Before the Bombardment: Revisiting Iran’s January 2024 Missile Strikes on Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan

April 29, 2024

Publication Type: 

  • Articles and Reports

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile

Related Country: 

  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Pakistan
  • Syria

Author: 

John Krzyzaniak

On January 16—three months before Iran’s large-scale missile and drone attack against Israel—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) carried out a coordinated ballistic missile attack against targets in Iraq and Syria. Less than 24 hours later, it conducted an attack inside Pakistani territory. In light of the attack against Israel on April 13, it is worth revisiting these smaller January strikes and evaluating them in some detail, as they contain hints about the limitations of Iran’s missile capabilities—limitations that were confirmed in April.

In short, the January operations added to the body of evidence attesting that, even as Iranian missiles have the ability to strike soft, stationary targets with relative precision, Iran’s ability to destroy well-defended, hardened targets remains a work in progress.

Iran’s January 2024 Missile Attacks at a Glance

Claimed Target

Munitions Used

Launch Location(s) in Iran

Target Location

Response to

Islamic State

4 Kheibar Shekan

Darkhovin

Taltita, Syria

December 2023 killing of IRGC general Seyed Razi Mousavi

Alleged Israeli spy HQ

>9 Fateh-family missiles, likely Fateh-110

Kermanshah and East Azerbaijian

Erbil, Iraq

January 2024 Kerman terrorist attack

Jaish al-Adl HQ

Likely UAV-fired munitions, possibly suicide drones

Unknown

Panjgur, Pakistan

December 2023 Rask terrorist attack

Strike on Syria

The operation against Islamic State targets unfolded right after midnight on January 16, when, according to the commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force Amir Ali Hajizadeh, his units fired four Kheibar Shekan medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) from the south of Khuzestan Province toward the headquarters of a “takfiri group” (a term used by Iran to refer to Sunni jihadists) in Idlib.[1]

In a written statement, the IRGC announced that it had targeted a gathering place for Islamic State commanders.[2] It said the operation was a response to the January 3, 2024, terrorist bombing in Kerman, Iran, which killed over 100 people, and for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.[3]

Iranian media also released video footage showing the nighttime launch of three missiles from several angles.[4] (A fourth was in launch position but the video does not show its ignition.) It was not possible from the video to precisely identify which missiles were used, but the launching equipment as well as the missiles’ exhaust plumes bore the hallmarks of Iran’s solid-propellant, rail-launched models, which include the Kheibar Shekan. The only other operational missile in Iran’s arsenal that shares those signatures and could reach Idlib would be the Haj Qassem, another MRBM. The launch location can be narrowed down to a general area near Darkhovin in Khuzestan province, but there was not enough documentation to precisely geolocate it (see footnote).[5]


Left: Video footage released by Tasnim showed four solid-propellant ballistic missiles at the time of launch. Right: Iran’s Kheibar Shekan missile, a solid-propellant system with a maximum range of 1,450 kilometers.

The IRGC statement implied that multiple locations in Syria were targeted, but it appears there was only one. The White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense organization, published photos of a demolished building, identifying it as a non-operational medical facility in Taltita village.[6] The photos made it possible to geolocate the building just a few hundred meters south of Taltita.


Left: An image shared by the White Helmets on social media. Right: A Google Earth image of the building dated October 2020, located at the coordinates (36.1089, 36.5536). Both images annotated by the Wisconsin Project.


Sentinel-2 images of Taltita village, dated December 26, 2023, and February 29, 2024. Both images annotated by the Wisconsin Project.

In sum, the available open-source evidence suggests that the Aerospace Force launched four Kheibar Shekan missiles from southern Khuzestan and struck a stone-and-concrete building in a remote area of Idlib Province, some 1,250 kilometers away. This was the longest-range ballistic missile strike Iran had ever conducted at the time, and was the first time Iran had operationally employed the Kheibar Shekan—a missile type that Iran would use again in its attack on Israel several months later. Although the missiles destroyed the building, it was an undefended target that was not designed to withstand a missile warhead impact.

Strike on Iraq

Hajizadeh also stated that Aerospace Force units fired four missiles from Kermanshah Province and seven missiles from East Azerbaijan Province toward what the IRGC alleged was an Israeli espionage headquarters in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.[7] The IRGC framed this missile attack as a response to recent suspected Israeli assassinations of several IRGC commanders. In particular, senior IRGC officer Sayyed Razi Mousavi had been killed on December 25 in an airstrike outside of Damascus, and the IRGC had vowed revenge.[8]

The following morning, Rudaw, a major news outlet in the Kurdistan region, published aerial footage of the presumed target, a villa that had been almost entirely leveled.[9] Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, the property’s owner, was also reportedly killed in the attack.[10]


Left: Aerial footage published by the news outlet Rudaw following the missile strike outside Erbil. Right: A satellite photo of the location on Google Earth dated November 2022, located at the coordinates (36.305, 44.132).

While it may seem unlikely that Iran would require 11 missiles to destroy a single, small target, footage from a closed-circuit video camera near the compound offers evidence in support of this claim.[11] The video captures at least nine distinct incoming missiles over a two-minute period. It is possible that others failed earlier in flight.


Left: A CCTV camera captured at least nine missile impacts. Right: An annotated Google Earth image dated November 2022 showing the location of the camera, about 1.2 km away from where the missiles struck. The camera is located at the coordinates (36.3122, 44.1419).

The footage also offers a limited confirmation that the missiles came from Kermanshah and East Azerbaijan. In the video, the missiles arrive from two distinct directions at approximately right angles to one another and, based on the camera position, these would be consistent with having come from those general areas (see graphic). Kermanshah and Khosrowshah (in East Azerbaijan Province) have also been the launch sites for prior ballistic missile strikes.


An annotated Google Earth image dated November 2022 showing the locations of the CCTV camera, the target, and the approximate directions of Kermanshah and Khosrowshah, which are consistent with the missiles’ directions of travel observed in the CCTV camera's footage.

Official sources and state media did not identify the system or systems that were fired, but the limited evidence points to Fateh-family missiles. First, Fateh-family missiles including the Fateh-110, Fateh-313, and Zolfaghar have been employed in all of Iran’s prior cross-border ballistic missile attacks dating back to 2017. Second, in the closed-circuit video footage, the missiles coming from the left of the frame approach from a relatively low trajectory. Such a depressed trajectory is characteristic of Iran’s short-range, rail-launched solid propellant missiles, which are sometimes described as “quasi-ballistic” for that reason (ballistic missiles as traditionally defined arch more sharply upward).[12] With this in mind, and considering the distances involved—about 330 km from Kermanshah and 240 km from East Azerbaijan—the attack may have involved Fateh-110 or Fateh-313 missiles, which have respective maximum ranges of about 300 and 500 km.

In sum, the available evidence points to at least nine Fateh-family ballistic missiles fired from two locations and traveling several hundred kilometers to destroy a residence on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq. In firing from different directions and different ranges to strike the same target with multiple missiles at roughly the same time, Iran’s missile units put on a display of relatively sophisticated coordination. However, like the strike on Syria, the target was soft and undefended, and the employment of upwards of nine missiles may have been more than was necessary to destroy it.

Strike on Pakistan

Later on January 16, less than 24 hours after the missile strikes on Iraq and Syria, Iran conducted an operation targeting Jaish al-Adl, a Baloch Sunni militant group, in Pakistan. According to a statement released by Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs,[13] the IRGC Ground Force carried out a “preventive action” aimed at stopping a terrorist attack akin to one that had taken place a month earlier in Rask, when assailants killed at least 11 Iranian security personnel at a police station.[14]

It is not clear which weapons were used in the operation, as neither Iranian nor Pakistani official statements made mention of weapon types.[15] Media inside and outside Iran said that missiles and drones were used in the attack, with some sources implying that ballistic missiles were fired as well.[16]

The are several reasons to believe that Iran’s larger ballistic missiles were not used in the operation, however. First, it was the IRGC Ground Force—not the Aerospace Force, which has traditionally held exclusive control over the ballistic missile arsenal—that carried out the attack. Second, video footage published by Iranian state media following the attack showed only partial damage to one small mudbrick building, falling well short of what might be expected from an impact involving a several-hundred-kilogram high-explosive warhead.[17] If anything, perhaps Fath-360 precision-guided close-range rockets were employed but, more likely, the “missiles” referenced in the various statements were smaller, UAV-fired air-to-ground munitions.


Left: Footage taken by a UAV and released by Iranian state media showed one building on fire after the attack. Right: A Google Earth image of the same location dated August 2023, located at the coordinates (27.2132, 63.7073).

Takeaways

The strikes on Iraq and Syria exhibited many of the operational features that have become typical of Iranian ballistic missile attacks and that were also apparent in the April strike against Israel: firing a relatively large volume of munitions for a limited target set, employing a combination of munition types, and launching more or less simultaneously from different directions and distances.

The strikes also underscored both the potency and limitations of Iran’s missile force. On one hand, certain Iranian missiles are undoubtedly capable of hitting soft, stationary targets with relative precision, even at ranges exceeding 1,200 km. On the other hand, striking well-defended, hardened targets is another matter entirely—as the attack against Israel made clear. In that operation, Iran’s missiles did not have the luxury of flying undisturbed toward their targets; they had to contend with sophisticated and layered air defense systems.[18] Further, the missiles also likely faced a GPS-contested environment,[19] limiting the utility of their GPS-based guidance and forcing them to rely on less accurate inertial navigation.

Nor is destroying an F-35 hangar as easy as leveling a residence. In fact, in the January 2020 missile attack against U.S. forces stationed at Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq, an Iranian missile apparently scored a direct hit on an aircraft hangar—but did very little to damage it.[20] That Iranian leaders have typically chosen softer targets for their ballistic missile strikes may be a tacit acknowledgment of these limitations.

These shortcomings are no doubt driving Iran’s missile development efforts. The latest generation of Iranian missiles under development have the ability to conduct more extreme evasive maneuvers, at least on paper. In the years ahead, Iran may also look to further refine the accuracy of its inertial guidance systems, use terminal seekers in more of its missiles, or incorporate airburst detonation into its warheads. If it can master and mass-produce those technologies, Iran will more likely be able to do the type of damage to hardened targets that its missiles have repeatedly inflicted on softer ones.

Footnotes: 

[1] User Tasnim News Agency, “Commander Hajizadeh’s Operational Report on the Missile Strikes Against the Terrorists,” Aparat, January 16, 2024, available at https://www.aparat.com/v/dvp3U.

[2] “Three IRGC Statements About the Missile Attack on Three Targets,” Donya-e Eqtesad, January 16, 2024, available at https://donya-e-eqtesad.com/fa/tiny/news-4037948.

[3] Parisa Hafezi, Elwely Elwelly, and Clauda Tanios, “Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Deadly Iran Attack, Tehran Vows Revenge,” Reuters, January 4, 2024, available at https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-vows-revenge-after-biggest-attack-since-1979-revolution-2024-01-04/.

[4] “Film / IRGC Missile Operations; Part of Iran’s Revenge Against Mossad and the Islamic State,” Tasnim News Agency, January 16, 2024, available at https://tn.ai/3023779.

[5] The launch video appears to have been filmed in a flat, sandy locale near a body of water or wetlands. Further, Khouz News, a Khuzestan-based news outlet, published a video captured by bystanders in the vicinity of Darkhovin showing four missiles in flight. Together, these tentatively point to a position somewhere along the Karun river or the nearby ponds. See: “Darkhovin Khuzestan Source of the IRGC Missile Attacks + Film,” Khouz News, January 16, 2024, available at https://khouznews.ir/fa/news/286724/%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AE%D9%88%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%B2%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A7-%D8%AD%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B4%DA%A9%DB%8C-%D8%B3%D9%BE%D8%A7%D9%87-%D9%81%DB%8C%D9%84%D9%85.

[6] User The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef), X Post of January 16, 2024, available at https://twitter.com/SyriaCivilDef/status/1747244752263651364.

[7] “Film / Commander Hajizadeh’s Operational Report on the Missile Strikes Against the Terrorists,” Fars News Agency, January 16, 2024, available at http://fna.ir/3h6lrm; “Three IRGC Statements About the Missile Attack on Three Targets,” Donya-e Eqtesad, January 16, 2024, available at https://donya-e-eqtesad.com/fa/tiny/news-4037948.

[8] “Israeli Airstrike in Syria Kills Senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards Member,” Reuters, December 25, 2024, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-air-strike-syria-kills-senior-iranian-revolutionary-guards-member-2023-12-25/.

[9] User Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish), X Post of January 16, 2024, available at https://twitter.com/RudawEnglish/status/1747203721627406465.

[10] Karwan Faidhi Dri, “Who Was the Kurdish Businessman Killed by Iranian Missiles in Erbil?” Rudaw, January 17, 2024, available at https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/160120249.

[11] User Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish), X Post of January 21, 2024, available at https://twitter.com/RudawEnglish/status/1749161316445454787.

[12] For example, Stephane Delory and Can Kasapoglu, “Thinking Twice About Iran’s Missile Trends: The Threat Is Real But Different Than Predicted,” Fondation pour la Recherce Strategique, June 29, 2017, https://www.frstrategie.org/en/publications/notes/thinking-twice-about-irans-missile-trends-threat-real-different-predicted-2017.

[13] “The Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran Regarding the Recent Incidents on the Pakistan Border,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 18, 2024, available at https://en.mfa.ir/portal/newsview/738537/The-Statement-of-the-Ministry-of-Foreign-Affairs-of-the-Islamic-Republic-of-Iran-regarding-the-recent-incidents-on-the-Pakistan-border.

[14] “Eleven Security Personnel killed in Iran Police Station Attack,” Al Jazeera, December 15, 2023, available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/15/eleven-security-personnel-killed-in-iran-police-station-attack-state-tv.

[15] “Pakistan’s Strong Condemnation of the Unprovoked Violation of its Air Space,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, January 17, 2024, available at https://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/pakistan/ministry-foreign-affairs/pakistans-strong-condemnation-unprovoked-violation-its-air-space; “The Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran Regarding the Recent Incidents on the Pakistan Border,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 18, 2024, available at https://en.mfa.ir/portal/newsview/738537/The-Statement-of-the-Ministry-of-Foreign-Affairs-of-the-Islamic-Republic-of-Iran-regarding-the-recent-incidents-on-the-Pakistan-border.

[16] Jaish al-Adl also released a statement saying “at least six suicide drones and several missiles” were fired. See: “Iranian Missiles Strike Baluch Militant Bases In Pakistan,” Iran International, January 16, 2024, available at https://www.iranintl.com/en/202401165352; “Exclusive: The Headquarters of the Jaish-e-Zalum Group in Pakistan were Destroyed,” Tasnim News Agency, January 16, 2024, available at https://tn.ai/3024317; Jonny Hallam, Asim Khan, and Helen Regan, “Pakistan Condemns Deadly Iranian Missile Strike on its Territory as Tensions Spike Across Region,” CNN, January 17, 2024, available at https://www.cnn.com/2024/01/17/middleeast/iran-missile-attack-pakistan-intl-hnk/index.html.

[17] “The Intelligence and Drone Nobility of the IRGC Over the Terrorists / How was the Jaish al Zulm Residence Destroyed? + Film,” Tasnim News Agency, January 19, 2024, available at https://tn.ai/3025403.

[18] Alistair MacDonald, Doug Cameron, and Heather Somerville, “Drone-and-Missile Warfare Tests Supply-Strapped Defense Systems,” Washington Post, April 17, 2024, https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/drone-missile-attacks-threaten-weapons-supply-24356bf4.

[19] Jesse Khalil, “GPS Disruptions in Tel Aviv as Israel Braces for Possible Iranian Attacks,” GPS World, April 10, 2024, https://www.gpsworld.com/gps-disruptions-in-tel-aviv-as-israel-braces-for-possible-iranian-attacks.

[20] Stéphane Delory, Agnès Levallois, Vincent Tourret, “Iranian Operations Against el-Asad and Erbil Bases: What can be Learned from the Imagery? -- Part One,” Fondation Pour la Recherche Strategique, February 12, 2020, available at https://www.frstrategie.org/en/publications/strategic-imagery/iranian-operations-against-el-asad-and-erbil-bases-what-can-be-learned-imagery-part-one-2020.