When Iran Attacks

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On January 8, 2020, Iran used ballistic missiles to attack U.S. air bases in Iraq, in response to the U.S.-targeted killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasem Soleimani. The attack against U.S. bases in Iraq demonstrates that Tehran continues to rely on its missile forces as a tool for signaling, diplomacy, propaganda, deterrence, and retaliation. The precise character of the attack also confirms that Iran’s missile capabilities have advanced considerably in recent years. Such deliberate targeting may have allowed Iran to avoid killing U.S. military personnel, thereby achieving strategic effects while minimizing the risk of further escalation. It also serves, however, as a warning that Iran’s missiles pose a credible threat to U.S. and allied military forces in the region.

Q1: What did Iran do?

A1: Around 1:30 a.m. local time on January 8, Iran fired around 15 ballistic missiles against two military bases in Iraq that housed U.S. troops, Ain Al Asad air base near Baghdad and another facility near Erbil in northern Iraq. Iran likely launched the missiles from its missile bases around Kermanshah near Iraq, which it has used for previous missile launches into Iraq and Syria over the past two years.

Neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi government has reported any causalities, but early analysis of open-source satellite imagery suggests that the missiles destroyed several buildings at Ain Al Asad, including what appear to be aircraft hangers. Iran reportedly gave warning to the Iraqi government around 90 minutes before the strike.  

Q2: What was Iran hoping to accomplish?

A2: This attack probably supported several Iranian objectives. First and foremost, it served as a response to the killing of Soleimani. The strike both signaled Iranian resolve to defend its influence in the region and satisfied pressure from elements of the Iranian population and regime that desired vengeance for his death. This attack was unique in its directness against U.S. forces without any attempt to obscure the source of the attack. Rather, Iranian officials promptly claimed credit for the attack on state-run news outlets and on social media. In many of its other recent operations, by contrast, Iran has deflected attribution through its use of regional proxy forces and straight denial.

Certain details of the strike also seem to indicate a level of restraint on Iran’s part. Iran provided the Iraqi government with advance warning, giving time for both U.S., Iraqi, and other allied forces to prepare. The precision of the attack may have allowed Iran to more carefully choose targets to avoid causing casualties, giving the United States an easier off-ramp to deescalate.

On the other hand, the attack’s surgical character may also serve as a warning about the potential of future attacks. Iran could use missiles with similar accuracy to maximize damage rather than limit it. The lack of casualties in this particular case may have been a success rather than a failure of Iranian missiles or missileers.

Q3: What did Iran fire?

A3: Although the exact missiles used in the attack remain unconfirmed, early evidence suggests Iran fired Qiam-type-type ballistic missiles, and possibly others from its Fateh missile family. Qiams are short-ranged liquid-fueled missiles, an advanced variant of the Scud. It notably has a warhead that separates from the missile’s main body, somewhat uncommon for a short-range missile. Images of debris from Qiam missile bodies in Iraq began circulating on social media shortly after the attack.

Iranian state media also speculate Iran also fired Fateh 110 missiles or its possibly longer-ranged sibling, the Zolfaghar. Fateh missiles are solid-fueled, meaning they can be launched at short notice because they do not need to be fueled before launch. Some Fateh variants are reportedly able to maneuver during flight, increasing their accuracy.

The Qiam and Fateh models are among the more accurate weapons in Iran’s missile arsenal. A cursory analysis of the satellite imagery suggests, however, that the accuracy of these missiles may be even greater than previously suspected.  

Q4: How did U.S. forces react to the attack?

A4: According to President Trump’s remarks, U.S. and Iraqi forces took precautionary measures to weather the attack, which included sheltering and dispersal. The president also credited the U.S. early warning system, which he said, “worked very well.” The president is likely referring to a constellation of overhead satellites known as the Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS), which can detect the intense heat of ballistic missiles launches. The satellites communicate this information to command and control systems, which distribute that information to allow troops to prepare for incoming, and if in position, to ready missile defenses. The Pentagon has not acknowledged the presence of any missile defense systems at either Ain Al Asad air base or the base near Erbil.  

Q5: Has Iran done anything like this before?

A5: Iran has launched similar missile attacks into Iraq and Syria in recent years, although never targeting U.S. personnel. On June 2017, Iran launched six missiles into eastern Syria targeting Islamic States positions near Deir-Ez Zour in retaliation for Islamic States attacks in Tehran. Iran carried out a similar attack against the Islamic State a year later in October 2018. In September 2018, Iran launched seven Fateh-110 missiles at the alleged headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan in Koya, Iraq. 

Beyond these direct attacks originating from Iran itself, the IRGC-QF has proliferated missile and rockets around the region. Due to IRGC-QF support, Hezbollah in Lebanon now possesses over 130,000 missiles and rockets, and Iran has supplied missiles and drones to its Houthi allies in Yemen. Most recently, the IRGC-QF has been supplying rockets and missiles to pro-Tehran militias in Iraq, which have used these weapons against U.S. facilities in Iraq. This includes the deadly rocket attack on December 27, 2019, which sparked the recent cycle of escalation. 

Q6: What Comes Next?

A6: President Trump’s remarks following the strike appear to indicate that the United States will not respond militarily, taking the off-ramp provided by Iran’s relatively restrained response.  Had the attack resulted in loss of life, the administration’s decision would certainly have been more difficult. While the issues that have brought Iran and the United States into conflict remain, the U.S. and Iranian decisions to stand down may buy stability in the short term.

This article was originally published at csis.org.

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Ian Williams, "When Iran Attacks," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 9, 2020, last modified April 21, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/when-iran-attacks/.