Erbil Attacks Part of Iran's 'Opening Overture' To Biden | Opinion

The attack on U.S. facilities at the airport in Erbil is the Iraqi Shiite militias' way of saying hello to the Biden administration.

The militias don't do subtlety. Fourteen rockets were launched from somewhere south of the city. Three of them slammed into the concrete of the main base for the U.S.-led coalition, killing one contractor and wounding five others. The remainder fell on surrounding residential areas.

This is the Shiite militia structure maintained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Iraqi soil, and it is now issuing its first test to the new U.S. administration. Much will depend on the response. The implications are not confined to Iraq. Rather, the rocket attacks are part of a pattern of escalation by Iranian proxies visible across the region.

In the way long familiar to observers of the Iranian way of proxy warfare, responsibility for the Erbil attack was claimed by a hitherto unknown group. An organization calling itself "Awliyaa al-Dam"—Guardians of the Blood—announced that it had carried out the rocket fire. This is the latest in a string of new appellations selected by the established militias to disguise their insurgency against the U.S. and its allies in Iraq over the last two years. The organization I direct, the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, has been watching and systematically documenting this growing campaign from close up, via a network of local sources on the ground in Iraq.

The groups at the insurgency's center are the Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militias. Both are on the list of U.S.-designated terror groups. They have large, visible presences in Iraq. Their members are in Iraqi parliament. Their fighters are part of a structure linked directly to the Iraqi state—the Popular Mobilization Units. They maintain extensive, overt economic and business interests across the country.

They have also in the past been the subject of direct retribution from the U.S. for attacks on U.S.-linked facilities. On December 29, 2019, for example, U.S. aircraft attacked Kata'ib Hezbollah's headquarters at al-Qaim, close to the Iraqi-Syrian border. The raid was in retaliation for Kata'ib's launching of 30 rockets at the K-1 base in the Kirkuk area two days earlier.

To avoid similar mishaps, the IRGC-supported militias have begun to spawn disposable sets of proxies to act on their behalf. Between January and October 2020, fully nine new, formerly unknown Shiite militia groups were formed in Iraq—all with the stated intention of opposing U.S. interests there—in retaliation for the killings of IRGC-Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani and Kata'ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The "Awliyaa al-Dam" organization is almost certainly another of the pop-up militias that form a useful device for the IRGC.

U.S. Army drones at Ain al-Asad airbase
U.S. Army drones at Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq AYMAN HENNA/AFP via Getty Images

It is worth noting that even the larger militias are themselves a form of plausible deniability—for Iran itself. The system is multilayered.

Why the sudden turning up of the heat on the U.S. in Iraq? In actuality, the rocket attacks are only the latest in a series of escalatory measures carried out by the Iranian system of proxies across the region in recent weeks.

In Lebanon, in a sharp break from recent practices, a prominent Shiite critic of Hezballah, Lokman Slim, was murdered on February 4. In Yemen, the IRGC-supported Ansar Allah movement (the "Houthis") has commenced a strategic offensive against al-Marib, the last city in northern Yemen held by the Saudi-associated government of Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi. The Houthis also on Monday launched drone attacks on Saudi Arabia's Jeddah and Abha airports.

The Iranians, plainly, are seeking to send a message to the new U.S. administration. The message is "don't mess with us—we're crazier than you are."

This preliminary communication is not meant to lead toward conflict. On the contrary, it is happening precisely because the Iranian regime believes that the current U.S. administration wishes to avoid conflict.

The escalation is background music intended to produce the right mood of trepidation on the U.S. side, so that when talks begin in earnest in the period ahead regarding a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and the ending of U.S. pressure on Iran, the Americans will be more amenable to a swift signing off (and most crucially for the regime—the removal of sanctions), implicitly in return for the calling off of the campaign of escalation.

The Iranians think this will work because they look back at the 2014–2015 period. That was the year when Iranian proxy assistance to the murderous Assad regime reached its height. It was the year when the Houthi bid for power was launched, and the Shiite Islamists took the Yemeni capital, Sana'a. And it was the year in which the JCPOA was signed, and sanctions lifted.

Tehran, that is, thinks it has the measure of the Biden administration. It thinks it is dealing with Obama 2.0. It remains to be seen if Iran is right. The rockets raining on Erbil were part of the opening overture for the regime's testing of its theory.

Jonathan Spyer is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @jonathan_spyer.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.