No Iranian can forget when, decades ago, Saddam Hussein set out to update his country's military might. The Iraqi leader pushed hard to boost both Iraq’s missile and nuclear programs at the same time, advancing them in parallel. Israeli jets demolished the Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, destroying his nuclear program, but the country’s missile program went ahead in full force for many years.
During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Saddam boosted the range of the country's long-range missiles, targeting Iranian cities, from Ilam and Kermanshah to Tabriz, Isfahan and Tehran. In this phase of the eight-year war that became known as “War of the Cities,” 135 Iraqi missiles hit various Iranian cities. The attacks killed more than 2,000 Iranians and one-fourth of Tehran’s population evacuated the capital.
Of course, the fate of Saddam’s missile power is also well known. In January 1991, after occupying Kuwait and during the First Gulf War, or Operation Desert Storm, he targeted US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel with 33 and 38 missiles respectively. Saddam's main targets in Saudi Arabia were US military bases.
Operation Desert Storm destroyed a significant part of Iraq’s ballistic missile capabilities, and the rest was destroyed by Saddam himself following the UN Security Council’s Resolution 687 in 1991. The resolution led to the creation of a special commission — UNSCOM — to inspect Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear facilities and supervise the destruction of its ballistic missile capability. In a humiliating measure, Saddam was ordered to broadcast on Iraqi TV the destruction of the country’s missiles stage by stage, documenting the dismantlement for the whole world to see. The story of Saddam after the destruction of this missile force is well documented and key to understanding what has unfolded in Iraq over the last decade or more.
There have long been serious suspicions concerning Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, as there have been about several other countries, including North Korea, Pakistan, India and Saddam’s Iraq. Ayatollah Khamenei’s 2003 fatwa against building nuclear weapons had little impact on these suspicions — until July 14, 2015 when Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program by signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear agreement is officially known. A12-year crisis came to an end, or so it appeared.
A Missile Crisis
But it wasn’t long before a new crisis developed. On March 9, 2016 — only eight months after the JCPOA was signed — the Revolutionary Guards launched two ballistic missiles that had, they claimed, a range of 2,000 kilometers. The missiles were marked with the phrase "Israel must be wiped out.’’ Just as Iran managed to put a 12-year crisis behind it, it entered into a one: The missile crisis.
Twenty days later, on March 29, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany wrote a joint letter to the UN, declaring that Iran’s missile tests were “inconsistent with” and “in defiance of" Security Council Resolution 2231 because the tests involved missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
And then, another development further angered these four countries. In October 2016, the Yemeni Shia Houthis launched a missile toward Saudi Arabia, giving the Saudi government a chance to launch a propaganda offensive. Saudis claimed that the missile was targeted at Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad and the holiest place in Islam. Houthis accepted the responsibility for launching the missile but said that the target had been King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, 66km (41 miles) from Mecca.
Despite the Houthis’ denial and the unlikelihood of any group of Muslims attacking Mecca, the Saudis pressed on with their propaganda until the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned the attack as well. It proposed referring the case to the UN Security Council. OIC foreign ministers also agreed with the Saudi government that the missile, which was shot down before it could hit its target, was aimed at Mecca.
Buoyed by the OIC and insisting that Mecca had been the target, Saudi Arabia questioned whether the Houthis and the group’s main backer, Iran, were Muslims at all. “The Iranian regime is supporting a terrorist group that fires its rockets on Mecca. Is this an Islamic regime as it claims?” said United Arab Emirates foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed a day after the missile was shot down.
“Obviously” an Iranian Missile
Then there was the recent launch. On November 4, 2017, Houthis fired a missile in the direction of Saudi capital Riyadh’s international airport, triggering yet another Saudi propaganda offensive against Iran’s missile program. The country’s crown prince accused Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying missiles to the Houthis. French President Emmanuel Macron described the missile as "obviously" Iranian. On November 10, the top US Air Force official in the Middle East said Iran had manufactured the ballistic missile that Yemen's Shia rebels had fired toward the Saudi capital, and that remnants of it bore "Iranian markings.” The statements from both leaders backed the Saudi claim.
In essence, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of starting another “War of the Cities,” reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s 1980s attacks against Iran.
Iran denied the Saudi claim, and the hardliner newspaper Kayhan, run by the Supreme Leader’s representative Hossein Shariatmadari, further aggravated tensions. “Next Target: Dubai” ran its main headline on November 6. Following this, publication of Kayhan was suspended for two days, but the damage was done. Opponents of Iran’s missile program had been given and more ammunition.
At the same time, it is vital to keep in the mind Lebanese Hezbollah and its missile power, and that of Hamas, repeatedly used against Israel. And Iran has no qualms about declaring its role in supplying missiles to these two groups, both of which western countries consider to be terrorists. The French president has good reason to describe Iran’s missile program as a “threat to the whole region.” Macron also emphasized the need for negotiations with Tehran over its missile development program.
Tehran’s answer to French president was a categorical “no.” But Iran’s claim that the country’s missile program is its “inalienable right” and that it is non-negotiable is as much a bravado as was its claim that nuclear energy was its “inalienable right.”
As it stands, if the “War of the Cities” between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia intensifies, the Islamic Republic will gradually follow the same path that Saddam Hussein did. In the end, Saddam was forced by Security Council Resolution 687 to destroy his ballistic missiles, and to broadcast the destruction to the world.
Hossein Alizadeh is a former Iranian diplomat who now lives in Finland