Suffering setbacks in Syria, Iran regime claims missile test

Although government officials including Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan continue to hold to the original line on this incident, Deputy Army Chief of Staff Ali Abdollahi has acknowledged that the launch constituted a test of one of Iran’s most advanced ballistic missiles – the sixth such test since nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 were concluded in July, and the fourth since the resulting deal was implemented in January.

Prior to that implementation, a UN Security Council resolution was in place which technically banned the Islamic Republic from conducting such launches or pursuing related work on ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. After implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that resolution was replaced by another, which maintained the same limitations but enforced them with softer language.

Those changes in phrasing have given Tehran and its foreign allies greater leverage in arguing that further ballistic missile tests are permitted under international laws and agreements. But most Western commentators and policymakers have apparently been in agreement that these tests have been intended as direct defiance of international will.

Accordingly, the United States initiated new economic sanctions on entities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ missile program, in response to the first of the six tests. No major response has yet been initiated for tests that followed, although there has been considerable pressure inside of the US government in favor of a stronger response. This has especially been the case light of the revelation that two of the three missiles tested in March were launched with the message “Israel must be wiped out” written along their sides.

International news sources emphasized on Monday that Abdollahi’s commentary on the April test could be seen as further intimidation of the Jewish state. Brigadier General Abdollahi claimed that the most recently tested missile was capable of striking targets as far away as 2,000 kilometers, putting Tel Aviv within range of a missile fired from Tehran. He also claimed that the weapon was precision-guided and accurate to within a range of eight meters.

Iranian officials are well known for making elaborate claims about the strength of their military – claims that are sometimes undermined by international military analysts. On April 17, the regime conducted exercises and demonstrations for its annual Army Day, during which officials explicitly claimed that outdated tanks and other equipment were as good as those current in use by such military superpowers as the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, Iran has been trying to gain access to those very weapons, but Russia has been unclear about its willingness to sell.

A nearly decade old deal for the sale of an S-300 missile defense system very recently began to be implemented with Russian deliveries of some components to the Islamic Republic. Janes 360 reports that those components were prominently displayed in Army Day parades, even though the weapons themselves could not be spotted.

The outmoded or undelivered status of some Iranian weapons does not prevent regime officials from making bold statements about what they would use their supposed military strength for. Just last week, the IRGC asserted that it would close off the Strait of Hormuz to the US and its allies in reply to theoretical Western “threats.” But the statements were not taken seriously by American military figures and defense experts, who recognize that Iran lacks the naval strength to enforce any such closure.

The Iranian resistance group the National Council of Resistance of Iran had a similar response to the acknowledgement of the latest ballistic missile test. Spokesperson Shahin Gobadi described it as a “hollow show of force.” Nevertheless, he also called for the return of US-led sanctions against the Islamic republic, in order to avoid encouraging “the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism to defy the will of the international community, violate its international obligations and produce lethal weapons with which to threaten the region and the world.”

The NCRI statement also suggested that by straying from the previous, official narrative about the latest missile launch, Iranian officials were striving to distract attention from the weakness demonstrated by recent setbacks and losses in foreign conflicts, especially Syria. Indeed, Abdollahi’s claims came only about two days after 13 Iranian “military advisers” were killed in fighting near Aleppo.

The Jerusalem Post indicates that in addition to these 13 figures, who are part of an IRGC mission that Tehran insists does not involve direct combat, seven other Iranians were also killed. They were presumably fighting as volunteers within Shiite militias that fighting alongside what’s left of the actual Syrian military.

Tehran has also bolstered the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad by deploying troops from the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, and by conducting ongoing recruitment for Shiite militias that are either multi-ethnic or are made up specifically of Afghans or Pakistanis drawn both from their home countries and from refugee communities inside Iran.

Fifteen of those Afghans were also among those killed on the pro-Assad side of the conflict over the weekend. Six Hezbollah operatives were also reported killed. Even discounting those merely affiliated with Tehran, the number of casualties of Iranian nationals in this latest clash has made it one of the largest single losses for the Islamic Republic since it began deploying troops to support Assad very early in the more than five year long war.

Nevertheless, Pop Herald reported on Monday that a key advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had met face-to-face with Bashar al-Assad on Monday to reaffirm Tehran’s ongoing support for the Alawite regime in Damascus. Many members of the world community, including the United States, have been calling for Assad’s ouster in line with the demands of moderate rebel groups. But Iran, having been welcomed into international negotiations on the future of the crisis, has repeatedly rejected any notion of an alternative transitional government.

Iran’s patronage of the Assad regime may have grown more complicated in the midst of those negotiations, however. Although Russia reportedly intensified bombing of rebel-held areas in recent days, it has also supposedly drawn back some of its forces. Moscow has also actively defended a ceasefire inside of the city of Aleppo, announcing for instance that it had been extended at least through Monday.

A broader ceasefire last month was reportedly followed by IRGC forces and their affiliates massing near Aleppo, suggesting that Iran is keen to destroy rebel factions there in order to alleviate a major source of pressure on the Assad regime.