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A Reignited Proclivity for an Advanced Iranian Missile Program

Tehran’s sprint toward threat balance in the Gulf?

By Sameer Mallya

Image Attribute: A photo released by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launching six medium-range ballistic missiles from an undisclosed location in Kermanshah Province (Western Iran), towards Islamic State (IS) bases in Syria October 1, 2018. Semiofficial Fars news agency in Iran said the missiles were of the Zulfikar and Qiam classes.

On October 1, 2018, Iranian official media source announced missile attacks targeting suspected IS (Islamic State) command and control bases in the Abu Kamal region in south-eastern Syria, along with the Syria- Iraq border. The missile attack targeting IS in Syria, second of its kind was a retaliatory response to the IS claimed shooting attack on a military parade in Khuzestan Province’s Ahwazregion on September 22 which killed 25 Iranians, mostly soldiers from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The latest missile and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) attack was the third of its kind and followed immediately after a similar missile and UCAV attacks targeting the Kurdish insurgent group, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDK-I) in KoyaSanjaq in Iraqi Kurdistan along the Iraq- Iran border on September 8. Iran also carried out a drone strike on suspected Kurdish positions on Mount Kodo in Choman district near the Iranian district of Piranshahr.

The current report highlights the significance and the rationale behind the potential shift in the modus operandi of the Iranian counter-militancy operations involving greater reliance on missile and drone strikes as compared to conventional ground operations. It factors in other similar operations involving Iranian missile inventory and aims to argue on the politico-strategic as well as the operational significance of the Iranian strikes. Finally, it provides a tactical forecast on what to expect in the Iranian counter-insurgency and counter-militancy operations in the region and beyond over the coming months.

While the latest country report on Terrorism 2017 that was released by the US Department of Stateon September 19 categorically classifies Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic also faces insurgency and militancy from a host of ethnic militant groups. While most of these are perpetrated by the disgruntled elements within the minority ethnic groups, namely the Kurds, Arabs and Baloch population, the modus operandi continues to remain unsophisticated as well as localized.

Source: GRID91

Source: GRID91

In terms of casualties, while the attack in Ahwaz on September 22 was the largest attack recorded in Iran in recent months, the region continues to witness attacks at regular intervals. The target of attacks, especially in Khuzestan, involves security personnel, oil infrastructure, and banks and other installations, which are known to have direct links to the government. Majority of the attacks remains unconfirmed as the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge them and the insurgent and militant groups fail to provide credible evidence of a successful operation. However, the Iranian security agencies continue to have a sizable deployment in these areas and crackdown is typically hard on groups and entities suspected of being involved in subversive activities.

A quick glimpse at the Iranian conventional forces indicates that the Iranian arsenal is at best categorized as vintage and the operational gaps as a result of the equipment obsolescence are covered through asymmetric tactics and doctrines. This, compared to the threat perception of the Iranian security forces, especially in a neighborhood with inflated defense budgets and state of the art inventory in the conventional arsenal makes a minimal credible deterrence all the more essential. Persistent budgetary constraints and politico-diplomatic challenges in acquiring state of the art equipment leaves the Tehran regime with the option of developing indigenous equipment, preferably standoff weaponry as the most favored alternative and hence the missile force is the ‘crowned jewel’ in the Iranian arsenal. Its missile programme also happens to be the most expansive in the region for the aforementioned reasons.

With the Trump administration increasingly adopting a hawkish stance on Iran and with increasing politicizing of the missile tests, which are typically followed by more pressing sanctions, there remained a relative hiatus, at least conspicuously, in the Iranian missile testing and launches. The most recent and the maiden test of 2018 was announced in August. With this as a background and the continued challenges faced by the Iranian missile engineers in improving the accuracy and reliability of the missiles, attacks like these seem to provide a credible alternative.

Map Attribute: The strike envelope (468 to 500 miles) of a Zulfiqar missile launched from bases in Kermanshah / Source: Google Maps

Reports indicate that at least one Qiam 1 missile, (of the six missiles fired- four Zulfiqar and two Qiam 1) crashed into Iranian territory soon after launch. Similar concerns were witnessed in the 2017 Deir ez-Zor attack in Syria following the Tehran attack in 2017 in which the majority of the missiles were suspected to have failed to reach its intended target. The Fateh 110 short-range missile, seven of which were fired into the Iraqi Kurdistan region on September 8, however, are known to have hit their intended target with precision.

With the above in mind, the missile attacks and the politicization and economic impediments of missile tests, thus, underscores the IRGC’s preferred shift to field testing its missile arsenal by actual deployment in battle conditions, especially in counter-militancy roles. It, thus, gives it the much needed operational maneuvering space to not only target the subversive elements posing a threat to the Islamic Republic’s security but also provides the much-needed data on the performance of its inventory. This data remains likely to be used in course corrections for the upcoming development of missiles on which the IRGC aerospace forces are known to rely upon.

A battlespace with no credible air defense network to thwart an attack provides an opportunity to test certain parameters like response time to prepare the missile, accuracy, and reliability of the ignition system, launch, and post-launch indices. Alternatively, the much-debated missile strikes on Saudi Arabia by the Houthi rebels, which are known to have Iranian components, provides hands-on experience of operating in a dense air-defense (AD) network. It, thus, provides an opportunity to better understand the Saudi and hence, the American Patriot missile systems. The swarm attacks, involving multiple missiles strikes as compared to solitary strikes, both on sensitive installations like Riyadh Airport and their subsequent interceptions are thus likely to be used as critical case studies in improving the AD- countermeasures, thus aiming to ensure the survivability of the missile. The deployment of the Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missile along the Lebanon- Israel border in 2014 was also likely aimed at better understanding a host of Israeli AD networks, especially David’s Sling, Iron Dome, among others. However, given Israel’s established capabilities and intention to deliver preemptive punitive strikes against hostile targets in the region, coupled with Iran’s aversion to initiate broader conflict with the Jewish state for a host of politico-economic and operational considerations, a successful attack has not been recorded so far. However, the underlying threat continues to persist. With this in mind, short-range missile attacks against Kurdish militants’ administrative buildings along the Iran-Iraq border, thus, serves as a better means in testing the effectiveness of the short-range arsenal especially in counter value and counterforce targets. This is likely to be further refined in any form of potential use against conventional hostile targets in the future.


Given the need to test, rectify and further improve the capabilities of its missile and UCAV arsenal, the IRGC is likely to use it extensively in counter-militancy operations especially in Iraq and Syria, where the opposition to such attacks are, at best, minimal. These attacks not only provide the IRGC with a host of geographical and operational experience in testing the missile’s effectiveness, rather, it also is likely to help bolster its doctrine- highlighting both willingness and capabilities to actually impel the utilization of the missiles and drones as opposed to making it an exhibit in upcoming military parades. The missile and UCAV arsenal are, thus, likely to plug the existing gap between the conventional and asymmetric capabilities over the coming months. Given the legitimacy of these deployments as part of broader counter-militancy operations, the usual political and diplomatic pressure, which typically follows a missile testing in a conventional war exercise, will be absent. Keeping in mind the continued politico-diplomatic challenges in acquiring avant-garde aerial platforms, coupled with advances in indigenous defense industries, the aforementioned domains, particularly, is likely to be developed further over the coming months as part of credible minimum deterrence. That being said, a revised and modified UCAV and missile force is likely to only nominally alter the threat perception regarding Iran among the regional Gulf rivals. Furthermore, it remains unlikely to alter the balance of power to a significant degree in the region, given the significant gap in parity on the conventional weapons front of the Arab Gulf states over the Islamic Republic.

About the Author:

Sameer Mallya (ORCID: 0000–0003–4413–840X)

He is an Analyst working on Geopolitical and Security issues concerning the Middle East and parts of North Africa (MENA). His academic areas of interest are International Relations, Geostrategic military developments, and analyzing trends in terrorism and counter-terrorism in MENA and South Asia.

Cite this Article:

Mallya, S., “A Reignited Proclivity for an Advanced Iranian Missile Program “, IndraStra Global Vol. 004, Issue No: 10 (2018), 0007, ISSN 2381–3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.



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