In what is sure to be a realization of one of Netanyahu's worst nightmares, and deeply awkward for US advisers to Baghdad, Iran has transferred ballistic missiles to Shia proxy forces in Iraq, according to Western and Iraqi intelligence sources cited in a new Reuters report.
The revelation comes as tensions between Washington and Tehran are already at their highest point in years as aggressive sanctions continue crippling Iran's economy, and after threats and counter-threats over Tehran laying claim to the vital Strait of Hormuz oil waterway over the past weeks, through which some one-third of the world's oil passes.
The Reuters report cites multiple officials and intelligence sources, including Iranian officials who seem willing to inform the world of the provocative move:
According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.
“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”
The news is sure to cause a stir for European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) like Germany, the UK, and France, who are still trying to salvage it, as it is a clear sign that the deal which the Trump White House pulled out of is in tatters.
Reuters identifies the Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missile systems as among those transferred — with ranges of between 200 and 700km, which puts "Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq".
And notably the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds force head, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, is overseeing the missile transfers and their operation in what regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel are sure to interpret as the most provocative and escalatory move by its archenemy in recent years.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently lobbied the White House for more aggressive action against Iran, and speaking last week along side US National Security Advisor John Bolton, affirmed Bolton's call for both to weaken Iran's regional presence in places like Syria.
Bolton had praised Israel's repeat attacks on Iranian targets inside Syria, saying “every time Iran has brought missiles or other threatening weapons” into the country, Israel hasn't hesitated to act. Bolton hailed those strikes as “a legitimate act of self-defense”.
However, the case of Iraq is clearly a more delicate situation, as the pro-Shia government in Baghdad is propped up by the United States, and Baghdad in turn facilitates the operation of Tehran-aligned militias who act in concert with Iraqi military forces. Of course, in an irony that won't be lost on future historians, it was the United States and its allies that installed a Shia government in Baghdad in the first place by toppling Saddam Hussein in its 2003 invasion, which Netanyahu had given loud and consistent support for.
One Western source cited by Reuters says the missile transfer is clearly intended as a "warning" to both the US and Israel. "It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base," the source said.
The sources also pointed out that elite Iranian IRGC forces have already trained Iraqi personnel to operate its sophisticated missiles, and that Iran has already long established forward bases in parts of Iraq.
One senior IRGC commander confirmed this to Reuters, saying: “We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region.”
Western and Iraqi sources identified that missile producing factories overseen by Iranians are present in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. And further there is said to be a site under the operation of Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is considered one of Iran's closest proxy paramilitary forces.
Though the Iraqi government didn't comment on an official level, Reuters cites the following alarming words from an Iraqi government source:
The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.
“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.
The Iraqi official continued, “Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides.”
And meanwhile, hours after the Reuters story broke early Friday, Iran's Tasnim news agency reported the country's domestically produced long-range ballistic missiles will be ready for use by the Spring of 2019, according to a commander that oversees Iran's Air Defense.
Surely, Israel will respond at some point to what Netanyahu has long ago identified as a "red line" concerning Israel's security interests in the region. The only question is how and when, and how awkward will in be for US officials in Baghdad?