Conflict Crisis Management Iran Iraq Israel Middle East Missile Defense National Security Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense
MENASource January 16, 2024

Experts react: What to expect after Iranian attacks on Erbil

By Atlantic Council experts

On January 15, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for missile attacks into Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, that killed four and may have wounded as many as seventeen. The attacks largely hit civilian areas, killing a well-known Kurdish real estate developer and four members of his family. According to the IRGC, the attacks were aimed at “the destruction of espionage headquarters” belonging to Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, in “response to the recent evil acts of the Zionist regime in martyring IRGC and resistance commanders”—an apparent reference to the deaths of IRGC Brigadier General Razi Mousavi, Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri, and senior Lebanese Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil. They also said that attacks, which included positions in Syria, were on “anti-Iranian terrorist groups,” referring to the twin attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Kerman on January 3 that killed eighty-six Iranians.

Below, Atlantic Council experts share their views on what to know about the attacks and what to expect next.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

C. Anthony Pfaff: IRGC attack against Erbil poses challenges and opportunities for the United States

Holly Dagres: The read from Iran

Thomas S. Warrick: The war in the shadows will continue

Masoud Mostajabi: The subtleties of Iranian actions across the region

IRGC attack against Erbil poses challenges and opportunities for the United States

This escalation poses a significant challenge—and possibly an opportunity—for the United States to undermine Iranian regional influence and bolster its relations with Iraq. While US facilities were not likely a target, these attacks will likely increase popular concerns that US-Iran tensions will drag them into a wider conflict. These concerns could energize the movement to remove the entire US presence from Iraq, which gathered new steam after the US strike that killed Harakat al-Nujaba leader Mushtaq al-Jawari, who had been organizing strikes against US forces in Iraq on behalf of Iran. This concern manifests in other ways that place strain on US-Iraq military relations. Recently, the chief of staff of the Iraqi Army walked on a likeness of an American flag during an observance of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani’s death in Baghdad.

While some of these protests can be dismissed as political theater, the current dynamic has placed the United States in a bind, where its choices are to endure the attacks or risk being forced to withdraw. Neither, of course, are optimal. However, the Iranian strikes against putative Israeli targets in Kurdistan may present an opportunity. Whatever one believes about the merits of Tehran’s claims of an Israeli presence in Kurdistan, the missiles largely struck civilian areas, causing significant collateral damage. In doing so, the attacks exposed gaps in Baghdad’s ability to defend its sovereignty against external attack, making it even more vulnerable to Iranian pressure.

Thus, these challenges and opportunities suggest the following short-term measures that could improve US-Iraq relations and alter the current dysfunctional dynamic. To address pressure for the withdrawal of US forces, the United States could offer to increase support to Iraqi air defense forces to counter missile and drone attacks, which have increased since October 7, 2023. Doing so could diminish the effectiveness of Iran-backed attacks, mitigating the need for more active measures. Baghdad, for its part, should take this opportunity to increase pressure on the militias to cease destabilizing attacks. In the past, the Iraqi government has had little success reigning the militias in. However, with Iran now directly attacking Iraqi territory, these militias may have some incentive to distance themselves from Iran.

Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative, and the research professor for Strategy, the Military Profession, and Ethics at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. 

The read from Iran

#Pink_Jacket was scrawled in Persian on the ballistic missiles that hit Erbil. The hashtag was referring to a toddler donning a pink jacket who was among those killed in the attack in Kerman at a memorial service for Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3. Part of the civilian casualties by the IRGC missiles included the 11-month-old daughter of multimillionaire Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, who also perished with two other members of his family. That irony wasn’t lost on Persian language social media, where many pointed out that to take revenge for a child’s death, the IRGC had killed a child in the process.

The next day, on January 16, two celebratory billboards appeared in the capital, Tehran. “Hard answer with God’s permission,” one read with an image of a missile and Hebrew text that said, “We’re going to take more revenge against the infidels.” A separate billboard also had a missile and appeared with the Hebrew text that stated, “Shelter?! Prepare your coffins…” and repeated the phrase in Persian.

From the statement issued by the IRGC to the personalized missiles and newly revealed billboards, the IRGC wants to emphasize that the goal of their attacks was “hard revenge” for the Kerman attack and the assassinations of members of the Resistance Axis. Earlier in the month, Tehran had vowed revenge, and now it had delivered.

Now the question is whether Dizayee was, in fact, a targeted assassination by ballistic missiles or whether he and his family were collateral casualties retroactively claimed by the IRGC to exaggerate the accuracy of its missiles.

Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource and MENASource blogs, and a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs. She also curates The Iranist newsletter.

The war in the shadows will continue

Iranian actions against the United States and US allies almost always display a peculiar sense of symmetry. Iran does something that requires retaliation in the form of sanctions, a cyberattack, a tanker seizure, or something else. Iran then retaliates—not always identically, but in some similar way. At first, Iran’s January 15 missile strike into Erbil looked like a dramatic escalation. After the dust settled and the identities of those killed became known, the peculiar sense of symmetry became painfully apparent: the Iranian regime’s target this time was not the United States but a prominent Kurdish businessman, Peshraw Dizayee, alleged by Tehran to have ties with Israel.

Regardless of whether this is true or not, eyes turned toward Israel’s December 25, 2023 strike in Syria that killed IRGC General Mousavi. His role in arming groups responsible for killing Israelis made him a legitimate military target. It remains to be seen whether Iran’s peculiar sense of symmetry was at work in Erbil on January 15, but this fits the pattern.

Iran’s hypocrisy is apparent. The Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Mohammad Kazam al-Sadegh, is affiliated with the IRGC Quds Force, labeled in 2007 as a terrorist group by the United States and, eventually, by other countries. Sadegh knows his way to Kurdistan, having been photographed with Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani on September 11, 2023. While the ambassador and the Iraqi Kurdistan president—both highly skilled at the diplomatic game—look engaged in a friendly discussion, the widescreen photo gives a better sense of the frosty atmospherics. As a prominent Iraqi Kurdish statesman once told me, Kurdistan’s problem is “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your neighbors.” Iran’s January 15 strike painfully illustrates both truths.

Tehran could have complained through diplomatic channels and asked Baghdad or Erbil to rein in anti-Iranian behavior on Iraqi soil. Baghdad or Erbil would then have been able to insist that Iran rein in anti-American behavior by Iran and its proxies on Iraqi soil. The fact that the Iranian regime continues to use Iraq as territory from which to carry out attacks means that Tehran has little justification to complain when others do the same to it. The war in the shadows will continue.

Thomas S. Warrick is the director of the Future of DHS project at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense program and a nonresident senior fellow and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

The subtleties of Iranian actions across the region

Launching its most extensive operation to date, the IRGC has had a busy week, targeting Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. According to Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the IRGC Aerospace Force commander, the operations aimed at a “Mossad espionage base in Erbil,” used for planning terrorism in the region, particularly against Iran, and “strongholds of Daesh in Syria.” Additionally, on Tuesday, Tasnim reported strikes on the “headquarters of Jaysh al-Dhulm (Jeysh al-Adl) terrorist group” in Pakistani Balochistan. 

These actions permit Tehran to claim achievements in response to for example the recent assassination of General Seyed Razi Mousavi, addressing ISIS-claimed attacks in Kerman and Rask – some Iranian officials attribute the former to Israel – and sending a message to Iraq’s Kurdish region, accused of harboring anti-Iran subversives.  

Moreover, by avoiding targeting Americans and US infrastructure, Tehran is able to showcase its missile and drone capabilities without escalating regional tensions. Adrienne Watson, the NSC spokesperson, confirmed that “no American personnel or facilities were targeted.” From Tehran’s perspective, these attacks serve as a signal of preparedness to both domestic and international audiences, indicating that Iran has the means and will to respond to threats against Iranians and the Iranian homeland, without substantially risking a broader regional conflict involving the United States. 

These actions won’t be the final ones from the Iranians, as it aligns with Tehran’s strategy to persist in striking perceived enemies. When questioned about the possibility of such attacks continuing, Hajizadeh explicitly stated, “the fight between good and evil never ends.” 

Nevertheless, the US and Western allies would be wise to take note of these subtleties, recognizing Iran’s need to project strength while also expressing a clear reluctance to escalate into a war with the West. Analysts advocating for a more forceful response to Iran should heed these considerations.

Masoud Mostajabi is a deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Related Experts: C. Anthony Pfaff, Thomas S. Warrick, Holly Dagres, and Masoud Mostajabi

Image: A view of a damaged building following missile attacks, in Erbil, Iraq, January 16, 2024. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari