Iran Charges Forward as US Pulls back from the Gulf and Israel Idles
Tehran’s unexpected windfall came with the terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz on Sept 22, which left 30 dead, half of them Revolutionary Guards members. The Syria-based Islamic State was one of the two groups claiming the attack, which gave Tehran an opportunity to scale up its military operations in Syria. Tehran also found encouragement in the slowness of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to match with deeds their dire verbal warnings against its expansionist and violent actions in the Middle East, the Gulf and Red Sea regions.
- At the UN General Assembly, Trump on Sept. 25 castigated Iran’s leaders for sowing “death and destruction.” He said, “They do not respect their neighbors or borders or the sovereign rights of nations.” Two days later, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced he was pulling four Patriot missile-defense systems out of Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain this month, and transferring them away from the Middle East to face Russia and China. US military officials then commented to the Wall Street Journal that the US has not deployed an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf since March, the longest period of this absence in two decades.
- Israel has suspended military operations against Iranian targets in Syria since Sept. 17, when Syrian missiles accidentally shot down a Russian IL-20 spy plane over the eastern Mediterranean, for which Moscow blamed the Israeli air force. (See a separate article on this incident.). The IDF and air force are waiting on tenterhooks to see how far the newly-delivered Russian air defense and electronic warfare systems enhance Syria’s capabilities. Meanwhile, Iran – and especially its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) – are using the respite to plant markers across the region, knowing they are safe from substantial hindrance. The most momentous marker was revealed on Oct. 2, when Iran released a barrage of ballistic missiles and a squadron of stealth UAVs from Kermanshah in western Iran to eastern Syria.
The official version was that ISIS was being punished for staging the terror attack in Ahvaz. That was only the cover story. Iran’s real intent was a message for its enemies embodied in the slogan painted on one of the missiles: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Al Saud.” Iranian intelligence was perfectly aware that the real perpetrators of the Ahvaz attack were not the Islamic State, but a small Khuzestan separatist group known as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, which is supported by UAE intelligence. To back up its cover story, Tehran claimed to have killed 40 ISIS fighters, although it could not have known this.
- a) The giveaway to Iran’s true targets also came from its choice of weapons: Two kinds of ballistic missiles: an Iranian -upgraded Qiam-1 SRBM with guided warhead, and a new type of Fateh 110 SRBM, the Fateh Mobin, which is more precise than its precursors with better stealth features for countering ballistic missile defenses and other measures. These missiles shot across the width of Iraq, 600km, and exploded upon landing in eastern Syria. Tehran neither solicited nor received Iraq’s permission, so incidentally demonstrating its contempt for Baghdad. At the end of the day, the Iranian regime succeeded in flaunting its ability to fight the US and Israel in the skies of Syria from its own soil.
- b) The anti-US, anti-Israel feature of this operation was underlined even more menacingly by the debut of Iran’s first stealth UAV squadron. Saeqeh (Thunderbolt) is a pirated copy of the US RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, which the Iranians downed in 2011 and replicated with Chinese help by reverse engineering. A video showing the missile aloft revealed those drones to be dropping Sadid-345 miniature precision-guided glide bombs on their targets. Some were released from a Saeqeh’s internal bomb bay. This was a surprise to Western intelligence, which had not known the Iranians had caught up with internal bomb bay technology for its stealth drones.
Western governments were forced by that operation to accept that, although the Iranian air force is still stuck with outdated fighter-bombers compared with the sophisticated US and Israeli warplanes, Tehran has come up with a dangerous substitute, namely, an aerial combat arm of highly advanced stealth drones which are rolling off its assembly lines.
It remains to be seen whether Moscow will allow Tehran to use the extension of the Russian C3 system just installed in Syria. (See a separate article.)
Neither Israel nor the US has thus far countered Iran’s breakthrough to a belligerent presence in Syria’s skies. It is also hard to understand why the Trump administration failed to respond to automatic gun and rocket fire attacks on the US consulate in Basra, southern Iraq, on Sept. 29 by a local Shiite militia under Tehran’s thumb. The facility was shut down and that was all, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned “Iranian-backed militias” that for “incidents of fire,” the United States would respond promptly and appropriately…” He specifically blamed “Iran, its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Qods Force and militias under the control of Qassem Soleimani.” So when is this “prompt and appropriate” action to be expected?