Iran intensifies threats, heating up Middle East and Israel tensions - analysis

Missile attacks in Iran, IRGC members killed in Syria, reports of cyber incidents and "sabotage" prevented, are all part of the Iranian game plan amid the Ukraine crisis. 

 A damaged wall is seen after last night's rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Erbil International Airport, in Erbil, Iraq February 16, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/AZAD LASHKARI)
A damaged wall is seen after last night's rocket attack on U.S.-led forces in and near Erbil International Airport, in Erbil, Iraq February 16, 2021.

Iran’s regime looks to be moving toward a newly aggressive posture in the last week.

This comes amid the Ukraine war as the West is distracted, an apparent breakdown in the Iran deal, an attack on the US in Iraq, reports of a cyber attack on Israel and Iran’s claims to have prevented “sabotage” of its Fordow nuclear facility. 

This matters because Iran has been relatively silent in recent weeks in terms of making new threats or trying to set the region aflame. In January and February Iran worked with its Houthi allies in Yemen to launch drone and missile attacks on the UAE.

Then Iran went silent for a bit, considering that it believed it might get sanctions relief and a new form of the 2015 Iran deal. Iran had been working closely with Russia and Russia was coordinating with the US. However, these talks appeared to go on the rocks as Russia launched a war in Ukraine and came under its own sanctions.

Russia began messaging that it was going to demand its “rights” under any deal, which means its trade with Iran would be exempt from sanctions. Basically, Russia was manhandling the Iran deal talks. 

 View of a damaged building in the aftermath of missile attacks in Erbil, Iraq March 13, 2022 (credit: AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS)
View of a damaged building in the aftermath of missile attacks in Erbil, Iraq March 13, 2022 (credit: AZAD LASHKARI/REUTERS)

Then came reports that two Iranian members of the IRGC were killed in Syria last week. Iran fired a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraq this week, leaking stories about this being in retaliation for the deaths of the two men. But Iran targeted areas near where a new US consulate is being built in Erbil in the Kurdistan Region.

The logic here was that Iran was getting “two-for-one” by sending a message to the US and also pretending to be retaliating against Israel. However, Iran’s media muddled this message a bit by spreading conspiracies about Iran targeting “Mossad” in Iraq.  

This is a grave violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and the US condemned the Iranian attacks. Iran’s goal here is to show the US that it can target Americans in the safe and peaceful Kurdistan region. It also wants to link Israeli actions to the US presence. This, Iran thinks, can get the US to pressure Israel and enable Iran to have some plausible deniability regarding its actions because it can pretend it is targeting “Israel” while also messaging to the US. This means the US doesn’t need to respond directly because the US can also feign that its facilities were not directly targeted.

Everyone gets something from the equation. Iran gets to pretend it got revenge. Americans don’t get killed. Israel can continue to oppose Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. Iraq of course gets nothing. Iraq gets Iranian missiles falling from the sky and it gets occupied by pro-Iran militias. Iran uses the militias to target Israel and the Gulf and traffic arms. 

This all comes in the context of a series of other Iranian moves to cause tensions. Iran has announced via its Fars News and Tasnim news that its IRGC has “captured a Zionist team and prevented sabotage of the Fordow nuclear facility.” That’s convenient timing for Iran. Carry out a major missile attack and then a day later claim to have prevented “sabotage.” But wait, Iran carried out the attack to respond to the deaths of two of the IRGC officers in Syria? But wait, isn’t it phenomenal how the IRGC days later claims to have stopped “Zionist sabotage.” If this sounds like amazing timing, it is. At the same time reports claim that there was a cyberattack on Israeli government websites.  

Obviously, Iran and Israel's tensions appear to be growing, at least according to Iranian media reports, and some recent Iranian actions. The timing appears to be connected to the fact that if Iran isn’t going to get a deal and sanctions relief, then it has calculated it may heat up the region again to pressure the US. Iran has a tactic for this, it heats up tensions with the US and Israel and presents a kind of devil’s bargain; for it to stop the tensions it needs concessions.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to ramp up its drone program and weapons trafficking. It knows the West is distracted by the Ukraine war. This could mean that this spring is a dangerous time because an Iran that senses the West is lured into focus on Ukraine may think it can push new offensives in the region. It has operationalized Iraqi militias to condemn Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia knows also that the UAE has condemned the attack in Erbil. According to UAE media, “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) in a statement Sunday night expressed the UAE's strong condemnation and denunciation of the attacks that are aimed to destabilize Iraq in violation of the principles of international law.” 

These different incidents clearly indicate a trend. The question is whether the trend will lead to more serious tensions and another conflict in the region, or whether Iran’s media is primarily posturing in a closely coordinated propaganda effort with the regime to push narratives about Iran’s successes, while Iran remains reticent to slouch toward any kind of actual confrontation.

Iran’s apparently careful use of missiles to target Erbil, but also not kill anyone, is part of a tactic that has been seen dozens of times since 2019. Iran, for instance, attacked several ships in May and June 2019 and no one was harmed. Iran knows how to attack without harming anyone, and how to kill when it wants to kill. In July of 2019 it used drones to kill crew members of a tanker on the bridge of a tanker in the Gulf of Oman. This serious incident showed its new prowess with drones. This was in contrast to drone incidents in February 2018, March 2021 and May 2021 in which it used drones to target Israel. No one was harmed and Israel shot the drones down in each incident.

From the cyber realm to the ballistic missiles, drones and Iranian media reports of combating “sabotage” Iran is constantly stirring the pot of tensions, heating it up some months, lowering the temperature other months; trying to gauge the US response and also gauge Israel’s actions. With the Ukraine war, an emboldened Iran could also be a more dangerous Iran. The last week has shown that this could be part of the Tehran plan.