On Sunday June 18, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF) launched six ballistic missiles at Islamic State (ISIS) positions in the Syrian theater. The IRGC described the strikes—which intended to hit Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province—as a response to the June attacks by the terror group against the Iranian parliament and the shrine of the founding father of the Islamic Republic. Iranian drones, which have been flying in the Syrian theater since at least 2014, allegedly captured footage of some of the impact.
But in the aftermath of the strike, which took most of the international community by surprise, a better understanding of Iran’s missile aptitudes as well as motivations for resorting to a show of force appear more necessary than ever before.
Why Should We Care About Iran’s Missiles?
Although there is no precise open-source tally of every single Iranian ballistic missile, according to the former Director of National Intelligence, Iran has “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” Iran’s experiences during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War pushed the country to procure and produce this arsenal, underscoring the importance of these weapons for purposes of deterrence, intimidation and retaliation. Fast forward almost three decades and ballistic missiles have become a central part of Iran’s security strategy and a highly valued regime asset.
What Type of Missile Did Iran Launch and Why Does it Matter?
Knowing what type and class of ballistic missile was used would aid in assessing the readiness and effectiveness of select munitions in the Islamic Republic’s arsenal. For instance, choosing a solid-propellant missile would mean that Tehran needs less time to prepare it for launch. Initially, Israeli sources believed that Iran fired a liquid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) called the Shahab-3, which is now almost two decades old. Conversely, Iranian outlets initially claimed their country fired the Zulfiqar, a solid-fueled short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). American journalists citing unnamed government sources then weighed-in, reporting that the Fateh-110—Iran’s first-generation single-stage solid-fueled SRBM and a precursor to the Zulfiqar—was allegedly used in the strike. Yet this is hard to believe, as the Fateh-110 cannot traverse the distance between Iran’s western IRGC-AF bases and eastern Syria.
Ultimately, the Iranian media updated their claim, stating that the Qiam, a liquid-fueled SRBM—whose finless appearance is distinct—was fired at Syria along with the Zulfiqar. Either way, Iran’s reported use of the Zulfiqar betrays one of two things: the (misplaced) confidence of security planners in a projectile unveiled in September 2016 that did not undergo rapid fire testing, or the low level of confidence in the accuracy of the rest of their arsenal.
Who Was the Target Audience of the Regime’s Signal?
In addition to retaliating against ISIS, Iranian officials implied that the missile strike sent a message to the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. While Iran may have sought to intimidate its adversaries and attempt to signal resolve via a highly public move, the most important target audience for Tehran was likely its domestic constituency. Make no mistake, the twin terrorist attacks that rocked the Iranian capital on June 7 terminated the fiction that Iran could act with impunity in the region and not face repercussions at home. Iranian elites must now guard against the perception of weakness as they respond to these attacks. This is particularly true given Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s likening of the attacks to mere “firecrackers.” Thus far, the regime has successfully used the missile strikes to stoke Iranian nationalism. A recently erected billboard in Tehran contains several ballistic missiles launching from the hand of an IRGC member in uniform. Nestled between an Iranian flag and the aforementioned hand read the following message in Persian: “I am Iran’s guardian.”
Was This a Militarily Effective Move?
According to Israeli accounts, Iran’s salvo was generally unsuccessful, with only one projectile allegedly making contact with its target. Another Israeli security expert reportedly called the event, “a flop.” Israeli media outlets similarly claimed that some of Iran’s missiles “fell in Iraq.” But the Commander of Iran’s IRGC-AF has pushed-back, attempting to frame those missiles as being part of a two-stage system. However, this may well be an attempt at denial-and-deception, since Tehran previously described the Zulfiqar as having only “one stage” in September 2016.
But while Iran is working toward developing a better conventional missile force, their willingness to overtly escalate in Syria may provide them with all the perceived deterrent dividends they need. Iranian missiles are currently not effective tools on the battlefield, although Tehran is working to change this. What likely pleased Iranian leaders about the recent strike may not have been its effectiveness, but its shock factor. The last time Iran fired ballistic missiles at live targets outside its territory was in 2001—when the regime launched Scud missiles at neighboring Iraq, home to bases of an exiled Iranian opposition group. Given all the potential escalation spirals that Iran’s recent action could beget, their calculation to fire the missiles anyway indicates a greater tolerance for risk in the Syrian theater than may have previously been assessed.
Was Iran’s Missile Launch a One-Off or Does it Represent a Possible Shift in Doctrine?
Iran’s current security policy is premised on deterrence and defense, as it has weak conventional forces. Yet Iranian officials have said that the recent strikes were just the beginning of a larger response against ISIS. They also hinted at a change in how Iran “fights terrorism” and prosecutes its regional wars, such as by using more missile strikes. Iran’s modus operandi in the Middle East over the last four decades involved coopting local actors to create proxies and militias that bled adversaries using asymmetric tactics. This has traditionally served to diminish the prospects of escalation and retaliation against the Iranian homeland. In a world after the nuclear deal, however, an emboldened Iran may feel tempted to match its longstanding covert involvement in the region’s low-intensity conflicts with more overt involvement like standoff weaponry that highlights, rather than obscures, Tehran’s hand.
Time will tell if the missile strikes will alter Iranian security policy and conditions for escalation. In the meantime, Western security planners will have to piece together a better understanding of Iran’s conventional use of ballistic missiles. To do so, they can begin with the questions and answers above.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Image: A military truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen during a parade marking the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi.