October 14, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Launching Missiles as Messages

• On Sunday, Iran tested a new ballistic missile with an improved guidance system and increased range

• Last week, Russia became only the third country to use cruise missiles in combat, launching 26 missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria more than 1,000 miles away

• Both Russia and Iran are using missiles to send messages to their regional and international rivals; both countries have the demonstrated capability and will to reach distant targets

• With traditional diplomatic avenues increasingly less effective and economic sanctions more unwieldy, countries such as Russia and Iran will continue to improve their missile capabilities as a form of leverage and influence.


One of the many negative consequences of the persistent inability of the international community to resolve armed conflicts is the marginalization of traditional levers of diplomatic power. As conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine, Nigeria, and elsewhere not only persist but worsen, the tools used by the United Nations and other diplomatic organizations are failing at the moment they are most needed. Condemnations and resolutions have not altered the arc of these persistent conflicts. The interconnected nature of not only economies but also of regional self-interest and identity politics have blunted the effectiveness of international pressure and even the willingness to impose comprehensive and sustained economic sanctions on hostile actors.

This last week saw vivid examples of two countries using missiles as messages. On October 11, Iranian state media broadcast the successful launch of a ballistic missile called the Imad. The new missile is believed to have a much improved guidance system, allowing it to accurately strike targets up to 1,000 miles away. The launch came on the same day that the Iranian parliament met to approve the nuclear deal that Iranian hardliners strongly oppose. The ballistic missile might have violated the terms of a recent agreement signed by Iran and six other countries, but Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated Iran does not need to 'seek permission from anyone to strengthen our defense and missile capabilities.’

The missile’s name might be a message in itself. Even though the Iranians did not elaborate on the meaning behind the name, Imad can be seen as a tribute to Imad Mugniyah, an Iranian-trained Hizballah commander responsible for advancing Hizballah’s missile capabilities during the 2006 conflict with Israel. Mughniyah, who was also responsible for terrorist attacks against the interests of the U.S. and its allies in Lebanon and elsewhere, was killed in Damascus in 2008, reportedly by a joint U.S.-Israel operation.

The Iranian missile launch was more than a reassuring message to Iranian hardliners opposed to any moves towards cooperation with the West; it was also a threatening message to countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others, that their greatest regional rival has a serious and growing ballistic missile capability. Iran has invested a great deal of time, money, and effort in developing its missile systems, and the launch of the Imad served as a high-profile message of defiance towards any agreement or resolution seen as limiting its national interest in offensive missile capabilities.

On October 7, Russia launched 26 seaborne cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria, over 1,000 miles away. This is the first time Russia has used cruise missiles in combat, and it joins the United States and Great Britain as the only three countries to have done so. Like the Iranian launch, the Russia cruise missile attack was a message aimed at its rivals and partners. The Kalibr 3M-14 (or SS-N-30) demonstrated its effectiveness (even with reports that four of the missiles crashed en-route over Iran), and were launched from ships much smaller than those used for U.S. launches. The Russian launch signaled that Moscow can and will use its fleet in the Caspian Sea to project power in a vital region. The missiles overflew Iran and Iraq on the way to Syria, and both countries were notified beforehand. This coordination and cooperation is another message for the West; Russia sees a great opportunity not just in Syria, where it is propping up the Assad regime, but also in Iraq, where it hopes to secure influence with Baghdad by helping it against the Islamic State.

Far more than a display of technical prowess, Russia’s launch of cruise missiles shows that it is serious in its quest to realign Middle Eastern power dynamics in its favor at the expense of the West and the U.S. in particular. Appropriating the United States’ ‘War on Terror’ for its own design, Russia is moving to exploit the persistent conflicts in Syria and Iraq to maintain and increase its regional influence. Only when the situation is in its favor will Russia pivot from missiles to a negotiated settlement in Syria.


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