Iran’s latest missile test isn’t ordinary

Iranian missile technology has, in the last two decades, transformed the balance of power and threat environment in the Middle East.
Sunday 16/12/2018
A Sayad missile fires from the Talash missile system during an air defence drill in an undisclosed location in Iran, November 5.            (Iranian Army Office)
Unrestrained buildup. A Sayad missile fires from the Talash missile system during an air defence drill in an undisclosed location in Iran, November 5. (Iranian Army Office)

Iran’s ballistic missile test December 1 served as notice of the continuing development of Tehran’s missile programme. There is little doubt that its nature and timing were intended to send a message of defiance during growing tensions directly and indirectly connected to Iran’s regional role.

Iranian Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, was cited in Iranian media as saying: “We are continuing our missile tests and this recent one was a significant test.”

Without articulating specifics of the test, which is believed to have involved a medium-range ballistic missile, Hajizadeh added that the US response “shows that this test was very important for them and that’s why they were shouting.”

Hajizadeh earlier warned that Iranian missiles with improved accuracy had US targets around the Gulf within their range. The December 1 test reportedly involved multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), which gives missiles a higher probability of success against defence systems. MIRV technology enables a single missile to strike multiple targets or make multiple strikes on a single target.

It is important to not understate the significance such advancements in Iranian ballistic missile capabilities represent. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led criticism of the test, saying it “risks an escalation of conflict in the region. UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt labelled the test as “provocative” and “threatening.”

The United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France have all called the tests inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which requires Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Karen Pierce, UK ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the test went “way beyond legitimate defensive needs” that Iran may have.

Without crossing explicit red lines, Iran has increased the temperature in the region and issued a provocation that requires a response that must be far more calculated. For example, the wording of Resolution 2231 is contested by Iran because it does not explicitly forbid missile testing. Tehran’s signalling that it is pushing what it regards as its legitimate defensive needs deeper into a grey area has more serious implications for its foes and for regional security.

With the United States pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and re-imposing sanctions, the Trump administration sought to turn the heat on Iran on its regional role and ballistic missile programme. However, Iran has pursued a strategy that separates international concerns over its nuclear programme and the JCPOA to its regional role and missile programme.

The latest UN report on the JCPOA said Iran has stuck by its conditions but also alludes to “considerable challenges” brought about by the US withdrawal from the agreement. Although the JCPOA hangs in the balance, Iran is seeking to use its growing ballistic missile capabilities to demonstrate defiance to US demands in the face of growing pressure.

Iranian missile technology has, in the last two decades, driven a major transformation of the balance of power and threat environment in the Middle East. With well-established Iranian assistance, Hezbollah increased its arsenal of short-range missiles from 10,000 in 2006 to more than 150,000, including weapons with greater accuracy and destructive power.

Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem, recently claimed “there is not a single point in the occupied territories out of reach of Hezbollah’s missiles” as the Israeli military began Operation Northern Shield to destroy cross-border tunnels used by the group. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Iran together form an unprecedented missile threat to Israel.

A recent report from staff at the office of the UN secretary-general concluded that containers carrying guided anti-tank missiles seized by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen “had characteristics of Iranian manufacture.” The report derived similar conclusions from assemblies of surface-to-air missile seized earlier, adding to concerns about the extent of Iranian support to Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.

Looking into 2019, the escalation of conflict in the region that Pompeo warned about becomes more likely if current trends continue. However, in the current scenario, Iran’s ballistic missile programme is unlikely to have any diplomatic solution and is extremely difficult to target militarily whereas Western sanctions could well destroy what remains of the JCPOA. Europe’s role could prove decisive in the emerging environment as could American self-confidence in forcing regime change in Iran.