Yesterday's barrage of ballistic missiles on Islamic State affiliated targets in Deir ez-Zor Syria has reverberated throughout the region and the world. As we stated shortly after the strike, Tehran's unprecedented use of ballistic missiles was based on multiple factors, and sending a message to the US, Arab gulf states and Israel was clearly one of them. Now Iran is saying more ballistic strikes could come at any time.
Iran used some of its most modern missiles in the operation. Six solid-fuel Zulfiqar short-range ballistic missiles were fired at Syria. Accounts vary, but some sources state the attack failed in a tactical sense, with only one missile hitting its intended target. Iran claims 360 militants died in the strikes, while Israeli sources say three of the missiles didn't even make it to Syria at all. Iran's FARS news agency quotes a IRGC statement, which declares:
"The Takfiri terrorists' command center, concentration points and logistical centers used for assembling cars for suicide attacks in Deir Ezzur region in Eastern Syria came under attack by the IRGC moments ago in a move to punish the terrorists for the twin attacks on the Iranian parliament and the holy shrine of the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini, on June 7... A number of mid-range ground-to-ground missiles fired from the IRGC Aerospace Force bases in Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces targeted the Takfiri terrorists in this operation and struck them with lethal and crushing blows... A large number of Takfiri terrorists have been killed and their equipment, systems and weapons have been destroyed."
Iran has subsequently warned of follow-on strikes as well, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Ramazon Sharif saying “If they carry out a specific action to violate our security, definitely there will be more launches, with intensified strength." At the same time, a formal statement from the IRGC more "colorfully" conveys a similar warning:
“The IRGC warns the Takfiri terrorists and their regional and trans-regional supporters that they would be engulfed by its revolutionary wrath and flames of the fire of its revenge in case they repeat any such devilish and dirty move in future."
Regardless of if the missiles destroyed anything of substance or not, as a strategic act, the missile barrage worked on multiple levels. This includes supplying a domestically consumable revenge action for the terror attacks on Iran's parliament earlier in the month, and to stoke fear in Iran's Sunni-Arab gulf state foes, not to mention its archenemies, Israel and the US. The IRGC General made these intentions clear, stating:
“the Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message... Obviously and clearly, some reactionary countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, had announced that they are trying to bring insecurity into Iran.”
The tension between the Saudis and the Iranians have only grown in recent hours as a bizarre incident involving the two foes has unfolded in the Marjan offshore oilfields in the Persian Gulf. The sensitive Saudi Arabian energy site was supposedly infiltrated by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commandos—at least according to Saudi Arabia.
Three boats were detected by Saudi maritime security forces entering the vicinity of the oil fields and were fired upon on Friday night after they would not stop. One of the boats was intercepted but the other two got away. Onboard the captured vessel were three men that Saudi Arabia claims are elite Iranian commandos with the mission of attacking the oilfields in a clandestine "terror" operation.
The Saudis say the boat was also laden with weaponry used for such an operation. Iran says the Saudis opened fire without warning on Iranian fishing vessels operating peacefully in the area, killing one man onboard. Iran does acknowledge the possibility that they may have drifted unknowingly into Saudi waters but says they were never warned or had a chance to be redirected away from the area. Iran says they are investigating the incident.
Then just today, yet another Iranian Shahed-129 armed drone was shot down as it advanced toward the coalition-backed rebel outpost of At Tanf, near the southern Syrian border. Just as before, a USAF F-15E blasted the drone out of the sky. The base has been the focus of repeated assaults in the last month, with waves of Iranian-backed Shiite militia fighters advancing down the highway that leads to the base, before air power sends them scattering or kills them and destroys their vehicles.
The shoot down comes just a day after a US Navy Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22, sending diplomatic shockwaves around the globe. It is also the third US air-to-air kill over Syria in just a week. Clearly, the skies over the embattled country are becoming far more hostile than they had been over the past six years of the conflict. US combat aircraft have been repositioned due to the increased tensions with Russia following the shoot-down, and the Australian Air Force has ceased operations over Syria due to similar concerns.
In a semi-related report, a Pakistani JF-17 fighter also shot down an Iranian Shahed-129 drone today near Balochistan, nearly 30 miles from Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. It is unclear what the drone was doing there, although the area is a known hornets nest of extremism, but it was the first kill for the primarily Chinese-built light fighter. The presence of an Iranian drone over the largely autonomous region of Pakistan is yet another sign that Iran has entered a new, and far more advanced phase of its expeditionary drone operations.
The base at At Tanf, which is frequented by coalition special operations units, has received a major defensive upgrade in recent days, with the HiMARS guided rocket artillery system being deployed there from its previous base in northern Jordan. This weapon is ideally suited for laying waste to an advancing force charging down a bottleneck like a highway. HiMARS can reach out over 50 miles with its M30/31 GPS guided artillery rockets which can pack area sub munitions or a unitary warheads. The presence of the system near At Tanf also puts any enemy camps or forward operating bases at risk within a 50 plus mile circle. HIMARS has been one of the technological stars of the anti-ISIS fight, having proved its value time and time again in Northern Iraq.
All this points to a collision course between Iran and the US and its regional allies. A tit-for-tat exchange between say Saudi Arabia and Iran could rapidly turn into a full blown conflict in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration has chosen to take a hard line with Tehran, and new sanctions placed on the country as a result of its ongoing missile development programs will be highly unwelcome considering the country is just pulling out of the economic turmoil it was in as a result of the pre-nuclear deal multi-national sanction regime it lived under for years. In addition, now that Iran has proven itself willing to employ its elaborate and well hidden arsenal of ballistic missiles, the hair trigger the region is already on has gotten even lighter.
Complicating things even further is Iran's drive to explore new strategic relationships with very powerful allies. Just this week, Iran is exercising with the Chinese Navy in and around the strategic Strait of Hormuz. These are no small-time drills either, China dispatched a pair of surface combatants, a logistical ship and air assets to Iranian waters for the exercise.
The drills stand as yet another message to the US and its allies in the region, one that underlines Iran's changing role in the world and its ability to form troubling new military alliances.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com