Iran File

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



Iran File: Iran and Turkey face off in 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.]

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Key Takeaway: Iran is directing a proxy military campaign to contain growing Turkish economic, political, and security influence in Iraq. Iranian leaders seek to contain Turkey without inciting an overt conflict. Tehran considers Iraq a vital component of its regional influence and strategic depth and therefore opposes Ankara’s expanding reach. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has likely directed at least 13 Iraqi militia attacks against Turkish military positions in northern Iraq since April 2021. Long-standing compartmentalization and de-escalation mechanisms between Iran and Turkey reduce the risk of serious escalation. However, Iranian and Turkish officials have differing threat perceptions, which could lead to miscalculations by either side.

Iranian-backed militias have conducted at least 11 rocket and two kamikaze drone attacks against Turkish forces in Bashiqa—a town outside Mosul in northern Iraq—since April 2021 as part of an escalation cycle between Ankara and Tehran. A senior Iranian official, Mehdi Taeb, confirmed in a leaked audio recording in May 2022 that Iran directed these attacks. Taeb is not personally involved in military operations abroad but likely has access to such information given his close ties to senior IRGC officers and the supreme leader. The attacks have killed at least one Turkish soldier thus far. The scale of the largest attacks indicates Tehran is willing to accept a greater number of Turkish casualties and the consequences that would have on Iran-Turkey relations.

The IRGC is likely co-opting growing anti-Turkey sentiments in Iraq to cooperate with various local militias in at least some of the attacks on Turkish forces. The US Department of Defense assessed that Iranian-aligned militias have coordinated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a US- and Turkey-designated terrorist organization—to conduct some of the attacks. Separately, a group named Ahrar Sinjar claimed responsibility for at least two recent attacks in February and May 2022 in retaliation for Turkish air strikes against Kurdish and Yazidi targets in northern Iraq. Ahrar Sinjar is likely a facade group that Iranian proxies use to obfuscate their involvement in attacks and portray themselves as grassroots Yazidi militants. The IRGC likely seeks to frame its attacks as popular resistance to Turkish occupation.

Ankara’s latest military efforts in northern Iraq are likely facilitating growing cooperation between the IRGC and PKK. Turkish forces have long sought to remove the PKK from positions near the Turkish border in northern Iraq, which the group uses as launchpads for attacks in Turkey, with intermittent ground incursions and air raids. Turkey has intensified its campaign in recent years, establishing more long-term basing and conducting sustained cross-border operations to degrade the PKK presence in Iraq. Turkey *launched its most recent iteration of this campaign, Operation Claw-Lock, in April 2022. Iranian state media *has criticized this Turkish effort, and Iraqi proxy media channels have echoed this attitude.

The IRGC may be organizing cyber operations against Turkey as well. Farigh al Tahereh—an Iraqi hacker group—conducted cyberattacks against Turkish websites shortly after Ankara began Operation Claw-Lock in April 2022. The group targeted the websites of the Turkish president and Baykar Defense—a private Turkish defense company. Baykar Defense manufactures the Bayraktar TB2 military drone, which Turkish forces have used extensively against the PKK in Iraq. Iranian state media *has described Farigh al Tahereh as an “Iraqi resistance group,” which is the same rhetoric Tehran commonly uses to describe its client militias. Farigh al Tahereh may be the cyber wing of an Iranian proxy in Iraq or a front group for IRGC hackers.

Iran is likely directing these physical attacks and cyberattacks to contain Turkey’s expanding economic, political, and security influence in Iraq.

  • Economic influence. Turkey is likely involved in talks with American, Iraqi Kurdish, and Israeli officials to construct an energy pipeline that would connect Iraq to Europe through Turkey. The IRGC and its proxies have attacked targets tied to the pipeline negotiations in recent months, signaling their opposition. The IRGC fired 12 short-range ballistic missiles at an alleged Israeli intelligence site near Erbil in March 2022. The missiles struck the residence of the CEO of the KAR Group—an Iraqi Kurdish energy company *involved in the pipeline negotiations. Likely Iranian proxies conducted two rocket attacks against a KAR Group oil refinery near Erbil in April and May 2022. Iranian leaders may worry that the pipeline will limit their access to global energy markets and therefore seek to prevent the construction.
  • Political influence. Turkey has tried to influence the ongoing government formation process in Baghdad to expand its political reach since the Iraqi legislative elections in October 2021. Senior Turkish intelligence and political officials *have *frequently met with prominent Iraqi actors to shape the government formation process to benefit Ankara. These Iraqi actors oppose the Iranian-backed political parties. Iranian leaders are likely concerned that growing Turkish political involvement could dilute Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
  • Security influence. Turkey has increased its military basing in and security cooperation with Iraq in recent years. Iranian state media and proxies have expressed growing alarm over Turkey’s military expansion in northern Iraq. Iranian outlets *have reported in recent weeks that Ankara has significantly increased its military footprint in Iraq over the past several years. Iranian proxy Kataib Hezbollah *published a statement in February 2022 demanding that Ankara withdraw its forces from Iraq and praising Ahrar Sinjar for one of its attacks against Turkish forces at Bashiqa. Qais al Khazali, who leads Iranian proxy Asaib Ahl al Haq, stated that the Turkish military presence in Iraq is a greater threat than the US troop presence in April 2022 is.

Iraq and Turkey have deepened their bilateral military cooperation as well, potentially threatening Iranian control over Iraq’s security sector. Iraqi and Turkish officials *signed a defense cooperation agreement in August 2021 and discussed strengthening security ties further in December 2021. This growing cooperation could include joint military drills between Iraqi and Turkish forces. Furthermore, Iraqi officials and media *have indicated Baghdad’s interest in procuring Turkish-made military equipment, such as Bayraktar TB2 drones, among other systems.

This conflict in Iraq is a microcosm of the intensifying regional competition between Iran and Turkey. Ankara has held senior-level exchanges on political and security cooperation with Tehran’s regional rivals, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in recent months as part of a broader rapprochement with these states. Iranian leaders may worry that these bolstering ties could lead these countries to establish a regional security architecture to contain Iran and its Axis of Resistance.

Iran and Turkey both likely seek to avoid overt confrontation, but divergent threat perceptions could lead to miscalculations. Turkish officials may underestimate how much of a threat Iranian leaders perceive from Turkey’s recent regional diplomacy and efforts to consolidate its sphere of influence. Ankara may consider the Iranian reaction a manageable by-product of Turkish regional ambitions—particularly after Turkey’s yearslong experience compartmentalizing cooperation and competition with Russia across multiple theaters. Nevertheless, the IRGC and its proxies likely consider Turkey’s maneuvers in Iraq and the region a critical threat, which could prompt them to escalate further than Turkish leaders expect.

Iran File: Can Iranian moderates and reformists threaten Raisi’s chances of becoming supreme leader? 

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

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Key Takeaway: Iranian moderates and reformists are cooperating to regain political influence by undermining hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, which could damage his chances of becoming the next supreme leader. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may allow this moderate-reformist bloc to regain influence—despite the risks it poses to Raisi—to avoid domestic unrest.

Prominent Iranian moderates and reformists are coordinating to regain political influence. Moderate and reformist officials, such as former presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, *have met regularly in recent months, indicating cooperation. These officials reportedly *aim to obstruct hardline President Ebrahim Raisi and discredit hardliners ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections and 2025 presidential election.

This moderate-reformist bloc is likely leveraging hardline grievances about Raisi from within his own faction to damage his political capital among the regime’s power centers. Moderates and reformists are reportedly *collaborating with hardliners to obstruct Raisi’s policies. Hardliners have increasingly criticized Raisi’s administration since his inauguration in August 2021, especially in recent weeks. Hardline parliamentarians *criticized Raisi’s economic policies and *submitted proposals to *impeach two of Raisi’s ministers in March 2022.

Mounting criticisms of Raisi could damage his likelihood of succeeding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Raisi is a top contender to replace Khamenei, who *backed regime interference in the 2021 presidential elections to help Raisi win. Moderates and reformists may attempt to sow doubt about Raisi’s political competency among actors likely to shape succession. Supreme leader succession *is an opaque process that will likely involve negotiation among the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Khamenei’s allies, and prominent politicians and clerics. A moderate-reformist bloc could leverage public criticism of Raisi to contest his bid to become supreme leader throughout this process.

Khamenei may allow this moderate-reformist bloc to regain some influence, despite the risks it poses to Raisi, to mitigate domestic unrest and reinforce the facade of political diversity. Politically and economically motivated protests have become more prevalent in recent years, as the regime faces a growing legitimacy crisis. Iran’s 2020 legislative elections and 2021 presidential election saw a record low turnout, likely signaling public disillusion with the regime following its interference to favor hardliners. It is unclear how much latitude, if any, Khamenei is willing to grant this moderate-reformist bloc. The supreme leader may grant a moderate-reformist coalition influence to mitigate further unrest. Khamenei could, alternatively, leverage regime institutions to back Raisi, as he did in the 2021 presidential election.

Iran File: Iranian missile attack on Erbil highlights growing threat to US and partners 

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

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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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.

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Jun '22