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Iran Gave Upgraded Tanks To Its Iraqi Proxies

July 24, 2021
Upgraded T-72 tanks at the June 26 parade. Via Iraqi PMF media.

On June 26 an enormous military parade was held in Camp Ashraf, a military base occupied by the Iran-backed PMF, that was attended by no less than Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. As many as 10,000 fighters are estimated to have been involved–the PMF aren’t integrated with the Iraqi armed forces–and an intimidating arsenal was shown and then broadcast by media owned by the PMF. It was always understood the PMF, an umbrella organization that encompasses as many as 150,000 fighters, possessed their own heavy armor in the long war against ISIS. But the June 26 parade featured something else; main battle tanks that aren’t in service with the Iraqi Army.

This means Iran is far-sighted enough to begin assembling a real conventional military outside its borders.

More than two dozen tanks were involved in the parade. Nine were T-72’s that underwent significant upgrades; seven of these featured a new armor suite while two are identifiable as T-72S’ operated by Iran’s regular army and the IRGC. The latter is an export model acquired in the 1990s to bolster Iran’s diminishing fleet of British and US-made tanks. It’s the newer T-72’s that were in the June 26 parade that deserve further scrutiny. Their appearance is closer to the M-48AS1/AS2 tanks from Serbia, where copies of the T-72 used to be assembled as the M-84 (their nomenclature indicates the year they entered service, 1984), and the short-lived T-72 Scarab advertised by a manufacturer from the Czech Republic.

Soviet vintage T-72’s are some of the world’s most combat proven tanks but are notorious for a vulnerable carousel-type magazine installed underneath the autoloader feeding the main gun, the 125mm 2A46M. When the lower half of the hull or the flanks of the turret are penetrated by high explosive projectiles this often detonates the ammunition stored in the magazine and wrecks the tank. India and Iran are the only Asian countries to have state-owned factories that assemble T-72’s. In 2019 a rare upgrade of the T-72S was displayed at military-themed exhibitions and then appeared at a Sacred Defense parade in Tehran. The Sacred Defense is a week-long anniversary to mark the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War that dragged on for much of the 1980s.

Iran’s military industries are trying to launch production of the Karrar, pictured here on display at a military-themed exhibition. Via Iranian media.

This upgrade of the T-72 had a turret encased in angular panels as well as slat or cage armor over its sensitive engine compartment; the original T-72 runs on a 840 horsepower diesel engine whose exhaust is located on the left flank of the hull. As far as can be ascertained through browsing Iranian media the Defense Industries Organization (DIO) responsible for manufacturing Iran’s military equipment has successfully localized the production of diesel engines for tanks. The Iranian variety manages 1,000 hp but it’s unknown if these are installed on the upgrades delivered to the PMF.

The seven upgraded T-72’s sent to the PMF–it’s uncertain if the IRGC are exporting more tanks to them–had larger turrets encased in composite panels, effectively doubling their armor thickness, while the back of the turret was covered in slat armor. Below the turret and over the glacis, where a v-shaped splash guard is usually seen, a layer of composite armor panels were added too. The tracks of the tanks were partially concealed by new rubber side skirts fastened with rows of armor panels and rectangular slat panels hung on either side of the engine compartment. The external fuel tanks mounted at the back of the hull had a different shape as well.

In 2017 a newly built Karrar tank was unveiled and received fawning coverage from Iranian media. But there are important differences between the Karrar, the IRGC’s upgraded T-72’s, and the upgraded T-72’s sent to the PMFs. The Iranian variants feature remote weapon stations on their turrets. The distribution of explosive reactive armor and composite armor on the turret is different as well. The Karrar in particular boasts new panoramic sights for the commander and gunner and mounts a detection system to foil incoming projectiles. Another crucial difference of the Karrar, which is patterned after the Russian-made T-90M, are the ERA bricks at the front of the hull and the serrated rubber side skirts fastened by additional armor panels for protecting the flanks.

The production status of the Karrar hasn’t been confirmed by the DIO. But the export of upgraded T-72’s, along with other Iranian weapon systems, to Iranian proxies like the PMF is a worrying trend as these can then be transferred elsewhere, such as Syria where they may be deployed in combat against either US or Turkish-backed factions.

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