These missiles are about two things:
1. Moving a conventional, tactical strike capability forward — and in particular, a capability that would form a deep-strike element for the advance of a ground force.
2. “Iraq-washing” the capability; i.e., putting it in Iraq, making it purportedly an asset of the Iraq-based Shia militias backed by Iran, so that attacking it requires attacking Iraqi interests on Iraqi territory. This portends dragging Iraq into any beef the real target nations have with Iran: a complicating factor from every standpoint.
As predicted in 2017, Iran is reportedly moving ballistic missiles into Iraq
Reporting from Reuters, based on sources in Iran, Iraq, and Western intelligence agencies, indicates that Iran is providing short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to Shia militia forces in Iraq.
According to Reuters:
Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said. …
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.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted his concern about this development on 1 September:
Deeply concerned about reports of #Iran transferring ballistic missiles into Iraq. If true, this would be a gross violation of Iraqi sovereignty and of UNSCR 2231. Baghdad should determine what happens in Iraq, not Tehran.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 1, 2018
And it is indeed a disquieting development. In a post in July 2017, I previewed the likelihood of it in an extended analysis of the Syria-Iraq situation at the time. I won’t rehash that analysis here, but it provides the background for the following important point about the new Iranian move.
This move is not about the twilight status of the “Iran deal,” or JCPOA, as the Reuters article suggests. It’s about Iran’s geostrategic situation and intentions.
The Reuters piece (and hence much of the mainstream media coverage) is at pains to tie the ballistic missile gambit in Iraq to Trump’s reversal of U.S. concessions under the JCPOA.
But in the context of this particular development — moving short-range missiles into Iraq — the weapon systems in question have little if anything to do with that diplomatic game. The Reuters report ticks them off:
The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting 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.