Killing General Soleimani pushes the United States toward the verge of major conflict with Iran. But in escalation toward war, and in any war itself, Tehran may already hold the upper hand.
To understand how, look at the last major provocation in the Middle East: Iran’s September surprise attack on the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq. Unlike the glaring lack of response to that strike, however, Tehran likely feels emboldened to hit back now.
That is because Iran and its proxies can now credibly threaten to carry out disabling, and potentially catastrophic, strikes on their adversaries’ vital strategic targets across the region, using swarms of new long-range precision munitions. This stems from three factors: Iran’s upgraded weapons, its regional expansion and its enemies’ lack of strategic depth.
Amazingly, it accrues this leverage despite sanctions, antiquated conventional military forces, a small defense budget and no nuclear weapons. Instead, Iran is creating clear offensive advantages by improving the precision and range of its ballistic and cruise missiles and drones.
Though they receive less attention than nuclear delivery vehicles, advancements in the range, lethality and accuracy of Iran’s conventional short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) are as worrisome. It is also producing anti-ship ballistic missiles with enhanced terminal guidance and maneuverability.
Cruise missiles are also overlooked, but arguably are even more important. Iran has increasingly precise land-attack versions like those used against Abqaiq, and some can range the entire Middle East. It produces longer-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) launchable from mobile land batteries or missile boats swarms, which a recent Pentagon report called the “capital ships” of Iran’s Persian Gulf fleet. Iran is also developing submarine-launched ASCMs.
Drones – unmanned aerial and naval surface vehicles – form the third leg of Tehran’s triad. Often called “the poor man’s precision munition,” Iran and its proxies use these in kamikaze-style attacks, with the vehicle often doubling as the warhead. Recently Iran has improved these weapons’ accuracy, partly by reverse-engineering captured Western models.
Thanks to these advances, Iran’s drones and missiles become “weapons of mass effectiveness” when used in swarms to overwhelm even sophisticated defenses.
Tehran also exports these weapons regionwide. Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen have appreciable arsenals of Iranian-supplied precision SRBMs, ASCMs and drones, and Iran is trying to provide Hezbollah kits to convert thousands of unguided rockets and large-caliber artillery rounds to precision munitions. Iran is also supplying SRBMs and drones to Syrian and Iraqi proxies.
Combined with the growing range of its precision munitions, this proliferation encircles Iran’s adversaries with overlapping fields of long-range precision fires, or as Israelis call it, a “ring of fire.” Increasingly, Gulf countries can be targeted from Iran, Iraq and Yemen; Israel must countenance strikes from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and eventually Yemen, too. All of Iran’s outposts can hit U.S. forces.
This encirclement bolsters the total force Tehran can employ against its adversaries, even over great distances. Additionally, it has the initiative to attack from the direction of its choosing, or several directions simultaneously, while confronting defenders with the Sisyphean task of providing 360-degree protection.
This omnidirectional threat also compels Iran’s enemies to spread their counterefforts more thinly: for years the Saudis and Emiratis were mired in Yemen, and today Israel is stretched across multiple fronts. Any near-term major conflict would pose similar, if also more operationally intense, problems for the United States and all its allies.
By strengthening its own strategic depth, Iran further erodes that of its adversaries, which already is limited to very small numbers of very important targets. With new weapons and regional expansion, Tehran can exert significant strategic leverage by holding these critical targets hostage.
Currently some 60,000 U.S. troops are in the Middle East, mostly concentrated in large nodes in Iraq, a few air and naval bases in the Persian Gulf, and on warships. America’s regional allies operate from mere handfuls of air and naval bases, too.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel each depend on just a couple ports, and the slow-moving supertankers and container ships plying them, for their economic viability. Electrical generation, chemical processing and water treatment plants are likewise few; attacking Saudi Arabia’s primary desalination site could effectively take the country’s water supply offline for a year. Gulf megaprojects like skyscrapers and airports further concentrate valuable assets in large singular targets.
For years the Houthis have struck at exactly these vulnerabilities, using precision missiles and drones against Saudi government buildings, military bases, airfields, pipelines and pumping stations, plus merchant ships, tankers and U.S. and allied naval forces around the vital Bab el Mandeb chokepoint.
Recently they have even targeted runways and terminals at Saudi airports. Indeed, Iran’s pursuit of precise, long-range missiles and drones means it can now threaten not just area targets like cities or sprawling bases, but more importantly point targets of critical infrastructure like military command centers, hangars, docks, highway interchanges, cooling towers, palaces and embassies.
Seen in this larger context, the importance of the Abqaiq attack goes beyond oil. In just 17 minutes, 18 drones and seven cruise missiles that had traveled 400 miles from the northeast on low-flying, maneuverable trajectories caused significant damage to multiple buildings at the world’s largest oil processing facility. Meanwhile, Saudi defenses faced southwest toward Yemen. Iran reportedly considered attacking a seaport, airport or U.S. military base before choosing Abqaiq.
Most tellingly, Riyadh did not respond while Washington issued more sanctions. This highlights how Iran’s development and proliferation of long-range precision munitions translates to real strategic advantages.
Well before Abqaiq, the Emirates hedged toward Tehran – including ending operations against the Houthis. They also began discussing maritime security with Iran, even while they watched Iranian forces assault freedom of navigation in the Gulf. Since Abqaiq, Riyadh has begun quietly following UAE’s lead, and neither is likely to welcome any military escalation in the wake of Soleimani’s death.
Israel is certainly more kinetic and proactive. Yet Hezbollah is a “fleet in being,” or holding force, constraining Jerusalem’s freedom of action. Israel essentially tolerates regular rocket fire from Gaza as a distraction from its northern front. Hezbollah also threatens massive retaliation for more forceful Israeli – and possibly U.S. – military action against Iran.
Despite striking repeatedly regionwide since May, Iran has pulled its biggest punches. But Tehran and its proxies can inflict far more serious damage than the Abqaiq attack, if they choose. Even before Soleimani’s death, American and Israeli officials warned Tehran is not deterred, and to expect further attacks.
Should last night’s events not spiral into immediate conflict, more than ever this is the time for a “maximum pressure” strategy. This would move beyond sanctions, to deter and degrade Iran’s precision munitions project. Cruise missile defenses, including close-in weapons systems, can better detect and defeat Iran’s arsenals than recent reinforcements of Gulf ballistic missile defenses. Though difficult, the United States and its allies also must coordinate their stovepiped air defenses.
That takes time. More immediately, the United States should ensure Israel has the platforms and munitions to handle what comes next.
For months, American officials have rightly emphasized restoring deterrence against Iran. Getting there will require the United States to address, one way or another, the root causes of why Iran may already have the upper hand in the Middle East.
Jonathan Ruhe is Director of Foreign Policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.