A recent drone air attack against the Saudi kingdom last week may point to increasing Iranian efforts to attack and threaten America’s Gulf Arab allies in the wake of President Trump’s successful efforts to create an Arab-Israeli coalition to contain Iran. However, rather than directly attacking these countries, Iran appears to be focusing on using its proxies to do the dirty work.
This proxy approach provides the Iranian regime some plausible deniability.
A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) highlighted this possible operational shift by Iran. The report, titled, “Iraqi Militant Attack on Riyadh Could Signal a Larger Shift in Iran’s Regional Approach,” summarized the issues:
January 29, 2021: Iran’s proxies in Iraq have joined an ongoing information and military campaign against Saudi Arabia that the al Houthi movement and Iran launched in late 2019. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias likely conducted a kamikaze drone attack into Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2021, for the second time in recent years. This attack could indicate a significant change in how the Iranian regime imposes pressure on its adversaries around the Persian Gulf. The potential expansion of Iraqi proxies’ ability and willingness to target foreign states in ostensibly deniable ways and in coordination with other components of the Axis of Resistance would pose a growing security challenge to the US and its regional partners.
The ISW report further details how this shift in Iranian strategy may evolve in the short term against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. This includes using Iraqi proxies as well:
Iran may leverage its Iraqi proxies to conduct additional attacks on regional adversaries, indicating a step change in Iraqi proxy capabilities and willingness to conduct attacks. Iraqi threats should not be disregarded. Sabereen news claimed that additional explosions heard over Riyadh on January 26 were a second revenge attack for the second ISIS suicide bombing in Baghdad on January 21 and warned that “[one suicide bombing] in Baghdad = [one] drone in Riyadh.
… A second attack, if it actually occurred, would indicate a step change both in Iraqi proxy capabilities and in their willingness to use them in pursuit of Iran’s broader regional objectives. Additional attack claims by Iraqi proxy groups may follow civilian casualty ISIS attacks in Iraq, further confusing an already complex regional milieu of Iranian-Saudi competition.
ISW concludes its report by predicting a possible Iranian proxy attack on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) shortly:
The next Iranian proxy attack from Iraq may target the UAE. The original claim of the January 23 attack threatened “an ensuing attack on the hideouts of evil in Dubai” …The Houthis claimed three attacks on the UAE, including on Abu Dhabi and Dubai International airports in 2017 and 2018, each of which the UAE denied… Sabereen News issued a garbled English language statement on January 27 threatening another drone attack on Abu Dhabi airport “this time with an Iraqi touch.”