Blame Iran for Rocket Attacks in Iraq
Tehran is directly responsible for the violence carried out by its proxies and must be held accountable.
Iran-aligned groups are continuing to attack U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq, including an attack on March 3 that involved launching at least 10 rockets at a base housing military personnel and civilians; the most recent strike occurred on Monday.
The attacks come amid a series of other rocket attacks Iranian-backed militias have undertaken against U.S. personnel since U.S. President Joe Biden came into office, including a Feb. 15 attack on Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, that killed one civilian contractor and wounded nine others.
The Erbil attack was a major escalation and constituted the first serious attack by Iran-aligned groups under the Biden administration’s watch, one that 10 days later prompted the U.S. decision to strike the groups responsible for the attack in Syria, where they were also deployed to support the Bashar al-Assad regime.
One of the focal points of the debate over rocket attacks and other forms of aggression by Iran-aligned groups is whether they can be attributed to the Iranian regime, an attribution that could potentially shape the contours of U.S. engagement with Iran over the nuclear program and possible retaliatory responses (military and nonmilitary) against Tehran and its interests in the region. Iran has a long track record of creating and using militia groups to attack its rivals and relies on its proxies to diminish its culpability for atrocities committed and to create a degree of plausible deniability.
Although the U.S. government may have some difficulty establishing a precise chain of command that links the Iranian regime to these attacks, Iran’s involvement over the past four decades in creating, mobilizing, and managing the proxies undertaking these attacks to shape a favorable geopolitical environment indicates the regime is complicit and directly responsible.
Attribution matters: It allows governments and domestic and international courts to hold aggressors accountable and opens up opportunities for victim governments to solicit support from other states—and prevent or deter further attacks in the process. In the case of proxy warfare, attribution becomes complicated because of the involvement of armed nonstate actors, who tend to operate outside of the parameters of state institutions and escape the reach of laws and institutions that would otherwise hold them accountable for their crimes. It is precisely the complications and distortions of proxy warfare that state sponsors of armed groups bank on to escape any possible reprisal attacks and deny victims justice.
Attribution is more likely to be officially declared when it is politically expedient. Public opinion may demand reprisal attacks as might a key ally that is either directly or indirectly impacted. This does not necessarily mean the response has to involve the use of force; it can include other measures, such as the imposition of economic sanctions on aggressor states or ending diplomatic relations. However, in the case of Iran, the pressure to undertake military action is particularly high since Iran is already under sanctions (and has successfully circumvented and evaded them) and is effectively engaged in a tit-for-tat military conflict with the United States and its allies.
This has been made clear by U.S. and Israeli strikes on Iran and its allies in both Syria and Iraq in the past year and the U.S. assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani in January 2020. Iran does not rely on the same conventional measures to target its rivals but has used proxies to target U.S. and other Western personnel during the past two decades of conflict in the region, including conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. In addition to ongoing proxy attacks in Iraq, this has also included recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.
The Biden administration is currently focused on diplomatic efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program, which may make Washington less likely to attribute rocket and other attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel directly to the Iranian regime. It was particularly notable that in the aftermath of the Erbil attack, the administration announced it was leaving identifying the perpetrators to the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, which shifted the burden onto two vulnerable allies that may fall into the crosshairs of Iran-aligned groups if any such attribution to the Iranian regime is ever made publicly or formally.
In the absence of a security guarantee from the United States, Erbil and Baghdad are unlikely to publicly announce any such attribution. For weaker actors, overt attribution may turn them into sitting ducks and can be a life-or-death matter for their nationals, given the long-standing track record Iran’s allies in Iraq have for carrying out assassinations and sectarian atrocities.
But even when they choose to attribute blame, attribution in the context of proxy warfare faces a number of complexities. Armed groups that operate at the bidding of governments generally do so outside of the local institutional and legal context (in this case, the Iraqi state and its system of governance) as well as the external one (the Iranian state and its organs). In other words, the precise instructions and directions under which they operate is difficult, if not impossible, to completely identify—much less attribute to an official institution or state organ.
U.S. interrogation of Qais al-Khazali (the powerful head of Asaib ahl al-Haq, an Iraqi militia established, trained, and equipped by Iran) has produced files that provide some, albeit limited, insight into how Iran directs, trains, and communicates with its proxies. It indicates that communication between proxy and sponsor is often kept to a minimum or initiated through a very small group of individuals to minimize exposure and risk.
On this basis, it is illogical to impose a threshold for attribution that will rarely be satisfied, be abused and exploited by other nefarious actors, and will encourage states to further adopt Iran’s preferred method of warfare in the process. That said, the Iranian regime will be hard-pressed to dismiss suggestions that rocket attacks by its allies cannot be attributed directly to the regime: Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) directly established the groups that have attacked Iraqis, Americans, and Westerners over the past two decades.
It has historical, personalized, and ideological ties to these groups and continues to arm, train, and finance Iraqi Shiite militia groups that carry out systemic atrocities and near-daily attacks on both their rivals in Iraq and Western personnel currently in Iraq at the invitation of the Baghdad government.
Looking at the IRGC’s operational and ideological relationship with Iraq’s Asaib ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, along with a plethora of other rag-tag groups, while it is not entirely implausible that there are some operations these groups undertake independently, they are more likely to be the exception. Attacks on U.S. personnel and allies are unlikely to be carried out without prior approval from, or prior coordination with, Tehran.
The relationship these groups have with Tehran is not an ad hoc one; it has been ongoing since the inception of Iran’s founding in 1979 and is tied to the ideological essence and worldview of the country and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
U.S. courts found Iran to be complicit in terrorist attacks, such as the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, which was perpetrated by Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Together with the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, they constituted the first major contemporary suicide terrorist attacks. Members of Iraq’s Islamic Dawa Party—which was Iraq’s ruling party from 2006 to 2018—carried out suicide terrorist attacks in Kuwait in 1983, targeting the U.S. and French Embassies in an operation ordered and engineered by Iran and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah who was assassinated by the United States alongside Suleimani last year.
The IRGC’s leadership personally oversees and manages the development of these armed groups and operates sanctuaries in Iraq that are used to manufacture rockets and launch attacks. The operational expertise that Iran’s allies require and draw on in Iraq additionally needs to be combined with access to material support, including the sophisticated wherewithal, technical expertise, planning, and intelligence-gathering capabilities that normally lie within the purview of state actors. In other words, IRGC support is absolutely essential to their ability to carry out sustained attacks that are intertwined with broader strategic objectives aimed at directing the political and security environment in Iran’s favor.
On this basis, a strong argument can be made for treating Iran-aligned groups established, mobilized, and armed by the IRGC as de facto, if not official, organs of the Iranian state. These groups may have some autonomy, but their existence and ascendancy are tied to their relationships with the Iranian regime.
Iran can be held vicariously liable for the conduct of its proxies. The proof is also in the way the Biden administration is engaging with the threat of rocket attacks. If Washington, its European allies, and its regional allies did not actually believe these groups were de facto organs of the Iranian state, then they would not be so averse to targeting them militarily, and the issue would not be tied so deeply to wider negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran should not be allowed to use attacks on U.S., European, and Iraqi nationals as leverage for negotiations over the future of its nuclear program. Continuing to allow Iran to do so will result in further attacks that result in civilian casualties, undermine the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, and produce untold humanitarian crises. The Biden administration’s decision to strike Iran’s proxies in Syria was a measured response that ensures Iraq does not become engulfed in widespread violence and conflict, and it gives the Iraqi government a chance to strengthen the security institutions that may constrain the space in which Iran’s proxies operate.
Biden should continue to undertake proportionate strikes in response to further rocket attacks. However, it should not shift the burden of establishing attribution to the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, who would both become vulnerable to Iranian coercion and intimidation.
Relying on its own intelligence community and that in Erbil and Baghdad, the administration should not be averse to formally and categorically attributing attacks by Iran-aligned groups to the regime in Tehran. Doing so is an important first step toward diminishing the illusion that these groups and their conduct cannot be tied to the regime, and will help mobilize international support aimed at deterring Iran from carrying out further proxy attacks to enhance its bargaining power during negotiations over its nuclear program.
Ranj Alaaldin is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @RanjAlaaldin