The Ukrainians anxiously await whether they will be subjected to a new wave of devastation from Iran in the coming weeks. This time from ballistic missiles that can do much more damage than the hundreds of relatively simple Iranian drones that Russia has deployed since last month.
The fact that Iranian weapons play a significant role on a European battlefield is a novelty. According to some reports, advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have even arrived in the Russian armed forces. Some of them would have died. Iran’s involvement not only affects the war in Ukraine, it also has consequences for relations in the Middle East.
The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, General Kyrylo Budanov, said in late October in an interview taking into account deliveries of Iranian ballistic missiles to the Russians in November. An Iranian delegation is said to have agreed on the delivery in Moscow last month. “It poses a serious threat,” said Budanov, “because Iranian missiles, unlike Russian ones, have proven high precision and high speed on the battlefield.”
Russia is especially fond of the Fateh-110, a missile with a range of 250 kilometers, and the Zolfaghar (700 kilometers).
Russia is especially fond of the Fateh-110, a missile with a range of 250 kilometers, and the Zolfaghar (700 kilometers). These Iranian ballistic missiles, which can be fired from trucks, are not only much faster than the drones and cruise missiles that Russia has often deployed to date, but they also contain an explosive payload that ten to fifteen times as heavy is like that of the Shahed-136 drones.
Current Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses are quite effective against cruise missiles and the Iranian Shaheds. In Russian attacks, it is said to have shot down about 70 percent of incoming projectiles. But the Ukrainian air defenses are not expected to be prepared for the much faster ballistic missiles.
It is also possible to defend against such ballistic missiles by destroying enemy missile launchers with other missiles. But the United States wants it so far do not give to Ukraine for fear that the Ukrainians will then fire on targets within Russia itself. This in turn could lead to an unwanted escalation in the war, in which NATO could also become involved.
Iran is not flaunting its involvement. It initially strongly denied that it had supplied drones to Russia. Only later, when many remnants of Iranian drones had already been found in Ukraine, did it reluctantly admit that it had indeed sold drones to the Russians, but that would have happened before the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
Experts have no doubt that Russia and Iran are creeping closer on defense
However, experts have no doubt that Russia and Iran are creeping closer on defense. Both countries have become increasingly isolated on the international stage, Russia through its invasion of Ukraine and Iran in recent months even more than before because of its harsh repression of the protest movement. They also know each other well. Even during the war in Syria they worked closely together to keep their ally Bashar al-Assad in power.
At first glance, it seems strange that Iran, which is otherwise not very strong militarily, should now help the great Russia out of the fire. This is mainly due to the crucial role that Iran itself has assigned to missiles in its defense strategy for years.
The Iranian Air Force is actually a joke. It is equipped with fighter planes that partly date back to the Soviet era. Instead, Iranian engineers focused on missile development. Tehran threatened, sometimes openly, to target major cities in neighboring countries, including those of US allies, with missiles in retaliation for any attack on Iran itself. A city like Dubai was often mentioned as a target in this context. Iran also invested heavily in the development of new drones. In this area, too, it is ahead in the Middle East, alongside Turkey and Israel, although Turkish and Israeli drones are regarded more highly than the Iranian ones.
However, the London Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded a year ago in a study that the Iranian missiles no longer serve purely defensive purposes. “Iran’s missile arsenal is not only for deterrence but also for battle,” said Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS at the time. The Iranians are also trying to make their missiles more and more precise.
Iran is increasingly reaping the benefits of this missile-based strategy. The Saudis and the Emiratis have now experienced this firsthand. Iran also supplied missiles or at least missile components to the Houthis in Yemen, who are at war there with a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are using their missiles with increasing success against targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, an ally of the Saudis.
Iran apparently hopes to further develop its missiles and drones. The British channel Sky reported that in August the Russians had not only delivered 140 million euros in cash to the Iranians, but also US and British weapons seized in Ukraine. In return, Russia would have received, among other things, a number of drones.
Whether the Iranian weapons can give the war a turn for the Russians, experts now doubt. “I don’t think so,” says Daniel Salisbury, an armaments expert working at King’s College London, to questions from NRC. “I don’t think Iran will deliver huge numbers of missiles. They also have to think about their own defense.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 24, 2022