Aug 3, 2022 - Press ISW

Zachary Coles and Nicholas Carl

[Notice: ISW and AEI’s Critical Threats Project frequently cite sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

Iran may direct its proxies to attack American and partner targets in the Middle East in the coming weeks. Iranian proxy group Ashab al Kahf accused NATO, the UK, and the US of stoking political tensions in Iraq on August 1 and vowed to attack their embassies and military bases in Iraq, Syria, and possibly Jordan. Ashab al Kahf is likely a front group for Iranian proxy Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH) and possibly other Iranian-backed militias. AAH has likely claimed attacks on US and Turkish military bases under the name Ashab al Kahf since 2019 to generate deniability for its actions. Iranian proxies in Iraq frequently claim attacks under such front groups to complicate attribution and obfuscate their responsibility.

Iran and its proxies are responding to a growing political crisis in Baghdad that they have also been fueling. Tensions have mounted between the Shia Coordination Framework—the umbrella coalition for Iranian-backed parties in the Iraqi parliament—and Iraqi nationalist Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr over the Iraqi government formation process. Sadr has mobilized his supporters to pressure the Coordination Framework to accept unspecified changes to the Iraqi constitution and political structure. He ordered his supporters to storm Baghdad’s fortified international and government district, the Green Zone, which they did on July 27 and 30, and occupy the parliament until the Coordination Framework meets his demands. A senior Sadrist official who is viewed in Iraq as speaking on behalf of Sadr instructed the supporters to leave the parliament and occupy the areas surrounding it on August 2. The supporters will hold a rally on August 5, during which Sadr may mobilize further protests against the Coordination Framework.

Iran and its political proxies in the Coordination Framework have failed to respond cohesively to Sadr thus far. The Coordination Framework *called for counterprotests on July 30. Senior militia and political leaders in the group responded to the call, publicly *objecting to the protests and denying they were aware of the planned demonstrations. This inconsistent messaging highlights serious divisions in the Coordination Framework and the inability of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force to unite the parties. IRGC Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani *traveled to Baghdad on July 27 to deescalate tensions but reportedly (and evidently) failed.

Ghaani likely seeks to achieve at least four objectives in attacking US and partner forces:

  1. Unify Iranian-backed political parties by rallying them around attacking the US and its partners. Ghaani is likely trying to reassert Iranian control over the Coordination Framework and unite its constituents cohesively against Sadr. IRGC-affiliated media outlets and proxy Telegram channels *have begun accusing Israel, Jordan, NATO, the US, and the UK of causing the instability in Iraq. Ghaani likely seeks to use this narrative and proxy attacks against the US and its partners to cohere the Coordination Framework under Iranian direction against external enemies. He likely expects to use this increased cohesion to push back against Sadr more effectively.
  2. Pressure American political leadership to withdraw US forces from the region. Expelling the US from the Middle East is an explicit and fundamental goal of Iran. Iranian leaders have reiterated their commitment to this goal frequently—most recently at the *tripartite meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on July 19. The IRGC and its proxies have attacked and threatened US positions in Iraq and Syria in recent years as part of this effort to drive the US from the region. Iranian officials likely calculate that the US may withdraw if they kill enough Americans and raise the cost of maintaining the US presence in the region without sparking a larger conflict. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan likely reinforced this long-standing Iranian expectation.
  3. Contain Turkey. Ashab al Kahf was likely referencing Turkey in addition to the US and UK when it condemned NATO’s role in driving instability in Iraq. Iran has directed a proxy military campaign to contain growing Turkish economic, political, and security influence in Iraq since 2021. Iranian-backed militias have conducted drone and rocket attacks against Turkish military positions in northern Iraq to this end. The IRGC has co-opted anti-Turkey sentiments in Iraq to facilitate cooperation among Iranian-backed militias and may use the political crisis to promote further cooperation against Ankara. Likely Iranian proxies most recently conducted an artillery attack against Turkish forces in northern Iraq on August 1, 2022.
  4. Pressure Sadr to support or at least work with the Coordination Framework against the US or Turkey. The Iranian proxies may seek to goad the US or Turkey into retaliating against them for attacking American or Turkish forces. The Iraqi political establishment has historically united in response to major American and Turkish strikes in Iraqi territory. The Coordination Framework could co-opt an escalation with the US or Turkey to pressure Sadr to support them against external enemies. Opposition to foreign involvement in Iraq is central to Sadr’s political platform. Pressuring Sadr to support the Iranian proxies could defuse the mounting tensions between Sadr and the Coordination Framework. Furthermore, the Coordination Framework taking the lead attacking the US and Turkey could embarrass or weaken Sadr among at least some of his more extreme (and often armed) supporters, depriving him of some political momentum and forcing him to respond defensively.

The Biden administration must deter this possible Iranian escalation lest it lead to attacks on US or Turkish personnel or spark a larger conflict. The US must make clear that it will hold Tehran directly accountable for proxy attacks and must not allow the fear of derailing—or being blamed for derailing—the Vienna nuclear talks to prevent it from taking the necessary measures to protect its forces in the region, continuing to fight the Islamic State, and working with US allies. If deterrence fails and Iranian proxies attack, the US must respond in a way that deters or disrupts Iranian inclinations and efforts to escalate further.

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