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The Iran IPB: The Asymmetric Domain, Ballistic Missiles

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

As Eric C read my research for this post, he had one chilling comment, “Does this mean Iran and Israel could get into a ballistic missile fight? That does frighten me.”

Welcome to the wicked problem of Iran.

Our position at On Violence is clear: America/Israel should not start a war with Iran. It could go very, very poorly, and it almost definitely won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, we don’t want a nuclear Iran. Unfortunately, we don’t have a simple solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

We don’t have a simple solution to Iran’s ballistic missile inventory either. Iran’s missiles threaten countries from Pakistan to Greece, but sustained air strikes might, inversely, encourage Iran to use them. Jeffrey White explains their capability:

“Missile systems (principally the Shahab 3 variants and Sejjl types) allow Iran to strike targets throughout the Middle East, including population centers, military facilities, infrastructure and U.S. forces based in the region.”

And here’s more from Anthony Cordesman at the Centers for Strategic and International Studies:

“Iran has also created robust nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which have become a focal point of US-Iranian military competition. Iran’s missile program dates to the 1980s, and was fully underway during the Iran-Iraq War. While Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities were initially limited, the range and sophistication of the country’s missiles has increased greatly since its inception in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran has now created conventionally armed ballistic missile forces that can strike at US allies and US bases in the region with little warning, and could be configured to carry nuclear warheads if Iran can develop them.”

Iran has the largest ballistic missile inventory in the Middle East, most of which can travel 1,000-2,500 kilometers, including a limited store of medium range missiles that could strike southern Europe. More importantly, their missiles could hit Israel, the Green Zone in Iraq, U.S. bases in Afghanistan, and anywhere else in the Middle East.

Fortunately, at this time, Iran’s missiles cannot hit pinpoint targets. Iran is desperately working to change that. Some reports indicate that Iran could have an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (range greater than 4,000 kilometers) by 2015. (Though, with predictions, I advise our readers to read this post about other predictions of Iran’s capabilities.) Iran also claims to have supersonic, guided missiles to use against ships in the Persian Gulf, but the Iranian military tends to exaggerate its capabilities.
And those exaggerations lead to incredible uncertainty. Anthony Cordesman sums the confusion up in one concise paragraph:

“There is no agreement as to when Iran may acquire missiles with homing warheads and the kind of terminal guidance that can hit point targets effectively with conventional warheads. There is no agreement on the reliability and accuracy of Iran’s missiles under operational conditions, there is no agreement on Iran’s ability to deploy systems with countermeasures to missile defenses. There is no agreement on when Iran might deploy a fully functioning nuclear warhead. And, there is no agreement on the future size, character, and basing mode of Iran’s missile forces once its long-range systems are deployed in strength.”

Like all things with Iran, ballistic missiles remain shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to predict how Iran will employ them if attacked. Two factors determine whether and how Iran will use its ballistic missile inventory. First, ballistic missiles are a “use it or lose it” capability. The moment war starts, U.S. bombers and cruise missile will attack those sites where they can find them. Second, unless Iran’s missiles have guided capabilities the intelligence community doesn’t know about, Iran will fire their missiles at civilian targets broadly, trying to kill civilians and frighten populations (including isolated military bases).

Here are the courses of action:

Fire Long Range Missiles at Israel - Possible (10%-40%), just shy of likely.

Fire Long Range Missiles at Gulf Cooperation Council Countries - Possible, especially if GCC countries support the U.S. military operation. Also possible if Iran tries to hit U.S. naval facilities in Bahrain, Kuwait or other GCC countries.

Fire Long Range Missiles at Europe - 1%. This risks bringing in a host of other countries to join the coalition, and risks a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Fire Missiles at the Green Zone - Less than 10%. If they miss, they threaten local populations and Iraqi support. So it’s a risky option, probably less blowback from other forms of terrorism.

Fire Missiles at Bases in Afghanistan - Most likely. If the IRGC chooses not to escalate, or even if it does, this could provide an excellent diversion. Iran is less worried about the population’s support, and the Taliban might actually support this too.

three comments

Do you think the big American base in Kuwait, in the middle of nowhere, would be as good a target as the bases in Afghanistan?

Oh I just laughed out loud at that oversight. Yeah, it would be an excellent target, and since Kuwait is seen as one of the biggest pro-US countries, part of the GCC, it might be even more likely than targeting Afghanistan.

Unlike the start of the war with Iraq, Iran has plenty more options and could cause a lot more damage. Thanks for the input so far Carl. We are trying to write this whole series into a larger, more academic paper and the thoughts help.

I figured too that it is so remote that they could shower missiles on it with little danger of hitting Kuwait City. That way they could plausibly claim they were only after us, not people who live in Kuwait.