The history of the Iranian regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has revolved around its expansionist ambitions, military threats and overestimation of the country’s military capabilities when facing its enemies.
However, there have been hardly any direct military successes for the Iranian regime to boast of since the mullahs took the helm of the country 40 years ago.
The confrontation with Iraq in the eight-year war initiated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein resulted in major losses of life and equipment in Iran.
These forced the Iranians to accept a ceasefire in 1988, marking the end of one of the worst conventional wars in recent history.
As a result of economic hardships after the war with Iraq coupled with the economic sanctions imposed on the country, the Iranian leadership substituted confrontational war tactics for proxy ones, such as in the present conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
It consolidated its influence in these countries through arming and financing militias such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria and the Houthis in Yemen.
These have created havoc in the countries they have operated in, while managing to expand Iranian political and military influence – a goal that the Iranians could not have attained by conventional political or military methods.
At the same time, the Iranian authorities have adopted the policy of introducing new indigenously manufactured military equipment built entirely in Iran, such as their assortment of short-range and medium-range missiles and other more sophisticated equipment such as fighter jets whose real capabilities are unknown.
When the Iranians declared they had developed a new jet fighter called “Kosar” or “Kawthar,” military analysts elsewhere found that this was simply a modified version of the F-5 fighter that was available in Iran before 1979, for example.
The F-5 is regarded as obsolete, though the Iranians have declared their modified version of it to be a fourth-generation plane equipped with the latest equipment. Clearly, it represents little real threat when facing Western fighters such as the F-15, F-16, F-18, Rafale or Euro fighters owned by Iran’s Middle Eastern neighbours and Western adversaries.
However, the decision by the Iranian military to relocate its short-range Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zu Al-Fuqra ballistic missiles, which have strike ranges of between 200 and 700 km, into Shiite militia-controlled areas of Iraq represents the latest threat by the Iranian regime against its neighbours and an infringement of the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.
According to a recent Reuters report, the Iranian aim is believed to be to possess the capability to attack US allies in the Middle East more effectively should the US decide to launch an attack on Iran.
While the number of ballistic missiles that have been deployed is only a few dozen, this could be increased significantly and could represent a threat similar to that presented to Saudi Arabia through the ballistic missiles launched by the Houthi rebels in Yemen against Saudi cities.
The missiles in Iraq are operated by Shiite militias pledging allegiance to Iran, and they represent a new challenge to the Iraqi government, which is still facing Islamic State (IS) and Turkish aggression from the east and now has to deal with Iranian infiltration from the West as well.
Despite its attempts to appear mighty on paper and its score of as high as the 13th-strongest army in the world in the Global Firepower 2018 rankings after Egypt, Iran’s military has antiquated equipment that is obsolete compared to that of its neighbours.
This is mainly due to the years of military sanctions imposed by the international community on Iran and the country’s overreliance on indigenously produced equipment that cannot match that of its Western and regional rivals.
It is this that has driven the Iranians to establish a nuclear capability and their attempts to establish a nuclear weapons programme that could secure the country from possible attack.
With the exception of Syria, there is hardly a country in the Middle East that has not had problems with the Iranian regime over the past four decades.
As a result, any complacency when dealing with the Iranian regime has to stop, especially on the part of European countries that in defiance of US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty with Iran are still extending credit lines to Iran’s government in efforts to keep business with the country going and in a desperate attempt to keep the nuclear deal from falling apart.
While peace may appear to be the reason behind such moves, Iran has never failed to display its aggressive stance when the chance has been open to it.
The deployment of ballistic missiles on Iraqi soil and the continuous support of Hizbullah and Houthi activities should be signals enough for the Europeans and others to cease their wishful thinking that the Iranian regime is going to change.
The simple fact is that Iran is still being run by ideologues who care less about the human costs for their own people or for those of others and are only interested in achieving Iranian hegemony over the region.
This has been shown in the steps the Iranians have taken towards their neighbours, whether in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or the UAE, and in their threats of annihilation towards Israel and the United States.
There have also been covert operations against Egypt and the funding of terrorist organisations such as Hamas with the aim of thwarting peace in the Palestinian Territories.
The Iranian missiles deployed in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, most notably Syria and Yemen, represent a clear and present danger to the security of the region from a regime that has crushed its own people for over four decades and wants to do the same thing in other countries through allies such as Hizbullah and the Houthis.
It is high time for European governments to send a clear message to the Iranian regime that such ambitions will keep the country a pariah in the region and that the lifeline provided by the European Union to Iran is conditional on its respecting the boundaries and the sovereignty of all the countries in the Middle East.
If this does not happen, the European Union will be shooting itself in the foot by continuing to bail out the Iranian regime economically at a time when that regime has the funds to finance violence in the region.
Sooner rather than later, the range of Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles will increase to cover areas close to or within the European Union, and when this happens European politicians will have only themselves to blame for having assisted Iran in building weapons that can be aimed at them whenever the mullahs wish to do so.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and The Winding Road to Democracy.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Curbing Iranian threats