The Islamic Republic of Iran has waged four major wars since its revolution toppled the shah 40 years ago. From 1980 to 1988, the Shite clerical regime battled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, at the terrible cost of a million dead and another million injured. The Iraqi dictator had Western backing, including the United States, even though he used chemical weapons.
That was the first Middle East war between two Muslim nations to be fought with ballistic missiles. From this conflict, Iran and its rising powerhouse, the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), derived the military precept which is in service up to the present day. Defend the homeland while obeying the founding father Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s belligerent stricture to “export the revolution.” Tehran embarked on this mission by creating a belt of subservient Shiite militias around its borders for keeping enemies and bloody wars, like the calamitous conflict with Iraq, at a safe distance.
The first of these militias was Hizballah, which was established in 1985 to face Israel. Twenty years on, Tehran reached into another majority Shiite community, this one in Iraq, to build a band of Shiite militias. Their tasks were to cement Iranian influence in post-Saddam Baghdad and combat the American takeover of the country.
In the defense of their revolutionary regime, the ayatollahs were taxed with a crippling Western arms embargo, first imposed by the US in 1979 after a horde of fanatical students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Denied offensive weapons from the West, Iran turned to developing its own mostly defensive hardware, focusing on ballistic missiles and a nuclear bomb as deterrents against attack.
In 2015, Iran agreed to put its nuclear bomb program on hold for 10 years. The six powers who signed the deal, led by US President Barack Obama, agreed to exclude ballistic missiles from the document, although they realized that their development would continue.
The mullahs were satisfied. For them a nuclear capacity was to have been largely a deterrent rather than a tool for its belligerent plans. Even the most radical generals did not contemplate providing their Shiite militia proxies with nuclear back-up. They realized that it would expose their country to disastrous US or Israeli payback in even heavier nuclear coin. The Islamic revolution’s founding father may have been able to live with millions of dead for the Shiite Muslim cause; not so his successors. For them, missiles had become the option of choice for their campaign of expansion.
Although the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war broke out without Tehran’s permission, its generals seized on the conflict as an opportunity for testing in real war conditions how their proxy, a Lebanese Shiite militia armed with rockets, fared against a powerful enemy. They were pleased with the result. For 34 days, (July 12 to Aug. 14), Hizballah’s missiles targeted different parts of Israel. The war ended inconclusively with a ceasefire which is still in force. Nonetheless, it was decided in Tehran to keep missiles and rockets of this type out of the hands of the pro-Iranian militias at that time, so as not to encourage fellow proxies to emulate Hizballah and take the war in their own hands. In any case, in those years, Iran did not feel up to going head to head with the Americans in Iraq. The regime preferred to promote Iranian influence in Baghdad. a venture that over-zealous Shiite militias might scuttle.
But the Syrian civil war which erupted in 2011 caused a reversal. One year later, Tehran decided on intervention – not just to save Bashar Assad andhisminority Alawite regime, but also to suppress the Sunni-led uprising, which also posed a threat to vital links in the Islamic Republic’s external protective shield – Hizballah in Lebanon and the Shiite militias in Iraq.
This intervention, which countered the Obama-conceived Arab Spring, is still the subject of controversy in Tehran. Its proponents claim that Iran reaped unforeseen rewards from its Syrian venture, as well as a major battlefield for testing the Islamic Republic’s essential strategic doctrine of deploying compliant foreign proxies and arming them with missile capabilities to fight for the Shiite Muslim cause.
Iran did not draw on its own armed forces for Syria. It enlisted Shiite militias in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon (Hizballah), placing them under the control of an Iranian high command established in Syria under Maj. Gen, Qassem Soleimani, chief of the Revolutionary Guards Al Qods Brigades. This foreign legion was placed for the first time in revolutionary Iran’s history at the disposal of a superpower, i.e. Russia. The Shiite combatants were exposed to the most advanced weapons systems on the battlefield, an advantage undreamed-of in Tehran.
For these benefits, Tehran found it worthwhile to endure even Israeli’s aerial and missile attacks on its Syrian bases, month after month. While Israel officials today congratulate themselves on making good progress in curtailing a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, Tehran claims the Israelis have missed their target because Iran is still there.
Encouraged by their Syrian experience, the ayatollahs decided in the years 2016 and 2017 to ramp up their support of the Yemenite Zaydi Houthi insurgents, another anti-Sunni Muslim group. Whereas in Syria, the Iranians could menace Israel from its own back yard, from Yemen, they turned the heat on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, by using the Houthis to conduct controlled assaults on the two Gulf enemies with Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles.
Building on its successful tactics in Syria and Yemen, Iran finally turned its missile threat on Israel. In December 2018 and January 2019, Tehran launched two ballistic missiles from Syria into Israel. Neither caused harm. However, Israel would be wise to expect more of the same. Like the Saudis and the Emirates –The Jewish state is in Iran’s missile sights – not only from Syria, but from its next launching=-pad location – Iraq. (A separate article discusses how this has developed.)