Bullets for Bodies: A Sick Twist in Iran Protests
There have been protests and riots across Iran, brutally put down by Iranian security forces and the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The government is charging families for the bullets used to kill their loved ones before releasing bodies to them. Inflation is rampant and economic growth is negative. Sanctions on Iranian oil shipments have led Iran to steal Iraqi oil, one cause of the anti-Iranian riots across Iraq.
Yet Iran continues to arm its proxies and allies with missiles that can strike Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, and Israel. Ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones, controlled by Iran’s Quds Force, are being spread across the region.
The Quds Force, commanded by Major General Qasem Soleimani, is part of the IRGC, which works with Houthis in Yemen, with pro-Iranian government and government-recognized Shiite militias in Iraq, with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
While all of this aggressiveness may be the outward explosion of a regime in trouble, the transfer of these missiles and drones threatens not only some of America’s closest friends, but American forces in the region. Iranian general Allahnoor Noorollahi says Iran has 21 US military bases directly in its sights.
According to Axios, US bases in the Middle East include:
- Bahrain: More than 7,000 US troops, mostly Naval forces, are there to maintain Persian Gulf security.
- Iraq: About 5,200 US troops were in the northern part of Iraq as of January, per the Defense Department. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they were there to help combat ISIS. The number may drop (or may have dropped already), because the Iraqi military has said US troops need to leave.
- Jordan: About 2,795 US troops there support operations to defeat ISIS and promote regional stability.
- Kuwait: Over 13,000 American troops are stationed in Kuwait, and the US Central Command (CENTCOM) forward headquarters is there as well.
- Oman: The country has hosted US operations since 1980, and has assisted the US in combating ISIS. A few hundred Americans are there now.
- Qatar: As many as 13,000 US troops are in Qatar, with plans to expand. The Gulf nation supports US efforts to combat regional terrorism.
- Saudi Arabia: The Trump administration announced on November 19 that approximately 3,000 US troops will be deployed to Saudi Arabia to protect the region “against hostile action by Iran and its proxy forces.”
- Syria: CENTCOM does not disclose the current number of troops, but the Defense Department has said about 2,000 US service personnel were in Syria, and The Military Times reports approximately 800 might still be there to protect oil resources.
- Turkey: The number of US troops in Turkey is unclear, but the country’s strategic location makes it valuable for transporting arms and people. The US has air bases in Izmir and Incirlik as part of NATO.
- United Arab Emirates: 5,000 US troops are stationed at air and naval bases there.
In addition, just across the Strait of Hormuz lies the American Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), the only permanent US base on the continent.
Iran has transferred Zelzal and Fateh-110 missiles to Iraq and has also reestablished the manufacturing of ballistic missiles in Iraq at al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. While these areas are surely controlled by pro-Iran Shia groups, the Iraqi government — at a minimum — is allowing the manufacturing to take place and is badly compromised in its claims that it “does not want to take sides” in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia or Israel.
The Zelzal (probably the Zelzal III) has also been supplied to Hezbollah, to the Houthis in Yemen, and to the Syrian army. It is a solid-propellant artillery rocket, with a range of 200 km, that uses an inertial navigation system recently augmented by the addition of GPS navigation. The missile weighs about 3.7 tons and carries a large warhead.
The Fateh-110, used in Syria by Syrian and Iranian forces and Hezbollah, and seen in Lebanon, is a road-mobile single-stage solid-fueled surface-to-surface missile produced by Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization. The version transferred to Iraq is probably the Zolfaghar, which has a range of 700 km. With a warhead of between 450 and 700 kg, the latest versions have sub-munitions, making them more effective.
This missile is likely now being manufactured in Iraq, since one of the Iraqi production plants, at al-Zafaraniya (a former production facility under Saddam Hussein) can produce composite materials that are used in the Zolfaghar missile body to reduce weight (the Fateh-110 is metal and heavier). Iranian engineers were sent to al-Zafaraniya to get the plant operating, and supply the molds and designs for manufacturing.
It has long been observed that nations experiencing internal upheaval often try to externalize their problems, which is exactly what Iran is doing. Iran’s objective is to spread its influence and gain a strategic edge, particularly over Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also to avoid direct retaliation, particularly from Israel or Israel plus the United States. Hence the transfer not only of arms, but also of manufacturing capabilities across the region.
But Iran’s thinking — that neither the US nor Israel will retaliate directly — may be outdated. Although both want to avoid direct military action against Iran, even one blunder by Iran or its proxies could result in war against Tehran. Israel’s growing concern over transfers has led it to repeatedly attack missile shipments, warehouses, and factories, as well as bases, in Syria and Lebanon, and, starting last summer, in Iraq. The latest attack, on a warehouse in Iraq near the Syrian border, took place this week and was successful.
Iran’s aggressiveness may have carried the mullahs across the Rubicon, to a point of no return.
Shoshana Bryen is an analyst of US defense policy and Middle East affairs with more than 30 years experience. Stephen Bryen has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and head of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
A version of this article was originally published by the Jewish Policy Center and Asia Times.