Iran has been conducting long-range missile drills days before U.S. President-elect comes to office. The goal of Tehran is to present the new U.S. administration with a fait accompli by showing off its capabilities. The recent Iranian missile drill saw one fall within 100 miles of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in the Indian ocean, and just twenty miles from a commercial ship. At the same time Israel-Iran tensions have also increased over the last month. Reports in Syria blamed Israel for airstrikes near the Iraqi border and in December reports claimed Israel had sent a submarine towards the Persian Gulf. Israel has been testing its state-of-the-art air defense systems in reaction years of growing missile threats from Iran and its allies.
The implications are clear, Iran is conducting missile tests with impunity, firing them out to sea into areas where international shipping could be threatened. The Nimitz and its strike group were surprisingly turned around in early January after being headed home, to stay in the Middle East due to Iran tensions. In addition, the Pentagon has sent five flights of B-52s on round-trip missions to the Middle East in the last two months, a warning to Iran. Tehran expects the saber-rattling from Washington to end soon as Biden comes into office.
Iran’s calculations brought it to set up a forest of massive missiles in southern Iran for a variety of tests on January 15 and 16. Among the missiles shown on videos by Tehran were its Emad, Ghadr and Sejjil long range ballistic missiles. It’s important to recall that a year ago on January 8, Iran launched almost two-dozen large missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq. Twenty-two Fateh 313 and Qiam missiles were fired and eleven of them made it to their target at Al-Asad base. For an hour the forty-foot-long missiles with 1,600 lbs of munitions each slammed into the base every fifteen minutes.
The missiles Iran tested in mid-January include the Sejjil, more than fifty feet in length using solid fuel and a varying warhead with a range of some 1,200 miles. The Ghadr and Emad missiles are liquid fueled and around forty-five feet in length with a warhead of some 1,600 lbs and a range of around 1,000 miles. These missiles are important because they build on the experience of Iran’s expansive missile program. Their accuracy has been improved in recent years and many of them are new models. In addition, Iran has spotlighted new underground facilities to protect the missile from airstrikes and detection. Between November 4 and January 8 Iran not only showed off new underground facilities in southern Iran but also a new kind of train that could be used to wheel them out before firing.
In Iran’s exercise with the missiles in mid-January everything was done do showcase the weapons for the cameras. This was not a secretive drill. Iran was sending a message. They called it the “Great Prophet 15” drill. It came as Iran also tested delta-wing drones, showcasing a web of technology that could be used against enemies. Iran used similar drones to attack Saudi Arabia in September 2019.
Iran’s message to the Biden administration and the wider region is that these missiles are here to stay. It has developed them in the last decade, with many of them improved during the Trump era, despite tough sanctions on Tehran. Tehran’s point with the fancy launches is that it did this under sanctions and these strategic weapons can threaten Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Gulf and U.S. forces. Iran has already targeted the United States with similar missiles, and fired them at ISIS in Syria in 2017 and used them against Kurdish dissidents in Iraq in 2018. Its allies in Syria have also fired salvos of smaller missiles at Israel and Iran has moved precision guided munition technology to Hezbollah. Israel has launched more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria to interdict this flow of weapons. On January 13 more airstrikes, blamed on Israel, hit pro-Iranian sites in Syria near the border with Iraq. Iran also moved ballistic missiles to Iraq in 2018 and 2019, according to Reuters and other reports. Iraq blamed Israel for airstrikes on pro-Iranian weapons warehouses in Iraq in August 2019.
Today Iran looks likely to redeploy missiles and other regional threats in western Iraq, signaling its entrenchment and threats to Israel and the region. This is the fait accompli of facts on the ground it wants to establish before entering negotiations with Washington. Iran sees their missile program, which could potentially deliver nuclear weapons, as a red line. Iran said the missile program is non-negotiable in December 2020. It is no surprise a month later it rolled out its forest of long-range missiles and fired them into the sea in the direction of U.S. ships. Days before the missiles landed 100 miles from the Nimitz an Iranian helicopter had harassed the American Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Georgia. These actions illustrate that in coming months Iran will seek to cement itself as a strategic missile power in the region.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.