Concurrent reports that Iran will launch new attacks against Saudi Arabia and Iraqi Kurdistan while simultaneously preparing missile shipments to Russia for use against Ukraine demonstrate Tehran’s increased willingness to escalate beyond its borders.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report, on Tuesday, that Saudi Arabia has warned the United States of an Iranian plan to attack targets inside the kingdom and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The report came one day after Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary shared a video on its Telegram channel in which it threatened to launch drone attacks against American and Israeli targets in the Middle East. While such videos are not uncommon, the timing of this particular one might indicate that Iran is preparing the grounds for new and highly publicized attacks in the region.
Iran’s allies, the Houthis, have frequently targeted Saudi Arabia with Iranian-designed ballistic missiles and drones during the Yemen war. The U.S. believes Iran launched the unprecedented September 2019 drone and missile attack that hit the oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia with alarming accuracy.
Iran has also struck Iraqi Kurdistan with an increasing number of deadly attacks. In late September, it launched a series of drone and missile strikes targeting sites belonging to various Iranian Kurdish opposition groups. Those strikes coincided with the ongoing protests in Iran and were the biggest against the autonomous region in years. By targeting those groups, Tehran clearly sought to divert attention from the burgeoning, countrywide women-led protest movement sparked by the infamous death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in the custody of the so-called morality police on Sept. 16.
The pretext for any subsequent Iranian attacks on either Iraqi Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere in the region, will likely follow more or less the same script that invariably blames external instigators for stoking these protests, the most significant Iran has faced in over 40 years.
It makes sense from the regime’s perspective to escalate regional tensions to distract from this domestic turmoil. It’s unclear if Tehran intends to inflame tensions to the point it will risk igniting a regional conflagration. Although that is a possibility that one cannot rule out. After all, post-revolutionary Iran was engulfed by internal clashes and violence that increasingly looked like a civil war in its early days. The current Islamist regime could only fully consolidate power after Iraq’s 1980 invasion enabled it to mobilize and unify most of the general population against that external threat. The regime may be betting that escalating tensions in the region now could create a similar rally around the flag effect it can exploit to subdue this popular protest movement.
At the same time the Saudis made the warning, CNN, citing “officials from a western country that closely monitors Iran’s weapons program,” reported that Iran is preparing to ship 1,000 more weapons to Russia, which include more drones and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), for use against Ukraine. It’s the first-ever known shipment of Iranian SRBMs to Russia and is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
On Tuesday, the Defense Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine also reported that Iran will send Russia more than 200 combat drones. The shipment will include Arash-2 loitering munitions that are faster and have a greater range than the Iranian-built Shahed-136s Russia has been using against Kyiv.
For months, recurring reports and estimates suggest that Russia has expended a large portion of its ballistic and cruise missile stockpiles since the start of the war. Procuring thousands of drones and hundreds of SRBMs from Iran enables Moscow to sustain its daily bombardment of Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure.
Aside from being the primary foreign arms supplier to the aggressor in the biggest war in Europe since World War II, Iran is also directly assisting the Russian war effort. IRGC trainers have reportedly deployed to a Russian military base in Crimea to help the Russian military maintain its new Iranian drones after they suffered malfunctions. As the New York Times noted, the deployment “appears to coincide with stepped-up use of the drones in Ukraine and indicates a deeper involvement by Iran in the war.”
The SRBMs Iran is delivering are most likely Fateh-110s and Zolfaghars, which have respective ranges of between 186 and 435 miles. Unlike the noisy and sl0w-moving Shahed drones, Ukraine will probably find these missiles extremely difficult to shoot down until and unless Kyiv is provided with much more sophisticated air defenses.
These SRBMs, additional loitering munitions, and IRGC technical support will undoubtedly play a significant role in enabling Russia to continue destroying Ukraine’s national electricity grid, which could, predictably, result in large numbers of Ukrainian civilians freezing to death this winter.
These reported developments are firm reminders that whatever happens inside Iran in the coming weeks and months could well have significant reverberations worldwide.