Relations between Israel and Iran are at breaking point. The multinational nuclear deal signed with Iran is on the verge of collapsing—partly thanks to Israeli lobbying against it. Iranian leaders have warned that if it fails, the country will resume its uranium enrichment program, a step Israel considers a threat to its very existence.
Meanwhile, multiple Israeli strikes have sought to dislodge Iranian forces from Syria, where Tehran enjoys increasing influence. Israeli leaders are fighting hard to stop Iranian soldiers deploying along its northern border.
Though it would appear that neither nation wants a full-scale war, the potential for miscalculation and escalation remains. Both nations have considerable military clout, and any prolonged confrontation between them would be bloody.
Iran is a much larger country with a far higher population than Israel, but numbers alone do not dictate military capability—combat technology and experience are vital factors too. Technological capability is even more important in an era where technology is changing the way war is waged, allowing nations to hit each other harder, from further away and with less human involvement.
A small nation with a population of just 8.5 million, Israel’s military punches significantly above its weight. Formed amid a war with seven Arab neighbors, the country’s short history is punctuated with conflicts fought for its survival. This tough history combines with a burgeoning technology sphere and close relations with powerful western nations to create one of the world’s most formidable fighting forces.
According to Global Firepower, Israel has approximately 170,000 active personnel with a further 445,000 in reserve. Conscription exists for all non-Arab citizens of Israel over the age of 18, giving the country a large and well-trained pool of fighters to call up in the event of war.
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Though less sophisticated than Israel, the Iranian military is a force to be reckoned with. Its large population—around 82 million—enables Tehran to maintain a standing force of around 534,000 soldiers, with a further 400,000 in reserve, making it the largest force in the Middle East.
In a drawn-out engagement, national manpower becomes an important issue. Iranian available manpower is around 47 million compared with just 3 million for Israel. Of course, how important this is will depend on the nature of any war being fought.
In 2017, Israel spent $16.5 billion on its armed forces, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Iran was not far behind on $14.5 billion. Though this does not seem like a big gap, the fact that Israel is spending billions more than Iran on a smaller military indicates the gulf in the quality of equipment used.
Israel fields more tanks than Iran—2,760 compared to 1,650. Israel wins this matchup on quality as well as quantity, the latest version of its Merkava tank being one of the best and most heavily defended in the world. Iran is mostly using second-rate tanks, though it has announced the development of the new Karrar platform, which it claims will be able to compete with top-class opponents.
The Israeli air force is one of the best in the world, equipped and trained to the highest level. Its pilots are experienced too, having regularly conducted missions against targets in Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and even Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Its 250 or so fighters include a handful of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft, one of just four fifth-generation fighter planes in the world. Israel will eventually have 50 F-35s.
By contrast, Iran fields around 160 fighter jets, none of which are as advanced as the F-35. Furthermore, its pilots are less well-trained and experienced than their Israeli counterparts.
Neither nation is a significant maritime power. Iran has more than 30 submarines, five frigates, three corvettes and more than 200 patrol craft. Israel currently has five submarines, three corvettes, eight missile boats and 45 patrol boats. Considering the geography, the naval theater is unlikely to play any significant role in a potential conflict.
In the event of an all-out war, Israel holds the nuclear trump card. Notoriously secretive about its nuclear arsenal, the country is believed to possess between 75 and 400 warheads. The weapons can be delivered using Israel’s Jericho ballistic missiles, submarine-launched cruise missiles or even fighter planes.
Iran has no nuclear capability. Even if talks break down, it will take many years before Tehran joins the nuclear club. Iran is working hard to improve its ballistic missile arsenal, already one of the most potent in the region and well-able to hit Israel.
But Iran has other tricks up its sleeves. Financial and military support for anti-Israeli militant groups across the Middle East give it an unconventional way to hit its rival in the event of conflict. The Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah group, especially, is a worry for Israeli leaders. Hezbollah has a well-trained and well-equipped military, far more powerful than the Lebanese army and able to operate freely.
Hezbollah’s experience fighting alongside regime forces in Syria has given it vital combat exposure. The group maintains a huge rocket arsenal, and its weapons can hit anywhere in Israel. Iran also provides support to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad groups in Gaza, which maintain smaller, but still significant, rocket capabilities.