For the first time, Iran is deploying ballistic missiles in its western neighbor Iraq with a range that makes them capable of hitting Israel and Sunni rival Saudi Arabia.
According to a report by the Reuters news service, several dozen such rockets are already deployed with Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq, while Tehran is working to make sure its allied militias in the country are capable of building more rockets indigenously. That includes the installation of manufacturing facilities in al-Zafaraniya, which lies east of Baghdad, in Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Karbala and in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to various sources cited in the report. Iran has also been training militia members in operating the new weapons.
The deployment is meant to improve Iran’s ability to retaliate against any Western or Arab attacks on its territory, as well as to expand its options for attacking opponents in the region, Reuters said.
Iran’s proxies, allied militias and even its own forces are involved in internal conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The report cited “three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources.” It said the missiles are of the Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar types, with ranges from 200 to 700 kilometers (124-435 miles), enough to hit the Saudi capital Riyadh from southern Iraq and Israeli territory from western Iraq.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its overseas Quds Force, have bases in both areas of Iraq.
“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” a senior Iranian official was quoted as saying. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”
The sources claimed Quds Force chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani is leading the effort.
Neither Iran, nor Iraq, would comment to Reuters about the report.
Iran already trains, arms and in many cases directly controls militias throughout the region, from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and multiple groups in Syria. This has included shipments of missiles, especially to Hezbollah and in recent years to the Houthis.
One Western source said that “Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” adding that the move was not meant to go unnoticed, but sent a “warning” to the US and Israel following Israeli strikes against Iranian installations in Syria.
The move makes Iran’s allies in Iraq better able to attack US troops in the country in the event Iran is attacked.
“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” one top IRGC commander said.
The factories that will build new missiles are located in parts of Iraq controlled by Shiite militias most closely allied to Iran.
The factory in al-Zafaraniya produced parts for ballistic missiles, including warheads, under the Saddam regime, and was brought back into use with the help of Iranian officials in 2016. The militias have already tested missiles at the Jurf al-Sakhar site, the report claimed.
Iraqi intelligence has reportedly been following the shipments of missiles to the militias, which began under the pretense of being intended for use in the fight against the Islamic State. But the shipments continued after the IS defeat in Iraq, one Iraqi intelligence official told the news service.
“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (IS) militants, but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.
The Iraqi government could not stop the transfers, the official added. “We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands; it’s with Iranians who control the push button.”
He added: “Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides.”
Iran has long used its Shiite proxies and allies in Iraq to hit back at its opponents. According to transcripts of interrogations in 2007 of a top Shiite military and religious figure in Iraq declassified earlier this year, Iran was heavily involved in Iraqi Shiite militias’ attacks on US troops in the years following the American invasion of the country in 2003.
Qais al-Khazali, who now heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia that won 15 parliamentary seats in the country’s May elections, detailed the scale of Iranian involvement in the country in the 2007 interrogation, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing recently declassified documents.
Khazali was under arrest at the time on suspicion of organizing an attempted kidnapping of US soldiers in the Iraqi city of Karala that left five Americans dead.
Khazali’s testimony from that period, declassified by the US military’s Central Command, is especially damning.
Though he is now a critic of Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs, a decade ago his statements to US interrogators depicted Iranian assistance as key to the ability at the time of Iraqi Shiite militias to carry out their ongoing campaigns of bombings and other attacks against US troops.
Some of the ordinance key to the campaign against US troops, including explosively formed penetrators that killed and injured hundreds of Americans, were delivered by Iran, he claimed at the time.
The Friday report also comes amid rising tensions between the US and Iran over Washington’s May decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal that exchanged sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. One key American argument for the decision concerned Iran’s expansion of its involvement in various conflicts in the region, as well as its burgeoning ballistic missile program.