Iran’s ballistic missile attack on Erbil on January 15, 2023, has resulted in civilian fatalities and took place against the backdrop of tensions in the wider region. However, this is not the first time Iran has targeted the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Tehran has launched direct and indirect attacks on Erbil and other areas within Kurdistan for several years. Some observers attribute the attack on Erbil, which killed a prominent businessman and his 11-month old daughter, to the escalation in the Middle East, and part of Iran’s attempts to respond to U.S. airstrikes on the Houthis and Israel’s assassination of Iranian backed commanders in Lebanon and Syria. Others, emphasise Iran’s pattern of committing mass atrocities in Iraq and support for militant terrorist groups as part of its ideological ambitions for the region. This compilation draws on the expertise of several scholars and analysts for their thoughts and reactions.
The Biden administration and the wider Washington bubble need reminding that Kurdistan is the last man standing of an entire category of US-aligned political actors in Iraq who have been neutralised and marginalised by Iran and its proxies –– Ranj Alaaldin
Dr. Ranj Alaaldin is Co-Director of Crisis Response Council, Visiting Fellow at Oxford University and a Gulf specialist at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. He is a consultant to the World Bank and was previously a fellow at Brookings Institution and Columbia University
Iran’s ballistic missile attack on Erbil has resulted in civilian casualties and took place against the backdrop of tensions in the wider region as the war in Gaza unfolds. The attack was purportedly targeted at an Israeli base but, despite the best efforts of Iranian regime propagandists, this has proven to be a baseless accusation –– one the Baghdad government has also dismissed –– and a pretext for an attack that killed a prominent businessman and his 11-month old daughter.
The Iranian regime's indiscriminate attack has wide-ranging implications. The Iranian regime is becoming increasingly bolder in its violent tactics. The attack on Monday was not the first of its kind from Iran: the Iranian regime launched a missile attack on another residential area in March last year, which struck and obliterated the home of Sheikh Baz Karim, an oil-tycoon who was not at the residence when the missile struck. Last month, a Peshmerga base was struck by Iranian backed groups in an area close to the headquarters of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In February 2021, Iran-aligned militias struck a residential area that killed two civilians and wounded others. The Iranian regime, either directly or through its Iraqi proxies, routinely uses drones and rockets to attack the Kurdistan Region, including U.S. bases and facilities.
These attacks are launched against the backdrop of heightened domestic political tensions in Iraq, Iran’s attempts to expel U.S. forces from Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s refusal to submit to the Iranian regime. On the surface, there are several factors that may explain and rationalise Iran’s bombardment of Iraqi Kurdistan. However, at its essence, Iran is imposing a cost on the Kurdistan Region’s hosting of U.S. forces and, more generally, its close relationship with Washington. From the Iranian regime’s perspective, at worst, its attacks impose a cost on the KRG that may not pave the way for an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq but, nevertheless, garners political concessions from a vulnerable KRG. This enhances Iran's influence in Iraq as a whole, while diminishing those of its rivals. At best, Iran is incrementally fulfilling its goal of expelling U.S. forces from Iraq: firstly, by poking holes in America and the wider West’s prestige, status and security posture in the region through its bombardment of a crucial ally to the West; and, secondly, by imposing a combination of direct and indirect costs on the U.S. presence in Iraq.
In other words, in attacking Kurdistan, Iran is severely undermining the credibility of the Biden administration, raising serious questions over its commitment to its allies and its willingness to let the Iranian regime conduct its atrocities with impunity. The reverberations of this will echo throughout the region, with Washington already under pressure because of its lacklustre response to the Iranian regime's transgressions over several years, the constrained response to the Houthis in the Red Sea and its failure to curtail Iran’s missile capabilities.
For Kurdistan, Monday’s attack struck a particular nerve because it came in the wake of a collective effort by the Kurdish leadership to express their sympathies with Iran and its people in the wake of the terrorist attack in Iran’s city of Kerman on January 4, 2024. Moreover, in killing Peshraw Dizayee and his daughter, and severely wounding the businessman’s other children, the murderous assault by the Iranian regime is seen as an attack on the heart and soul of Kurdistan itself, given Dizayee’s role in reconstructing Erbil into an economic powerhouse.
Among several others, the lesson here is that there are limits to diplomatic engagement with Iran, which seeks hegemonic power, rather than co-existence on equal terms. In this respect, the ballistic missile attack should serve as a warning for those observers, political parties and members of the wider Kurdish leadership that advocate closer ties to Iran and the Iran-aligned political class in Baghdad.
Finally, the Biden administration and the wider Washington bubble need reminding that Kurdistan is the last man standing of an entire category of U.S. and Western-aligned political actors in Iraq who have been neutralised and marginalised by Iran and its proxies over the past decade. Kurdistan, a safe haven for religious and ethnic minorities and a critical ally to Western counter-terrorism efforts, will likely continue to withstand Iran’s attempts to force it into subjugation but Kurdistan’s capitulation to Iran will not happen overnight. The Iranian regime will most likely conduct further attacks aimed at degrading Kurdistan and, ultimately, the erosion of its Western-aligned political order.
The use of the Kurdish people as a convenient target for IRGC conspiracies and deterrent messaging has to stop. Being close to America but not protected by America puts the Iraqi Kurds in the worst possible position –– Michael Knights
Dr. Michael Knights is the Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf states
The Iranian ballistic missile strikes on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s capital Erbil is a case of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard being told to “bombard the usual suspects” –– to paraphrase the line from Casablanca where the corrupt police chief casually arranges a cover-up by ordering the arrest of persons he cynically knows to be innocent of the crime that just occurred. In this case, the crime was the 3 January mass casualty attack in Iran, and the Revolutionary Guard is hitting everyone except the actual culprits, the Islamic State inside Afghanistan, likely because Iran does not want to antagonize the Taliban at this moment.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) increasingly treat the Kurdistan Region as their favorite “usual suspect” due to the presence of Iranian Kurdish oppositionists in the region, though it is worth noting that the Revolutionary Guard also lashed out with missile strikes in the direction of Pakistan’s south-west Balochistan province and against Islamic State sites in Syria. It would not surprise anyone if Iran next targeted Azerbaijan, which is accused (like the Kurdistan Region) of hosting Israeli bases and Iranian oppositionists. Clearly the Revolutionary Guard is feeling extra paranoid about whether a proxy war could be waged on Iranian soil and they are striking out in all directions as a warning against such an approach.
It says a lot about the IRGC mindset that they cannot imagine –– or at least they cannot publicly admit –– that the Islamic State did its bombing in Iran without state sponsorship. As the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, of course the Revolutionary Guard think a state ordered the attack. That’s what they would do, and indeed have done, even using Al-Qaeda elements in the past to threaten their mutual enemies. Therefore these strikes –– especially the one in Kurdistan –– are a clear case of “the pot calling the kettle black”.
The use of the Kurdish people as a convenient target for IRGC conspiracies and deterrent messaging has to stop. Being close to America but not protected by America puts the Iraqi Kurds in the worst possible position. If a US Patriot battery ––as rare and in-demand as they are –– had been operational in Erbil on 15 January, Iran certainly would not have been able to deploy ballistic missiles with high certainty of success. That would not have stopped them using drones flying at rooftop height perhaps, so a Patriot is not a panacea and it is plain silly to talk about the US transferring Patriots to Kurdistan or teaching Kurds to use the Patriot at this point. Nevertheless, for a while at least, the US or even France should bite the bullet and protect Kurdistan fully with a medium-altitude interceptor.
In the longer term, the US has to break the current pattern of Iranian and Iranian-backed attacks on the Kurdistan Region. This is very tricky: we want and need ongoing Kurdish military basing, even if Baghdad rescinds our invite as a coalition inside federal Iraq. Our presence in northeast Syria probably demands an ongoing US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
We need to protect our consulate in Kurdistan at the very least, and it is right in the crosshairs of Iranian missiles and Iran-backed militia drone attacks. Perhaps America needs to take a leaf out of the book of the best friend of the Kurds, the French state: France has good relations with Baghdad, yet it also provides direct, bilateral military support inside the Kurdistan Region (and within northeastern Syria too). France would not expect Baghdad to try to cancel this direct relationship and it acts confidently to maintain bilateral military assistance missions in both federal Iraq and Kurdistan, separate from each other. This may be a model worthy replicating if the US can summon up le cran (the courage, pluck, guts) to imitate France’s example.
Analysts have long described Iran’s array of militant proxies as a network, but events since October have seen the entirety of that network activated and mobilized into action in-full for the first time –– Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and the Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.
Iran’s January 15 missile attack on Erbil was yet more evidence of Tehran’s destructive and destabilizing agenda in the Middle East, especially amid an already escalating regional crisis. The late-night volley of Iranian ballistic missiles also struck an empty medical clinic in Syria’s northwestern Idlib governorate and on January 16, another Iranian missile attack struck targets in Pakistan’s rural Balochistan province.
Iranian officials have framed the missile strikes as counterterrorism actions –– as coordinated responses to the January 3 ISIS suicide bombings in Kerman, which killed 94 people and that Iran claims were instigated by Israel. In public statements, Iran claims the Erbil strikes targeted an Israeli Mossad facility; the Idlib strike hit an ISIS base; and the Balochistan missiles hit the militant group Jaish al-Adl –– yet it has offered no evidence and all in all, the only effect of Iran’s strikes was the death of six civilians, including at least two children. Iran has conducted ballistic missile strikes like this before, and with equally unconvincing results.
Ultimately, this latest round of military action was not directed by intelligence-driven counterterrorism objectives. This was the IRGC directly inserting itself into the regional crisis, projecting its force and making clear its willingness to pour fuel on a fire that its militant proxies have been stoking since October 7. For many years, the IRGC has demonstrated an impressive knack for escalating conflicts in order to build up geopolitical advantage. It may have gone too far on this occasion, however. Iran’s strikes on Erbil have triggered rare and severe condemnation from Iraq’s leadership, including Prime Minister al-Sudani who labeled the attack as “a clear aggression” and recalled his Ambassador in Tehran. Likewise, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry decried Iran’s “unprovoked violation” of sovereignty and threatened “serious consequences,” while also withdrawing their Ambassador from Tehran.
If the U.S. and its international partners play their cards right –– a big ask these days, perhaps –– this wave of censure could prove a valuable tool in driving a wedge between key regional governments and Iran, particularly in Baghdad. More broadly, Iran’s willingness to stoke an already expanding regional fire is evidence of a profound sense of confidence that is likely to be surging through the IRGC. Since Hamas’s brutally audacious October 7 attack on Israel, the fruits of more than twenty years of IRGC proxy building have finally begun to be reaped.
Analysts have long described Iran’s array of militant proxies as a network, but events since October have seen the entirety of that network activated and mobilized into action in-full for the first time. It presents a formidable challenge and for now, Iran holds the most cards. So long as a comprehensive ceasefire fails to develop over Gaza, the IRGC’s capacity and willingness to exploit that proxy network and project its own force will continue to sow chaos, muddy the waters and undermine any hope for a durable calm in the region.
The ultimate goal is to compel a future U.S. president to concede and opt to withdraw from Iraq and Syria, thereby clearing the path for a more robust Iranian hegemony across the region –– Mohammed A. Salih
Dr. Mohammed A. Salih is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and his research and writing focus on the Kurds, Iraq and the wider Middle East
The attacks on the evening of January 15 in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region were not the first instances of Iran launching direct ballistic missile attacks on the autonomous region. In 2020, Iran fired ballistic missiles following the killing of Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani by the United States, and in 2022, missiles targeted the residence of a Kurdish oil tycoon. Iran has also launched missiles at the bases of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Kurdistan. However, Monday's ballistic missile attack on Erbil was notable for resulting in the deaths of civilians, unlike previous attacks.
The Iranian regime has claimed there is a link between the Erbil attack and Israeli strikes on Iranian targets, both inside and outside Iran. This includes incidents in Syria, where Israel targeted senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officials in recent months and years. Iran has also, without evidence, linked the Islamic State-Khorasan Province in the Iranian city of Kerman to Israel. Some Iran-friendly voices in Washington have made similar unsubstantiated accusations. The fact remains that the regime appears impotent in the face of extensive Israeli attacks on high-value Iranian targets inside Iran and Syria. This pressure has led Iran to target Kurdistan on multiple occasions. The main reason is that Iran recognizes Kurdistan's inability to establish mutual deterrence against Tehran, and Kurdistan's international allies are hesitant to hold Tehran accountable for such attacks. Kurdistan is also a preferred target for Iran as a result of Tehran's lack of means or confidence to directly confront Israel.
Notably, the targets Iran claims are Israeli intelligence sites have proven to be civilian residences, as tragically demonstrated in Monday night's killing of Peshraw Dizayee and his infant daughter. The question arises: Why is Iran carrying out such attacks while claiming to counter Israel? Iran possesses long-range ballistic missiles that its officials boast can reach any target inside Israel. However, attacking civilian targets is by no means a proportionate response when Israel targets high-ranking IRGC commanders, the head of the Iranian nuclear program, or engages in military actions against Iran's nuclear installations. Therefore, there are two intended audiences for the attack on Kurdistan. The first is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), specifically the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which dominating the coalition government. The missile attack notably comes after recent efforts in Baghdad by pro-Iran Shia groups to expel U.S. troops from Iraq following a retaliatory attack by Washington on Hashd al-Shaabi commanders and sites.
The KRG has strongly refused to go along with attempts to expel the U.S.-led Global Coalition from Iraq. Hence, such attacks by Iran aim to further undermine KRG security, portraying it as weak and lacking genuine allies to come to its aid in dire moments. Iran seeks to force the KRG to pivot towards Tehran, enabling the regime to expand its influence into the KDP-held areas of the KRG, the only part of Iraq not under the direct military control of the Iran-supported and directed Shia militias.
The second intended audience for the missile strikes is the United States, encompassing its population and politicians. This attack is part of the broader Iranian strategy to depict the United States as weak, fostering momentum for anti-intervention discourse among a U.S. electorate disinterested and averse to further military engagement in the Middle East. These attacks serve to showcase Iranian capabilities and determination to extend regional influence, simultaneously intimidating U.S. policy circles and electorates with the unwanted prospect of another deadly, protracted, and fruitless war in the Middle East, potentially risking American lives. The ultimate goal is to compel a future U.S. president to concede and opt to withdraw from Iraq and Syria, thereby clearing the path for a more robust Iranian hegemony across the region.
Iran is showcasing its capacity to choreograph a proxy war across multiple fronts, and in doing so causing disruptions to international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and risking supply chain security and an energy shock –– Burcu Ozcelik
Dr. Burcu Ozcelik is an Associate Director of Middle East and North Africa at Audere International. She holds a PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge
Iran-linked paramilitary groups have struck bases of the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria with drones and rockets over 100 times since the Hamas massacre of October 7. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed that Monday's missile strikes were in retaliation for attacks against their interests in Syria. While this is not the first time that IRGC-led militia have targeted US assets in northern Iraq, this most recent barrage of rocket fire comes at a time when, as UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron described it, ‘lights are flashing red’ on the global dashboard.
The Houthi campaign of aggression in the Red Sea and the strikes that targeted Erbil are not siloed or unrelated acts of violence but are interrelated hostilities that are linked to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The question of whether the conflict in Gaza will spread to the wider region has been answered. Although there has not been, and unlikely to be, a direct military confrontation between Iran and the US, there are multiple flashpoints that since October 7 have demonstrably drawn in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Red Sea. The question now is whether and how wider conflict contagion can be contained.
After years of sabre-rattling, Iran is showcasing its capacity to choreograph a proxy war across multiple fronts simultaneously—and in doing so causing commercially significant disruptions to international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and risking supply chain security and potentially an energy shock. The US, UK and its allies are faced with the reality of asymmetrical threats that cannot be easily or effectively neutralised with light touch interventions. The ballistic missile attack on Erbil arrived on the heels of another strike by the Houthis hours earlier in a display of resilience despite last week’s US-UK joint strikes. Hamas, like the Houthis, have an interest in expanding the conflict across borders and provoking a Western response. The current moment is perceived as a consequential opportunity to showcase the triad of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and Islamism that these groups espouse through their ideas and ideology.
But while a superficial reading may be that Iran is looking to pick a fight, Tehran’s strategy is still one of tit-for-tat, deploying calibrated, limited offensive action that signals how quickly the severity of a wider war would be felt in the West. By demonstrating that ongoing Houthi attacks, for example, could draw Saudi Arabia back into a conflict it has been at pains to wind down after a brutal war there. Similarly, Monday's tragic attacks on Erbil were another act of signalling: Tehran mimicking Washington’s tactics of warning of ‘more to come’ and ‘watch this space’. But the risk is that a miscalculation, a misstep, a step gone too far will unleash a deadly and destructive chain of events for which no side is prepared.
The lack of a substantial response to the attack from Western supporters of Kurdistan sends a lasting message: compromise agency and surrender or remain in a perpetual state of insecurity –– Kamaran Palani
Dr. Kamaran Palani is a Research Associate and Academic at Ulster University and advisor to IOM, an organisation of the United Nations
Following the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s IRGC, by US drones in January 2020, Kurdistan has experienced multiple attacks from Iran, conducted either directly by Iran or through its Iraqi Shia proxies. While the attack on Erbil on Monday does not represent a shift in strategy, what sets this assault apart is that it is directly executed by Iran's IRGC and targeted multiple locations, including civilian areas in Erbil. This marks one of the most significant direct assaults by Iran on Kurdistani/Iraqi soil in recent years.
The motivation behind the IRGC's attack on Erbil lies in showcasing its power to both its domestic audience and clients in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and the broader region. More importantly, Iran strategically seeks a dependent Erbil within Iraq, where it already wields substantial influence. These assaults are not solely tied to the war in Gaza but are part of Iran's broader regional power projection. While the US and other Western powers shy away from the complexities of the Middle East, Iran thrives on prolonged, multifaceted, decentralized, and fragmented external warfare, capitalizing on what others despise and fear.
The swift denial of any American facility being targeted is understandable from a strategic perspective, as Washington aims to avoid escalating tensions with Iran in a challenging region for the US. Simultaneously, Erbil faces attacks due to its assertion of agency and refusal to fully submit to Iran and its proxies in Iraq. Essentially, Kurdistan's Erbil becomes a target due to its relations with the West, particularly the U.S. The lack of a substantial response from Western supporters to attacks on Kurdistan sends a lasting message: compromise agency and surrender or remain in a perpetual state of insecurity.
The current and anticipated prolonged hesitancy in the U.S. stance will further contribute to Kurdistan’s increased vulnerability and uncertainty. In this context, it is advisable for Kurdish leadership to seek diplomacy and not to rely solely on the West and to acknowledge the real danger posed by Iran. A diversified and balanced foreign policy becomes imperative given the uncertainties Erbil is currently facing.
Collectively, the different layers to Iran's assault should prompt the Biden administration to step-up its efforts to protect the Kurdistan Region, both to protect the Kurds, a key ally, and vital U.S. infrastructure and facilities that are critical to maintaining the campaign to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups –– Wladimir van Wilgenburg
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an Erbil-based ground based reporter and analyst specialising in Kurdish affairs. He is a contributor to The Washington Institute’s Fikra Forum.
Iran's ballistic missile attacks on Erbil, Pakistan, and northwest Syria serve as messages to Israel, indicating its ability to target Israel directly. This action is a response to Israel's killing of Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a top IRGC commander in Syria, in December, and the ISIS attack on Kerman on January 3, resulting in nearly 100 casualties. Both showed Iran’s security weaknesses both inside Iran and Syria. However, Iran does not seek a direct confrontation with the US or Israel. Instead, it targeted the Iraqi Kurds, who have no ability to fight back.
Attacks on Kurdistan are not new, as since 2018, Iran and Iranian-backed groups have been targeting Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, oil infrastructure, and US bases as documented by the Washington Kurdish Institute. For Iran, Kurdistan serves as a soft spot to convey messages, as it avoids direct confrontation with the US and Israel. Moreover, it is using the Gaza war as an excuse to attack US bases in Iran and Syria through the Iran-backed Islamic Resistance of Iraq with the goal to push out the US from northeast Syria and Iraq.
According to a DOD official, Iran-backed groups have so far carried 140 attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, the killing of Peshraw Dizayee, a prominent businessman, shows that Iran wants to create instability and damage the Kurdistan Region’s economy. The attack coincided with the visit of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani's visit to Davos, Switzerland, where the premier is promoting Kurdistan's investment prospects. Claims that Dizayee's home was a Mossad base are part of Iran's disinformation campaign. Similarly, in March 2022, when Iran targeted the villa of Sheikh Baz Karim, CEO of the Iraqi Kurdish oil company KAR group, Tehran sent a political message to the Iraqi Kurds on the basis of pretext that the villa was an Israeli base. The allegation was dismissed as baseless by the Iran-aligned Baghdad government.
For Iran, the Kurdistan Region remains one of the few pro-Western areas in Iraq where the PMU is not active. As a result, Iran wants to weaken the Kurdistan Region. Moreover, since 2014, the PMU expanded beyond Shia-majority areas and Baghdad, using the fight against ISIS as a pretext. After the Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017, Iran-backed PMU groups, with Iran's support, forced Peshmerga forces out of strategic areas like Kirkuk. As a result, Iran-backed PMU groups in the Nineveh plains or Kirkuk can now more easily target US bases in the Kurdistan Region, including the Erbil Air base or the Bashur base in Harir, using drones or rockets.
Collectively, the different layers to Iran's assault should prompt the Biden administration to step-up its efforts to protect the Kurdistan Region, both to protect the Kurds, a key ally, and vital U.S. infrastructure and facilities that are critical to maintaining the campaign to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Iran’s proxy wars may help it to distract international public opinion from the advancements it has made toward nuclear latency. Iran’s readiness to attack its neighbours using ballistic missiles further bolsters the risk of a nuclear Iran –– Yaniv Voller
Dr. Yaniv Voller is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent and author of Second-Generation Liberation Wars: Rethinking Colonialism in Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Sudan published by Cambridge University Press
The Iranian regime has justified its attack on Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, as a response to the joint US-UK airstrikes against Houthi targets in northwestern Yemen, blaming the Biden administration for escalating tensions in the Red Sea and the Kurdistan Regional Government under the leadership of Masrour Barzani for harbouring anti-Iranian opposition movements as well as Israeli intelligence operations. All of these accusations are easily refutable. After all, the IRGC had launched similar attacks on the Kurdistan Region in the past, for instance, in 2020 and 2022, well before the US Navy made its way to the Gulf of Eden.
Rather, one may see the Iranian aggression, costing the lives of innocent civilians, as part of its three-pronged policy: Compromising the Kurdistan Region’s sovereignty, Sabotaging internal dynamics in Iraq, and undermining regional stability. The latter point is crucial, and the paper seeks to focus on it. The eruption of the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, following the latter’s surprise attack on Israeli border communities on the 7th of October, has provided Iran and the IRGC a renewed opportunity to instigate conflict and disrupt the prospects of establishing a regional bloc that would face its hegemonic aspirations in the region. Although it seems, according to current evidence, that Iran was not involved directly in the planning of the October attack, it was quick to capitalise on it, using its proxies across the region to take part in what rapidly evolved into a regional crisis.
The Houthi siege on the Bab al-Mandeb Strait was one such Iranian proxy attack on regional economy and stability. And Iran also anticipated the American response. Albeit restrained, this response was still the excuse that the Iranians needed to attack the US through its allies in the region. Thus, while Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah and the Houthis, target Israel, and pro-Iranian militias attack US bases in other parts of the Kurdistan Region and Syria, Iran intervened in the conflict for the first time by attacking one of Washington’s allies in the region, namely the Kurdistan Regional Government. Although the missiles landed in the vicinity of the American consulate in Erbil, it was not the consulate that was the primary target. The main purpose of the attack was to signal to the allies of the US in the region that Iran is capable and willing to cause death and destruction in retaliation. As this is an election year, and since no Americans were directly affected by the missile attack, the US is unlikely to respond to the attack.
Nevertheless, to demonstrate its commitment to its allies, Washington should consider providing the Kurdistan Regional Government advanced defence systems to reduce the costs of such future attacks. Furthermore, the US and Britain must continue and intensify the pressure on the Houthis to signal to Iran – and other actors in the region – that Iran’s threats of the use of violence do not deter the international community from joining other local actors in defending regional stability.
Finally, Iran’s proxy wars may help it to distract international public opinion from the advancements that it has made toward nuclear latency. Iran’s readiness to attack its neighbours by using ballistic missiles further bolsters the risk of Iran’s possession of nuclear capability.
The attack on Erbil represent a continuation of Iran’s established strategy rather than a strategic shift. However, as Iran’s actions increasingly infringe on Iraqi sovereignty, this approach risks a backlash, not only in Kurdistan but across the broader Iraqi landscape -– Hamidreza Azizi
Dr. Hamidreza Azizi is a Visiting Fellow a the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Following the Israeli assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander in Syria, Razi Mousavi and an ISIS terrorist attack in Kerman, Iran, the Islamic Republic faced mounting pressure to respond, a sentiment echoed even by regime supporters. The IRGC’s subsequent claims of retaliatory attacks in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Syria are pivotal in understanding Iran’s strategic responses. The IRGC attributed the strike on Syria to the Kerman incident, and the attack on Erbil to positions linked to Israel. This response pattern reveals Tehran’s strategic limitations and preferences.
Despite official reports tracing the Kerman attackers’ origins to Iran’s eastern borders, Tehran has avoided direct confrontations in Afghanistan or Pakistan, likely to prevent exacerbating eastern tensions or risking conflict with the Taliban. Iran’s selection of “easy targets” for retaliation, notably in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, is not without precedent. The 2017 IRGC attack on ISIS in Deir ez-Zor post the Iranian parliament assault and the 2022 strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan against alleged Israeli-affiliated positions exemplify Iran’s approach. Targeting Kurdistan serves a dual purpose for Iran: weakening Erbil’s authority, thereby trying to bolster the central government in Baghdad, which is more aligned with Tehran, and indirectly pressuring the United States.
As such, the strikes on Erbil must be viewed within the broader context of Iran’s policy in Iraq. The IRGC’s repeated missile and rocket strikes against purported enemy targets are complemented by Iran-backed militias focusing their anti-US activities in Kurdistan. Concurrently, pro-Iran factions within the Iraqi government and parliament are lobbying for political actions to expel US forces from Iraq. However, Kurdistan's close relations to the United States poses a significant hurdle to Iran’s objectives in Iraq. Therefore, by posing direct and indirect pressures, Tehran aims to either compel the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to reconsider its ties to the US or weaken its authority to the extent it cannot withstand the military and political pressure from Iran’s Iraqi allies.
Despite these aggressive maneuvers, Iran remains cautious not to directly engage US troops, reflecting its aversion to an outright war with the United States. Iran seeks to maintain regional power and deterrence at minimal costs, steering clear of direct confrontation with the US. In the narrative propagated by Iran’s state media, the civilian casualties in Kurdistan are justified under a specific pretext. The media claims those civilians had close connections with the US and Israel, particularly with Mossad. By alleging such affiliations, the state media attempts to redirect the narrative from the harm inflicted upon innocents to the portrayal of these actions as targeted strikes against entities undermining Iran’s interests. This approach not only seeks to mitigate domestic and international backlash but also serves to reinforce the regime’s stance against perceived external threats.
Overall, the recent strikes in Kurdistan represent a continuation of Iran’s established strategy rather than a strategic shift. However, as Iran’s actions increasingly infringe on Iraqi sovereignty, this approach risks backlash not only in Kurdistan but across the broader Iraqi political landscape and society.