What's behind Iran's missile strikes in Erbil?
In the early hours of Sunday, March 13, residents of Erbil, the capital city of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), woke up to the blasts of 12 Iranian ballistic missiles targeting a residential area in the city.
Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility for the attack, and said that the missiles were launched in retaliation to an Israeli attack allegedly launched from Erbil last month targeting an Iranian drone factory.
“A dozen ballistic missiles hit secret Mossad bases in Erbil, reportedly leaving several Israeli operatives dead,” Iran’s state-run Press TV quoting a statement by the IRGC. “The operation was in response to an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian capital of Damascus last Monday, in which two IRGC officers were killed.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a statement described IRGC’s attack as “cowardly” and confirmed that the missiles have targeted “civilian locations”, but no casualties have been reported.
"Political analysts, however, warn that while Israel’s attack may have triggered the strikes, the missiles were intended to convey a broader political message"
“Iran has repeated these attacks many times, and the silence of the international community in the face of these cowardly attacks will pave the way for their continuation,” reads part of the statement. “We call on the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, the Arab League, the federal government, the Iraqi parliament, and the Iranian government to urgently investigate these baseless attacks, visit targeted locations, reveal the facts to the public, and take a true and strong stance on these attacks.”
"Masjedi submitted documents to the Iraqi foreign ministry officials proving that Israeli drones have flown from a mansion in Erbil and carried out attacks against a fleet of the IRGC" an Iraqi source close to both the Iranian and Iraqi officials told The New Arab, under a strict condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.
"Masjedi also mentioned some other suspected places in Erbil of harbouring Israeli activities and told Iraqi officials to warn the Kurdish authorities that Iran would attack those places within a month if the places would not be evacuated," the source added.
Political analysts, however, warn that while Israel’s attack may have triggered the strikes, the missiles were intended to convey a broader political message from Iran to Israel, the US, the Kurdish authorities as well as their allies in Iraq.
Iran’s slipping grip on Iraqi politics
Tehran’s assault comes at a time when Iraq’s political process is in stagnation and political factions have been unable to elect a president or form a new cabinet following last October’s parliamentary elections. Pro-Iran Shiite groups scored poorly in the election, leaving Iran deeply wary of a potential trilateral coalition among Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Arab Sunni factions headed by Iraq’s Speaker of Parliament Mohammad al-Halbusi, and Massaud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The coalition has repeatedly announced that it is seeking to form a “national unity” government, in a stern indication to side-line pro-Tehran Shiite parties and militias.
“The goal behind Iran’s missile attack on the IKR is clear. An alleged existence of Israeli headquarters in Erbil is just a pretext, because Iran could retaliate for the killing of its soldiers in Syria through ordering Lebanon’s Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks against Israel. Iran could also strike Israel from Syria,” Mohammad Amin Penjweni, a Kurdish political analyst told The New Arab.
“The core issue is that this attack by IRGC is a special message from Iran to the Kurds, the KRG, and mainly the KDP authorities in Erbil to withdraw from their coalition with Sadr and the Sunni Arabs. Tehran deems the alliance as a threat to its Shiite proxies, hence diminishing its influence and interests in Iraq,” Penjweni added.
“Secondly, Iran wants to convey a message to the KDP to stop their plans to export natural gas from Khor Mor and Chamchamal’s vast gas fields to Turkey,” Penjweni continued. “Iran is against such plans by the KDP, because if the Kurdish natural gas were to be exported to Turkey, Iran’s natural gas exports to Turkey and Iraq would be heavily damaged.”
Khor Mor and Chemchemal are two major oil and gas fields located west of Sulaimaniyah province, approximately 50km south-east of Kirkuk. Since 2007, UAE’s Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum have had an agreement with the KRG for exclusive rights to appraise, develop, produce, and sell hydrocarbons from the two fields.
In February, Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani met with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, and two days later, Erdogan announced that Turkey is in talks with Iraqi authorities to reach a deal to import Iraq’s natural gas, indicating that Barzani has promised to help facilitate the talks.
The Kurdistan region started selling its oil independently from Baghdad in 2014 via a pipeline that transports nearly 45,000 barrels of oil per day to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
"For Iraqi Kurds to avoid further escalations by Iran and its allies, they may need to reconsider their economic and political ties with Ankara and Tehran"
Last month, KRG struck a deal with the Iraqi Kurdish oil company Kar Group to build a new gas pipeline from Khor Mor and Chamchamal gas fields to Dohuk province, only 35km from the Turkish border. The project is seen as a step closer to exporting the region's gas to Turkey in the near future.
Shortly after, Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that a 2007 law that gave KRG autonomy over its energy sector is “unconstitutional”, and ordered the KRG to hand over its oil to the Iraqi federal government.
“The IKR gas project has been hastened as an alternative to the Russian gas flow to Europe in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. If the war prolongs, the possibilities of cutting off or damaging the Russian natural gas pipelines that pass through the Ukrainian territories remain at stake,” Penjweni explained.
"For Iraqi Kurds to void further escalations by Iran and its allies, they may need to reconsider their economic and political ties with Ankara and Tehran," Penjweni emphasised, adding that avoiding taking sides in regional conflicts would be most beneficial as a new hydrocarbon law is negotiated.
Asserting regional power
The political message conveyed by Iran’s attack on Erbil extends beyond Iraqi affairs and regional politics.
Ihssan al-Shmary, Head of the Centre for Political Thinking in Iraq and Professor at the University of Baghdad, told The New Arab that Iran’s retaliatory response against Israel is intended to showcase Tehran’s regional power, and “to warn Israel to stop in a certain boundary and refrain from trying to change its warfare principle with Tehran.”
As the nuclear deal talks continue amid strained relations between Iran and Western powers, “Iran is conveying a message to the Americans that in case the Vienna talks, aimed at restoring its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, collapse, American interests in the area could be targeted,” al-Shmary added.
"Iran is conveying a message to the Americans that in case the Vienna talks, aimed at restoring its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, collapse, American interests in the area could be targeted"
In attacking Erbil, Iran is hoping to convince top leaders of the ruling KDP in Erbil that the city would be at risk if they continue to form ties with powers that Tehran deems as its opponents.
“Tehran’s last message is that if the KDP continues its alliance with Sadr and Halbusi to form a new Iraqi cabinet excluding Tehran’s Shiite allies, the cost would be very expensive,” al-Shmary said.
Despite what happened in Erbil, the triple alliance of Sadr-Halbusi-Barzani may withhold, al-Shmary concluded, but he anticipated that they would seek "a new approach" on how to form the new Iraqi government in the wake of Iran’s blatant warnings.
Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's correspondent in the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.
Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy