Two recent reports reveal the depth of Iran’s missile threat emanating from Iraq and Syria. In Syria, a clandestine surface-to-surface missile (SSM) facility at Wadi Jahannam will likely be completed by early 2019. In Iraq, the Iranian regime has deployed medium-range missiles with Shi’ite militia proxies that are capable of hitting Israel.
Together the missile threats represent a creeping power play by Tehran at the same time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted Jerusalem will continue to act against threats, and after John Bolton visited Jerusalem in mid-August.
By reportedly basing its missiles near Russian forces in northern Syria and near US-led Coalition forces in Iraq, Iran is trying to protect its missiles while threatening Israel and potentially dragging Israel into a regional conflict should Jerusalem strike at these facilities. Tehran seeks to play this dangerous regional missile game as it carves out an arc of influence from Baghdad via Damascus to Lebanon.
On August 30th, ImageSat International released a report noting that “Tehran is a major contributor to the Syrian missile project, including building the new SSM facility near Baniyas.” ImageSat International had previously released satellite images of the Wadi Jahanamm site last August. But the new details link the Wadi Jahannam facility to the nearby Masyaf facility which was repeatedly hit by IAF air-strikes. Both Masyaf and the other site are “located within the operational range of an S-400 deployment” because they are close to Russian facilities at Tartus on the coast.
The warnings about the development at the Syrian site come as a new report emerged that Iran has sent missiles to its allies in Iraq. Iran has transferred three missile types into Iraq, including its latest Zolfaghar (Zulfiqar) missile, which is a solid-fueled short range ballistic missile capable of reaching a range of 700 km. It was first used in a strike by Iran against Islamic State in June 2017, and was fired from Kermanshah, Iraq. Its deployment there puts it within range of Israel.
The Zolfaghar is complimented by Fateh 110 short range, road-mobile missiles that can reach up to 300 km. To reach Israel, these missiles would have to be deployed in Iraq’s Western Desert. According to the report, Iran also transported Zelzal-3 rockets that can reach up to 250 km. Iranian and Iraqi sources told Reuters that Iran had made a decision to produce missiles in Iraq. A Western source said that factories had been established east of Baghdad and north of Kerbala. “It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base.” Kata’ib Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militia in Iraq that is allied to Iran, controls the areas where the missiles are located. It shares a similar name and role as Lebanese Hezbollah, but is a separate militia.
There are two interesting details here. First, that the missiles or warheads for them are being produced in Iraq, and that Shi’ite militias run the factories. Second, that Kata’ib Hezbollah is specifically mentioned. These militias are part of a group of militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) which helped Iraq fight ISIS. In 2016, the PMU was incorporated into Iraq’s official paramilitary structure. In 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said that these Shi’ite militias were the “hope” of the future of Iraq. In 2018, the militias gained even more influence when their political party, the Fatah alliance, came in second in the May elections.
This puts militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah close to the center of power in Baghdad. US officials said in May that these militias “posed the greatest threat to the safety of US personnel” and could harm the stabilization of Iraq. The US Department of Treasury has not only sanctioned Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis but also sanctioned Iraq’s al-Bilad Islamic Bank, accusing it of transferring funds to Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In June, an air-strike in Syria near al-Bukamal on the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border allegedly killed numerous members of Kata’ib Hezbollah. The militia is operating in Syria aiding Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The militia blamed the Americans for the air-strike but Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida blamed Israel. It now appears that Iran has transferred new missiles to Iraq since June, according to the Reuters report. This also took place as the Fatah alliance was jockeying for control of a coalition government in Iraq. So the transfer of weapons into Iraq to be managed and run by the Shi’ite militias gives these militias new power and leverage over Iraq, allowing them to act not only as an official force of the government, but as a parallel state with their own missiles capable of striking Israel.
In effect, this allows the militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah to be the long arm of the IRGC and Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Iran can use Iraq as a base to threaten Israel, and not only do Iraqis pay the potential consequences, but Iran’s proxy forces hope that the US coalition would have to defend Iraq from any potential Israeli retaliation for the presence of these missiles. The US is still training and equipping the Iraqi army.
This is the strategic paradigm that underpins Iran’s goals in Syria and Iraq. It wants to build missile factories underneath the S-400 air defense umbrella in northern Syria near Russian forces in order to protect its facilities. In Iraq, it wants to locate missiles near coalition air bases and facilities in Anbar province.
Jerusalem has the multi-layered missile defense to confront these threats, including David’s Sling, the Arrow and US Patriot batteries. But Tehran’s goal is to pressure Israel on two or more fronts, making any Israeli moves more complex in this dangerous chessboard of missile threats.