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Iran And Israel Can Really Wreck Each Other

January 22, 2022
A Sejjil MRBM–in the foreground–prepared for launch in December 2021. Via Iranian media.

As 2021 drew to a close the Islamic Republic’s military branches undertook large-scale exercises dubbed “Great Prophet 17.” What the rest of the world didn’t expect was a sudden demonstration of the IRGC’s ballistic missiles. In a single well-orchestrated launch sequence as many as 16 short and medium-range ballistic missiles were sent against a distant target. It turned out the IRGC used the occasion to warn Israel that a sensitive nuclear research facility in the Negev Desert could be attacked in the future.

To make its intent clear the IRGC (the “rocket force” are the sub-branch who deploy the ballistic missiles) assembled a mock up of a “nuclear plant” that was demolished by successive strikes. The message was its missiles can reach Israel’s closely guarded Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona long believed to hold the country’s nuclear warheads. Such dramatic propaganda for the Great Prophet 17 exercises follows months of joint Israeli-US exercises in and around the Persian Gulf.

According to Iranian media the orchestrated missile barrage featured the Sejjil, Emad, “Qadr” (Ghadr), Dezful, Zolfaghar, and Zelzal ballistic missiles. The inclusion of the Zelzal is telling since it’s understood to be a large diameter battlefield rocket and its involvement at the Great Prophet 17 exercises may indicate it has been upgraded for precision and range. The naming system for Iranian ballistic missiles is a source of confusion but it helps to know the IRGC have two “families” from which all their missiles are descended from. The Emad, Ghadr, and Sejjil, for example, are improved variants of the Shahab-3. The Shahab-series of ballistic missiles are based on Soviet and North Korean R-17’s.

Both the Emad and Ghadr missiles, despite their similarities, have ranges varying from 1,200 to 1,700 kilometers making them MRBMs. So if launched in the western frontier of Iran they can deliver a 1,500 pound warhead anywhere in Israel. In 2020 salvos of the IRGC’s SRBMs struck an Iraqi military base housing US troops and while mass casualties were avoided the accuracy and destructive effects buried any false assumptions over Iran’s missiles. Israel’s homegrown efforts at an anti-missile shield will be hard-pressed when up against scores of IRGC missiles in a sustained bombardment.

Meanwhile, the Dezful and Zolfaghar missiles, each capable of reaching targets from 700 to 1,000 km away, are the most sophisticated yet among the Fateh-series that are recognizable for their smaller size and distinct canards below the warhead. The Fateh-110 SRBMs have a curious lineage as their airframes were modeled from Chinese surface-to-air missiles imported in the late 1980s and early 1980s. At first the design was repurposed for a battlefield rocket and then improved to a SRBM. Fatehs are combat proven and the IRGC have punished their foes with them on many occasions. It’s now understood that Fateh-110 SRBMs are offered for export through clandestine transactions.

The ominous part of the missile barrage in the Great Prophet 17 exercises was the simulated destruction visited on a mock up for Israel’s nuclear weapons laboratory. No matter the context this theatrical display of firepower is ample proof Iran’s bellicose rhetoric is loaded with intent; the IRGC has shown to the world it can bombard Israel’s most sensitive locations if war breaks out. But it’s not as if Israel is helpless–its nuclear arsenal, which it takes pain to never acknowledge, is an open secret. Although its size is speculative (it’s claimed there’s enough fissile material for 200 thermonuclear warheads) the IDF possess land-based Jericho-2 and Jericho-3 MRBMs and possibly air and sea-launched options for delivering nuclear strikes on an adversary.

Israel’s own quest for nukes is tied to the country’s founding and the constant warfare that ensued. The full support of France and other European countries in the 1950s until 1960s allowed the nascent Jewish state to assemble a few atomic warheads before the Six Day War in 1967. The brunt of the program took place in the Dimona “research center” under the pretext of industrializing the region. The French aerospace manufacturer Dassault also helped assemble Israel’s first nuclear missiles known as the MD 620 Jericho or Jericho-1. This two-stage SRBM gave Israel an unprecedented deterrent versus its Arab foes in the absence of continuous external support from Western powers.

The US always played along with Israel’s charade to hide its nuclear weapons program and even kept its own assessment of Jerusalem’s warhead stockpile incomplete. It was only in the 1980s after Mordechai Vanunu leaked photos of the Dimona weapons lab to a British newspaper that Israel’s nuclear arsenal became common knowledge without any official comment. In 2021 satellite imagery showed construction work underway at the edge of the Dimona site probably to “harden” its storage areas.

In an actual war scenario pitting Jerusalem versus Tehran, regardless of who struck first, the destructive potential the IDF can unleash is enormous and will be difficult to resist. At the end of the day, Israel has nuclear weapons and Iran doesn’t.

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