Iran deploys Russian missiles amid new Gulf tensions

Sunday 04/09/2016
An S-300 missile system is displayed by Iran’s army during a parade last April, just outside Tehran.

Beirut - Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said it had deployed its newly ac­quired Russian-made long-range S-300 air-defence sys­tem around one of the country’s most strategic nuclear facilities, the underground uranium enrichment centre near the holy city of Qom, amid a string of military moves intended to provoke the United States.
Iran’s state media reported on August 29th that the Russian-built S-300, capable of tracking multiple aircraft and missiles simultane­ously, had been installed around the Fordow facility, which is deep inside a mountain 100km south of Tehran.
Another S-300 unit was deployed in May at the IRGC’s Khatam al-An­bia Air Defence Base in the north­ern province of Semnan, believed to be a key air-defence nerve cen­tre.
Iran is deeply concerned about the possibility of Israeli air or mis­sile strikes at its nuclear facilities and, to a lesser extent, about US attacks.
Growing tensions with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s long-time regional rival, and possible strikes by the kingdom’s US-built jets have prob­ably sharpened Tehran’s concerns.
The S-300 deployment at Fordow illustrates the importance the Irani­ans place on the facility in their nu­clear programme, which has been curtailed under the July 2015 agree­ment in exchange for lifting crip­pling economic sanctions on Iran.
That deal took effect in January and Fordow has not been operating since then. Whether the deploy­ment indicates the Iranians may plan to restart uranium enrich­ment, the core of the nuclear weap­ons programme, is not known.
As it is, the positioning of the S- 300s is certain to raise US concerns triggered in large part by contin­ued anti-US pronouncements from hard-liners in Tehran who toler­ated reformist President Hassan Rohani’s diplomatic outreach only because the supreme leader, Aya­tollah Ali Khamenei, decreed they must.
There is considerable residual op­position in Iran to any form of rap­prochement with the United States and tensions have risen in recent months over a series of Iranian bal­listic missile tests, which the US considers a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a breach of the landmark 2015 agreement be­tween Iran and US-led global pow­ers.
On August 17th, the director of the US Missile Defense Agency, US Navy Vice-Admiral James Syring, cautioned that Iran and North Ko­rea, which has a long history of collaborating with the Islamic Re­public, have stepped up their pro­grammes to develop long-range ballistic missiles.
Iran has continued to test “in numbers and increase of capa­bility”, developing its Shahab-3 intermediate-range ballistic mis­sile (IRBM), Syring told the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.
At the same time, the IRGC, which controls Iran’s missile programme and its growing arsenal of opera­tional weapons, has improved the precision and accuracy of the Emad ballistic missile, Syring said.
North Korea has contributed greatly to the development of Iran’s ballistic weapons and the six recent tests of its Musudan IRBM, which has a range of 2,000km, and its breakthrough launch of a ballistic weapon from a submarine in April may well accelerate similar efforts by the Islamic Republic.
US concerns have mounted amid a recent wave of arrests of dual-national citizens on allegations of treason and espionage, possibly as pushback against the 2015 deal.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, heightened tensions by declaring, in apparent reference to the United States, that “the en­emy should understand that if it makes any aggression, it will be hit hard and our defences will also in­clude response”.
Khamenei’s remarks, made dur­ing an August 28th speech at an airbase near Tehran, came four days after the latest in a series of incidents in which Iranian warships harassed US Navy vessels in the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hor­muz, the only in and out of the wa­terway and a vital oil tanker route.
He declared that Iran’s military power was for defensive purposes. He insisted the S-300 “is a defence system not an assault one but the Americans did their utmost to pre­vent Iran from getting it”.
However, the S-300, due to its long range, can be used for offen­sive operations because it is able to shoot down aircraft far beyond Iran’s airspace and could thus tar­get US aircraft in the Gulf region, along with aircraft from Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emirates, the major military powers on the western, Arab shore of the Gulf, al­most as soon as they were to take off from their bases.
In June, the IRGC’s deputy com­mander, General Hossein Salami, warned that Iranian forces would close the Strait of Hormuz if the United States “threatened” Iran.
Tehran has made similar threats many times over the past 20 years and despite naval confrontations has made no serious attempt to close the narrow strait.
But that was when the United States deployed its 5th Fleet in the region, usually including at least one aircraft carrier battle group and sometimes two. But now US forces are being scaled down under hefty cuts in military spending amid a pivot to the Pacific to counter Chi­na.
US defence consultant Peter Huessy, president of Washington-based GeoStrategic Analysis, ob­served in the journal Defense News: “Unfortunately, the US Navy’s abil­ity to keep the strait open is weaker than in the recent past and Iranian military capabilities are measur­ably stronger.”
The difficulties in keeping the narrow waterway open if Iran sought to close it were demonstrat­ed in a 2002 Pentagon war game, Millennium Challenge, that tested US capabilities.
The result was a spectacular fail­ure. “A carrier and ten cruisers were sunk” by the Red Team, represent­ing Iran, which was headed by a re­tired US Marine general.
Since then, Huessy cautioned, “the US fleet’s weapons, tactics and strategy have only been marginally improved. The fleet has shrunk to 272 combatant ships even in the face of analysis that a robust mari­time security strategy can only be implemented with a fleet of at least 350 ships…
“Just five of our ten carrier bat­tle groups are now operational and only two are regularly available.”
The Navy Times recently re­ported that the “tense waters of the Asia-Pacific or the Middle East could go for weeks or months with­out a US carrier patrolling there”.