Cipher Brief Expert View: Iran Sends a Message with Missiles in Syria

Emile Nakhleh
Former Member, CIA`s Senior Intelligence Service

The conflict in Syria saw a series of firsts today, as the Pentagon confirmed that a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane near the city of Raqqa and the Iranian military stated that its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched missile strikes at ISIS targets in Syria, in retaliation for the ISIS-claimed terrorist attack in Teheran on 7 June. These are the first reported ground-to-ground strikes in Syria by Iran since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. To understand the broader context in which these Iranian missile strikes occurred, The Cipher Brief spoke with with Emile Nakhleh, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, to discuss Iran’s goals – and its intended audience.

The Cipher Brief: The strikes are supposedly in retaliation for the terrorist attack in Teheran on 7 June. Do you think there will be more strikes or will Iran draw the line with this action?

Emile Nakhleh: Based on available reports, the strike seems to be a one-time retaliation against ISIS for the terrorist attack in Teheran. If Iran gets new information connecting the terrorist attack to another group, for example the Mujahideen Khalil (People’s Mujahedin of Iran), the IRGC could conduct further strikes.

TCB: Will this change the situation in Syria? If so, how?

Nakhleh: The strike sends a message that the IRGC possesses an arsenal of ground-to-ground missiles in Syria.  

Key intelligence questions:  What’s the size of such an arsenal? Has the IRGC had such an arsenal all along or did they augment their military power since the terrorist attack? If more recently, has U.S. intel tracked the shipment of such weapons to Syria?

The missile strike does not change the military equation in Syria, but it does signal Washington that Iran and the IRGC have sufficient retaliatory power against ISIS or other groups should they conduct further terrorist attacks inside Iran.

TCB:  Can you help us understand the broader context of this strike – was this a message to the U.S. and/or to Saudi Arabia?

Nakhleh: The strike sends multiple messages: for the U.S., Iran does not plan to escalate their military involvement in Syria but will not ignore any provocations or attacks on its sovereignty at home. The strike, from Teheran’s perspective, was done in self-defense.

For Saudi Arabia: Don’t go beyond rhetoric in vitriol against Iran. Should the Saudis engage in a military action that could threaten Iran’s security, the IRGC has the means and the regional reach to retaliate. Iran views itself as a responsible, status-quo regional power and will not tolerate the inflaming of the Gulf. The strike is also a signal to the Saudis that they better walk back from their siege of Qatar – lest the situation get out of hand.

TCB:  Is there any relation to the new sanctions on Iran’s missile program that just passed the U.S. Senate?

Nakhleh: I don’t think the strike is in any way a retaliation against the sanctions that Congress passed recently. 

The Author is Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency.  He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of Read More

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