Iran’s ballistic missile strike targeting the Islamic State group in Syria served both as revenge for attacks on Tehran earlier this month and a warning that Iran could strike Saudi Arabia and U.S. interests in the Mideast, an Iranian general said Monday.
The launch, which hit Syria’s eastern city of Deir el-Zour on Sunday night, appeared to be Iran’s first missile attack abroad in over 15 years and its first in the Syrian conflict amid its support of embattled President Bashar Assad.
It adds new tensions in a region already unsettled by a long-running feud between Shiite power Iran and the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as a campaign by Arab nations against Qatar.
It also raises questions about how U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which already said it put Iran “on notice” for its ballistic missile tests, will respond.
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force in charge of the country’s missile program, said it launched six Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from the western provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan. State television footage showed the missiles on truck missile launchers in the daylight before being launched at night.
The missiles flew over Iraq before striking what the Guard called an Islamic State command center and suicide car bomb operation in Deir el-Zour, over 600 kilometers (370 miles) away. The extremists have been trying to fortify their positions in the Syrian city in the face of a U.S.-led coalition onslaught on Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.
Activists in Syria said they had no immediate information on damage or casualties from the strikes, nor did the Islamic State group immediately acknowledge it. The Guard released black-and-white footage it said came from a drone showing the strikes, a column of thick black smoke rising into the sky after the attack.
The Guard described the missile strike as revenge for attacks on Tehran earlier this month. Five Islamic State-linked attackers stormed Iran’s parliament and a shrine to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on June 7, killing at least 18 people and wounding more than 50. That Islamic State assault, the first to hit Iran, shook residents who believed the chaos engulfing the rest of the Middle East would not find them.
But the missiles sent a message to more than just the extremists in Iraq and Syria, Gen. Ramazan Sharif of the Guard told state television in a telephone interview.
“The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message,” he said. “Obviously and clearly, some reactionary countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, had announced that they are trying to bring insecurity into Iran.”
The Zolfaghar missile, unveiled in September 2016, was described at the time as carrying a cluster warhead and being able to strike as far as 700 kilometers (435 miles) away.
That puts the missile in range of the forward headquarters of the U.S. military’s Central Command in Qatar, American bases in the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.
The missile also could strike Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. While Iran has other ballistic missiles it says can reach longer distances, Sunday night’s launch appears to mark the longest strike it has launched abroad. Iran’s last foreign missile strike is believed to have been carried out in April 2001, targeting an Iranian exile group in Iraq.
Iran has described the Tehran attackers as being “long affiliated with the Wahhabi,” an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. However, it stopped short of directly blaming the kingdom for the attack, though many in the country have expressed suspicion that Iran’s regional rival had a hand in the assault.
Emboldened Sunni Arab states backed by Trump have hardened their stance against Iran. Since Trump took office, his administration has put new economic sanctions on those allegedly involved with the program. However, the test launches haven’t affect Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Sunday’s launch also carried religious undertones.
The Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the launch “Operation Laylat al-Qadar,” referring to the night Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. That’s believed to fall in the last 10 days of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, now underway. The name of the missile, Zolfaghar, is also the name of the sword used by Imam Ali, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and his successor, according to Shiite belief.
Israel also remains concerned about Iran’s missile launches and has deployed a multilayered missile-defense system over fears of potential Iranian attacks. When Iran unveiled the Zolfaghar in 2016, it bore a banner printed with a 2013 anti-Israeli quote by Khamenei saying that Iran will annihilate the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa should Israel attack Iran.
Israeli security officials said Monday they were studying the missile strike to see what they could learn about its accuracy and capabilities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.