Did Russia empower Iran’s attack on Erbil? - analysis

Iran is counting on the US being afraid of “war” whiel Russia wants to return Ukraine to its “near abroad.” Iran wants to ride the Russian train as far as it can.

 Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani stands next to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi before a meeting with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021. (photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/REUTERS)
Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani stands next to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi before a meeting with UAE's top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Tehran, Iran, December 6, 2021.
(photo credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/REUTERS)

Iran’s attack on Erbil using a dozen large ballistic missiles is a major escalation. The missiles targets key areas, such as a new US Consulate being built. They are a message that Iran can do a lot more damage.

Had Iran wanted to, it could have aimed more at the airport runways or targeted civilian areas more heavily. It’s clear Iran was sending a message of its power more than wanting to wreak total havoc.

Iran’s message may be linked to the breakdown in Iran talks. Russia has attempted to use the Iran talks to squeeze more concessions from the US regarding sanctions on Russia. This has angered Iran because Tehran wants sanctions relief, and it now finds itself being waylaid by Russia at the last moment.

But Iran is also looking to Russia for lessons on how to engage with the West. Iran is learning that Russia has used an invasion to demonstrate that there is international impunity to warmongering and attacks.

The large ballistic-missile barrage on Erbil is not the first time Iran used ballistic missiles like this. It also targeted Kurdish dissidents in 2018 in Koya in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. It also used ballistic missiles in 2020 against the US facility at Ain al-Asad air base in response to the US killing of Iran IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani.

 Smoke rises over the Erbil, after reports of mortar shells landing near Erbil airport, Iraq February 15, 2021 (Illustrative).  (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS) Smoke rises over the Erbil, after reports of mortar shells landing near Erbil airport, Iraq February 15, 2021 (Illustrative). (credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/REUTERS)

This means the use of these missiles is not new or unprecedented. Iran has used missiles and drones to target Saudi Arabia, and it has also sent missile technology to the Houthis in Yemen for use against Saudi Arabia.

So what is new with the March 13, 2022, attack? The large number of missiles and heavy payload on them was likely a warm-up for larger attacks. Iran wants to showcase its precision and abilities with these types of missiles. Tehran also wants to see if the US will respond.

The US has many voices that are part of the chorus who argue against American escalation in Ukraine and don’t want “war” with Iran or Russia. Russia has used these voices as well, because Russia wants impunity to destroy Ukraine.

Russia counts on the West to be afraid of war – particularly the narrative that any confrontation with Russia is “World War III” – even though there is no evidence that Russia can afford conflict with the West. So Russia sells the “war, war” narrative just as Iran sold the “Iran deal or war” narrative in 2015.

Today, Iran wants to ride the “Russian narrative” bandwagon and pretend that if the US “escalates” by retaliating, then there could be war, even though Iran and Russia are the aggressors.

IN THE past, the US has retaliated when pro-Iranian militias killed US or coalition forces in Iraq. The US often retaliated against Iranian-backed militias in Syria. This is the calculus Iran has. It knows the US could retaliate in Syria – a kind of “everything goes” country where the US can operate with more impunity.

The US would be reticent to retaliate in Iraq because it doesn’t want to violate “Iraqi sovereignty.” The US will also be cautious about targeting Iran, even though the missiles came from Iran. Tehran wants to see if the US backs down; then it has a blank check to use more missiles from Iran to target the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and others.

Iran already has used the Houthis to target the UAE, and it had Iraq-based militias target the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Iran also used drones to target Israel from Iran last March.

So Iran is upping the deadly game, coming out from the shadows and using drones and missiles directly fired from Iran toward other countries in the region. Iran also targeted Saudi Arabia in September 2019. There was no retaliation. So Iran now thinks it may be able to try to drive the US out of Erbil in northern Iraq.

Iran is watching closely what happens in Russia and Ukraine in this regard. While the US has warned Russia of a tough response about the invasion, the White House also puts out messaging about not wanting any conflict with Russia.

Russia now has said it will target supplies of arms going into Ukraine. Russia is testing the West’s resolve. The US may be backing down.

Meanwhile, Iran sees that the US wants the Iran deal back, and Tehran wants to squeeze Washington to come to terms. This means Iran is using the Ukraine crisis but also browbeating Russia regarding the Iran deal and using the threat of more deadly attacks to try to get something from the US and see if the US will back down or retaliate.

Iran has also read the reports in US media regarding the skeptics who oppose escalation in Ukraine – the ones who argue that “the West is to blame” and that “NATO provoked Russia.” Iran knows that some of these voices are also against conflict with Iran.

For instance, Iran can read The New Yorker, where US academic John Mearsheimer is quoted. The headline of the article blames the US and the West for the crisis in Ukraine. The Economist also ran an article headlined, “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis.”

In 2008, Foreign Affairs and PBS highlighted another theory by the same academic: “John Mearsheimer, political science professor at the University of Chicago, says a nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the region, but Dov Zakheim, former Pentagon official now with the Center for Naval Analyses, says it would trigger an arms race.”

In 2007, Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt wrote a scathing attack on “the Israel lobby and US foreign policy.”

This is all linked. The argument that NATO is responsible for pushing expansion in the early 2000s, which provoked Russia to attack Ukraine; and that Israel is somehow harmful to US foreign policy because of the confrontation with Iran; and even the argument that Iran can bring stability to the Middle East, which is connected to the idea that Russia is provoked, showcases how Iran hopes to achieve in Iraq what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

In short, Iran counts on the US being afraid of “war” and US voices blaming America first. Iran wants to turn Iraq into a “near abroad” and also swallow up Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Russia wants to return Ukraine to its “near abroad” and counts on US isolationists, the far Left, far Right and “realists” in the West to agree with Russia’s “security needs.” Iran wants to ride that Russian train as far as it can as well.