Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard navy commander Admiral Ali Fadavi announced yesterday that the country will hold a new exercise in the Strait of Hormuz in February. The planned war games will follow an exercise earlier this week in which Iran launched three anti-ship missiles. The firing of a handful of missiles for media effect is not necessarily significant - but the threat they represent is. Their overt use was intended as a signal to Washington that U.S. naval assets cannot operate with impunity near Iranian waters, especially in the event (however unlikely) that Tehran carries out its threat to close the Strait.
Iran has a fairly well-developed indigenous capacity to produce missiles, with particular strength in anti-ship and ballistic designs. Technical help has come from North Korea in exchange for Iranian investment to bankroll the necessary research. China has also had input, and Iranian scientists have been adapting and improving Chinese designs.
The naval exercise earlier this week showcased two new assets. The Qader is a domestically produced system with a range of 200 kilometres, designed to be launched from either sea or land to hit large surface vessels. It is a sea-skimming missile; is not ballistic and cannot carry a nuclear warhead. The Noor missile is similar to the Qader, but has a longer range. While the Noor in the latest case was launched from a ship, in the event of any hostilities in the Persian Gulf, Iran would most likely rely on its land-based missile assets.
Western naval vessels would have the defensive capabilities to cope with Iranian anti-ship missiles in a hypothetical engagement in open waters, but the Strait of Hormuz is a different operating environment. Missiles fired from shore-based batteries may be picked up late and counter-measures not deployed in time - particularly if the target is operating close to land. Hence, Iranian land-based anti-ship missiles would present a clear danger to both naval and merchant vessels operating close to shore and in the narrow sea lanes of the Strait.
Tehran has realised since the 1980s that its best means of national defence was to develop ballistic missiles. Its air force would be destroyed in fairly short order in any large-scale attack, making Iran reliant on a deterrence-based strategy. On the basis of the venerable Soviet Scud missile, Iran (which has not signed the Missile Technology Control Regime) has made significant strides in developing ballistic missiles over the last few decades. And as its ballistic missiles increase in potency and survivability, the threat they pose will likewise increase.
However, if Iran is to develop a viable nuclear deterrent, it needs to not only produce the actual weapon, but also to ensure that the associated missile is large enough to carry a nuclear device. Likewise, the device itself must also be small enough to be delivered. The complexity of these three inter-related technological advances explains why Tehran is unlikely to present a nuclear threat to its neighbours for years, if not decades, to come.
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