Ballistic Missiles Allow Iran to Act More Boldly

A display of Iranian ballistic missiles at a military ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 22, 2023. PHOTO: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS
A display of Iranian ballistic missiles at a military ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 22, 2023. PHOTO: WANA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS

Summary

It has fired them into Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, and Israel is within their roughly 900-mile range.

While the world focuses on the threat posed by Iran’s growing nuclear program and its terror proxies, Iran’s ballistic-missile program is underwriting the expansion of both. Over the past decade, Iran has transformed much of its ballistic-missile arsenal, the largest in the Middle East, from mere tools of terror to battlefield-ready systems. Iranian missiles are more precise, mobile, lethal and abundant than ever before—giving the regime more dangerous options when it wants to throw its weight around.

Iran spent decades mastering the art of covert and deniable military action by using proxies. It still does that, as we’ve seen since Oct. 7, but Iran also has a newfound confidence, which has reduced its threshold for the use of overt and attributable force.

Since 2017, Iran has engaged in at least 11 separate ballistic-missile operations from its own territory against Kurdish, U.S., Islamic State, Baluch and other targets and interests across Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. Iran is likely to use these missiles to respond to any serious or perceived provocation in the future. Citing this newfound missile power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in 2018 that “the enemy knows if he hits one, he will receive 10."

In January, Iran launched four medium-range ballistic missiles at Syria in response to Islamic State attacks. Though the strike was on Syrian territory, the projectiles also sent a message to Israel. Their stated range of 900 miles is roughly the distance between Iran and Israel, and the missile’s name—Kheibar Shekan or “Breaker of Kheibar"—invokes the destruction of a Jewish stronghold in seventh-century Arabia by the prophet Muhammad’s armies.

In 2023 the regime claimed to have developed its first-ever hypersonic missile and celebrated with a poster in Persian, Arabic and Hebrew proclaiming that it needed only “400 seconds" to strike Tel Aviv. In late 2021, Tehran built a mock-up of Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona and struck it during a military drill using ballistic missiles and one-way attack drones. Iran also fired ballistic missiles at a mock-up of the Star of David in 2017 and has emblazoned anti-Israel slogans on a host of ballistic missiles.

These declarations and drills aren’t merely performative. Ukrainians and Israelis have learned the hard way not to play down the irredentist or genocidal intentions of their adversaries. Leaders often mean what they say and will spend time and resources to effect ends they desire. No one has ever accused the Islamic Republic of shying away from telegraphing its intentions.

Some experts see the regime’s recent missile operations as sign of internal weakness and external limits. In response to Israel’s killing of an Iranian general in Syria in December, Tehran opted to launch missiles at what it alleged was a Mossad stronghold in Iraq—in reality, the missiles hit the home of a Kurdish businessman—rather than attack Israel directly. In this case, Iran used its missile capability to save face.

Better missiles don’t mean that Iran will become a conventional military power overnight, and the regime isn’t expected to shun its carefully cultivated proxy network. But the West should fear how Tehran might incorporate its improved long-range strike capabilities into a larger strategy in pursuit of its ideological goals.

Tehran is already taking advantage of its missile capability to provide cover for other escalatory acts against the U.S. and Israel. When Israel thinks about how to respond to Hezbollah’s attacks, it must take into account a deadly and potentially direct Iranian response. This, on top of Hezbollah’s Iran-supplied precision-guided munition capabilities, helps deter Israel and is keeping 80,000 Israelis from returning to their homes in the north. The missiles also distract from Iran’s nuclear progress, which could provide the clerics with the ultimate sword of Damocles to dangle over the Jewish state. To date, Israel hasn’t been able to stop either threat from advancing, largely because of the costs of a potential Iranian reprisal.

Tehran can also use its missile capabilities to limit the options available to its adversaries, forcing them into grudging accommodation. One need only look at Saudi Arabia, which for years was under a barrage of Iran-supplied missiles and drones via the Houthi rebels in Yemen and has settled for a not-so-cold détente with Iran.

As the gap between Tehran’s missile capability and its braggadocio narrows, the risk of harsh Iranian responses to threats grows considerably. Missile mastery has emboldened the Islamic Republic, making it keen to take more risks and to respond to fire with fire.

Mr. Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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