As US containment efforts press ahead at full speed, the Iranian government continues to counter with thinly veiled threats against US interests in the region. First it was the Strait of Hormuz, followed by promises of an upsurge of assistance to the Syrian government in its campaign against western-backed rebel militias. Now, Iran is placing ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq controlled by its Shiite proxies, and is developing its ability to manufacture more missiles there. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is well established in these areas, and has overseen the program since it began roughly three months ago. Iranian officials have stated off the record that the purpose of the missile placement is to serve as a hedge against any attacks against their country. Nominally, control of the missiles will be placed in the hands of the IRGC, with the Shiite proxy groups having limited involvement. In the event of heightened tension, or a crisis, however, all of this could change if Iran does start to assist the Shiite proxy groups with constructing their own missiles.
Iran has provided ballistic missiles for the Houthi rebels, their proxy group in Yemen. The Houthis periodically launch missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been targeted most frequently, though the Houthi attacks against the Saudi capital have caused only minimal damage, and disruption. By putting a similar capability in the hands of Shiite proxies inside of Iraq, the Iranians are extending the range of its shorter-range ballistic missiles to include Israel.
Along with acting as a deterrent, these missiles could also be used in attacks aimed at destabilizing the region, or damaging US actions aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The aggressive missile policy runs the risk of pushing tensions between Washington and Tehran even higher. August has seen a sharp rise in the language, and actions of the actors involved in the Iran drama. Unfortunately, based on the way things look now on the first day of September, there does not appear to be any signs of de-escalation in the near future.
The Israeli government admitted it was responsible for a 2007 airstrike on a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria capable of producing weapons grade material. The attack was launched on 6 September, 2007. Eight Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra’am multirole fighters (essentially F-15E Strike Eagles) struck the reactor located in the Deir ez-Zor region and destroyed it completely. The nuclear facility was under construction when it was hit. A number of North Korean technicians and workers were among the casualties. North Korea and Iran were working with Syria to build the facility. There was widespread speculation at the time that Iran and North Korea helped to fund and construct the site in order to use it to produce weapons grade material in the future should their own facilities become unavailable. In the aftermath of the strike, Syria, Israel, and every other nation in the region kept quiet publicly about what had actually been hit. The truth was known, however, in capital cities from the Middle East to Washington DC and beyond. President George W Bush even mentioned the attack in his memoirs released in 2010.
Israel chose now to release the details about Operation Outside the Box, as it was officially know, to serve as a shot across Iran’s bow. Tel Aviv wants Tehran to know that Israel is willing and able to use force in order to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. The 2007 strike against the Syrian site, as well as the 1981 Osirak raid, serve as proof of the Israeli government’s commitment to the Begin Doctrine. Iran’s continuing quest to gain influence in Syria, coupled with last month’s Israeli military action against Iranian targets inside of Syria have made Israel reconsider whether or not Iran will abide by the boundaries that are currently in place to prevent armed conflict between the two nations.
Israel’s other motivation for releasing details about its 2007 action could be the increasing possibility of the United States walking away from the Iran nuclear deal entirely. At present, efforts to revamp the deal are underway, however, it appears unlikely a middle ground will be reached by US and European officials. In the event of the deal being scrapped, Israel is concerned with how Iran will respond. Reminding Tehran of Israel’s willingness to use force against its enemies nuclear ambitions may help deter Iran from resuming its nuclear program…..assuming they even stopped it in the first place.
The protests going on in Tehran have surprised much of the world, and appear to have caught the Iranian government flatfooted. This round of protests has not stemmed from the questionable results of a presidential election, as the 2009 protests and subsequent Green movement did. This time around the grievances are economic in nature. Rampant corruption, and a declining standard of living are the causes that have brought Iranian citizens out to protest the government. The regime is likely to come down hard on the protesters. Security forces have been clashing with students around Tehran University and other parts of the capital. Those protests are expanding across the country right now. Where it goes from here remains to be seen, however, this challenge to the Iranian government is not likely to evaporate quickly.
The Trump administration warned Iranian leaders last night that the world is watching events unfold. It is unlikely that Iran’s government will pay heed to the US comments. They have already been labeled as ‘opportunistic’ in government statements. Iran has enough problems to deal with in the streets at the moment, though it would be useful to consider what, if any, impact the protests will have on Tehran’s ventures abroad. From its involvement in Syria and Yemen, to the regional confrontation with Saudi Arabia, Iran has been very active. Will that continue to be the case if the internal situation at home deteriorates?
Following the Kurdish independence referendum last month it was expected that a subsequent clash between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments would likely take place in or around Kirkuk. The Iraqi government does not consider the oil-rich city to be part of the autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government has a different take entirely on the matter and Kurdish voters in Kirkuk were allowed to take part in the referendum.
On Monday, the confrontation materialized when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk and, according to Iraqi government statements, seized key objectives from Kurdish forces including K-1 Air Base, and the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field. Reports of clashes between Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga troops conflicted with official Iraqi claims about the Peshmerga withdrawing from Kirkuk without fighting.
The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed and ISIS was seizing control of vast stretches of Iraqi territory. With Iraqi forces back in Kirkuk it would appear that Kurdish dreams of an independent state in northern Iraq are all but dead. Not that there was ever going to be a realistic chance for a Kurdish nation-state to be formed. Iraq was having none of that. Fearful that the referendum by the Kurds would be the first step towards an eventual breakup of Iraq, Baghdad has moved decisively to prevent that from happening.
The United States, close allies with the Kurds, as well as Iraq, played no role in the Kirkuk operation. There is still lingering anger over Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, refusing the US offer to preside over negotiations with Baghdad if the Kurds called off the referendum. Washington continues to sit quietly and do nothing, allowing Barzani’s political situation to deteriorate. There is some desire within the Beltway to hasten his political demise, and officially end the Barzani era in Kurdistan. From the State Department to the Pentagon and Langley, more influential voices are coming around to the notion that Kurdistan’s future will be better without Barzani in control.
On Monday, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum on an independent Kurdish state. The official results will not be revealed until later in the week, but a vote in favor of independence is expected. For ethnic Kurds, Monday was a historic day and a step closer to achieving their long sought after goal of forming an independent state out of the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.
Regional, and international reactions to the referendum were generally negative. The nations surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan have rejected the vote and are notably wary of the consequences it could bring. For Iraq, the vote could mean a redrawing of its borders and a redistribution of the nation’s oil wealth. Iran and Turkey are concerned that the vote will inspire their own Kurdish populations to demand more autonomy, something that neither nation is willing to consider. Regional concerns have been paired with saber-rattling from neighboring nations. Today, Iraqi and Turkish forces are staging joint exercises on their shared border. Iran has also held exercises on its border with Iraq and closed off its airspace to aircraft traveling to and from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at the Kurds, warning them that they are risking an ethnic war. He stated that economic sanctions and military action are both possible responses to the referendum. Turkey considers this a national security threat. Ankara has had problems with its own Kurdish population and, like Iran, fears this vote will embolden its own Kurds. Iraq is not thrilled either, as mentioned above. Yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the vote unconstitutional, and ruled out talks on the referendum results with the Kurds.
The United Nations has also taken note of the potential fallout the vote might bring. Secretary General António Guterres warned of the ‘destabilizing effects’ that could result from it. Even the United States could not abstain from voicing its disappointment, voicing its own concerns about the instability that the Kurdish referendum could bring to a region that is already a powder keg.