Will Iran’s threat to Israel from Iraq increase?

In the recent lead-up to Hanukkah, Israel announced that it had conducted an unprecedented multi-layered air defense test. The test comes amid increased tensions with Iran and in the wake of Israel rolling out a multi-year defense plan called “Momentum.” It also comes after years in which Israel has conducted air strikes in Syria against Iranian targets, designed to stop Iran’s entrenchment in Syria from threatening Israel. Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz has said the recent test illustrates that Israel has “one of the most advanced air defense mechanisms in the world and it protects the state from threats near and far.”

Israel’s reference to “far” threats generally means that the country is not only confronting the kinds of missiles Hamas once fired from Gaza or Hezbollah used in 2006 from Lebanon. In addition, there are precision guided munitions threats using Iranian technology supplied to Hezbollah, and Iran’s trafficking of ballistic missiles and munitions through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. In May 2019, a report indicated Iraq could be used by Iran for the basing of missiles that threaten Israel. Further reports in 2018 and 2019 indicated Iran had trafficked missiles to pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Iran has also produced increasingly accurate missiles and mobile launchers for their missiles. In the summer of 2019, numerous reports alleged Israel carried out airstrikes in Iraq against facilities used to store weapons of pro-Iranian militias. Then reports of those strikes stopped. This leaves questions about whether Iran’s threat to Israel using Iraq changed since 2019 or whether there has been merely a hiatus in these threats.

To understand why Iraq matters in this map of Iranian operations in the Middle East, it is important to look at Israel’s recent assessments of Iran’s multifaceted threats and to examine the changes in the region over the last several years.

Israel has called Iran a “third circle” threat and its new multi-year Momentum plan calls for a dedicated headquarters and general to focus on this threat. Over the last year Israel has trained increasingly with its two squadrons of F-35s, including three joint training drill with U.S. F-35s that have flown from Al-Dhafra.

The F-35 training paired with the new air defense drill showcasing Israel’s advances in integrated multi-layered air defense gives a picture of a country that is well prepared for complex emerging threats. These including new Sa’ar 6 corvettes that will defend the country at sea. Alongside the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Israel’s Ministry of Defense said it “successfully completed a series of intercept tests of an advanced version of the David’s Sling Weapon System.” In addition, Israel used its Iron Dome system and portions of the Arrow system during the recent tests. The head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization in the Ministry of Defense, Moshe Patel said that Israel “demonstrated that the State of Israel has a robust, multilayered capability to face a variety of threats – cruise missiles, UAVs and ballistic threats. For the first time, we have demonstrated a multi-layered approach to dealing with threats – an approach that employs the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow weapon systems. Using this approach, a variety of threats may be identified and intercepted via full coordination and interoperability between the systems.”

The reference to cruise missiles and UAVs is related to Iran’s use of two dozen drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility in Sept. 2019. Experts in Israel agree that the 2019 Iranian attack illustrated the need to show that Israel’s air defense systems can stop these types of threats, in addition to long range ballistic missiles and shorter range weapons. Israel has already faced a variety of these threats: A drone flown by Iran from Syria’s T-4 base penetrated Israeli airspace in February 2018. The Arrow and David’s Sling system were both first used publicly in 2017 and then 2018 to confront threats from Syria.

This brings us back to Iran’s role in Iraq and the trafficking of weapons via Syria. Since 2018 Iran has improved a base near Syria’s Albukamal on the border with Iraq. This border crossing to Al Qaim was opened publicly at the end of September 2019 after years in which it was closed due to ISIS presence between 2014 and 2019. Improvements at this base continued despite airstrikes at the location. Israel has never said it was responsible for these airstrikes but Israel has said it carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria. The most recent acknowledgement by Israel of these strikes was on Nov. 19 in response to an IED planted near an Israeli post on the Golan Heights.

Albukamal is part of Iran’s “road to the sea.” This network of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard bases and pro-Iranian militia units stretches from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. This network has been bolstered since 2016 with Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and Iraq. Changes on the ground aided Iran in this, including the Syrian regime’s offensive to retake areas near the Golan from Syrian rebels in the summer of 2018 and laws in Iraq that enabled the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to become an official paramilitary force. In addition members of Lebanese Hezbollah have been active in Syria and Iraq.

In Iraq, the PMU increased their attacks on U.S. and Coalition forces in 2019, usually using 107mm Iranian katyusha rockets. These rocket attacks, ascribed to groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, targeted facilities where U.S. forces were present, killing one contractor in Dec. 2019 and three coalition personnel in March 2020. The U.S. responded with airstrikes in Dec. and March 2020. Significantly, in 2020, the U.S. killed IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad. Iraq has proven unable to rein in the weekly militia attacks and they continued through the summer of 2020. The US consolidated and withdrew forces from most of the facilities where they were based in Iraq in 2020, concentrating them in the autonomous Kurdistan region, in Baghdad and al-Asad base. Even with the consolidation, a pro-Iranian group fired grad rockets at Erbil from Nineveh plains in September 2020.

Iran’s threats using Iraq continue. Washington withdrew diplomatic personnel between 2019 and the fall of 2020 due to the threats. Tensions also have increased with Israel after Iranian nuclear program head Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in November. Iran’s calculations, waiting for a new US administration to come into office in Jan. 2020, may have affected its response. It has vowed to respond to sabotage at its Natanz facility in July and Hezbollah vowed a response to a killing of one of its members it blamed on Israel in the same month. At the same time Israel has warned Hezbollah and Iran against entrenchment and continued threats from Syria.

Background and sources of Iran’s threats to Israel from Iraq

What is known about Iran’s threats to Israel from Iraq and alleged Israeli airstrikes against sites in Iraq comes from only a few sources. First, Israel’s campaign against Iran’s role in the region was recently acknowledged by former anti-ISIS and Syria envoy Ambassador James Jeffrey. In an interview with Al-Monitor he said that the U.S. “only began supporting” Israel’s air campaign when he came on board in 2018. “I went out there and we saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others, and they thought that they were not being supported enough by the US military, and not by intelligence.” Jeffrey says there was a “big battle” in the US administration about this and that the side supporting Israel’s air campaign won. He implies that focus on the counter-terrorism mission in Iraq and Syria was opposed to Israel’s role against Iran. Commanders didn’t want to divert “resources to allow the Israelis to muck around in Syria.” He doesn’t mention Iraq. That makes sense because his mission as Syria envoy gave him a mandate to confront the Assad regime and Iran, whereas the anti-ISIS mission in Iraq was tailored to confront ISIS. President Donald Trump appeared to hint at U.S. facilities in Iraq being used to “watch Iran” in speeches in December 2018 and early 2019. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton indicated the U.S. would stay in Syria until Iran leaves in comments in Sept. 2018 and Jan. 2019.

The scant US statements about Iran’s role in Iraq and the U.S. posture relating to Iran in Syria and Iraq leave many questions about the alleged Israeli airstrikes in the summer of 2019. The U.S. Department of Defense produces quarterly Lead Inspector General reports to Congress. In the report covering Oct. to Dec. 2019, the report noted that there were tensions between U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and “Iranian-aligned actors in Iraq.” This had hindered the Operation Inherent Resolve mission against ISIS. “The Iraqi government plac[ed] restrictions on Coalition air movement after they suspected Israel had conducted airstrikes against Iraqi militias tied to Iran.”

There are no mentions of suspected strikes in 2017 or 2018, or between Jan. and June 2019 or Jan. and March 2020, April and June 2020. The only reference to the strikes in the reports is the July to Oct. 2019 report. The report doesn’t confirm the strikes, but does note that Iraqi politicians blamed Israel and sought to restrict use of Iraqi airspace for Coalition aircraft. “Media reports stated that as many as four airstrikes targeted bases in Iraq belonging to Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias aligned with Iran.” The Coalition said the restrictions had negative effects on the anti-ISIS mission. “On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minster Adel Abd al Mahdi issued another government decree ordering the full integration of PMF units into the ISF. According to the DIA, some PMF brigades followed the decree by shutting down headquarters and turning in weapons, but several Iranian-aligned groups refused to comply. In an assessment provided to the DoD OIG, the DIA said that Iranian-affiliated groups within the PMF are unlikely to change their loyalties because of the new order.”

This same summer 2019 report highlights Iran’s role in Syria and threats to Israel. “The congressionally appointed Syria Study Group stated in its Sept. 2019 report that despite hundreds of Israeli air strikes and U.S. sanctions aimed at dislodging Iranian presence, ‘Iran continues to entrench itself in Syria.’” This report also says that U.S. Central Command was concerned about the tensions between the U.S. and Iran and that “USCENTCOM assessed that Iranian backed forces in Syria might look to target U.S. military personnel or its partner forces in Syria, if they view the U.S. as complicit in Israeli strikes on its forces in Syria.” It referenced air strikes on Iranian-linked forces at Albukamal.

This unusual report focuses more on Israel and tensions with Iran than any other public US inspector general report of its type. Israel is referenced twenty-three times in the report, whereas in most others it is not referenced at all. It says the first suspected Israeli airstrike in Iraq occurred in July 2019. Reports indicated several more strikes followed through August 2019 and then stopped. The Iranian threats against the U.S. increased from May 2019 and there was an Iranian attack on ships in May and June 2019 in the Gulf of Oman as well as the drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia in September. In November and December rocket attacks by Iranian-linked militias rapidly increased in Iraq. This is the context of a complex year in Iraq in 2019.

While Jeffrey indicated he wanted more support for the Israeli airstrikes in Syria he also indicated there were tensions with CENTCOM. This appears to confirm the characterization found in the Lead Inspector General report covering the summer of 2019. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was tight-lipped about the issue of Israeli airstrikes. He was asked in April 2018 “do you think allowing Israel a freer hand in terms of air strikes, military action in Syria would allow the US to check Iranian sort of aggression.” His answer: “Yes, Israel makes its own sovereign decisions and I don’t see us frankly having any role in that, those decisions.” This was the opposite of the Jeffrey approach. Mattis appeared more cold toward the airstrikes and several sources I spoke to confirmed this.

The last piece of information about the airstrikes in Iraq in the summer of 2019 are satellite photos of Camp Falcon in Baghdad in the wake of an August explosion that was alleged to be an airstrike. Satellite photos posted by ImageSat International show air strikes at Amerli on July 19, Camp Falcon (Saqr) on Aug. 12 and Balad Aug. 20.  Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, such as members of the State of Law Coalition blamed the US, while Asaib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais Khazali called for an investigation. Discussions in Iraq about who was to blame for the strikes and attempts to restrict the US use of Iraq’s airspace took place in the fall of 2019.

Changes in Iraq impact role of Iran and potential threats to Israel

The overview of Iraq’s role in Iran’s operations in the region and the brief period of alleged airstrikes in the summer of 2019 raise many questions about what might come next. Iran’s use of Iraq as part of its road to the sea, a corridor of arms trafficking to Syria and Lebanon, increased from 2016 to 2019. Militia-controlled warehouses in Iraq and Syria serve as storage facilities for Iranian weapons. In 2020 it appears the number of Iranian IRGC members in Syria was slightly reduced. It is not clear if Iran’s overall footprint and access to bases, as well as entrenchment using arms warehouses and airstrikes, has diminished. Iran’s role in Iraq is central to its alliance with Iraqi political parties, such as the Fatah Coalition and pro-Iranian groups such as Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nuajaba and most recently groups such as Rab’Allah. These groups appeared to have shifted their focus increasingly to targeting U.S. forces and getting the U.S. to leave Iraq since tensions grew in May 2019.

This is a slight shift for these groups because some of them, such as Kataib Hezbollah, had played a visible role in the Syrian civil war and set up bases in Syria. In addition AAH leader Qais Khazali travelled to Lebanon in Sept. 2017 to showcase Iraqi Shi’ite militia support for Hezbollah. After the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis in Iraq the focus shifted as Hezbollah sent Mohammad al-Kawtharani to Iraq to support unity among Iraqi-based militias. This appears to indicate Iran shifted focus to opposing the US role in Iraq in the fall of 2019 and early 2020, and the tensions with the alleged Israeli airstrikes ended in Sept. 2019. That also coincided with the eruption of massive protests in Iraq in Oct. 2019 which led to the fall of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. This chaos in Iraq could have served Iran’s ability to transfer weapons to Syria, but it also meant the powerful militias needed for those transfers were focused domestically.

The fall of 2020 found Iran considering responses to the killing of Fakhrizadeh and awaiting the outcome of the U.S. election. Overall Iran’s posture since its Abqaiq attack on Saudi Arabia in Sept. 2019, has shifted to less high profile attacks. It showed its capability in Sept. 2019. Israel’s air defense drills in Dec. 2020 illustrate that Israel can confront the types of threats Iran displayed last year. Iraq’s will continue to play a potential role in basing those types of threats, from ballistic missiles to serving as a conduit for weapons flowing to Syria. Iran and its allies in Iraq and Syria are also focused on the diminished presence of the US in Iraq and questions about the continued U.S. role in Syria. This shapes Iran’s calculations about shifting weapons and routes of trafficking through Iraq and Syria.

Reporting from Israel, Seth J. Frantzman is an adjunct fellow at FDD and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. He is the acting news editor and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post. 

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