Ballistic missiles: From Iran with hate
At a rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian President Hassan Rohani said: “We have and will not ask for anyone’s permission to strengthen our defensive capabilities such as missiles.”
On the same occasion, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) issued a statement that emphasised its “unstoppable resolve in developing its missile capabilities in order to strengthen [Iran’s] national power and deterrence.” This, said the IRGC, will not be subject to negotiation.
Both Rohani’s and the IRGC’s emphasis on Iran’s non-negotiable missile capabilities is understandable. Iran’s military expenditure in the fiscal year from March 2018 is estimated to be $19.6 billion, which makes defence spending 7.5% of the budget. In comparison, Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia allocated $51 billion — about 17% of the budget — to defence in its $295 billion 2019 budget.
Lacking funds to modernise its antiquated air force and cut off from American and western European arms manufacturers, Iran has engaged in a decades-long effort to develop an indigenous missile programme. This is an attempt to address the disparity with Saudi Arabia and other regional rivals.
Not only are ballistic missiles economical, they are conventional weapons. Unlike the case with nuclear weapons, Iran is not bound by treaty obligations to abstain from developing missile capabilities.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, did not oblige Tehran to restrain its missile activities. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which codified the JCPOA, called on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” This resolution in effect watered down the stricter UN Security Council Resolution 1929 from 2010.
The regime in Tehran is broke and tries to compensate for its weaknesses by developing ballistic missiles within the framework of its international obligations.
Why all the fuss about the missiles then? Here, one needs to pay attention to Iran’s communication skills, which provoke strong reactions in the region and abroad.
In March 2016, Iran test-fired two ballistic missiles adorned with Hebrew text that read: “Israel must be wiped out.” Brigadier-General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the IRGC’s air and space chief commander, commenting on the “Strength of Guardianship” war games, said: “Israel is surrounded by Islamic countries and will not last long in a war. It will collapse even before being hit by these missiles.”
Yemeni Houthis, who benefit from the military largesse of the IRGC in their fight against the Saudi-led coalition, have on numerous occasions launched Iran-made missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis claim to have intercepted most of the missiles but admit at least 112 civilians have been killed in such attacks since 2015.
Iranian news sources often report on the accuracy of the Houthis’ “domestically manufactured missiles,” which are fired in “retaliation for the kingdom’s campaign of military aggression against the impoverished nation.”
Tehran’s communication strategy is not working. In declaring the target of ballistic missiles in Hebrew and by hiding behind the Yemeni Houthis as manufacturers and dispatchers of missiles against the Saudis, Tehran makes an otherwise legitimate conventional deterrent capability seem suspect.
Why the IRGC communications directors insist on this strategy remains a mystery. They could just as well have adorned their missiles with the text, in Hebrew and Arabic: “From Iran with hate.”