The head of US military operations in the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, recognizes that Iran and its proxies have achieved “overmatch” — the ability to fire many more missiles than adversaries such as Israel and the US can shoot down or destroy. “Iran’s missiles have become a more immediate threat than its nuclear program,” he says.
While its citizens starve, Iran has become a leading global missile producer, with the largest and most diverse arsenal in the Middle East, including thousands of ballistic missiles with a range of more than 2,000km. A disturbing report in The New Yorker argues that Tehran’s cruise missiles have fundamentally altered the balance of power in the Gulf region.
A series of Iranian tests in late December included the simultaneous deployment of missiles and drone attacks against the same target, similar to a previous Iranian attack on GCC oil infrastructure. Iran is meanwhile seeking to capitalize on Chinese technology to develop projectiles that can circumvent missile defense systems. Experts believe North Korea is now importing Iranian missile technology.
“Everybody should know that all American bases and their vessels in a distance of up to 2,000km are within the range of our missiles,” bragged Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of Iran’s Aerospace Force. “We have constantly prepared ourselves for a fully fledged war,” he crowed, as if “fully fledged war” were an optimum outcome for the region. Meanwhile, the firing of rockets by Iranian proxies at GCC and Western targets in the region is now a near-daily phenomenon.
There are substantial increases in military spending — including more than doubling the allocation for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps —in Iran’s 2022 budget, despite its income estimates being based on the assumption of no new nuclear deal. A Washington Institute analysis concluded: “The Raisi government sees no economic urgency to making substantial nuclear concessions.”
Experts warn that Iran is a few short months, or weeks, away from nuclear breakout capacity, with increasingly advanced centrifuges enriching uranium to 60 percent purity. Former Mossad intelligence director Zohar Palti estimates that Iran would require just three weeks to produce sufficient fuel for a bomb.
Western officials are even less optimistic about extracting concessions from Iran on its ballistic missile program than they are about the nuclear program. Raisi declared: “Regional issues or the missile issue are non-negotiable.” Iran’s increasing reliance on drones, cyberattacks and unconventional warfare aspires to give Tehran a decisive military advantage over its neighbors. “Iran has proved that it is using its ballistic missile program as a means to coerce or intimidate its neighbors,” noted Biden’s nuclear negotiator, Robert Malley.
If diplomats and leaders in the Arab region and the wider world don’t rapidly get serious, Iran’s missile, nuclear and paramilitary programs soon won’t be an abstract matter of statistics and research data, but will be deployed in anger to rain death and destruction upon the region.
After the January 2020 US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran fired a barrage of ballistic missiles with thousand-pound warheads at a US base in Iraq — the largest ballistic missile attack by any nation on American troops. Hours later, Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet just after it took off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 people on board. Coinciding with the anniversary of Soleimani’s death, there was a display in central Tehran last week of the rockets used by Iran in these retaliatory strikes. However, in the western city of Shahrekord, a newly erected statue of Soleimani was set on fire and destroyed by Iraniansclearly unimpressed by their leaders’ squandering the nation’s wealth on overseas warmaking.
Tehran’s military arsenals are shielded deep underground in massive complexes in its satellite states and in Iran itself. With these tunnelled “missile cities” stretching for many kilometers, Iran boasts the largest underground complexes in the region, housing both nuclear and missile programs. Albu-Kamal on the Syria-Iraq border is one of these sites. It is a major transit point for the transfer of missiles and munitions into Lebanon and Syria, and a site where rockets are upgraded to increase range and accuracy. In early 2021 Biden ordered the bombing of Albu-Kamal in retaliation for rocket attacks by Hashd militias in Iraq, but the strikes had negligible impact. “Without being able to crater the place, you’re not going to stop the flow,” one Biden intelligence official said.
Ironically, Israeli military strikes and sophisticated sabotage operations have simply made Iran’s proliferation programs more resilient, by necessitating the construction of massive defenses and the installation of increasingly advanced equipment. Israeli generals have expressed frustration at the Biden administration holding up the transfer of military equipment required for dealing decisively with these capabilities.
In an era when rogue states can menace global security with impunity, we require nothing short of an international compact regarding the balance and constraint of military power, and legally enforced respect for sovereignty. For decades China and Russia colluded to undermine international law, but with Russia sending thousands of troops into Kazakhstan and menacing Ukraine and other former Soviet states, suddenly Beijing finds itself encircled. All states benefit from a universally recognized system whereby no overmighty coalition of states or rogue entities can threaten the sovereignty of others. Even Vladimir Putin claims his aggressive actions simply seek to protect Russian territorial integrity.
When pariah states can build up immense military arsenals to menace their neighbors without consequences, the international system disintegrates. Whether with Khomeinist Iran or Nazi Germany, when we appease aggressor states, we ultimately find ourselves facing a monster 10 times its original size.
Only 15 years ago, the primitive Iran-manufactured rockets that could be deployed by Hezbollah and Tehran’s other proxies were the stuff of ridicule, but nobody is laughing now. In the 15 years since Iran was referred to the UN Security Council for its uranium enrichment activities — and years of negotiations with global powers,supposedly to halt Tehran’s proliferation activities — it has developed into a ballistic superpower. Vigorous ballistic weapons development and testing took place before, during and after Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal. The failure of global powers to recognize the long-term security consequences of what was happening under their noses has brought us to where we are today.
This is not scaremongering, but recognizing reality and deciding how to act. If diplomats and leaders in the Arab region and the wider world don’t rapidly get serious, Iran’s missile, nuclear and paramilitary programs soon won’t be an abstract matter of statistics and research data, but will be deployed in anger to rain death and destruction upon the region. Do we seriously want to sit back and wait for this to happen?
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view