Iran’s Missile Diplomacy Towards the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Local and Regional Messages
Iran has achieved advanced economic advantages as a result of its relationship with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Despite these advantages and the historical relations between the two parties, Iran’s view has shifted to a concern over this experience, especially in recent years, as a result of the rapid expansion of the Region (KRI) and the boost of its relations with regional and international parties. The rapid opening of the KRI to the outside world, especially in during the fight against ISIS, the expansion of relations with regional and international parties, the focus on the development of strategic sectors such as the energy sector, the beginning of the renunciation of imports from abroad and self-sufficiency in the sectors that Iran considers vital, have led the Iranian side – both directly and through its allies, consisting of political parties or armed groups in Baghdad – to consider weakening and limiting this development.
The briefing held by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), Ms. Jeanine Plasschaert, at the United Nations Security Council meeting on the special situation in Iraq on May 17,2022 highlights the political and security balances and tensions in Iraq. She also clarified the impact of the political system’s stubbornness on the future of the country, considering foreign interventions supported by the spread of uncontrolled and indiscriminate weapons.
Referring to the issue of rocket fire in certain areas of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Plasschaert confirmed that this approach of sending messages through missile launches, which she called “missile diplomacy”, are reckless acts with completely destructive effects and emphasised the importance of holding the perpetrators accountable as a requirement of protecting the rule of law.
Missiles targeting military bases and civil targets in the KRI are considered one of the most important means of putting pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the number of cases targeting regional cities has increased considerably in recent years. Iran through IRGC has directly claimed responsibility for the bombing of civilian facilities in Erbil in March 2022, using Israel’s presence as a pretext. In addition, attacks have been carried out from within Iraq by elements loyal to the Iranian policy, and Tehran has seen this policy as one of the deterrent tools for the security threats to which it is sensitive, as well as using it specifically to send political messages. Iran also makes use of pro-Iranian groups on Iraqi soil to carry out specific attacks or launch missiles that have clear political imprints, especially on local issues, or to launch long-range missiles from Iranian territory into Iraqi territory when it comes to strategic issues. As in the attack that took place in March 2022 in Erbil, the capital of the KRI, where it targeted the home of a prominent Kurdish businessman (Sheikh Baz) with long-range ballistic missiles to send a series of messages to local, regional and international parties. Most of these operations took place without a clear American response.
Since the beginning of 2018, Iran and its affiliated and collaborating Iraqi and regional elements have started to make intensive use of bombings through means of local elements or advanced ballistic missiles against the KRI. This coincided with the KRG’s entry into a recovery phase as a result of ending the “ISIS” threat and the revival of diplomatic relations with the surrounding countries affected by the holding of an independence referendum for the KRI. Another important factor can be added to these factors; it is also about the deterioration of the relationship between Erbil and the traditional Shiite parties, which have been in a political alliance for many years.
This situation assessment document seeks to shed light on the targeting of cities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with missiles, especially since the elimination of ISIS and after the independence referendum in the KRI at the end of 2017.
Two Aspects of Iranian Missile Diplomacy
Iran has been plunged into numerous wars inside Iraq since the overthrow of the former Iraqi regime. These wars have generally been waged through local elements that have embraced adherence to Iran’s policies after the end of ISIS. Tehran and the Shiite parties allied with it have begun to adopt missile targeting of foreign consulates in Baghdad or Kurdish figures in the KRI, American bases, and other civilian sites such as the Erbil Airport. The issue related to the targeted zones within the KRI can be divided into two parts:
Iran is trying to justify its repeated targeting of Iraqi territory under the pretext of threats and dangers to its national security emanating from Iraq. But these claims, according to the available data and facts, are far from reality and illogical, especially given Iran’s almost complete penetration of all Iraqi institutions, from politics to security, economy and the cultural sphere. Thus, the intersection of local and regional developments puts the use of missiles against opponents and rivals of Iran and its elements into the category of threatening by sending certain messages to political parties. This is also evident from the nature of the bombed targets.
In September 2018, the IRGC targeted the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) in the “Koy Sanjaq” district of Erbil on the Iran-Iraq border, killing 14 people and injuring 42 others during the party’s congress. And although the Iraqi authorities considered it a violation of national sovereignty, they did not take any steps to deter the Iranian side from repeating these practices, while the Iranian side justified the bombing as mandatory for self-defence and to deter Iranian opposition groups in Iraq it is obvious that the Iranian side aims to issue many warnings with this direct missile attack. This includes warning the Kurdistan Regional Government against allowing the increased activities of these opposition groups and confirming Iran’s readiness to target any inch of Iraqi territory, especially under the pretext of preventive defence, which Tehran uses as a pretext for its foreign interventions, without resorting to political, and diplomatic means by which it is possible to reach better solutions in these files. Some of them constitute a preparatory step to perform certain operations inside Iranian territory while also considering the direct targeting of the leadership of the Kurdish party as Tehran’s clear response to the party’s timid return to field activities, such as some of its members roaming Kurdish areas in Iran and mingling with the local population in order to revive and maintain their social ties. In light of the expansion of the scope of its regional and international differences at this stage, and in addition to the rise in Kurdish nationalism in the Kurdish areas in Iran after the Kurdish referendum in Iraq, where thousands of Iranian Kurds held demonstrations in support of the referendum in Kurdish cities, fears came up among the Iranian authorities that Kurdish nationalist feelings and demands would spread to Iran too.
In January 2020, days after the killing of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad airport, Tehran targeted two US bases in Iraq with a set of ballistic missiles. One of which was the Al-Harir base, 75 km east from the center of Erbil. This was a clear signal of a new phase of the conflict in Iran’s resort to responding directly from Iranian territory. Apparently, Tehran chose to respond militarily to the United States of America in the weakest field, namely Iraq, as a result of the weakness of the Iraqi Government and its inability to protect Iraqi sovereignty in order to put an end to external interference in internal affairs and turn the country into an arena for settling regional and international scores.
As a result of the weakness of the central government in Iraq and the absence of the features of a state capable of imposing sovereignty and preventing external interventions, Iranian transgressions were repeated more violently. This time, in March 2022, the IRGC targeted a group of residential areas in Erbil with 12 ballistic missiles under the pretext of targeting Israeli headquarters and secret bases that pose a threat to Iranian national security. In an official statement, the IRGC claimed responsibility for the missile attack on Erbil. Stating that it was “a strategic targeting of Zionist conspiracy and evil and in response to the crimes and evils of the Zionist entity in Erbil”, and warned Israel that any repetition of evil acts would be met with “harsh, decisive and destructive” reactions. Despite Iranian allegations and justifications for the missile strikes under the pretext of targeting Israeli interests inside the KRI, the Iranian side was unable to provide Iraq with clear evidence of the existence of Israeli activities on Iraqi soil. The parliamentary fact-finding committee in Iraq, which was formed after the attack to find out the circumstances of the Iranian targeting, announced that there was no evidence of the existence of Israeli spy activity at the site that was targeted by the Iranian side. The Commission stated in the report that: “After inspection, investigation and examination of the scene of the attack and adjacent buildings, no suspicious evidence or tools were found that would indicate the presence of any spy equipment, wires or tools used for espionage purposes.”
It is clear that Iran’s direct attacks on Erbil always come as a reaction to major and qualitative events and to send a double message. Therefore, direct targeting has been limited in terms of strength. As for indirect targeting by proxies in Iraq, this is repeated constantly, especially in light of the political conflicts taking place in the political arena in Iraq. Shiite political parties have always used armed elements to send messages to their rivals, especially in Erbil. Despite the fact that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been fighting against ISIS for several years and the fact that the organisation has posed a real threat to the region, no missile strikes have been recorded, which has significantly affected the stability of the KRI. However, after the declaration of victory against ISIS and the emergence of differences of opinion between Erbil and Baghdad, armed groups and militias began to target Erbil with missiles. This is a clear indication that Shiite militias are just as dangerous as illegal organisations. Moreover, these militias pose a greater threat and adversely affect stability as a result of their patronage and religious fatwas by the Iraqi state. This helps them to act freely and avoid accountability before the security and judicial institutions in Iraq.
The most striking militia attacks on Erbil are as follows:
- On September 30, 2020, the Anti-Terrorism Service in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq announced that Iranian-backed armed groups carried out a missile attack against American forces in the city of Erbil. Hours after the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi pledged to protect foreign missions, agencies confirmed that the Popular Mobilization Forces fired six rockets from the outskirts of the Sheikh Amir village in Nineveh province. The rockets were fired from an area under the control of the 30th Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The Governor of Erbil, Omed Khoshnaw, announced in a press statement that in 2021 alone, seven attacks on Erbil International Airport were carried out. We will show in this section the most known missile attacks in 2021 that were carried out by drones:
- On February 16, 2021, a series of missiles were launched toward Erbil and targeted an air base of the International Coalition at the Erbil Airport. The attack killed a foreign civilian and wounded 5 others in addition to an American soldier. An American official confirmed that the missiles were launched from an area located about 8 kilometres west of the city of Erbil. A Shiite group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a Washington Institute report, Saraya Awliya al-Dam is a secondary group with possible links to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Many experts have linked the attack on Erbil to the escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran, with the approaching expiration of the deadline set by Iran on February 21 to completely withdraw from the nuclear deal. Iran aims to raise the ceiling on uranium enrichment rates and stop cooperating with international inspectors if sanctions on it are not lifted fully.
During this period, the formation of a large number of armed groups accompanying Shiite militias operating under different names and titles was observed, which was a new strategy by the main groups in order to avoid claiming responsibility for the actions of these groups and to give political messages with minimal losses.
- On April 14, 2021, Erbil International Airport in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was attacked by a drone, and a KDP prominent figure Hoshyar Zebari accused the militias of being behind the operation that contributes to undermine the security of the KRI. The Saraya Awliya al-Dam faction claimed responsibility for the attack.
The entry of drones into the equation is a challenge to the authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as it is difficult to confront this new technology, which has facilitated Iran’s access to its proxies in the region, especially in Iraq. The militias have become heavily dependent on drones to attack Erbil.
- On June 26, 2021, an attack was launched on the village of Berag, only 3 kilometres away from the site of the US consulate in Erbil, with three drones loaded with explosive materials.
- On July 6, 2021, a booby-trapped drone attack targeted the Erbil International Airport. According to a statement by the KRI’s Counter-Terrorism Service, the attack did not result in human loss or material damage.
- On September 11, 2021, an attack by two armed drones targeted Erbil International Airport, near the United States Consulate, without causing damage to the airport and casualties as a result of the attack.
- On May 2, 2022, six missiles targeted and damaged the Erbil oil refinery. The United States condemned the attack and defined it as an assault on Iraq’s sovereignty and harming Iraqi citizens.
The attack came weeks after the direct Iranian attack on the home of Kurdish businessman Sheikh Baz who focused on developing the KRI’s energy sector, which could pose real risks to the Iranian economy in controlling energy exports in the region.
- On June 8, hours after the passage of the food security law that sparked widespread controversy in the Iraqi political arena, the Erbil-Pirmam Road was targeted by a booby-trapped drone. This attack caused three injuries and damaged several civilian vehicles.
Authorities in the KRI accused the Kata’ib Hezbollah of being behind the terrorist operation, which also coincided with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s condemnation of Iran over uranium traces in undeclared sites. According to media sources close to the armed factions, the attack was targeting the US consulate in Erbil. However, the location of the plane shows that it missed the target or that it was intended to send certain messages to both the Kurdish side and the American side.
The stance of the Kurdistan Regional Government was limited to issuing statements of condemnation and denunciation and calling on the central government in Baghdad to intervene in order to prevent these attacks from repeating, by the virtue of the fact that these factions belong to the Popular Mobilization Committee, as they are legally considered part of the official Iraqi military and security system and receive salaries from the Iraqi government.
The continuous attacks on Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, confirm the weakness of the Iraqi authorities and their inability to preserve the sovereignty of Iraq. Especially since the authorities in the KRI have revealed many times that well-known Iraqi factions such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada are behind the attacks without the Iraqi authorities taking measures to deter these groups. Missile and drone attacks undermine security and stability in the KRI and contribute to turning the area into an arena for settling scores and sending messages through missile diplomacy. These are considered ways to pressure both the KRI and the United States of America as a result of conflicting political and economic interests.
The escalation of rocket attacks on Erbil is an indication of a clear inaction by the American side. It has not played its role effectively in defending its interests in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq or in assisting local authorities in developing defensive measures to confront these attacks and pressuring the central government in Baghdad to deal seriously with the repeated targeting. This led to an escalation in the number of attacks. With regard to this Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said: “If US troops can’t defend themselves when attacked, they should leave the vicinity of the Erbil Airport to avert civilian casualties. Why should we pay the price for their inaction” in reference to the damage caused to security and stability in the KRI as a result of the absence of deterrent American steps to end these attacks. It seems that the American responses are related to the calculations of a wider Iraqi scope. As a matter of fact, it is obvious that the US intervention operations are related to calculations that go beyond Iraq, especially the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the fact that the US does not want to take steps which might provoke the Iranian side, and that it does not support Baghdad and the KRI against these attacks.
The attacks on Erbil are escalating as political tensions emerge at the local level between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the traditional Shiite parties in Baghdad. In addition to being affected by the Iranian-American tensions, Tehran sees the U.S. presence in Erbil as an opportunity to put pressure on America by targeting these U.S. interests and headquarters in Erbil.
Indiscriminate and unchecked missile diplomacy in the face of the incompetence of the central government in Baghdad could be an opportunity for the KRG to strengthen its defense side with the help of the United States and other allies and to independently counter these attacks without the need for the assistance of the central government in Baghdad.
Recent attacks on the energy sector in the KRI have confirmed that the Katyusha messages and missile diplomacy are not only about the American presence in Erbil, but rather about Iran’s vision and Erbil’s concerns about its future role in political, economic and security issues in the region, especially developments on the energy issue, which have raised concerns on the Iranian side.
Table detailing rocket attacks against the KRI
|8 September 2018
|Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran
|January 8, 2020
|13 March 2022
|The house of the owner of the company “KAR”
|September 30, 2020
|30th Brigade Popular Mobilization Forces
|16 February 2021
|Sayyid al-Shuhadaa Brigade
|International Coalition Base
|14 April 2021
|Saraya Awliya Al-Dam
|Erbil International Airport
|26 June 2021
|6 July 2021
|Erbil International Airport
|11 September 2021
|Erbil International Airport
|2 May 2022
|Erbil Oil Refinery
|8 June 2022
 Who is Sheikh Baz?, His palace drew the attention of the world, Source: Draw News, Date:16.03.2022, Link: https://drawmedia.net/ar/page_detail?smart-id=9881
 Iran bombed the headquarters of a Kurdish opposition group in Northern Iraq, Source: DW TV, Date: 08.09.2018, Link: https://2u.pw/LZCK4
 See. https://twitter.com/drmahmoudothman/status/1383132487870775296?s=46