The Iran File is an analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Iran File: Iranian missile attack on Erbil highlights growing threat to US and partners
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Iran conducted its recent ballistic missile attack into Iraqi Kurdistan primarily to retaliate for recent Israeli operations against Tehran and secondarily to pressure the US to withdraw its forces from the Middle East. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) fired 12 short-range ballistic missiles at Erbil, Iraq, on March 13, targeting an alleged Israeli intelligence site near the construction of the new US consulate. The US claimed that the attack hit a residential area and reported no casualties, while Iranian state media *reported three Israelis dead and seven wounded. This attack demonstrates the growing threat that Iran poses to the US and its partners regardless of the potential conclusion of a nuclear agreement.
Iranian leadership likely pursued at least three objectives in this attack.
Deter Israel. The Iran-Israel conflict has intensified over the past year as Tehran has continued its regional activities and expanded its nuclear program. Iranian officials *claimed that the March 13 missile strike was retaliation for recent Israeli attacks against the regime. Israel *conducted a drone attack on an Iranian military facility from Iraq on February 12 and *killed two IRGC colonels in an air strike near Damascus, Syria, on March 7.
Iranian leadership may have decided to strike near the construction of the new US consulate to further involve the US in the regional conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv. The IRGC has increasingly attacked US forces and facilities in recent months as part of this cycle of escalation, likely seeking to fray US-Israel relations and pressure the US into discouraging Israeli operations against the regime. Iranian and Iranian-backed forces conducted two drone attacks against US forces in late 2021 to retaliate for Israeli operations. A senior IRGC commander, Gholam Ali Rashid, *stated in December 2021 that the regime would attack “all centers, bases, routes, and spaces used as sources or routes for [Israeli] aggression,” holding the US accountable for potential Israeli attacks.
- Degrade a perceived Mossad network in Iraqi Kurdistan. Regime officials *claim that an Israeli intelligence network operates in Iraqi Kurdistan with *US backing to support attacks like the February 12 drone strike against Iran. The IRGC has tried to disrupt this perceived network in recent months. Iranian proxies in Iraq launched two kamikaze drones at an alleged *Mossad site at Erbil International Airport on September 11, 2021.
- Pressure American political leadership to withdraw US forces from Iraq. This goal was likely secondary to the previous two objectives but may have informed the Iranian decision to strike near the construction of the new US consulate. The IRGC and its proxies have attacked and threatened US positions in Iraq and Syria in recent years to catalyze a US exit. Iranian officials likely calculate that the US may withdraw if the regime kills enough Americans and raises the cost of maintaining the US presence in the region without sparking a larger conflict. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan likely encouraged this long-standing Iranian expectation.
The attack indicates Iranian leadership’s growing willingness to use offensive capabilities, such as ballistic missiles, to pursue external objectives. The IRGC has conducted at least eight missile strikes abroad since 2017, highlighting the more prominent role missiles are playing in its regional strategy. Iran previously had not launched missiles abroad since 2001. Three of Iran’s recent missile attacks targeted the US or its partners. Regime officials are now more confident in their missile capabilities and more willing to use them against the US and its partners.
Concluding a nuclear agreement would not diminish the threat that Iran poses to US forces and partners in the Middle East. Iran will continue its campaign to expel the US from the region and may therefore kill American service members in the months ahead. In January 2022, the *IRGC commander and his *chief of staff both publicly reiterated their commitment to forcing the US from the region. Tehran may also conduct further attacks against perceived Israeli intelligence locations, which could again expand to include attacks on or near US forces. The IRGC spokesperson *claimed that there are at least two other Mossad sites in Iraq and, on March 17, threatened to attack again. The Biden administration must rethink how to establish deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and should not allow the fear of derailing—or being blamed for derailing—the Vienna nuclear talks to prevent it from taking the necessary measures to protect its forces in the region, continuing to fight the Islamic State, and working with US allies.