Thursday, October 12, 2017

Return of Signature Iranian Explosive Could Signal Escalation in Iraq

Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The return of a signature Iranian explosive device in Iraq could indicate that Iran may already have escalated against U.S. forces in Iraq either to deter the roll out of a new US strategy against Iran, or to retaliate against it.

President Trump has signaled his intent to decertify the Iranian nuclear agreement and is scheduled to announce a new counter-Iran strategy on October 13th. Iranian officials have signaled that Iran may take military action against US forces in the region if the U.S. takes harsh steps against Iran such as designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Iranian proxies in Iraq that once fought against the US have also repeatedly signaled their intent to oust US forces from Iraq after defeating ISIS. The spokesman for Katai'b Hezbollah stated that "we look at America as our first enemy" in early 2017, for example. Iran is most likely to use its proxies to escalate in Iraq, where US forces are vulnerable. 

A high-end Iranian signature weapon, an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP), killed U.S. soldier Specialist Alexander W. Missildine and wounded another soldier on a major road in Iraq’s Salahuddin Province on October 1st. The U.S. military is still investigating the origin of the explosive. Yet Iran is the likely perpetrator. The EFP is a high-end explosive device that Iran previously provided to its proxies in Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War. Iranian-provided EFPs killed nearly 200 US soldiers and wounded over 800 from 2005-2011 according to figures declassified by US Central Command.  

ISW and CTP forecasted in September 2017 that Iran may opt for a “most dangerous” course of action in the next six months and order its proxy forces in Iraq to attack US personnel or contractors in Iraq. The use of an EFP against US soldiers in Iraq could indicate the start of this Iranian path of escalation.

ISW and CTP forecasted that Iran’s plans in the 6 months from September 2017 will be:

Main Effort: Iran will continue to prioritize efforts to constrain, disrupt, and ultimately expel the U.S. from Syria. Iran will conduct operations to block further expansion by coalition partners on the ground, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG near Raqqa City. Iran will continue supporting operations to bolster the presence of pro-regime forces in Deir ez Zour Province in Eastern Syria. The pro-Assad coalition remains unlikely to launch major urban clearing operations in Deir ez Zour City. They will likely choose to conduct further operations to secure key oil fields and minor population centers along the Euphrates River Valley. Iran will help Assad consolidate his control over Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Dera’a Provinces in western Syria. Iran remains unlikely to contribute additional, large combat forces to these efforts unless required to preserve its proxies’ combat power or to counter an emergent threat to Assad. Iran will likely remain cautious in supporting operations in southern Syria to reduce the risk of a major direct conflict with Israel, which Iran is not pursuing at this time. Iran will prioritize efforts to maintain and develop the Russo-Iranian coalition as well as the Quartet with Russia, the Assad regime, and Iraq.

Main Effort: Iran will focus on political efforts in Iraq to secure its influence and the full withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iran will attempt to shape the outcome of the 2018 Iraqi Parliamentary Election in order to cultivate a favorable government in Baghdad. Iran will likely attempt to craft a coalition that sets political constraints on current Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. Iran could alternatively seek to ensure the election of a more responsive premier. Iran will continue its efforts to establish durable influence within the ISF. Iran has a number of possible courses of action it may pursue in support of its main effort in Iraq in the next six months. They include:
  • Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA) - Iraq: The Russo-Iranian coalition takes new steps to offset the U.S. role in Iraq and set political conditions that accelerate an ultimate U.S. drawdown. Iran uses its proxies to coerce the Iraqi government into launching clearing operations in ISIS-held Tel Afar, now completed, and Hawija with heavy PMU involvement and minimal U.S. involvement (this operation is well underway). Iran uses these operations to further develop its influence within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense while sidelining the U.S. Russia offers military advisors to the ISF, PMU, or both in order to offset the U.S. role. Russia and Iran may undertake a combined effort to build up Iraq’s rotary wing capability independent from the U.S. and possibly in direct support of the PMU. Russia and Iran both pressure key Iraqi leaders, possibly including Abadi, to call for a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq rather than a residual U.S. troop presence.
  • Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA) - Iraq (A): Iran orders its proxy forces to attack U.S. personnel or U.S. contractors in Iraq in order to compel a U.S. withdrawal. This COA directly places forces at risk and might escalate beyond Iraq. It is not likely unless the U.S. decides to increase the U.S. troop presence in Iraq or to take aggressive action against Iran after the U.S. policy review concludes, such as imposing meaningful secondary sanctions against the entire IRGC. Iran’s proxies could also target U.S. personnel that deploy to Iraq to secure the highways from Jordan and Saudi Arabia to Baghdad.
  • MDCOA - Iraq (B): Iran deploys ground forces into Diyala Province in eastern Iraq in order to secure the province. This course of action is likely if ISIS shifts reinforcements to Diyala Province or has unspent capabilities there – not visible through open sources – that let ISIS achieve a major breakthrough. This COA is dangerous because it would further undermine Iraqi state sovereignty and set a precedent for foreign intervention in Iraq that could embolden Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to increase his own involvement in northern Iraq. Supporting Effort (enduring): Iran will prioritize efforts to strengthen the capabilities and cohesion of the Axis of Resistance. Iran will attempt to limit the costs of its ongoing interventions in Iraq and Syria by discouraging large-scale troop deployments or sudden, massive military campaigns by Assad. It will work to preserve and expand its existing proxy forces including Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shi’a militias. Iran will also continue supporting the al Houthi movement in Yemen, although it remains unlikely to expand that support dramatically in either scope or scale.

Supporting Effort (enduring): Iran will vigorously oppose the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. It will try to block or delay a declaration of independence in principle and in practice after the independence referendum. It will use military means to deny the incorporation of contested terrain and key positions into Kurdistan. It will begin by positioning military assets to deter Kurdish forces, but is willing to use force if deterrence fails. Its primary instrument will be its proxy forces within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units. Iranian-backed PMU are currently positioned on the southern and western borders of the oil-rich disputed Kirkuk Province, currently largely under Kurdish control. They are also present around contested areas in both Diyala and Salah al Din Provinces. Iran will also use coercive means to deter local councils in disputed areas from joining the referendum. This effort is already underway. Iran will also pressure Arab politicians to reject the referendum, and possibly to oppose it through force.

Friction: Iran’s primary source of friction will be the continued threat posed by ISIS in Iraq. Iran is unlikely to press for the rapid expulsion of the U.S. from Iraq if it would risk a resurgence by ISIS. Iran will opt to increase political pressure on Baghdad to gradually reduce and ultimately end the U.S. presence in Iraq. Iran will likely wait until after anti-ISIS operations in Kirkuk and Anbar provinces conclude to push this campaign. Iran could nonetheless orchestrate a more dramatic campaign to expel the U.S. from Iraq if it perceived a more manageable threat from ISIS and al Qaeda or a more urgent threat from the U.S. Iran could pursue this option if the U.S. attempts to increase its force posture in Iraq or challenges Iran elsewhere in the Middle East. Iran must also balance its hostile policy towards the U.S. and Israel against its obligations in the Russo-Iranian coalition. Iran will avoid generating a major confrontation with the U.S. in Syria. Iran will also refrain from openly spoiling negotiated deals between the U.S. and Russia in Syria. Iran could reevaluate its priorities if tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran elsewhere in the Middle East. Increased pushback by the U.S. against Iran — including sanctions legislation passed this year and tougher rhetoric — remains unlikely to generate such a decision in the absence of wider threats to Iran’s core strategic interests.