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New Threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Taliban’s Capacity, Tehrik-i Taliban, and ISIS-Khorasan

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The ISK founding emir Hafiz Saeed Khan

Authors: Mahmut Cengiz, Asma Ul Hussna Durrani, Andrea Quinn

The world was stunned by the Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan. The former Afghan government’s military was four times larger than the Taliban’s, but the world saw how the Afghan military surrendered to the Taliban in a short time. Overlooked or at least underestimated were the Taliban’s small but fierce army of fighters committed to the cause, its extensive financial resources, and logistical support from like-minded countries in the region. It appears that the Taliban will continue to strengthen its military and increase its financial resources for as long as it rules the country, thereby creating an ongoing threat to the future of not only Afghanistan but also the region and the Western world. Moreover, ISIS-Khorasan, a franchise group representing ISIS in the region, has increased its attacks in Afghanistan. ISIS-K was one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world in 2019, and its attacks in October 2021 show that ISIS-K will be a threat in the region. On the other hand, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), referred to as Pakistani Taliban and based along the Afghan-Pakistani border, has been another active group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The TTP are actively involved in terrorist attacks in both countries and has provided training programs for the Taliban in Afghanistan and targeted former Afghan military in the eastern provinces of the country bordering Pakistan.


The mujahedeen who fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan inadvertently and unknowingly opened a door to the Taliban to enter in post-occupation Afghanistan. These mujahedeen fighters were trained in camps funded by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Western countries. When the war ended in 1989 and Soviet troops had been withdrawn, the Western world turned a blind eye to these fighters despite their efforts to end Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Undeterred by the snub, the mujahedeen fighters began moving to other jihadist regions in the world, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, to join wars where Muslim communities were facing government persecution.

With both the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen now out of Afghanistan, the country experienced a full-blown civil war. Two years later, a militia called the Taliban started getting attention from the world. Many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. Some of the militia members had previously fought as mujahedeen against the Soviets. Eager to spread its ideology, the Taliban saw an opportunity in Afghanistan. The Afghan people were fed up with clashes, an ethnic war, and overall lawlessness in their country. Marching north from Kandahar and through other provinces along the way, the Taliban eventually seized the capital, Kabul, in1996. The Taliban immediately declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate and started imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic and sharia law.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the United States was determined to find the mastermind behind the attacks, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan with acquiescence from the Taliban. The Taliban demanded that the United States provide solid proof that bin Laden was behind the attacks and did not hand over the alleged perpetrator. That action prompted the United States to organize a multinational military campaign consisting of more than 100 states. The joint forces invaded Afghanistan and, within a couple of months, the Taliban was forced out of power and a new interim government was established. Three years later, Afghanistan had a new constitution, and Hamid Karzai was elected as president. The United States had backed the new Afghan leader from the start, but that support was not enough to end clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban simply regrouped and worked to drive foreigners out of the country and eventually reinstate the Taliban as the country’s ruler. With the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, the Taliban finally was able to realize its goal. In the interim, however, clashes between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government resulted in the killing of more than 40,000 Afghan civilians, at least 64,000 Afghan military and police, and more than 3,500 international soldiers. U.S. efforts over two decades to create and develop a democratic nation in the region, ultimately failed to produce the desired results.

Afghanistan today is deeply unstable and one of the poorest countries in the region with a per capita GDP of around $550. It also is the most corrupt country (see Corruption Perception Index); hosts the most-violent terrorist organizations, including the Taliban, TTP, and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) (see Annex of Statistical Information); harvests and produces more opium than any other country in the world (see United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime); and has a criminality score of 7.08 on a scale from 1 to 10, ranks first of eight countries in Southern Asia, third of 46 countries in Asia, and seventh among the 193 countries in the index (see Global Organized Crime Index 2021).

The Taliban’s Military and Financial Capacity

The Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan was facilitated by the organization’s extensive military, financial assets, and its ability to mobilize its fighters quickly. At the time of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban had 85,000 full-time fighters and training camps across the country while the Afghan military had more than 300,000 soldiers. Mere numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. Perhaps what the western world either did not realize or did not take into account is that while the number of Afghan soldiers was nearly four times greater than the number of Taliban fighters, those Taliban fighters were responsible for a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012. During that period, the number of terrorist attacks rose from 421 in 2011 to 1,469 in 2012. In subsequent years, the number of Taliban terrorist attacks fluctuated, varying between 1,400 and 1,800. The number of such attacks in 2018 and 2019 were roughly the same (see graph).

The number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2019. Source: Global Terrorism Database (Attacks between 2008 and 2017) and Statistical Annex (Attacks in 2018 and 2019).

According to the Statistical Annex Report for 2019, the Taliban were the most active terrorist group in Afghanistan, being responsible for 83.4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the country and the killing or wounding of more than 13,000 people in such attacks. The Taliban’s casualty count in 2019 was more than that of both al Qaeda and ISIS and the two terrorist groups’ affiliates combined. In terms of tactics and targets for terrorist attacks in 2019, the Taliban used shooting 44 percent of the time; land mines and improvised explosive devises 20 percent of the time; and storming and rapid assault 16 percent of the time. Most of the Taliban’s targets in 2019 were military facilities, government buildings, and the general population (37 percent, 36 percent, and 14 percent, respectively)

The Taliban’s financial capacity remains strong, even though the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in Afghan reserves after the Taliban took over the country. The action was intended to deprive the Taliban of cash; however, the Taliban has managed to generate a significant amount of revenue from its international donors, states that sponsor the organization and its involvement in various types of trafficking and smuggling, and its tax-collection system. Perhaps the most significant of these revenue sources is drug trafficking, an activity that has made the Taliban one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world. According to United Nations, the Taliban in 2019 made around $1.5 billion from growing opium poppies and producing methamphetamine. Opium farming is a major source of employment in the region, generating more than 120,000 jobs for workers to harvest the crop. The farmers who hire those workers are required to pay the Taliban a 10 percent cultivation tax on their earnings. According to a 2018 UNODC report, opium production comprises up to 11 percent of Afghan economy. The Taliban also has gone to great lengths to protect the farmers who play an integral role in generating the lucrative revenue source. For example, when local farmers complained about the law enforcement and military members who were countering drug groups, the Taliban targeted those groups to curb their enforcement actions against farmers. In addition to the drug trade, mining and the trading of materials provides with Taliban $464 million a year in revenue. Illegal logging, which provides the Taliban revenue, has devastated the country’s forests, reducing the number of hectares by about 60 percent compared with the number of hectares that existed before the Soviet invasion in 1979.

ISIS-K in Afghanistan

In addition to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and TTP have been the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network has close ties with al Qaeda and serves as a bridge between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Given that media sources report the Haqqani Network’s attacks under the name of the Taliban, it is unclear how many terrorist attacks have been conducted by the Haqqani Network. Nonetheless, it is known that the Haqqani Network has been active in Kabul.

ISIS-K (the Khorasan branch of ISIS) in Afghanistan should be given more attention than it has received. The group was responsible for  bombing attacks in Kabul that resulted in the killing of 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians. ISIS announced the formation of its Khorasan branch in 2015 and appointed former TTP militant Hafiz Khan as its leader. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledged allegiance to ISIS-K and declared that it was part of Wilayah Khorasan of ISIS. ISIS-K also recruited Taliban defectors to join its ranks. ISIS-K and the Taliban see each other as irreconcilable enemies. The enmity between the two groups has led to many clashes as they vie for supremacy. Both the Taliban and ISIS-K have been engaged in a territorial fight in Kunar province to generate revenue from illegal logging.

ISIS-K aims to topple the Pakistani government, punish the Iranian government for protecting Shias in the region, and purify Afghanistan by punishing minority groups such as the Hazaras and uprooting the Taliban as the main jihadi movement in the country. Attacks by the former Afghan military, the Taliban, and the United States between 2016 and 2020 weakened ISIS-K. Since then, however, ISIS-K’s current leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, has rebuilt the group’s capabilities, enabling it to target key urban areas such as Kabul and perpetrate 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021—an increase from 21 attacks during the same period in 2020.

ISIS-K’s capacity to operate regionally and transnationally and its cadre of foreign fighters from Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia have made the group more threatening to Afghans and Westerners. An investigation in Germany, for example, proved the group’s capacity and prompted the German government to charge four Tajik nationals linked to ISIS-K with plotting to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities. Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, it is reasonable to assume that ISIS-K will have an opportunity to gain the support of anti-Taliban constituencies while at the same time finding it difficult to fend off well-equipped Taliban fighters whose leader holds the seat of government power in Afghanistan.

Tekrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

TTP is another Pashtun-aligned insurgency group and is based in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP has officially been designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State.

TTP was established in December 2007 to combat the Pakistani security personnel and to provide support to the Afghan Taliban in combating the U.S. led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group was formed under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. Like the Afghan Taliban, the central goal of TTP is to enforce their interpretation of Sharia law in Pakistan. In 2014, the Pakistan army launched a military operation called operation Zarb-e-Azb to fight the TTP militants in North Waziristan. During the Zarb-e-Azb operation, more than a thousand militants were killed. The military operation was successful in weakening TTP as the number of terrorist attacks declined drastically. However, splinter groups have joined with the TTP in the recent years which may allow for more control over the region and more cohesion under one group to carry out terrorist attacks and expand territorial control over the region.

TTP has carried out and claimed a series of deadly attacks. In December 2009, TTP targeted a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, killing seven U.S. citizens. In December 2014, TTP claimed responsibility for the Peshawar school attack that resulted in the killing of 150 people, including students. TTP holds strong ties to al-Qaeda (AQ) that relies on TTP for providing safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the attacks on security personnel and civilians have increased in Pakistan. The South Asia Terrorism Portal reported 240 incidents that recorded 191 civilian and 190 security force members casualties in Pakistan.

On the request of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban have mediated talks between Pakistan and TTP. Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Afghan Foreign Minister, has confirmed that the peace talks have started. In the recent talks, an agreement on a one-month ceasefire was established. The agreement requires that the group halts all violence in exchange for TTP prisoners. Afghan Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan and the Doha agreement could serve to embolden other militant groups such as the TTP in Pakistan to attempt negotiations with the state to gain power. Although there is a tentative truce, and negotiations could bring a stop to insecurity in the country during this time, there has been a history of failed peace agreements in the region in past years, such as the peace negotiation in 2014 between TTP and the Pakistan government, with the agreement to end violence against the security personnel and civilians. The eight-month long peace talks were a failed effort. The major challenge in the peace talks is TTP’s inability to compromise on its ideology. In 2014, TTP agreed to Pakistan’s offer on conducting peace talks; however, the group refused to compromise on its ideology of implementing their interpretation of Shariah throughout the country.

To conclude, it should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Taliban managed to take over Afghanistan so quickly, as it clearly had the military strength and financial resources. The Taliban is an example of how it is impossible to win a war against an organization that has a strong military and vast financial resources. On the other hand, security vacuums in Afghanistan have generated a favorable ground for TTP and an ISIS franchise, ISIS-K, to pose a threat to the Taliban, Pakistan, and Western world by engaging in terrorist attacks.

Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Assistant Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in the research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies.

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Voicing Against Disinformation

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In the digital era, information dissemination is not an arduous task. Information can reach many places even multiple times. However, not all information that is disseminated is true and accurate. Often information is inaccurately transmitted and this can be with or without intention. However, in the case of disinformation, there is always the guilty intention, it is the deliberate act of disseminating false information to deceive its recipients. Disinformation mostly happens in the online space which means it is a cross-border crime. Since it is extraterritorial, widely available and publicly accessible, the parties to disinformation are more than one. The impact of disinformation does not only affect one but society at large.

The rationale behind intentionally falsifying content is hard to ascertain, however, visible reasons are to gain monetary advancement, political reasons, acts of terrorism and extremism. With the rise of digitalization of the world disinformation is escalating on a great scale and yet to date it has become extremely hard to counter and mitigate disinformation. (Office Of Inspector General Department of Homeland Security, 2022) has stated that “the objectives of disinformation campaigns can be broad or targeted, [for example], campaigns may aim to erode public trust in our government and the Nation’s critical infrastructure sectors, negatively affect public discourse, or even sway elections. These campaigns can have foreign or domestic origins and may incorporate several different types of information”.

Disinformation can be state-sponsored or by the private sector. At present, information literacy is finely utilized by countries to wage war against one another. (Barnes and Sanger 2020) have stated that countries such as  Russia and China have taken [social media platforms] such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to create and amplify conspiratorial content designed to undermine trust in health officials and government administrators, which could ultimately worsen the impact of the virus in Western societies”. (King et al, 2017) have stated that according to research “the Chinese government has shown to deploy disinformation campaigns, sometimes to distract and disrupt (for example, concerning events in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or the South China Sea), as to push a particular agenda (for example, to win support for its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative)”.

Disinformation affects both military and soft security aspects. A piece of disinformation can be a critical determinant to decide a victory of a state against another. There are many instances where global competition happens between countries using information advantages. Disinformation also impacts the economy since disinformation can create a bogus demand for certain products and create a market. Disinformation also undermines the rights of people. Disinformation affects democracy. An example of disinformation is election manipulations where real victory is not pronounced. Furthermore, disinformation can take the face of impersonation of world leaders and prominent figures which affects the dignity of people.

The number of countries that have criminalized disinformation, especially in online space is very low and this not only poses a threat to one country but also affects the rights of other countries at stake. There is also the ability to do fact checks and fact verification however not all matters can reach the state level. The number of people who inquire about the credibility and validity of the content is less and holding people or an authority accountable for the content is hard as well.

World leaders advocate many strategies to counter disinformation such as cyber commands. According to (CNN,2022), “US military and intelligence officials are stepping up their efforts to defend the electoral process from foreign hacking and disinformation”. (Shackelford,2020) has stated that “In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo spearheaded the creation of the new National Cyber and Encryption Agency to combat disinformation in their elections”. Sri Lanka too has a cyber command center to fight disinformation. Certain countries utilize narratives, and counter-narratives to create or rebut propaganda. (Time,2023) has stated that “As part of an effort to target Telegram, Russia co-opted popular fact-checking formats. It created a host of multilingual channels, like one named “War on Fakes,” which “verified” or “fact-checked” allegations to support pro-Kremlin narratives and defend the Russian military’s actions.”

However, one of the main mechanisms that can be utilized against disinformation is reporting disinformation. This is similar to whistleblowing. Whistleblower is “an employee who alleges wrongdoing by their employer of the sort that violates public law or tends to injure a considerable number of people. The employer can be public or private. Applying the same measure, if any person in the society comes up with a piece of disinformation which is against the morality, tranquility of the society, law and order, creating disharmony, such person or the authority must have the mechanism to report a such issue. Traditionally reporting such content can be done via phone call. Yet, since the world is digitalized and mostly disinformation happen online, reporting the by social media itself is prudent. Social media platforms gives the option to “report” content which is against community standards. However, reporting disinformation goes a step beyond. Some disinformation will not be understood by lay people and only the experts in the field will recognize it. Therefore, it is the duty of such a person to notify it. Governments all over the world therefore has an undeniable role to provide a platform to report disinformation which will encourage whistleblowing. This actually serves the purpose of fostering information literacy in people to inquire and verify the content.

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The Failures of Russian Intelligence in the Ukraine War and the Perils of Confirmation Bias

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Emergency services are working around the clock to deal with the consequences of Russia`s strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. October 18, 2022.Photo from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine defied many expectations, not least the Kremlin’s.  Prior to the ‘special military operation’ launched by President Vladimir Putin last February, the Russian government expected minimal organised military resistance from the Ukrainians.  A quick victory was assured, much like the 2014 annexation of Crimea but on a grander scale, with the decapitation of the Ukrainian government as a likely result.  Yet, more than one year later, Ukraine remains very much in the fight, in defiance of Russian expectations.  Evidently, the Russian military and political elite launched the invasion based on flawed assumptions.  The question now, is what role did Russia’s intelligence services play in forming these false assumptions and why did they go unchallenged?

Much of the blame may rest on Putin himself according to a paper published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations in December last year.  Before the invasion, it was widely assumed that the Russian President’s ability to use strategic intelligence was virtually unrivalled on the world stage.  Unlike other world leaders, Putin possesses a professional background in intelligence, having been both an officer in the KGB and director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), between 1998 and 1999.  Russia’s swift and surprising annexation of Crimea and ability to disrupt targets with hybrid warfare was further evidence of Putin’s strategic acumen.  However, the events leading up to and during the war in Ukraine cast the Russian President in a different light, as a deeply flawed intelligence manager and consumer.

One issue highlighted by the paper’s authors is that intelligence agencies within authoritarian regimes are blindsided by ‘a frequent inability to accept dissenting judgements as being offered in good faith.’  This appears to have been true of the Russian intelligence agencies prior to the invasion of Ukraine.  Instead of offering their primary intelligence customer an intellectually honest assessment of the situation in Ukraine, the intelligence services appear to have disseminated intelligence that merely confirmed his biases.  As explained by a group of experts in May last year, ‘Putin believes Ukraine is or ought to be Russian and whatever passed for intelligence preparation for the invasion may have confirmed this in his mind… We can infer that Russian intelligence services supported Putin’s view of Ukraine as a state ready to be absorbed.’

Ultimately, the officers of Russia’s intelligence agencies, be it the FSB, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), or Main Intelligence Directorate (GU), are dependent on Putin for their advancement, prosperity, and survival.  This encourages a culture whereby the intelligence services compete for his approval, which is far from useful in terms of generating dispassionate and unbiased intelligence products.  Years before the invasion, in 2017, Professor Brian D. Taylor argued that independent thinkers had largely left the Russian intelligence services, the implication being that they were now staffed by individuals who were content to conform with the dominant viewpoint.  This has led to the formation of an institutional culture compromised by groupthink.

A very public example of the Russian intelligence community’s hesitancy to speak truth to power came in February 2022, when Director of the SVR Sergey Naryshkin was humiliated by Putin during a televised meeting of the Security Council.  When questioned whether Russia should recognise the two self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, Naryshkin suggested giving the West one final chance to return to the Minsk agreements.  This was evidently not what Putin wanted to hear and he pressed a now visibly nervous and stuttering Naryshkin until the latter agreed that it would be the right course of action for Russia to recognise the two breakaway republics.  Of course, this was a clear example of political theatre, but it does not bode well that Putin was willing to publicly humiliate one of his intelligence chiefs.  Whilst it is not known what goes on behind close doors, there has been increasing scrutiny of Putin’s behaviour which suggests that the Russian leader has put an unhealthy amount of distance between himself and his top officials.

This is not to say that Putin micromanages the intelligence services or that he predetermines every decision without any recourse to their advice.  Indeed, the intelligence services wield a tremendous amount of influence over high-level decision making.  The problem is more so that the intelligence services are institutionally incentivised to say what they think Putin wants to hear.  His views on Ukraine were well-publicised before the invasion, and no doubt senior intelligence officials would have been familiar with his frame of mind.  His dismissal of there being a legitimate sense of Ukrainian nationalism and a belief that Ukrainians would be willing to join Russia and reject Western moral decadence and degradation were hardly secrets.  For the intelligence services competing to win approval, there would have been few incentives to contradict this official narrative.  Russian intelligence preparation for the invasion therefore likely served to confirm the Russian President’s biases.

There is some evidence to the contrary.  According to US intelligence documents leaked in April, the FSB accused Russia’s Ministry of Defence of underreporting Russian casualties in Ukraine.  Allegedly, the FSB was critical of the Ministry of Defence for failing to record the losses suffered by the Russian National Guard, the Wagner Group, or fighters under the command of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.  The FSB’s casualty estimates were reportedly roughly double those given by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in December.  This does indicate a willingness to break bad news and contradict the official narrative.  However, in this particular case, the FSB stands to enhance its own standing with Putin by undermining the Russian Ministry of Defence, thus fitting the broader pattern of institutional rivalry.

Naturally, much remains unknown about the activities and procedures of the Russian intelligence services prior to and after the invasion of Ukraine.  What the available evidence does suggest however, is that Russia’s intelligence services are burdened by political considerations and biases which interfere with their ability to plan, direct, collect, process, analyse, and disseminate valid and useful intelligence.  The Russian President bears much of the blame for the creation of a professional culture which does nor prioritise the truth as the highest good.  Consequently, Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine based on faulty assumptions and was unable to forecast the Ukrainian reaction with much accuracy.

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Iran Threat to National Security 2023

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The annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community for 2023, identified Iran as the third greatest national security threat to the United States, after China and Russia. As those two countries have been covered in other reports, this paper will focus on the Iran threat, evaluating it within the framework of a PMESII analysis. PMESII is an acronym used in military and intelligence services which analyses threat countries across six dimensions: Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, and Information.

1. Political: This dimension examines political systems, governance structures, institutions, and decision-making within a country, as well as the effectiveness of these systems and institutions. It also considers the stability or instability of the government.

The Islamic Republic of Iran (Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran), formerly known as Persia, has a population of around 88 million, and is located in Western Asia, bordering on Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan,  and Pakistan, and by the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The country is a theocratic republic, with a Shia Islamic legal framework. 

Iran regularly holds elections, but the quality of democracy is limited because of the influence of the Guardian Council, an unelected body with the power to disqualify candidates on religious grounds. Iran has a president who is elected by the people, but the president is only the head of government, not the head of state. As head of government, the president oversees the operations and implementation of government. True executive power rests in the head of state, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader controls numerous unelected institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, which are used to suppress dissent and to restrict civil liberties.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the Supreme Leader has always been an Ayatollah. The founder of the Islamic Republic was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who maintained the title of Supreme Leader until his death in 1989. He was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader.

The Supreme Leader presides over the Guardian Council, which interprets legislation and elections to determine if they are consistent with the principles of Islam and the Iranian Constitution. The Guardian Council has twelve members, six of whom are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The remaining six are nominated by the Judiciary and approved by the Parliament (Majlis).

In terms of political rights, Freedom House assigns Iran a score of 4 out of 40 and civil liberties 10 out of 60. Citizens have the right to form political parties, but those parties must be loyal to the current government. Change is unlikely to come within the existing governmental framework because of the influence of the unelected bodies. In 2021, for example, the former vice president Jahangiri, was disqualified from running for president because he was determined to be a reformist.

The government is largely dominated by men from the Shiite Muslim majority. Women hold some appointed positions, but generally not powerful ones.  In the parliament, five seats are reserved for recognized non-Muslim minority groups: Jews, Armenian Christians, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and Zoroastrians. However, members of these groups would generally not be appointed to high-level government posts.

Corruption is rife in Iran. Transparency International assigns Iran a score of 25/100 for corruption, whereby a lower score denotes higher levels of corruption. Iran ranks 147th out of 180 nations. Much of this corruption is attributable to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is above scrutiny in practice, and is protected from criticism by the media and civil society.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a military/paramilitary organization with vast political and economic power. The IRGC was formed immediately after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, tasked with safeguarding the principles of the Islamic Republic and protecting the country’s sovereignty. Under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, the IRGC controls large sectors of the economy helping fund Tehran’s activities. The IRGC also provides military assistance to entities beyond Iran’s borders, as it has done for various groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen.

The group’s mandate includes defending the nation against external threats and maintaining internal security. The IRGC is also assigned the duty of preserving the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideals and ensuring compliance with Islamic principles. Additionally, it has significant influence on Iran’s foreign policy, including supporting regional proxies and paramilitary groups, by providing training, weapons, and logistics. On the economic front, the IRGC is involved in a broad array of businesses, including construction, infrastructure development, energy, telecommunications, and others. It owns and operates numerous conglomerates and companies which augment the groups financing and influence.

2. Military: The military dimension of PMESII assess a country’s military strength. It is not comprehensive, however, as it mostly considers personnel and hardware. It does not consider alliances, overseas bases, or the quality of equipment or quality and experience of personnel. All of this will be covered in greater detail in a separate report.

The U.S. ranks first in global firepower. Iran ranks 17th. The U.S. population is 337 million, compared to Iran’s 88 million. The U.S. is the world’s number-two nuclear power. While it is widely suspected that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program, to date, it seems they do not possess any nuclear weapons.

The number of active-duty troops is1.39 million for the U.S. and 575,000 for Iran. Additionally, Iran has about 90,000 paramilitary personnel. Comparing the defense budgets, the U.S. spends $762 billion and Iran $25 billion.

Aircraft – US 13,300 to Iran’s 541

fighter aircraft -1,914 to 196

Transports – 962 to 86

Helicopters – 5,584 to 126

Attack helicopters – 983 to 12

Tanks – 5,500 to 4,071

Armored vehicles – 303,553 to 69,685

Self-propelled artillery – 1,000 to 580

Towed artillery – 1,339 to 2050

Ships – 484 to Iran’s 101

Aircraft carriers – 11 to 0

Helicopter carriers – 9 to 0

Submarines – 68 to 19

Destroyers – 82 to 0

Frigates 0 to 7

3. Economic: Wars are costly to wage. Existing assets have to be deployed, possibly overseas, which is expensive. Factories need to begin churning out exhaustible resources, such as ammunition and artillery shells, as well as replacement vehicles, planes and ships. Uniforms and weapons for new recruits must also be produced en masse. Wars are generally funded by debt, with governments issuing war bonds. The ability to sell those bonds and the interest rate the government has to pay is determined by the nation’s creditworthiness, its economic condition before the war, and whether or not the country is under sanctions. The Ukraine War has underscored the power of sanctions and their ability to prevent dollars from flowing into a country deemed the aggressor. Iran would be incapable of levying meaningful sanctions against the U.S. The U.S., by contrast would be able to bring sanctions against Iran. China would most likely help Iran bypass sanctions, but in the end, the U.S. would be able to reduce the amount of money flowing into Iran, while Iran would not be able to do the same to the U.S.

The size of the potential pool of soldiers is important, as is the number of workers available to produce war materials. The U.S. labor force consists of 163 million workers, while Iran’s comprises only 28 million

Iran holds foreign currency reserves valued at $21.4 billion, while the U.S. holds about $37.5 billion. Roughly 60% of foreign currency reserves around the world are held in U.S. dollars. The U.S. does not hold as much foreign reserves as countries such as China and Japan, but this is because the U.S. government has access to more-or-less unlimited quantities of U.S. dollars.

Basic Indicators for Iran

GDP = $352.2

GDP Per capita = $5344.96

Inflation rate = 43.3%

Unemployment = 9.7%

Corruption and mismanagement, including price controls and subsidies, weigh heavily on the Iran’s economy. The reliance on oil as well as government domination of numerous industrial sectors further inhibit Iran’s development. There is also a significant brain drain as many of the most qualified people flee the country, in search of a better life abroad.

The Heritage Foundation assigns Iran an overall economic freedom score of 42.2 out of 100, making it the 169th freest country in the world. For business freedom Iran scored 38.9 out of 100, labor freedom of 50.7, monetary freedom of 40.6 and financial freedom of 10.

Investment in new businesses, as well as economic development in general, are directly correlated with the protection of property rights and enforcement of contracts. For property rights, Iran scored 25/100, judicial effectiveness 26/100, and for government integrity 20/100.

4. Social: The social dimension looks at societal and demographic elements, including social unrest, ethnic or religious tensions, and social cohesion which might weaken a country’s ability to fight a war.

Ethnicities: Persians 61% of the population, Kurds (10%), Lurs (6%), and Balochs (2%), Azerbaijanis (16%), Arabs (2%), Turkmens and Turkic tribes (2%), followed by a small number each of Armenians, Assyrians, and Georgians.

Religion: Islam is the official religion, accounting for roughly 99.4% of the population.  Shi’a Muslim (89%) and Sunni (10%). The remaining 1% is composed of Christian, Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Jewish. Christians are the largest minority religion with 250,000 to 370,000 followers, mostly of Armenian origin.

The government punishes Shi’a Muslims who they believe have failed to uphold Islamic values, while Sunnis, Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims have all been victims of repression. Some religious minorities are effectively banned, such as Baha’i and unrecognized Christian groups. Baha’i members have been persecuted, jailed, and banned from attending university.  

The Iranian constitution allows freedom of assembly, as long as gatherings are not “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.” Given the state’s interpretation of detrimental, there is effectively no freedom of assembly in Iran. Protests and unauthorized gatherings are generally met with brutal force. In 2022, the government used lethal force to suppress protests against water shortages and poor living conditions in several provinces. Human rights leaders and labor rights advocates have been arrested or punished on an arbitrary basis. Activists can even be arrested without a warrant. The lawyers who defend them can also face jail time.

5. Infrastructure: an analysis of critical systems, such as transportation networks, energy systems, telecommunications, and industrial facilities can help to determine a county’s vulnerabilities, resilience, and potential risks.

The United States has 13,513 airports while Iran has 319. The U.S. has 35 ports, but Iran only 4. In oil production, the U.S. also leads with 18,000,000bbl, compared to Iran’s 3,450,000bbl.

Proven oil reserves – U.S. 50,000,000,000bbl, Iran 210,000,000,000bbl

Natural Gas Production – US 967,144,362,000bbl, Iran 237,561,415,000bbl

Coal Production – 495,130,000bbl, Iran 2,783,000bbl

6. Information: The information dimension analyzes the flow of information, as well as the communication systems, and media within a country. This analysis helps to understand how public opinion is formed and how propaganda and disinformation are disseminated.

In Iran, there is little media freedom either on or off line. Newspapers and other media are heavily censored, and the government directs journalists as to which stories to cover and which to avoid. Critics and opponents of the government are never given a platform. Many foreign websites, including news sites and social media, are blocked. Satellite dishes are illegal, and the police have actually raided homes, confiscating dishes. Persian language journalists working abroad have had their families threatened if the state did not approve of their reporting.

Reporters without Borders Ranks Iran as 177th least free country out of 180. Television is controlled by the state, and Persian language TV broadcasts from outside of the country are jammed. State television often airs confessions extracted from political prisoners by way of torture. Over the past two years, there has been a particular crackdown on journalists with an increased number of arrests and imprisonments. In one case a journalist was sentences to 90 lashes for allegedly making false news reports. The Islamic Republic has been known to target for kidnapping Iranian journalists operating abroad, as nearly happened to journalist Masih Alinejad in July 2021.

Academia is also not free and contains a great deal of indoctrination. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei warned that universities should not become centers for political activities. Students and professors have been jailed for speaking out against the regime or studying or teaching material which the state disapproved of.

Digital communication is monitored by state intelligence agencies. At the same time, the Iranian government utilizes online platforms and social media to disseminate propaganda and to influence the public. To this end, troll farms have been utilized, creating fake accounts and manipulating online discourse to support Tehran’s narratives. State sponsored cyber hacking is another way that Tehran controls the information space. And while the government has access to the most modern technology, the country suffers from a massive urban/rural divide, with much of the rural population unable to access the internet.

Online activism is illegal. And, the government is looking for ways to make accessing forbidden content even more difficult. In July of last year, the parliament began considering criminalizing the use and distribution of virtual private networks (VPNs) and requiring internet users to verify their legal identities. In January, 2023, it was announced that the unauthorized sale of VPNS would be banned. 

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