Iran is increasingly using missiles in its military operations — that’s a problem
“More important than a military strike, it was a serious blow to dignity, a blow to the dignity of the U.S. as a superpower.”
That’s how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, described recent missile strikes against bases in Iraq housing American troops during a rare Friday prayer sermon in Tehran last week. Earlier, Khamenei likened the strikes to a “slap” against America. While Iranian officials are no stranger to bombast and invective against the U.S., Iran’s broadcasting of the missile strike, and Khamenei’s repeated touting of it, does not neatly comport with Tehran’s long-established preference for proxy warfare and deniability.
Driven by more than a decade of investment in projectile accuracy, there is increasing comfort in Tehran with direct, public and attributable attacks against targets in the Middle East using ballistic missiles launched from Iranian territory. As Iran’s military aptitudes evolve, the prevalence of missiles in Iranian operations will only grow.
Iran’s ballistic missile salvo, which by popular accounts were spread out over the course of an hour, constituted Tehran’s long-hyped “hard revenge” against Washington for the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds-Force. According to the U.S. secretary of defense, this reprisal was composed of 16 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) fired from three locations in Iran at two bases in Iraq, with 11 striking the Al-Asad base in the west and one striking a base in Irbil, in the north.
Iranian outlets reported that the regime launched two kinds of SRBMs at the bases in Iraq. The first was allegedly a Fateh-313, which is an SRBM propelled by solid compound fuel with a reported range of 500 kilometers capable of terminal-stage guidance. Experts assess the Fateh-313 to be able to carry a payload of 450-650 kilograms. The second was the Qiam, a liquid fueled SRBM that is a finless variant of a Scud-C. The Qiam is capable of traveling 800 kilometers while carrying a payload of up to 650 kilograms.
The Fateh-313 is part of Iran’s larger Fateh or “conquest” class of SRBMs. These missiles are domestically produced and rely on solid propellant, making them more battlefield-ready and easier to transport. The progenitor for this class of missiles is the Fateh-110, which has a shorter reported range and warhead weight, and was first unveiled and tested over a decade ago.
Since then, incremental improvements have yielded variants with a reportedly greater range, warhead weight, warhead type and accuracy (or a reportedly diminishing circular error probable). Known variants include the Fateh-110 B, the Fateh-313, the Zulfiqar, the Fateh Mobin, and the Dezful. The Fateh class is believed to be Iran’s most accurate ballistic missile, and variants of it have made their way to Shiite militias in Iraq.
The Qiam, or “uprising,” on the other hand, is Iran’s most-modified liquid-fueled SRBM. As mentioned above, the Qiam can trace its origins to the Scud-C, which in Iran has been rebranded as the Shahab-2. The finless Qiam implies an advanced missile stabilization system, and has been pictured with a triconic warhead that separates from the missile body. Under a different name, the Qiam missile has been proliferated to Houthis in Yemen – where the missile is dubbed the Burkan-2H – permitting Iran-backed rebels to strike targets far away from territory they control. There is an upgraded version of the Qiam, which some have called the Qiam-2. This variant has finlets under the warhead that aid in steering in the terminal phase prior to impact.
Observers of Iran’s missile program should be familiar with the Fateh and Qiam. Since 2017, Tehran has exclusively relied on variants of the Fateh family, as well as the Qiam, in its military operations during peacetime against nonstate targets in neighboring Iraq and Syria. Tehran has twice struck Islamic State positions in Syria (once in 2017 and once in 2018) using Fateh family (Zulfiqar) missiles and the Qiam (1 and likely the 2). Moreover, in 2018 Iran fired Fateh-class SRBMs at Kurdish dissident positions in northern Iraq. Iran’s increasing reliance on SRBMs in highly publicized operations from its own territory have always been in response to a threat or challenge — real or perceived.
Until the strikes on January 8, however, Iran never choose to use these weapons directly against America. That is why Khamenei described the operation as a game-changer. The decision to do so represents a growing confidence in the accuracy of Iran’s SRBM platforms, as well as in confidence that no matter the target, the strikes would not invite a devastating kinetic reprisal against the Iranian homeland.
This confidence requires Western analysts to revisit their assumptions about the risks Iranian security planners are willing to tolerate in times of crisis. It also requires analysts and policymakers to revisit their assumptions about the punitive and coercive value of Iran’s missile arsenal and the threshold for its use.
Given that Iran may be willing to respond with missiles to other crises in the future, regional missile defense will play an increasingly important role in informing Iran’s calculus about the value its strikes will have. Notably, there were no U.S. missile defenses in Iraq protecting the bases Iran struck. This is a major oversight, especially given Iran’s post-2017 ballistic missile operations in the heartland of the Middle East.
While no Americans were killed in the recent attack, 11 soldiers are being screened for brain injuries related to the strike. Iranian outlets claimed 80 Americans died in the attack, but have provided no evidence to back-up this claim, making it read as braggadocio for a domestic audience.
Until now, the Trump administration, as well as much of the public debate about the strikes, has sought to make sense of whether or not the regime intended to kill or avoid killing Americans. But the Islamic Republic need not have killed Americans to make its point. Ballistic missiles are not just symbols. They are weapons of war, and integral to Iran’s security strategy. A greater willingness on behalf of Tehran to use these weapons will have consequences for the Middle East.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD), where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian parliament.