A profound and protracted economic crisis – as well as new strategic thinking – has forced Iran to trim one-fifth of its ground forces over the next three years, notwithstanding the 50 percent rise in oil prices. The funds saved are redirected to boosting its nuclear and missile programs, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Iranian and military sources disclose.
The national army's 400,000-strong ground units will be slashed by some 100,000 men, while the half-million Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) ground troops will be reduced by around 80,000 men and another 20-30,000 shaved from the Basij (volunteer civil defense) militia, which is supposed to recruit a potential one million men in an emergency.
Western intelligence estimates that Iran's national budget for 2008 was $10 million, so the cutback would represent about an annual $1.5 billion over three years. Last year, Tehran had already slowed or halted resupplies of equipment to units, the construction of new bases and the renewal of its obsolete military vehicles, Large-scale maneuvers were put on hold.
Conversely, the funding of Iran's nuclear and missile programs was boosted by one-fifth in the first half of 2009 over and above the same period last year.
The cutback in spending for ground forces is also partly due to Iranian strategic reassessment of the threats to the country. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that until late 2008, military planners expected any US or Israeli strikes on their nuclear sites to include airborne drops of American or Israeli commandos across Iran to destroy nuclear facilities as well as roads, bridges, railways, power plants, water systems and big factories. Hitting infrastructure would aim at stirring up enough domestic turmoil to topple the regime, especially in ethnically sensitive regions such as the Ahwaz oil region in the south which is largely populated by restive Arabs, Baluchistan in the east and the separatist Kurdish areas in the west.
These disaffected communities might be turned against the Shiite revolutionary government and break away from Iran.
Tehran switches to air, missile, nuclear assets to defend country from attack
This former calculation also took into account that Iran's air force and navy were too puny and underequipped to repel foreign special operations forces; the task would therefore fall to Iran's sizeable ground forces in which its war planners invested as a top priority for destroying invaders.
That line of thinking has been abandoned in leading military and IRGC circles. They now expect the Israelis and Americans to rely on warplanes and missiles for winning the war while a large ground army would be left with nothing to do. Military leaders therefore urged the government in Tehran to redirect funds to developing Iran's air and missiles forces to match the enemy, because they alone might tip the scales of battle and defend the country against interlopers.
To support this argument, the lessons of the Israel-Hizballah war of 2006 were held up. By showering thousands of rockets and missiles on the population of northern Israel, Hizballah survived an Israeli armored incursion of south Lebanon, they said.
Tehran's decision to restructure its military has political implications, DEBKA-Net-Weekly Iranian sources report.
Iran's ground forces were deployed additionally to bolster the regime and local authority in the country's cities and key regions.
Furthermore, the yearly conscription of thousands of youths was a powerful tool for channeling rebellious and aggressive tendencies in the young generation. The government will have to find alternative levers of control in the next three years.