Iran rattles sabres again with new missiles, tests
Beirut - Iran is rattling its sabres again, acquiring formidable long-range Russian S-300 air-defence systems, testing new ballistic missiles and threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in a simmering confrontation with the United States that is widely seen as a display of defiance demonstrating that the landmark nuclear agreement has clear limitations.
Vladimir Kozhin, Russia’s presidential aide for military technical cooperation, on May 18th announced that the first consignment of S-300 PMU-1 weapons was delivered in April with shipments to be completed “by the end of the year”.
Tehran ordered five S-300 batteries — 60 launchers — under a controversial 2007 contract worth $800 million but the deal was suspended by Moscow after a broadside of protests by the United States and Israel. Russian President Vladimir Putin reinstated the deal after Iran and the United States signed a July 2015 nuclear agreement.
Russian statements on S-300 deal indicate that Iran will only take delivery of four batteries of the missile, which has a range of 200km and can engage multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles at high or low altitudes simultaneously.
These will significantly upgrade Iran’s air-defence system, which has been one of its weakest military elements for several years. That will make air strikes against Iran, such as the pre-emptive attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities Israel has threatened to unleash, a prohibitively expensive undertaking.
Iran has also continued to test fire ballistic missiles despite US threats to impose new sanctions.
General Ali Abdollahi, deputy chief of Iran’s military headquarters, told a scientific conference in Tehran on May 9th that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had successfully tested a ballistic missile with a range of 2,500km — enough to reach Israel — two weeks earlier.
He said the unidentified missile was highly accurate. “We can guide this ballistic missile,” he said.
For reasons that are not clear, Defence Minister General Hossein Dehghan, quickly denied that the missile had the range “published in the media”. He did not deny the test had taken place.
The current series of Iranian missile tests began in November 2015. This has alarmed Iran’s Arab neighbours and infuriated the Americans, who claim the tests violate UN Security Council resolutions and the spirit of the 2015 deal.
Washington claims Iran’s missiles are designed to eventually carry nuclear warheads. Iran has repeatedly denied that, claiming its swelling missile arsenal will only carry conventional weapons for “legitimate defence”.
The 2015 agreement requested that Tehran halt efforts to develop long-range missiles but fell short of demanding Iran desist and Iran’s hardliners are exploiting that loophole for all it is worth.
Analyst Firas Abi-Ali of the IHS-Jane’s global security consultancy said the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who championed the 2015 nuclear agreement despite significant hard-line opposition, has to maintain the ballistic missile programme to mollify the IRGC.
“Given there are technical restrictions, the missile progamme makes a lot of sense for them,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re beholden to the hardliners and the IRGC. The elected government is not the most powerful actor in Iran.”
The Americans have imposed new sanctions on the Iranian programme but for the Iranians that is water off a duck’s back and there doesn’t seem to be much the Americans can do about it.
The latest test follows the test-firings in March of two ballistic weapons, Qadr-H and Qadr-F in the East Alborz mountains north of Tehran.
On April 19th, Iran launched a Simorgh rocket intended to put a satellite into Earth orbit but missile experts say it probably masks efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Tehran’s hardliners have been challenging the United States since the nuclear deal was signed to show that the Islamic Republic reserves the right to build up its conventional forces for “deterrence purposes” — ironically with an estimated $100 billion in unfrozen assets under the 2015 deal — even though it has agreed to curtail its contentious nuclear programme.
To a large extent, this sabre-rattling is probably intended to demonstrate that Tehran will not be dictated to by the United States but it also reflects Shia Iran’s strategic objective to become the region’s paramount power and the looming collision with its old ideological rival Saudi Arabia.
In another defiant gesture, the IRGC’s deputy commander, General Hossein Salami, vowed on May 4th that Iran would close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Arabian Gulf and a vital oil artery, to the United States and its allies if they “threaten” the Islamic Republic.
Tehran sees the Americans building up the military capabilities of the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies as the United States disengages in the region and worries that these weapons will be directed against them. Conversely, Iran’s drive to expand its military capabilities makes its Arab neighbours extremely jumpy.