The powerful Russian anti-ship missiles acquired by Hezbollah give it the means to carry out its leader’s veiled threat against American warships and underscore the serious risks of any regional war, according to sources familiar with the group’s arsenal.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned Washington last week that his group had something in store for US ships deployed in the region since war broke out last month between the Palestinian group Hamas and Israel, shaking the entire Middle East.
Two Lebanese sources familiar with the Iranian-backed group’s arsenal say Nasrallah was referring to Hezbollah’s significantly increased anti-ship missile capabilities, which include the Russian-made Yakhont missile, with a range of 300 km (186 miles).
Media reports and analysts have indicated for years that Hezbollah acquired Yakhont missiles in Syria after deploying there more than a decade ago to help President Bashar al-Assad fight a civil war. Hezbollah has never confirmed possession of the weapon.
Washington says its naval deployment in the Mediterranean – made up of two aircraft carriers and their support ships – is intended to prevent the conflict from spreading by deterring Iran, which backs groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Hezbollah perceives American warships as a direct threat because of their ability to hit the group and its allies. Nasrallah declared in a speech Friday that American warships in the Mediterranean “do not and will not scare us.”
“We have prepared ourselves for the fleets they threaten us with,” he said.
The White House stated after Nasrallah gave his speech on Friday that Hezbollah should not take advantage of the war between Hamas and Israel and that the United States did not want the conflict to spill over into Lebanon.
One of the sources said Hezbollah’s anti-ship capabilities had developed greatly since 2006 when the group first demonstrated it could hit a ship at sea by hitting an Israeli warship in the Mediterranean during a war with Israel.
“There is the Yakhont, and of course, there are other things besides him,” the source said without elaborating.
The source added that Hezbollah’s use of this weapon against hostile warships would indicate that the conflict had escalated into a major regional war.
Three current and one former US official claimed that Hezbollah has built an impressive arsenal of weapons, including anti-ship missiles.
“Obviously, we are paying a lot of attention to that… and we are taking seriously the capabilities that they have,” one of the officials said, without directly commenting on whether the group had the Yakhont missile.
US officials added that recently deployed US naval power in the region includes defenses against incoming missiles. They didn’t give more details.
The Pentagon has deployed warships to the eastern Mediterranean since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen stormed Israel from the Gaza Strip in an attack that Israel says killed 1,400 people.
Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip have killed more than 10,000 Palestinians since then, according to Palestinian officials.
On Friday, Nasrallah warned Washington that preventing a regional war depended on stopping the Israeli attack. Hezbollah has been exchanging fire with Israeli forces on the Lebanese border since October 8. This is the most serious escalation since the 2006 war.
But Hezbollah has so far only used a portion of its arsenal, and the violence has been mainly limited to the border area.
Other Iranian-aligned groups, such as Yemen’s Houthis, have also fired drones at Israel, while Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias have fired on US forces in Iraq and Syria.
According to a report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the ground-launched Yakhont missile approaches its target at a low altitude (between 10 and 15 meters above the ground) to avoid detection.
The Yakhont, a variant of the P-800 Oniks missile first developed in 1993, was developed in 1999 for export by a Russian defense company and can be launched from the air, land or submarines, CSIS said.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, when asked about sources about Hezbollah’s acquisition of Yakhont missiles, stated: “First of all, this is a story from the Russian press: We don’t know if it is true or not.”.
“Secondly, we don’t have that information.”
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Nasrallah’s Friday speech was one of his strongest warnings to the United States, which holds his group responsible for a suicide bombing that destroyed the US Marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 servicemen, and an attack suicide bomber against the United States embassy the same year, in which 63 people died.
Although Hezbollah has denied being behind those attacks, Nasrallah indirectly referred to them in his speech, stating that those who defeated the United States in Lebanon in the early 1980s “are still alive.”
Nasser Qandil, a Lebanese political analyst close to Hezbollah, explained how Yakhont missiles in the group’s arsenal could be used against American warships, in remarks on his private YouTube channel published last month.
He described the missile as “the most important prize” of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, where the group helped tip the balance of the civil war in Assad’s favor.
“Yes, Hezbollah is prepared and ready,” Qandil said.
The two sources who spoke to Reuters said Hezbollah obtained the weapon from Syria while fighting in support of Assad, whose army has long been armed by Russia.
Hezbollah keeps its arsenal and sources secret. In a rare statement on the issue in 2021, Nasrallah explained how the group had obtained Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles through Syria.
In an interview with the pro-Iran Lebanese broadcaster al-Mayadeen, he said that the Syrian Defense Ministry had purchased the weapons from Russia for Syrian use and that Hezbollah had then taken them as a form of “support” to defend Lebanon.
Hezbollah used the weapon extensively in the 2006 war. Moscow stated in 2010 that it had signed an agreement to send anti-ship cruise missiles, including a version of the Yakhont, to Damascus.