Iran File

The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.{{authorBox.message}}

Loading...

Loading...

Iran File: Iranian Proxies Increase Attacks on US Forces to Catalyze a US Withdrawal from Iraq

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

To receive the Iran File via email, please subscribe here.

Key takeaway: Iran’s Iraqi proxies have likely become more willing to kill Americans and may soon do so to catalyze the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria. These proxies are advancing an Iran-directed campaign that has increased in frequency, accuracy, and lethality since January 2021. This campaign is expanding to include not just Iraq but also Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Proxies have also begun using more lethal munitions and drones that can bypass US defenses. Attacks will continue until US forces withdraw from Iraq and Syria or reestablish deterrence with both Iran and its proxy network.

The Iran-directed escalation campaign to expel US forces from Iraq and Syria has changed in five ways since the Biden administration took office in January 2021:

  1. Proxies are increasing the frequency of their attacks against US forces in Iraq. The militias have conducted 20 rocket attacks and 11 *drone *attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq and Syria since President Biden took office in January 2021. Six of those attacks occurred in the first week of July alone. That is a dramatic increase in tempo compared to the five proxy rocket attacks conducted in the final three months of the Trump administration. Iran and its proxies remain demonstrably undeterred.
  2. Proxies are increasingly attacking US intelligence and military assets in the once-protected Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Iran’s proxies conducted their first known attack on US forces in the KRI under in September 2020, firing six rockets at Erbil International Airport from beyond the KRI borders. The small-caliber rockets caused no casualties. Proxies have attacked US facilities inside the KRI five times since then, including a 14-rocket barrage in February 2021. Drone attacks targeted an alleged CIA hangar at Erbil International Airport in April, a presumed US Joint Special Operations Command headquarters at Harir airbase near the Iranian border in May, a *civilian house in Erbil Province in June, and Erbil International Airport again in July. The June attack triggered US retaliatory airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border.
  3. Proxies are increasing the geographic scope of their escalation to include US basing in Syria. The US retaliatory strikes struck minor Iranian proxy facilities in Iraq’s Anbar Province and Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Province on June 28. Proxies fired 34 122 mm rockets at US forces stationed at a counter-ISIS forward operating base in Deir ez-Zor known as Green Village hours after the US strikes. US air defenses at Green Village prevented injury—never a guarantee with such large salvos of high-caliber munitions. Proxies conducted another drone attack against the same US base on July 7, likely demonstrating their intention to continue targeting forces in Syria as well as Iraq.
  4. Proxies appear increasingly willing to inflict US casualties. The June 28 attack on Green Village in Syria is one of the largest attacks against the United States in the Middle East since US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011—second only to Iran’s ballistic missile attack on Ain al-Assad airbase after the killing of Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. The scale of the Green Village attack indicates that Iran and its militias intended to inflict casualties. The 122 mm rockets used are larger and more lethal than the usual 107 mm Katyushas that proxies use in harassing attacks throughout the region. Other attacks in 2021 have also demonstrated a readiness to inflict casualties, including the February 15 attack on Erbil International Airport that killed one and injured 14 and the July 7 rocket barrage on Ain al-Assad that injured two.
  5. Proxies are demonstrating increasingly advanced drone capabilities to bypass US defenses. Iran-backed Iraqi militants conducted their first drone attack targeting a presumed CIA hangar in Erbil on April 14, 2021. They have since conducted nine additional drone attacks in Iraq and Syria. The drones used are coded with their targets’ GPS coordinates, often evade the US air defense systems that regularly intercept rocket attacks, and have struck multiple sensitive US assets.

Iran has likely calculated that causing US casualties will motivate a US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria. Iranian leadership holds that the United States is extremely casualty-averse. Tehran and its proxies likely believe that even a small number of US casualties in Iraq and Syria could convince the Biden administration to withdraw forces from those theaters—a key Iranian strategic objective. Iran and its proxies are likely emboldened by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and believe that a similar bleeding of the US political will to remain will achieve the same outcome in Iraq. The head of the Iran-backed militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, *announced in April that “dialogue and logic does not work … the Afghan method is the only way to expel [US forces from Iraq].”

Iran will continue its campaign to expel US forces from Iraq and Syria regardless of the outcome of US-Iran negotiations to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s leadership has seemingly assessed that the Biden team is prioritizing the JCPOA above all else. That calculation has also emboldened them. Tehran is likely concerned that a future American president will pursue another “maximum pressure” policy similar to that of the Trump administration. The regime will therefore try to prepare itself economically and militarily to better resist coercion upon the potential return of maximum pressure during or after the Biden administration. Proxy attacks will likely continue so long as Iranian leaders see little risk and the potential for a huge reward (the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria).

Forecast: Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria will likely continue to escalate against US forces and facilities until the United States withdraws its forces or reestablishes deterrence. Escalations will likely include simultaneous rocket and drone attacks to better evade US defenses in Iraq and Syria, the use of larger, more lethal munitions like 122 mm rockets, and the continued targeting of alleged US intelligence assets in Iraqi Kurdistan. Proxies will increasingly aim to inflict US casualties to create a politically untenable situation for the Biden administration, thereby catalyzing a US withdrawal.

This analysis is co-published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: Khamenei faces difficult decisions in the presidential election

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

To receive the Iran File via email, please subscribe here.

Key Takeaway: Two recent presidential debates in Iran may affect the outcome of the June 18 election even if they do not affect who wins. The first and second debates occurred on June 5 and 8. The apparent winner of the debates according to domestic polling is moderate candidate Abdol Nasser Hemmati. However, Hemmati will not win the presidency. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle support hardline Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi for president and have interfered on his behalf throughout the race, making Raisi the most likely victor. Nevertheless, Hemmati’s positive polling present Khamenei with difficult decisions over whether to interfere further and how to ensure Raisi wins. 

Khamenei could simply continue supporting Raisi indirectly as he has done throughout the election cycle. The Guardian Council—the state body constitutionally responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates—*announced the final list of presidential candidates on May 25. Khamenei largely controls the Guardian Council, whose members he directly and indirectly appoints. The Guardian Council’s vetting in this cycle has produced a field of candidates that feigns political diversity while benefiting Raisi. Most of the approved candidates are hardliners, and the council disqualified Raisi’s chief moderate and reformist competitors. Raisi’s competition now comprises mostly of other hardliners, some of whom have supported him previously. 

The supreme leader has also supported Raisi through the media apparatus he controls. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting—the state media outlet that Khamenei oversees—has biased its reporting against *Hemmati and reformist candidate *Mohsen Mehr Ali Zadeh, currently Raisi’s most serious opponents for the presidency. Other hardliner-controlled institutions—possibly with Khamenei’s consent—have influenced the media environment to support Raisi. Iranian journalists on Twitter have claimed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Judiciary threatened reporters who criticize Raisi. 

Khamenei could take more aggressive measures, such as removing Hemmati from the race, if needed to secure Raisi’s victory. Two Guardian Council members *have asserted in recent weeks that they could disqualify previously approved candidates if they seem unfit for the presidency during the debates. Their claims likely reflect the 12-person council’s willingness to interfere further to help Raisi, especially if Khamenei orders it. 

The supreme leader could alternatively rig the election outright, but such action could damage Raisi’s legitimacy and political ambitions. Raisi is one of the leading contenders to succeed Khamenei and likely believes that the presidency will bolster his chances of becoming supreme leader. An obviously rigged election that benefits Raisi and contradicts polling favoring Hemmati could discredit Raisi publicly and potentially among some in the regime. Becoming an illegitimate president could damage his succession prospects more than if he were to lose and remain Judiciary chief. Khamenei could flood the information space with skewed polling emphasizing Raisi’s popularity to artificially improve his legitimacy. 

Khamenei may incite popular backlash if he intervenes further in the presidential election. Increasingly obvious election interference risks triggering anti-regime protests. Demonstrations have fluctuated throughout Iran in recent years, condemning and stoking concerns of instability among regime officials. Protests also erupted after the fraud-plagued reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Khamenei’s aggressive intervention also risks opening fissures among regime elite and instigating infighting, a particularly serious outcome as Khamenei ages and jockeying to succeed him intensifies.  

Iranian Presidential Election Tracker: The coronation of Ebrahim Raisi

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

To receive the Iran File via email, please subscribe here.

Key Takeaway: Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi is increasingly likely to win Iran’s presidential election on June 18. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle have interfered to suppress moderates and reformists and strengthen their preferred hardline candidate, Raisi, throughout this election cycle. Khamenei and his allies are prioritizing engineering their desired election outcome over achieving high voter turnout, which would require a diverse slate of candidates. Raisi’s victory has implications for both his chances at becoming Iran’s next supreme leader and how Tehran will interact with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the years ahead.

Khamenei has interfered in the election process to help Raisi become president. The Guardian Council—the state body constitutionally responsible for vetting and approving electoral candidates—*announced the final list of presidential candidates on May 25. Khamenei largely controls the Guardian Council, whose members he directly and indirectly appoints, and used it to cultivate a field of candidates that feigns political diversity while benefiting Raisi. Most of the approved candidates are hardliners. The council disqualified leading moderates and reformists, including former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and First Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri. These disqualified politicians would have been Raisi’s greatest opponents. Raisi’s competition now comprises other hardliners, some of whom have supported him previously. Khamenei *defended the Guardian Council from domestic criticism on May 27.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) likely supported this intervention to help Raisi. The IRGC’s role in the Guardian Council’s vetting process is increasingly apparent. IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Nejat *informed former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his disqualification and asked him to “cooperate and keep silent” on May 24, according to Ahmadinejad’s website. Nejat oversees all internal security forces in Tehran and the capital region. Ali Larijani’s brother and Guardian Council member, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, criticized the disqualifications on May 25, describing them as “indefensible,” and blaming the “security apparatus” for providing false information to council members during the vetting process. He was likely referencing the IRGC or possibly the IRGC Intelligence Organization more specifically, as an Iranian journalist alleged. Both Nejat and IRGC intelligence leaders are close to Mojtaba Khamenei, the supreme leader’s second son, who previously interfered in the 2009 presidential election to help Ahmadinejad. Mojtaba may have supported the IRGC’s electoral intervention this cycle as well.

Raisi is one of the most likely prospects to become Iran’s next supreme leader and winning the presidential election could bolster his chances of succeeding Khamenei. Raisi would likely leverage the presidency  for his advancement as he has the Judiciary, which he has led since March 2019. He has co-opted his authority to bolster his leadership credentials, neutralized political rivals, and promoted his national image since becoming Judiciary chief. He could use the presidency to further consolidate his influence and support. Khamenei himself established the precedent for clerical presidents to become supreme leader in 1989.

Alternatively, the presidency could damage Raisi’s chances at succession. Management and policy disagreements between Raisi and other regime power centers, such as the clerical establishment or IRGC, could emerge during his administration and strain relationships. Raisi will require support from these groups to become supreme leader. Raisi’s decisions during his potential administration will determine whether the office is a boon or burden to his political ambitions.

Raisi’s electoral victory could also affect how the regime interacts with the JCPOA. Khamenei wants to restore the JCPOA but has likely accepted that the deal is not sustainable long-term. He has witnessed how US policy vis-à-vis Iran has fluctuated across the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. Regime leadership is likely concerned that a future American president will pursue a “maximum pressure” policy similar to the Trump administration. The regime will therefore try to prepare itself economically and militarily for the potential return of maximum pressure during or after the Biden administration to better resist future coercion.

The regime under Raisi may use the deal as leverage against the US to deter it from pursuing objectives against the Islamic Republic’s interests, such as negotiations on Iran’s missile program or regional activities. Iran’s rulers recognize that the Biden administration is prioritizing restoring the JCPOA. Raisi and other hardliners may threaten to curtail or reverse the implementation of the deal to pressure the United States. The decision is ultimately Khamenei’s, but the president influences Khamenei’s calculus. A hardline president who opposes the JCPOA will advise and push the supreme leader to use the deal as leverage. A pro-JCPOA president would oppose such measures. Raisi likely fits the former category, especially since he needs the political support of other hardline, anti-JCPOA groups, such as parts of the IRGC and clerical establishment, to secure supreme leadership.

 

TIMELINE
Arrow down red
Jul '21
Jun '21