Iran has literally been getting away with murder for decades. On the night of December 29, 2019 the United States launched its first airstrikes in nearly a decade on the forces of Iran’s proxies. Four nights later it carried out a precision drone-based attack just outside Baghdad airport, and killed Iran’s top military commander and the leader of a major Iran-supported proxy fighting organization.
It has long been clear that a key aspect of Iran’s geopolitical strategy is to use proxies to execute its less savoury operations, thus avoiding direct responsibility for the atrocities committed at its behest. Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and a plethora of jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq are, in addition to its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the instruments Iran uses to reach its political goals. For the past decade these groups have been recognized by the US simply as Iran’s tools, and have not been considered central enough to warrant direct retaliation.
A rocket attack on an Iraqi military base on December 27 by an armed group known as Kataib Hezbollah (KH) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. KH is an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militia operating in Iraq and throughout Syria. Founded in 2003 it is in sympathy with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah organization. The US has expressed concern in the past about pro-Iranian militias targeting coalition forces in Syria. This anti-KH operation was characterized by US Assistant Secretary of Defense Jonathan Hoffman as “defensive strikes,” in retaliation not only for the attack on December 27, but for “repeated Kataib Hezbollah attacks on Iraqi bases that host Operation Inherent Resolve coalition forces.”
KH’s leader, Jamal Jaafar al-Ibrahimi – also known as Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes – was the alleged mastermind behind the US and French embassy bombings in Kuwait in 1983. During the war in Iraq the group specialized in planting roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars to attack US and coalition forces. A string of other atrocities, abductions and murders are attributed to them. KH has been closely linked to Iran’s external military branch, the IRGC. Al-Mohandes operated in close liaison with the IRCG Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani. Now both have been eliminated.
The first US airstrikes targeted at least five KH locations. The Pentagon says three were in Iraq and two in Syria. The targets included weapons depots and command posts, and the attack may have involved drones, according to some reports. The US says that the areas it struck were also used to “plan and execute attacks.” As for targeting Suleimani, President Donald Trump has explained the US action as a pre-emptive intelligence-based strike aimed at preventing an impending onslaught on American troops.
A more fundamental issue is at stake. Taking advantage of the chaos currently reigning in Iraq, which is almost at a standstill as a result of mass anti-government protests and demonstrations, Iran is attempting to entrench itself even further inside the country both politically and militarily. It has certainly been building up resources to boost its anti-US, anti-Israel power base. In December reports emerged that Iran was moving ballistic missiles to Iraq.
Iran’s dominant position within the Iraqi body politic has emerged as a key issue during the current anti-government crisis. Iraqi President Barham Salih has resisted recent attempts by the pro-Iran coalition to put forward nominees for prime minister that included a resigned minister and a controversial governor, Asaad al-Eidani. The mass street protests are supporting the president’s threat to resign rather than accept the pro-Iran coalition’s candidate.
Yet Iraq’s current prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, clinging to office as the political storm rages around him, has condemned Suleimani’s assassination, just as he is reported to have “strongly objected” to the US strikes on KH positions in Iraq and Syria as “a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a dangerous escalation.”
The increasing attacks on US military bases by Iran’s proxy militias have plainly been an assertion of Iran’s powerful position within Iraq – a situation that has not gone unnoticed by the public. The street demonstrators saw Iran’s growing dominance as further evidence of the weakness and inadequacy of the old government establishment, which they are seeking to sweep away. How Suleiman’s death at Washington’s hands will affect the political dynamic the next few weeks will demonstrate.
The extent to which Iran has managed to infiltrate Iraq’s political and military establishment was revealed in November 2019, when 700 pages containing secret intelligence cables were leaked to two US media organizations. They describe a carefully conceived plan, going back to 2014, for Iran’s ministry of information and security, along with the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, to expand Iran’s influence inside Iraq, and to identify and run sources at the most senior levels of government. The aim was to keep the country pliant and aligned to Iran’s objectives.
The leaked cables reveal that Iranian intelligence officers co-opted much of the Iraqi government’s cabinet, infiltrated its military leadership, and even tapped into a network of sources once run by the CIA. The cables claim that so prevalent is Iran in Iraq’s affairs that Iranian officers effectively have free rein across key institutions of state, and are central to much of the country’s decision-making.
The intelligence haul threw new light on how Iran’s agents operate, and the extent to which each prime minister and cabinet member was vetted to ensure they were serving the Islamic Republic’s interests.
A key role in this operation had been assigned to Suleimani, head of the IRGC Quds Force and de facto leader of Iran’s constellation of proxies across the Middle East. Suleimani it was who instituted the brutal crackdown on the early anti-government street demonstrations in Iraq, leading to scores of deaths and injuries. It proved ineffective. This has been one military operation from which Suleimani failed to emerge victorious. Now he has been removed from the scene. Popular protest and demand for reform, allied to a new US determination to crack down on Iran’s puppet militias, may yet carry the day – or, alternatively, Suleimani’s death may soften the popular anti-Iran sentiment. Time will tell.