For years now, Iran has been touting its missile prowess even as repeated failures and setbacks undermine any talk of meaningful weapons development.
Most recently, commanders of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) displayed models of Iranian missiles at a defence show in Qatar, a move not keenly looked upon by the Gulf states.
Even though Qatar confirmed that the Iranian Ministry of Defence -- and not the IRGC -- was invited to the event, guard commanders still participated in the March 21-23 event and were part of a broader Iranian delegation, Reuters reported.
Their participation came following a spate of missile attacks blamed on the IRGC and its proxy groups against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iraq, as well as multi-national coalition bases in the region.
Iran's missile programme has undergone some improvements in the past two decades -- including extending the range and accuracy of its missiles, developing cruise missiles, and building mobile launchers and underground silos.
However, as of 2020, Iran was still not self-sufficient in its ability to design and produce advanced missiles, according to a June 2020 Iran Watch report.
In the event of a confrontation, this means that Iran will be unable to replenish its limited stock of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in time to defend itself against counter-attacks, observers say.
Iran's missile programme
"Iran's missile programme has a long and active history and is driven by influential forces at the top of the Islamic Republic's hierarchy," the Iran Watch report said, in reference to leader Ali Khamenei and his allies in the IRGC.
Iran has developed both cruise and ballistic missiles for use in conventional combat, it said, noting that it has used them to target "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) positions in Syria but also military bases in Iraq.
These attacks demonstrate Iran's willingness to use its missiles in military strikes, the report said.
Iran has also been increasingly willing to export its missiles, as well as missile production equipment, to its proxies in the region, including Hizbullah, Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen's Houthis, it added.
These missiles and the related technology supplied by Iran have been directly tied to civilian deaths in these countries.
"These actions highlight the growing importance of missiles to Iran's security policy."
As of March 2020, Iran's ballistic arsenal was composed mainly of short- and medium-range missiles.
Long-range missiles with the capability of carrying nuclear warheads and cruise missiles are also suspected of being stored at two "missile cities" in the vicinity of Tabriz and Khorramabad.
The two bases serve as the hub of Iran's missile programme, and observers point out that any incident occurring there would drastically reduce the country's missile capability.
The "missile cities" are also vulnerable to a range of weapons if Iran were to escalate a regional war.
In such an event, Iran could easily use 100-150 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in its first volley.
Such a move, however, would be the equivalent of using four years' worth of missiles, and leave Iran defenceless for an equivalent legnth of time until it restocks.
"Iran's liquid-fuel ballistic missiles have poor accuracy. The successful destruction of a fixed military target, for example, would probably require Iran to use a significant percentage of its liquid-fuel missile inventory," Michael Elleman wrote in a January 2021 report for the US Institute of Peace.
"Against large military targets, such as an airfield or seaport, Iran could conduct harassment attacks aimed at disrupting operations or damaging fuel-storage depots. But the missiles would probably be unable to shut down critical military activities," he said.
"The number of transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) available and the delays to reload them would also limit the impact of even a massive attack," he added.
Iran's ballistic missiles are therefore mere tools for intimidation rather than actual weapons able to destroy its adversary.
"Even if Iran unleashed its entire ballistic missile arsenal and a majority succeeded in penetrating missile defences," Elleman wrote, "the casualties [of such attacks] would probably be low."