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Iran expanded its ballistic missile barrage across the wider Middle East on Wednesday, striking what it claimed were terrorist-linked targets in Pakistan, after hitting claimed ISIS sites in north-eastern Syria and an alleged Israeli Mossad site in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq.
The Erbil attack killed a prominent businessman and his family.
Iran claimed the strikes were in retaliation for attacks it blamed on Israel and ISIS, while repeating an unsubstantiated claim that the two are linked. The worst of those attacks was a double bombing that killed almost 100 people in Kerman on January 3, which was claimed by ISIS.
The strike on Pakistan on Wednesday, which killed two children and injured four, was aimed at Baloch group Jaish ul Adl, which Iran has accused of taking part in an attack on a police station in the south of the country.
The Iranian strikes destroyed a family home in Iraq and a disused medical centre in Syria, according to Syria's opposition emergency services group the White Helmets, raising questions as to what Tehran was trying to achieve.
Tensions in the region are high amid an escalation in hostilities between a US-led international coalition and a host of Iranian proxy groups and allies, including Yemen's Houthis, Iraqi militias, Lebanon's Hezbollah and several Palestinian militant groups engaged in war with Israel.
What remains unclear is the reason for Iran's strike that destroyed the Erbil home of Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, who has been linked to the leading party in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Kurdish Democratic Party.
The KDP has had a difficult relationship with Iran-backed groups in Baghdad, with ties between Baghdad and Erbil often coming close to breaking point over the Kurdish region’s independent exports of oil, which have now been halted by the federal government.
“There's no genuine military justification for the strikes, so they were designed to send a message, it's sabre rattling,” said Norman Ricklefs, who runs the Iraq-focused Namea consultancy.
“Moreover, the strikes were carefully targeted in the expectation that they would not cause a direct military response from the US,” he said.
“But the strikes have also caused great anger in Iraq, which I don't think the Iranians expected before they launched.” Aurora Intel, a team of security analysts focused on the Middle East, told The National over email the Iranian attacks are a "message," while dismissing Iran's claims of a Mossad-KDP connection.
Iran claimed Mr Dizayee’s house was a Mossad office, but his business empire has no apparent link to Israel, although his company's website says it is involved in oil services, a crowded sector in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
The region previously exported oil to Israel, but has not done so since early last year, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank has said.
The Erbil strike was similar to a 2022 Iranian missile attack on the residence of Baz Karim Barzanji, another Kurdish businessman linked to the KDP, in which a civilian was killed. Missiles were also fired at the US consulate, which was under construction at the time.
Iran has provided no evidence that the Kurdish region is used as a base by Mossad, but Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian doubled down on the claim at the Davos forum on Wednesday.
As well as drawing an angry response from Iraq, the attacks have led Kurdish officials to repeat requests for US anti-air defences, such as Patriot missile systems, which have a track record of successfully shooting down ballistic missiles.
The Kurds could be waiting for some time, said Justin Bronk, a defence analyst at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, as US anti-air defence systems are in high demand globally.
“I suspect that it is unlikely that Patriot, let alone THAAD, could be deployed in response to KDP requests at this time due to global demand for the systems, trained crews and interceptor missile ammunition greatly outstripping available supply,” Mr Bronk said.
“The US does not have enough Patriot or THAAD for its own defence needs in the Indo-Pacific, Middle Eastern or European theatres. The Pentagon is already struggling to supply a range of higher-priority demands from allied and partner countries for the systems, especially to maintain Ukrainian Patriot coverage against regular heavy missile attacks by Russia.”
These systems have shot down many Russian ballistic missiles in Ukraine and Iran-made missiles in the Middle East. Russia has claimed some of these missiles can travel in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.
Iran has been keen to demonstrate its ballistic missile capability with an attack exceeding 1,200km in range.
Brig Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who commands the Aerospace Forces of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told the IRGC-linked Tasnim news agency that Kheibar Shekan missiles were used in the strikes. Tehran claims these missiles have a range of 1,450km. Images posted by the White Helmets in Syria appeared to show a direct hit on what the group said was a disused medical centre in the north of the country.
The attack, therefore, represents an impressive display of Iranian military technology, and an advance from attacks on US troops in Iraq in 2020, which showed the extreme precision of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles, which scored direct hits on American installations in the west of the country. But the strikes are far from unprecedented.
Most of Iran’s ballistic missiles have evolved from Soviet-era Scud missiles, one of which successfully hit a US Army barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1991, killing 27 soldiers.
But Iran's demonstration that it can hit so many targets in 48 hours will be concerning to observers, a real world demonstration of Tehran’s vast missile arsenal, which it has cultivated in the absence of a strong air force.
The attacks on Pakistan hit the home of two men involved in selling Iranian diesel, a Pakistani paramilitary militia commander told The National on Wednesday.
In the long term, while angering Islamabad, the strikes followed a pattern of Iranian attacks on Baloch militants, who have often skirmished with Tehran's troops on the countries' shared border and claimed attacks within Pakistan.