Iran’s latest tests of the most advanced type of Shahab-3 (Meteor-3) medium-range ballistic missile, with a reported range of 2,000 kilometers, hint at Tehran’s readiness to fight back if Israel or the United States attacks its controversial nuclear program. The first series of missiles was tested on July 9 as part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Payambar-e Azam III (Great Prophet III) war games. This test was followed by another show case on July 11, involving three sea-to-surface missiles capable of reaching Israel (Etelaat, July 12).
According to a major commander in the IRGC, Mohammad Hejazi, the advanced Shahab missiles were tested in the northern part of the Persian Gulf—near Bushehr Province—and the eastern Strait of Hormuz highlighting the significance of the Persian Gulf territories in the case of a military confrontation (Etemad Meli, July 14). The medium range missiles were hailed by the Iranian state as the fastest and most precise weapons in the hands of the IRGC, with the primary aim of targeting U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf (Etemad Meli, July 12). According to Rear Admiral Morteza Safari, commander of the IRGC naval forces, a large number of Iranian missile and naval units are ready at any time to begin operations in the Strait of Hormuz (Fars News Agency, July 9).
Despite news of a planned U.S. war game in the Persian Gulf that would include a number of Arab nations, the IRGC described the missile tests as an effective way to curtail U.S. ambitions as a demonstration of Iran’s growing stature as a military power in the region (Etemad, July 9; Etemad Meli, July 14). Just days before the first military display, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander-in-chief, asserted that any military attack by Israel or the United States would be considered an act of war and that the Guard has made preparations to strike back with the full force of the country’s military might (Iran Daily, July 5; Jame Jam, July 9). Immediately following the first phase of the war games, General Hussein Salami, commander of the IRGC air force, described the tested missiles as merely a fraction of the IRGC’s missile force, designed with enhanced precision to strike at various U.S. bases in Iraq and the Persian Gulf: “Our missiles are ready to be fired at any time and anywhere. We were able to reduce the weight of the missiles, and this provides them with great precision. Our response will be swift. We want to tell our enemies that we are fully prepared, that we have a deterrent force, and that we are watching the targets of the enemy” (Iran Daily, July 10; Al-Alam TV, July 9).
The above statements appeared following the recent restructure of the Guard’s higher command units in the province of Golestan, along with the appointments of Mohammad Hejazi as the head of the Thurallah Force, Hussein Hamedani as the vice-commander of the IRGC’s Basij Corps and Brigadier-General Mohammad Jafar Assadi as the commander of the IRGC’s ground force. All are considered major hardline figures in the Guard’s upper echelons (Kayhan, July 10; Etemad Meli, July 14; Iran Daily, July 19).
The change in the military command structure may only be a routine operational procedure, but it also reflects the Guard’s new organizational strategy in response to the U.N. Security Council’s current efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear program and, more importantly, public rumors of a U.S. (or Israeli) attack on the country’s nuclear facilities before the end of the Bush administration (Field observation, Tehran, June 4 to July 15).
To a large degree, the strategy behind the latest war games reveals Iran’s readiness to counter any U.S. military intervention through conventional means of warfare, mostly concentrated in the Persian Gulf region where U.S. forces are believed to be vulnerable to Iranian surface-to-sea missile attacks (Iran Daily, July 9). The strategy is likely tied to Iran’s declining influence in southern Iraq, as the Mahdi Army appears to have gone underground after the success of the Basra offensive led by the Maliki government and supported by U.S. forces. With the growing power of the Maliki government in the south and the relative success of the surge in Baghdad and Iraq’s western provinces, the Guard may now consider the strategy of irregular warfare in Iraq obsolete in light of Tehran’s recent diplomatic efforts in support for the Baghdad government.
The Guard’s position is built on its own perception of the Iranian state as one of the region’s historic powers, a conviction that a technologically advanced military program is an essential feature of state power, and a sense that U.S. influence in the region is waning, largely due to difficulties in maintaining stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. As it obtains a high-tech weapons supply, Tehran has a growing confidence in its conventional warfare capabilities that is leading it from its usual strategic reliance on irregular methods of warfare. By moving away from the Mahdi Army due to changing currents in Iraqi politics, the IRGC views conventional warfare as a more reliable means of responding to attacks by Israel or the United States. As a result, even a successful air campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites could easily escalate as Iran responds with conventional forces in the Persian Gulf, causing serious harm to regional political stability and an already vulnerable global economy.