Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Wednesday a report revealed that Iran is likely involved in building missile factories in northern Syria. Derived from satellite images taken from the EROS satellite, ImageSat International reported that “Syria is building missile factories with Iranian inspiration.” The detailed images showed a valley full of buildings in Wadi Jahannam, east of the city of Baniyas.
The buildings bear a resemblance to surface-to-surface missile factories in Iran. The complex is not small, but takes up several kilometers in a valley. The complex is also located close to other sensitive military sites including the Port of Tartus where Russia maintains a naval presence and Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia.
The revelations about Iranian plans to build missiles in Syria only add a new layer of evidence to Iran’s multipronged attempts to increase its power in the Middle East. The parliament in Tehran recently sought to increase funding for Iran’s ballistic missile program by $260 million.
A high level Israeli delegation of intelligence officials is reportedly leaving for Washington in the next weeks.
This also ties into Hezbollah’s missile build-up and the close ties between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Mark Dubowitz, chief executive officer at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Wisconsin Congressman Mike Gallagher recently detailed in The Wall Street Journal the extent of Iran’s projects in Lebanon. “Buried more than 50 meters below ground and protected from aerial attack, these facilities could produce highly sophisticated rockets with ranges of more than 300 miles and equipped with advanced guidance systems.”
Dubowitz and Gallagher argue that in reaction to this, the US should make clear to the Lebanese government that it is violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was supposed to make it so Lebanon was free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons” not under government control. The US and European partners could also sanction Iran for using human shields in Lebanon, and sanction companies controlled by “military entities in charge of Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
This would be a good start, but the deeper problem with Iran is that its involvement in Lebanon with Hezbollah is, like with the factory near Baniyas, only one layer of a complex attempt to gain hegemony in the Middle East. Iran is also reportedly sending warships to the Atlantic Ocean. It is deeply involved in Iraq, supporting the Hashd al-Shaabi Shia militias that are now part of the Iraqi government. It has played a key role in Syria supporting Bashar Assad. And Iran has less problems attracting foreign investment, especially from Europe, now that it is free from the sanctions imposed prior to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran doesn’t keep its policies secret either. Press TV, which is related to the regime in Tehran, headlined on Thursday that President Hassan Rouhani’s “new pick for defense minister has underlined his resolve to further enhance ballistic missile capabilities.” Brig.-Gen. Amir Hatami boasted that “in the next four years, apart from enhancing combat and defense capabilities, we will devote a special effort to boost missile and ballistic power, strategic air power as well as strategic maritime power and increase rapid reaction force.”
Iran’s defense chiefs have also made frequent strategic visits abroad. In April the defense minister was in Moscow and on Wednesday, Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Baqeri flew to Ankara to meetings with defense officials.
The larger picture also involves Iran’s progress in filling the void left by the decline in Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As ISIS is defeated, pro-Iranian proxies have filled the vacuum in the western deserts of Iraq and also in the swath of desert in Syria that leads to the Euphrates River. This would create a physical land-bridge from Tehran to the sea, a corridor of influence and power that is unprecedented. Hezbollah has threatened to use Shia Iraq fighters in the next war with Israel, and Israel is concerned that cease-fire agreements along the Golan have empowered Iran, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.
The reported visit by Israeli officials with their American counterparts should include attempts to get America’s defense establishment on board with a plan to confront Iran in the region. This doesn’t require reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, because the real Iranian threat today is through proxies and influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is essential that the defeat of ISIS be followed by a policy for dealing with Tehran.