Deciphering the broader implications of Iran’s attacks


Deciphering the broader implications of Iran’s attacks

Deciphering the broader implications of Iran’s attacks
Iraqi rescuers search a building destroyed in an Iranian missile strike in Irbil, Kurdistan region, last week. (AFP)
Short Url

It is crucial to interpret Iran’s recent attacks within a broader context, considering both regional and international dynamics, as they have consequences that impact all Middle Eastern actors.

Last week, in the space of 24 hours, Iran launched missile and drone strikes on targets in three countries — Iraq, Syria and Pakistan — and took the extraordinary step of announcing its responsibility for the attacks. The announcements sparked anger among the targeted countries.

For the attack on targets in Idlib, Tehran claimed it was the longest-range strike it had ever mounted, adding that the missiles traveled 1,900 km. Meanwhile, its missile attack into Irbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, killed four people and wounded many others.

Through these attacks, Tehran aims to send a clear political and security message to regional and international players and assert its regional power. The message conveyed by Iran’s attacks on each target extend beyond Iraqi or Syrian affairs and regional politics.

This is not the first time that Iran has targeted Irbil. However, this was the first time Tehran had set out to target civilians there in such a blatant manner. Also, the timing and nature of the strikes revealed Iran’s larger geopolitical aims concerning external and internal actors, particularly the US, Israel, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and even Turkiye.

The message conveyed by Iran’s attacks extends beyond Iraqi or Syrian affairs and regional politics

Sinem Cengiz

These strikes occurred amid heightened tensions in the region, with concerns about a potential spillover of the ongoing conflict in Gaza. It is possible to argue that Iran’s objective in these attacks, which further escalated the tension in the region, were both direct and indirect.

In its attack on Irbil, the target was clear and direct: Israel and the US. Tehran adopted its conventional policy of showing military strength following Israeli and US strikes on its regional interests, but it has also set an eye on a wider audience than just Washington and Tel Aviv with this attack. Indirectly, it was also a message to Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Baghdad and Ankara.

Irbil has strong ties with the US, but Iran also plays a significant role and can exert strong military, political and economic force. With precarious political and economic ties to the US, Israel and Iran, the Kurdish regional authorities in Iraq are hoping to avoid being dragged into a regional conflict, but they find themselves in a difficult position. Iran and its allies in Baghdad have long accused Irbil of hosting a hostile Israeli security presence, which Kurdish political leaders deny. The Kurdistan Regional Government may have remained silent amid Tel Aviv’s escalating war in Gaza, but its leaders do not face pressure from their home constituencies to become involved in the conflict and that is why they have kept a low profile.

The new pattern of attacks against Irbil — once widely thought of as the safest region in Iraq — indicate that it will likely be the target of more strikes at the direct or indirect instruction of Tehran, complicating Washington’s strategy in Iraq, Ankara’s interests and Baghdad’s and Irbil’s ability to impose control.

Turkiye has so far adopted a cautious tone in regards to the latest attacks, expressing its concerns about the escalating tension and calling for a peaceful solution. Turkish Consul General to Irbil Mehmet Mevlut Yakut paid a condolence visit to the relatives of those killed in the Iranian attack, although he did not comment specifically.

In its previous attacks on Irbil, Tehran aimed to send a message to influential actors in Iraq, including Turkiye. For many years, Iran has viewed Turkiye’s influence — whether through its military deployments or the relationship it has with the Kurdistan Regional Government — as a potential challenge to its own strategies inside Iraq.

Irbil will likely be the target of more strikes at the direct or indirect instruction of Tehran

Sinem Cengiz

Tehran fears the Turkish influence in northern Iraq just like the one in northern Syria. Iraq’s northern provinces are of strategic importance for Iran and its militia allies. In particular, the border crossings with Syria are a critical component to supporting Tehran’s policies and the militias’ domination of smuggling routes there are an important incentive to hold onto this zone. To that end, Iran has, through its proxies, formed something of a tacit relationship with the Kurdish elements that Turkiye considers a national security threat.

Iran and Turkiye, along with Russia, had developed some sort of a limited cooperation within the framework of the Astana peace process for Syria since 2017. However, with Russia involved in war with Ukraine since February 2022, this cooperation has been on hold for some time. This is also because there has been a reduction in the violence in Syria over the past year, even though the crisis is far from over.

Iran’s attack on Idlib is notable at this point. Tehran claimed that it aimed to eliminate Daesh affiliates. However, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is known for being close to the Iran-backed Hezbollah, stated that there were no Daesh affiliates in the target and that the Iranian intelligence could have been out of date. This brings to mind the question of whether there is a lack of intelligence sharing between Ankara and Tehran regarding Idlib. Turkiye is an influential actor in this area in terms of intelligence.

Although Iran aimed to use these attacks to send a direct message to its opponents — namely Washington, Israel and the groups it considers to be a threat to itself — it also aimed to look for a wider audience and send indirect messages to regional actors that it is competing for influence.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view