Iraq: The Next Potential Israel-Iran Battleground
Reports claim that Tehran has shipped ballistic missiles to its proxies in Iraq and is working to establish weapons manufacturing facilities in the country
According to the Reuters news agency, Iran has deployed “several dozens” of ballistic missiles to Iraq and is training its allied Shiite fighters to manufacture advanced rockets at various facilities in the country. “The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km. to 700 km. [125-450 miles],” the article noted, “putting [Saudi Arabia and Israel] within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq. The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani is overseeing the program.”
An Iraqi official revealed to Reuters that Baghdad was aware of Iranian arms shipments to the Popular Mobilization Forces—a collection of paramilitary groups—during the battle in Iraq against the Islamic State, adding, however, that the inflow of arms continued unabated after the terror group’s demise and that it is “clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal…was not meant to fight Daesh [ISIS] but as a pressure card [Tehran] can use once involved in regional conflict.”
A Western source thus described the revelations as a message to the United States, which in May withdrew from the nuclear accord and last month re-applied sanctions on Iran, as well as to Israel, whose army repeatedly has struck Iranian assets in Syria.
According to Avi Melamed, Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Washington-based Eisenhower Institute, while Iran may appear to have free rein in Iraq, its maneuverability is limited by a convergence of elements. “Iran has quite a substantial influence in the country, but it is clear that a majority of Iraqis reject this,” he explained to The Media Line. “Tehran may control the militias and its close partners performed well in the elections, but as things stand the largest political bloc wants to reduce Iran’s power.”
Melamed similarly highlighted the resistance Iran faces from Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric who opposes Tehran’s interventionism and unilateral designation of itself as torch-bearer of the religion; this, manifest in an attempt to transform the Iranian city of Qom into the focal point of Shiite Muslim life instead of Najaf and Karbala. Melamed also stressed the importance of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, with Riyadh aiming to curb Iranian clout by courting Baghdad with major economic investments.
“Iran would like to duplicate its model of success in the Gaza Strip [through Hamas and Islamic Jihad] and [with Hizbullah in] Lebanon, but the scenario in Iraq is quite different,” he concluded. “Therefore, I approach the reports of [an Iranian military build-up] cautiously. For now, it appears to be psychological warfare.”
Iran has indeed perfected this tactic and could therefore be bluffing, an assumption strengthened when considering the growing internal dissent directed at the mullahs and the White House’s apparent resolve to halt Tehran’s expansionism in its tracks (this applies especially to Iraq, where the U.S. has for half a generation been at war).
Nevertheless, there are indications that the Iranians are keeping their options open, a reality exposed in June when Israel was accused of a major strike in the eastern Syrian village of al-Harra, located near the town of Al-Bukamal along the Iraqi border. According to the Wall Street Journal, Israeli jets targeted a compound housing members of the Iraq-based Kata’ib Hizbullah, an Iranian proxy purportedly tasked with smuggling weaponry across the frontier. The report attributed the mission to Israel’s declared commitment to impede by any means necessary the Islamic Republic’s goal of carving out a contiguous land corridor spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
To this end, Israel’s freedom of action in Lebanese and Syrian air space has allowed it to conduct well over one hundred operations to prevent the formation of this so-called Shiite Crescent. In the process, Jerusalem has exposed Iran’s relative weakness in Syria, which may have prompted Tehran to reconsider its strategic calculus. Due to the prevailing circumstances, including growing international demands that Iranian forces fully vacate Syria, the regime may slowly be shifting its focus towards enhancing its offensive capabilities in Iraq.
Uzi Rubin, founder and first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, which developed, produced and deployed the nation’s first protective shield, is skeptical that Iran would risk exposing itself in Iraq uniquely in order to threaten the Jewish state. “In this respect, I am not sure what the Iranians would achieve by putting assets in Iraq,” he stressed to The Media Line. “They can already hit Israel and Saudi Arabia [with missiles] from Syria, Lebanon and from home. So the added value would likely be based on different considerations.”
Still, others maintain that an Iranian military build-up in Iraq would create significant problems for Israel. Given the distance between the two countries, coupled with the fact that Iraq is more than double the combined size of Syria and Lebanon, monitoring—and thus potentially derailing—Iran’s activities therein would present monumental operational challenges, if possible at all.
Eliezer Tzafrir, former head of Israel’s Mossad stations in Iran, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan believes the issue needs to be viewed in macroscopic terms. “There is a real threat that the ‘axis of evil’ will be consolidated through Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. What is going on in Iraq,” he elaborated to The Media Line, “may be the beginning of what the Iranians are trying to do in Syria and what they achieved in Lebanon. Iran wants to realize the imperial aims of the Islamic revolution, which is directed not only against Israel but the entire Sunni world.”
In a position paper obtained ahead of publication by The Media Line, Yaakov Amidror, formerly the chairman of Israel’s National Security Council and currently a Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, argues that the Iranian regime is expending a huge amount of resources to turn Iraq into another of its satrapies. “Iran is pursuing its objectives in Iraq in contravention of the government’s stance, through powerful militias that have been established by the Revolutionary Guards.… Meanwhile, the world is focused on the outcomes of elections, not realizing that Iraq’s fate will largely be determined by these Hizbullah-style militias operating throughout the country under complete Iranian control.”
When viewed in this context, it is noteworthy that the Reuters report coincided with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s affirmation that the military is in the process of procuring long-range precision missiles that will be able to strike anywhere in the Middle East. While they may not be intended specifically for Iranian targets in Iraq, the prospect of Tehran creating another forward outpost from which to attack Israel and its allies undoubtedly is being carefully examined in Jerusalem and, for that matter, Riyadh.