If tensions between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran deteriorate into an all-out war, the former could face Iran-backed militia proxy attacks from up to four regional countries.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has established a vast network of increasingly powerful Shiite militia proxies across the Middle East that do Tehran’s bidding. According to Iran expert Nader Uskowi, the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force has recruited, armed and organized up to 200,000 Shiite militia fighters across the Middle East.
In recent years, the IRGC has supplied many of these powerful groups with increasingly accurate and longer-range missiles and rockets. It has also helped several of them develop the capability to locally manufacture these weapons.
A research paper just published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) entitled ‘Missile Multinational: Iran’s New Approach to Missile Proliferation’ evaluates Iran’s evolving strategy for supplying these proxies with missiles. The paper notes that the Quds Force, in cooperation with Iran’s formidable missile industry, “appears intent on enabling all its main proxies to be able to autonomously manufacture artillery rockets and precision-guided missiles.”
The success of this ‘multinational’ project could have significant security and strategic ramifications for Israel. And, by many accounts, it has already made significant progress in recent years. From its immediate north in Lebanon to as far southeast as Yemen, Israel is seeing the rapid proliferation of ever-deadlier missiles in the hands of Iran’s proxies.
Iran’s most successful proxy militia is undoubtedly the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The IRGC established this powerful Shiite militia against the backdrop of the 1982 Israeli invasion of that country. Hezbollah fought the Israeli Army for 18 years in south Lebanon until it finally withdrew in 2000.
The group later survived a ferocious Israeli air campaign in the summer of 2006 that was ignited by its ambush and murder of Israeli soldiers on the border.
Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided another major escalation since that last war. In the intervening 15 years, Iran has helped Hezbollah build up an enormous arsenal of missiles and rockets in Lebanon.
In the 2006 war, Hezbollah rockets were imprecise and short-range, used to harass and terrorize towns and cities in northern Israel. Today, however, the group has amassed an enormous arsenal of longer-range missiles and rockets that number over 100,000, many of which have the range to strike any part of Israel.
As part of its Precision Project, the IRGC has helped Hezbollah build missile production plants in Lebanon to help it improve the accuracy and range of its arsenal.
The aforementioned IISS report cited a 2020 interview from Hezbollah’s TV station with an IRGC commander who summed up the overall goal of such projects by simply referring to the old proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
In 2019, the Israeli military estimated that Hezbollah possessed dozens of precision-guided surface-to-surface missiles. However, it also concluded that the group had to date failed in its efforts to mass-produce them locally.
Beginning in 2013, Iran attempted to deliver missiles directly to Hezbollah through war-torn Syria, only to repeatedly come under attack by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). Tehran shifted gears and began, in 2016, delivering missile parts for local assembly in Lebanon, where Israel is less likely to preemptively strike given the dire risk of igniting another destructive Lebanon war.
In the event of a Third Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, the latter’s missile arsenal has become so large over the past 15 years that, according to veteran Hezbollah expert Nicholas Blanford, it could afflict “the greatest destruction and loss of life” on the Israeli home front since its bloody 1948 War of Independence. Lebanon, however, would be turned “in to a car park.”
Since the early years of the Syrian conflict, the IAF has maintained an air campaign across Syria primarily to prevent the IRGC from transferring advanced missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 2020 alone, the IAF conducted at least 500 airstrikes across Syria. During the same period, Syria reacted by firing approximately 900 air defense missiles, a truly “unprecedented number.”
Intelligence sources cited by Reuters in April revealed that Israel has “dramatically expanded” its air campaign across Syria against a suspected Iranian project to establish missile production facilities in that country too. According to these sources, “Iran is moving parts of its advanced missile and arms industry into pre-existing underground compounds to develop a sophisticated arsenal within range of Israeli population centers.”
The report also noted that for Tehran, developing accurate missiles “under cover in Syria is seen as less vulnerable to Israeli attack than ferrying them in overland or by air from Iran.”
Israeli airstrikes have to date foiled IRGC efforts to set up air defense missiles in Syrian military bases it operates from and prevented it from upgrading Syria’s antiquated air defenses, large parts of which Israel has also destroyed in recent years.
Iran’s current efforts to give its proxies in Syria the means to locally assemble missiles capable of threatening Israel are consistent with the goals of its Precision Project in Lebanon as well as other similar projects in both Iraq and Yemen.
In Iraq, where the most powerful armed groups operating under the umbrella of the state-sanctioned Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are controlled by Iran, Tehran has supplied its militia proxies with more advanced rockets and, more recently, even armed drones.
In 2018, the IRGC transferred a small number of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) to these militias as part of “a backup plan” in the event Iran comes under attack from Israel or the United States.
“The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km [approximately 120 to 430 miles], putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq,” Reuters noted in its exclusive 2018 report that revealed this transfer.
More significantly, Iran has helped these militias establish factories in Iraq for building more of these missiles. In July 2020, the Iran-backed Iraqi Badr Organization unveiled locally-built rockets which are roughly comparable to Iranian Naze’at and Zelzal rockets.
Successful transfer of the technology, components, and know-how likely makes it more difficult to prevent the proliferation of such surface-to-surface missiles in these militia’s arsenals.
Tehran appears to be using the same strategy with drones. In January, explosive-laden drones originating from Iraqi territory targeted the royal palace in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh. They had reportedly been delivered “in parts from Iran and were assembled in Iraq, and were launched from Iraq.”
In April, another explosive-laden drone targeted the U.S. troop facility on the grounds of the international airport in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil.
A growing arsenal of SRBMs in Iraq could potentially threaten Israel in the event of a region-wide Iran-Israel war in the future, as could long-range drones.
Israel is cognizant of the potential threat Iran-backed forces in Iraq can pose to it since, in 2019, it was undoubtedly behind a series of airstrikes targeting PMF installations across Iraq. Those were the first Israeli airstrikes on Iraqi territory since Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor back in June 1981. Future Israeli airstrikes against these Iraq-based groups and their arsenals may well transpire if they begin developing and threatening to use more long-range offensive weaponry.
Then there is Yemen. The Houthis in that war-torn country have repeatedly targeted neighboring Saudi Arabia with increasingly more deadly and sophisticated ballistic missiles and drones.
By several accounts, technical assistance and the supply of components from Iran has given the Houthis the ability to manufacture such weapons locally.
In January, a U.N. Security Council report stated that: “An increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis.”
As with Hezbollah and Iraqi militia missiles, the accuracy and range of these weapons are exponentially growing and could soon pose a threat to Israel.
In an April 21 House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Tim Lenderking, the U.S. special envoy on Yemen, told lawmakers that Iran helps the Houthis “fine tune” their missile and drone capabilities.
“Unfortunately all of this is working to very strong effects as we see more and more attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – and potentially other countries – more accuracy and more lethality,” he said.
Israeli media also reported back in January that a deployment of Iron Dome and Patriot air defense missile systems near the southern Red Sea resort city of Eilat was done due to concerns the Houthis might try and target the area with missiles or drones.
In December 2020, Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Hidai Ziberman, citing Israeli intelligence, said that Iran is helping proxies in Iraq and Yemen develop drones and “smart missiles” that could target Israel.
Around the same time, Newsweek reported that Iran delivered “Shahed-136” loitering munitions (also known as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones), a hitherto unheard of version in the Shahed series, to the Houthis. These drones, the article claimed, are capable of reaching Israel from Yemeni territory.
Missiles that Iran helped the Houthis develop could potentially do the same in the near future.
The Burkan-2 medium-range ballistic missiles used by the Houthis in recent years combine parts from Scud missiles and Iran’s Qiam missile. It has a range of 650 miles. However, the Houthis quickly proved capable of developing an extended-range version, dubbed the Burkan-3, with an impressive 900-mile range. The group already used the Burkan-3 in a February attack against Saudi Arabia.
Veteran military analyst Michael Knights, who assiduously detailed the Houthi drone and missile capabilities in an April report for the Washington Institute, warned that an even longer-range potential Burkan-4 could soon threaten Israel.
“Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel, is just 1,100 miles away from certain Houthi launch areas, and the rest of Israel (along with various parts of Egypt and Jordan) are within 1,250 miles,” he wrote. “In other words, with an additional range increase of just 20%, Houthi missiles (or Sammad drones) would be capable of striking Israel – which may explain why some of that country’s overstretched missile defenses are already redeploying to face Yemen.”
Source » forbes