Iran's Strategic Offensive in Iraq
In recent months, the Iranian regime has reinvigorated its use of hard and soft power tactics in Iraq as a means to undermine the American presence in Iraq and exert greater influence over the Iraqi government’s policies. Through its actions Iran is demonstrating that it is willing and capable of both exploiting the Iraqi state and killing Americans.
Iranian proxy militias are regenerating their networks in Iraq and targeting American personnel. The Shi’a militias in Iraq supported and directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force—Kata’ib Hezbollah in particular, but also Asaib Ahl al Haq, and the Promised Day Brigades—are increasing both the level and sophistication of attacks. The militias have concentrated their attacks in Baghdad and southern Iraq using improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs) and explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs). On July 7, two American soldiers near Camp Victory in Baghdad were killed by an EFP, a signature weapon of Iranian-supported militias. Kata’ib Hezbollah claimed responsibility for a June 6 IRAM attack on a joint U.S.-Iraqi base in Baghdad, Camp Baladiyat (Loyalty), that killed 5 American soldiers. On June 29, an IRAM attack on a base in southern Wasit province bordering Iran killed 3 American soldiers. Kata’ib Hezbollah has previously been linked to the use of IRAMs in Iraq and has closer ties to Iran than the other Shi’a militias operating in Iraq. Forensic testing of recent bombs indicates that the weapons are in fact Iranian-made. These and other attacks killed more than a dozen Americans in June alone.
In response, 2,000 Iraqi police and soldiers launched an operation targeting Shi’a militia networks in Maysan province near the Iranian border. An Iraqi security official said the goal of the operation is to curb the flow of weapons that are being used in the attacks. U.S. Army Major General Jeffrey Buchanan has noted that the current operation is disrupting the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia networks. The Iraqi government launched a similar offensive—then backed by American forces—that cleared militia networks in neighboring Basra province in 2008. It is unclear if the Iraqi government can sustain this operation and even less clear that Iraqi forces alone will defeat these enemy networks with their existing capacity and capabilities.
Iranian-directed groups have escalated the violence ahead of the approaching December 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The timing of the attacks is not coincidental. Iran’s Qods Force has historically ramped up its operations inside Iraq in order to pressure Iraqi leaders during key decision points. This pattern suggests that the recent Iranian proxy attacks are, at least partly, intended to influence the potential renegotiation process for extending the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement beyond 2011. American military officials have assessed that the attacks are also intended to serve as a propaganda tool ahead of December. Gen. Buchannan said that Iranian proxy militias “are attempting to claim credit for driving US forces out of Iraq” by launching lethal attacks.
The Iranian regime is supplementing its military intervention with a concerted economic offensive. The head of the Iran-Iraq economic commission Hassan Kazemi Qom, himself a Qods Force member, announced on July 6 a goal of increasing trade between the two countries, particularly in the energy sector, from $6 billion to more than $20 billion in the next five years. The announcement followed the visit to Baghdad of a large delegation of Iranian businesses led by Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, and the signing of a pipeline deal that will supply Iraqi power plants in Sadr City and other areas of Baghdad with Iranian gas. Iranian officials are also building ties with Iraqi officials at the local level. Iran’s Khuzestan province governor Seyyed Jafar Hejazi hosted the Iraqi governor of Maysan province, Ali Dwai, for a three-day visit in June to discuss economic ties between the neighboring border provinces. Dwai, allied with the anti-American Sadrist coalition, has, at a minimum, ignored attacks against U.S. forces in the province and has sought to actively undermine the American presence there. The Qods Force itself is also generating local funds for its activities through businesses established in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala. These activities will over time increase Iraq’s dependency on Iran and provide greater points of leverage for the Iranian regime to manipulate.
Iran’s so-called supreme leader Ali Khamenei said in a June meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani that “nations should take advantage of "the current state of U.S. policy in the region. In Iraq, the Iranian regime’s roadmap to take advantage of the absence of a credible, long-term American commitment is clear: to kill a greater number of Americans and undermine American influence; to prevent the emergence of a strong and independent Iraq; and to bind Iraq ever more closely to itself in ways that over time can hold Iraq hostage to the Iranian agenda. Failing to counter this Iranian offensive, and the broader threat that Iran poses, will do great harm to American and Iraqi security and regional interests.