By Riad Kahwaji*
Ballistic missiles constitute the main strategic weapon in the arsenal of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has an advanced program to develop and build these missiles that help consolidate its deterrence posture. Iran also possesses an advanced nuclear program that many countries suspect it could have military uses in the future.
Ballistic missiles are regarded as a strategic weapon that can cross borders and even continents, and are suitable delivery vehicles for non-conventional warheads – like chemical, biological or nuclear. These missiles have a strong psychological impact and can terrorize targeted communities. Their conventional warheads vary in weight from half a ton to one ton of explosives, which gives them strong destructive power especially if their speed of descent from above the Earth’s atmosphere is taken into account. Ballistic missiles can travel for thousands of kilometers and are very suitable to countries that cannot afford or are not able to acquire an advanced air power capable of penetrating their enemies’ airspace.
Ballistic missiles have always been regarded strategic weapons possessed by states only because of their size and high maintenance requirements, which necessitates the presence of skilled manpower and proper storage sites and the knowhow to fire them accurately at their targets in other countries. Their capability to carry non-conventional warheads is the main reason they were only procured by states. But the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) has changed the rules of the game and has been providing ballistic missiles and the technology to build them to its allied militias in Yemen, Iraq and Syria and probably even Lebanon for the past two years. This development has a huge security and military consequences that will affect the balance of power in the region and increase tension and the probability of a regional war.
The Arab Alliance led by Saudi Arabia commenced its operations in Yemen in late 2014 to restore the power of the legitimate government of President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi. Few months after the start of the offensive and the capture of Yemeni territories by the Arab Alliance, the Iranian-allied Houthi militias started firing ballistic missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia and inside Yemen in June 2015. The international community was surprised from early on with the number and quality of ballistic missiles used by the Houthis, and suspicion rose about their source. The Yemeni Armed Forces did possess prior to the conflict a small arsenal of ballistic missiles that was mostly made up of aging Soviet-era Scud-B and SS-21 Tochka missiles. Although there were never specific recorded numbers to these missiles in Yemen, it was generally believed to be around 30 by the intelligence community. These missiles were originally acquired by South Yemen during the North-South civil war in the nineties.
In 2002, a Spanish patrol ship in the Indian Ocean intercepted a shipment of ballistic missiles from North Korea bound to Yemen. The 15 missiles were Huwasong-5, which is the North Korean version of Scud-B missiles. They were allowed to continue their way to Yemen. Some Western intelligence agencies believe that Yemen did receive, during the same period, another similar shipment from North Korea, which could raise the number of Huwasong missiles in Yemen to 30. Therefore, by the start of the Yemen conflict, the Armed Forces there possessed up to 60 ballistic missiles. However, the Houthis have so far fired nearly 150 ballistic missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which indicated that a foreign power has been providing the militia with ballistic missiles or the technology to build them.
The Houthis have announced that they were building ballistic missiles and have identified two versions named Qaher-1 and Qaher-2. The Qaher family is believed to be repurposed SA-2 surface to air missiles that were converted into ballistic missiles. These missiles typically have a warhead that weighs around 200 kg. Western intelligence agencies suspect that the IRGC helped the Houthis reconfigure the SA-2 and use them as ballistic missiles because neither the Yemeni Armed Forces nor the militias were known to have this technical capability. In 2016 the Houthis introduced a new missile to the battlefield under the name of Burkan-1, which very much resembled the Iranian Qiam-1 missile that is believed to be the Iranian version of Scud-C missiles. The Houthis then used what they called Burkan-2, which according to the militia, has a longer range that can reach 700-km. A United Nations inspection committee, that examined pieces of several missiles fired at Saudi Arabia, concluded in July 2018 that the Houthi Burkan missiles contained parts manufactured in Iran, which proved IRGC role in proliferating ballistic missiles in Yemen. What remains unknown is when did Iran start providing the Houthis with ballistic missiles? How much, and whether it is still doing so or if it did build secret missile factories to the Houthis in Yemen to produce them domestically?
The continued ability of the Houthis to fire ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia despite the siege it is under, proves that the militia has received a large number of missile parts from IRGC that are being assembled locally at factories that can also build short range ballistic missiles. The international community has now the evidence which proves that Iran has done the unprecedented action of proliferating ballistic missiles to a non-state actor – a militia. The Houthi militia now has the capability to put together and to fire missiles like Burkan-2, that has a range of 550-km, which is threatening Arabian Gulf countries from the south.
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon
At the end of August 2018, Reuters quoted what it described as Iranian officials and intelligence sources in Iraq and the West, as saying that the IRGC handed the Iranian-allied militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), some 24 ballistic missiles. The Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar ballistic missiles were delivered to the Iraqi militias during the summer of 2018. The missiles have ranges of 200 and 700 kilometers, and hence can reach Saudi capital Riyadh and most U.S. bases in the area. The Iraqi government refused to comment on the report. Western sources told Reuters that Iran was using the Iraqi militias to have a forward ballistic missiles base. Reuters also quoted Western and Iraqi sources as saying that the IRGC was building two factories to the PMF to enable them to build ballistic missiles domestically. The two reported factories were in Al-Zafarania, east of Baghdad, and in Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Karbala. If true, then Iran would be involved in violating the United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 that bars Iraq from possessing or building ballistic missiles with ranges over 150 km.
The London Times newspaper reported in late summer 2018 that Iran has started building a ballistic missiles factory near the Syrian port city of Baniyas, which is not too far from the Russian naval base there. The location of the factory will place it under the protection of Russian S-400 air defense system, and mainly protect it from Israeli warplanes that have been attacking Iranian targets in Syria for over a year. According to the report, Iran is trying to transfer to the Syrian regime forces the technology of a more accurate ballistic missiles. The Syrian regime has already used most of its old arsenal of Scud missiles in attacks against the rebel forces and the cities under their control in the ongoing civil war ravaging the country.
It is worth pointing out that the Syrian regime forces are heavily dependent on Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq supplied and armed by the IRGC to help the regime in its war against the Syrian rebel forces. Hence, some of these ballistic missiles, which Iran is building and proliferating in Syria, will be in the hands of these militias as well as the IRGC units there. Western intelligence sources also believe that the IRGC has been trying to transfer ballistic missiles to its ally in Lebanon – Hezbollah. Israel has published maps showing sites of what it claims to be ballistic missiles bases for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is largely believed that Hezbollah has received from Iran Fateh-110 and Zelzal-3 missiles.
Iran has not only been proliferating ballistic missiles, but in the Fall of 2018, it used them in targeting its enemy bases in north Iraq and eastern Syria. Iran said it fired Fateh-110 missiles at a Kurdish rebel group in northern Iraq, and a week later it also announced that it fired ballistic missiles at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters near the city of Al Bukamal on the Iraqi-Syrian borders. Most experts believe that Tehran used ballistic missiles in both attacks to send a message to the United States and Israel that it is capable of striking them if its forces come under attack. All U.S. bases in the Middle East are now within range of Iranian ballistic missiles in hands of militias.
The Implications of the Ballistic Missiles Proliferation by Iran
Proliferating ballistic missiles throughout the region through the IRGC or their allied militias has magnified Iran’s capabilities. It has enabled Tehran to wage war against many countries in the Middle East region, and even in parts of Europe, through its proxy allies. By using proxy non-state actors, Iran will have the power of deniability and will not be held legally accountable to actions of militias in foreign countries. These militias can even target oil and gas fields and even nuclear sites in the Middle East, which will have severe impact on international security. Iran’s strategy has all along been based on subjecting its adversaries to a war of attrition whereby it uses its proxies in other countries to attack the targeted countries without getting directly involved. The Yemen war is a strong example where it supplied the Houthi militias with weapons and ballistic missiles, and hence confined the confrontation on Yemeni and Saudi territories, while its homeland remained intact. Same scenario could be repeated in Iraq or Syria where its proxy militias can use their ballistic missiles to target other countries and the retaliation by targeted states will be against Syria or Iraq only, even though Tehran is the perpetrator.
By using its proxies to deploy ballistic missiles in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, Iran has practically surrounded the Arab Gulf states from all sides: Yemen in the south, Iraq in the north and Syria to the west. The existing missile defense systems for the Arab Gulf states already face Iran to the east. Now, and due to Iranian ballistic missiles proliferation to the militias, the Arab Gulf States will have to reconsider the deployment of their missile defense systems, and will likely have to invest more money and manpower to bolster their defenses to deal with ballistic missile threats from all directions. This situation will prompt some Middle East countries to reconsider their defense strategies and to weigh in the possibility of establishing their own ballistic missiles capabilities to increase their deterrence posture vis-à-vis Iran. Hence, Iranian proliferation of ballistic missiles will only increase the regional arms race and raise prospects of an all-out war.
The militias that do not recognize or adhere to international law are known to have connections with the underworld of organized crime. This fact has been repeatedly proven over history with links between militias in South American countries or Asia or Africa with cartels involved in drug or human trafficking, arms smuggling and money laundering. So the Iranian-allied militias in the region will not be any different and they will – if not already – establish links with organized crime cartels, which in turn would be linked to other militias and terrorist groups including ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that ballistic missile technology and missile parts could be sold to other militias or terrorist groups via the underground world of organized crime. Moreover, terrorist groups or militias that have access to chemical or biological weapons will be able to use these ballistic missiles to increase their outreach and blackmail states close and far away. Hence, Iranian proliferation of ballistic missiles to militias has far adverse consequences on a global scale.
Proposals to Deal with Situation
Arab Gulf States as well as other Middle Eastern and European countries must raise the issue of Iranian proliferation of ballistic missiles at the United Nations and other international forums. By deploying missiles in Iraq, Iran has already violated U.N Resolution 687 as already stated. Hence legal framework for U.N action is already there. These states must underline the level of the threat to regional stability and its potential impact on the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors and terrorist groups. These states must also highlight the possibility of these militias possessing, in the future, ballistic missiles with longer outreach. Iran already produces missiles with a range up to 2000 km, such as Shahab-3, and is trying to go beyond. Iran has handed the militias now missiles that have a range up to 700 km, and there is no telling when it will give them more advanced ones that can threaten further countries in Europe and even in North Africa.
Arab countries must unify their efforts along with allies to confront this phenomenon of arming militias with ballistic missiles at all relevant international organizations. Major multinational oil and gas companies must take this new emerging threat with their respective governments to prevent the nightmare scenario of being one day blackmailed by militias and terrorist groups with ballistic missiles.
Now that Iran has used its proxies to surround its Arab Gulf foes with ballistic missiles from all sides and possessing the ability to use militias to threaten with their ballistic missiles the U.S. and Western basis and assets in the region and even threaten oil and gas fields and refineries, all concerned parties must unify their military resources to deal with this situation. Arab Gulf States must link up their missile defense systems with one network that should be connected to the early warning platforms and systems of their Western allies to maximize the ability of early detection, quick interception and a counter attack to destroy missile launchers or basis. No one state is capable of dealing alone with this new missile threat scenario created by Iran. It must be a collective effort depending on a multi-layered defense to ensure better outcome.
Regional and international action is required to obstruct the Iranian proliferation of ballistic missiles to its allied militias. This action must be done either through introducing resolutions at the United Nations or making collective decisions to hold Iran directly responsible to any attack by these militias with ballistic missiles against any sovereign country. Under such a scenario the targeted country could hold Iran directly responsible for this aggression and resort to its right of self-defense by retaliating against Iranian territories directly. The severity of the current ballistic missile threat in the hands of Iranian-backed militias in the region should not be tolerated and ignored by regional players and the international community. Rules of the Iranian-imposed regional game of using proxies to wage its wars with strategic weapons like ballistic missiles should be halted and changed swiftly before it is too late. If the UN Security Council cannot lead the way in rectifying this situation, then Arab Gulf States should mobilize their regional and Western allies to do so as soon as possible.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 30 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.