What is the point of Iran striking Iraq and Syria, and what's next?

What is the point of Iran striking Iraq and Syria, and what's next?
While not the first instance of the IRGC striking outside Iran's territory, the intensity, targets, and timing of these attacks prompted broad scrutiny.
7 min read
06 February, 2024
People attend the funeral ceremony held for members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) killed in an Israeli attack on Damascus, in Mahallati district of Tehran, Iran on 22 January 2024. [Getty]

Amid Israel's ongoing war on Gaza, which has claimed over 27,400 lives, tensions in the region have rapidly escalated with multiple attacks by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on targets in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, Iranian-backed groups carried out a deadly drone attack on US troops in Jordan.

The tit-for-tat strikes between Iraqi paramilitaries and US forces have persisted since October when groups labelled by Iranian officials as "the Axis of Resistance" in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen declared their support for Palestinians in the Gaza war.

However, the heightened intensity of recent US forces' retaliatory strikes on 85 targets in Iraq and Syria raised concerns about the escalating risk of a broader military confrontation between Iran and the US. Analysts suggest that one of the factors for the mounting tensions is the mid-January IRGC attacks on targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria.

While not the first instance of the IRGC striking outside Iran's territory, the intensity, targets, and timing of these attacks prompted scrutiny of Tehran's objectives and potential miscalculations by IRGC commanders regarding the likely responses.

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Targets and motivations in Iraq and Syria

In the first minutes of Tuesday, 16 January, the IRGC hit northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region and the Idlib province in Syria with multiple ballistic missiles, saying the attacks were aimed at "destroying the bases of the Israeli intelligence service" in Kurdistan and ISIS in Syria.

Over the past eight years, the IRGC targeted Iraq and Kurdistan seven times, with the response limited to condemnations and expressions of anger from Iraqi officials. Even in 2020, when the IRGC struck the US military base Ain al-Assad with ballistic missiles, it did not spark a severe political dispute between Tehran and Baghdad.

However, in a departure from previous reactions, Iran faced a distinct response this time as Iraq elevated the matter to the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, Iranian analysts suggested that goals other than retaliation for the assassination of IRGC's commanders in Syria and the terrorist attack in the city of Kerman in central Iran motivated the IRGC's attacks on Iraq and Syria.

These analyses were based on information released by the IRGC, indicating that Iran hit targets in Iraq from its missile sites in Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan provinces. The attacks on Syria's Idlib were conducted from Khuzestan province using Kheibar Shekan missiles.

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Mohammad Saadatmand, an analyst affiliated with the establishment, highlighted that choosing Khuzestan to launch the attack aimed to increase the distance between the target and the missile site as a show of power.

"The terrorists' headquarters in Idlib, Syria, were deliberately targeted from the south of Khuzestan. Although the distance would have been shorter if launched from Kermanshah or West Azerbaijan, the choice of this range was carefully calculated and holds significance, aligning with the minimum range required for an Iranian missile, nearly equivalent to 1200 km, to hit Israel," he suggested.

Other experts emphasised that on 16 January, the IRGC, for the first time, simultaneously hit multiple targets in two different countries, showcasing its capabilities to engage on various fronts.

Amin Sobhi, a conservative journalist, highlighted this aspect of the missile attacks in an editorial for the establishment's Jam-e Jam daily, labelling the attack a demonstration of "Iran's missile empire."

"[The attacks] had a distinct feature. In this operation, two different positions in two different geographies were hit by a missile attack for the first time, targeting positions of ISIS and the Zionists simultaneously," he wrote.

Meanwhile, on the opposition's side, Jyar Gol, a veteran war correspondent for BBC Persian, suggested that hitting the Pishro Dizaei, an Iraqi businessman's house near the US military bases in Erbil, Kurdish region, with precise missiles was a message to Washington, indicating that Tehran could target their bases if necessary.

"Using four missiles for the precision strike on Mr Dizaei's residence, located just a few kilometres from the US base in Erbil, serves as a deliberate message to the United States. It aims to highlight the accuracy of these missiles and underscore that, if deemed necessary, Iran possesses the capability to target similar locations," he wrote.

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Miscalculation or high confidence

Following missile strikes in Iraq and Syria, the IRGC targeted two sites in Pakistan, asserting that the attacks were aimed at groups responsible for the terrorist incidents in Kerman, Iran, on 3 January.

This move sparked widespread concern and scrutiny when Tehran sought to enhance political ties with Islamabad.

Mohammad Vaziri, a seasoned analyst on Iran-Pakistan relations, believed these attacks served a domestic purpose for Iran, attempting to convince the public that it had taken necessary measures to retaliate against the Kerman attacks, even at the cost of casting shadows on the two countries' relations.

"These attacks, especially the one on Pakistan, create new and potentially troublesome tensions. It's a gamble whose results may not align with the intended purpose by the designers of these attacks," he stressed.

Vasari's prediction materialised as, within 48 hours, Pakistan launched retaliatory strikes into an Iranian town near the border, resulting in nine casualties. The aftermath made it clear that Iran did not seek an escalation of tension with Pakistan.

Nevertheless, both countries summoned each other's diplomats, releasing statements condemning the attacks. To prevent further tensions, the foreign ministers of both countries held phone meetings, and on Monday, they announced that by week's end, the countries' ambassadors would return to their respective missions.

Despite the swift reduction of tensions, the attacks on Pakistan faced unprecedented criticism domestically. Even official outlets, typically supportive of the IRGC, warned the establishment about the consequences of attacking neighbouring countries.

Pir Mohammad Mollazehi, a prominent Iranian analyst with extensive knowledge of Iran's relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, strongly cautioned against the attacks, stressing potential damage to Iran's regional diplomacy.

"It is doubtful that the [IRGC's] goal to force Pakistan to prevent terrorist groups from entering Iran's Baluchistan has been met. The two countries share a long border, and the Baluch people live on both sides of it. Baluch people feel religious discrimination in Iran and economic and social discrimination in Pakistan," he said.

Mollazehi, in a carefully crafted criticism of the IRGC's attacks, undermined the elite group's top commanders' strategy of showcasing authority to neighbouring countries and global powers to create a balance of military capabilities and increase deterrence.

"What happens on the ground shows that the mentioned strategy is not completely consistent with reality… If we have a real assessment, it does not seem that these operations have changed the balance of power in favour of Iran. Rather, we are witnessing the opposite trend of this claim," he concluded.

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Need for direct Iran-US talks

Two weeks after experts issued warnings of a large-scale military confrontation, it is now evident that Iran's establishment decided to step back from its aggressive strategy, seeking to control escalating tensions following the 3 February retaliatory attacks by the US.

Unofficial reports suggested that last week, IRGC's Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani visited Baghdad to persuade commanders of Iraqi militia groups to decrease the intensity of their attacks on US bases in Iraq.

However, Iranian experts, including Abolfazl Fateh, argue that the confrontations between Tehran and Washington have entered a critical phase, necessitating direct talks between the two countries to halt the risk of a more extensive military campaign.

Fateh cautioned that Israel would be the sole beneficiary of additional retaliatory attacks in the Middle East, asserting that such confrontations could undermine a potential ceasefire in Gaza.

"Now that there is hope for a potential ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, any resolution could be jeopardised by a conflict between Iran and the United States," he stressed.

Fateh also added that a broader regional conflict would divert the international community's focus from the war in Gaza and called for direct talks between Iran and the US.

"This situation will serve Israel's interests by diverting attention away from its military challenges in the war and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. So direct and immediate talks to control the tensions would be a long-term win for Iran and the US," he concluded.