The recent launch of ballistic missiles against U.S. military air bases in Iraq, in response to the U.S. killing of top Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, was immediately claimed by the country’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
This, experts say, highlights a different position assumed by Tehran in carrying out attacks against the U.S. and other adversaries as opposed to relying on its many proxy forces throughout the region to have the luxury of plausible deniability.
Targeting a high-profile military leader such as Soleimani, who led IRGC’s elite Quds Force, prompted the Iranian leadership to respond to the U.S. at a similar level, experts argue.
“The IRGC has been in charge of the game when it comes to Iranian security,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“The IRGC is part of their national security system. They have a Supreme Council of National Security, which includes a representative there and the head of the branches of the military as well as the president and the foreign minister,” she told VOA.
Slavin added that Iranian leaders “make these decisions jointly, and they reach a consensus on what they think is the appropriate step.”
The IRGC “chose this tactical attack against U.S. installations in Iraq to be able to calm down its public and to demonstrate that it has indeed retaliated” for the killing of Soleimani, said Cyrus Saify, an Iranian affairs analyst based in Washington.
He said the IRGC attack was also a move to appeal to hardliners in the Iranian government.
Over the years, Iran has built a significant network of mostly Shiite militias across the Middle East, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere.
In an assessment of the Tuesday attack on U.S. military bases in Iraq, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of IRGC’s aerospace force, spoke at a news conference where he stood behind flags that represent several Iranian proxies, including the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and the Palestinian Hamas.
The slain commander Soleimani was personally involved in founding some of those armed groups, particularly after the Arab Spring uprising in the region and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq. These militias have been instrumental in expanding Iran’s influence and reach in the region.
In recent years, Iran has relied on its proxies to carry on its agenda of targeting U.S. interests in the Middle East, experts said.
In Iraq, for example, military bases housing U.S. troops have been attacked at least 10 times since October, with U.S. officials mostly blaming Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militias.
An assault last month on a military base in the Iraqi province of Kirkuk killed an American contractor and wounded several U.S. and Iraqi military personnel, prompting the U.S. to respond by striking five facilities in Iraq and Syria that belonged to the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia Kataeb Hezbollah.
Kataeb Hezbollah, which was led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed along with Soleimani in the U.S. airstrike last week, was one of the main Iranian-backed Shiite militias behind the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
In September 2019, Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in the war-ravaged country, claimed responsibility for a drone attack on oil facilities run by state-owned Saudi Aramco.
Experts said those attacks highlight the serious threats Iran’s proxies could pose in the ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Jason Brodsky, an Iran expert based in Washington, believes that the Iranian missile response against U.S. forces should be measured by phases.
“The first phase was direct retaliation. The second phase is likely to be indirect retaliation through proxies within its broader Axis of Resistance,” he told VOA.
Iran and its proxy militia groups in the region refer to their alliance as the “Axis of Resistance.”
It’s important to pay attention to the messaging of Iran’s supreme leader’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Brodsky said, adding that “in response to Iran’s attack on the airbases in Iraq, [Khamenei] said ‘such military actions are not enough.’ That may be a signal that retribution from Iran-backed militias – not from Iran’s armed forces – in the region could be next.”
Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, said that despite an uncertain calm in tensions between Washington and Tehran following the Iranian missile attack, Iran would likely rely on its proxy militias if it decided to assault U.S. military targets in the future.
“If [the Iranians] do carry something out next time, my guess would be that instead of doing something like this, where it was Iranian military against U.S. bases in Iraq, they would use their proxies instead so that they have some plausible deniability,” he told VOA.
“The region is still a flashpoint, although Iran’s proxies in Iraq have announced that they are ceasing, essentially, actions against the U.S., but it might always be something,” Milani said.
Jesusemen Oni and Niala Mohammed contributed to this report from Washington.