Iran has shown it likely has more deadly weapons in its arsenal

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressing a meeting in Teheran, on Jan 8, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • US military and intelligence officials were stunned at the precision, scale and sheer boldness of what they later concluded was an Iranian attack.

Four months ago, a swarm of low-flying armed drones and cruise missiles struck oil tanks in the central hub of the Saudi petroleum industry, catching Washington by surprise and temporarily knocking out 5 per cent of the world's oil supply.

Almost no country in the region - except, perhaps, Israel - could have defended against it.

The Iranian attack on US military posts in Iraq early on Wednesday - the only direct attack on the United States or its allies claimed by Iran since the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979 - relied on ballistic missiles and inflicted little damage.

But with tensions between the US and Iran at the highest level in four decades, the unexpected success of the September strike on the Saudi oil facilities is a stark reminder that Teheran has an array of stealthier weapons that could pose far greater threats if the hostilities escalate.

Iran has denied responsibility for the Saudi attack. But US officials have concluded Teheran was behind it, by sending the drones and missiles from Iran or southern Iraq.

Iran's conventional military has deteriorated severely during the country's relative isolation since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But Teheran has spent those decades cultivating less conventional capabilities that are now among the most potent in the world and which are ideally suited for carrying out asymmetrical warfare against a superpower like the US.

Iran commands the region's largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, a network of allied militant groups around the region with as many as 250,000 fighters, and teams of computer hackers that American officials rank among the most dangerous.

It has also developed sophisticated armed and surveillance drones. And lacking a strong conventional navy, it has sought other ways to choke off the flow of Persian Gulf oil, with a fleet of small speedboats and a stockpile of underwater mines.

"Their offensive capability is drastically greater than the defensive capability that is arrayed against them," said analyst Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute.

"Their ability to inflict significant damage makes the cost of war with Iran quite severe."

The ineffectual attack on Wednesday demonstrated the range of Iran's ballistic missiles - some travelling more than 1,000km - but also their poor accuracy, with several landing well outside their presumed targets.

Some analysts suggested that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have ordered a symbolic but relatively harmless attack to show citizens a forceful response to the US' killing last week of Iran's Major-General Qassem Soleimani, without provoking an all-out war with Washington.

"Khamenei has to calibrate the response so that it is enough for Iran not to lose face, but not so much that Iran loses its head," said Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But Iran and its allies may still be plotting less overt forms of revenge for Maj-Gen Soleimani's death.

Many analysts contend that Iran and its militant allies are reverting to their pattern of covert or indirect attacks that leave no clear evidence of Iranian responsibility.


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2020, with the headline Iran has shown it likely has more deadly weapons in its arsenal. Subscribe