The United States carried out retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed proxies in response to its troops and facilities coming under attack in Iraq and Syria. As per Pentagon briefings, the locations targeted were used by Iranian-backed proxies such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The timing of these recent US retaliatory strikes is quite important. They took place amid an intensification of drone attacks against US interests in the region and while the deadlock continues at the Vienna nuclear talks. This surge in drone attacks is indicative of Iran’s defiance and its ongoing policy of “plausible deniability.” In the aftermath of the drone attacks, Iran’s representatives denied the country’s hand in the attacks.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi condemned the attacks against US troops and facilities calling them a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi national security,” and said that he would review all legal options to prevent further escalation. He also said that “Iraq reiterates its refusal to be an arena for settling scores.” Iran intends to take advantage of the instability in Iraq knowing that Kadhimi will have no option but to walk a tightrope in order not to anger either side amid a tense security situation in the country. In addition, Iran is not worried about US military responses to its provocations as it continues to hide under the cover of “plausible deniability.” Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi, once inaugurated, is likely to intensify proxy operations in the region against US interests particularly in Iraq and Syria, which will no doubt trigger further military responses from Washington.
However, the recent US military response was the second time that the Biden administration had ordered airstrikes against Iranian-backed proxies operating in the region.The Biden administration had faced extensive criticism from several US lawmakers after it had ordered its first round of airstrikes in February. Senator Bernie Sanders openly criticized the move and warned the Biden administration of “continuing on the same path” which will only extend America’s “forever war” in the region. The Biden administration confirmed that its recent retaliatory strikes were “defensive precision airstrikes” that targeted the weapons storage facilities of Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq and Syria. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby in a statement further explained that “the targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq.” Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada confirmed in a statement that at least four of its fighters were killed in the US retaliatory strikes. To avoid further escalation, the United States carried out measured and calculated retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed proxies.
The recent Iranian strikes via its proxies against US troops and facilities indicate Tehran’s evolving approach to the question of the regional balance of power and how to change it in its favor as well as reflecting the ongoing differences between the United States and Iran. While Washington makes further concessions to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, Tehran continues to activate its proxies to target US interests, hence threatening regional stability. The Biden administration plans to keep in place a limited counter-terrorism operation force in Iraq and Syria to respond to repeated threats from Iranian-backed proxies. The latter in recent months have increased drone attacks targeting US and coalition forces in Iraq, and after the recent US retaliatory strikes, Kata’ib Hezbollah has vowed to seek revenge. Its spokesman Mohammed Mohi warned the United States of surprise attacks as its presence in Iraq is “illegal.” As mentioned, Iran denied its role in the attacks targeting US troops and facilities in Iraq and Syria. Iran’s UN envoy, Majid Takht Ravanchi said, “Any claim to attribute to Iran…any attack carried out against American personnel or facilities in Iraq is factually wrong and void of the minimum requirements of authenticity and reliability.” He also said that the US retaliatory strikes violated international law. However, overwhelming evidence proves Iran’s direct involvement in Iraq and Syria despite its policy of “plausible deniability.” Several reports suggest that Iran has provided its proxies in the region with drone technology leading to the proliferation of arms and the recent mode of attacks indicate the extensive nature of Iran’s military support to its proxies. Iran’s drone transfers to its proxies range from lightweight reconnaissance drones like Oghab-1 and Yasir to combat drones like Basir-1 produced by Iranian companies such as Farnas Pasargad and Iran Aviation Industries Organization.
The recent US retaliatory strikes indicate a possible escalation in clashes between Iranian-backed proxies and US troops in Iraq and Syria in the coming months as tensions remain high in the region. Given the domestic and international challenges facing the Biden administration, it cannot afford to escalate the situation and will be forced to limit its retaliation in response to further Iranian aggression. Meanwhile, Iran will continue to instruct its regional proxies to launch attacks against US troops and facilities in order to pressure Washington into making broader concessions at the nuclear talks before it commits to resuming its nuclear obligations.