Iran’s attack on Kurds is a message to Washington, Riyadh and Jerusalem

Iran has been fighting Kurdish opposition for years and in Iran there have been increasing clashes.

People stage a protest against the execution by Iran of up to 20 Kurds. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People stage a protest against the execution by Iran of up to 20 Kurds.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran claimed credit for firing seven Fateh 110 ballistic missiles in an attack on Kurdish opposition groups in Koya in northern Iraq over the weekend that killed 17 and wounded numerous others. It was the first time Iranian forces had used precision missiles to attack deep inside Iraq.
The daylight attack on the city of some 100,000 in the Erbil Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan is a message from Tehran to the region that it can do what it wants, not only in neighboring Iraq, but throughout the Middle East. In the last year, Iranian missiles and Iranian-supported groups using Tehran’s technical advisers have targeted Saudi Arabia from Yemen and Israel from Syria.
As Washington is pressuring Iran, the missile threat is Tehran’s response to the US sanctions. US Vice President Mike Pence condemned the rocket attack in a call with the Kurdistan region’s prime minister, calling it an “effort to threaten and destabilize.”
The IRGC attempted a decapitation strike against the Kurdish KDP-I, an opposition group that has a headquarters in Koya. Numerous senior leaders were present and a missile crashed into the building where they were meeting.
This was a precise and unprecedented strike. Although Iran has targeted Kurdish groups in Iraq before and has fired missiles at other opposition groups, the use of Fateh 110 missiles showcases Iranian intelligence operations and know-how. Iran has been increasing the Fateh 110’s guidance and accuracy for a decade. In mid-August, it test-fired one of them for use against ships. The IRGC released footage showing the missiles were used in coordination with drones and local intelligence. Reporters for Iranian state media were invited days before to prepare and watch the launch.
The missile attack on Koya should not be seen as an isolated Iran regime attack on an opposition group. Iran has been fighting Kurdish opposition groups for years and in Iran there have been increasing clashes. But the missile strike was an escalation and should be seen in the context of the Iranian-backed Houthis using ballistic missiles to target Riyadh, flying some 900 km from their launch point.
Iranian forces from Syria have also targeted and tested Israel’s defenses. They flew a drone into Israeli airspace in February, and fired a salvo of missiles in May. Recent satellite images show missile production facilities in northern Syria. Reports also indicate that Iran has transferred missiles to the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Shia militias, in Iraq. And Iran has armed Hezbollah with missiles for years and also supplied Hamas with technical support.
The big picture then is an Iranian missile threat throughout the region. The National Defense Authorization Act signed by US President Donald Trump in August included passages about Iran’s ballistic missile threat.
Congress had looked deeply into how Iran’s missile program threatens the region. During a June speech at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, US Under Secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence Sigal Mandelker said that “Iran must end its proliferation of ballistic missiles.”
US allies in the region have missile defense technology to confront the Iranian threat. Israel has a layered system of missile defense including Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow program, while Saudi Arabia has used Patriot missile batteries to stop the Houthi missiles. This has proven effective. It is also why the IRGC decided to test out its missiles by targeting defenseless Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.
The IRGC’s strike on the Kurds is a message to Washington and to Israel. It shows how the IRGC operates across borders and throughout the region, seeing Iran’s policy in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as linked into one larger program.
The IRGC is also the group responsible for working with various proxies and Shia militias across the region.
The US administration’s response to the missile attack in Iraq will reveal whether Washington takes this new front in northern Iraq seriously and whether the discussions about stopping Iran’s activities see Iraq as a frontier to confront these missile threats or whether Iraq will continue to be an area that Iran can operate freely in.