Iran said to be transferring missiles to proxies in Iraq
LONDON - Iranian and Iraqi officials claimed reports that Tehran is providing ballistic missiles to Shia proxies in Iraq lack credibility and attempt to harm the countries’ relations.
Reuters, citing Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources, reported August 31 that Iran has “given ballistic missiles to Shia proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes.”
“Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own,” the report stated.
“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”
Iran’s Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles have ranges of 200-700km, which would put Riyadh or Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.
Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities were defensive in nature and its Foreign Ministry strongly denied the reports of missile transfers. “Such false and ridiculous news have no purpose other than affecting Iran’s foreign relations, especially with its neighbours,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said, adding that the report was “aimed at creating fears in the countries of the region.”
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry said the report was “without evidence” but stopped short of issuing a denial.
Western countries have accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbours and Israel have also expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman signalled that Israel could attack suspected Iranian military assets in Iraq, as it has done with air strikes in Syria. “We are certainly monitoring everything that is happening in Syria and, regarding Iranian threats, we are not limiting ourselves just to Syrian territory. This also needs to be clear,” Lieberman said at a conference September 3 in Jerusalem.
A Western source cited by Reuters said the missile transfers were meant as a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. “It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.
The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source told Reuters a decision was made about 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.
“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander.
One Iraqi intelligence official told Reuters that Baghdad was aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shia militias to fight Islamic State militants but that shipments had continued after the Sunni militant group was defeated.
The Iraqi source added it was difficult for the Iraqi government to persuade the groups to go against Tehran.
“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.
The Western source and the Iraqi source told Reuters that factories developing missiles in Iraq were in areas controlled by Shia militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran.
The Iraqi intelligence source told Reuters that a factory in al-Zafaraniya produced warheads and missile moulds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shia groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.
A team of Shia engineers who worked at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.
One US official quoted by Reuters confirmed that Tehran had transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability.
Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions on the country. While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at US pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile programme.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on September 6 that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.
In March, Britain, France and Germany proposed EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.