United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Striking Iran: An Avoidable Disaster?

            Iran’s most advanced missiles cannot reliably reach Israel, according to a new study by the Middle East Policy Council. It concludes that an Israeli pre-emptive strike would also probably rally domestic support for the Iranian government- and potentially even fail to destroy Tehran’s nuclear know-how. The study warns that Iranian retaliation could negate the short-term benefits of a strike. The following are excerpts from the paper, with a link to the full text at the end.

The Iranian Missile Program
            There is no doubt that Iran has an active missile program as well as an active space-launcher program. However, the exact number, range, reliability and accuracy of deployed Iranian missiles, as well as the program's status and its dependence on foreign help and proliferation, are controversial.5
            Iran obviously has access to Scud B missiles (Iranian designation, Shahab 1), which were fired at targets in Iraq in the 1980s. It also seems that a longer-range version of this missile, the Scud C (Shahab 2), is available in Iran.6 But with a maximum range of 500 km, these missiles are insufficient for an attack on Israel. The distance between Iran and Israel is twice that…The more "attractive" targets are also located in central Israel. Therefore, the nominal range requirement increases to more than 1,100 km.
            With little more than 900 km, the range of the basic Shahab 3 missile is therefore insufficient for this task.7 This might have been a reason for Iran's decision to start work in the early 2000s on a modified Shahab 3, with an extended range of more than 1,300 km… According to open sources, it seems that this missile has not been launched for some years now. It is plausible to assume that the program was stopped and the gained insights incorporated into the Iranian Safir satellite launcher.
            In the mid-2000s, Iran apparently started a program for a two-stage, solid-fuel missile with a nominal range of about 2,000 km. This missile, known at first as Ashura and later Sejil, was launched fewer than half a dozen times in the last five years, apparently with mixed success… However, judging from the slow pace of roughly one launch per year, it seems that the program either has encountered enormous difficulties or is not being given the highest priority…
            Currently, regarding ballistic missiles that can threaten Israel, Iran has little to offer except for rhetorical threats. However, this might change if efforts were increased and programs accelerated. This might also indicate an Iranian ambition to gain an operational nuclear-weapons capability. Therefore, the situation should be closely monitored.
 
Iranian Retaliation against Israel, Targets in the Gulf and Beyond
            It is highly likely that Iran's reaction to an Israeli pre-emptive strike will go beyond an increase in support for anti-Israeli proxies. Possible Iranian alternatives include the following:
 
(1) Singular Iranian missile attacks against Israel could not be ruled out. However, as mentioned above, the operationality and accuracy of Iranian mid-range missiles is highly doubtful.
 
(2) Iran would likely engage in intensified attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. Depending on the (perceived) involvement of the United States in the attack against Iran, U.S. individuals and installations could also be targeted.
 
(3) Again, depending on U.S. involvement in an Israeli pre-emptive strike, Iran could launch attacks against U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf. The fact that Iran has several submarines and that the shallow waters of the Gulf are not ideal for large U.S. carrier groups to maneuver might increase the damage Iran could cause. Nonetheless, the United States is militarily far superior to its Iranian counterpart. In any case, the attacks on U.S. Navy vessels would draw the United States into a direct military confrontation with Iran.
 
(4) Iran has repeatedly threatened to attack its neighbor states in the Gulf if they were deemed to be complicit in an attack against its nuclear installations. Likely targets would be the oil and gas installations on the Arabian Gulf coast as well as pipeline systems, ports and desalination plants. These attacks could either be conducted conventionally or through acts of sabotage and terrorism and could have massive economic consequences.
 
(5) Iran could attempt to disrupt the oil and gas export routes in the Gulf by mining or otherwise blocking (e.g., by sinking or setting on fire tanker ships) the Strait of Hormuz, or by initiating a new tanker war by attacking tanker ships in the Gulf with short-range missiles or navy vessels or by sabotage. The economic consequences of such actions could be very grave.
 
Click here for the full text.
 

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