Last month Iran fired several missiles toward the Kurdish region in Iraq and reports indicated that the missiles hit areas near the US consulate building. As per the Directorate General of Counter-Terrorism in Kurdistan, 12 ballistic missiles were launched targeting Erbil. The IRGC said that the missile attacks on Erbil were in response to Israeli strikes that killed Iranian military personnel in Syria. The IRGC issued a statement saying, “The strategic center for conspiracy and mischief of the Zionists was targeted by powerful precision missiles fired by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” This military escalation happened amid rising regional and global geopolitical tensions. For example, the nuclear talks in Vienna have halted and the Western world, particularly the United States and the EU, continue to be preoccupied by Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.
The Kurdish regional government said that the missile attacks targeted civilian areas and not foreign bases and urged the international community to investigate the matter. The military escalation aimed to showcase Iran’s influence in Iraq to deter US and Israeli attacks against its personnel, assets, infrastructure, and proxies in the region. Iran-backed militias have regularly attacked US bases in Iraq in recent years and Tehran escalated its attacks in the aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Moreover, recently the Chief of the IRGC Quds Force Esmail Qaani praised the recent attacks on Israel and said that these attacks were “manifestations of their helplessness [of Israel] and the strength of the Resistance Front, which, thank God, is growing every day thanks to the blood of the great martyrs.”
There is an evident escalation between Iran and Israel in the region. In response to Iran targeting an alleged Mossad secret base in Erbil, Israel reportedly targeted a drone production factory used by the IRGC. As per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Israeli attacks targeted a weapons depot operated by Iranian-backed militias near Damascus International Airport. It should be noted that in recent years both Israel and the United States have been seriously concerned about Iranian proxies acquiring drones hence strengthening their capabilities to target US/Israeli interests. Iran’s drone program in recent times has threatened regional security as Iranian proxies like the Houthis in Yemen have targeted via the use of drones civilians and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.
The recent regional geopolitical developments and the escalation of tensions point toward three major issues. Firstly, Israel has pressed the United States regarding the terms of an emerging nuclear deal with Iran and has urged the United States and the EU not to lift the sanctions on Iran. Tehran does not want a direct confrontation with Israel as this will open a major threat for it at a time when it is facing serious domestic crises. Hence, Iran is likely to respond to future Israeli strikes through its proxies. Secondly, Iran intends to maintain its influence in the region, however, Iranian attempts to use countries like Iraq as a battlefield to settle scores with Israel will further risk the movement toward peace and stability in the country. This is against the backdrop of Iraqi Shiite political factions traditionally close to Iran announcing that they will resort to violence if they are not included in the new ruling coalition. The main pro-Iran alliances faced severe losses in the parliamentary election last year. Thirdly, Iran will use every opportunity to embarrass the United States and the recent attacks on Erbil indicate its intent to provoke the United States amid a tense geopolitical environment. Moreover, the nuclear talks are also at a crucial juncture amid strong divergences such as over Iranian demands for the United States to remove the IRGC from its terror list. Iran understands that Washington’s immediate focus is on the Ukrainian conflict and in recent times Tehran has often resorted to military escalation to put more pressure on the United States amid its geopolitical dilemmas.
Washington’s position on the missile attacks targeting Erbil indicates a cautious approach to avoid escalating the issue in order to create a conducive environment for the nuclear talks. Iran may take advantage of this US cautiousness to escalate further, as it is fully aware of Washington’s focus on the Ukraine crisis and its need to finalize the Iranian nuclear deal so that it can deal with other geopolitical challenges whether that may be Russia or China.