The multiple meanings of Iran’s attack on Irbil
A number of sites and the new headquarters of the US Consulate in Irbil, which also incorporates an American military base, came under attack by Iranian ballistic missiles last week. This brutal bombardment was carried out by Iran’s so-called Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which quickly took credit, claiming that one of the sites targeted was an Israeli “strategic center for conspiracy and mischiefs of the Zionists.” The Israeli government remained silent on the attack, while the US condemned it.
This strike is closely intertwined with the current situation in Iran, as the Iranians have been impatiently awaiting a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Their hopes were apparently derailed when negotiations suddenly and unexpectedly stumbled, with their suspension formally declared on March 11 — two days before the IRGC’s attack on Irbil.
Regionally, Iran had already threatened it would take revenge against those who killed two of its officers in an Israeli attack on bases near Damascus a few days earlier, on March 7. Meanwhile, in the international arena, Iran is attempting to trigger a confrontation between Russia and the US in light of the conflict in Ukraine, which will create opportunities as well as challenges for Iran.
This volatile regional and international setting was the backdrop for the Iranian attack on the US Consulate in Irbil — an attack that contained several unspoken messages.
It sent a strong message to Iraq, as it expressed Tehran’s displeasure at recent moves by Muqtada Al-Sadr — whose coalition captured the largest number of seats in the latest parliamentary elections — and other leading Iraqi political figures. The attack was also a response to the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s deal with Al-Sadr, which was struck in spite of Iran’s fruitless attempts to abort it — most clearly represented by the secretive trip to visit the KDP by Quds Force chief Esmail Ghaani.
With regard to Israel, Iran usually responds to its attacks via its militias that are deployed throughout the region. This time, however, the IRGC claimed responsibility for the attack, insisting that it had targeted a Mossad office. The announcement sent a significant message: Iran’s patience with Israeli attacks on its forces and facilities has run out. The Iranian response to Israel in Iraq points to the decline of Tehran’s capabilities in Syria and to Israel’s success in aborting many Iranian reprisals.
At a time when regional and global powers are seeking to negotiate with Iran regarding its ballistic missile program, this attack using Fateh-110 missiles — from inside Iranian territory — was a message from Tehran that it is clinging to its missile program. The IRGC will not be impacted by any deal with the US and this attack proved its standing at home and its role within the regime’s strategy. It also intended to send a message to the outside world that Iran’s clout in the region, especially in Iraq, remains unharmed.
As Iran ramps up its attempts to overcome its frustration at not achieving the desired breakthrough in the nuclear talks, this attack thrusts Tehran back into the limelight once again, taking advantage of the current regional and international developments as a new lever to avoid further faltering in the nuclear file.
It intended to send a message to the outside world that Iran’s clout in the region, especially in Iraq, remains unharmed.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
As the motives for this Iranian attack are disclosed bit by bit, it will have plenty of consequences. It will create more challenges to Iran’s movements in Iraq, as the attack marks an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. It refutes the Iranian allegations of noninterference in the affairs of Iraq — especially as it was rejected by some influential Iraqi parties, which is an indication of the important shifts in the Iraqi arena concerning Iran’s clout. The attack could potentially lead to the shaping of anti-Iranian political positions in the coming days.
Also among the consequences is the fact that the attack came in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, which could prevent Iran from making gains and dash its hopes of getting sanctions lifted in the foreseeable future. It offers a golden opportunity for the major world powers to strongly protest Iran’s undermining of regional security and stability and to include its ballistic missile program, which poses a danger to the region — along with its regional behavior — in the nuclear talks in Vienna. The US could insist on this in the next round of talks and Iran would not be able to comply with the terms of the nuclear agreement without strict controls being placed on its missile program and belligerent behavior.
This attack will also increase Israel’s escalation against Iranian forces in Syria. Maybe it will lead Tel Aviv to carry out a military strike against Iran or target some of its nuclear sites. There could also be Israeli movements against Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, the attack will give Israel further ammunition to pressure the US administration with the aim of obstructing efforts to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
All these factors show that the Iranian attack on Irbil, which involved 12 ballistic missiles, has extremely important meanings — in terms of both time and place. It came at a time when the US and the West were busy addressing the Ukrainian crisis and as efforts to reach a last-ditch deal on the Iran nuclear program were faltering. This demonstrates that, first of all, Iran wants to send a message to Russia, its ally, that it stands with Moscow over Ukraine and in their shared hostility to the US and the wider West. Second, it sends a clear threat to the other countries involved in the nuclear negotiations, displaying its strength by showing there is a real possibility it will carry out strikes against them. Third, it wants to be the focus of attention as the principal actor in the Middle East and the decision-maker pulling regional strings, especially in Iraq.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of Rasanah, the International Institute for Iranian Studies. Twitter: @mohalsulami