by Paul IddonOn the night of June 18 Iran fired six long range missiles from its western provinces at Islamic State (ISIS) to the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor in retaliation for the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran, which killed 18 people.
Iran’s retaliation strike (Operation Laylat al-Qadr; عملیات لیلةالقدر) demonstrates that it has the capability to hit targets more than 650 km away in relatively short notice. This is something the Iranians had difficulty doing until late in their bloody eight year war with Iraq back in the 1980s. Obviously, Iran’s missile capabilities have progressed ever since, in spite of US and international sanctions.
Iran’s leadership have eagerly sought to promote the strike as proof of their military strength. “They cannot slap us. We will slap them”, declared Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his official website and in a widely-shared video on Instagram, which showed footage the terror attacks in Tehran and the retaliatory missile launches.
For Tehran, the missile strike serves two purposes: Retaliation against those attacks on Iran’s capital and a, not so subtle, warning to the United States and the Islamic Republic’s rivals in the region. “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message,” said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) General Ramazan Sharif on Iranian state television. General Mohammad Hossein Baqueri, the Iranian military’s chief of staff, also declared that: “Iran is among the world’s big powers in the missile field.” He also warned the US that in the event of a war their military bases in the region will be targeted. “We are in permanent rivalry with them [the Americans] in different fields, including the missile sector,” Baqueri said.
The June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran provided the IRGC an apt opportunity to test their missiles – all indigenously-produced – for the first time in an actual war zone. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran only used their missiles against the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) militant group in Iraq hosted by Saddam Hussein. The most significant strike against MEK was in April 2001. The missiles used in that attack were the older Shahabs, an Iranian-made Scud derivative, which, in this strike, flew no more than 150 km to their targets.
The IRGC claim that aerial photographs taken from their Syria-based drones confirmed that in the attack on Syria all missiles, which reportedly included the new Zolfaghar, a missile unveiled just last September with a range of 700 km, struck their intended fixed targets – an ISIS command headquarters and arms and ammunition depots. There is reason to believe they were indeed relatively accurate, but also reason to be sceptical that all missiles successfully impacted on their targets as Tehran claims (see “Exclusive photos: Syria-bound Iranian ballistic missiles fall in Iraq“, The New Arab, 29.06.2017 and “Iran mocks reports its Syria missile strikes fell short“, The Washington Post, 25.06.2017).
In terms of both cost and effectiveness it’s not necessary to strike an adversary like ISIS from hundreds of kilometres away. Symbolically, on the other hand, such a strike is a perfect way to demonstrate ones reach — and not only Iran is using such an opportunity. On October 7, 2015, the Russians fired 26 Kalibr cruise missiles (the first of several intermittent cruise missile strikes, the latest one being on June 23) from vessels in the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria almost 1,500 kilometers away, shortly after intervening in that country’s civil war. As is the case with Iran’s Operation Laylat al-Qadr that was the first time the Russians used these long-range cruise missiles in combat and demonstrated to potential rival powers in the region, namely the United States, the range of their weaponry. This, and the opportunity to test these weapons in actual combat, likely motivated these strikes over any practical tactical considerations. After all, their jet fighter-bombers already based in Syria could strike any adversary much more cheaply with little risk of getting shot down.
But the US is not a bit better than the rest. When US President Donald Trump wanted to punish the Syrian regime for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack last April, he fired an enormous payload of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the regime’s Shayrat airbase. Unleashing such a devastating payload against a single fixed target isn’t necessarily practical, but it’s a clear demonstration of strength.
Back in 2006 the Pentagon considered expanding the reach of the United States’ conventional missile arsenal by modifying their nuclear Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) to carry conventional payloads, to be used in case of a war against either Iran or North Korea. With a range of a mind-boggling 12,000km conventional Tridents would have enabled the US to readily strike adversaries from a whole continent away in short order, an unequivocal demonstration of both reach and strength. But the idea was scrapped due to the risk that any launch of these missiles would alert Russia’s early warning system for a nuclear attack. After all, it would have been difficult for Moscow to differentiate between the launch of conventional and nuclear-armed Tridents.
Iran’s Deir Ezzor strike may well prove to be a one off case. However, as Tehran continues to enhance, expand and test its missile capabilities – much to the consternation of Washington, which charges Iran with violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by doing so – it may readily seize another opportunity to demonstrate, to domestic and foreign observers alike, these weapons, or newer models and variants, capabilities in a combat situation.