Monday, January 4, 2010

Iranian Strategic SAM Deployment


With the current attention being given to potential Iranian nuclear weapons development, it is prudent to examine the defensive posture of the Persian state in light of potential military action. This article will focus on Iran's strategic SAM deployment. Three different strategic SAM types, along with two tactical SAM types, provide sporadic, yet still potentially effective, SAM coverage throughout the nation. Unusual deployment strategies hint at what may be part of a serious deception campaign, possibly providing insight into the apparent lack of serious, integrated ground-based air defense coverage throughout most of the nation.


The Iranian air defense network relies on a mixture of Soviet and Western SAM systems. This relatively unusual mix stems from both pre- and post-1979 acquisitions from the West and the Soviet Union, respectively. The following SAM systems are currently in service as part of the overall air defense network: HQ-2 (CSA-1 GUIDELINE, a Chinese-produced S-75 derivative, employing the TIGER SONG engagement radar), HAWK, S-200 (SA-5 GAMMON), 2K12 (SA-6 GAINFUL), and Tor-M1E (SA-15 GAUNTLET).

EW Coverage

Primary early warning and target track generation for the Iranian strategic SAM force is handled by a network of 24 EW radar sites, one of which is currently inactive. These sites are primarily situated along the periphery of the nation, with additional facilities located in the vicinity of Arak and Esfahan. A third of the facilities are located along Iran's strategically important Persian Gulf coastline.

The following image depicts the location of EW sites in Iran:
SAM Coverage

Currently, there are 41 active SAM sites inside of Iran. The following image depicts the locations of these sites. HQ-2 sites are red, HAWK sites are orange, S-200 sites are purple, 2K12 sites are bright green, and Tor-M1E sites are faded green.
The following image depicts the overall SAM coverage provided by Iranian air defense sites. Using the same color scheme applied in the previous image, HQ-2 sites are red, HAWK sites are orange, S-200 sites are purple, 2K12 sites are bright green, and Tor-M1E sites are faded green.

There are currently 7 active HQ-2 sites identified inside of Iran. The HQ-2 does not appear to be heavily relied upon, with only 7 of 21 sites remaining operational.

The following image depicts the coverage provided by Iran's HQ-2 sites:

There are currently 22 active HAWK sites identified inside of Iran. The HAWK has been a mainstay of Iranian strategic air defense since its acquisition before the Islamic Revolution. While numbers have dwindled, with roughly half of the Iranian HAWK sites currently active, the system is still widely deployed at numerous locations. The Iranian HAWK deployments are interesting as they represent a tactical SAM system deployed in a strategic capacity.

The following image depicts the coverage provided by Iran's HAWK sites:

There are currently 7 active S-200 sites identified inside of Iran. The S-200 represents the lognest-range strategic SAM asset operationally employed by the Iranian military.

The following image depicts the coverage provided by Iran's S-200 sites:
Tactical SAM Sites

There are currently 6 tactical SAM deployment locations identified inside of Iran. These systems are currently employed as strategic point defense assets. Two sites are occupied by 2K12 batteries, the remaining four being occupied by Tor-M1E TELARs.

The following image depicts the coverage provided by Iran's deployed tactical SAM systems:
Empty Sites

There are currently 31 unoccupied, prepared SAM sites inside of Iran. These sites have been identified as either HQ-2 or HAWK sites, based on their configurations. These empty SAM sites can perform multiple tasks within the overall air defense network. They can be employed as dispersal sites for existing air defense assets, complicating enemy targeting. They can also be used to deploy additional SAM systems currently held in storage if more air defense assets are deemed necessary in a given sector.

An overview of empty Iranian SAM sites is provided in the following image:

National S-200 Coverage

The primary means of air defense in Iran, insofar as SAM systems are concerned, is the deployment of 7 S-200 firing batteries throughout the nation. The four northernmost sites are positioned to defend the northern border and the region surrounding the capital of Tehran. A fifth site is situated to defend facilities in and around Esfahan in central Iran, including the Natanz nuclear facility. The last two sites are situated at Bandar Abbas and Bushehr and provide coverage over the Straits of Hormuz and the northern half of the Persian Gulf, respectively.

The northern four S-200 sites, as well as the southern two sites, are well positioned to provide air defense outside Iran's borders to deter any inbound aggressor from approaching the ADIZ. The central site near Esfahan is a curiosity, however. The southern and western portions of the coverage area are limited due to the presence of a good deal of mountainous terrain, in some cases 10,000 feet or more higher than the terrain where Esfahan is located. This also affects the remaining six sites, but they are affected to a lesser degree due to the fact that they are positioned to defend outwards towards the border and beyond, not likely intended to defend against targets operating deep within Iranian airspace. The Esfahan site, in direct contrast, is apparently situated to defend a central portion of the nation, and as such is limited in its effectiveness by the aforementioned terrain considerations. The curiosity lies in positioning a long-range SAM system in such a fashion to apparently purposely limit its effectiveness. This can be overlooked to a small degree as the S-200 is not necessarily a choice system when it comes to engaging low-altitude targets, but the terrain in the area would seem to greatly reduce the effectiveness of the Esfahan site. The radar horizon is the key issue here, as each piece of terrain situated higher than the engagement radar will carve a significant portion out of the system's field of view and limit its ability to provide widespread coverage.

Iranian S-200 sites appear to be purposely limited in their composition. Each site consists, unusually, of one 5N62 (SQUARE PAIR) engagement radar and two launch rails. For more information on this unusual practice, reference the following article on this site: S-200 SAM Site Analysis

Point Defense

The remainder of Iran's SAM sites are positioned in a point defense strategy to provide coverage of key areas in the nation. There are five key areas defended by shorter-range systems: Tehran, Esfahan, Natanz, Bushehr, and Bandar Abbas. All of these areas are also covered by S-200 sites, which are co-located in some instances, providing a degree of overlapping coverage in these locations.

The capital city of Tehran is defended by five HAWK sites, two HQ-2 batteries, and a 2K12 battery. There are four empty sites in the area. The southwestern two sites are prepared HQ-2 sites, while the northwest and southeast sites are prepared HAWK sites. Were the empty sites to be occupied, they would form an inner HAWK barrier and an outer HQ-2 barrier oriented to defend against threats from the west and south. This layout may be a legacy leftover from the Iran-Iraq War. Two S-200 sites are also in the vicinity, and the other two S-200 sites to the east and west also provide limited coverage of the capital.

The following image depicts SAM coverage of Tehran:
There are two HAWK sites and one HQ-2 site in the vicinity of Esfahan. One of the HAWK sites, as well as the S-200 site in the area, are located on the grounds of Esfahan AB, with the HAWK site likely situated to provide point defense of the airbase. The HQ-2 site and the remaining HAWK site are located south of Esfahan proper. An empty HAWK site is also located in Esfahan, likely representing a dispersal site for the battery at Esfahan AB.

The following image depicts SAM coverage in the vicinity of Esfahan:
Nuclear related facilities near Natanz are afforded a layered defense by recently-deployed tactical and strategic SAM ssytems. Natanz is defended by one HQ-2 site, three HAWK sites, one 2K12 battery, and four Tor-M1E TELARs. The tactical systems were deployed between September 2006 and September 2009; the increased air defense posture may signify an increase in activity at the nuclear facility.

The following image depicts SAM coverage in the vicinity of Natanz:
The Bushehr region, which contains a key nuclear facility, is defended by four HAWK sites and an HQ-2 battery. Two HAWK sites are located on the grounds of the Busheher military comples, with a third site being located offshore on Khark Island, while the HQ-2 battery is located further inland from the military complex nearer to Choghadak. Bushehr AB is also home to an S-200 battery. There are three unoccupied HQ-2 sites and a single unoccupied HAWK site in the area as well. Three unoccupied sites are situated around the nuclear complex, perhaps suggesting that any weapons-related work has been moved from the facility to one of the various inland nuclear research and development locations such as Natanz. This would appear to be a sensible course of action given the serious vulnerability of the coastal Bushehr nuclear facility to enemy activity approaching from the Persian Gulf region. The remaining unoccupied HQ-2 site is located on an islet northeast of Khark island.

The following image depicts SAM coverage in the vicinity of Bushehr:
Bandar Abbas, home to the bulk of the Iranian Navy including the deadly Kilo SSK fleet, is defended by one HQ-2 battery and one HAWK battery. There is an S-200 site in the region as well.

The following image depicts SAM coverage of Bandar Abbas:
Defending the Straits

The S-200 sites located in the vicinity of both Bushehr and Bandar Abbas provide Iran with a significant air defense capability over not only a good portion of the Persian Gulf, but also over the critical Straits of Hormuz. This SAM coverage, which can be further expanded thanks to the presence of unoccupied, prepared HAWK sites on the islands of Abu Musa and Lavan, allows Iran to provide increased air defense in conjunction with fighter aircraft to protect any naval operations in the region, including the potentially catastrophic mining of the Straits of Hormuz.

Air Defense Issues

The problem with Iran's strategic SAM deployment is the apparent over-reliance on the S-200 system to provide air defense over most of the nation. The S-200 is certainly a threat to ISR aircraft such as the U-2R or E-3, but the primary threat which Iran must consider is that of standoff cruise missiles and strike aircraft featuring comprehensive EW suites. Against these types of low-RCS or maneuverable targets, the S-200 cannot be counted upon to be effective. Libyan S-200 systems proved completely ineffective against USN and USAFE strike aircraft in 1986, and the Iranian S-200s would logically be expected to fare no better in a much more modern air combat environment.

As mentioned previously, the remainder of the SAM assets are primarily situated to provide point defense and as such do not represent a serious threat to a dedicated and sophisticated enemy. Even lesser-equipped nations would be able to explot the various gaps and vulnerabilities in the coverage zones provided the S-200s could be neutralized in some fashion, be it through ECM, technical capability, or direct attack. This raises the question of the importance of SAM systems to Iran's overall air defense network. Given the current deployment strategy, the small number of sites, and the capability of the systems themselves, it is likely that Iran places more importance on the fighter force as an air defense element. This would explain the continued efforts to retain an operational fleet of F-14A interceptors. The short range of the HQ-2 and HAWK systems, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the S-200 to deal with low-RCS targets, also explains reporting regarding Iranian attempts to purchase advanced SAM systems from Russia.

It is possible that Iran simply does not feel that a robust SAM network is necessary. Given the aforementioned terrain constraints in some areas of the nation, as well as the lack of a large number of what may be regarded by the Iranian government as potential critical targets inside of Iran, the Persian nation may have simply taken a minimalist posture, relying on the S-200 for long-range defense and the other systems as point defense weapons to defend Iran's critical military and political infrastructure.

Another reason for the lack of deployed SAM systems could be that the shorter-ranged HQ-2 and HAWK systems are no longer viewed as being effective enough to warrant widespread use. HQ-2 sites are currently 33% occupied, with HAWK sites being approximately 50% occupied, perhaps signifying more faith in the HAWK system but still demonstrating a potential overall trend of perceived non-reliability. Iran does have reason to suspect the reliability of the HAWK SAM system against a Western opponent, as the missile was an American product and has been in widespread use throughout the West for decades. The HQ-2, however, should be regarded as potentially more reliable, as it is not a standard (and widely exploited) S-75 but rather a Chinese-produced weapon with which the West should have a lesser degree of technical familiarity insofar as electronic performance, if not physical performance, is concerned.

A high ratio of unoccupied sites could be due to financial reasons (lack of operating funds may have resulted in a number of batteries placed in storage) or simple attrition (they may have been expended or destroyed in the Iran-Iraq War), of course, but those facets of the equation cannot be examined through imagery analysis alone. It should be mentioned that one possible source of attrition for the HQ-2 system is the conversion of many missiles to Tondar-69 SSMs to complement CSS-8 SSMs (HQ-2 derivatives) obtained from China. Many batteries may also be out of service for modification to Sayyad-1 standard, which represents a modification of the HQ-2 design with some indigenous components.


On the surface, Iran's ground-based air defense picture appears to be relatively robust thanks to the presence and reach of the seven S-200 batteries. However, a closer analysis reveals an overall coverage which is currently full of holes and vulnerabilities that a potential aggressor could exploit. The Iranian strategic SAM force is obviously in need of a serious upgrade, one which is more substantial than simply producing modified HQ-2 missiles. The presence of air interceptors and numerous terrain constraints do explain away some of the negative aspects of Iran's SAM network, but taken as a whole it represents a relatively ineffective form of defense against a modern agressor. Given the current political climate, it would be in the best interest of the Iranian military to proceed with a widespread upgrade, with the most effective option being the purchase of S-300PMU-2 or S-400 SAM systems for Russia, or perhaps the more cost-effective and similarly capable HQ-9 SAM system from China. Incorporating either purchase into a package deal with modern fighter aircraft such as the Su-30MK or J-10 would result in a much more robust air defense capability.


-The aforementioned data is based on analysis of the available open-source satellite imagery of Iran and may not represent the entire air defense network.

Iranian Military Guide

-Jane's Land Based Air Defence, various editions.

-All overhead imagery provided courtesy of Google Earth.

This article has been updated, the original version was published in September of 2007.


Anonymous said...

Excellent as usual Sean!

Im rather astonished by the lack of interest in air-defence systems by Iranian govrement concerning threat they are facing. Thay have small quantities of stone age air-defence systems with holes in it like Swich cheese and same can be said for theirs airforce.

I guess several bateries of even older S-300PMU1/FT-2000 systems linked with dozen MIG-31( R-37M missile ) would make things a bit complicated with extensive use of SARH missile guidance.

Syrian airdefence is mutch mutch more dense althrow with same or slightly newer systems.

I guess in exchange for a oil field or two they could buy enought moder weapons to make rise some eyebrow in Pentagon because like this it seems that braking Iran is childs game.

I tought to see some rings of S-300PMU system belived to be delivered by Russia to Iran in dont think Iran has it?

Anonymous said...

Sean that's very impressive work!

But this is getting a bit ridiculous, what is the point of having an air defence if you can spot it so easily? Do Iranian generals know this? Aren't these systems mobile..also how would you know if these are real or fake targets/decoys?

Mark Pyruz said...

The Iranians have probably drawn conclusions from the two American wars in Iraq, the Iran-Iraq war, the US air war against Serbia and the Israeli-Syrian wars.

The air defense virtues of Iran's F-14A fighters seem to have provided the best results against enemy aerial intrusion during the Iran-Iraq war. Hence their efforts at refurbishment, and apparent disdain for Russian built alternatives.

Also, the relatively poor performance from Russian (and Chinese) SAM's described in this survey suggest the reason for Iran's reluctance to further invest in said systems. They really haven't been terribly effective against US and Israeli efforts at direct targeting. I agree with Sean's comments concerning the aging HAWK system.

Regarding the Esfahan site, it is possible that while the terrain carves out a significant portion from the system's field of view, it may be thought that the same applies to an aggressor, somewhat improving the odds of survival and scoring a successful hit. (This is only a guess.)

The Tor-M1E is an interesting choice as an upgrade for Iran's SAM capability. Should a war be imposed upon Iran from the US and/or Israel, I believe it would mark the combat debut of this air defense system. Also, it would be illuminating to examine this new systems' exact whereabouts of deployment in Iran.

One last note. Iran's overall defense strategy does not include taking on the US in an even, head to head manner. This is impossible. Iran's overall strategy of defense is deterrence, in the form of making any war imposed upon it too destructive in the region, in terms of strikes against US and Gulf targets, both military and economic. These strikes include the potential use of ballistic and cruise missile systems.

Thanks for the fine work, Sean. Any chance of locating and reviewing select Iranian naval and air force assets? These are sure to be targeted in any breakout of hostilities between the US and Iran.

Anonymous said...

Actually the Iranians used the Tomcats as ad-hoc AWACS against the Iraqi air force and they tried to avoid WVR engagement whit more agile fighters that downed some Tomcats (i.e. MiG-21). Obviously this will not work against an American attack. The Iranians probably assumed that, sooner or later, they will loose its AA network so they concentrated just in point defense with Tor-M1 as “Tomahawk hunters” and rely on retaliatory strikes as a deterrence tool. So the will provably launch some MRBM to sensitive oil facilities in Arabia and try to sink as many tankers as possible hoping to cause an “oil hypoxia” on western economies. Nightmare scenario for some oil-dependant countries that will be confronted with a US$ 150/barril possibility.

Mark Pyruz said...

Actually, IRIAF F-14's successfully shot down a number of MiG-21 fighters. The greatest threat to the Tomcat came from the Mirage F 1EQ, equipped with Super 530D missiles. You're correct, the AWG-9 was effective as an "ad-hoc" AWACS, for Tomcats flying Combat Air Patrol. It must also be conceded that, in general, IrAF pilots were no match for their IRIAF counterparts during the Iran-Iraq War.

Obviously, Iran has no chance of defeating outright a concerted US air strike campaign. However, it's possible that their point defense could prove more effective in scoring hits and kills upon intruding aggressors, than previous attempts by Iraqi, Serbian and Syrian air defenses.

Iranian ballistic and cruise missile technology should not be automatically dismissed, if a repeat of the Israeli Navy's failure during the 2nd Lebanon War is to be avoided.

Sean O'Connor said...


"what is the point of having an air defence if you can spot it so easily? Do Iranian generals know this?"

They can be spotted easily using ELINT systems as well when they are active, and most of these systems need large, prepared sites, so they're hard to hide anwyay.

"Aren't these systems mobile..also how would you know if these are real or fake targets/decoys?"

Identification of real vs. decoy sites would likely be done using ELINT systems. If site A has a SQUARE PAIR radar that is radiating and site B does not, then site B is likely a decoy site. That doesn't help for looking at imagery though, so I have to go with what I have!

Anonymous said...

The fact is that no matter how advanced a system Iran buys firstly it cannot be a match for the US air force (even if we shoot down 100 of their planes they still have a few 1000s left and can replace them quickly too!) and secondly no defence system can cover all Iran because of the mountainous nature of the country. There is also no need to spend lots of money to defend the desert and small farming towns and villages! I don’t think that America comes all the way to Iran to bomb our desert or farms or villages! And even if we spend all our money on a fool proof defence system there is no guarantee that such system will be a deterrent for the USA.

The best defence strategy is exactly what the Iranian government has adapted; namely making the outcome of a war too unpredictable and expensive for the USA by expanding the war to US interests in the region (including Israel and maybe even beyond). The fact is that we cannot win a conventional war with the USA but we will have a good chance with militia wars because as we know traditional armies are hopeless against militias (and that is why Iran’s main emphasis is on the Bassij and Revolutionary Guards (and USA’s main concerns also are these two groups)).
So in conclusion, in my humble opinion instead of spending lots of money on a defence system that may not even do its job, we should spend a fraction of the cost of such defence system on our militias (better training and equipments) and our friends and allies in the region (and beyond).

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Author: Galen Wright said...

Ken mentioned the fact that if anyone(let alone the resources of the US military) can identify these sites, wouldn't it be valuable to keep these systems mobile?
I wholeheartedly agree with this statement and i think this idea is in fact borne out by alot of Iran's activity in recent years. For instance you'll see the large scale abandonment or reduction of the static sites surrounding cities and high value targets. Look at the SA-2 sites surrounding Tehran, Bandar-e Abbas and particularly Khark island. This holdes true for the HAWK sites as well. While this can be explained away by attrition in the IRIAF, i prefer to remain optimistic and I firmly believe that Iran knows what is facing them (at least Jaffari does). They are shifting their forces to be more mobile, investing primarily in the SA-5, TOR-M1, MANPAD's and semi-mobile systems for the SA-2/Sayyad-1 SAM's.
This may make it harder for us armchair generals on the internet to firmly identify sites, it will be worth it for Iran to continue this transformation.

Author: Galen Wright said...

I went through your images and made a couple of notes and what may (or may not be) corrections:

•3rd, possibly 2nd HAWK stations empty

•Where is the empty HQ-2 site, is it the traditional flower, or the triangle?
31 21' 56.98" N 48 35' 24.41" E

•On the first of the empty HAWK sites, what do you identify the “outer ring” as, I’ve seen the same rough shape used on Zu-23 positions on Kish Island, it seems more likely they were originally constructed for SAM’s rather then point defence AAA.
38 02' 45.30" N 46 12' 31.55" E

•This HAWK position appears to be occupied
28 50' 05.88" N 50 55' 41.81" E

Lastly, on the empty HQ-2 sites near Tabriz, do you think its possible that its not 'abandoned/empty' as with the other sites, but just in varying stages of new construction as it is being erected with the B.M. silos?

Sean O'Connor said...

The empty HQ-2 site near Ahvaz is a little southwest of the white marker, it's inside the circle.

The outer ring around the Tabriz HAWK is likely either AAA or other SHORAD emplacements such as Rapier or FM-80/90.

I'll change the Bushehr HAWK to active in the SAM Site Overview file (this article will be updated at some point as well).

The Tabriz HQ-2 sites are inactive. They have actually been, in some cases, repurposed to serve as mini-garrisons for Shahab-3 TELs.

nico said...

Great work! I am not very good with Google Earth, it's not easy to find this things even after you point them out! A small wish would be to point out the nuclear installations or high value targets that these systems protect,that would really be helpful as I was having a hard time finding them. I am surprised to see that Iran has few or any system along their border, everthing seems to be concentrated on point defence.

nico said...

I was in the military but not in air defense. I know and follow defence issues a lot since I was a teenager but I have a stupid question. How high is that mountain range to the west of Natanz? I am not good with Google Earth to find out it's height. It just seems like all the SAMS are in the valley to the north of Natanz but nothing much to the west. It seems to me that small range creates a blind spot to radar. Just curious.

Sean O'Connor said...

That mountain range, with peaks ranging between 7 and 10 thousand feet for the most part, does create a blind spot for the radar systems used by the SAM batteries. Not quite as bad as it sounds given that the systems themselves are about 3-4 thousand feet above sea level already, but it is significant.

nico said...

thanks for the information

Anonymous said...

Iran also has displayed HQ-9 at the 2010 army day parade.

Sean O'Connor said...

I'm the terrorist coward? Is that why I'm the one who posts anonymously? Oh wait...

I haven't put any links into Google Earth itself, either. If you actually knew how to use the program, the links take you to the page on the Google Earth BBS where the placemark was posted. I have no files posted there, I do not upload my files into their database for reasons that are my own.

Besides, nobody in Iran has any room to talk until they stop sponsoring Hezbollah. Next.

Anonymous said...

Sean, you are a moron.

If you knew how stupid you sound you would stop talking.

It is the media jews in the west as well as lying douchebags like yourself that started all these lies about Iran.

Your comment didn't make any sense at all. Sponsoring "hezbollah"? Even if that weren't yet another lie by you Neo-Con Artists, so what? - Hezbollah helps stop EuroAmerican-sponsored terrorism and wars..

On the other hand the US supplied nuclear weapons to Israel and South Africa under apparteit as well as chemical and biological weapons to the arabs for the sole purpose of starting a war with and murdering Iranians - which makes people like you sound like a bunch of impotent, retarded bible thumping terrorist wannabees

Sean O'Connor said...

How am I the stupid sounding one? I don't have any of this crap in Google Earth, and I'm pretty sure the nuclear sites I mention here are the ones Iran has publicly acknowledged, like the reactor at Bushehr or the complex at Natanz. So you've already come here accusing me of things which are clearly not true.

Israel...don't get me started. If you had any idea what my views on that really were, you wouldn't have the stones to ever be accusing me of being pro-Israeli.

As far as Israel/S.A. nuclear weapons, the way I understand it is that it was the Israelis who aided the S.A. weapons program. We didn't know much about it, nor have anything to do with it. No idea where Israel's bombs did or didn't come from either, although if they'd play by the IAEA rules that they seem to want Iran to play by we might know a whole lot more. Equality under law must not translate well into Hebrew.

Anyway, find a lie about Iran that I have personally started, or better yet show me where I have actually stuck something in Google Earth like you alleged originally.

nuclear321 said...

The deployment of these defense systems tells us one thing...these are the areas that Iran wishes to defend the most...therefore they should be the top targets if a war does break out. An emp blast over Iran would shut down most of their systems that rely on electricity...then a conventional bombing campaign on the impotent sites could commence. They better not dare try to close the straight and disrupt oil supplies...cause if they do...all hell will break loose (guaranteed).

Anonymous said...

Great Work Sean. It would seem nowadays that Iran's supposedly lackadaisical view on air defense exists for a reason. Several people have pointed out that Iran would have to make it very costly for everyone involved if an incursion by the US/Israel were to occur. Meaning, attacking the surrounding oil fields of other countries, making the price of oil go through the roof...

It's an excellent idea and would cause widespread panic in Westernized nations (in terms of stopping all military action immediately). It's cost effective as well. Why spend billions on air defense when all you need are heavily armed suicide commandos and an international media ready to report?

If Israel attacks Iran like they're posturing...I hope they and the US have a foolproof plan to stop such retaliation.