New Missiles, New Risks: The Escalatory Implications of Iran’s Precision-Strike Weapons
Since 2017, evidence of Iran’s new precision-strike weapons capability has been raining down across the Middle East. In the last five years, the Revolutionary Guard has used highly accurate ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones to hit range of targets including ISIL in Syria, Kurdish militias in Iraq, oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. airbase in Iraq, and an Israeli-linked oil tanker off the Omani coast. Iranian forces also used surface-to-air missiles in the intentional downing of a U.S. reconnaissance drone and the accidental shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran.
Iran has expanded the types and deployments of precision-strike weapons across all of its military services. As a result, these weapons form a critical pillar of Iran’s military strategy — for deterrence, for defense, and for supporting its “Axis of Resistance” partners. Whereas Western concerns once focused on Iran’s potential use of missiles as nuclear delivery systems, its missiles have now become a conventional threat in themselves.
U.S. policymakers and military planners are working to counter Iran’s advances in precision-strike weapons. But Washington hasn’t fully reckoned with the way in which this new capability has increased Iran’s strategic self-confidence and heightened the risk of rapid escalation in a crisis. Unless and until traditional efforts to constrain Iran’s new weapons prove effective or it is feasible to negotiate limits on them, the United States and its allies should take steps to enhance strategic stability and reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation.
Iran’s Increasing Reliance on Precision-Strike Weapons
The important role of precision-strike weapons in the arsenals of both the Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s conventional military, the Artesh, has increased in recent years, with both forces now deploying these weapons throughout their individual services. For years, the guard’s aerospace force has deployed ballistic missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and drones while the Artesh air force has deployed air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. The navies of the guard and Artesh have operated anti-ship cruise missiles and their air defense forces have both operated surface-to-air missiles. But things have expanded in recent years. In 2021, Iranian commanders highlighted the deployment of ballistic missiles, traditionally a monopoly of the guard’s aerospace force, by the Guard Corps’ ground force and navy. Moreover, the Artesh air force displayed a long-range land-attack cruise missile, another munition traditionally reserved for the guard’s aerospace force. The military services of both the Revolutionary Guard and Artesh now use armed and suicide drones, as shown by the Artesh’s tests of long-range suicide drones last year as well as their deployment by the guard’s ground force. Finally, the ground forces of the guard and Artesh have incorporated guided rockets into their arsenals. In sum, all of the military services of the Revolutionary Guard and Artesh now bristle with strike weapons for offensive and defensive use.
This newfound emphasis on precision-strike missiles and drones can also be seen in Iranian military exercises. In November, the Artesh used cruise missiles, armed and suicide drones, and surface-to-air missiles to strike targets during its “Zolfaghar 1400” exercise. In the “Great Prophet 17” exercise in December, all three of the Revolutionary Guard’s forces — aerospace, navy, and ground — relied on strike weapons in their simulated offensive and defensive operations, including coordinated ballistic missile and drone strikes on a mockup of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility. The research organizations of the Revolutionary Guard and Artesh have also stepped up their involvement in in the development of precision-strike weapons. This has expanded the country’s domestic research, development, and industrial base, which has traditionally been dominated by defense ministry’s development and production organizations such as the Aerospace Industries Organization, Aviation Industries Organization, and Defense Industries Organization.
As a result of these efforts, Iranian precision-strike weapons are now critical to the country’s military strategy. Iran has used precision-strike weapons to respond to what it calls “semi-hard” (nimeh-sakht) threats such as terrorism and assassination and to address the “hard” (sakht) threat of armed conflict via deterrence and defense. These weapons are an important part of deterrence, the cornerstone of Iran’s military strategy. They support Iran’s stated “active deterrence” (bazdarandegi-e fa’el) strategy and its doctrine of “defensive and offensive deterrence” (bazdarandegi-e defa’i va tahajomi), which emphasizes the threat of decisive offensive and defense responses to deter Iran’s adversaries. Iran’s precision-strike weapons do so by providing the means to threaten retaliation — and possibly preemption — against enemy actions and to threaten high costs if adversaries attack or invade.
Statements by Iranian officials emphasize three main components of deterrence: capability, resolve, and vulnerability. Precision-strike weapons are central to all three. First, Iran is increasing its qualitative and quantitative capabilities in the full range of missile and drone strike weapons. Second, Iran has signaled its resolve to use these weapons overtly or covertly against its non-state and state adversaries. Third, it is attempting to decrease its own vulnerabilities by enhancing the survivability of its precision-strike weapons. Iran is also attempting to exploit the perceived vulnerabilities of its adversaries by threatening to strike Israeli cities and nuclear facilities as well as U.S. military bases and forces in the region.
In addition to deterrence, precision-strike weapons also play a critical role in Iran’s plans for defense and asymmetric warfare should deterrence fail. For example, Iran would rely heavily on these weapons if it ever followed through on its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. They also play an important role in the military dimension of Iran’s strategy of “resistance,” including its support of its Axis of Resistance partners such as Lebanese Hizballah and the Yemeni Houthis.
The Risk of Rapid Escalation
Iran’s reliance on precision-strike weapons to support its military strategy and national security goals will likely continue to grow. Not surprisingly, Western countries, in particular the United States and Israel, have become increasingly concerned, and reportedly now view Iran’s conventional strike capabilities as a more immediate danger than Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. Central Command has highlighted its concerns about Iran’s achievement of “overmatch” in the region and stressed the measures that it has taken in response, including enhancing deterrence, improving active and passive defenses, and redeploying forces.
Unfortunately, the United States and its allies still face serious challenges in responding, whether by seeking to constrain Iran’s advances in precision-strike weapons or to deter Iran’s use of them. Western countries will almost certainly continue their traditional measures aimed at constraining Iran’s development of strike weapons, such as national and multilateral export controls, sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and interdictions. However, these measures have shown little impact thus far on Iran’s capability to develop, deploy, and transfer weapons.
Negotiations to limit Iran’s precision-strike weapon programs, capabilities, or transfers will likely not be feasible for some time, based on the high level of political tensions, the critical role that these weapons play in Iran’s military strategy, and the clear advantages they provide to Iran. Tehran’s consistent position remains that negotiations on these weapons are a “red line.” This means that any efforts to constrain Iran’s capabilities or “decouple” Iranian precision-strike weapons from the central role they play in Iran’s military strategy will most likely prove impractical for at least the near future.
Western countries also face a tough challenge in deterring Iran’s threat and use of precision-strike weapons so long as Iran believes it holds the advantage in the overall balance of deterrence. Although Iranian officials likely do not doubt U.S. and Israeli capabilities to strike Iran, statements by Iranian military officials suggest they question Western resolve in using military force against Iran and also believe Israeli targets and U.S. bases in the region are highly vulnerable to Iranian missile and drone strikes. Indeed, Iranian military officials assert that Iran has passed the “deterrence phase” (marhaleh-ye bazdarandegi) and reached the point where the onus now lies with Iran’s adversaries to deter it, not the other way around.
These dynamics all intensify the risk of rapid escalation during a crisis or conflict with Iran. Iran’s self-confidence and perception of advantage may not be justified but they nonetheless create the risk of Iranian misperception during a crisis. Additionally, Iran’s reliance on precision-strike weapons to conduct quick, decisive, and offensive responses to enemy actions could easily drive a fast, escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat attacks with Iran using increasing numbers of these weapons in each step. This would only be intensified by the “use or lose” pressures on Iranian commanders to launch strikes before their own arsenals are destroyed.
The United States and its allies should continue to seek military and diplomatic ways to blunt the threat of Iranian precision-strike weapons. Until these efforts succeed, however, they should seek ways to strengthen strategic stability and reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation in the case of a crisis. Such measures could include direct communication hotlines between military commanders, streamlined diplomatic channels using a pre-arranged third party, advanced notification of military exercises, and agreements to reduce the chances of naval or air incidents.
Jim Lamson is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Prior to that, Jim worked for 23 years as an analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Image: Islamic Republic News Agency