Iran Fired Ballistic Missile During Drills Where It Practiced Blockading the Strait of Hormuz

It is also the first launch of a ballistic missile of any kind in more than a year and could draw harsh criticism from the Trump Administration.

Hossein Velayati via Wikimedia

Iran reportedly fired a short-range Fateh 110 ballistic missile, the first launch of any kind of ballistic missile in more than a year, during recent exercises in and around the Strait of Hormuz, further underscoring threatening capability the country wields over the strategic waterway. It will likely incite the ire of President Donald Trump, if it hasn't already, who pulled out of a controversial deal over Iran’s nuclear program, in no small part over the country’s continued development of these types of weapons, earlier in 2018.

Fox News was the first to report the launch, citing unnamed U.S. government officials. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired the third generation Fateh 110, said to have been in an anti-ship configuration, from Iranian soil, after which it flew over 100 miles, crossing part of the Strait of Hormuz, and then impacting on a desert test range on land inside the country. There is no indication that any ships in the area, including the U.S. Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans, which is operating in the region, were ever in danger.

“The scope and scale of the exercise [in and around the Strait of Hormuz] we saw was similar to what we've seen with other exercises that they've done in this region,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Aug. 8, 2018, without  making any mention of a missile launch. “I think what was perhaps a little bit different was the timing of it in this particular case. And so, I think it's pretty clear to us that they were trying to use that exercise to send a message to us that as – as we approach this – the period of the sanctions here, that they had some capabilities.”

The Pentagon declined to comment to Fox News on the use of the Fateh 110 during the exercise. One of the outlet's sources, however, said that it was routine for the IRGC to fire missiles during drills in and around the Strait of Hormuz.

M-ATF via Wikimedia

A mobile Fateh 110 transporter-erector-launcher, with two missiles. 

The Fateh 110 itself is a well-established weapon in the Iranian arsenal and has been in service since 2002. The third generation version, which reportedly has a range of approximately 185 miles, first emerged to the public in 2010. Iran has since developed a number of additional variants and derivatives of the same design, which reportedly have increased range and accuracy.

In 2011, Iran claimed that it had tested a dedicated anti-ship version of that missile, which it called Khalij Fars. That the missile during this recent exercise impacted a target on land and that Fox News' sources described it specifically as a third generation Fateh 110 rather than the Khalij Fars, or more recent derivatives aptly named Hormuz-1 and Hormuz-2, which also reportedly have an anti-ship capability, raise questions about what the exact model might have been.

The last known launches of the Fateh 110 came in March 2017, when Iran fired a pair of them in either tests or drills, according to Fox News. One reportedly hit a floating barge, an apparent mock naval target, at a range of around 155 miles. In June 2017, the IRGC fired a barrage of Zulfiqar ballistic missiles, a derivative of the Fateh 110, at ISIS terrorists in Syria in retaliation for terrorist attacks in Iran’s capital Tehran.

The use of the anti-ship Fateh 110 variant during the recent drills is clearly meant to highlight the various capabilities Iran could bring to bear if it wanted to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. On multiple occasions in 2018, Iranian officials have explicitly and implicitly threatened to do this in response to sanctions and other “aggression” from the United States.

Iran has raised the possibility of trying to close off the important waterway repeatedly in the past, as well. As in this case, these threats typically coincide with periods of increased tensions with the United States and other regional opponents. You can read more about the Iranians might go about doing this and the potential impacts here.

Suffice to say, if the Iranians actually tried to impose a blockade, using the Fateh 110s and other weapons, especially naval mines, it could easily touch off a broader regional conflict that would be almost certain to drag in the United States. Even if the parties involved managed to avoid a larger war, the crisis could still have significant impacts around the world. Some 20 percent of all oil exports make their way to their destinations via the Strait of Hormuz.

The video below shows the IRGC's "Great  Prophet IX" exercise, another drill in the Strait of Hormuz 2015, which involved sinking a mock aircraft carrier.

But the launch of the Fateh 110 could also prompt a new round of charged rhetoric from the U.S. government and President Trump himself. As a candidate and since taking office, he has been an outspoken critic of Iran’s missile programs and regularly cited them among the reasons why he felt that the multi-national deal with Iran over its equally controversial nuclear program was flawed.

In May 2018, Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of that agreement. On Aug. 6, 2018, he ordered the reimposition of a host of economic sanctions against Iran that the United States had lifted under the deal.

“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles,” Trump had said in a speech at the United Nations on Sept. 19, 2017. “The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

AP

US President Donald Trump speaks at the United Nations in September 2017.

Opponents of the deal had long criticized it, not unreasonably, for having a myopic focus on the country’s nuclear ambitions alone, without addressing any other significant issues. Among these were Iran’s continuing ballistic missile developments, which present a standing threat to American interests and allies in the region, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The agreement did contain a provision calling for Iran to help promote regional peace and stability, which the country definitely did not do. Critics had said then that Iranian missiles violated the “spirit of the agreement,” even if they did not technically violate it.

And lastly, a separate United Nations Security Council resolution forbids Iran from launching any ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear weapon until 2023. Since Iranian authorities insist they are not developing nuclear warheads at all, they argue that all of their missiles are exempt. The United States and other countries have vehemently disagreed with this position. Regardless, at present, there is no publicly available evidence that Iran is presently developing any nuclear weapons, especially ones small enough to fit inside the Fateh 110, which would exempt it from this U.N.-backed missile launch ban.

Of course, it’s not clear whether any of this will matter to the Trump administration, or National Security Advisor John Bolton, in particular. Bolton has been an outspoken advocate of regime change, despite insisting that this is not current United States policy, and of potential military action in Iran in the past.  

Alexey Vitvitsky/Sputnik via AP

US National Security Advisor John Bolton.

There is also evidence that Trump himself is more inclined to make policy decisions based on news reports, rather than any information he receives from his own Intelligence Community. In September 2017, he criticized what Fox News and other outlets characterized as video of a new missile test, despite Iran having never claimed it as such.

It turned out, as we at The War Zone reported at the time initially, that the footage was months old and was of a launch that had already prompted U.S. sanctions. It remains hard to imagine that American intelligence agencies were not aware of the true situation and Trump had apparently not sought out their counsel before Tweeting out about the apparent new development.

The video below shows footage of the missile test that occurred in January 2017, but which Iran only released in September 2017.

Though Fox News and others have already characterized this Fateh 110 launch during the recent drills as a “test,” we have no way of telling if this is an accurate description of the events, but it could have an impact on how Trump interprets them. After sanctioning Iran over the January 2017 missile test, the president said he had put Iranian authorities "on notice" that there would be consequences for further ballistic missile tests. 

However, the U.S. government did not make a major issue out of Iran's decision to fire the Zulfiqars into Syria in an operational context in June 2017. At the time of writing, Trump had not yet mentioned the news on Twitter or through any other outlet.

Regardless, the concern is that this incident could lead to more tit-for-tat sanctions and threats, which might further inflame tensions and increase the possibility of a miscalculation on either the part of the United States or Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under increasing pressure on multiple fronts at home and has increasingly chosen to take a defiant stance against the U.S. government in an apparent attempt to bolster his political standing.

In July 2018, the two leaders exchanged threats, with Trump writing an especially inflammatory Tweet that called the Iranian president’s word’s “demented.” The president's statement came after a round of threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and may have led to the snap IRGC exercises followed.

Still, it's already been at least a week since Iran reportedly fired the Fateh 110 and it seems highly unlikely, especially given Fox News' sources, that the U.S. Intelligence Community was unaware that this launch had occurred. In that time, however, there has been no criticism, or other statements, from Trump or his Administration regarding the event.

This raises the possibility that the U.S. officials may have already dismissed the use of the missile as routine. On the other hand, they could also be waiting until a more critical juncture to bring up that information as evidence of Iran's continued defiance of the international community.

Now that Fox's report is out in the open, we may not have to wait long for an official response.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com