Iran shows off missile might, adds to tensions
Iran has fired its equivalent of the shot heard ’round the world.
Ostensibly, the reason Iran fired several medium-range ballistic missiles at Islamic State (ISIS) positions in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, was to retaliate against the terrorist organisation’s attacks on the parliament building and on the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. Iran had vowed revenge for the attacks and Iranian state TV showed the firing of the Shahab-3 missiles into the night sky.
Iran’s decision to fire the missiles complicates the situation in an already complicated Syria.
Is this a one-time act by Iran or is this the beginning of a new phase of warfare against ISIS? If Iran continues to fire ballistic missiles at ISIS positions in or near Raqqa, it could endanger the lives of Syrian Kurdish fighters and their American support staff who are fighting to retake the town.
The launching of the missile adds another unknown element to the crowded airspace above Syria. When the US military downed a Syrian warplane on June 18, Russia threatened to target aircraft flown by the United States and its allies west of the Euphrates.
Yet while Iran’s immediate goal was retaliation, its long-term goal was to send a message to the United States, Israel and, perhaps most important, Saudi Arabia.
There has been speculation about what will happen after ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq. Three times in recent weeks there have been clashes between US forces and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. As ISIS-held territory shrinks and opposing forces rush to take over those areas, even more clashes are likely. There may be a point at which US forces and Iranian forces are in direct conflict with each other.
US President Donald Trump cut high-level contacts between Washington and Tehran that were developed by his predecessor Barack Obama and increased the level of rhetoric against Iran in the region. Firing the missiles against ISIS allowed Iran to signal Washington that if it wants a fight, it will get one. Firing a missile across the Gulf at American bases in Bahrain or Qatar or at American military and merchant shipping in the Gulf of Hormuz is a lot easier than trying to target an ISIS position in Syria.
The missiles served the same purposes for Israel and Saudi Arabia. It has been 30 years since Iran fired missiles in a conflict situation and that was during the Iran-Iraq war. No doubt outside military experts may have had doubts about the Iranian missile capabilities after such a long silence. That doubt has been removed.
Iran showed Israel, which has been sabre-rattling about possible attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities for years, that such an attack will come with a price.
As for Saudi Arabia, tensions in the region increased recently as several Gulf nations have faced off against each other over questions of support for Islamic terrorism on the one hand and Iran on the other. The recent visit by Trump to Saudi Arabia showcased his support for the Sunni kingdom and his denunciation of the Shia regime in Tehran and served to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s determination to limit Iranian influence in the region.
The missile launches serve to put a check on that determination. Iran is basically telling Saudi Arabia: “If you attack us, we can retaliate and we will.”
Like any other deliberate show of force, Iran’s actions serve as a cautionary warning to its opponents. How those opponents will react to the warning after the threat of ISIS is removed from the region remains to be seen.