To Protect Its Missile Arsenal from Israel, Iran Has Been Moving It to Iraq and Lebanon

August 28, 2019 | Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein
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In recent weeks, Israel appears to have carried out at least four airstrikes on Iranian military installations in Iraq. These sites, controlled by Tehran-backed Shiite militias, are a recent addition to the Islamic Republic’s plan to deploy thousands of precision missiles—capable of striking the Jewish state from a distance of up to 600 miles—in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein explain:

According to Israeli officials, since 2017 the IDF has launched over 200 airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian weapons stockpiles and production facilities, sometimes exploiting Iranian attempts to strike Israel by launching extensive retaliatory campaigns and wiping out dozens of targets. Despite what appears to be a decisive Israeli victory in the first round of the Iranian struggle to entrench its forces in Syria from 2017 to 2018, Tehran remains determined and patient, [and] will seek different venues that are less advantageous to Israel in order to advance its precision-missile project. The latter approach has led Iran to move a significant portion of its missile-related activity to Lebanon—where it believes Israel is less inclined to strike so as to avoid instigating a conflict with Hizballah—and Iraq.

Iran gains several important advantages from operating in Iraq rather than in Syria. First, Iraq is farther from Israel’s borders, and it has not been ranked by the Israeli defense establishment as a primary area of focus since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, so Iran presumes that Israel’s intelligence and aerial superiority advantages there are not as great. Second, Israel has benefited from establishing and maintaining the precedent that it can strike Iranian targets in Syria without eliciting a response beyond anti-aircraft fire, but no such precedent exists in Iraq, and establishing one, as Israel might seek to do, is complex and fraught with risks of miscalculation.

In contrast to when Israel set the rules of the game in Syria, the situation in Iraq is made far more complex by the fact that the landscape there includes countless hostile local actors as well as both U.S. and Iranian forces at a time when tensions between the two countries are extremely high. Third, the U.S. military forces stationed in Iraq present obvious targets for pro-Iranian militias seeking an alternative way to avenge airstrikes against them, which could cause tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The toughest dilemma facing the next Israeli government, however, may be the Lebanese Hizballah component of Iran’s precision-missile project. If Iranian-built facilities in Lebanon become operational so transfers through Iraq and Syria are no longer necessary, then Israel will be faced with an unenviable decision: either strike to disrupt Hizballah’s acquisition of dangerous weapons and incur a high risk of war in Lebanon, or seek to upgrade its missile-defense capabilities and ensure that deterrence holds to reduce the likelihood of another Israel-Lebanon war.

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