President Joe Biden’s decision to strike groups allied with Iran in Syria last night came after a series of missile attacks were launched. against US targets in Iraq last week, including Last week’s attack US and coalition personnel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The Erbil attack was Biden’s first major test with Iran, an escalation and provocation by Iran-allied militias that killed a civilian contractor. Wounded Nine others. It also resulted in the death of an Iraqi civilian. The 14 missiles fired by Iran’s proxies constituted the first major attack by these groups to fall under the auspices of the Biden administration.
The American strike on Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada is a welcome and thoughtful response, balancing the need to respond to Iranian proxy attacks with ensuring that countries like Iraq are not plunged into widespread violence and instability that allies can exploit to consolidate their influence. It helps the governments of Erbil and Baghdad prevent Iranian proxies from tarnishing their authority. Those governments seek to avoid being drawn into political and military conflicts with Iran’s proxies – which would serve the militias – and instead, maintain their focus on addressing the economic crisis.
Advantages of US Military Action
US policy toward Iran does not necessarily emulate the confrontational stance of the Trump administration, but it can and must use force against those who threaten US personnel. This could additionally boost diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran believes it can boost its bargaining power in these negotiations if it raises the stakes by injuring or killing American personnel, and believes that the Biden administration has a high tolerance for attacks by Iranian proxies on American personnel. The latest strike may somewhat alter this perception, and in the process deterring further attacks on the United States and forcing Iran to rein in its proxies. While it is unlikely that we will see a complete end to Iranian missile attacks by proxy, it is not entirely unreasonable that Tehran is looking to adjust the size and scope of future missile attacks.
Basically, the immediate goal of US military action against Iran’s proxies should be to protect the United States and coalition personnel currently participating in the campaign to defeat ISIS. In the medium term, it should enhance the viability of negotiations over the nuclear program, while in the long term it should strengthen the capacity of local institutions and actors in Iraq and Syria to restrict the space in which Iran’s proxies operate. What this means is that military action alone will not address the problem. At the root of the challenge lies the instability of the local political environment, as well as the weakness of institutions that lack the ability to provide services and security to societies, and the accountability of militias that operate outside the state.
Where does this leave Iraq?
To enhance the capacity of these institutions, it is crucial to ensure that Iran’s proxies do not undermine and discredit the governments of Erbil and Baghdad. Prime Ministers Mustafa Al-Kazemi and Masrour Barzani are currently dealing with a plethora of crises, including the economic crisis that could push Iraq to the brink of social and economic collapse. Erbil and Baghdad are not yet able to take direct action against groups allied with Iran, despite their aggression, provocations and ongoing humanitarian atrocities. Doing so may warrant a response from a powerful state sponsor (Iran) that has isolated its proxies from accountability and retaliation attacks for most of the past two decades. This paralysis allows Iran and its proxies to influence the political environment in their favor, extend their control over the political system, and reduce Iraq’s prospects for dealing with its economic crisis.
Anytime the US military launches such strikes, it is putting pressure on Iran and its proxies. This, in turn, mitigates the dwindling political capital that Erbil and Baghdad suffer every time an Iranian proxy launches an attack. Moreover, US military action reduces the likelihood of Baghdad or Erbil responding with impetus to militia attacks, a reaction that could weaken their standing and play in the militia’s favor. US military action allows, at least to some extent, the leadership in Erbil and Baghdad to fulfill the promise of accountability in the wake of militia rocket attacks, and to maintain their focus on economic reforms.
On a larger scale, such U.S. military responses produce more symbolic capital for leadership and reformers in Iraq, allowing rivals of Iran-aligned groups to develop local credibility that will be central to containing these players. Iran’s proxies rely heavily on symbolism and narrative building to expand their support bases, develop local resources, and position themselves as surrogates for their competitors or state institutions. This strike – and more US military action if or when these groups attack American interests again – could reduce the symbolic capital of Iran-aligned militias. This could ultimately help create internal fissures within proxy groups and the agency’s infrastructure that stretches across Syria and Iraq.