On Sunday, Iranian outlets reported that their country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF) fired several missiles against “Takfiri terrorists” in the Syrian governorate of Deir ez-Zor. The strikes were reportedly retaliatory in nature, in response to the Islamic State’s twin terrorist attacks in Tehran earlier in June [see Long War Journal report]. According to a press release by the public relations arm of the IRGC, the Guard Corps vowed “to never leave unanswered the spilling of the blood of the pure.”
That same press release specified that Iran fired “several mid-range surface-to-surface missiles from IRGC-AF bases in Kordestan and Kermanshah provinces,” both of which are located in the western portion of Iran and are close to the Iraqi border. To reach Deir el-Zor in eastern Syria, the missiles’ flight-path would have had to include Iraq. It is an estimated 650 kilometers from Kermanshah, Iran, to Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
The Islamic Republic’s semi-official Fars News Agency carried video of the purported missile launches.
Fars News Agency also ran a headline confirming the type of missile Iran fired: the Zulfiqar. The Zulfiqar is a single-stage solid-fueled short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) that supposedly upgrades the range and accuracy of the Fateh-110 family of SRBMs. In 2012, CNN reported that the Assad regime had used the Iranian-made Fateh-110 in Syria. Unveiled at a military parade in September 2016, the Zulfiqar was first tested in the fall of 2016 [see FDD’s analysis of the first Zulfiqar missile test].
Similarly, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, a semi-official outlet believed to be close to the IRGC, produced an infographic alleging six Zulfiqar class missiles were fired at Deir ez-Zor, which they called, “One of the main command-centers of the terrorists in eastern Syria.”
But not all outlets have reported this claim. The Times of Israel reported an assertion made by a Channel 10 news broadcast which cited “an Israeli intelligence source” that believed Iran fired a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) called the Shahab-3. The Shahab-3 is a nuclear-capable liquid-fueled MRBM that is based on the North Korean Nodong-A.
Both the Shahab-3 and the Zulfiqar are ballistic missiles and belong to the IRGC-AF. The IRGC-AF is the military branch that oversees the entirety of Tehran’s ballistic missile arsenal. According to the former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile arsenal was assessed to be the “largest” in the region. Since inking the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has launched up to 14 ballistic missiles [see FDD’s analysis here], and in March Iran test-fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles. It has not fired any surface-to-surface ballistic missiles since being put “on-notice” by The White House in February 2017 until now.
While several English-language outlets have re-reported the event, Iranian press reporting remains the main source providing credence to the IRGC’s claims. The IRGC press release touted that “A large number of the terrorists… perished and their equipment and arms were destroyed.” Absent on-the-ground reporting from Syria, this assessment will remain difficult to verify.
Lastly, it is worth noting that Iran has incentives to overstate its military capabilities and the battlefield effectiveness of its growing conventional missile force. However, if the missile launches were genuinely successful, this overt show of force will serve to significantly bolster the regime’s deterrence. Given the timing of the move, the launch could also have been part of a larger strategy to signal resolve to both Iran’s regional and global adversaries.
Update: The location of the IRGC bases in Iran were updated to reflect their correct cardinal direction. The previous direction was due to a typographical error.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies