TSG IntelBrief: Iran Escalates in Iraq
December 10, 2014

Iran Escalates in Iraq

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• An early December Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force airstrike in Iraq’s Diyala Province, involving decades old U.S.-supplied F-4s as well as newer Russian-made Sukhoi 24s, represents a significant escalation of Iranian involvement against the so-called Islamic State

• The airstrike suggests that Iran perceives that the Iraqi military and Iran’s Shi’a militia proxies in Iraq might not be sufficiently capable of preventing Islamic State forces from approaching Iran’s border

• The relatively positive U.S. reaction to the Iranian strike indicates that Tehran and Washington are coordinating in Iraq at least indirectly, despite their denials

• Despite Iran’s willingness to use airpower in Iraq, Tehran would only send large ground units into Iraq if Islamic State forces were to approach the Iranian border in significant numbers.

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Tehran’s employment of direct airpower in Iraq is a significant increase in its involvement and willingness to take military risks to defeat the so-called Islamic State. In terms of airpower, Iran had previously confined itself to returning to the Iraqi Air Force seven combat aircraft that the Saddam Hussein regime had flown to Iran at the start of the 1991 Gulf war to avoid destruction by U.S. and coalition air power. Because Iraq’s pilots do not have much experience operating combat jets, Iranian pilots flew the returned aircraft for Iraq; Iran acknowledged the death of one of its pilots at the hands of Islamic State anti-aircraft fire in October.

To date, the bulk of Iran’s involvement in Iraq has consisted of weapons shipments to the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish peshmerga fighters, reactivation and funding of Shi’a militia forces Iran formed in 2004, and military advice by the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF). Photographs of the head of the IRGC-QF, General Qasim Sulaymani, have appeared frequently on social media on various Iraq battlefields, providing advice to Iraqi Shi’a militia and ISF commanders.

The Iranian airstrike in early December was reportedly conducted near the town of Jalula, a mostly Kurdish town in Diyala Province that lies only about 25 miles from the Iranian border. In late November, Kurdish peshmerga recaptured Jalula and nearby towns from Islamic State fighters, but these fighters remained nearby and continue to pose a threat to those towns and areas closer to the Iranian border. At the start of the major Islamic State offensive in June, Tehran had declared it would act militarily if Islamic State fighters moved to within 40 miles of Iran’s border; the Iranian airstrike was a direct enforcement of that threat.

The use of the decades old F-4 Phantom aircraft suggested that Iraq had provided Iran with precise intelligence on the location of Islamic State fighters—the F-4 lacks much of the target acquisition capabilities of more modern aircraft. Iran reportedly also flew the Su-24 in the strikes, but mainly in a supporting role.

The Iranian airstrike was far from the areas in Iraq that have been the focus of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition—Mosul, Tikrit, and cities along the Euphrates River. The Iranian strike therefore did not risk accidental conflict with U.S.-led air operations in Iraq. U.S. military officials indicated that de-confliction of U.S.-led and Iranian air operations in Iraq runs through ISF air controllers. Commenting on the strike, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that, to the extent that Iranian airstrikes weaken the Islamic State, the “net effect is positive” on the U.S. military mission in Iraq. Even though Kerry and other U.S. officials reiterated that there is no direct military cooperation with Iran against the Islamic State, the relatively supportive U.S. comments about the strike suggested growing U.S.-Iran coordination in Iraq.

The key significance of the Iranian strike could be what it implies about Tehran’s assessment of the progress of the overall anti-Islamic State effort in Iraq. Iran’s direct use of a major combat system against Islamic State forces could suggest that Tehran is less confident about the other elements of its strategy—advising and enabling Iraqi forces and Shi’a militias—than was previously believed. Tehran might fear that the ISF and Shi’a militias—even benefitting from substantial U.S.-led coalition help—are unable to prevent Islamic State forces from reaching the Iranian border. Were the Islamic State forces to advance even a little bit further east, they would be in position to conduct suicide bombings, shelling, or other attacks on Iranian border forces or Iranian towns and villages along the border.

The Iranian airstrike also represented a signal to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abbadi that Iran will use all means necessary to protect its interests there and that the Iraqi government need not rely entirely on the U.S.-led coalition. The announced U.S. buildup of advisers to 3,000 (which will be supplemented by 1,500 coalition partner advisers)—coupled with the recent visit to Iraq by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey—might have prompted Tehran to believe that the Abbadi government was growing too close to the United States at the expense of its relationship with Iran.

A key question is whether the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force operations in Iraq are a harbinger of direct Iranian ground combat inside Iraq. Such action is still highly unlikely, unless large Islamic State concentrations reach the border with Iran. Iranian ground force intervention in Iraq would inflame Iraqi Sunni opinion—already heightened—that Iran dominates the Shi’a-led Iraqi government and is committed to empowering Iraq’s Shi’a. Iranian ground intervention in Iraq could easily cause the Sunni Arab states, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) to withdraw from the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition that is assisting the Iraqi government.

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