Iranian Airstrikes in Iraq Are a Warning and a Sign of Progress

Iran’s small airstrike against DA’SH (or ISIS or ISIL) targets in eastern Iraq was probably meant as a warning to the Iraqi government. As is so often the case, we have zero reliable information regarding Iran’s actual intentions, but the circumstantial evidence is strong in this instance.

Although it is possible that the Iranians had a military rationale, it is not obvious to say the least. In fact, the strike appears to make little military sense. According to news accounts, four Iranian F-4s flew 8 strike sorties against targets in eastern Diyala province and attacked DA’SH units. The F-4 is a 1960s aircraft and Iran’s are barely operable. What’s more, Iranian pilots never showed much capacity to inflict real damage on enemy ground forces, let alone to hit small, point targets. In September 1980, at a time when the Iranian Air Force was far more capable, a 4-ship raid by F-4s barely scratched Iraq’s Osiraq reactor (which was destroyed by Israeli airstrike the following year). And throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian air strikes accomplished little against Iraqi ground forces or military facilities.

In the past, if Iran needed to take out a similar target, it would typically rely on ground forces to do so. In Iraq, Iran has employed combinations of its own Quds forces, Lebanese Hezballah and Iraqi Shia militias to take down targets that Tehran saw as threatening or inconvenient. There is nothing to suggest that the DA’SH unit targeted last week was somehow more threatening or vulnerable to air attack, thereby requiring an air operation rather than Iran’s traditional preference for a ground operation. In short, there does not appear to have been any need or advantage to Iran for striking this target from the air.

Instead, it seems far more likely that the strike was conducted as a reminder and a warning to the Iraqi government and, in particular, to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. Abadi is a Shia Islamist from the Dawa party, like his predecessors Nuri al-Maliki and Ibrahim Jaafari. However, what many non-Iraqis miss is that all three of them, specifically including Abadi, are Iraqi nationalists deeply uncomfortable with Iran’s influence in Iraq. Although he was routinely dismissed as an Iranian puppet, Maliki himself loathed the Iranians, took pride in driving them from the country in 2008 and only grudgingly accepted their influence again when it became the only way for him to retain power in 2010, 2012 and again in 2014.

For his part, Abadi has done what he could to push back on Tehran. It is certainly true that he was forced to accept the Iranian loyalist, Muhammad Ghabban, as his Minister of the Interior, but the operative word in that clause is “forced.” And Abadi did successfully prevent Ghabban’s boss, Hadi al-Ameri, from taking the position. There are few Iraqi militia leaders more closely tied to Iran than al-Ameri and Abadi’s resistance may have been pyrrhic, but it was an important symbolic victory nonetheless — a deliberate effort by Abadi to limit Iranian influence in his cabinet.

Last month, Abadi also sacked 36 generals appointed by Maliki and appointed 18 others to replace them. According to U.S. military personnel, some of those sacked were Shia chauvinists believed to have had ties to Iran and nearly all of their replacements were considered competent, apolitical officers initially marked for promotion by the U.S. military during the American occupation of Iraq. While this is also only a small, symbolic move, it too was an important step on the road to rebuilding the modestly capable but apolitical Iraq military the United States left behind in 2011. It was that military that drove Iran’s proxies from Basra, Sadr City, Qurnah, Amarah, and elsewhere in southern Iraq in 2008. While the Iranian regime may recognize that these personnel moves are necessary if Iraq is going to defeat DA’SH and reunify the country — both important Iranian interests as well — Tehran may still be made uneasy by the rehabilitation of those officers. In that case, the return of thousands of American military advisors may also discomfit Tehran by rebuilding Washington’s influence at the expense of its own.

The greatest symbol of America’s return to Iraq in strength has been its air campaign against DA’SH, which has effectively halted its long run of conquests and started to pave the way for Iraqi forces to begin rolling back DA’SH’s gains. Unlike in Syria, Iraqis like to give credit to the American airstrikes for enabling the liberation of towns across northern, central and eastern Iraq. Again, the Iranians appear to regard the American air campaign as necessary to defeat DA’SH and restore Baghdad’s control over the country, but they doubtless regard it as a necessary evil.

Seen in this context, Iran’s small airstrike last week makes far more sense as a political warning than a military necessity. It is a reminder to Iraqis in general and Abadi in particular that Iran has not lost its influence to America. That Iran remains a great power in the region, able to wield air power, just like the Americans. It carps on Tehran’s longstanding theme that the Americans will eventually leave, but Iran will always be next door.

Finally, the air strike almost certainly was meant to play on Iraqi and Sunni Arab fears that the United States is secretly courting Tehran. By mounting air operations in the same air space in which the U.S. military is operating, the Iranians were probably sending a subtle signal to Baghdad, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and beyond that Washington won’t do anything about Iranian air operations because America seeks an Iranian alliance. This is a fear widespread among Iraqis and Sunni Arabs, one that was unfortunately given credence by President Obama’s ill-conceived letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei in which he suggested the possibility of a wider rapprochement between the United States and Iran in the wake of a nuclear deal.

All that said, it is worth noting that this analysis suggests that the Iranian airstrike is actually a sign of progress in Iraq. It reflects the numerous small but important steps that Prime Minister Abadi has managed to take in the last few months in the face of daunting challenges. He has formed a cabinet, defeated Iran’s most important choice for that cabinet, sacked many of the worst of Maliki’s generals, struck an oil deal with the Kurds, agreed to the formation of Sunni military units (to be trained and armed by the United States), and presided over a number of small military successes against DA’SH including the relief of the Bayji refinery after six months under siege. Again, all of these are small steps and even taken together they are no more than a start in defeating DA’SH and rebuilding a functional, independent Iraq. But they are important small steps in the right direction. It’s not surprising that even while the Iranians may welcome that in one respect, in another, it is probably making them a bit nervous too.