Iran’s Cross-Border Attacks in Iraq


Against the backdrop of the ongoing domestic uprising, Iran launched a spree of attacks on  Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.  As per sources, the Iranian attacks targeted the Komala Party and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, killing 26 of their members.  Iran justified these attacks on the basis of necessary defensive and security measures, however, observers believe that given  the intensity and nature of the attacks, Tehran aimed to not only to eliminate Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in northern Iraq but also for other ends, which will be discussed later. 

The  United States, the European Union and the Gulf states  condemned the Iranian cross-border attacks  in Iraq. Several international organizations and rights groups  also condemned the  attacks  and  called for strong measures against the Iranian . Baghdad also protested  against the Iranian attacks on its territory,  and in response,  Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s during his visit to Iran,  spoke  of his political system’s  plan to  boost border security. The plan includes the formation of joint military units that will include Iraqi forces, its border guards, and  Peshmerga forces; these units will monitor  the border areas of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).    The Iranian attack also coincided with Turkey’s air strikes as  part of its Operation Claw-Sword against Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq after the recent bomb attack in Istanbul. Ankara alleged that the PKK had  planned the attack.  In response to these  developments, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Iran hoped that Iraqi land would  not be used to threaten  the country’s security while some Iranian lawmakers  like Esmail Kowsari said that it was  necessary to send ground forces to establish security along the shared borders with Iraq. Moreover, Iran’s Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani recently visited Iraq and warned of military action if Iraq did not prevent Kurdish opposition groups from interfering in Iranian affairs and attempting to destabilize the country.

The recent escalation of Iranian cross-border attacks is driven by  several motives.  Firstly, Iran has frequently used its political and military arms in Iraq to pressurize and attack opposition groups. The friction between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has created opportunities for Iran to penetrate Kurdish politics  and the IRGC has frequently pressurized  the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)  to eliminate opposition groups located in KRI.  The KDP is largely dominant in the area designated  as the Yellow Zone that includes  Erbil and Dohuk provinces whereas the PUK is dominant in the Green Zone that encompasses  Sulaymaniyah and Halabja provinces. Iran has longstanding ties with the PUK and its president  Bafel Talabani recently met  Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq Mohammed-Kazem Ale-Sadegh to discuss political developments in  the country and expressed concerns over the Iranian attacks.  As the KRG  is faced with political challenges and is not in a position to guard the borders,  the Iranian attacks have further complicated the political and security environment, hence enabling  Tehran to exploit the situation for its ends. Secondly, Iran has constantly blamed external interference for the growing domestic protests. By blaming the Kurds, the Iran cast a shadow of doubt over  the organic nature of the protests and attempted to delegitimize them regionally and internationally.  Thirdly, Iran has used disproportionate cross-border attacks to perpetuate fear among Iranian protestors. As the domestic protests have not lost steam, the Iranian political system has pushed the security dimension to send a message to the domestic front: Iranian security forces will not hesitate from using excessive force as the protests are externally backed for the sake of destabilizing the Iranian state.  Fourthly, Iran has invested  significant resources  to influence Iraqi politics for the sake of achieving its strategic aims, and   the attacks on Kurdish groups  are an extension of its stratagem  in the region. The low to medium-scale cross-border attacks    enable Iran to maintain its presence and influence,  and escalate  at times of internal crisis, primarily to spread fear and distract regional and international attention from its crackdown on protestors and the challenges facing the political system. 
After the Iraqi premier’s recent visit, the border security situation with Iran is likely to improve considering various new initiatives such as consolidated patrols and arrangements by the Kurdish and Iraqi forces and improved coordination with  Iranian counterparts. For the short term, the summit-level talks will calm tensions, hence providing Tehran with time to curb the unrest on its side. 

Editorial Team