On Wednesday, rockets struck bases housing US forces in both Syria and Iraq, marking the third consecutive day of hostilities by Iran-backed militant groups. A day prior, rockets struck two locations on the Syria-Iraq frontier, highlighting the possibility of cross-border cooperation among the Iranian regime’s terrorist proxies. That same day, a pair of drones were shot down in Iraq for the second day in a row. The drones were brought down close to the Baghdad airport, and one was revealed to have the phrase “Soleimani’s revenge” painted on its wing.
Qassem Soleimani was the commander of the Iranian regime’s extra-territorial Quds Force. The terrorist mastermind was eliminated during a US attack on January 3, 2020. Also killed in that strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, a collective of Iran-backed militias involved in the suppression of Iraqi dissidents.
The regime immediately swore revenge for Soleimani’s killing and launched a barrage of missiles at US bases in Iraq just days later. In the immediate aftermath, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a civilian airliner near Tehran. The incident sparked domestic protests in Iran. Demonstrators burned posters of Soleimani and called for regime change.
Nevertheless, the regime continues to talk about “Soleimani’s revenge”, even after some state media outlets acknowledged instances of Iranians celebrating rather than mourning the anniversary of his death.
Soleimani is widely considered to have been instrumental in the proliferation of militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and beyond, which triggered the killing of tens of thousands of innocent people, including dozens of US forces. He coordinated massive expansions in financial and logistical assistance, as well as arms smuggling, to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh recently boasted about the effects of 70 million dollars in Iranian aid.
On December 10, an explosion at an arms depot in Lebanon brought attention to the fact that Hamas had developed a greater presence in that country as well as in its native Palestine, and had stockpiled various other weapons. Since 2018, Hamas has been working on a comprehensive strategy for Lebanon which reportedly involves developing the capability to fire 200 rockets from there into Israel. If accomplished, this would nearly match Hezbollah’s longstanding capabilities.
Hezbollah’s own capabilities have also been expanding, also with substantial assistance from Tehran. The Iranian regime helped it to acquire 2,000 drones over the past 15 years, likely including advanced models that are meant to disrupt airstrikes and carry anti-tank missiles. The estimated size of Hezbollah’s drone arsenal is well over twice what it was believed to have been in 2016, which in turn was more than 16 times the number of less-advanced drones Hezbollah was operating in 2006.
Unarmed UAVs also pose a threat to Iran’s adversaries insofar as they can facilitate the smuggling of conventional arms to Hezbollah, Hamas, the PMF, and others. Much of the actual smuggling is carried out via small boats in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, or via airliners typically operated by the IRGC-controlled Mahan Air. The scope of the threat is evident from the amount that has already been seized and officially reported.
The US Navy announced last month that it had seized a large cache from a shipping vessel en route from Iran to Yemen. Five Yemeni crew members were found to be transporting 1,400 Kalshnikov-style assault rifles and 226,600 rounds of ammunition. It was just the latest in a series of similar seizures that were announced over the course of 2021. All told, the US alone confiscated nearly 9,000 illicit weapons during that time, most of it apparently intended for delivery to the Houthi militant group that has overrun much of Yemen since 2014, displacing the internationally-recognized government.
Like Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthis have seen dramatic advances in the quality and range of their weaponry thanks to Iranian regime-led smuggling, financial aid, and other forms of assistance. This has allowed the Houthi to launch attacks deeper into the territory of Saudi Arabia. Some of the weaponry recovered from those attacks, including so-called suicide drones, have been definitively identified as being of Iranian origin.
Recently, the Houthis also seized a ship belonging to Saudi neighbor and ally the United Arab Emirates, which the Iran-backed group later claimed was carrying military equipment. The Arab coalition disputed this and said the Houthis had stolen the contents of a Saudi field hospital. In any event, the incident stood as another example of escalating belligerence by Iran and its proxies around the second anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s elimination.
To mark that anniversary, Iranian regime President Ebrahim Raisi delivered a televised speech in which he demanded the arrest of Donald Trump, the former US president who ordered the strike, and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Separately, Iran’s Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri stated that the regime had compiled a list of 127 people, including 74 American citizens, whom it holds responsible for Soleimani’s death.
Raisi threatened that the regime’s forces will ultimately assassinate US officials if a “trial” for Soleimani’s elimination is not held. The threat presumably extends to some if not all of the other 127 designated individuals. Although Tehran has a long history of exaggerating its own influence and capabilities, the recent proliferation of regional proxies makes the threat a salient one. The regime’s warmongering needs to be addressed through a decisive and coherent policy by the international community, one that can prevent further escalation and regional conflicts while preserving global peace and security.