Iran’s ballistic missile deployment in Iraq a game-changer
There was another sign last week that Iran was getting worried about losing its privileged position in Iraq. Reuters reported that Tehran had moved ballistic missiles to its proxies over the border. As expected, Iran denied the report, but Reuters stuck to its story. It said that: “According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.”
The story made sense because it replicated what Iran has done elsewhere, most recently in Yemen, where it has been supplying its Houthi allies with short and medium-range ballistic missiles and training them how to use them. The Houthis have, since 2015, launched more than 180 such missiles against Saudi cities and towns, as well as others directed at Yemeni population centers.
It also stands to reason that, as Iraqi political groups have struggled to form a new government, it is becoming likely that an independent coalition may succeed in winning a majority in Parliament. An independent Iraqi government would most likely seek to limit Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has built a formidable presence in Iraq, politically and militarily. It has stoked the fires of sectarian differences and exploited anti-American sentiments among Iraqis.
In the name of fighting Americans, and later Al-Qaeda and Daesh, Iran sent fighters and materiel to Iraq. It created several sectarian militias modeled after its own, and practically obliterated the border between the two countries, as it ferried fighters from all over the world to Iraq. Its military leaders crossed the border at will and Gen. Qassem Soleimani treated Iraq as his own turf as he commanded Iraqi militias into various battles.
Over the years, Iran manipulated Iraqi politics and imposed its own candidates to lead the country against Iraqi wishes.
The May 12 elections marked a watershed, as candidates campaigned openly against Iran’s meddling and won. Soleimani immediately set up shop in Iraq and has been trying to coax, cajole and threaten Iraqi politicians into joining a disparate pro-Iranian coalition. His shenanigans have been the main reason it has taken so long to form a government.
Iran has tried to exploit protests against poor services in the southern provinces, and it contributed to heightened tensions by cutting off electricity to those provinces in the middle of Iraq’s scorching summer.
Iran’s reported handing over of ballistic missiles to militias in Iraq a threat to peace and security throughout the region.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Thus the news about sending ballistic missiles to sectarian militias is another attempt to secure its future influence should the new government try to chart an independent path from Iran. Those militias would act as Tehran’s proxies if the new government demanded Iran’s own forces leave the country.
The presence of ballistic missiles would first pose a threat to the Iraqi military, which does not have such technology. As we are witnessing in Yemen, ballistic missiles can be used internally against government forces and against other communities.
Iran’s desperate act can also be seen as another element in its confrontation with the US, and as such it poses a threat to US troops in Iraq and Syria, which are within range of any ballistic missile in the hands of Iran’s proxies.
Once verified, the presence of Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles in Iraq would undermine the European rapprochement with Iran. It would embarrass France, Germany and Britain, as they have been trying to preserve the nuclear agreement in the face of strong US opposition.
Perhaps in reaction to the news of Iranian missile deployment to Iraq, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that, following the US withdrawal from the agreement, Iran should be ready to renegotiate its future nuclear plans, its ballistic missile arsenal and its role in the wars in Syria and Yemen.
Earlier last week, President Emmanuel Macron reiterated France’s commitment to maintaining the nuclear accord, but also called for broader talks on Iran’s nuclear program after 2025, its ballistics program and its influence in the wider Middle East region.
Most of all, the EU would be embarrassed, as it has been the most vocal in defending the nuclear deal and taking measures to counter US sanctions. As recently as Thursday, the EU made it clear that it was taking further action, through its Blocking Statute, which entered into force on Aug. 7, to mitigate the sanctions’ impact on EU companies doing business with Iran. It further asserted that it was “working on concrete measures aimed at sustaining cooperation with Iran in key economic sectors, particularly on banking and finance, trade and investment, oil, and transport.”
The news about Iran expanding its missile deployment to Iraq, in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, should compel the EU to reassess its position.
Most alarming of all, the missiles would threaten Iraq’s neighbors, including Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who will now have to deploy missile defenses to deal with the new situation. Major population centers in these countries are within reach of even short-range missiles.
If verified, Iran’s new ballistic missile deployment, and handing them over to irregular militias in Iraq, is a game-changer. Within Iraq, it would create a state within a state, beholden to Iran and armed with strategic weapons. Regionally, it would cause new dangers to Iraq’s neighbors, and would threaten international peace and security. The US and Europe should also take note, as the new deployment would threaten their own troops in the region.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1