Ballistic missiles: the heart of Tehran's Middle East strategy
From Iraq and Lebanon to Syria and Yemen, Iran has deployed ballistic missiles throughout the Middle East to make sure any future conflict takes place as far away from its own territory as possible.
American and European powers have differing opinions on the Iran nuclear deal (or JCPOA), but both view Tehran’s ballistic missile program as a threat to regional stability and are pushing to bring it to a halt. Western concerns were heightened earlier this month after Iran conducted a new medium-range ballistic missile test. Following the test, the United States called on European countries, who continue to support the nuclear deal, to place sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. The United States said the program represents a “serious and growing threat” and that the type of missile tested could carry one or more nuclear warheads, a violation of the JCPOA’s terms.
On Tuesday, Dec. 11, Iran confirmed that it did, in fact, recently conduct a missile test, but did not specify when the test took place or what type of missile was used.
For nearly four decades, Iran has sought to improve its military capabilities. The Iranian leadership put developing a formidable missile program at the center of these efforts.
Tehran insists that its missiles are only being developed for defensive purposes. And despite recent efforts to develop new aircraft and naval combat vessels, several sectors of the Iranian military remain weak. The missile program is a compensation for these weaknesses and has become a real symbol of Iranian power. "Iran's air force is very limited, the navy is weak, and conventional land forces are simply not offensive. This model is different from the usual proxies in the region, who are very useful for Iran, but who are not really part of the Iranian armed forces,” Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute, told L'Orient-Le Jour.
“[Ballistic missiles] can travel for thousands of miles and are ideally suited to countries that cannot afford or are unable to acquire advanced air power capable of penetrating the airspace of their enemies," Riad Khawaji, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), wrote in an article for SDArabia.
The ballistic missile program has also become a propaganda tool for the regime, which promotes it to the Iranian population as the country’s only defense. In light of current tensions with the United States and other Western countries, speeches emphasizing this point will likely be a major part of the Islamic Republic’s 40th anniversary celebration at the beginning of next year.
"Missiles are a big part of the Iranian rhetoric. You have a lot of life-size representations of missiles in the parks, but also on posters representing the pasdaran holding a missile that takes off from the palm of their hand. There is also a video game where Iranian missiles are used to destroy Saudi ships and American aircraft carriers,” said Jonathan Piron, a historian and political scientist specializing on Iran.
"For the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it is about showing the Iranians that they are in good hands and that Iran is a strong state that can defend itself. But no one in Iran wants to see this kind of scenario, and the Iranian people, in its majority, fear the war,” Vatanka, of the Middle East Institute, explained.
A regional "weapon"
With the ballistic missile program as a centerpiece of its regional policy, Iranian influence in the Middle East has greatly increased in recent years. The Islamic Republic has sent a large number of missiles to allied militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. From these countries, the missiles, with a range of several hundred kilometers, can reach Riyadh, Tel Aviv or United States bases in the region.
"Over the past few years, we have seen Iran supplying the Houthis in Yemen with medium-range (also called strategic) missiles and Hezbollah with short-range (tactical) missiles,” Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told L’Orient-Le Jour.
In addition to the Houthis and Hezbollah, other Iranian backed Shia militias in Iraq and Syria have received these missiles for their arsenals. On Aug. 31, The Times of London reported that Iran began building a ballistic missile factory near the Syrian port city of Baniyas, not far from the Russian naval base in Tartus. "The factory’s location will allow it to be protected by the Russian S-400 air defense system, but will also shield it from Israeli fighter planes that have been attacking Iranian targets in Syria for more than a year,” Khawaji, from INEGMA, explained.
According to The Times, Iran is trying to give the Syrian regime more accurate ballistic missile technology. Missile proliferation in the region has allowed Iran to significantly strengthen its Middle Eastern military weight. Economic sanctions imposed on Iran could disrupted these development by negatively impacting the quality of military equipment available to Iran, according to the British newspaper.
"All these efforts to modernize and increase their missile range [are] only a bluff. Iran is still suffering from the embargo that is deeply affecting its military development. And if they try in some way to manufacture sophisticated machinery, they cannot achieve mass production,” Piron, the historian and Iran specialist, said. “Tehran's goal is to remove any immediate threat from its own borders, particularly in achieving stalemates in conflicts in which it is involved, such as the war in Yemen or in Syria, where none of the belligerents can benefit from the situation.”
Direct and indirect use
The Iranian regime has used its missiles against non-state groups, conducting two rounds of bombing in recent months. The first, against the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPIK), was carried in Iraq. According to a statement by the IRGC, it was in response to "evil actions perpetrated in recent months by terrorists from the Kurdish region on the border of the Islamic Republic."
The second strike took place on Oct. 1, one day after an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, in the Arabic speaking region of Khuzestan in southwestern Iran, that claimed the lives of 24 people. Iranian officials first blamed the attack on Arab separatists, but later said that the Islamic State, whose positions in Syria were targeted by Iranian missiles, was to blame. The Iranian press agency Fars reported that two types of missiles were used by the IRGC in the strikes: Zolfaghar, with a range of 750 km, and Qiam, with a range of 800 km. Other attacks using Iranian missiles have also been reported, but they were carried out by Iran's proxies in the region, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have launched dozens of missiles at Saudi Arabia.
(The original French version of this article was first published in L'Orient-Le Jour on December the 8th)