Middle East

“Exporting its internal problems”: Understanding Iran’s January missile salvos against its neighbors


In mid-January, with the war in Gaza continuing to rage on, Iran launched a series of surprise missile attacks on its immediate neighbors Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan over two days. The Iranian salvos were motivated by a combination of domestic and regional factors. Taken together, these attacks illustrate that the Islamic Republic puts regime survival above national interest in its foreign policy calculations, which undermines its efforts to engender solidarity and good relations with other Muslim-majority states in the region.

Iran’s attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria’s Idlib

On Jan. 15, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired missiles at targets in Iraq (Erbil) and Syria (Idlib, an anti-Assad regime stronghold). Tehran claimed that in Iraq, the targets were a local Mossad headquarters and a meeting of an anti-Iranian terrorist group, while in Syria, the strikes were directed at the Islamic State.

Iran launched two dozen missiles at Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), killing half a dozen civilians, including a prominent Kurdish businessman alongside his family as well as nationals from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The Islamic Republic attempted to portray the attack as revenge against the Israeli government and Sunni terrorist groups, accusing the former of killing Iranian IRGC generals in Syria and the latter of allegedly attacking Iranian citizens on the fourth anniversary of Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s death in his hometown of Kerman earlier this year.

In the aftermath of the strikes, the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency published interviews with families of those killed in Kerman, who expressed satisfaction with the IRGC’s attacks. Additionally, Fars conducted street interviews under the title “We thank the green-clothed IRGC.” Meanwhile, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former IRGC general and the current speaker of Iran’s parliament, asserted, “All [foreign] powers saw that if they make a mistake and cause damage to our people and country, it is enough for us to slightly change the angle of our missiles, and they will witness the power of the Islamic Republic.”

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Davos Jan. 15–19, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian claimed, “We hit a Mossad base in one spot in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and we hit it with precision missiles. This does not mean we hit and targeted Iraq, we targeted Israel, which remains a common enemy for the both of us.” However, in a CNN interview, also conducted on the sidelines of the WEF, Iraq’s Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Fouad Hussein, an Iraqi-Kurdish politician from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, rejected Iran’s claims as baseless and condemned the missile attack on Erbil, calling it a “violation of international law.” He pledged to bring the case before the United Nations Security Council, predicting “huge support for the Iraqi position against Iran.” He noted that his country, long a site of confrontation between Iran and the United States, has now also become one between Iran and Israel. As Iran “cannot or does not want to attack Israel [directly], they [the Iranians] are searching for victims around them” and thus had lashed out at Erbil. He concluded that Iran “attempt[ed] to export its internal problems” by attacking Iraq.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Hussein suggested a turning point in Iraq’s relations with Iran: “In the past, Iraq supported Iran diplomatically, working to improve its relations with Arab and European countries and the U.S. … Now, Iran’s attack on Iraq, its ally, is a strategic mistake that will likely be realized over time. … Iranians targeted the militarily weaker link, Iraq, their friend, rather than confronting their enemy directly.”

Following the attack, Iraq summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Baghdad and ordered its ambassador to Iran to return. The Arab League adopted a resolution condemning the Iranian aggression as a blatant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and holding Tehran accountable for the consequences. Additionally, in reaction to the Iranian strike, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani canceled their scheduled meetings with Amir-Abdollahian on the sidelines of the WEF. 

Implications: Souring relations with a friendly state

Despite the rationalizations provided by officials in Tehran, the Iranian missile attacks on Erbil and Idlib can primarily be attributed to domestic motivations. The Iranian regime, facing substantial pressure from its supporters who have demanded revenge in recent months, appears to have responded to these calls. Israel’s targeting of Iranian assets in Syria, including the killing of high-ranking IRGC generals in recent weeks (above all its highest-ranking one there, Razi Mousavi), had increased pressure on the Islamic Republic’s credibility and prestige among its remaining hardline social base. The regime repeatedly vowed revenge but, until Erbil and Idlib, had yet to take significant action.

The Islamic Republic likely saw the missile attacks as necessary to appease its supporters ahead of the upcoming March 1 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, especially given their frustration over Iran’s reluctance to directly confront Israel or the US. The regime could be using the attacks to galvanize its disillusioned supporters, encouraging them to come out and vote amid fears of a repeat of the historically low turnout seen in recent elections.

From a strategic perspective, Iran may have also sought to send a warning to its enemies by showcasing the capabilities of its missile systems, which targeted locations up to 1,200 kilometers away. Likewise, by choosing targets in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, Iran likely calculated that its retaliatory strikes would carry minimal risks and avoid significant consequences.

Iran’s clear preference for operations that are perceived as safe and have a low risk of provoking a strong response or escalating into war is expected to continue. Similar such attacks are likely in the future, especially if the Islamic Republic faces increased domestic and international pressure.

Yet as the reactions from Iraq — heretofore regarded as pro-Iranian — demonstrate, Iran’s unprovoked missile attacks can severely sour relations with its neighbors. If not representing a turning point in bilateral ties, Iran’s attacks, which killed civilians in Erbil, have surely damaged Tehran’s political standing in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iran’s attacks against Idlib were portrayed as having targeted ISIS. However, the White Helmets reported that Iran struck an unutilized medical facility in Telteita, Idlib. Some sources are also skeptical of Iranian media reports claiming the missiles were launched from Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province, speculating instead that they originated from Iranian bases along the Syrian coast to the west or from the outskirts of Aleppo, to the southeast. In any case, the missile strike on Idlib served a dual purpose: to signal Iranian military escalation capabilities to Israel and the US as well as to retaliate against recent Syrian opposition attacks on Iranian-backed militia sites in opposition-held northwestern Syria. Indeed, this Syrian city, an anti-Assad stronghold, had in the recent past been bombed by both Assad’s and Russia’s forces.

Iranian and Pakistani attacks on Baluchis: A pre-arranged, coordinated move or a strategic mistake?

On Jan. 16, a day after the Erbil and Idlib strikes, Iran unexpectedly launched missiles against targets in Pakistan, killing at least two children. Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said his country had only hit Iranian “terrorists” on Pakistani soil and that “none of the nationals of the friendly country of Pakistan were targeted by missiles and drones of Iran.” Tehran identified the targets as being from Jaish al-Adl (“Army of Justice”), which it recognizes as a terrorist group and accuses of killing 11 Iranian security forces and IRGC officers in a mid-December 2023 attack in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan province. In response, Islamabad condemned the Iranian attack on its soil as “illegal” and warned of “serious consequences.”

Pakistan then carried out its own airstrikes, on Jan. 19, against alleged militant hideouts in Saravan, in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, near the Pakistani border. The attacks killed nine people, including three women and four children who were not Iranian nationals, according to Iranian state TV. In fact, Islamabad used Tehran’s same justification for its actions — i.e., emphasizing respect for Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity but explaining that the targets were terrorists inside Iran who promoted separatism in Pakistan. Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, for his part, described the incidents in Saravan as “explosions,” not “attacks.” Meanwhile, on social media, a Baluchi activist from Iran criticized Tehran’s official downplaying of Pakistan’s attack that had, according to him, hit residential homes and caused a lot of damage. Both states have long discriminated against the Baluchi people, whom they tend to connect to terrorism and separatism.

Following Pakistan’s response, Iranian pro-regime social media accounts, including a reporter from state-owned TV, implied that Iran and Pakistan had informed each other prior to their respective attacks. And just before Pakistan carried out its airstrikes, Hossein Shariatmadari, a representative of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at the ultra-conservative daily Kayhan and the paper’s managing editor, wrote that Pakistan should be grateful to the IRGC for targeting terrorists on its soil. He argued that such Iranian actions align with Islamabad’s own interests.

In fact, on the same day Iran launched the attack against Pakistan, both states were simultaneously engaged in collaborative naval activities in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. Additionally, a few hours prior to the Iranian offensive, Iran’s foreign ministry shared pictures depicting Amir-Abdollahian exchanging greetings with Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar, during the WEF. The long-standing bilateral ties, combined with anonymous Telegram messages reviewed by Al Jazeera and claimed to originate from sources close to the IRGC, have sparked speculation that the attacks might have been pre-arranged and potentially coordinated. Some of the Telegram messages suggest that the assaults were initially scheduled for the preceding week.

Implications: Tehran and Islamabad’s short-lived exchange of fire amid Iranian hubris

Despite the above-mentioned possibility that the attacks could have been jointly coordinated beforehand, a contrary interpretation suggests the recent attack by Iran against Pakistan was unexpected, given the two countries’ generally positive relationship and Pakistan’s robust military capabilities, including nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, domestic and international pressures may have encouraged the Iranian regime to select targets inside of Pakistan as a strategic move to project power, and the ongoing political instability in Pakistan may have given the IRGC the confidence to carry out the missile attack.

A key explanatory factor in this scenario is the perception of Iranian leaders. They apparently believe that Iran has developed such strong deterrent power that no country would dare to directly attack it. This belief might stem from Iran’s involvement in various escalations in the Middle East, where despite provocations against the interests of the US and Israel, these countries refrained from direct military action inside of Iran. The attack on Pakistan seems to have been carried out under such a perception of invincibility.

However, Pakistan’s retaliatory response shattered this belief, challenging the Iranian leadership’s assumptions. It appears that the Iranian regime did not anticipate that Pakistan would respond militarily. This situation, exposing the limitations of Iran’s deterrence and defense systems, is likely to increase security concerns for the Iranian leadership.

Efforts to manage domestic concerns stemming from this interpretation of events may also explain why pro-regime accounts have circulated narratives suggesting Pakistan and Iran shared information with one another before carrying out their respective attacks. Rather than reflecting reality, this narrative seems to be a strategic effort to divert attention from the regime’s vulnerability, particularly since the IRGC has long boasted about its deterrence capabilities. The promotion of this narrative could be an attempt to maintain public confidence in the regime’s military strength and strategic acumen.

Last but not least, both Iran’s and Pakistan’s official justification for their respective attacks shows the two states’ distaste for the Baluchi people, whom they tend to connect to terrorism and separatism. In reality, this particular population group suffers from discrimination and neglect in both countries.

Last but not least, Tehran’s attacks have led to newfound Pakistani distrust, from the populace all the way to military circles, who ask why a fellow Islamic and friendly country like the Islamic Republic of Iran had conducted the strike in the first place. This is likely to tarnish Iran’s image in the country, potentially impacting future bilateral ties, or at least their pace or depth.

Conclusion

Iran’s surprising series of missile barrages against its immediate neighbors, particularly those aimed at Iraq and Pakistan, provides at least two important insights. First, it reveals how the actions of the Islamic Republic, especially in the context of the Gaza war, are driven by regime-specific concerns about its image and stability in the eyes of its domestic and regional supporters, who are frustrated over the wide gulf that exists between the Islamic Republic’s fervent rhetoric of “resistance” and its apparent failure to directly confront Israel or the US — especially after the latter two eliminated important pro-Iranian figures across the region since Oct. 7. Furthermore, such Iranian actions are taken in disregard to other diplomatic and political risks and costs, even involving friends Tehran considers important for its geopolitical security. In other words, these developments suggest that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy clearly values regime interests over national ones. As such, it is necessary to look beyond the official justifications provided by Tehran, which have been barely questioned. So while Iran’s narrative of fighting terrorism sits well with some in the Western world and beyond, paying attention to the vulnerabilities and insecurities of the Iranian regime is indispensable for a sober analysis of its foreign conduct and actions.

Second, and connected to the first point, last month’s series of missile strikes, which notably killed foreign civilians, dramatically challenged the Islamic Republic’s self-portrayal as a stability-preserving state at peace with its Muslim-majority neighbors. Even to its “friendly” neighbors, the Islamic Republic has come to embody a much less reliable if not risky actor: one that is apparently ready to further destabilize a region already mired in war and turmoil if its regime interests so dictate.

 

Dr. Ali Fathollah-Nejad is Founder and Director of the Center for Middle East and Global Order (CMEG). He is the author of, most recently, The Islamic Republic in Existential Crisis: The Need for a Paradigm Shift in the EU’s Iran Policy (2023, European Union Institute for Security Studies, Chaillot Paper) and the much-acclaimed book Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani (2021, Palgrave). You can follow him on X @AFathollahNejad. 

Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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