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Decoding Iran’s Missile Tests 4, January 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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Over the Christmas and New Year holidays Iran undertook a series of naval exercises in Gulf waters, which included the test firing of a range of missiles, one of which could theoretically reach as far as Israel. While Iran’s military elite claimed that the tests were successful, given their record of exaggeration and the attempted manipulation of photos of missile launches, it is difficult to take such statements at face value.

Yet such tests are not really about tactical military preparations or the meaningful testing of a new missile. Instead they are designed to once again rattle the sabre, to remind both the Gulf states and in particular Europe and America of Iran’s military threat. In particular, these exercises and other bellicose statements in recent weeks about Iran’s ability to “close down the Strait of Hormuz” are aimed at pressuring European states not to back America’s new tough round of sanctions on Iran.
In other words, the exercises and the threats regarding the Strait of Hormuz are mostly a PR diplomatic bluff; yet this is not to say that they should be ignored.

The greater tensions in the Gulf and the more exercise that Iran feels it needs to put on, the greater the chance of a conflagration occurring by accident. Recent instances of the kidnapping of British Marines in 2007 and of Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) boats “buzzing” US warships in 2008 could easily have escalated quickly and were enormously incendiary and foolish actions by Iran.

US election season being underway may have prompted President Obama’s tougher new sanctions on Iran to shore up his “strong man” credentials and though America certainly does not want to instigate an actual confrontation with Iran in this post-Iraq era, provocative actions and miscalculations from Iran in the context of pressure from domestic, Gulf and Israeli lobbies could prove difficult to resist.

At the same time, Iran does not want a “hot war” in the Gulf either. Despite the constant inflammatory rhetoric emanating from Tehran, the elite knows full well that were a conflict to occur with US or Gulf forces in the region, even were Iran’s asymmetric forces to strike a blow or two, given the profound technological mismatch between Iran and America and its Gulf allies, overall it is not difficult to imagine Iran’s entire Navy, significant portions of its air force and any number of its petroleum installations being summarily destroyed. While this would temporarily solidify the Iranian elite’s position given the likely subsequent rallying of public support, such blows could be profoundly crippling.

While some suggest that Iran’s elite is intrinsically unstable or “irrational” and may actually seek such a conflict given that they are beholden to their religiously inspired Revolution, one only need recall that at the height of Khomeini’s rule in the 1980s, despite typically nasty rhetoric to the contrary, Khomeini engaged and traded with Israel. Iran needed spare parts for its fighters and Israel wanted oil: rhetoric is one thing; realpolitik is another.

Despite neither side wanting serious escalation, neither America nor Iran appear able to escape their cold war. Aside from a deep history of mistrust and proxy conflicts for more than three decades, today Iran feels profoundly encircled and afraid. It sees tens of US bases and tens of thousands of US troops to its north, south, east and west, not to mention US allies laden with advanced military equipment across from Iran in the Gulf.

Wholly unable to cope with such a conventional military challenge, Iran has instead engaged in augmenting its asymmetric forces both in terms of the IRGC and by supporting groups such as Hezbollah. This, in turn – in addition to persistent US claims that Iran has been involved with the supplying of, for example, IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill US forces – has entrenched US implacability to Iran.

Thus today the “Great Satan” is a mainstay of Iranian politics and Iran is a byword for perfidy in US domestic politics, making reaching any accommodation difficult. Iran’s recent overture for diplomacy is cleverly timed for Tehran knows perfectly well that the Obama Administration will find it all but impossible to engage during the election season. Therefore, when America rejects this attempt, Iran can claim that it tried the diplomatic route but was rebuffed, much as President Obama did with his initial overtures after he was elected.

There are no easy exits on the horizon from this vicious cycle. Both sides know fundamentally that they need to talk, but both are constrained by their domestic climates, where accommodation and even discussion is seen – absurdly – as weakness. So too are Gulf states constrained in their relations with significant antipathy across the region to Iran. Yet the immutable relations between Iran and the Gulf states born of their unalterable proximity is perhaps the best hope for a future accommodation. Both HH the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, HE the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, and most recently Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the UAE, have voiced sporadically reasoned and moderate views on Iran; yet much work and time is yet needed – not to mention a partner in Iran – for such sentiments to prevail and for a new Gulf security architecture to replace the current failing framework.

Published in The Gulf Times


1. Ahmed - 4, January 2012

Good piece. I am preparing an article on the subject for a student journal. There are a few points which I beg to differ on.
I have to disagree with your statement that “given their record of exaggeration and the attempted manipulation of photos of missile launches, it is difficult to take such statements at face value.” If one listens to/reads the Iranian military officers statements (In Faris) it will be seen that the sensationalism and the repeated use of words like “stealth” are added by the official and semi-official press. It is organizations like Fars news which photo shops images of military drills. The missile test from the 2005-2007 period is a famous example but it is not the only one. I would argue that the military itself is not the source of such amateurish misinformation campaigns.
I would also argue that these tests are about tactical and strategic preparations and the testing of new missiles. Every military and military industry firm tests their new and updated systems. The systems tested were just that. The SAM is based on the RIM-66 Standard (purchased from the US in the ‘70’s) but Iran had announced the first test on March 6th 2000. This test is claimed to be an updated version and the internal systems are all probably new and different. A point ignored by most observers is that the RIM-66 Standard version Iran had received had a dual use feature allowing it to hit ships and planes.
Such tests also allow in situ training and tactical preparations. Furthermore the two anti-ship missiles have been announced in the pervious year and production inaugurated and tests have previously been done. These tests are either simply further tests or tactical exercises (for most systems viewed on open source imagery the latter appears to be true due to the number of systems available in the drill). I would also object to the notion that Iran’s drills are reactionary events. There is a fairly good pattern each year of missile, army, air and naval drills not to mention the regular nationwide military parades commemorating events. The fact is that each Iranian test gets an incredible amount of media attention even though every year followers of military technology know that just Russia, China, India and the US alone-through their militaries and defence firms-carry out a plethora of tests each year not to mention the incredible number of small-large scale military drills worldwide.
Perhaps most importantly, Iran has every right to train its forces in territorial or international waters. It is quite ironic that the US objects to Iran’s military drills since the US, like Iran, has not ratified the UNCLOS. Furthermore, Iran’s “foolish” actions appear to be the norm of most parties involved (what was an American drone doing over Iran?)

thegulfblog.com - 5, January 2012

You make a very good point regarding the embellishment of the press released. Though the military is hardly known for hiding its light under a bushel, as I’m sure you’d agree. And I fundamentally don’t trust what the Iranian military says in the same way that when the UK military says a ship will cost x, I simply don’t believe them.

Certainly, to some degree they perform practical tests. But they’re hardly done covertly but instead done with as much hype as possible; hence my conclusions about their primary functions.

Yup. This set of tests hasn’t been cooked up solely in reaction to the sanctions and they of course do occur regularly. But, linked to my last point, I would suppose that there is a continuum of coverage that Iran could ‘create’ regarding their tests, from not much to the PR blitz that we’ve been going through recently. That they deliberately choose to turn these events into circuses – as is their right – is my point.

I don’t mean to suggest that Iran does not possess the right to train/test in international waters; of course it does. Certainly though, it doesn’t have the right to close down the Strait as it seems to claim so often: an act of war, no? Certainly America does all kinds of naughty things such as overflights, but come one; kidnapping UK Marines from international waters and deliberately buzzing US warships is surely another level of brash, stupid, dangerous, foolishness?

Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. Feel free to keep me on the straight and narrow re: Iran in the future and to point out any issues.

2. Anonymous - 3, March 2012

Get your facts right- insult to intelligence of people though it may be your (the author’s) forte, nonetheless people deserve better. You are a clear cut disinformation officer. Keep repeating a lie and each time exaggerate a bit more till people believe in the lie.

thegulfblog.com - 3, March 2012

Well, you’ve really cut me down to size there with a stunning critique of what I said. You know, picking me up on all the inaccuracies. Good job. You don’t look like a idiot one bit with such a well reasoned, evidenced-laden riposte.

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