Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tehran suddenly feels liberated to embark on its own escalations targeted at the US, Iran’s opponents in Iraq, and perhaps Israel. No fewer than 12 ballistic missiles were unleashed on Sunday against sites near the US Consulate in Irbil.
Usually, Tehran stages such provocations via its proxies to add a flimsy dimension of plausible deniability. That such a large attack was launched from Iran itself demonstrates new levels of brazenness.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said this aggression against Irbil was an attack against Iraqi national security, and President Barham Saleh denounced it as a “terrorist crime” designed to undermine recent political rapprochement. “We must stand firmly against attempts to plunge the country into chaos,” Saleh said.
America’s ambassador to Iraq demanded that Iran “must be held accountable,” but others, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, appeared anxious to play the attack down, and spoke vaguely about consulting with allies. It is precisely such Western appeasement and inaction that have allowed challenges from Iran, Russia and North Korea to mutate into existential threats.
Moscow and Tehran believe the international community lacks the resolve to prevent them throttling the sovereignty of weaker states and trampling the principles of international law underfoot. As a consequence of our collective failure to nip such strategic threats in the bud, world leaders today are nervously discussing the circumstances in which Vladimir Putin might actually use nuclear or chemical weapons.
As a consequence of the Ukraine tragedy, the Western world is rediscovering that the values it cherishes — sovereignty, territorial integrity, and civil freedoms — can survive only if states are ready and willing to assertively protect them.
In recent days, informed diplomats were signaling that a renewed Iran nuclear deal was effectively ready to be signed. However, Russia blew these plans out of the water by adding new demands in its efforts to ratchet up the pressure on the West. Iran is desperate to see this deal signed so that billions of dollars of frozen funds can be redirected to its regionwide war making. These rocket strikes on Irbil are Tehran’s message that it refuses to be ignored, delivered in the only language that the ayatollahs truly understand.
Mainstream Persian newspapers have been criticising the Khamenei-aligned hardline media for its overly pro-Russia tone, noting that Moscow never had Iran’s best interests at heart, and had colluded in Israeli missile strikes against Iranian targets. Tehran often sought the green light for military provocations from its Russian ally. By upping the stakes in this apparently uncoordinated manner with the Irbil attack, Tehran may provoke the ire of a Russian leader who clearly isn’t in the best of moods.
It is significant that this attack was staged in Iraq, where Tehran’s proxies are under severe pressure after having lost spectacularly in the October elections. Iran’s allies have spent the past six months creating roadblocks toward forming a government, but it appears ultimately destined for failure in its demands for seats in a cabinet that it has no right to be part of.
Former militia commander Moqtada Al-Sadr, whose faction won the most votes in October, has commendably held his ground in seeking to sideline Iran-aligned sectarian hardliners and reach out toward a unity government, despite the comically ineffective efforts of Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani. The attack on Irbil seeks to disrupt developments and signal that Iran’s proxies will not be meekly pushed aside.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the attack was directed at Israeli targets in Irbil, in retaliation for the recent killing of two IRGC officers in a Damascus airstrike. For Israel, therefore, which has put its forces on high alert, this is a sensitive moment. Moscow had been casting a blind eye to hundreds of Israeli rocket strikes in Iran-aligned targets in Syria. However, Tel Aviv is nervous about this being allowed to continue, particularly with the Israeli government coming under intense pressure from citizens — many of whom come from Ukraine and Russia — to take a much stronger position against Putin. Consequently, Iran may feel it has greater leeway for provoking Israel, particularly at what would be a terrible moment for an outbreak of violence between Israel and Iran.
The terrorist theocrats of Tehran have not realised it yet, but everything they stand for is antithetical to this emerging new world consensus.
This cuts to the core of what kind of world we want to live in: A planet of sovereign nations who respect each other’s right to exist, or a jungle in which the strong devour the weak. Instead of responding to this attack by rushing to appease Iran and pressuring all parties to sign up to the nuclear deal, it should compel us to question the premises of this deal — which ignores Iran’s massive ballistic missile program, disregards the proliferation of Iran-aligned paramilitary armies throughout the region, and allows Tehran to return to enriching uranium and other dual-purpose nuclear activities within a relatively short time.
As a consequence of the Ukraine tragedy, the Western world is rediscovering that the values it cherishes — sovereignty, territorial integrity, and civil freedoms — can survive only if states are ready and willing to assertively protect them. The Ukraine crisis furthermore demonstrates how economically vulnerable the world is to threats to energy security. Such issues are equally relevant in oil-producing Iraq and the wider Gulf region.
The terrorist theocrats of Tehran have not realised it yet, but everything they stand for is antithetical to this emerging new world consensus. US President Joe Biden’s response should demonstrate that the rules of the game have fundamentally changed, and that what Tehran could have got away with just a few weeks ago can no longer be permitted to stand.
Yes, the Western world is currently distracted with the inferno raging in Eastern Europe; but if Western leaders really believe in the principles they are asserting against Putin, they must soon turn their attention to the malicious cancer of the ayatollahs’ regime, which has already been allowed to spread throughout too much of the Middle East.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.