Signs indicate that Iran is planning to supply its militant proxies in Iraq with shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. The threat of SAM shipments into Iraq is a useful pressure tactic for Iran to use in its negotiations with the United States over Iraq, but should the threat materialize, Tehran will be crossing a huge redline with Washington.
STRATFOR has seen indications that Iran is planning to up the ante in Iraq by supplying its militant proxies with shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). These man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) are short range and are only able to shoot down helicopters and other low-flying aircraft. The U.S. military also announced Sept. 30 that it had seized Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles called Misagh-1s being used by insurgents in Iraq. Iranian military and logistical support to Iraqi Shiite militants is nothing new. But adding SAMs to the weapons mix opens up a whole new can of worms. U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles were eagerly and quite successfully employed by the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. These point-and-shoot, easily transportable, heat-seeking SAMs are an excellent tool, allowing insurgents to wage asymmetrical warfare. Sunni insurgents in Iraq employed SAMs, likely old SA-7s and SA-14s, to cause a surge of chopper crashes in early 2007, though most helicopter losses to hostile fire in Iraq have been attributed to small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Iran's Misagh-1s are a knockoff the Chinese QW-1 Vanguard, but still would do an extremely effective job of creating a worst-case scenario for U.S. forces in Iraq. The Iranians have had plenty to think about since U.S. President George W. Bush announced that the United States essentially would be staying the course in Iraq by keeping enough U.S. troops in the country to appease the Sunnis and make Iran sweat. But even though the United States is standing firm on keeping the Iranians at bay and resisting calls to withdraw, Iran might not be entirely convinced that its chances of filling the power vacuum in Iraq are completely shot. The Iranians face two options now that Bush has announced the U.S. policy for Iraq moving forward, and they may not have decided which strategy to pursue: 1. Accept that policy as a reality, continue with the usual military posturing and negotiate seriously with the Bush administration for a security agreement that recognizes Iranian influence in Iraq, or 2. Entertain the idea of negotiations, but focus its efforts on reversing U.S. policy under a new administration by raising the stakes further for U.S. forces in Iraq. Bush's Iraq strategy can be defended so long as U.S. casualties do not shoot up to unacceptable levels. Chopper crashes in Iraq are attention-grabbing events that can take a heavy toll on U.S. public morale, and could create pressure on the U.S. administration to shift its strategy. Moreover, helicopters are absolutely integral to the conduct of U.S. operations in Iraq, and will only become more so as troops become spread more thinly in the coming year. At this point, the Iranians cannot bet that the tide will turn enough in Congress for Republican senators to side with the Democrats and pressure Bush into a withdrawal. Time and again, Bush has defied the odds and battled off pressure in Congress knowing that no senator in his or her right mind would dare cut funding to troops. But if Iran is looking beyond the Bush presidency, it could be working toward bleeding U.S. forces in Iraq to the point at which any incoming U.S. president would be pressured into carrying out a withdrawal. This strategy, of course, carries its fair share of consequences. With war threats looming, Iran has no guarantee that the United States would continue to be hamstrung in Iraq and refrain from attacking Iran, especially when it becomes widely apparent that the SAMs used to shoot down U.S. choppers are made in Iran. Iranian SAMs would be much more traceable than explosively formed projectiles, the deadliest form of IED, and it would not take much to make the connection to Tehran should Washington decide to make a case for war. The Iranians probably are well aware that they would be heading for trouble if the SAM threat materializes. For now, the prospect of Iranian-supplied SAMs to Iraqi insurgents is enough to get Washington's attention. As long as this threat is used as a pressure tactic, negotiations between Washington and Tehran have a chance of going somewhere. But if U.S. choppers start going down, a shift in Iranian thinking will immediately be made apparent — and it will be Washington's turn to make a decision on grand strategy in Iraq.