Iran File: Iran and Turkey face off in Iraq
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Key Takeaway: Iran is directing a proxy military campaign to contain growing Turkish economic, political, and security influence in Iraq. Iranian leaders seek to contain Turkey without inciting an overt conflict. Tehran considers Iraq a vital component of its regional influence and strategic depth and therefore opposes Ankara’s expanding reach. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has likely directed at least 13 Iraqi militia attacks against Turkish military positions in northern Iraq since April 2021. Long-standing compartmentalization and de-escalation mechanisms between Iran and Turkey reduce the risk of serious escalation. However, Iranian and Turkish officials have differing threat perceptions, which could lead to miscalculations by either side.
Iranian-backed militias have conducted at least 11 rocket and two kamikaze drone attacks against Turkish forces in Bashiqa—a town outside Mosul in northern Iraq—since April 2021 as part of an escalation cycle between Ankara and Tehran. A senior Iranian official, Mehdi Taeb, confirmed in a leaked audio recording in May 2022 that Iran directed these attacks. Taeb is not personally involved in military operations abroad but likely has access to such information given his close ties to senior IRGC officers and the supreme leader. The attacks have killed at least one Turkish soldier thus far. The scale of the largest attacks indicates Tehran is willing to accept a greater number of Turkish casualties and the consequences that would have on Iran-Turkey relations.
The IRGC is likely co-opting growing anti-Turkey sentiments in Iraq to cooperate with various local militias in at least some of the attacks on Turkish forces. The US Department of Defense assessed that Iranian-aligned militias have coordinated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a US- and Turkey-designated terrorist organization—to conduct some of the attacks. Separately, a group named Ahrar Sinjar claimed responsibility for at least two recent attacks in February and May 2022 in retaliation for Turkish air strikes against Kurdish and Yazidi targets in northern Iraq. Ahrar Sinjar is likely a facade group that Iranian proxies use to obfuscate their involvement in attacks and portray themselves as grassroots Yazidi militants. The IRGC likely seeks to frame its attacks as popular resistance to Turkish occupation.
Ankara’s latest military efforts in northern Iraq are likely facilitating growing cooperation between the IRGC and PKK. Turkish forces have long sought to remove the PKK from positions near the Turkish border in northern Iraq, which the group uses as launchpads for attacks in Turkey, with intermittent ground incursions and air raids. Turkey has intensified its campaign in recent years, establishing more long-term basing and conducting sustained cross-border operations to degrade the PKK presence in Iraq. Turkey *launched its most recent iteration of this campaign, Operation Claw-Lock, in April 2022. Iranian state media *has criticized this Turkish effort, and Iraqi proxy media channels have echoed this attitude.
The IRGC may be organizing cyber operations against Turkey as well. Farigh al Tahereh—an Iraqi hacker group—conducted cyberattacks against Turkish websites shortly after Ankara began Operation Claw-Lock in April 2022. The group targeted the websites of the Turkish president and Baykar Defense—a private Turkish defense company. Baykar Defense manufactures the Bayraktar TB2 military drone, which Turkish forces have used extensively against the PKK in Iraq. Iranian state media *has described Farigh al Tahereh as an “Iraqi resistance group,” which is the same rhetoric Tehran commonly uses to describe its client militias. Farigh al Tahereh may be the cyber wing of an Iranian proxy in Iraq or a front group for IRGC hackers.
Iran is likely directing these physical attacks and cyberattacks to contain Turkey’s expanding economic, political, and security influence in Iraq.
- Economic influence. Turkey is likely involved in talks with American, Iraqi Kurdish, and Israeli officials to construct an energy pipeline that would connect Iraq to Europe through Turkey. The IRGC and its proxies have attacked targets tied to the pipeline negotiations in recent months, signaling their opposition. The IRGC fired 12 short-range ballistic missiles at an alleged Israeli intelligence site near Erbil in March 2022. The missiles struck the residence of the CEO of the KAR Group—an Iraqi Kurdish energy company *involved in the pipeline negotiations. Likely Iranian proxies conducted two rocket attacks against a KAR Group oil refinery near Erbil in April and May 2022. Iranian leaders may worry that the pipeline will limit their access to global energy markets and therefore seek to prevent the construction.
- Political influence. Turkey has tried to influence the ongoing government formation process in Baghdad to expand its political reach since the Iraqi legislative elections in October 2021. Senior Turkish intelligence and political officials *have *frequently met with prominent Iraqi actors to shape the government formation process to benefit Ankara. These Iraqi actors oppose the Iranian-backed political parties. Iranian leaders are likely concerned that growing Turkish political involvement could dilute Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
- Security influence. Turkey has increased its military basing in and security cooperation with Iraq in recent years. Iranian state media and proxies have expressed growing alarm over Turkey’s military expansion in northern Iraq. Iranian outlets *have reported in recent weeks that Ankara has significantly increased its military footprint in Iraq over the past several years. Iranian proxy Kataib Hezbollah *published a statement in February 2022 demanding that Ankara withdraw its forces from Iraq and praising Ahrar Sinjar for one of its attacks against Turkish forces at Bashiqa. Qais al Khazali, who leads Iranian proxy Asaib Ahl al Haq, stated that the Turkish military presence in Iraq is a greater threat than the US troop presence in April 2022 is.
Iraq and Turkey have deepened their bilateral military cooperation as well, potentially threatening Iranian control over Iraq’s security sector. Iraqi and Turkish officials *signed a defense cooperation agreement in August 2021 and discussed strengthening security ties further in December 2021. This growing cooperation could include joint military drills between Iraqi and Turkish forces. Furthermore, Iraqi officials and media *have indicated Baghdad’s interest in procuring Turkish-made military equipment, such as Bayraktar TB2 drones, among other systems.
This conflict in Iraq is a microcosm of the intensifying regional competition between Iran and Turkey. Ankara has held senior-level exchanges on political and security cooperation with Tehran’s regional rivals, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in recent months as part of a broader rapprochement with these states. Iranian leaders may worry that these bolstering ties could lead these countries to establish a regional security architecture to contain Iran and its Axis of Resistance.
Iran and Turkey both likely seek to avoid overt confrontation, but divergent threat perceptions could lead to miscalculations. Turkish officials may underestimate how much of a threat Iranian leaders perceive from Turkey’s recent regional diplomacy and efforts to consolidate its sphere of influence. Ankara may consider the Iranian reaction a manageable by-product of Turkish regional ambitions—particularly after Turkey’s yearslong experience compartmentalizing cooperation and competition with Russia across multiple theaters. Nevertheless, the IRGC and its proxies likely consider Turkey’s maneuvers in Iraq and the region a critical threat, which could prompt them to escalate further than Turkish leaders expect.