Tank busters spotted in Iraq, Syria and Yemen look a lot like Toophans
by ADAM RAWNSLEY
The CIA program to supply Arab rebels in Syria has made TOW anti-tank guided missiles a nearly ubiquitous sight in media coming from the conflict. But the United States might not be the only country waging a covert war with TOW (or TOW-like) missiles in the Middle East.
Iranian reverse-engineered TOW anti-tank guided missiles, dubbed “Toophan,” have been been sighted headed toward Yemen with additional suspected appearances in Iraq and Syria — all in the hands of Tehran’s allies and proxy groups.
Iran’s production of reverse-engineered TOW missiles is no great secret. In official news outlets, documentaries and on Iran’s official arms export website, the Islamic Republic has touted its production of a series of different Toophan missiles derived from TOW variants.
It has produced at least a handful of different Toophan models, including the Toophan 1 through 3. According to Armament Research Services, the three systems appear to copy the TOW BGM-71A, BGM-71C and BGM-71F missiles. Iran makes two other variants, dubbed the Toophan-5 and Qaem.
In addition to the basic infantry launch platform, Iran has equipped some of its vehicles to fire the missiles. The basic Safir 4×4 tactical vehicle often appears in military parades equipped with a Toophan launcher.
Iran’s unhelpfully-named Toufan-2 helicopter, based on the Bell Sea Cobra, also appears able to fire Toophan anti-tank missiles.
Until recently, however, Toophans tended to appear only in Iran at official rollouts and in news articles, with some brief reported use by Hezbollah in the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group.
Now, however, sightings of the missiles — both claimed and confirmed — are popping up in conflicts across the Middle East.
The most detailed sighting of a Toophan missiles in the wild thus far comes from the seizure of a small dhow off the coast of Oman. In September 2015, U.S. and Australian warships stopped and searched a dhow, laden with anti-tank missiles allegedly sent from Iran for use by Houthi fighters in Yemen.
The U.S. offered an up-close look at the seized weapons to the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen, which the Security Council established to provide information on individuals who threaten the “peace, security or stability of Yemen.”
The panel’s January report included photographs of Toophan equipment seized from the dhow. The pictures show the launcher’s daysight tracker and power supply stamped with markings from Iran Electronics Industries. The daysight markings match those seen in a photograph of a Toophan originally posted to an Iranian military forum.
IEI produces military equipment for Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. Its product lines include, “electro-optics and lasers, communication equipment, telecommunication security equipment, electronic warfare equipment, new and refurbished radar tubes, and missile launchers,” according to a 2008 Treasury Department sanctions designation.
The daysight trackers have green tape with Persian script warning users not to remove it. The Toophans were also shipped with Persian language instructions for operating the missile guidance sets.
One of the earliest alleged sightings of a Toophan in combat took place during the battle for Tikrit in March of 2015. The Al Sumaria satellite news channel published a photograph of a Badr Organization fighter on the frontlines next to what resembles a Toophan launcher.
Closer inspection of the photograph reveals a handful of recognition features which line up with what’s known about the Toophan.
In the photo, the system has the customary green tape and three parallel yellow bands on the launcher seen in Iranian media photographs of Toophans. A red band around the missile itself, in contrast to the TOW’s usual yellow, further distinguishes the weapon from its American counterpart.
Since the fight for Tikrit, a number of other videos and images purporting to show Toophans in Syria and Iraq have appeared, often in the hands of Iranian-backed Shia militias or Assad regime forces. One prominent pro-Assad Twitter account claims that the first Toophan spotted in Syria appeared in the hands of a Shia militiaman fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in October 2015.
The missile may have made another appearance in Iraq. In March, Iraq’s Al Ahad TV Channel 2 broadcast footage of the Iranian-backed Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq militia using a purported Toophan to blow up an Islamic State suicide vehicle bomb near Samarra.
The sightings in Iraq and Syria, however, have an important caveat. The photographs purporting to show Toophans in the two countries share some of the recognition features with those seen in Iran. Nonetheless, without the production markings or serial numbers, the sightings remain unconfirmed.
Like a number of Iranian weapons, the TOW knockoffs trace their origins to happier days in the U.S.-Iran relationship.
In 1973, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, looking to expand Iran’s defense industrial base, approached the United States with a request to co-produce TOW missiles, along with a number of other weapon systems.
The relatively new missiles (at the time), the Shah figured, would be an important hedge against the looming arsenal of Soviet-supplied armor next door in Iraq. Iran received a few TOWs and the ability to assemble missiles domestically, but never quite received the level of technological access to the program it wanted.
The threat from Iraqi armor became a reality after the 1979 Islamic Revolution swept the Shah out of power and turned Iran into a hardline theocracy. In September 1980, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, kicking off a nearly decade-long war.
The change in leadership, however, wouldn’t end Iran’s access to American TOW missiles.
The Ronald Reagan administration would ultimately sell Iran’s theocracy more than 2,000 of the anti-tank missiles as part of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Reagan administration officials hoped to use the TOW sales, along with sales of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, to broker an opening with Iran’s leadership and barter for the release of American hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon.
Since then, Iran has broadened its portfolio of anti-tank guided weapons. In 2012, Iran reportedly began producing a version of Russia’s Kornet anti-tank missile. More recently, Iranian officials have hawked the latest version of the Toophan, the Toophan-3, at the Defense, Security and Aviation Fair in Baghdad.