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Iran missile system tested, rhetoric sharpened on eve of NATO summit

Iran missile system: Iran tested a new air-defense system and lashed out at NATO as the military alliance prepared to meet this weekend in Lisbon, Portugal. Iran has long sought homegrown air defenses.

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“We have developed the system by upgrading systems like the S-200, and we have tested it successfully using all our potential and experience,” Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hassan Mansourian, deputy commander of air defense forces, said on Thursday.

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Talking up progress

Iranian generals have talked up their air-defense progress for months.

“The air-defense forces are present anywhere and anytime with full preparedness and are monitoring any kind of movement in the region and we will destroy any threat instantly and powerfully,” Gen. Seyed Reza Taheri, deputy commander of the Khatam ol-Anbia air-defense base, told Fars News Agency a year ago.

In April this year, senior Iranian officers said the Mersad system was capable of “destroying advanced airplanes in low and mid altitudes” and was “resistant to electronic warfare,” Fars reported.

In September, Iran claimed further that its new system could “definitely detect enemies’ stealth warplanes.” When the latest drills began on Tuesday, another commander said: “Missiles and powerful air defense systems … are ready to destroy all enemy aircraft.”

Those would represent significant improvements for a nation that has often relied on secret foreign help for key technological gains in its missile program, and has had difficulty with accuracy and guidance systems.

“The military utility of Iran’s ballistic missiles is severely limited because of their very poor accuracy,” the IISS assessment found last spring. “Iran’s ballistic missiles could be used as a political weapon to wage a terror campaign against adversary cities. While such attacks might trigger fear, the expected casualties would be low – probably less than a few hundred, even assuming that Iran unleashed its entire ballistic-missile arsenal….”

Claims of highly advanced air defenses should therefore be treated with skepticism, says Fitzpatrick of IISS, and are “primarily” bluster by Iran after Russia halted a sale of S-300s to Iran after heavy lobbying by the US and Israel. Moscow stated that the sale was not allowed under UN sanctions, though Iran contests that view.

“Iran was shocked and aggrieved that Russia pulled the plug in this way, actually canceling the contract rather than just delaying delivery,” says Fitzpatrick. “They had been counting on this air system, the only thing that could effectively defend against an Israeli or American attack; not that it would do that to a high degree, but it was the best they could have gotten. And without it, their nuclear facilities are sitting ducks.”

Adds Fitzpatrick: “Reacting defensively, they had to pretend it was no big deal. It’s a very big deal.”

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