Iran fired a salvo of missiles at the Iraqi city of Erbil last Saturday night. Since then, the response and coverage have been almost nonexistent. Normally, one country attacking the other with missiles would be big news, but these are not normal times.
Reuters reported that Iran fired 12 missiles at the city of Erbil, located in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. As missile strikes go, it was kind of a dud. The missiles landed near a new US consulate building, but there was no damage to American property and no Americans were killed or wounded. One local civilian was injured. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards claimed responsibility for the attack.
We tend to view events through our own preconceptions, but the attack doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Joe Biden or Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin or Ukraine. The story apparently begins last week with a story that didn’t make the news here in the US, but an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed two Iranian Revolutionary Guards colonels and wounded six other people.
Middle East Eye has a different take on the story. The outlet reported that the attack was in retaliation for attacks by Israel in Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran. Two suspicious explosions were reported there in recent weeks.
A statement on the Guards website said Israel “will pay for this crime," reported France 24 on March 8.
Reuters reports that in the message claiming responsibility for the Erbil strike, the Revolutionary Guards called the targets Israeli "strategic centres" and said, “Any repetition of attacks by Israel will be met with a harsh, decisive and destructive response.”
So what did the Iranians hit? Middle East Eye reports that a large villa in a farm complex near the US consulate was severely damaged. Iran claims that the villa was used by Mossad for training and to launch operations. The Times of Israel reports that a US government official called the building an Israeli training facility, but other US officials denied that the complex was used by Mossad.
The building was reportedly owned by the CEO of the KAR Group, an energy company. MEE reports that the company is owned by the family of Massoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s former president, who is also father of the current prime minister of Kurdistan and uncle of its president.
One might wonder why Iran would launch a missile strike while the country was negotiating to resume the nuclear deal and have sanctions removed. MEE cites numerous sources who said that the attack was delayed because of the progress of the talks. The Revolutionary Guards were skeptical about the talks, but another recent event seems to have played a role in spurring the attack.
The AP reported last week that the US had seized two Greek-flagged tankers loaded with $38 million in contraband Iranian oil. The ships were actually Iranian and the oil was subject to sanctions, but the seizure displeased the Revolutionary Guards.
Interestingly, the attack seems to expose an internal rift in Iran. The Iranian intelligence agency has favored the negotiations, but the Revolutionary Guards are more hawkish. The two factions are struggling for control of Iranian foreign policy.
"What happened is an embodiment of the conflict between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iranian intelligence over how to manage Iran's foreign relations,” a senior Iraqi official told MEE. “It is clear that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is returning with force, especially if the United States does not save the Vienna [nuclear deal] talks and Israel continues its targeting of Iranian military facilities."
So what is the US doing about the attack? The Biden Administration has not ignored the attack. On “Face the Nation,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the US was working to provide Iraq with missile defense capability.
The White House also released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms Iran’s missile attack… [which] targeted a civilian residence… without any justification.”
“We will support the Government of Iraq in holding Iran accountable, and we will support our partners throughout the Middle East in confronting similar threats from Iran,” the statement said.
The attack comes at a busy time for the world as it deals with a much larger problem in Ukraine, but Iran cannot be ignored. Ironically, the best answer may be to continue the nuclear talks in order to empower the factions that are opposed to the Revolutionary Guards.
Donald Trump’s decision to exit the deal brokered by the Obama Administration may have inadvertently empowered the Guard. When Trump canceled the deal and reimposed sanctions, the IAEA reported that Iran was complying with the main restrictions to which it had agreed. However, after Trump left the deal, Iran stopped honoring the terms of the deal and began to expand its nuclear program, even as it suffered from US sanctions.
Another interesting thing about the attack is that it is the second Iranian missile attack on Iraq in two years that resulted in no losses to American forces. A January 2020 attack did inflict traumatic brain injuries on 39 American soldiers, but there were no fatalities.
There are a few possibilities that we can consider from the two bloodless attacks. Either Iran’s missiles aren’t very good, the Americans were either very lucky or blessed, or the Iranians purposely minimized the loss of life. I think the third possibility, that the strikes were warning messages that weren’t intended to provoke a war, is most likely.
The attack could be viewed as a three-fold message. First, Israel is warned against further attacks. Second, the US is warned against breaking off talks. Third, the Iraqi national and Kurdistan regional governments are served notice of Iran’s power and capabilities.
Iran’s attack on Iraq cannot be ignored, but the world doesn’t need higher tensions in the Middle East in addition to the war in Ukraine. Under the circumstances, the low-key approach may be the best way to handle the situation. This is possible because of the limited damage and lack of casualties.
Still, the US cannot afford to ignore the message that Iran is sending.
The Tweet of the Day is one of the bravest things that I have seen, and lately that’s a high bar. Marina Ovsyannikova was a producer and editor for Russian television. The sign she holds up reportedly reads, “Stop the war. Don't believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here.”
The Russian protesters are all courageous, but there is safety in numbers at mass demonstrations. Individual protesters holding signs in public areas seem futile since they are often quickly arrested. Ovsyannikova’s protest was likely seen by millions of Russians and has the ability to spread the word of the resistance around the country.
I have to wonder how widespread opposition to the war is if someone in Ovsyannikova’s position is willing to sacrifice her career, her freedom, and possibly her life in protest.
Protesting the government of Russia reportedly carries a 15-year sentence.