by Galen Wright.
Satellite imagery of an Iranian Army (NEZAJA) garrison shows a new deployment of T-72 tanks in the country’s southeast that may signal the first tangible steps in a long-overdue modernization program.
Headquartered in the provincial capital of Zahedan, just 30 km from the border with Pakistan, the NEZAJA’s 88th Armored Division has long occupied the low end of the procurement totem pole. Their six or so tank battalions are equipped with M47Ms, which date from the 1950s. To put this in perspective, they were already scheduled for retirement in 1979 before the pressures of the Iran-Iraq War forced them to remain in service.
The division may finally be getting new tanks though. DigitalGlobe imagery shows five T-72s joining the two existing tank battalions in December 2014. Continuing updates – the most recent from June 26 – confirm their presence through the first half of 2015. The T-72s can be recognized in overhead imagery by their large circular turrets, which contrasts with the M47’s narrower turret and its distinctive shadow. Their identity was confirmed in April 2015 when an example was photographed during the annual “Army Day” parade.
Although the T-72s is not a cutting edge tank – it’s easily outmatched by neighboring countries’ inventories – it is the best the NEZAJA has access to and is only operated by a handful of their brigades. Therefore, the sudden appearance of this type is wholly unexpected. One explanation is that these T-72s are from one of the existing units that do operate them. For example, an unknown number were deployed to the region in December 2014 for the “Mohammed Rasool-Allah” exercise. However, the tanks’ continued presence in Zahedan well after the exercise makes this unlikely.
It is suspected that these five tanks are a conversion training platoon, indicating that the NEZAJA intends to ultimately swap out the rest of the division’s M47s for this type. If true, this may be part of a much larger procurement plan that had seen little actual progress until now. Although the NEZAJA has had to make do with sub-standard armor ever since Tehran fell out of favor with the West in 1979, they haven’t stopped thinking of themselves as an armor-centric force. In February 2013 they unveiled the completion of their flagship project – the Zulfiqar MBT. Since then they have also unveiled major upgrades for many of their other tanks, including the M47 and M60 (respectively, these are the Sabalan and Samsam upgrades).
Although it can be difficult navigating the bluster surrounding such unveilings, it’s clear that the NEZAJA intends to produce the Zulfiqar.  However, the parallel development of upgrades for existing tanks also suggests that they’re aware of budgetary constraints that will prevent them from producing the Zulfiqar in large enough numbers to completely replace existing tanks over the short term.
The NEZAJA is no stranger to such budgetary constraints. When they first planned to produce the Zulfiqar in the early-00s, one official was quoted as saying that they would purchase hundreds more if only they had the money. This continued through the 2000s when the ground forces played second fiddle to the missile and air defense forces, receiving only 10-15% of the defense budget.  More recently, the NEZAJA commander took advantage of the threat posed by ISIS to publicly draw attention to his force’s chronic underfunding, first in May, then again in July.
If the 88th Armored Division – a 2nd echelon combat unit – is indeed preparing to receive T-72s – heretofore the NEZAJA’s most capable tank – it may herald a much broader redistribution of equipment. Reallocating existing T-72s suggests that units currently operating this type will be the first to receive the as-yet-hypothetical Zulfiqars when they enter service. The most likely candidate for this is the 92nd Armored Division, which is garrisoned along Iran’s southwestern border with Iraq. This would be consistent with the area’s geostrategic importance, which has historically made the 92nd Armored Division the NEZAJA’s most well-equipped division.
Meanwhile, the existing M47s would be upgraded to the Sabalan standard and most-likely re-issued to infantry divisions, which are currently the only other unit s operating M47s besides the 88th Armored Division. The existence of such a modernization program, let alone its details, cannot be confirmed at present (there is no signs of increased activity at the NEZAJA’s workshops in southwest Iran). Iran’s military rarely publishes information about such reorganizations, and the available evidence gleaned from open sources is far from conclusive.  Verification will require further evidence – such as increased activity around repair & maintenance facilities known to service M47s, or among units now operating T-72s – that as of yet remains elusive.
 Despite estimates to the contrary, their is no evidence to suggest that the Zulfiqar has reached serial production status.
 This statistic was featured in a now-defunct PressTV segment, which was uploaded to Youtube around 2012.
 For an example of this ambiguity, it’s even unclear whether the 88th Armored Division even still exists. Its constituent brigades were converted to independent brigades around 2011-2012, but references to the division still exist.