Paul Iddon – Forbes July 16, 2020
Iran has recently taken a notable interest in helping Iraq and Syria build up their limited air defenses, aiming to give them the capability to counter Israeli airstrikes.
An agreement struck in July to improve Syrian air defenses authorizes Iran to deploy two of its air defense missile systems on Syrian soil, according to a report by the newspaper Raialyoum cited by The Tehran Times, potentially the domestically made Iranian Bavar-373 and 3rd Khordad missiles, which are in some ways comparable to the formidable Russian S-300 system.
The Tehran Times states “the two countries have decided to change the rules of engagement in Syrian airspace and to respond to the repeated Israeli raids on Syrian soil.”
Israel will likely seek to militarily preempt the deployment of such advanced Iranian air defense missiles in Syria. But Tehran has much to gain strategically if it overcomes the odds stacked against it and successfully manages to deploy these systems in Iraq and Syria.
It would give Iran formidable Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) air defense “bubbles” covering strategically important areas of Iraq and the wider Levant. That could help bolster its already significant military foothold in both countries, where it already has a network of tens of thousands of proxy Shiite paramilitary groups ready to do its bidding.
While the air defenses Iran deploys would ostensibly be Iraqi and Syrian, Tehran would most likely have its technicians operating the systems, possibly for years. Russian technicians are believed to be in full control of Syria’s S-300s, the most advanced in Damascus’ arsenal. Iranian technicians would more likely than not have similar control over any systems it manages to deploy in either country.
Also, Iran would join the ranks of the increasing number of countries that are operating air defense missiles beyond their own borders. Russia has established A2/AD air defense bubbles over strategic parts of Syria and eastern Ukraine, and Turkey has also deployed an increasing number of air defense systems in Syria and Libya.
Last year, Iran expressed interest in helping Iraq develop its air defenses on more than one occasion.
In April 2019, Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, hinted at Tehran’s motive for doing so.
“Since air threats on Iraq and Iran are possible from the direction of the western borders, we decided to launch close cooperation in the field of air defense between the two countries,” he said at a press conference, in what seemed to be a reference to Israel.
In June 2019, another Iranian commander said that Iran “is ready to help Iraq in manufacturing and providing technical support for various air defense systems.”
Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes targeting various Iran-related targets in Syria to pressure Iran over its military presence there and prevent it from establishing a permanent foothold.
In the summer of 2019, Israel was also suspected of targeting bases belonging to Iran-backed militias in Iraq in a series of air or drone strikes.
Tehran was alleged to have transferred surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to these Iraqi militias. Iraq briefly closed its airspace to the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition following those suspected Israeli strikes.
Iraq’s air defenses are extremely limited and Baghdad would have a hard time if it actually needed to enforce any closure of its airspace.
While Iraq’s air force does possess U.S.-built F-16 jet fighters, many of these planes have been grounded in recent months due to lack of U.S. technical support and maintenance. Also, Iraqi F-16s are not armed with long-range AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and would not be any match against Israeli jets.
Baghdad has contemplated buying S-400 missiles from Russia. That could make it significantly more difficult for future Israeli airstrikes against Iran-backed Iraqi militia targets in Iraq, as would a successful deployment of Iranian Bavar-373 or 3rd Khordad missiles there.
Undermining the capability of the Israeli Air Force to attack its proxies in Iraq and Syria is undoubtedly a strong motivating factor for Iran in improving and upgrading those two state’s air defenses. However, successfully deploying formidable air defense missiles in either Syria or Iraq will most likely prove tremendously difficult, if not outright impossible, for Tehran.