On December 4, 2019, the New York Times reported that the Islamic Republic of Iran had exported ballistic missiles to its non-state clients in Iraq. The news is similar to Tehran’s activities in Yemen, where Iranian forces have sent ballistic and cruise missiles to the Houthis, its ally in the conflict, and it also mirrors Iran’s recent use of cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas infrastructure. To discuss Iranian missile proliferation in the Middle East, Aaron Stein, the Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, spoke with Fabian Hinz, a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, about the reports and what this means for Iran’s regional policy.
Aaron Stein: First, thanks for doing this. I read the New York Times piece with great interest. And, to be honest, it is not the first news outlet to make the claim that Iran had exported missiles to Iraq. We also know that Iran has exported missiles to the Houthis in Yemen. So let’s start there: What has been Iran’s missile export policy to non-state actors in recent years?
Fabian Hinz: Well, thank you so much! Iran has a policy of exporting artillery rockets, ballistic missiles, and, more recently, cruise missiles to non-state actors either allied with Tehran or just sending missiles outright to proxy groups it directly controls. We have seen evidence of Iran doing this in the cases of Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, so seeing Iran employ the same strategy in Iraq, a country in which it has a vast network of highly loyal clients, is not at all surprising. In general, as is the case with Iran’s missile arsenal itself, the material Iran is now exporting has greatly increased in quality in recent years. While in the mid-2000s transfers to allies and proxies in the region were limited to mostly artillery rockets, Iran is now capable and willing to deliver sophisticated equipment, such as precision-guided missiles, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles with ranges up to 1000km to trusted parties throughout the Middle East. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders have also been very open about the fact that they are already working on the next logical step: the transfer of production technology, so that its allied proxies can assemble these missiles in-country. Now, this is somewhat counterintuitive because one would expect Tehran to control the flow of arms as tightly as possible to gain maximum leverage over its allies and clients. However, for whatever reason, Iranian decision-makers have a very different view of things. They want their clients to be able to indigenously manufacture, or at least partially manufacture, the missiles they provide. Of course, more advanced systems will still require Iranian-made components. So, after the reports about Iranian missile transfers to Iraq, the potential provision of production equipment might be the next thing to look out for, in addition to the export of components to assemble missiles inside Iraq.
Aaron Stein: Let’s drill down a bit. Iran has used cruise missiles and drones to its advantage, most recently in the attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The regime has used missiles much like it uses non-state actors. By not claiming credit for its actions, it operates in a sort of “grey space” where it makes attribution hard for countries—and because the regime has so many relationships with non-state actors that can cause problems in the region, it is hard for countries to respond, too. Can you unpack this a bit, explaining how and what missiles it has used to further its security interests in the region?
Fabian Hinz: Sure! The missiles Iran provides to its clients function in two ways. On the one hand, they are employed in a local context. The missiles and rockets of the Houthis, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are used very much in a local context, both as an actual weapon to strike targets and as a tool to signal that they can impose a cost on any state actor that chooses to attack Iranian-linked clients. So, in effect, the missiles Iran exports act as a local force multiplier for Tehran’s regional allies—and this then contributes to Iran’s regional power and capability to hold at risk targets far from its borders. On the other hand, they also form part of Iran’s own extended deterrent. In the latter function, they can be used as part of Iran’s kinetic campaign to impose a cost for the United States’ “maximum pressure” policy in a way that gives the Iranian leadership some deniability when its leadership decides to use force.
However, in the case of the Aramco strike in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s actions were odd because it was such a clear break from Tehran’s traditional modus operandi. It was hard to predict—based on past behavior—that Iran would, itself, launch missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia, using the Houthis as cover to try to evade responsibility for the strike. One can only speculate as to the reasons behind this decision. Perhaps, the boldness itself was a signal to the region that Iran is prepared to escalate. But perhaps this kind of action, knocking one of Saudi Arabia’s most vital oil facilities out of production in a combined drone-cruise missile attack, may have been driven by necessity because Iranian proxies are unable to take such actions.
In general, when it comes to deniability, one has to distinguish between actual deniability and what one might call politically useful deniability. Iran almost never achieves actual deniability. Missiles and their components can be identified and linked to their country of origin. And, perhaps with the exception of the Houthis, it is pretty clear which actors Iran has enough influence over to be able to direct and order a major attack. However, Iran is pretty good at achieving politically useful deniability and has been able to muddy the waters just enough to ease pressure, allow for the news cycle to pass, and for it to escape unscathed before the links to Iran are definitively established. This pattern gives Western and local leaders who are not keen on responding with military action an off-ramp and to explore other, less kinetic ways of responding without risking an unintended military escalation with Iran.
Aaron Stein: Finally, let’s turn to the New York Times piece. The piece did not reveal the type of missiles that may have been exported, but I think it may be interesting to speculate a bit, given what we know about Iran’s missile activities in other countries. I lean towards the Fateh series—and the Zolfaqhar, specifically. But, who knows, maybe I am wrong. Indulge me: What do you think?
Fabian Hinz: Oh, speculation is fun! My best guess would also be advanced models of the solid-propellant Fateh class. The Zolfaghar with a range of 700km would be sufficient to hold both Riyadh and Tel Aviv at risk from inside Iraq. The Dezful with a range of a 1000km would also be able to do this, but Iran would have to have been willing to transfer a relatively new missile to a client. This would indicate that the missile is being produced in relatively large numbers. The Qiam, a liquid-fuel missile Iran has exported to Yemen, has 800km range, and it too could be a candidate for export to Iraq. Last, but not least, the regime might choose to transfer cruise missiles like the Quds, which was not only used in the Iranian Aramco attack, but also by the Houthis against Abha airport. Cruise missiles are not only good for evading missile defenses, but might also offer some advantages for local production using imported components because it is relatively easy to smuggle a small jet engine and make some fuel tanks and composite wings than it is to cast large solid-propellant rocket motors.