The intentions behind the high alert ordered for Iran’s air defenses – reported by US sources from “several” indications – are as opaque as the mystery behind the recent string of explosions at Iran’s key nuclear, military and missile sites.
International speculation has centered on Israel as being responsible for some of the attacks, although this is not confirmed. The only comment came from Defense Minister Benny Gantz on July 5. He said: “Not all the incidents in Iran have anything to do with us. … All their systems are complex; they have very high security constraints and I am not sure that they always know how to maintain them.”
But if there are opposition groups on the ground in Iran carrying out attacks on key facilities there, it is not clear whether they are acting on directives or funding from external sources. None alone is capable supporting the sweeping effort involved in more than half a dozen strikes at the heart of Iran’s most secure infrastructure since late June.
One of the most critical attacks occurred on July 2, when a fire caused significant damage to the advanced centrifuge production building at the Natanz uranium enrichment center. It is calculated to have retarded Iran’s nuclear program by a year or more. Another blew up a missile production amenity and tunnel network near the Parchin military compound. The most recent was the setting of seven ships on fire at Iran’s southern port of Bushehr.
No one has yet suggested that aerial attacks by hostile fighters, bombers or missiles were the cause of those incidents. Only possible sabotage from the ground or cyberattack has been mentioned. So what moved the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to put the country’s air defenses on high alert? DEBKAfile’s military and Middle East sources postulate a number of considerations:
- Preparations for unleashing a retaliatory attack on Israel in the expectation of deadly counteraction, as some Arab media suggest.
- Some of the explosions may have been caused by stealth drones which no one has so far admitted. The air defense alert would act as deterrence.
- Nervousness at not knowing where the attacks come from, who is responsible and when the next one is coming.
- Anxiety lest the next surprise blow – if and when it comes – will endanger the Islamic regime.
So how effective is Iran’s air defense system?
In June 2019, the IRGC claimed to have shot down a large, slow-flying US Global Hawk drone over the Strait of Hormuz with a Khordad 3 missile, a version of the SAM Raad. The Khordad 15 is capable of detecting, intercepting, and destroying six targets simultaneously. The system is said able to detect fighter jets, cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) from 150 km away and is able to track them within a range of 120km
Iran has 32 batteries of Russian-made S-300 ground-to-air missiles delivered since 2016 (in the face of Israel’s efforts to prevent the transaction). Iran’s aviation industry has also developed home-made versions of this system, including Bavar 373, SAM Tabas and SAM Raad, which are regularly showcased on military parades. They are seen as posing a serious threat. Their radar system is also believed to be highly effective.
The Sayyad-3 missile, used by the SAM system, has a range of 200 km. The system can also detect stealth targets from a distance of 85km. Missiles fired from the much older SA-15 are designed when they explode to pepper flying targets with shrapnel penetrating the fuselages of aircraft and drones.
The most advanced of all these systems are arrayed around Iran’s nuclear-related facilities.
The European Aviation Safety Agency reacted to the Iranian alert without delay on Thursday, July 13, by warning passenger jets against flying through Iranian air space lest they are accidentally targeted by the country’s air defense systems. “The hazardous security situation, poor coordination between Iran’s civil aviation and military operations” were cited as high risk.
The warning came shortly after Tehran admitted to mistakenly shooting down a Ukraine airliner in January killing all 176 passengers aboard The Iranian government explained that the “misalignment of an air defense unit’s radar system” was the key “human error” that led to the accidental downing of the airliner.
At the time, Tehran’s air defenses had been on high alert following an Iranian attack on US troops in Iraq after the killing of top general Qasem Soleimani by a US drone.
Following the Ukrainian disaster, the US is also concerned that Iran’s unreliability in the operation of its air defense systems means that the transition to a high state of alert could also pose a threat in itself.