Here's What You Need To Remember: Iran’s domestic defense industry does not produce world-class weapon systems. But it is good at upgrading existing platforms and keeping them relevant.
Although Iran struggles to design and build more modern weapon systems, it excels in upgrading older Soviet and American designs, especially tanks. The Type 72Z is no exception—and has been exported to Iranian allies and client groups in the Middle East and Africa.
Iran’s defense industry relies heavily on foreign weapon systems, especially for big-ticket items like tanks and aircraft. This is because Iran has a limited ability to manufacture these domestically. The Type 72Z is no exception. Iran’s Type 72Z tanks are upgraded Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks, and Chinese Type 59 tanks, and not a copy of the Soviet T-72 tank as the name would suggest.
Iran’s government-owned Defense Industries Organization, a weapons manufacturing conglomerate that provides equipment and services for the Iranian armed forces designed and installed the upgrades. Upgrades incorporated into the Type 72Z design include domestically-designed explosive-reactive armor paneling fitted to the front hull glacis, turret sides and top, and side skirts for better protection against shaped charges and kinetic energy penetrators.
The 72Z upgrade also features a somewhat more powerful main gun. In place of the original factory-fitted 100-millimeter gun, the 72Z was upgraded with a larger bore 105-millimeter gun and equipped with a modernized fire-control system for better gun stability and accuracy. Thanks to the barrel size, a number of NATO tank munitions would, in theory, be compatible with the upgraded main gun.
The engine was also upgraded with a 780 horsepower engine of Ukrainian origin, up from 520 horsepower for the Chinese Type 59, and roughly 500 horsepower T-54/T-55 engine, giving the 72Z a decent power-to-weight ratio, thanks in part to its smaller size.
Iran is apparently not the only Type 72Z operator. The investigative website Bellingcat identified a number of 72Z tanks near Tikrit in Iraq with Iraqi militias that were apparently used to fight against the Islamic State. The tanks were identified by the unique tan and burgundy camouflage pattern and turret-mounted smoke grenade launchers used for concealment. Bellingcat did not identify if the tanks were crewed by Iranian tankers or Iraqi militias, but acknowledged that Iran’s industrial capability is one of its main foreign policy tools in the Middle East.
Sudan ordered and purchased a number of the upgraded 72Zs sometime in the mid-2000s, though the exact number of tanks is speculative. Previously, Sudan also purchased several dozen Rakhsh armored personnel carriers from Iran. These APCs are also manufactured by the state-owned Defense Industries Organization.
Iran’s domestic defense industry does not produce world-class weapon systems—but for countries that import Iranian arms, that doesn’t matter. As I previously wrote, Iran excels at updating old weapon systems, in particular Soviet-era tanks, keeping them at least somewhat prepared for battle.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.
This article first appeared last year and is being reprinted due to reader interest.