Iran has preferred symbolic attacks on the anniversary of the death of Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander who was killed by the US two years ago. On Monday, this year’s anniversary, drones with his name and the word “revenge” were reportedly used to target US forces in Baghdad.
“Two ‘suicide drones’ aimed at Baghdad airport, housing US-led coalition, were shot down by US def[ense] system, C-RAM at around 0430 this morning,” according to Nafiseh Kohnavard, a correspondent for the BBC covering Iraq.
The wreckage has “leader’s revenge” and “Soleimani’s revenge” written on the wings of the drones, she reported.
These drones were not much larger than a person and had wooden propellers. Such simple drones can be used to fly to a prearranged target. However, they usually don't have large munitions on them.
Iran has exported kamikaze-style drones and technology to fly them to Yemen, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. It has increasingly used drones to target the US and Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and other states.
That Iran chose a relatively inexpensive and simple weapon and message to show the US that it remembers the Soleimani anniversary could show that Iran is going for the symbolic gestures. There have been rage-filled speeches in Iraq by pro-Iranian proxies. In addition, US and Israeli flags were trampled in Iraq on the anniversary.
However, all this seems symbolic. The US has also symbolically said its last combat troops are leaving Iraq. The reality is the US doesn’t really have combat troops in Iraq. Thus, the “end” to the US combat mission in Iraq announced in December is largely just messaging to Iran.
This doesn’t mean there may not be more serious Iranian attacks or attacks by proxies such as Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah, Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq or others. Iran has shown it can wreak havoc across 3,000 miles of frontline from Lebanon via Syria and Iraq to the Persian Gulf.
In July, it used drones to target a commercial ship, and the IRGC head diplomat recently died after being evacuated from Yemen.
What Iran must weigh is whether it is worth attacking the US, as Washington is in the midst of focusing on a new Iran deal that could come out of talks in Vienna.
Iran has sometimes heated up attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, like it did in 2019 until the US killed Soleimani in 2020.
Then it used ballistic missiles to target a large US base in Iraq. It increased attacks in the first months of 2021. However, it has moved toward using more drones that have plausible deniability and can be put in the hands of small militias.
Iranian forces used drones against Saudi Arabia in September 2019 as well. The Houthis often use drones and missiles against Saudi Arabia with backing from Tehran. Iran has also showcased new Shahed drones that allegedly can target Israel from Yemen because of their range. These have been shown at recent drills in Iran. Israel has likewise highlighted how Iran conducts training in Kashan.
Taken together, this means Iran has the capability to strike at the US and its allies and partners. However, Tehran must weigh its response.
In November, reports emerged that Iran had attacked the US garrison at Tanf in Syria in response to alleged Israeli airstrikes on Syria, and the Syrian regime media accused Israel of two strikes on Latakia in December.
But Iran knows that too many attacks on the US could harm its chances for a deal in Vienna. It must weigh carefully the cost and benefit of more attacks on the US or on Israel or Saudi Arabia.
It preferred symbolic incidents on the morning of January 3. It may increase attacks in coming weeks, but the above-mentioned calculus is the one that will guide it.
Iran wants to invest in strategic programs like long-range missiles and military satellites. It could jeopardize that by unruly attacks across the region.