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A nation must think before it acts.
Yet again, there is a dramatic rise in tension in the Middle East, and, yet again, missiles are at the heart of it. On May 6, the Trump administration announced that it would deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group as well as four B-52 bombers to the region in response to “clear indications” that Iran or Iranian-supported proxy groups discussed launching attacks against U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Fears that Iran could respond to crippling sanctions against its oil and finance sector with military force, either by itself or through proxies, are not entirely new. In early 2011, as Europe was tightening the screws on Iran’s economy, the specter of Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz emerged in the international media landscape. Even though then-Navy Commander Habibollah Sayyari casually remarked that closing the strait of Hormuz was “easier than drinking a glass of water,” Iran never followed through with its threat. In 2019, as the Iranian retaliation narrative seems to have shifted towards the slightly more realistic scenario of Iranian-sanctioned proxy attacks, the question arises whether there is proof that Islamic Republic is actually preparing to do that. Just what exactly are the “clear indications” that Iran means it this time?
On May 8, CNN reported that Iran was loading short-range ballistic missiles on boats. According to U.S. government sources, this move was one of the “critical reasons the U.S. decided to move an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers into the region.”
If these reports are, indeed, accurate, then it worth asking what are Iranian ballistic missiles doing on ships? CNN noted that it was unclear if the missiles were intended to be launched from the vessels or if they were just being transported. While unusual, launching ballistic missiles from surface vessels is feasible. India’s navy operates the ship-launched Prithvi III missile, and South Korea successfully tested a Hyunmoo 2C from what appeared to be a cargo vessel. Indeed, there are some indications that Iran might at least have looked into this possibility in the past. In 2000/2001, researchers from the Malek-Ashtar University of Technology, an institution associated with Iran’s missile program, published a paper in the Iranian Journal for Maritime Engineering outlining their design for a sea-born Scud-B missile launcher. However, as the U.S. learned, launching ballistic missiles from ships is not an easy task, and like most missile-related activities, doing so requires extensive testing. So far, no ship-launches of Iranian ballistic missiles have been observed, and Iran sneakily developing this capability while avoiding the watchful eyes of Western intelligence services seems highly unlikely.
Just as important as technical considerations is Iran’s lack of a regional strategic rationale for basing ballistic missiles on surface vessels. The main advantage of basing ballistic missile on surface ships is the de-facto extension of range. However, range is not an issue when it comes to Iran targeting U.S. forces in the region because the Islamic Republic already operates a large arsenal of missiles with ranges up to 2000km and a particularly impressive force of shorter-range precision-guided solid-fuel missiles. This arsenal puts all major U.S. bases in the region within striking range of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Systems like the Qiam, the Zolfaghar, the Hormuz, and the Khalij-e Fars are not only deployed with the aim of targeting U.S. American military bases in the region, but were also originally designed to do so.
The caveats that apply to range also apply to survivability. A large part of Iran’s missile force is located in deep underground bases, and many of the country’s launch platforms can be disguised as civilian trucks, allowing them to blend in with traffic. It is hard to imagine how in terms of survivability single ships in the Persian Gulf—which is swarming with U.S. naval forces—would offer any advantage over current Iranian basing modes.
With ship-launched ballistic missiles seeming like a highly impractical and unlikely way to target U.S. forces in the region, this leaves the possibility of Iran merely transporting the missiles. Iran could use ships to deploy the missiles to some of its islands in the Persian Gulf, several of which, such as Abu Musa and Qeshm, are already known to house anti-ship missiles. However, yet again, there is little strategic rationale for doing so (except potential signaling). Unlike ballistic missiles, anti-ship missiles tend to have very limited ranges and do not easily pass mountainous terrain. Thus, forward-deploying them to islands makes sense. Basing ballistic missiles on these islands would result in only marginally increased ranges, but there is potential for substantially increased vulnerability when compared to deployment on Iran’s mainland.
All of these considerations makes a smuggling operation to one of Iran’s clients the most likely explanation. Current foreign operators of Iranian-made ballistic missiles include Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, the Syrian regime, allegedly Iraqi Shi’a militias, and potentially pro-Iranian armed groups in Syria. Iraq only has a minuscule coastline and can easily be supplied via its long and porous land border with Iran. While Syria and, by extension, Lebanon could be a possible destination, the choice of ships makes it seem highly improbable. According to the Washington Post, the vessels in question are dhows, small traditional wooden boats common to the Gulf area. Dhows are a terrible choice for transporting weapons to Syria, but are a great option for smuggling operations closer to home. There is ample evidence that Iran is using the small and inconspicuous ships to ferry arms to the Houthi movement in Yemen.
With Yemen by far the most likely destination for the missiles on Iran’s ships, the next question is: what makes this transfer so different from previous Iranian missile deliveries to the Houthis? After all, there is little doubt that Iran has supplied missiles to its Yemeni allies in the past. Again, the Washington Post offers a clue to how U.S. officials reached the verdict that this move was out of the ordinary:
Defense officials said the intelligence that sparked their concern included imagery of containers on the deck of at least one dhow, a sailing vessel, which were believed to contain assembled ballistic missiles from Iran. Officials were unsure of the intended purpose for the suspected missiles, but they saw it as a worrying departure from Iran’s previous steps to smuggle disassembled missile parts into Yemen.
The description of Iran’s previous modus operandi matches with available open source evidence. The Qiams delivered to the Houthis were cut into pieces and only later reassembled and welded together on the battlefield in Yemen. Judging from both intercepted production equipment and Iran’s stated goal of enabling the domestic missile and rocket production of its allies, Yemeni shorter-range solid-fuel systems seem to be a combination of Iranian-supplied and locally produced components.
What prompted the Iranians to change? For one, it could simply be politics. With hardliners emboldened by the slow-motion collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, often dubbed the “Iran nuclear deal”) and with little left to lose in relations with the West, both Iran’s ballistic missile program and its space program have recently seen a dramatic uptick in activity. Similar internal dynamics could have resulted in a bolder approach to the conflict in Yemen with even more disregard for the already thin veneer of deniability that the Islamic Republic still maintains in this theatre.
Another explanation could be that the change is not driven by internal politics, but by a concrete operational requirement. There are a number of scenarios imaginable that would cause such a change of operational requirements. The first would be a substantial degradation of local production and/or assembly capabilities. However, with the Houthis still using short-range missiles and introducing new systems on a regular basis, this option seems unlikely. Another possibility is that the Houthis, in cooperation with Iran, are indeed planning to attack U.S. forces in the region. In this scenario, a provision of anti-ship ballistic missiles to the Houthis seems like the most likely option for the delivery. While such a step might seem unreasonably risky right now, it should be remembered that the Houthis have targeted the U.S. Navy vessels using anti-ship missiles in the past. Yet another scenario could be IRGC contingency planning for a potential future conflict with the U.S. and its allies. Deploying more capable missiles and potentially anti-ship ballistic missiles to Yemen would allow Iran to target enemy forces in the region from multiple points, considerably complicating enemy operations at comparatively low cost. Finally, there is the possibility that a potential qualitative or quantitative change of missile deliveries to Yemen could be squarely aimed at Saudi Arabia and only indirectly be related to the U.S. Iranian decision-makers very much see Riyadh as a core element of the anti-Iran coalition or, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif put it in his comments about the so-called B-Team (John Bolton, Bibi Netanyahu, and Mohammad Bin Salman), even be a key driver behind the decision. Opening the floodgate of arms to Yemen’s Houthis could be a way for Iran to respond to U.S. pressure without the risks associated with a direct attack on U.S. forces.
What all of these considerations have in common is that they rely on the assumption that U.S. intelligence is indeed correct. According to the Washington Post, U.S. intelligence is based on pictures of at least one dhow carrying containers believed to contain ballistic missiles. With such a limited amount of data, every assessment of the current situation should very much keep the possibility of error in mind.
The story about Iranian short-range ballistic missiles loaded onto ships boils down to a change in pattern of what is in all likelihood a smuggling operation of missiles to Yemen. There are various, not necessarily mutually exclusive, explanations for this change ranging from purely internal regime dynamics to a potential change of operational requirement for missiles in the Yemeni theatre. While a planned attack on U.S. forces by Houthi forces is a potential scenario, it is just one of several possible explanations. Thus, unless the U.S. possesses further intelligence about concrete attack plans, Iran’s transfer is far from being a “clear indication” that Iran and its allies are planning to attack the U.S. military.