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Policy Brief

Messages with Warheads: Unpacking the Logic Behind the Recent Attacks of Iran and its Proxies

Iran’s January 2024 attacks on Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, as well as the recent strike by Iranian proxies on a US base at the Syrian-Jordanian border, mark a significant escalation that tests US red lines while raising the risk of an already dangerous situation escalating into further violence.

A homemade Iranian supersonic missile depicted on stage in Tehran.

Following the 7 October 2023 attacks by Hamas against Israel, and the subsequent Israeli campaign in Gaza, Iran initially attempted to appear as being uninvolved in the war. By January 2024, the Iranian leadership had reversed course, launching at least five missiles in neighbouring Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. These attacks occurred at a time of growing tension in the Middle East, as events on the ground escalated progressively. The recent death of three US servicemen in a drone attack by an Iranian-affiliated militia on US troops stationed at the Jordanian-Syrian border – the most lethal strike on US troops since 7 October – represents a significant leap forward in this escalation between Washington and the Iran-led front. 

On 15 January, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for targeted strikes against alleged Israeli intelligence facilities and individuals in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. The attack damaged buildings in the proximity of the US consulate and resulted in at least four casualties. Among the deceased were Peshraw Majeed Agha Dezaei, a prominent local businessman, and his family. The IRGC also directed its actions towards sites reportedly associated with the Islamic State in Syria’s Idlib governorate. The following day, Iran struck two headquarters belonging to Jaish al-‘Adl, a Sunni fundamentalist militant group that historically found sanctuary in the Baluchistan province, deep within Pakistani territory.

Iran’s latest actions against three sovereign states in only two days have been widely perceived as a bold and provocative move by Tehran. With tensions flaring on different fronts, a miscalculation could quickly spiral out of control and further escalate the conflict in an increasingly unstable region. In response to what they labelled a “blatant violation” of their sovereignty, Baghdad and Islamabad withdrew their ambassadors from Iran in protest and vowed to respond through legal measures. Then, amid outrage among the Pakistani public and political class, the Pakistani armed forces struck back the following Thursday, hitting targets on Iranian soil ascribed to two Pakistani Baluch separatist groups – the Baluchistan Liberation Army and the Baluchistan Liberation Front – both of which have no relations with the regime in Tehran. 

Pakistan’s attack on Iranian territory marks the first major strike on the country’s soil by an external power since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Iran is often perceived as confrontational yet cautious and pragmatic. In order to understand why the Iranian regime is getting close to conflict with a nuclear-armed neighbour, and in order to evaluate the rationale behind its behaviour, various aspects need to be considered. For one, the attacks carry significant weight. They mark the first instance since 7 October that Iran has been directly involved in the ongoing regional tensions. For months, Tehran consistently signaled its reluctance to openly engage in a broader conflict that might entangle it in a war with the US or Israel. Instead, it has provided support to its proxy forces of the “Axis of Resistance,” which carried out multiple attacks in response to Israel’s operations against Hamas, and more generally against US interests in the region. 

The recent wave of Iranian assaults seems primarily tailored to internal consumption, as both its timing and the selected strike locations suggests. There is growing discontent regarding the regime’s handling of the recent upsurge in terrorist activities on national soil. This is highlighted by the attack carried out by Jaish al-‘Adl in Rask on 15 December 2023, resulting in the death of 11 police officers. Another instance is the 3 January bombings in Kerman, the deadliest incident of its kind since 1979. Both episodes have underscored Iran’s susceptibility to infiltration by extremist groups despite its robust intelligence and police enforcement capabilities. Specifically, the regime seems apprehensive about the repetition of historically low voter turnout as the country prepares for parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections on 1 March 2024. In the context of the region’s complex geopolitics, hard-liners are increasing their pressure on the regime regarding its response the Gaza war and the assassination of one of the IRGC’s most influential commanders in the Levant, Seyed Radhi Mousavi. This has resulted in demands within Iran for a more explicit response from the government.

To address the significant reduction in Iranian deterrence capability, IRGC-affiliated media portrayed the airstrikes in Syria and Iraq as a direct response to “the recent terrorist atrocities of the enemies of Islamic Iran” in Kerman and Rask – the former officially claimed by the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, the ISKP. The IRGC reasoning behind targeting Syria’s Idlib governorate rather than Afghanistan – where at least one of the Kerman bombers is said to have been recruited – stems from the narrative that ISKP members undergo training in Idlib and are subsequently deployed to Afghanistan with alleged US and Israel involvement. In the same vein, Iranian officials have accused  Israeli intelligence of directing the Islamic State to conduct the aforementioned attacks, as well as the prominent Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dezaei of supporting Mossad operations in Iran and facilitating oil transfers from Iraq to Israel. No evidence was provided for these claims. More realistically, Iran chose Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan as convenient and easy targets for retaliation – as it did in the past, avoiding direct confrontations in Afghanistan to prevent escalating tensions in the east or risking conflict with the Taliban.

The regime employed a similar rationale to represent the attack on what it said was the headquarters of the Iranian Baluch separatist group Jaish al-‘Adl in Pakistan on 16 January. The day after Islamabad’s retaliatory action, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said the raid on the neighbouring country was a preventive operation against what he called an “imminent terrorist threat” along Iran’s eastern border by Jaish al-‘Adl. He also emphasized that only Iranian nationals were targeted – despite Pakistani reports of local civilian casualties. The validity of these statements is still a matter of contention.

On the other hand, the attacks can also be interpreted as a demonstration of Iran’s military capabilities and importance in the regional balance of power. According to the IRGC air force commander, the raid against “takfiri groups in Idlib” represented the Islamic Republic’s longest-range missile operation successfully conducted to date (more than 1.00 km). That strike also saw the debut of the Kheibar-Shekan, one of Iran’s most advanced and longest-range ballistic missiles – first unveiled in 2022. Equally worth noting, this weapon’s name – it translates into “fortress breaker” – refers to a Jewish fortress conquered by Muslim armies in the 7th century. By choosing such a target range, Tehran sent a clear message to Israel and signaled its readiness to retaliate – directly and precisely – if conflict should erupt.

Thus, it seems that these strikes represent an effort by the Iranian leadership to display capabilities without directly engaging Israel or the United States. While the Erbil bombing did not target any US facilities, Tehran’s strikes on Iraqi Kurdistan served a dual purpose: undermining Erbil’s authority in favor of the Tehran-aligned central government in Baghdad while indirectly exerting pressure on the United States. Recently, the presence of US troops in Iraq, which has been repeatedly discussed with Iraqi authorities since 2020, has again been called into question by a renewed populist anti-war rhetoric in the country. Likewise, Washington is facing increasing challenges to its efforts to contain the spread of violence in the Middle East, as shown by the increasing cost imposed by the Iranian-backed front on its personnel and assets stationed in the area. Tehran may have predicted a limited Western response based on the ongoing US involvement on multiple fronts, which would have weakened Washington’s criticism – as they encouraged Iran to act unilaterally.

By contrast, the death of three US soldiers on 28 January at the hands of Iranian proxies deviates from Iran’s typical actions against Washington. Traditionally, Tehran avoided American casualties in the region – even after the assassination of ICRG Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani in 2020 – also by limiting its allies’ activities accordingly. Nevertheless, by imposing both direct and indirect costs on the US presence in the area, the Islamic Republic aims to severely undermine the credibility of the Biden administration, raising significant doubts about Washington’s commitment to its Middle Eastern allies and its willingness to allow the Iranian regime to act aggressively without consequence. Undoubtedly, the repercussions of the latest Iranian and Iranian-backed attacks will resonate across the region, with Washington facing mounting pressure due to its limited response so far to Iran’s transgressions, its cautious approach towards the Houthis in the Red Sea, and its inability to reduce Tehran’s missile capabilities over the years.

But these calculations may backfire, as seen in the case of the Iranian breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by striking deep within its territory. Laying the groundwork for an unnecessary conflict with a nuclear-armed neighbor may represent a significant strategic blunder by the Islamic Republic. While Tehran sought to justify its actions, it is uncertain whether it anticipated Islamabad’s retaliation. Pakistan, despite avoiding an escalation with Iran, wishes to maintain a strong deterrence toward its longtime rival, India. With general elections scheduled for 8 February 2024, Pakistan’s influential military believes it cannot afford to appear domestically weak. Yet, both countries face numerous geopolitical challenges and seem not inclined towards further disputes. Pakistan’s announcements regarding its operations within Iran closely mirrored Tehran’s previous language and indicated Islamabad’s desire for de-escalation. While the crisis may not intensify in the immediate future, the recent exchange of fire has further strained the already fragile bilateral relations between Iran and Pakistan, turning the Iranian-Pakistani border into a potential flashpoint in Southwest Asia. This represents a long-term and significant diplomatic and political setback for Iran.

Overall, the Iranian strikes in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as the recent attack carried out by its proxy at the US outpost in Jordan, highlight Iran’s growing capability and determination to extend its influence at the expense of the US presence in the Middle East. However, as Iran expands its strategic footprint in the region, these attacks also underscore the Islamic Republic’s growing tolerance for taking strategic risks amid the current turmoil spilling over from Israel’s conflict with Hamas. Numerous uncertainties persist regarding the possible consequences of this strategy. In pursuit of its ultimate objective of challenging the US presence and seeking regional dominance through proxies to escalate conflicts, the Islamic Republic indeed runs the risk of being drawn into an escalating cycle on multiple fronts — such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon — that could ultimately lead to direct confrontation with the United States and its allies. The loss of three US personnel in an Iranian-backed militia strike in Jordan marks a significant escalation in this regard, being the first time US troops have been killed in nearly 165 attacks since 7 October. While Tehran denied its involvement in the attack – a position also supported by Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Iraqi group that claimed responsibility – this incident highlights Iran’s growing challenge to avoid repercussions for the actions of its allies in the region. 

The Biden administration, which has thus far refrained from retaliatory actions, now faces the critical decision to assess whether hostilities require a more assertive strategy against Iranian interests in the region. Likewise, the White House is under domestic pressure to act, with hawkish politicians advocating a direct strike against Iran. As Washington’s options for responding narrow, it remains to be seen whether Tehran will be willing and able to bear the economic and political costs of its strategy and the actions of its regional allies. Meanwhile, while a comprehensive ceasefire in Gaza remains elusive, both parties seem to be inching closer to open confrontation.

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