Iran has conducted a series of military strikes in northern Iraq and eastern Syria in recent days, escalating tensions in the region and drawing international condemnation. The attacks targeted bases of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups that Tehran accuses of inciting unrest inside Iran.
Missile and Drone Strikes Hit Iraqi Kurdistan
On January 15th, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launched missile and drone strikes against multiple targets in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The IRGC said it attacked “spy and operations centers” used by “anti-Iranian terrorist groups”, referring to Iranian Kurdish opposition factions based in northern Iraq.
At least 13 missiles and a dozen suicide drones struck the targets in two separate waves, killing at least one civilian and wounding eight others. Facilities belonging to Iranian Kurdish groups such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Komala Party were damaged in the strikes.
Iraqi authorities strongly condemned the violation of Iraqi sovereignty, recalling Iraq’s ambassador in Iran and summoning Iran’s charge d’affaires in Baghdad. The attack also prompted the Kurdistan Regional Government to cancel a planned meeting between Iraqi Kurdish leaders and Iran’s foreign minister.
International reaction was swift, with the US “vehemently” condemning the “illegal and aggressive” strikes. Israel has also warned it reserves the right to retaliate, as one of the missiles bore the inscription “Revenge is definite.”
|At least 1 civilian killed, 8 wounded
|Komala Party offices
|Other sites in Erbil
|Unclear extent of damage
Syria Also Hit in Coordinated Strikes
In a coordinated move, Iran simultaneously struck eastern Syria with fighter jets and drones, targeting positions held by the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) near the Iraqi border. Iran claimed over 500 IS militants were killed, but there has been no independent verification of casualties.
The rare use of Iran’s air force to directly strike abroad signals an escalation in Iran’s shadow war against regional rivals and opposition groups. Tehran is under growing domestic pressure, with continuing protests inside Iran over living costs, social restrictions, and diversions of state funds abroad.
Pakistan Also Targets Iran
In an unexpected turn, Pakistan has entered the fray by conducting its own cross-border strikes into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. On January 18th, Pakistan hit targets it said were bases of the Baluch insurgent group Jaish al-Adl, which has claimed responsibility for attacks inside Pakistan.
Pakistan stated it struck the militant hideouts after giving Iran prior warning and getting no response. However, Iran condemned the move as illegal, irresponsible and provocative. While Jaish al-Adl is mainly focused on targeting Iranian security forces, Iran likely sees the Pakistani strikes as further encroachment on its sovereignty amid increased pressure.
Escalating a Shadow Conflict
Iran’s strikes came after months of building tensions in the region. Last September, the National Council of Resistance of Iran claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on Iran’s embassy in Iraq’s capital Baghdad. Tehran has blamed Israeli intelligence and Iranian dissidents based in Iraqi Kurdistan for stoking ongoing anti-government protests across Iran.
By flexing its missile arsenal, Tehran aims to deter external support for domestic unrest, warn regional rivals, and show strength in the face of mounting challenges. However, the attacks also risk dragging Iraq further into the Iran-Israel shadow war and isolating Tehran diplomatically.
Iraq now finds itself caught in the middle of escalating conflicts between Iran and Western/Gulf powers on one side, and Iran and Israel on the other. With Iraq-Iran relations under new strain, Baghdad will likely boost security coordination with the US and Gulf states to counter Iranian influence.
Israel may also feel compelled to respond more forcefully to Iran’s provocations. Israeli officials have recently warned of plans to directly attack Iran’s nuclear program if tensions continue rising. A wider conflict could ensue if retaliation spirals.
In the near term, more regional powers could conduct strikes into Iran to counter perceived threats. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are contending with attacks by the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen. And Azerbaijan remains in conflict with Iran over the Karabakh enclave.
However, Iran’s actions also risk uniting world powers against it. The US and European partners may redouble sanctions pressure to contain Iran’s capabilities and incentive negotiation. Much depends on if pragmatists or hardliners dominate in Tehran.
For now, the region faces heightened volatility. But an eventual return to the 2015 nuclear deal could bring stability, if the US and Iran compromise. Iraq will likely mediate talks to prevent further escalation inside its territory. Yet with nationalist sentiment running high, the path ahead looks turbulent for all sides.
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