How Iran’s Missile Strategy has Rewritten the Rules of Middle Eastern Wars
How Iran’s Missile Strategy has Rewritten the Rules of Middle Eastern Wars
Iran has built an extraordinary military alliance, stretching from Lebanon to Gaza to Yemen that, missile by missile, has changed the rules of war in the Middle East
By Arron Merat
September 6, 2021
Within hours, the Iranian press reported that 14 members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, popularly known as “the father of the Iranian missile,” had died in an accident at the Shahid Modarres base, 30 miles outside the city.
At the funeral, attended by the religious, civilian and military leaders of the Islamic Republic, the bereaved wept. An IRGC general attributed Iran’s military deterrence and its “self-sufficiency” to Moghaddam, while Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, credited him with “filling Palestinian hands with missiles instead of stones to strike these arrogant terrorists.” The mourners doubted Moghaddam and the other IRGC officers had died accidentally but had instead been killed in an Israeli attack, one of a string of recent political assassinations aimed at the heart of Iran’s security state.
Days before his death, Moghaddam, who headed the IRGC’s missile division, had ordered missile test results duplicated and stored in secret locations owing to a fivefold increase in explosions at key security sites in the previous year. While the epitaph on his gravestone in Tehran reads “Here Lies a Man Who Wanted to Destroy Israel,” it is safe to assume Moghaddam knew his enemies would likely get to him first.
Although Tehran still struggles to deter so-called gray zone attacks by Israel such as assassinations and sabotage, its missile program, built from scratch by Moghaddam, has successfully deterred the airstrikes regularly threatened by Israel. It has also deterred the United States from carrying out airstrikes, particularly during the first term of then-President George W. Bush, with U.S. forces occupying neighboring Iraq.
In the decade before his death, Moghaddam was involved as much in strengthening Iran’s missile defense and counterstrike system as he was in integrating Hezbollah’s defense into Iran’s own program, training a cadre of Lebanese engineers. “Knowledge cannot be bombed,” he said, giving voice to Iran’s policy not only of supplying missiles but also, crucially, sharing know-how to sustain the deterrence. Today, the balance of power is broadly equal; for the U.S. or Israel to launch a war against Iran or Lebanon is almost politically unthinkable.
“The Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah now have a really deadly reconnaissance strike complex,” explained Michael Knights of the Washington Institute. “They can absolutely wreck the infrastructure, lifestyle and economic functioning of their close enemies.” Of course, the reverse is also true, but Iran’s strategy is not suicide, despite Moghaddam’s epitaph, but to stabilize the Resistance, an alliance of nations opposed to the U.S. security constellation of the Middle East: Iran, most of Shia Iraq, the Syrian state and Hezbollah.
This Resistance sees Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as part of an increasingly unstable American empire, whose power needs to be checked. Yet Tehran’s goal goes further than merely maintaining a balance of power with its enemies or ending their influence in the region. Instead, Iran believes it is offering an alternative to the crumbling U.S. version of modernity, sustained, at least in theory, by multibillion-dollar defense industries. Iran’s military-industrial complex is the tip of the iceberg of a wider political project.
The Tehran-Beirut alliance has brought Hamas in Gaza and Yemen’s al-Houthi fighters into the Resistance, training their engineers and smuggling components to produce Moghaddam’s designs.
Over the past decade, the Tehran-Beirut alliance has brought Hamas in Gaza and Yemen’s al-Houthi fighters into the Resistance, training their engineers and smuggling components to produce Moghaddam’s designs. This military cooperation supports allies but also bolsters Tehran’s own deterrence against Israel and Saudi Arabia by having missiles placed on their more vulnerable southern borders. “With blood, sand and love, they are sent, built and launched,” is how the rank-and-file IRGC refer to the emerging military-industrial complex of the Resistance.
This type of military deterrence is low cost. The Saudis and Israelis spend billions per week to fight their wars against Yemen and the Palestinians. Patriot missiles costing $3 million have been used to intercept missiles worth thousands, perhaps even hundreds, of dollars. Likewise, Gaza fired rockets worth a few million during this year’s conflict with Israel, which spent billions during the same period to intercept them with its Iron Dome defense system, whose missiles are worth $80,000 each.
In the 2014 war with Israel, Hamas fired 60 rockets with a 10-kilometer (6-mile) range, powered by sugar. In this year’s conflict it fired over 3,000 rockets into Israel, including 250 kilometers (155 miles) across the border into Tel Aviv. Iran has patronized Yemen’s al-Houthi fighters, who have been under assault by Saudi Arabia since 2015, to develop from scratch a missile capacity that can hit Saudi cities and oil infrastructure over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away.
Iran uses these two active theaters of war as laboratories to develop missiles for the Resistance. Tehran is streamlining smuggling networks, training Palestinian and Yemeni technicians, and integrating Iranian technology into bespoke weapon systems fit for short-range war with Israel and long-range war with Saudi Arabia. The aim is to instill fear in Tel Aviv and Riyadh and curb their ability to project force beyond their own borders.
As well as using the threat of massive retaliation to preserve its territorial integrity, Tehran uses missile strikes to signal its red lines. For example, following the U.S. assassination of IRGC Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iran gave notice for a strike against two U.S. military bases in Iraq; around 100 U.S. troops hiding in an underground bunker sustained brain injuries. Similarly, Iran, via Iraq, twice struck Saudi oil facilities in 2019, knocking out significant production for months, after the U.S. imposed sanctions on any firm or nation buying Iranian oil in an effort to reduce its exports to zero. “If we can’t export oil, then nor will anyone else,” Tehran warned through diplomatic channels.
The Resistance’s rocket and missile deterrence program is changing the rules of the game for the U.S.-aligned nations to projecting power into what they see as their backyards. Hezbollah has made a significant Israeli attack on Lebanon prohibitively costly. The Palestinians and Yemen’s al-Houthi movement hope in the long term to achieve parity with Beirut. As for Iran, it is as safe as its enemies.
Days after Moghaddam’s funeral, a reportedly crying Khamenei appeared unannounced at the door to his family’s home. “I am stricken,” he told Moghaddam’s daughter, echoing the famous words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following the assassination of Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, the second-most powerful cleric in the 1979 revolution. “I lost someone very dear to me who could see well into the future.”
In the atmosphere of total war that gripped the year-old Islamic Republic following Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, Moghaddam served as an IRGC motor operator. Noted for his sociability, piety and ability to troubleshoot engineering solutions in an improvised war, he quickly stood out. High energy, and keen on soccer and mountaineering, he was known for keeping spirits high on the front; when his wedding date arrived, he refused to take leave and was married via telephone. He also was notably pious; photographs show a permanent bruise on his forehead, a common sight among the Shia, who pray by touching their forehead on a stone from Karbala, where Imam Husayn was slain in the seventh century.
In 1984, following his disastrous invasion and a similarly disastrous Iranian counterattack, Saddam tried to break the deadlock with a terror campaign against Iran’s urban population centers. On Feb. 12 that year, two-story-high Scud missiles landed on Dezful, a border town, killing 40 and wounding 200. This attack would start a series of escalations that would target Iranian cities, including Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. And soon, Iranian missiles targeted Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities. Tehran would admit to between 10,000 and 11,000 civilians killed by such attacks during the war, equal to the number of those who died in the Nazi attacks in the London Blitz in World War II. Khomeini viewed these attacks, as well as reports from the front of chemical weapons falling in the trenches, as plain evidence that Saddam in power next door would constitute an intolerable, long-term security risk. He ordered a policy of “retribution in kind,” implicitly dropping an earlier policy not to target Iraqi civilians. Khomeini cited the Quran for the changes to Iran’s rules of engagement: “Whoever oppresses you, defeat him as much as he oppressed you, and fear God, and know that God is with the pious.”
Moghaddam was pulled out of the trenches to establish an Iranian missile development capability, which Iran believed it needed not to lose the war. The stakes for this 23-year-old engineer were nothing less than the survival of the revolution, victory in the war, and of the spread of a political system willed and guided by God.
But Iran faced a more imminent problem. The Shah had been a client king dependent for his defense on U.S.-maintained aircraft, and an Israeli-Iranian joint missile development program was thwarted by the revolution. Thus nonaligned Iran had no missiles, no capacity to build them and no time to fix the first two problems. A United Nations agreement of June 12, 1984, put an end to the first one-sided round of war of the cities, but Iran knew Saddam would eventually break it.
Moghaddam led a team that coordinated a missile capacity in nine months. In 1984 he left the country for the first time in a Boeing 747 flanked by two American-made Phantom fighter jets, purchased by the Shah. He was bound for Syria, Iran’s only Arab ally in the war. Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad agreed to a secondment of Syrian officers to train Moghaddam and his handpicked team on how to use the Soviet Scud missiles in Damascus’ arsenal. The team of 13 included Majid Nawab, a young IRGC officer who now works closely with Hezbollah, heading the paramilitary’s missile project in Lebanon. In three months, Moghaddam’s team learned how to transport, fuel, aim and fire Scud B missiles but was refused requests to take any home from Syria. The Soviet Union, which was arming Saddam with Scud missiles, controlled Syria’s arsenal, and its soldiers kept a wary eye on the Iranian visitors.
Iran finally secured 30 Scud missiles from Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya but on the proviso that strikes would be coordinated by a Libyan team sent to Iran. They would retain custody of the arsenal and set up the launches themselves. “I feel ashamed,” Moghaddam told his team back in Damascus at the time. “After all this suffering, we still are reliant on foreign help.”
Moghaddam flew to North Korea, where he met the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung. According to the memoirs of Mohsen Rafiqdoust, the IRGC minister accompanying Moghaddam, the unworldly Iranian delegation made the mistake of remarking how much more developed South Korea was than the North. After this initial stumble, Kim Il Sung agreed to provide 100 of its Scud B copies, known as Hwasong-5s, and jointly build a factory in Iran to produce more. Pyongyang also acted as a conduit for weaponry from China, which was supplying both sides of the Iran-Iraq conflict. The reason for the duality was to increase the temperature of the Cold War to its own advantage and give China access to captured U.S. and Soviet weaponry, which it used to develop its own defense industry.
The North Korean shipment was in the bag, but Iran was reliant on its increasingly rocky relationship with Gadhafi’s guards. The Libyans would not involve Moghaddam’s team in on the technicalities, permitting them only to perform the hazardous work of fueling, mixing gallons of kerosine and nitric acid, or scouting launch locations in the mountains.
Moghaddam, with the permission of Rafiqdoust, stole a Scud missile from the Libyans and attempted to reverse-engineer it. Despite deteriorating relations, in March 1985, Libyan engineers set up a salvo of Scud missiles to hit a Kirkuk refinery in northern Iraq and downtown Baghdad. Moghaddam ordered a quote attributed to the Prophet Mohammad be painted on the Scud missiles: “It was not you [believers] who killed them, but it was Allah who did so!” While the Libyans coordinated the launch, it was up to an IRGC officer named Ali Hosseini-Tash, who would later run Iran’s nuclear program, to press the button.
The same month Iran launched its first Scud missiles, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power as leader of the Soviet Union. He immediately rebuffed an Iranian request for Scud missiles but agreed to replenish Saddam’s supply. Iran responded by kidnapping four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, killing one. The KGB quickly retaliated by killing several Hezbollah officials, allegedly sending one of their heads to the Iranian embassy in Lebanon.
Back in Libya, Gadhafi was lobbying Tehran to allow its missile technicians to coordinate a strike against Saudi Arabia. Tehran flatly refused. Saudi Arabia was providing Saddam with tens of billions of dollars but a strike on the kingdom could have opened up another front, which Iran was ill prepared to fight.
Inspecting the poor quality of the newly arrived North Korean Scud missiles, Moghaddam joked that Iran should paint the green missiles white to look like Tripoli’s models and see if they would explode in the hands of the Libyan guards. Instead, Tehran created a ruse, sending the Libyans to the south of Iran where a fake missile site was built to distract the visitors while Moghaddam’s team fired Pyongyang’s Scud missiles in the north of the country. The Libyans would soon get wind of the deception and abruptly return home, sabotaging their remaining Scud missiles before they left.
In an incident obscured by mythmaking, Moghaddam persuaded Hashemi Rafsanjani, the parliamentary speaker, to permit him to repair the Libyan sabotage. He had been studying his stolen missile and fabricated whole parts including gearboxes to make the Scud missiles operational. The only part he lacked was the fusing key, which the Libyans had taken home, but he called upon his North Korean contacts to supply counterfeits (the North Koreans had somewhat miraculously reverse-engineered a Soviet Scud missile provided to it by the Egyptians). A film, “Midnight Sun,” is currently under production in Iran, dramatizing the event.
Moghaddam was also building Iran’s own, entirely domestic, rockets and missiles. The first was the Naze’at, an unguided rocket with a range of about 100 kilometers to 130 kilometers (60 miles to 80 miles). With North Korean technical help, he also finally succeeded in reverse-engineering the Soviet Scud-B missile system to create the Shahab-1, which rolled off assembly lines in the last year of the war. The Shahab would become the foundation of the postwar missile program, part of a wider arms race with Saddam, which would, by the turn of the early 21st century, produce weaponry that could hit Israel.
Ironically, it was not the 1979 revolution but the end of the Cold War that soured relations with Israel. With the U.S. security state now focused on fighting Islamism, Israel identified Iran as its new threat and made some limited concessions to the Palestinians, whose exiled militias became a secondary threat to Tehran. As Trita Parsi wrote in his book “Treacherous Alliance,” the two nations would become “opposite sides in the new geopolitical equation.” To counter Israel, Iran would not rely on its own arsenal of missiles but instead on Shia groups in Lebanon fighting Tel Aviv’s occupation of Lebanon. The most important of these was established by Iran itself: Hezbollah.
In the wake of Hezbollah’s 2006 victory against Israel, the commander of the IRGC’s overseas forces, Soleimani, discussed the tactics that had won the war. “Usually in wars there is a lot of acceleration to show the limit of capabilities in the first few moments,” he explained. “But Hezbollah took this war stage by stage and with a new tool and action in every move and caused shock in the enemy. … They confused the Zionists about where and when they would be hit.”
Missiles were the cornerstone of these “step-by-step” tactics. “Hezbollah seeks to maintain an ability to escalate and surprise, and we saw this very clearly in 2006,” explained Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iran’s ballistics program. “What they lack in technology, they try to make up by thinking hard about strategy. For example, Hezbollah signals to Israel, ‘If you hit civilians in Lebanon, we will hit civilians in Israel; if you invade, we will deploy new technology.’”
Tehran had been preparing for 2006 for decades. After the Iranian revolution, Tehran’s new leaders sent men like Moghaddam to help establish Hezbollah during the Lebanese civil war, equipping it with the weapons and training it needed to fight a guerrilla insurgency against the occupying Israeli forces, forcing Tel Aviv’s exit in 2000. Operation Leader of Martyrs (2000-2006), led by Hezbollah’s top general Imad Mughniyeh (assassinated in 2009), consolidated Hezbollah’s defenses by building tunnels, shipping weapons and sharing the know-how of Moghaddam’s missile division with an emerging cadre of Lebanese engineers. Amir Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, likened this strategy to “teaching a man how to fish.”
In the two decades since the end of the war against Iraq, Moghaddam had developed an arsenal of domestic missiles, crucially the Shahab-3, capable of hitting Israel, albeit with poor accuracy. It was produced just east of Tehran at the Shahid Bagheri factory and under license at the Al-Safira factory just outside of Aleppo, Syria. Iran worked to advance its strategic depth all the way to Israel’s northern border.
Hinz likened the operation to a car manufacturer expanding into the market of a less developed country. “In order to adapt to the new market,” he said, “the company develops simpler and cheaper cars that are not identical to its main line of car designs but will be broadly similar in style and use some shared components.”
When the 2006 war came, Soleimani immediately flew to Beirut, where he saw the awesome power of the Israeli air force, which had taken out some Hezbollah targets and most of the city’s civil infrastructure. Despite the preparation, Soleimani predicted Hezbollah would lose the war.
In an interview in 2019, he described being pursued, alongside Mughniyeh and Hassan Nasrallah, by an Israeli surveillance drone through Beirut’s suburbs in the early hours of the morning during the bombing. Soleimani spoke obliquely of the incident, evoking the tale of Muslim ibn Aqil, a famous early Muslim warrior and martyr, executed for organizing an uprising against the Umayyad dynasty and famous among the Shia for facing death fearlessly. He described the trio, Israel’s most wanted men, moving from building to building to narrowly escaping Israeli bombs that were falling all around them. “The buildings to our left and right were being bombed,” he said. “Nasrallah was a target for Israel at any cost.” The group found themselves in the open air, vulnerable to attack from the air. “Mughniyeh told us to hide under a tree while he got in the car. … We knew that the Israelis had thermal imagery cameras above the tree. … We were close to death in our path to serve God.”
Soleimani returned to Tehran to give Khamenei the bad news. “It was not classical but a complete technological and scientific war,” he explained, briefing the leader on Israeli attacks against Hezbollah targets. According to Soleimani, Khamenei held that Israel had miscalculated and would lose the war. He told Soleimani to return to Lebanon with weapons and a message for Hezbollah fighters to read Jawshan Sagheer, a Shia long-form prayer about having faith in God during wartime: “My God, many a servant of You is in eves and morns suffering the agony of death, and the rattles of death, experiencing that which shudders the skins and horrifies the hearts; but I am safe from all that.”
Over the next 33 days, Hezbollah inflicted politically unsustainable casualties on Israel. It fired between 4,000 and 8,000 Iranian and Syrian rockets into northern Israel. After Israel invaded, Hezbollah neutralized their Merkava tanks using Russian-made, Syrian-supplied Kornet missiles and, perhaps, older Iranian-made designs. In a piece of remarkable political theater, an Iranian supplied Silkworm missile hit INS Hanit, an Israeli battleship, timed for the end of a televised speech by Nasrallah. The general secretary looked directly into the camera as the attack took place. “Look at it burning,” he said.
Following the war, Nasrallah said that “anyone who travels easily to the north or the south of Lebanon and back owes this security to Haj Hassan Mr. Tehrani Moghaddam.” Lebanon now has between 120,000 and 150,000 ballistic weapons directed at Israel. While most of these remain unguided, like they were in 2006, since the war, the group has established a “precision project” that includes retrofitting old rockets with new fins and Iranian supplied guidance kits but also a wholesale missile production project, which according to Israel is located in the Bekaa Valley. Israel had conducted two known strikes against the precision project but the missile systems themselves make striking their associated infrastructure extremely dangerous. This forces Israel to continuously calculate just how far it can go without triggering a war that would destroy it and in all probability every other state in the eastern Mediterranean.
If Iran and Hezbollah are the father and the son of the Resistance, Hamas, the new member of the family, is a distant and independent cousin who has joined the household out of brutal necessity.
In early May, Mohammed Deif, commander of Hamas’ armed wing, broke a seven-year silence to issue a statement over Gazan radio. Deif, described by the IRGC as a “living martyr” who lost his entire family, his mobility and an eye in Israeli attacks, warned Israel that it would pay a “heavy price” if it evicted Palestinians from east Jerusalem.
Israel went ahead with the evictions, moving in settlers from the U.S. and attacking Palestinians who had gathered in protest at the Al-Aqsa mosque. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militia more closely aligned with Iran, launched over 3,000 missiles into Israel over two weeks, hitting downtown Tel Aviv 100 kilometers (60 miles) away and triggering the evacuation of inhabitants from several towns and cities across the south. Significantly, Israel’s Iron Dome defense system against short-range ballistics was at times overwhelmed by salvos of rockets, causing panic in cities across central and southern Israel.
Notwithstanding minimal Israeli casualties, Gazan rockets appear to have altered the military calculus of Tel Aviv’s generals. In a revealing remark, an Israeli fighter pilot said that the bombing in Gaza City’s al-Jalaa commercial tower block housing the world’s international media “was a way to vent the army’s frustration after they failed to stop the rockets firing from Gaza.”
The last time Gazan armed factions faced Israel was in 2014; the outcome was close to a massacre. Palestinians fought using mostly sugar-fueled Qassam rockets or improvised artillery rockets made from water pipes or scavenged ordinance. Around 60 entered Israel, killing six civilians, but Israeli bombing killed 2,000 and injured around 10,000 people, mostly civilians including farmers and fishermen who got too close to the border. This time, the casualty figures for the Palestinians were only a tenth as high, which Hamas attributes to the strength of its missile deterrence, which had provoked Israel to overreach, generating widespread international obloquy, and forcing it to broker a ceasefire.
While Iran has supplied arms to Gaza for decades, the tide changed on Gaza’s missile defense system after 2014. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, was disposed in Egypt. During this period, Saudi Arabia and the UAE abandoned the Palestinians, cutting security deals with Israel and working to secure Gaza’s southern border with Egypt’s new military dictatorship. “We have always been closer to Islamic Jihad. … The Hamas people were on the wrong side of the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon, and it took time for us to trust one another,” remarked an Iranian MP who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In 2014 this changed. Saudi Arabia organized the exit of [former President Mohamed] Morsi from Egypt, so we offered more help. The relationship bloomed like a flower.”
Members of Deif’s missile unit have been sent to Iran, Lebanon and Syria for training, and reports have emerged that the war was coordinated from a Beirut base staffed with Hamas, Hezbollah and IRGC officers. The IRGC coordinates the smuggling of thousands of missiles. Short- and medium-range rockets are sent over land through Sudan and Egypt, by sea via speedboats originating in Lebanon, or by simply dumping them off ships in the Suez Canal and into the hands of smuggling networks in the Sinai Peninsula. A team, including a former NASA scientist named Jamal al-Zebda, was killed in an Israeli airstrike during the two-week bombing campaign.
Despite the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the displacement of tens of thousands, Iran and the Palestinian armed factions consider the battle in May a clear victory. Hamas had deterred an invasion, and Israeli jets had failed to stop it firing into Israel.
Hamas’ leader Yehiyeh Al-Sinwar held up a glass of water to journalists at a press conference on May 26, five days after the ceasefire. “Firing a salvo of 250 rockets on Tel Aviv,” he explained, “is easier for us than …” He drank down the water in one draught before continuing: “We sent nothing but a message. … The contours of the victory in Palestine of late were outlined with the blood of Qassem Soleimani, Iranian blood,” he said.
The plainest interpretation of Al-Sinwar’s message is that Gaza is under the protection of the Resistance and will enforce its red lines. VS Quds, a Farsi-language website pertaining to the IRGC missile program and probably controlled by Israeli intelligence, purports to show blueprints of an Iranian precision weapon for use by Palestinian Islamic Jihad; Khamenei and another senior Iranian official have also made remarks about the presence of such weapons in Gaza. While these systems are in their infancy, if developed, they would provide Gazan militants with a capacity to escalate against Israel, for example, in the event of a ground invasion.
Rhetorically, Gaza’s militants predict that rockets and missiles on Israel’s northern and southern border will create the political conditions to dismantle Israel itself. “I believe we are able to defeat [Israel] as it is a paper tiger,” Khaled Mashal, Al-Sinwar’s predecessor, told RT Arabic on May 14 at the climax of the war. “It lacks legitimacy, and its core is empty and hollow.”
Like Hamas, Yemen’s al-Houthi movement, a coalition of northern tribes centered on the family of Yemeni MP Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, joined the Resistance to defend itself against a technologically powerful, U.S.-backed adversary.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened with a bombing campaign in Yemen’s civil war, which is still ongoing, supported by thousands of British and American soldiers and contractors on the ground. The U.N. found that the kingdom had targeted civilians systematically in an unsuccessful attempt to roll back the al-Houthi fighters, who in 2014 took over Sanaa, the capital, and most of Yemen’s populated areas.
Since the 1990s, the al-Houthi fighters have fought Yemen’s pre-Arab Spring government and its ally Saudi Arabia, which it accused of spreading a Salafist Islam among its populations (the core of the al-Houthi movement is Ziyadi Muslims, theological cousins to the Twelver Shia Islam of Iran). According to a U.S. cable, before the war, Iran’s influence among these tribes was “limited to informal religious ties” and fell far short of military training. Iran had advised the al-Houthi fighters against taking over the capital, but once Riyadh decided to intervene, Tehran joined the civil war, providing technical support as a cheap way to bog Riyadh down in an expensive, unwinnable war.
Hassan Irlou, Iran’s ambassador to Yemen since 2020, is a former IRGC officer who previously oversaw relations between Iran and Hezbollah. He is active on Twitter, where he has shared photos of himself visiting wounded civilians, opening a renal disease clinic and attending the graves of al-Houthi martyrs. “The United States has no will,” he tweeted in January, “It is under pressure by the Zionists to label [the al-Houthi fighters] as terrorists.” Irlou is said to be in Yemen to help organize the al-Houthi fighters’ missile program.
During the early years of the war, the al-Houthi fighters fired crude, locally developed Qaher-1 missiles and Borkan-2 missiles, which, with Iranian assistance, they had converted from existing Scud arsenals in Yemen to make them travel further but with a lower payload. Britain, which refuses to comment on deployments in Yemen, reportedly sent troops into the country in 2016 to destroy al-Houthi launch sites but retreated after soldiers were wounded by al-Houthi militiamen.
The U.N. has said that Iran chops up the missiles into pieces and smuggles them into Yemen, mostly by sea through Yemeni ports on the Gulf of Oman. A 2019 report found that the remnants of missiles that hit Riyadh in 2017 indicated the missile had almost certainly been remodeled on Iran’s Qiam-1 missile, which entered service in 2010 and has a range of 800 kilometers (500 miles) and an accuracy of 10 meters (11 yards). To get the ballistic missiles 1000 kilometers (600 miles) to Saudi oil facilities on the Red Sea, accuracy was sacrificed, making precision strikes from Yemen impossible.
The most remarkable strikes, however, have been made using shorter-range cruise missiles. Unlike ballistics, which fly high in the earth’s atmosphere, cruise missiles fly low, at relatively slow speeds and are considerably more difficult to detect. Iran itself has cruise missiles that can travel over 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) after reverse engineering Soviet models it bought from Ukraine in 2001. In the past two years, the al-Houthi fighters have used Iranian-supplied cruise missiles effectively on Saudi economic targets: an Aramco facility in Jeddah, 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Yemen; Abha International Airport, 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Yemen; military forces inside Yemen including Aden International Airport and a military parade of UAE-backed troops in al-Dhalea. As these missiles, known as Quds-2, have not been seen in Iran, missile experts suspect Iran has developed them exclusively for Resistance allies.
Tehran calculates that only missiles will continue to safeguard the Resistance and slowly degrade the U.S. alliance in the region.
Tehran believes that missiles are the future. Moghaddam’s improvisations in the 1980s and 1990s have since evolved into a well-organized knowledge base for the mass production of cheap “DIY” rockets and missiles, which have ended U.S. “full spectrum dominance” in the Middle East. In the long term, Tehran calculates that only missiles will continue to safeguard the Resistance and slowly degrade the U.S. alliance in the region. One Iranian supporter of the Resistance, echoing the sentiments of the al-Houthi official, put it more bluntly: “Saudi and the Zionists know they are completely dependent on a faltering world order and powerless to protect themselves against the force of history.”
In 2021, Moghaddam’s missile designs now seem old hat. Just before he died, Iran had begun to develop precision guidance systems that, by the end of the last decade, were capable of hitting targets thousands of kilometers away with near pinpoint accuracy. “It’s really been a quantum leap in terms of the accuracy of its missiles,” said Hinz. “In roughly 10 years, Iran moved from, ‘There’s a chance some of our rockets will actually hit Tel Aviv’ to ‘We’re pretty confident we could hit a specific quarter of Tel Aviv,’” Hinz explained. “Now they could strike the Knesset.”
This effective asymmetrical capability is why U.S. politicians regularly criticize the Iran nuclear deal, now under renegotiation with the Biden administration, for not placing checks on Iran’s missile technology. At his first press conference, Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, repeated Tehran’s position that “the Iranian missile issue is non negotiable.”
Iran’s advances have, for now, evened out the balance of terror between Iran, Lebanon, Israel and Saudi Arabia, making the political cost of fighting a war prohibitively high. The same cannot be said for Yemen and Gaza, which despite building a deterrence almost from scratch in the past decade, remain at the mercy of Saudi and Israeli air superiority.
“The Houthis and Hamas build propaganda weapons,” Knights explained. “They are pretending to be grown-ups like Iran and Hezbollah but really they are children.” It is also true that children grow up. After all in 2000, when Israel left, Hezbollah was considered an insignificant threat, but now it significantly limits Israel’s capacity to intervene north of its border. While Tehran’s commitment to the al-Houthi fighters or Hamas has grown significantly over the past decade, it is far from a given that these groups are on a path to becoming new Hezbollahs. Despite the rhetoric, relations with Tehran remain fairly transactional; Tehran is not on the same page, politically, strategically or religiously with the new members of the Resistance as it is with Hezbollah. And the logistics of supplying Yemen, but especially Gaza, are considerably more difficult than supplying Lebanon, which is connected by road through Syria and Iraq, whose governments are allied with Tehran.
Save for a revolution in missile defense technology, Tehran’s strategy of spreading both technology and know-how among its allies both to defend territory and limit the freedom of maneuver of the U.S. and its allies appears to be working.
Iran’s homegrown approach creates a fundamental long-term problem for the U.S. geostrategic constellation in the Middle East. Iran has no defense in the economic war that was launched by the U.S.-led international financial system, but on the military front, Tehran and its allies have won all their wars at a fraction of the cost. The U.S. spent nearly $2 trillion on its catastrophic war with Iraq, which it lost in large part to Iran’s mobilization of homemade explosive devices and from which it will not likely retreat due to calculated and largely nonlethal use of missiles, rockets and drones.
Of course, the humanitarian cost of fighting asymmetrically in Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza has been enormous. In all three theaters, Iran’s nonstate allies have tolerated huge losses, both military and civilian, as an inevitable consequence of fighting asymmetrically against the world’s most sophisticated killing machines. Unlike the U.S., Iran cannot leave the region, so its interest in maintaining its allegiances and fighting for the long term is stronger. Iran has long dropped its internationalist aim to make converts of its regional allies but builds the Resistance by showing its allies unwavering support over the long haul. Middle Eastern leaders, perhaps bar those in Israel, know that the U.S. is a fair-weather ally.
Iran’s foreign policy, however, is not subject to the vicissitudes of democracy, and Tehran will continue to support its local clients and nations that are threatened by the U.S. The base of both Hamas and Yemen’s al-Houthi fighters are zealous in their commitment to asymmetrical warfare against the region’s most powerful militaries, which are trying to wipe them out. Simply put, they are poor and desperate and have banked on a strategy of victory or death.
But for the actors in the Resistance, war is not just for survival. The Resistance, at least its Shia core, is also rooted in a cultural memory of resistance to illegitimate power that stretches centuries beyond the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Zionists and Americans are not Sunni, and Palestinians are not Shia, but the Shia motif endures and animates the strategic thinking of the Resistance. They consider their enemies to be temporary outsiders who will eventually be forced to leave.
An official in the al-Houthi movement captured this sentiment: “Saudi Arabia has been here for 100 years, but we have been here since before the Romans. They have wasted all their treasure on murdering some poor families in the mountains. By God, in another hundred years we will still be here, and they will be gone.”