Trump takes on Iran’s missile threats
Beirut - US President Donald Trump’s confrontation with Iran, Washington’s bête noire in the Middle East since the 1979 Islamic revolution, is likely to escalate over persistent Iranian ballistic missile tests in defiance of UN resolutions.
Neither side shows any sign of backing down after Trump imposed economic sanctions on Iranian officials and companies involved in Tehran’s missile build-up on February 3rd in response to a January 29th ballistic test-firing. The stage seems set for a face-off, one that has been decades in the making.
The test, confirmed by Tehran, is the latest in a series of known missile launches Iran has conducted since the landmark July 14th, 2015, agreement it signed with US-led global powers to curtail its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of tough economic sanctions. That deal does not cover Iran’s drive to build a massive missile force but, to the United States and others, the launches violate the spirit of the agreement and breach the 2010 UN Security Council Resolution 1929.
It is unlikely that Iran will take on the military might of the United States unless grievously provoked. What is more likely is an escalation in Shia Iran’s increasingly volatile conflict with its US-allied Sunni Arab rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Unlike the United States, which is beyond the reach of Iran’s growing missile arsenal, the Arab monarchies in the Gulf are exposed to even Iran’s short-range ballistic weapons, which comprise the bulk of its missile inventory. As relations deteriorate, they are scrambling to acquire US-built missile defence systems and even obtain conventional ballistic weapons of their own.
The seemingly eternal rivalries between the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have prevented the creation of a viable defence alliance that would be needed if Iran ever decides to play rough. GCC fears that Iran’s missiles could blast their cities and oil and gas industries were given added weight a decade ago when Ali Shamkhani, military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared what would ensue if Iran’s nuclear facilities were attacked by Israel or the United States.
“Iran would launch a blitz of missiles at the Gulf states… and the missiles would not only be directed against American bases in the region but also at strategic targets, such as refineries and power stations,” warned Shamkhani, a former Defence minister and currently head of the Supreme National Security Council.
“The goal would be to stun the American missile defence system using dozens, perhaps hundreds, of missiles that would be launched simultaneously at selected targets,” he said in 2007.
Ten years later, the Islamic Republic boasts “the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East,” said Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The best estimates are that Iran possesses more than 1,000 short-range ballistic weapons, hundreds of less accurate medium-range Shahab systems and an unknown number of land-attack cruise missiles, according to Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That is far in excess of Israel’s arsenal of nuclear-capable Jericho-3 ballistic missiles that are far more accurate and carry a heavier conventional warhead than anything Iran can currently field — about 600 kilograms of explosives versus 320 kilograms.
Eisenstadt noted in a November 2016 assessment that although Iran’s missiles “are conventionally armed, many could deliver a nuclear weapon if Iran were to acquire such a capability”.
“Assuming Iran continues its current production rate of 50-plus medium-range ballistic missiles a year, in 15-20 years, when most of the restrictions imposed by the nuclear accord are lifted, it would have doubled or tripled its missile inventory by the time the major limits imposed by the nuclear deal are lifted,” Eisenstadt warned.
“This will further stress regional missile defences and dramatically increase the potential weight of Iranian missile strikes in a future conflict.”
So the Iranians can be expected to stoutly oppose any effort by the United States to halt its missile tests or even abandon its missile capabilities on the premise that they violate the 2015 agreement.
“Missiles are… Iran’s most potent propaganda weapon,” Eisenstadt explained. “They are used as symbols of Iran’s growing military power and reach and as a surrogate for the nuclear arsenal it has ostensibly forsworn…
“Iran has responded to its perceived ‘victory’ in its nuclear negotiations by doubling down on the path of resistance in other areas, testing to see what kind of activities it can get away with without jeopardising relief and foreign investment.
“Thus, it has continued with the covert procurement of technology for its missile programmes, reckless naval posturing in the Gulf, provocative missile launch exercises,” Eisenstadt said.
Israeli and Western intelligence services have said they believe Tehran’s ballistic programme is aimed at developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though in June 2011 Tehran announced it was placing a cap on the range of its surface-to-surface missiles at 2,000km, enough to reach Israel but not Western Europe. For a missile launched in Iran to reach the eastern United States, it would need a range of 10,000km.
Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed that Iranian leaders “have explicitly denied any interest in developing long-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach 5,500km” — thus threatening Europe and the United States — “on the grounds that these do not fit Iran’s defensive military doctrine.
“However, there are indications pointing the other way.”
Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Aerospace Force, said in 2014 that Iran had not stopped at 2,000km and continued to develop missiles with longer ranges “without any limitations”.
He also boasted that his forces would respond to any aggression against the Islamic Republic not only by turning Israeli cities to rubble but by taking the war “within the borders of the United States”.
Eisenstadt observed on July 6th that “Tehran has built this massive inventory so that it can saturate and thereby overwhelm enemy missile defences. The resources invested in this effort are unprecedented for a conventionally armed force, which indicates that at least some of these missiles would likely be nuclear-armed if Iran eventually goes that route.”
In 2014, the United Nations’ watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency reportedly discovered that Iran had experimented with implosion technology, which is required to produce a sophisticated nuclear weapon and that it already had plans for a nuclear warhead to be carried by its ballistic missiles.
The US intelligence community has concluded that Iran’s preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons would be by ballistic missiles. This conclusion drives the US effort to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran’s determination to build a massive ballistic missile force, capable at least of covering the greater Middle East, stems from the hammering it endured from Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which was secretly supported by the United States.
Population centres in western Iran were heavily pounded, particularly during the war of the cities in February-April 1988 when Tehran came under bombardment for the first time from extended-range Scuds. Iran was powerless to mount a sustained retaliation.
Saddam’s merciless blitz and the shattering effect on national morale from the thousands of civilian casualties in the war have been deeply embedded in Iran’s national psyche and were key reasons Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was persuaded to end the conflict in August 1988.
Eisenstadt said Iran’s missile force “constitutes the backbone of its strategic deterrent”.
Shamkhani emphasised this deterrent posture as long ago as July 1998 after the first test launch of the Shahab-3 missile, with a reported range of more than 1,000km, making it a possible precursor to an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“We have prepared ourselves to absorb the first strike so that it inflicts the least damage on us,” he declared then. “We have however prepared a second strike which can decisively avenge the first one while preventing a third strike against us.”
With this in mind, it is most unlikely that Tehran will back down in the unfolding confrontation with the United States and Iran’s Arab neighbours at a time when the Islamic Republic’s Khomeini-inspired expansionist strategy is paying off so well in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.