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Analysis: In striking Islamic State, Iran vies for superpower status

A picture provided by the Iran's state TV official website shows Iranian Revolutionary Guards launching a missile from an undisclosed location in western Iran, towards Islamic State bases in Syria
IRIB TV/AFP
Retaliation against jihadists, rehabilitation of the regime's image, and acquisition of status and prestige

The Iranian attack in Syria Sunday night should serve as a warning signal - not only to Israel but to the Gulf States and even the United States. The attack signals the escalation of Iranian involvement in Syria, and if the missiles even hit their intended target – from a distance of over 600 kilometers away – it shows that Iran has options to engage with Israel other than through its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah.

Through this attack Tehran sought to accomplish a number of goals. The main one was boosting the image of the regime of the Ayatollahs, which took a blow when Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the parliament and the mausoleum of one of the Islamic Republic’s founders, killing 17 Iranians and injuring over 50. Tehran officials said six missiles with a range of between 650 to 700 kilometers (400-435 miles) were launched, describing the attack as “successful” but “limited.”

Last week’s terror attacks chipped away at the Iranian people’s sense of security and compromised the reputation for ironclad invulnerability the regime and the Revolutionary Guards had hitherto enjoyed. Thus the Iranian response was complex, delivered through two main channels.

OMID VAHABZADEH (FARS NEWS/AFP)

The first stage was tracing the attackers’ handlers, all of whom were Iranians recruited by the Islamic State and working from the provinces of Baluchestan and Khuzestan, in the east and the west of the country respectively. The Revolutionary Guards and other security forces raided towns and villages in that city and meted out collective punishment, including death, on Arab Iranians, many of whom didn’t have any connection to the attack.

The second phase was going after the Islamic State in Syria. The surface-to-surface missile strike carried out by the Iranians was intended to hit jihadists’ strongholds and show them that they were not immune to Iran's long arm. This blow to the group’s facilities and forces in Dir a-Zour and in Tadmor has the additional advantage of helping Iran’s allies: Syrian regime forces and the Russians.

Together they are trying to recapture Tadmor and Deir ez-Zor and its environs for the umpteenth time. These two cities and the military installations around them changed hands several times, and now a combined Russian-Syrian attack is being waged on both these cities.

- (WELAYAT HOMS/AFP)

The Iranian missile strike also helps the allied forces in Syria by hitting the Islamic State. Demonstrating the ability to launch a missile across such distance represents Iranian saber-rattling intended to build up its deterrence factor, as up to now only the US and Russia launched missiles of comparable trajectory in the Middle East.

By launching surface-to-surface missiles over such a distance, Iran hopes to acquire the status and prestige of a regional and even global military power. We still do not know the exact type of missiles Iran used. Whether it is cruise missiles or ballistic missiles that have not only a large warhead containing hundreds of kilograms of explosives, but also navigation mechanisms that allow them to hit with great precision. We also do not know the extent to which the missiles fired by Iran were accurate. It is reasonable to assume that Iran has also launched cruise missiles and ballistic missiles of various kinds in order to take advantage of the opportunity to test the accuracy and reliability of its long-range weapons.

Tehran carried out a test of its long-range weaponry, and until it know the results, it would not publish what kind of missiles it fired and how precise the strikes were. All this data should raise a lot of concern and interest in Israel because if Iran is capable of launching missiles from Kermanshah in the west and from Kurdistan in the northwest to hit targets in eastern and north-eastern Syria, it is capable of hitting the Golan Heights and perhaps elsewhere in Israel.

Jalaa Marey (AFP)

This wasn’t the Iranians’ last word: they aren’t concealing the fact they have Shahab-3 missiles with a range of some 1,400 kilometers. There are even missiles with a greater range, up to 2,000 kilometers, but those aren’t very precise.

It is also known that Iran has self-made cruise missiles, but so far the Iranians have concealed their performance. Therefore, the Iranian missile attack on Islamic State targets in eastern Syria is a matter that Israel must deal with on the diplomatic level as part of the campaign that Jerusalem is conducting together with Trump's Washington administration to stop Iran's missile program.

For the same reason, this attack must also serve as a warning signal to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf that belong to the moderate Sunni-American camp. The oil fields of these countries and their military installations are about 400 kilometers from Iran, and therefore they are more vulnerable. The US, too, needs to be concerned because the air bases, the sea and its command in Qatar and Bahrain are within range of Iranian missiles, meaning the attack has significance not only regionally but also globally.

Ron Ben-Yishai is a senior Israeli defense analyst. This article is published courtesy of Ynet.

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