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Iran Attacks Erbil: Do Iranian Missiles Pose Major Threat to U.S. Assets in the Middle East?

On March 12, 2022, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired Fateh-110 ballistic missiles into Erbil, Iraq. The U.S. designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in April 2019.

According to reports, some of the missiles landed near a new U.S. Consulate building in Erbil, resulting in the injury of one Kurdish national and significant structural damage in the area. There were no fatalities, according to the Kurdish government and the United States.

For this brief, Overwatch analyzed the misinformation on social media from the first initial reports of the attack, the IRI’s history of aggressive actions against the U.S. in Iraq, and how Iran could be setting the stage for further escalations against the U.S. and Israel.

MISINFORMATION

With the Russia-Ukraine War dominating news cycles globally, the news of the attack quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, with multiple claims that the Iranian missiles hit the U.S. Consulate or U.S. bases.

Disclose.tv, which has 896k followers, tweeted, “ballistic missiles were fired at the U.S. Consulate in Iraq.”

Amichai Stein, who is employed by Israeli Public Broadcasting, and has 69k followers, tweeted, “Several U.S. ballistic missiles hit the U.S. base in Erbil.”

Duty to Warn, which has 221.3k followers, tweeted:

Analysts note that many other Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers or more shared the narrative that Iranian ballistic missiles hit the U.S. consulate building in Iraq.

Several hours after the initial attack the U.S. officials stated that no Americans were injured or hurt during the attack. Additionally, Kurdish authorities said that one Kurdish national had been hurt but there were no other casualties. The spread of misinformation on Twitter doesn’t appear to be a direct campaign of any kind, but some reporters and social media influencers are not waiting to fact-check events.

IRANIAN MEDIA SOURCES

The Tehran Times claimed that the attack was due to an alleged Israeli drone attack in Western Iran. The report from the Tehran Times also said that IRGC’s operation against Erbil targeted Israeli buildings in the region supporting its special forces arm, Sayeret Matkal, and resulted in the deaths and injuries of Israelis.

Tasnim News Agency, which has close ties to the IRGC, reported that, “The center hit by the missiles was a place where a remarkable number of Zionists gathered, and considering the number of people present in that base, the likelihood of the (Zionist) regime’s human toll is very high.”

IRI’s HISTORY OF AGGRESSION IN IRAQ

Since the 2020 U.S. killing of former IRGC Quds Force Leader Qassem Soleimani, repeat rocket attacks have occurred in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, near the U.S. Embassy. The source of the rocket attacks are Shia militias in Iraq, which receive material support from the IRI.

In December 2020, multiple rockets hit an area housing U.S. Embassy personnel. The attacks killed an Iraqi civilian, but no U.S. citizens.

In March 2021, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad put out a security alert, advising U.S. citizens in Iraq about a variety of threats. The alert reads, “The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad reminds U.S. citizens extremist groups and regional actors have conducted destructive and sometimes lethal attacks against a variety of targets.  Attacks may occur with little or no warning, impacting airports, tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities.  Iraqi and Western facilities and places frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners may also be targeted.”

“There is a threat of drone and missile attacks impacting on civilian and other targets in Iraq.  Violence associated with Iran-supported groups represents a significant threat. U.S. citizens living and working near military bases and critical civilian infrastructure are at heightened risk of impacts from missile and drone attacks.”

In August 2021, multiple rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, but instead landed in other areas of the Green Zone.

In January 2022, a rocket attack unsuccessfully targeted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, resulting in an injured Iraqi woman and a child.

THE U.S. RESPONSE

One of the units tasked with helping protect against air attacks in Iraq is the U.S. Army National Guard’s 182nd Infantry regiment’s Transportation Unit. In addition, the U.S. has MIM-104 Patriot Surface-to-Air Missile Systems at both Al Asad Airbase and in Erbil. It remains unknown why air defense systems in Erbil did not engage the ballistic missiles coming over the Iranian border.

OUR ASSESSMENT

While there are no reports of casualties currently from the Iranian attack on Erbil, reporting on past incidents suggests that this could be subject to change. In 2020, there were no casualties reported following the Iranian ballistic missile attack on Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. One month later, the Pentagon announced that 109 members of the U.S. military were diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs).

The pattern of attacks from the IRI and Iranian proxies against U.S. targets in Iraq suggests that such attacks could continue as long as U.S. presence remains in Iraq. The Iranian government, which has significant influence in Iraq politically, militarily, and culturally, views the United States as a threat to its power and control in the region.

In addition, the IRI has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, and it has been improving its missile capabilities for decades. The missiles could target U.S. bases again in Iraq or U.S. troops in Kuwait, Syria, Qatar, the UAE, or possibly cities in Israel. However, based on open-source information, the Iranians cannot currently hit any target outside of a 1,250-mile radius, suggesting that any ballistic missile attack will stay within the Middle East regionally.

Ongoing geopolitical events reveal potential alliances through common ideas and policies or stand-up to common enemies. Extended cooperation between the Asaad regime, Russia’s military forces, and the Iranian proxies operating in Syria are likely to embolden aggressive rhetoric and action against Israel and the U.S., as a strong ally. Continued withdrawal of U.S. influence and involvement in the region will allow opportunities for Iran to take a more aggressive posture and rhetoric.

The strike in Erbil was Iran’s retaliation against Israel killing two IRGC officers in Syria on March 7, 2022 in what an IRGC statement claimed was an air strike. Recently, the Iranian regime has considered action from Israel to be inherently linked to the U.S. It is unclear the U.S. Consulate was the intended target, yet it offers what could be considered the less risky option for military action near a U.S. diplomatic facility considered “U.S. soil”. Erbil is in Kurdish territory and far from the larger embassy in Baghdad in a much more populated metropolitan city.

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