Iran rattles sabres again with new missiles, tests

Sunday 29/05/2016
A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, last March.

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.