On March 13, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fired missiles at targets in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil. The IRGC claimed the barrage of missiles was aimed at the operational bases of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. The following day, after the IRGC took responsibility, the Iranian state-run English-language media outlet Press TV called the strikes on Erbil a “wake-up call” for countries that give Israel an operational platform against Iran. This warning was ostensibly aimed at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and specifically at the Barzani political family. That said, the Iranians no doubt want this warning to be registered by other neighbors that also might have a working relationship with Israel. While Tehran’s threat of force might shape the calculations of regional states that are weighing the pros and cons of establishing closer ties with Israel, the Iranians will inevitably have to reckon with the possibility that this heavy-handed approach may backfire.
A region in flux: The UAE, Azerbaijan, and Turkey
The basic Iranian security concept is to keep its enemies as far away from its borders as possible. In fact, Iran’s use of the “proxy model,” whereby it relies on non-Iranian militant Islamists as part of its “forward defense” strategy, stems from this. Accordingly, Tehran is making great efforts to distance Israel and the United States from the ability to directly threaten its borders.
One of its most significant achievements in this regard was its construction of a "ring of fire" that surrounds Israel, through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In practice, Iran has managed to build strategic capabilities close to Israel's borders, without Israel being able to do the same vis-à-vis Iran.
But it seems that this Iranian achievement has been significantly eroded of late. In Tehran’s view, a series of events in recent years, and even more so in the past year, has allowed Israel to significantly expand its foothold close to Iran's borders, a development that has caused great concern for the Iranian leadership.
The signing of the Abraham Accords in late 2020 is surely a key part of this and a major driver of Iran’s growing worries. It is not surprising that Iran denounced the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to normalize relations with Israel as a dangerous step threatening its security as well as that of the Palestinians. The IRGC also issued a fiery statement, dubbing the normalization “historic idiocy” that would bring about a “dangerous future” for the UAE leadership. Although the Abraham Accords are ostensibly a purely civilian agreement, for Iran they allow Israel to significantly expand its grip on the Gulf, substantially increasing the danger to Iran — especially when Israeli military officials visit the area publicly.
But this is not the only development that raises concerns in Tehran. When Iran looks north toward the border with Azerbaijan, it is most disturbed by the Israeli presence there, and especially by the close security connection between Baku and Jerusalem. Iran has not hesitated to threaten military action against Azerbaijan in light of its claims that Israel is using the country to harm it.
The “last nail” in the coffin for the leadership in Tehran is the improving relations between Israel and Turkey, most clearly illustrated by the Israeli president’s March visit to Ankara. In recent years, relations between Iran and Turkey have gone through ups and downs. While close economic partners, Iran and Turkey are direct competitors for influence in various regional theaters, from Lebanon and Syria to the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf. The attempt by Israel and Turkey to put their relations back on track plays on Iranian concerns and adds another piece to the puzzle in terms of Israel's threat to Iran itself.
Iran's recent missile attack against what Tehran calls “Mossad bases” in the Kurdish part of Iraq is yet another example of Iran's fears of an Israeli presence near its borders. According to Iran — and like the Azeri case — Israel uses bases close to its borders to hit Iran, especially its nuclear sites and other military bases. Iran's willingness to use force against these "bases" is another indication of Tehran's growing fear of Israel's ability to exploit its expanding political and security ties with Iran’s neighbors to increase the military threat to Iran.
Although these are seemingly unrelated events, from the point of view of the security establishment in Iran, Israel is succeeding in creating a direct threat to Iran through its relations with these countries. These developments are likely to lead to deep thinking in Tehran about how to counter Israel, especially in light of the threats coming from Israeli officials about a possible attack against Iranian nuclear sites.
Iran’s strategy of patience against Israel under pressure
Over the course of the last decade, the basic Iranian game plan against Israel has been to edge closer to it — from Lebanon, Syria, or via Hamas-controlled Gaza — and to consolidate. In the meantime, the Iranians have been willing to take the blows that the Israelis have thrown at them. In Syria alone the Israelis have reportedly hit Iranian and pro-Iranian targets hundreds of times. The leadership of the IRGC essentially accepted such attacks as the price to pay for its long-term plan to entrench itself in the Levant. Any Iranian retaliation might have resulted in escalation and jeopardized the IRGC’s strategy of reinforcing its presence around Israel.
Israel very likely has made it impossible for Iran to stick to this game plan and to ignore the strikes it inflicts on Iran and pro-Iranian forces in the region. Not only do the Iranians believe that the Israelis have now begun to launch military and intelligence operations against Iran outside of the Syrian theater but they fear that such strikes might soon extend to Iranian soil. In such a scenario, the leadership of the IRGC will be hard pressed not to retaliate. They simply cannot afford to be seen as a paper tiger.
Most recently, there have been reports of an Israeli strike against an IRGC base in Iran’s Kermanshah Province in mid-February. That said, Tehran will still not want to retaliate by striking targets inside of Israel as that could result in a rapid expansion of the tit-for-tat conflict that might grow beyond Iran’s capacity to manage, at least for now. And yet, in the meantime, the Iranians will still want to work toward limiting Israel’s operational access.
This brings Iran’s immediate neighbors into the equation, from the KRG in Iraq that has long had a working relationship with Israel to the UAE and Bahrain and possibly other Gulf states that are in the process of expanding security and military relations with Israel. The problem Iran has, and will find hard to overcome, is that the instrument of pressure might work in some neighboring states, but it will not work in most. The Iraqi Kurds, for example, have complained loudly about the Iranian strikes against Erbil, but the capacity of the central government in Baghdad and the KRG to retaliate against Iran is at best questionable.
That sort of powerlessness will not be relevant when it comes to relations between Israel and some of Iran’s stronger neighbors, however. The case of Turkey is telling. The IRGC will not take the chance of firing missiles into Turkey short of an open war between Iran and Turkey — an unlikely scenario. In other words, perhaps the time is ripe for Tehran to reconsider its policy of edging closer to Israel in the Levant. The Israelis will probably do what they have publicly promised: to step up the pressure on Iran in response to what Jerusalem views as Iranian regional expansionism. But even if Iran wants to stay the course toward Israel, the IRGC will likely have to resort to a mix of instruments — including both carrots and sticks — to persuade Iran’s immediate neighbors not to build up their ties with Israel. Launching a barrage of missiles is not only not a strategy, but it is likely to backfire on Iran.
Danny (Dennis) Citrinowicz served as the head of the Iran branch in the Research and Analysis Division (RAD) of Israeli defense intelligence and as the division's representative in the United States.
Alex Vatanka is the director of MEI’s Iran Program and a senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative. His most recent book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
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