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How Many Battle Tanks Does Iran Have?

February 1, 2019

Via Iranian media/Mehr News.

The “Eghtedar 97” exercises that took place in Isfahan during the last week of January showed Iran’s regular army, also known as the Artesh, engage in a large-scale simulated battle. Iran’s state media reported 12,000 personnel–or an entire division–were involved and choice photographs from the live fire demonstrations showed ground and air units participating. Iran’s air force and army aviation were in superb form as Cobra attack helicopters unleashed salvos of rockets and Chinese-made F-7 fighters dropped fiery ordnance.

But Eghtedar 97 was useful for careful observers of the Islamic Republic’s conventional military. During the week-long exercises and its attendant media coverage, in fact, much of the army’s equipment received a remarkable amount of scrutiny. What it reveals is an unsurprising collection of armored vehicles gathered from the late Pahlavi era and Soviet vintage hardware.

Eghtedar 97 did prove, despite claims to the contrary, that Iran’s armored units are lagging behind their neighbors. Indeed, the army’s most common tank is still the locally assembled T-72S with reactive armor around its turret. This export-ready variant manufactured in the 1990s  is quite dated, lacking a commander’s panoramic sight and devoid of an active protection system to foil incoming missiles. Iran’s rivals in the Gulf, on the other hand, have managed to acquire far more capable third-generation main battle tanks or MBTs such as the Challenger 2, the Leclerc, Leopard 2A7+, M1A1/A2 Abrams and even the Russian-made T-90S. (Of course, Israel’s splendid Merkava 3/4 tanks are difficult to ignore.)

Clearly, the Iranian army are outmatched–but do they at least enjoy superior numbers?

The status of Iran’s T-55 tanks is unclear–have they been retired or are a few still kicking?

Based on figures compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) for their annual report on global military strength, these reveal a sobering picture of Iranian armored might. Rather than a menace to the Gulf states, the tanks operated by the army and the IRGC are an odd fleet of dubious usefulness. Indeed, if Iran had to fight a ground war soon its mechanized forces risk getting battered in much the same way the Syrian Arab Army was these past several years.

It needs to be clarified that Iran’s military is an arrangement between three institutions. There’s the regular armed forces (the IRIA, IRIAF, IRIN) whose ranks are filled by mandatory conscripts, then the IRGC with almost the same size and equipment, and finally the Basij–a reservist pool of at least a million trained civilians for the Revolutionary Guard to draw on. According to the IISS, the tanks operated by the army and the IRGC include:

MODEL Quantity
T-72S 480 (Army) ? (IRGC) 538 (disputed figure)
T-62 100 (Army)
T-55/Type 59 540 (Army)
Chieftain 100 (Army)
Scorpion light tank 80 (Army)
M60A1 Patton 150 (Army)
M48 Patton 168 (Army)
TOTAL 1,618

While the sheer size of the Iranian tank fleet is impressive on paper, its prevailing obsolescence can’t be ignored. Even the “advanced” model like the T-72S numbers less than half the total no matter which figure is acknowledged: the IISS’ low 480 or the higher 538 T-72S’ assessed by independent analysts. Readers wondering about the absence of the mysterious Zulfiqar and Karrar tanks should be reminded neither are in mass-production, although Iranian media do claim the Karrar (an attempt to copy the T-90S/MS) will soon enter service with the IRGC.

Measuring the extent of Iran’s conventional firepower diminishes the prestige its leaders claim to have. Upon closer inspection, Iran is in the same straits as North Korea, having a large and ill-equipped military whose effectiveness (or lack thereof) is compensated by a separate regime-directed organization controlling advanced drones, ballistic missiles, and a large military-industrial sector for harnessing new technology. While it’s safe to dismiss Iran’s regular armed forces for now, the Revolutionary Guard and its proxies, however, are not to be trifled with.

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