The relationship between China and Iran has grown stronger since 1979, and especially since the late 1980s, when Tehran ― facing steadily expanding U.S.-imposed sanctions and arms embargoes ― reached out to Beijing for assistance in the development of its military capabilities during the Iran-Iraq War. China’s growing energy needs have also drawn Iran and China closer together: China has developed into an important market for Iranian oil exports as sanctions have effectively cut Iran off from the rest of the global energy market. In exchange, Iran has received cheap consumer goods and hard currency from China, as well as development aid and U.N. Security Council support regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, China and Iran maintain a shared antipathy towards the U.S. and a cultural relationship based on historic Silk Road trading routes stretching back hundreds of years.
It is the military aspect of the Sino-Iranian relationship that troubles many observers in the West. China, and to a lesser extent, North Korea, have played a critical role in the development of Iran’s anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, supplying the Islamic Republic with a variety of weapons systems useful from an A2/AD standpoint. Iran’s focus on its A2/AD resources signals that it is increasingly prepared to wage an asymmetric fight against a more conventionally capable foe such as the U.S., leveraging agility, speed, and decentralized command and control (C2) tactics, combined with advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft weaponry, to defend its assets on the mainland. China’s ongoing support of Iran’s A2/AD military program suggests that Beijing views Iran as a proxy military power in the Middle East, and may hope to use Iran to apply pressure on U.S. forces and to restrict Western oil supplies in the event of a Sino-American conflict in the Pacific.
And the threat from Iran’s A2/AD capabilities is real. During the August 2002 Millennium Challenge wargame, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper commanded a Red Team modeled on an unnamed Persian Gulf adversary similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran. General Van Riper applied asymmetric tactics against U.S. naval forces, using numerous small, rapid attack boats to swarm the America vessels, sinking sixteen warships in the span of approximately ten minutes. The exercise dramatically highlighted U.S. military vulnerabilities to coordinated asymmetric, anti-access, and area denial tactics in the Persian Gulf, with fast, maneuverable boats effectively overwhelming the defensive capabilities of advanced American warships. Since 2002, Iran has continued to upgrade its A2/AD systems, introducing new anti-ship missiles and anti-aircraft capabilities even as concerns over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program have grown in Washington.
It has become increasingly clear that Iran intends to develop a domestic nuclear weapons capability, despite the strong disapproval of much of the international community, and especially of the United States and its allies. Iran’s nuclear program has heightened tensions in the Middle East, raising the specter of a U.S.-led military intervention to halt or degrade Tehran’s nuclear efforts.
Despite maintaining the Middle East’s largest military ― with a standing regular and paramilitary troop strength of over 540,000, and a reserve capacity of nearly two million personnel ― it is unlikely that Iran would be able to launch an effective conventional response to a direct U.S. or coalition offensive. Iran’s nearly decade-long war with Iraq (1980–1988) severely depleted the largely American and British-supplied military assets acquired by the Shah prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Most analysts believe that U.S. naval and air supremacy would ensure a quick defeat for the Islamic Republic should Tehran opt for a direct military engagement.
However, while Iran would not be able to compete in a conventional military engagement with the U.S., it is likely that Iran’s asymmetric military capabilities would pose serious challenges to U.S. military forces in the event of a U.S.-Iran conflict in the Middle East. Iran’s unconventional naval and air A2/AD capabilities ― bolstered by decentralized command-and-control C2 assets scattered deep inside the Iranian mainland ― could hinder U.S. operations in the Persian Gulf, with the narrow Strait of Hormuz posing particular challenges to American or coalition forces. Only 21 miles across at its narrowest point, navigation in the Strait would be difficult, especially in the face of a coordinated Iranian offensive involving fast attack craft (FACs), suicide boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and mines. Additionally, as approximately 20% of the world’s petroleum is shipped through the Strait, any major disruption to this strategically important shipping lane would inevitably result in a shock to the international oil markets, raising gas prices in the U.S. and elsewhere, and undermining public support for a sustained conflict with Iran.
Iranian anti-ship missiles pose a serious threat to U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf. Capable of traveling at supersonic or near-supersonic speeds at altitudes as low as 3–5 meters (10–16 feet) above the surface of the water, evading radar systems and stymieing defense measures, these guided missiles can be launched by sea, land, or air, and are highly effective against small and medium-size naval vessels. Though Iran domestically develops and produces a variety of anti-ship missile systems, much of Iran’s current anti-ship capability has its roots in Chinese technology.
Iran first began importing anti-ship missiles from China in the late 1980s. In 1987, Iran received HY-2 Silkworm cruise missiles from China via North Korea, and used them to attack Kuwait and strike a U.S.-flagged oil tanker during the Tanker War phase of the Iran-Iraq War. According to some sources, Iran also obtained 100 to 200 C801 (aka Ying Ji-81, or Eagle Strike-81) anti-ship cruise missiles from China between 1987 and 1994; the C801 was China’s second-generation cruise missile, and was allegedly derived from France’s Exocet missile system, used so effectively by Argentina against UK naval forces during the Falklands War in 1982.
In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, Iran ordered approximately 150 C802 cruise missiles, an upgraded version of the C801 roughly analogous to the U.S. Harpoon missile system. Iran is thought to have received sixty C802s before China, under pressure from the U.S., suspended delivery of the systems in 1996. Despite Washington’s disapproval, U.S. military sources reported in 1997 that China had delivered fifteen C802-equipped missile boats to Iran. In a dramatic demonstration of the weapon’s effectiveness, Hizballah used a C802 to strike an Israeli destroyer off the coast of Lebanon during the 2006 conflict between Hizballah and the Israeli Defense Forces, and it is assumed that Hizballah received the missile from Iran.
In addition to receiving anti-ship missile systems directly from China, Iran has used numerous Chinese missile designs as the basis of its own domestically-produced anti-ship missile systems, some of which are being manufactured in Iran with Chinese assistance:
The Noor (“Light”) long-range anti-ship missile is believed to be a variant of the C801 and C802. The Noor allegedly began as the Tondar missile system in the late 1990s, when Iran began reverse-engineering C801 missiles for domestic production. Eventually, the Tondar system developed into the Noor system. Noor-1 missiles have an effective range of 40 km (25 miles), with the Noor-2 (based on the C802) effective up to 170 km (105 miles) or more. Both the Noor-1 and Noor-2 feature radar and infrared guidance systems.
The Kosar (or Kowsar, named after the river of eternal life in the Quran) anti-ship missile, first manufactured in 2004, is based on the Chinese C701 and TL-10 missile systems. According to official Iranian reports, the Kosar can be launched from land, sea, or air, and can be guided via radar or television signal. It has an effective range of 15-20 km (9-12 miles).
The Raad (”Thunder”) long-range anti-ship missile, introduced in 2004, appears to be a variant of the HY-2 Silkworm, with an effective range of approximately 360 km (224 miles). It features a radar and infrared guidance systems.
The Nasr (“Victory”) anti-ship missile is based on China’s C704 system, and began mass production in 2010. It is radar and television-signal guided, with an effective range of 170 km (106 miles), and is being produced in cooperation with China Aerospace Group.
The Qader (“Able”) anti-ship missile, unveiled in 2011, is closely related to the Chinese C802 and C803 missile systems. It is deployed from land-based coastal defense arrays, and has an effective range of approximately 200 km (124 miles) using an allegedly jam-resistant radar guidance system. It was unveiled in 2011.
The Zafar (“Victory”) missile system began production in early 2012, and is a lightweight, radar-guided anti-ship missile believed to be based on China’s C704 and C705 missile systems. Its launchers can be mounted on small attack craft, and it has an effective range of 40-75 km (25-47 miles).
Iran has also received missile boats from China. Between 2000 and 2002, Beijing sold an undisclosed number of C-14 catamaran missile boats (known as “China Cats”) to the Islamic Republic, capable of launching C701 anti-ship cruise missiles. In 2006, Beijing transferred MK-13 patrol boats ― armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes ― to Tehran for use by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval forces. The IRGC also possesses ten Chinese Houdong fast-attack craft, first delivered to Iran in the mid-1990s. The Houdong is designed to launch C801 and C802 anti-ship missiles, and is also known in Iran as the Thondar fast attack craft.
Iran’s naval mine capability also owes a debt to China. Iran possesses approximately 3000 to 5000 naval mines, including the Chinese-built EM11 and EM52 rocket-propelled “bottom” mines, designed to launch from the sea floor to strike targets on the surface in response to a ship’s magnetic or acoustic signature. Iran has also stockpiled Chinese EM31 moored mines.
Not limited to enhancing Iran’s naval A2/AD capabilities, China has contributed to Iranian surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile development, as well:
In the late 1980s, China allegedly sold HQ2 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile systems (themselves copies of Soviet SA-75 systems) to Iran; the HQ2 has an effective range of 12-32 km (7-20 miles). The HQ2 was modified and renamed the M7 for export as surface-to-surface missile, and in 1992 Iran began to mass produce a modified version of the HQ2 / M7 called the Tondar 69, with an effective range of 150 km (93 miles).
In 2010, reports emerged that Iran may have brokered a deal to receive Chinese HQ9 anti-aircraft missiles, derived from the Russian S-300 weapons system and similar in many ways to the U.S. Patriot missile system, with an effective range of approximately 30 km (19 miles).
And in March 2013, confirming suspicions that China continues to supply weapons to Iran, an Iranian vessel off the coast of Yemen was found to be carrying Chinese-made QW-1M man-portable air defense (MANPAD) systems thought to be derived from U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
China’s important role in the development of Iran’s military capabilities is clear. Chinese weapons transfers and technology-sharing initiatives ― designed to boost arms trade revenues and to enhance Chinese influence in strategic regions ― have facilitated the Islamic Republic’s emergence as a major Middle Eastern military power, especially in the A2/AD realm. Recent advances in Iranian anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and area-denial capabilities have forced Washington to re-think its approach towards Tehran, especially in the context of Tehran’s increasingly transparent bid to develop nuclear weapons, and to view Iran as one possible dimension of China’s power projection into the Persian Gulf.
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Brandon Gentry is a senior analyst at Helios Global, Inc., a risk management and security research group based in the Washington, D.C. area. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Gentry's, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.