Iran’s Latest Missile Exercise: A Message of Force Projection

Vol. 12, No. 16

  • On July 2-4, 2012, the Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted a missile exercise, dubbed Great Prophet 7, which involved firing dozens of missiles at a target that resembled a U.S. airbase situated in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia.
  • Iran is signaling that it is prepared for a military clash with the West and Israel, and possesses a devastating “second-strike” response capability against any attack on its nuclear sites. IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh claimed Iran had already amassed information on 35 U.S. bases in the region and had deployed missiles to destroy them within minutes of an attack on its soil.
  • Hand-in-hand with continued progress toward advancing its nuclear program amid the recently renewed nuclear talks, Iran is well into the process of developing a deterrence doctrine toward its main adversaries in the region, namely Israel and the United States, while upgrading R&D for its missiles in a way that could eventually enable it to mount a nuclear bomb on a ballistic missile.
  • Iran is dispersing its missiles throughout the country – deep in the interior, along the coast, at sea, and even beyond Iran’s borders. Iran has a broad doctrine of the use of force that also encompasses missiles located in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza.
  • Beyond deterrence, the exercise constitutes a message of force projection to the Sunni Arab states of the region, particularly the Gulf States that host U.S. bases and depend on Washington. Tehran is determined to fill any void left in the region and seeks to project Islamic power as U.S. influence in the Middle East wanes.

A Simulated Attack on a U.S. Base

On July 2-4, 2012, the Aerospace Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) conducted its annual missile exercise, dubbed Great Prophet 7. It involved the firing of dozens of missiles and rockets of different kinds and ranges at a target on Iranian soil that resembled a foreign (i.e., U.S.) airbase situated in one of Iran’s neighbors (such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia). The exercise was held, apparently not coincidentally, in the same week that the European Union imposed its embargo on Iran’s oil industry (beginning July 1).

The exercise – extensively covered by Iran’s state-run media, which repeatedly broadcast images of missiles launched at the simulated target – added a further plank to Iran’s deterrence strategy amid the mounting talk of a possible attack on its nuclear facilities. Iran is also signaling, and not for the first time, that it is prepared and deployed for a military clash with the West and Israel, and possesses a fitting, rapid, and devastating “second-strike” response capability against any attack on its nuclear sites. Iranian spokesmen also warned during the exercise that if Israel attacked Iran it would be “destroyed.”

Along with its messages to the regional and international arenas, the exercise was timed to give the Iranian people a “morale injection” of technological prowess just as the sanctions were taking hold. The country’s economy is deteriorating as prices of basic commodities keep rising. Tehran, however, is trying to project a business-as-usual atmosphere despite the European oil embargo, seeking to calm Iranians and indicate that the country can overcome the “most difficult sanctions so far” (Ahmadinejad) – notwithstanding the likely high cost – just as it has been overcoming sanctions during the 33 years of the revolution.

Behaving Like a Great Power

With the missile exercise and the terminology used by its various spokesmen, Iran wants to present the profile of a great power – one capable of a rapid, symmetrical missile response to threats against it (including missiles that, it claims, can hit radar facilities), of toughing out the continuing sanctions, and of projecting power toward the neighboring states. Added to this is the ongoing emphasis on the naval components of the asymmetrical response Iran would mount in case of a naval clash with the United States (including swarms of rocket-equipped speedboats, suicide speedboats, naval mines, etc.), and on preparing terror cells for the “day of reckoning” at various spots on the globe. The recent exposure of Iran’s terror infrastructure in Kenya, as well as in India, Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Cyprus, should be seen in this light.

During the missile exercise, an initiative was raised in the Majlis on blocking the Strait of Hormuz in response to the start of the new oil sanctions. Iranian spokesmen including the defense minister affirmed that Iran controls the strait and supervises all movement within it, hence, maintaining the option of blocking it if it feels threatened.1 IRGC navy commander Ali Fadavi said they had begun to equip warships patrolling the strait with 200-km.-range, radar-evading missiles that can hit targets in the strait and in the Gulf of Oman. He said the missiles could also be launched from the Iranian shoreline and hit their targets, adding that Western targets in the area are also within the range of Iran’s land-to-sea missiles and naval helicopters equipped with air-to-surface missiles.2

A Hundred Targets

The IRGC’s Great Prophet 7 exercise began with an announcement to the media by IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who was the most prominent figure throughout the war games. Hajizadeh stressed that the exercise would involve the firing of long-, medium-, and short-range missiles from different parts of Iran at about a hundred predetermined targets, and underscored that the main difference between this and previous IRGC drills was that this one would target bases in the Lut Desert of Iran’s Semnan Province that simulated those of the foreign forces in the region. He added that after the barrage on the bases, experts would check the missiles’ accuracy and make a battle-damage assessment.3 The purpose of the exercise, he said, was to send a clear-cut message to all “bullying” countries that Iran will forcefully resist the pressures on it and that its missiles can respond decisively to any threat.4

Hajizadeh claimed Iran had already amassed information on 35 U.S. bases in the region and had deployed missiles to destroy them within minutes of an attack. “All of these bases are within the range of our missiles….The occupied territories [Israel] also constitute a good target for our missiles.”5 Hajizadeh again drew attention to the fact that a single simulated base had been chosen as a model for this exercise, with missiles being fired at it.6

Capable of Destroying Missile-Defense Systems?

During the pre-exercise briefing, the IRGC Aerospace Force commander emphasized that Iran can cope successfully with the missile-defense system NATO has deployed in Turkey and with a similar system the United States plans to deploy in the Gulf States, and also with Israel’s Iron Dome system against rocket fire from Gaza. NATO’s missile-defense shield in Turkey and the Persian Gulf littoral states is vulnerable, he claimed, to Iran’s homemade “anti-radiation [radar] ballistic missiles,” and soon “this latest Iranian radar-hitting ballistic missile with a range of 300 km. will be able to target and destroy centers sending radar signals on land or at sea with high precision….These advanced missiles can be used to target different types of missile shields, including the Zionist regime’s Iron Dome.”7

As for Israel’s intentions regarding an attack on Iran, Hajizadeh said Israel was not large enough to attack his country and in any case would require assistance from the United States. He added that, with all the U.S. bases situated in the Gulf region within range of Iran’s missiles and weapon systems, the likelihood that the U.S. would come to Israel’s assistance is very low. In any case, said the Iranian commander, “if Israel ultimately decides to attack Iran, it will give Iran a perfect excuse to erase it from the face of the earth.”8

Deputy IRGC commander Hossein Salami said at a press conference during the exercise that its main purpose was to demonstrate Iran’s high capability to defend its basic values and goals, and that the exercise was a fitting response to those who “have used impolite political expressions toward the Iranian people and claim that the military option is on the table.”9

Long-, Medium-, and Short-Range Missiles

The first stage of the exercise (July 2) included the deployment of missile launchers throughout Iran that were aimed at the base in the Lut Desert simulating a U.S. base in the Gulf region. Along with the missiles fired at the Lut Desert target, the second stage saw the firing of dozens of long-, medium-, and short-range Shahab-1, -2, and -3, Fateh-110, Qiam, Zelzal, and Tondar missiles at various targets simulating bases of foreign (Western) states situated near Iran’s borders. Hajizadeh announced that missiles capable of 2,000 km. were launched, though they were fired only to a range of 1,300-km.10

In the third and final stage of the exercise, IRGC missile units fired a number of Khalij-e Fars anti-ship missiles at maritime targets. Iran claims these missiles are immune to interception, extremely precise, and carry a 650-kg. warhead. Also in this stage, IRGC planes and attack UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) struck a number of targets.11 In an announcement at the end of the exercise, the IRGC affirmed that its missiles had destroyed the simulated foreign base.

The exercise was intensively covered by Iran’s written and broadcast media. Photos and film of the launches were broadcast repeatedly. The IRGC’s previous missile exercise had revealed hidden long-range missile launch sites.12

A Powerful Message

At the conclusion of the exercise, Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi expressed great satisfaction, saying it had reflected the might and prowess of the Iranian Armed Forces, along with their awareness of “the weak points of the enemies of Iran and those who threaten it and the fact that those plotting evil against it will witness a powerful response.”13 Hajizadeh said similarly in his summation that “Iran’s response to any threat against it will be decisive and crushing and will cause the enemy to regret his actions a very short time after attacking Iran.” He added, as part of the encouragement that senior Iranian officials have been voicing as the sanctions tighten, that the exercise had well demonstrated Iran’s advanced-missile capability even after 33 years of sanctions.14

IRGC Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Commander General Qassem Soleimani said during the recent annual gathering of IRGC Navy commanders that Iran’s enemies were paralyzed “when faced with the IRGC’s missile and naval might and power” and that Iranian developments in these fields have left a deep and strong imprint and “cannot be tolerated by the enemies.”15 Other spokesmen exalted the exercise’s success in terms of Iran’s deterrent capability. IRGC Politburo chief Gen. Yadollah Javani said the maneuver had “shown the enemies that they should be very careful not to make a miscalculation, since otherwise Iran will easily and quickly destroy their interests within a broad radius and everything that is vital in their eyes.” He added that the Israeli, U.S., and Western reactions to the exercise were a good indication of its importance and success.16 Javani said that concerns raised by the U.S. and the “Zionists” during the drill showed that it was successful. “Had the drill failed to display Iran’s might and defense capabilities, we would not have seen such a reaction…they are concerned that Iran will turn into a missile superpower, which should be confronted.”17

Ahmad Bakhshayesh Ardestani, a member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, stated: “The message of the war games was to display the Islamic Republic of Iran’s might and power to its main addressees, meaning the U.S. and the West….Iran can always use all of its defensive might and power to destroy the U.S. bases in Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”18

An Effective-Use Doctrine

Hagizadeh’s press conferences at the start and conclusion of the exercise, along with military and political spokesmen’s references to its goals, well reflect Iran’s ongoing development of its defense doctrine. Hand-in-hand with the continued progress of its nuclear program amid the recently renewed nuclear talks, Iran is developing a deterrence doctrine toward its main adversaries in the region, namely Israel and the United States, while upgrading R&D for its long-range delivery system in a way that could eventually help it mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.

In April 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta provided congressional defense committees with an annual assessment of Iran’s military power. Its unclassified section regarding Iran’s missile threat reads:

Iran continues to develop ballistic missiles that can range regional adversaries, Israel, and Eastern Europe, including an extended-range variant of the Shahab-3 and a 2,000-km medium-range ballistic missile, the Ashura. Beyond steady growth in its missile and rocket inventories, Iran has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems with accuracy improvements and new submunition payloads….Iran may be technically capable of flight testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.

During the last 20 years, Iran has placed significant emphasis on developing and fielding ballistic missiles to counter perceived threats from Israel and Coalition forces in the Middle East and to project power in the region….

Short-range ballistic missiles provide Tehran with an effective mobile capability to strike partner forces in the region. Iran continues to improve the survivability of these systems against missile defenses. It is also developing and claims to have deployed short-range ballistic missiles with seekers that enable the missile to identify and maneuver toward ships during flight. This technology also may be capable of striking land-based targets.

Iran also has developed medium-range ballistic missiles to target Israel and continues to increase the range, lethality, and accuracy of these systems.19

This latest exercise is a direct continuation of the one the IRGC held last year, during which Iran disclosed its ability to launch ballistic missiles clandestinely and surprisingly from hidden sites and to hit Israeli and U.S. targets in the region. As this and previous Iranian missile exercises have demonstrated, Iranian long-range missiles (1,300-1,500 km.) are aimed at both Tel Aviv and Riyadh.20 Iran’s state-run media echoed Panetta’s April 2012 report, claiming it proves Iran’s missile might.

The two most recent exercises indicate that Iran is not only working diligently to increase the number and kinds of its missiles of different ranges, but also to devise a doctrine for their effective use. At the same time, Iran is dispersing these missiles throughout the country – deep in the interior, along the coast, at sea, and even beyond Iran’s borders. Iran has a broad concept of the use of force that also encompasses missiles located in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. The exercises also make clear (as does the drizzle of missile fire from Gaza, Sinai, and Lebanon) Iran’s reliance on missiles as one of the main components of its national-security strategy and the answer to the threats it faces.

Iran is continuing to combine a symmetrical missile response with intensive efforts to improve its asymmetrical missile response to U.S. naval and aerial superiority in the Gulf. Iran is also working to complete Israel’s encirclement with missiles of different ranges; some of those fired during the recent exercise are also possessed by Hizbullah (Zilzal and Fateh-110). Iran did not make reference during the drill to the broader context of the missiles and rockets held by Hizbullah, Hamas, and Syria that originate in Tehran. However, Iran sees these as part of its response in case it is attacked. It also continues to regard Lebanon as its “first line of defense” in its national-security doctrine both as a deterrent and a response factor, and views such missile fire as an asymmetrical answer to Israel’s superior technological capability and particularly its air force.

Islamic Imperialism

Beyond deterrence, the exercise and the threats to block the Strait of Hormuz constitute a message of force projection to the states of the region, particularly the Gulf States that host U.S. bases and depend on Washington. Tehran is determined to fill any void left in the region by the United States and aims to be its dominant actor.

With all its missile launchers, Iran seeks to project Islamic power as U.S. influence in the Middle East wanes and the region’s strategic landscape rapidly changes with the rise of the new Islamic regimes. Iran has already announced that it is prepared to transfer its military capabilities and even its “peaceful nuclear knowledge” to Muslims, and in some cases is already doing so. In other words, Iran wants to revive the export of the Islamic Revolution with the revival of Shia Islam in the region. Its agenda goes far beyond the Gulf region and the Middle East, as it aspires to redefine the rules of the game in the regional and global arenas and present itself as an alternative to what it calls the decline of communism and capitalism – a kind of Islamic imperialism.

This also requires force projection toward the United States and the West, which in Iran’s view is in a process of decline but is still the only power that can perhaps challenge it. Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts, recently said that for over 30 years the United States has led the camp imposing sanctions of various magnitudes on Iran and has stood at the forefront of Iran’s opponents; hence, it has again been proven that the Imam Khomeini was right in calling the United States the “Great Satan.”21

Iran is challenging the “Great Satan,” intensifying its threats against the “Little Satan” (Israel), and trying to behave like a superpower that “brings justice to the world.” Given the rapid changes in the Middle East, any concession by Iran, particularly on the nuclear issue, is no longer seen as an option. In Iran’s view, this is the time when it is supposed to be the spearhead of this great transformation, rather than bow to international pressure. The format of the latest Iranian missile exercise sent a clearer message both to the United States and the regional states that Iran is prepared for any scenario and does not fear a confrontation.

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Notes

1. http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910411000123

2. http://www.sepahnews.com/shownews.Aspx?ID=71376842-6de6-48b6-8241-2a208612b856

3. http://www.mehrnews.com/FA/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=1639764; http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=1639693; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nc7eUO1aw9M

4. http://iranyar.ir/component/content/article/60-political/48353-1391-04-12-05-58-31.html

5. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9103084990

6. http://tinyurl.com/ca72fnp

7. http://www.irdiplomatic.com/m-19262.htm; http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9103084788

8. http://www.mehrnews.com/fa/newsdetail.aspx?NewsID=1639777; http://isna.ir/fa/print/91041106771/%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%AC%D9%8A-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%B1%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D8%B2-RQ170

9. http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910413000157

10. http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910412000730; http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910413000083

11. http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910414000475

12. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SV8VvEyn9A; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gAYZzlm3_0; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3LpWraCHVs

13. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9103085074

14. http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910414000739

15. Sepah News (Iran), July 17, 2012; http://www.sepahnews.com/shownews.Aspx?ID=36bba061-e5c7-4c8d-91fd-b566a2b9cd60

16. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9103085468

17. Mehr news agency, July 8, 2012.

18. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9103085434

19. http://www.fas.org/man/eprint/dod-iran.pdf

20. From a presentation by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze’evi Farkash at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. See “The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran and Its Aftermath: A Roundtable of Israeli Experts,” Jerusalem Viewpoints No. 562, March 9, 2008, http://jcpa.org/article/the-u-s-national-intelligence-estimate-on-iran-and-its-aftermath-a-roundtable-of-israeli-experts-3/

21. http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13910415000115

About Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall

IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.