Now, the Pentagon’s latest casualty estimate finds that at least 608 American deaths in Iraq stemmed from Iranian activities between 2003 and 2011. This constitutes 17 percent of all US service members killed in Iraq during that period. In commenting upon the revised figures, the US State Department’s special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, emphasized that thousands of Iraqi military personnel and civilians were also killed by Iranian proxy forces, chiefly Shiite militias that were organized according to what has been described as the Hezbollah model.
Many such militias remain active in Iraq following the fight against ISIL forces in that country, and some have been reported to swear allegiance to the Iranian supreme leader, over and above the government of Iraq. This situation has naturally fostered resentment of the Iranian presence among some powerful Iraqi figures. But at the same time, Iran-backed paramilitaries have successfully fielded candidates for the national parliament in recent years, thus helping to solidify Iraq’s position as a battleground for the competing influences of the Islamic Republic and the United States.
This fact was also underscored in Hook’s commentary during a briefing on Tuesday, wherein he said the US was continuing to exert pressure on Iran through sanctions and other measures, with the specific goal of penalizing it for “behaving as an outlaw expansionist regime.” Yet that behavior is already entrenched, not just in Iraq but also in other parts of the region. In Syria, similar Iran-backed paramilitaries, along with the IRGC’s Quds Force, have helped to preserve the rule of Bashar al-Assad during that country’s eight-year civil war. Meanwhile, the Iranians helped to instigate a civil war in Yemen, via the IRGC-backed Houthi rebel group.
The local consequences of these actions have been widely reported in their own right, but the revised Iraq War casualty numbers may help to underline the potential consequences for Western nationals, as well. Although Iranian forces have apparently not sought to engage US military advisers in Syria, the Houthi did fire Iranian-supplied missiles at US naval vessels in 2016. Although the attacks proved unsuccessful, they seemingly pointed to Iran’s persistent willingness to use asymmetrical warfare tactics such as the use of terrorist proxies to strike at Western assets throughout the world.
This phenomenon was further underlined in 2018 when it was reported that agents of the Islamic Republic had planned several terror attacks on European soil. In March of that year, two operatives were arrested for plotting against a Albanian compound that houses roughly 3,000 members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. The residents had previously been relocated to the Balkan nation from Iraq, where they had resided first at the self-built community of Camp Ashraf and then at the former US military base, Camp Liberty, before being relocated under an agreement with the US, Iraq, and the United Nations.
Prior to the completion of this evacuation, over 100 “Ashrafis” were killed in direct attacks and from the effects of a blockade of medicine and essential services carried out in part by the same Iran-backed militant groups that have been deemed responsible for over 600 American deaths.
In June of 2018, the PMOI was targeted in another plot, even much closer to the heart of Europe. Under directions from an Iranian diplomat based in Austria, two would-be bombers attempted to carry explosives to the annual Iran Freedom rally outside Paris, but were captured at the Belgian border. The targeted event attracted an estimated 100,000 Iranian expatriates from around the world, plus hundreds political dignitaries and foreign policy experts. It is therefore possible that high-profile American and European figures would have been among the dead if the attack had been successful.
While these and the other thwarted terror plots reportedly involved Iranian nationals and ethnic Iranians only, a more recent incident highlights the potential for Iran’s presence in Iraq to function as a separate pipeline for terrorist activity targeting the West. On Tuesday, The Media Line reported that Swedish police had arrested an Iraqi journalist for spying on an Iranian opposition group at the behest of the government in Tehran. The group in question is either the same as or closely affiliated with a group that was the focus of Iranian assassination plots in Denmark in October.
Although The Media Line stops short of directly connecting the Iraqi journalist to terrorist planning, it bears mentioning that such planning is a known feature of other Iranian espionage activities. In August of last year, a criminal complaint was filed in a US district court for two Iranian operatives who had been observed spying on PMOI activists and Jewish groups, and relaying information back to Iran. The FBI special agent who authored the complaint explicitly stated that the information in question appeared tailored toward setting the stage for subsequent terror attacks.
With the exception of individual assassinations in the Netherlands and elsewhere, traditionally Iranian terror attacks have tended to prove unsuccessful in recent years. However, the regime may have a better track record with other tactics of asymmetrical warfare, which have become increasingly prominent features of its campaigns against the West.
Illustrating this, Voice of America News reported on Thursday that a hacking collective associated with the IRGC carried out at least two attacks on various British institutions in recent years and gained access to sensitive information. Similar reports have also emerged concerning other targets of Iranian aggression, and cyber security experts have repeatedly warned of the rising levels of sophistication and organization in illicit online activities connected to the Iranian regime.
The VOA News report quoted one expert as saying that it is possible Iran is merely testing its capabilities and hedging against future military threats, but it is also possible that recent breaches are aimed at gathering intelligence to set the stage for other, more dangerous activities.