On January 7, the Islamic Republic of Iran fired a salvo of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases that host American and allied forces, deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the mission to defeat Islamic State. American — Iranian tensions have surged in recent weeks, following the Iranian linked attack on a base near Kirkuk that killed an American contractor and injured U.S. military members. The death of a U.S. contractor prompted an American response on Kataib Hezbollah targets near the Iraqi–Syrian border. This strike, in turn, prompted protests and mob violence outside the American embassy in Baghdad, leading to President Trump’s decision to assassinate Maj. General Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the commander overseeing Iran’s relationship with its regional non-state clients. To discuss the missile attack, what it may mean for U.S. basing rights in Iraq, and the implications for the broader region, Dr. Aaron Stein spoke with Ms. Becca Wasser, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, about U.S. basing and Dr. Afshon Ostovar, an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and FPRI Fox Fellow, about Iran’s response.
Aaron Stein: First off, thanks for doing this. And we should acknowledge up top that information is still coming in, but I really want to step back, avoid the hot-take machine and think through some key concepts that are not getting looked at enough as we all digest the reality that the United States and Iran are shooting at one another, openly and directly.
Becca, I watched the Iranian threats during its missile attack with great interest. During the strikes on Ain Assad Airbase, they quite openly said that they would strike bases in the Gulf that the U.S. operates from. Can you walk us through Iranian capabilities to hit these bases and American defenses?
Becca: Iran has a number of capabilities that it can leverage to hit U.S. troops in places like Iraq, as we’ve seen, but also U.S. military bases and assets located throughout the Gulf. Let me start with the Iranian capabilities that pose the greatest threat: Missiles. Iran’s missile arsenal is fairly large and rather diverse in that comprises cruise, ballistic, and anti-ship missiles of varying ranges, sizes, and sophistication. Many of these can easily range U.S. bases or moving military assets, like U.S. ships transiting the Gulf. Iran also has surface to air missiles (SAMs), which it previously used to shoot down the U.S. Global Hawk drone over the summer, and pose a risk to air assets.
It is also worth thinking about some of the ways in which Iran could use some less conventional capabilities to attack U.S. forces and bases. For example, Iran and a number of their proxies–like the Houthis–have used armed drones to launch attacks in the past. A swarm of armed drones could be an effective use of cheap technology to attack U.S. bases or to try to damage air defense systems and other key capabilities.
But there are two points worth noting: First, Iran has enough missiles that these are fairly expendable assets, so it’s not as though they are shy about using them. As we’ve seen before, Iran has sent volleys of missiles–in part because not all of them are successful in flight–but this tends to increase the chances of successfully hitting a target. They are also willing to provide some of the organizations within their proxy network with these capabilities, which increases the risks to U.S. forces as some of these groups operate in the same countries they are located in. Second, the U.S. has extensive early warning radars and missile defenses peppered throughout the region, particularly at important locations. These are intended to increase the safety of U.S. troops and, in the case of U.S. air defense systems like Patriot, are intended to intercept Iranian missiles. For instance, while Assad airbase lacked missile defenses, subsequent reporting has highlighted that U.S. radars picked up the missiles in flight and were able to warn personnel to take cover. So, Iran needs to contend with these technologies, which seek to reduce the success of an Iranian attack.
Afshon, let me turn to you: What do you make of the Iranian choice to strike Ain Assad and Erbil. It was showy, but was it effective, particularly from an Iranian domestic politics angle?
Afshon: Iranian domestic politics are difficult to judge, especially at the moment. Iran was just getting over the most disruptive protests since 2009, and probably the most violent and widespread protests since the revolutionary period. Hundreds were killed, including scores of young people. It was a harrowing moment for the Islamic Republic particularly because the protests appeared to be vehemently anti-regime. Then Soleimani is killed, and you have millions on the streets of Ahvaz, Mashhad, Tehran, and Kerman taking part in the funeral processions. Did some Iranians want revenge for Soleimani? Probably. Did the majority want revenge? I would tend to think not. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Iranians do not seem to want a war with the United States. They could probably do just fine without revenge that escalated the conflict.
As for the regime itself, I think the attack helped them make a point: Iran’s willing to use all of its tools, and it can hit its targets. I don’t think that’s a small point to make. This was a very bold attack and could have easily been met with a different response. Even if Iran telegraphed its intentions as a way trying to prevent or mitigate casualties, deaths still could have occurred. The strikes weren’t aimed at empty sand fields or runways, they were aimed at buildings, and struck in a densely packed part of the base. Assuming the strikes accomplished precisely what the IRGC wanted–direct hits on militarily valuable targets while avoiding US or Iraqi casualties and a US counterattack–then they probably were effective at making the point Iran wanted to make. But that’s a pretty small victory given what Iran is dealing with. Sanctions are Iran’s number one problem, and they’re no closer to sanctions relief. Furthermore, Iran’s attack alienated the Iraqi government once again, and muddied the waters for the case of expelling the US forces from Iraqi soil. It’s still early, but the push to expel US forces seems to have lost some momentum with this attack.
Finally, was this retaliation or revenge? I don’t think they’re same to Iran, and I see it as the former. I have little confidence that a non-lethal attack will satisfy the IRGC’s desire for to avenge Soleimani’s assassination. Same goes for Iran’s proxies in Iraq, who will still want to respond to the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the strikes against Kataib Hezbollah with in-kind attacks. This might be the end of the fireworks show, but I suspect it’s just the beginning in the next round of the US-Iran conflict.
Aaron Stein: Becca: What do you think are the implications of this, now, for U.S. priorities? Let’s focus on Iraq and Syria, just because so much of the American presence there is anchored to Operation Inherent Resolve. What is the future of the D-ISIS mission?
Becca: I’m not in the business of prediction, so I’m going to lead with saying no one knows what the future of the counter-ISIS mission will be. But as of today, coalition operations are still halted, and several partners have removed their personnel from Iraq given the increased threat levels, so that’s not promising–both for ensuring that the gains made against ISIS remain and for keeping the few remaining coalition partners that actually contribute militarily together.
That said–and switching to a U.S.-centric look at the future of the mission–Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTFOIR) should resume activities as tensions with Iran hopefully diminish, freeing up U.S. forces to switch from force protection back to training and advising, and supporting Iraqi and partner operations against ISIS. But compounding this is the looming question of access in Iraq, following the Iraqi parliament’s vote to rescind U.S. military access in the country. Despite some of the administration’s impulses to withdraw from places like Syria, it has stated that there are no plans for U.S. forces to leave Iraq. If the U.S. complies–which presently seems unlikely, given the Administration’s statements–it would be very difficult to work with Iraqi partners to counter ISIS from afar. More so, whether access is fully revoked or simply restricted remains to be seen, but both have implications for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria as part of the coalition. The danger of ISIS resurging in Iraq and Syria is real, and all they need is the pressure off to regenerate.
Aaron Stein: Afshon, Let’s pick up there. Let’s assume the U.S. pulls some — maybe not all — but pulls some forces from Iraq. What do the Iranians do? Do they want to fight ISIS in Diyala and places where we keep hearing that there are pockets of ISIS fighters?
Afshon: Well, I don’t know how a half-measure would impact operations. As long as U.S. air power and ISR are aiding operations, Iraqi Security Forces should be able to maintain pressure on current ISIS positions and retard threats of re-mobilization. But if those U.S. capabilities are removed from the scene entirely, I suspect ISIS will be able to capitalize on it fairly quickly. That doesn’t mean a return to 2014, but in such a scenario, I would expect ISIS to have greater latitude and ability to re-mobilize and press forward from their present positions. Perhaps the Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi militias could keep ISIS or other upstarts contained for a while. I don’t think they could stem the tide completely. Iran’s help would only go so far. Iran’s side was losing in both Syria and Iraq before the Russian and American interventions. There’s no reason to think a second go around would turn out differently. Iran simply does not have the capabilities required. Further, because of U.S. sanctions, Iran would have far fewer financial resources to fund its support. Iran and its allies might want U.S. forces out of Iraq, but I doubt the ISF does.
Aaron Stein: As always, thanks for helping me understand this stuff.