It’s not at all clear how much hellfire a flurry of ballistic missiles fired by Iran brought to a small corner of eastern Syria on Sunday night. Anonymous Israeli security sources sneered on Monday that the barrage was a flop, and all but one of the missiles missed their target. But the very use of the rockets has managed to echo to Israel and beyond, which was likely just what Tehran wanted.
The strike was not unlike US President Donald Trump’s 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at a Syrian air base earlier this year — as much a message to friends and foes as they were a tactical strike.
Trump’s 59 missiles were designed to convey the message that America was taking a more active role in the region, something that was meant to reassure allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and strike fear into the hearts of enemies like Iran.
With a tenth that number, Tehran sent its own message to the world. To enemies, it was a warning. To potential European allies, it was a demonstration of the necessity of its maligned ballistic missile program.
The medium-range ballistic missiles Iran said it fired at Islamic State positions in eastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour region were ostensibly in retaliation for the twin terror attacks carried out by the group on June 7 in Tehran’s parliament, and at the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), a hard-line paramilitary force, said in a statement following the strike that “many terrorists” were killed in the attack. But the Guard was also unequivocal that its audience extended beyond the Islamic State.
“The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message,” Gen. Ramazan Sharif of the Guard told state television.
According to Amir Toumaj, a Tehran-born researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Israel was a “secondary audience” for that message.
Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel are regularly lumped together by the Iranian regime and accused of “conspiring against it,” he told The Times of Israel in an email.
Iran blamed the Islamic State attacks on the kingdom directly, with its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif saying that a recent threat by the Saudi defense minister to take the “battle” to Iran was proof that it had colluded with the terror group, according to Toumaj.
Following the twin attacks in Tehran on June 7, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also “echoed the propaganda that the US created ISIS,” Toumaj said, using another abbreviation for the Islamic State.
To those who would consider attacking Iran, the six ballistic missiles were intended to carry the message: This is what you get when you mess with us.
Reinforcing that sentiment, the IRGC on Monday also released a Persian-language video showing off various weapons systems and defense capabilities.
“Iran is among the world’s big powers in the missile field,” Iran army head Maj. General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri said, during a meeting in Tehran on Monday, according to Fars news.
The military commander added that Iran’s enemies — he didn’t name which — “don’t have the capability to engage in clashes with us for now and of course, we don’t intend to involve in clashes with them, but we are in permanent rivalry with them in different fields, including the missile sector.”
In the aftermath of the Iranian bombardment, Israeli commentators and politicians jumped to interpret it as a warning to Israel against military action.
This seems to be how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the strike. Speaking at his Likud party faction meeting on Monday, Netanyahu did not mention the barrage specifically, but warned Iran: “Don’t threaten Israel.”
On Monday night, unnamed Israeli defense sources claimed that only one of the missiles actually reached its target. Ehud Yaari, Channel 2’s military analyst, said security sources sneered that the strike was a flop: “This is what they have to show for 30 years of missile development?” he quoted the sources saying. “Even Hezbollah can do better.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also commented on the strike earlier on Monday, and similarly brushed it off.
“Israel is not worried — Israel is prepared for every development. And we are prepared, we have no concerns or worries,” Liberman said.
Clearly, if Israel was meant to be deterred by the missile strike, it was taking pains to show that nothing of the sort was the case.
However, the former commander of IDF Military Intelligence and current head of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, Amos Yadlin, disputed this view, writing in a tweet on Monday that “not every Iranian action is a message to Israel.”
Yadlin interpreted the strike as what it was: a retaliation against an Islamic State attack that killed 12 people.
But we need our missiles — see?
But according to Emily Landau, a senior researcher at INSS, Tehran actually had two messages with its missile strike: telling the world that “we have the ability to strike back,” and a more subtle appeal.
To those not directly threatened by the launch, Landau said, the missile strike on the Islamic State was meant to put an exclamation point on what Tehran has been arguing all along: it needs its sanctioned ballistic missile program for self-defense.
Iran’s development of ballistic missiles draws significant ire and criticism from the US, Israel and the Gulf states, who argue that those rockets are being built to ultimately carry nuclear warheads, with which the Islamic Republic could threaten the world.
Tehran, however, presents its ballistic missile project as defensive in nature, Landau said, noting that the country makes a similar case for its nuclear aspirations.
Sunday’s missile strike strengthens that narrative, she said.
After all, Iran simply responded to a brutal terrorist attack by a group considered to be the enemy of the world. Who can take issue with that?
“Iran’s missile capability protects its citizens in lawful self-defense & advances common global fight to eradicate ISIS & extremist terror,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote in a tweet on Monday.
According to Landau, this type of “narrative building” is characteristic of Tehran’s foreign policy style.
“It’s very like Iran to attach that kind of rhetorical message” to a missile strike, she said. “Narratives are very important to the regime in Iran.”
Unlike the “don’t mess with us” half of the missile strike’s message, which was directed at potentially aggressors, this “defensive narrative” aspect of the barrage was more meant for countries that are on the fence regarding Iran, notably European nations, Landau said.
Toumaj agreed with Landau’s assessment that Sunday’s strikes on the Islamic State were meant to give Iran’s ballistic missile program legitimacy, but added that there was also a practical purpose for the strikes: testing.
According to the Iranian Fars news, the IRGC used both the Qiam 1 and Zulfiqar varieties of missiles in the attack. Though this has not been independently verified. The Iranians also initially claimed that only the Zulfiqar model has been used.
The Qiam is a bit older, going through its testing in 2010. It is similar to the older Shahab-3 ballistic missile, but does not have stabilizing fins, which is meant to make it more difficult to intercept.
The Zulfiqar is a solid-fueled ballistic missile that reportedly can reach 700 to 750 kilometers (434 to 466 miles) and is claimed to be accurate within 5 to 10 meters (16 to 32 feet), according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It is a variant of the Fateh-110 missile series — one of the missile varieties that Israel’s David’s Sling interceptor battery is meant to combat.
The Zulfiqar was only debuted in September. So the attack on the Islamic State was an opportunity for Iran to test the system, Toumaj said, noting that the regime has cut down on its ballistic missile tests since Trump took office.
The use of new missile varieties would also only reinforce Iran’s narrative that not only does it need ballistic missiles in order to defend itself, it also needs to develop new ones.
According to Landau, getting foreign countries to believe that premise would be of great value to Iran. It would both prevent international sanctions against it in the short term and potentially pave the way for broader acceptance of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in the future as well.
The AP contributed to this report