Analysis: Iranian Missile Strikes Against Kurdish Dissidents in Iraq
Over the weekend, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired seven short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) at the headquarters of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in northern Iraq. The move follows an uptick in violence between Tehran’s security establishment and Kurdish insurgents, allegations about foiled terror plots in the country’s Kurdish-heavy west, as well as the recent execution of three Iranian Kurdish males imprisoned for allegedly having ties to terror groups.
Iran’s use of tactical SRBMs against such foreign targets warrants a larger discussion about the country’s missile capabilities and willingness to use them. It also requires an accurate assessment of what occurred on the ground and in the media space on this issue since September 8.
Who were the targets of the attack?
English-language Kurdish outlets like Kurdistan 24 reported that two Iranian Kurdish groups, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI/KDPI) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-I), were the regime’s intended targets. The assault, dated September 8, was against the groups’ headquarters in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Koya (also known as Koy Sanjaq/Koysinjaq). The PDKI is Iran’s oldest Kurdish nationalist group, having attempted everything from armed struggle to a cold peace with central Iranian authorities since the group’s founding in the 1940s. The KDP-I however, split from the PDKI in 2006 over contesting the Iranian government. Hostilities between Iran and armed Kurdish groups continues, and escalated this year.
Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reveals that Tehran had specific Kurdish facilities in mind, including the “KDP-I’s political bureau, the PDKI’s training center, and a Peshmerga complex.” The PDKI’s Twitter account added that Iran also targeted “adjacent refugee camps in Koya, Iraqi Kurdistan.” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim News Agency published a list of 11 names that were killed in the attack. Reuters reported that the strike “killed at least 11 people” while AFP and the PDKI official statement report 15 persons killed. Rudaw reported 16 dead.
What sort of ‘attack’ took place?
According to English-language Kurdish sources, Iran’s missile strikes were precipitated by or concurrent with an aerial or artillery attack, alleging that the headquarters in Koya was shelled as well. These same sources were the first to claim that the IRGC “fired six ground-to-ground missiles,” which are also known as surface-to-surface missiles, or SSMs. While the claim about the type of missile – SSMs – can now be treated as accurate given additional reporting, once the IRGC took responsibility for the strike, Persian-language sources put the number of missiles launched at seven, not six.
Footage carried by early Iranian reporting – likely from a handheld device – shows at least five-to-six missiles streaking through the air, creating white plumes of smoke. The video then pans to the target area showing three-to-four clouds of dark smoke rising from a building, hinting at impact without showing the moment of impact. Persian-language outlets later carried clips from Iranian TV that provided footage from an unnamed type of Iranian drone that was circling the area. These clips show at least three separate explosions at the facility, indicating that at least some missiles hit their target. Photos from the headquarters on Kurdish outlets show a collapsed ceiling, the point where at least one missile would have likely fallen.
What type of missile was reportedly launched?
While Iranian outlets did report on September 8 that SSMs were launched against Kurdish insurgents in Iraq from a distance of 220 kilometers (km), it was only on September 9 that the missile’s name was revealed. According to Tasnim News Agency, Iran launched the Fateh-110B, an upgrade to the Fateh-110 SRBM. Tasnim’s use of the modifier “B” is odd, since unlike Western sources, Iranian sources tend not to distinguish between various versions of the Fateh-110 itself. Instead, Iranian outlets usually omit reference to the Fateh-110’s upgrades unless they are reporting on a new missile variant from the same family (see Table 1) with improved capabilities. When Iran has used English letters to denote missile variants before, it has opted to do so – at least publicly – with its medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), like the Ghadr-F and Ghadr-H.
Table 1: Fateh-110 Variants Reported With Different Names
|Name of Missile||Missile Type||Propellant|
|Hormuz 1 and 2||Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM)||Solid|
The Fateh-110B has a range of 300 km and is propelled by solid fuel. This type of propellant is preferred for its battlefield flexibility and requires relatively little prep time prior to launch, making it ideal in a surprise attack weapon. All of Iran’s SRBMs rely on solid propellant, and, like the Fateh-110B, all of Iran’s SRBMs are single-stage systems with a reported separating warhead. Although Tasnim did not report the weight of the warhead this missile could carry, independent experts put this weight at 450 – 500 kg, however, the lower number is probably more accurate.
Another feature of the Fateh-110 and its variants (see Table 1) is that they are billed as Iran’s most accurate missiles. While this a tall order for a country whose ballistic missile arsenal is usually derided because of their relatively low-accuracy, a comparatively lower (and thus modestly more accurate) circular-error probable (CEP) for Iran’s solid-fuel SRBMs makes them a natural choice for such missions. Changes in Iranian ballistic missile accuracy have been identified by scholars as a measure of evolving Iranian missile power. This evolution stands to enable new strategies for Iran, such as coercion.
Why do these missile launches matter?
In general, ballistic missile launches – either flight-tests or operations – matter because they provide states with crucial data about the operational reliability and readiness of its missile arsenal. Launches also offer officials qualitative and quantitative information about each missile’s functional range, accuracy, battlefield effectiveness, and usefulness for political signaling, deterrence, and coercion. Given the injunction against missile testing and transfers in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 which codifies the Iran nuclear deal, such launches carry additional significance. In 2018, Iran reportedly launched as many as 10 SSMs with a ballistic trajectory (see Table 2). Since agreeing to the nuclear deal in July 2015, Iran has launched as many as 33 ballistic missiles.
Table 2: Reported Iranian SSM Launches in 2018
|Date||Name of Missile||Missile Type||Propellant||Launch Type||Number Launched|
|January 2018||Scud Variant (likely Shahab-1, Shahab-2, or Qiam-1)||SRBM||Liquid||Test||1|
|January 2018||Shahab-3 Variant (likely Ghadr-1/101, Ghadr-F, Ghadr-H, or less likely, Emad)||MRBM||Liquid||Test||1|
|August 2018||Fateh Mobin||SRBM||Solid||Test||1|
However, these most recent launches are particularly significant because they are part of a renewed trend in Iranian ballistic missile use to retaliate against regional adversaries from Iranian territory. In June 2017, Iran fired as many as six SRBMs from its own territory (a combination of what this author assumes to be five Zulfiqars and one Qiam-1) at Islamic State (ISIS) positions in eastern Syria to respond to their terror attack within Iran. That strike was historically significant because the last time Iran fired a ballistic missile in a military operation outside its borders was against the base of an Iranian opposition group in Iraq in 2001 (see Table 3 for all post-Iran-Iraq War ballistic missile strikes outside Iran).
Table 3: Reported Non-Wartime SSM Launches Against Foreign Targets
|Date||Name of Missile||Missile Type||Propellant||Number of Missiles Launched||Entities Targeted|
|November 1994||Shahab (likely 1 or 2)||SRBM||Liquid||3||Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK/PMOI)|
|November 1994||Scud (likely Shahab 1 or 2)||SRBM||Liquid||3||MEK|
|November 1999||Scud (likely Shahab 1 or 2)||SRBM||Liquid||N/A||MEK|
|April 2001||Scud (likely Shahab 1 or 2)||SRBM||Liquid||44 – 77||MEK|
|June 2017||Zulfiqar and Qiam-1||SRBM||Solid (Zulfiqar), Liquid (Qiam-1)||6||ISIS|
|September 2018||Fateh-110B||SRBM||Solid||7||PDKI and KDP-I|
Traditionally, Iran has opted to proliferate weapons like small arms, rockets, SRBMs, and anti-tank and anti-ship missiles to its proxies and partners to stymie and bleed its regional adversaries, as well as disguise its hand. But well publicized missile launches from Iranian territory against foreign targets along with an attempt to provide audiences with video or images from the strike as a battle-damage assessment is altogether new, and indicative of at least five phenomenon:
1) A growing confidence in the accuracy of the regime’s missile force.
2) A continued desire to signal to foreign and domestic audiences that its missile capabilities are evolving.
3) That the threshold for firing a ballistic missile into another states’ backyard in the Middle East is dropping.
4) That the regime is confident such action will not invite a destabilizing kinetic reprisal on the Iranian homeland.
5) That Iran’s missiles do much more than bolster the regime through deterrence.
Therefore, Iran’s decision to fire ballistic missiles from its territory against regional adversaries matters because it is an indicator of what the Middle East has in store as Tehran marches towards a potentially effective conventional ballistic missile capability. Iranian attestations that its most recent strike on Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraq was aided by intelligence – and then broadcast and reported back via drones – means that such a force is already being explored by the Iranian leadership. To that effect, a hardline Iranian outlet, Defa Press, recently quoted an Iranian security official in a headline as saying “Whomever wants to threaten Iran’s security will be faced with a missile response.” Perhaps now more than ever, this Iranian threat has the capability of being carried out.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)