran to achieve before it could even get close enough to try to attack Israel on the ground.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics&Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.