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How will the Tower 22 attack escalate regional tensions?

Verena Youssef | Middle East Fellow

Image of Popular Mobilisation Forces- an Iraq sponsored organisation composed of Katai’b Hezbollah and other militia. Image credit: Mohammad Mehdi Dara via Wikimedia.

On the 28th of January 2024, a drone attack claimed the lives of three United States (US) service members, and injured approximately 34 more at Tower 22, an American military base located near the demilitarised zone that borders Jordan and Syria. Shortly after, a U.S official announced that the incident carried the "footprints" of Kataib Hezbollah (KH), a radical Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group believed to be supported by the the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah. As the first attack against U.S personnel since 7 October 2023, the incident has delivered a decided blow to already troubled American-Iranian relations. Biden’s threats to “certainly hold [Iran] responsible” have rang true via strikes against KH’s commander, Abu Baqir al Saadi in Baghdad on February 7, for his alleged “planning and participating in attacks on US forces in the region.”  

This series of events has raised concerns of escalating regional tensions due to the complex tapestry of its belligerents’ relationships and growing avenues for proxy warfare. America’s targeting of central Baghdad directly threatens Iraq’s sovereignty, placing the recovering country in a dilemma between the U.S and KH, two essential, yet seemingly contradictory, security allies. The killing of Abu Baqir also complicates Iran’s political objectives across the region, weakening its historic military strategy and proxy military network.  

A threatened Iraq 

The attack, as well as KH’s growing military presence, have placed the Iraqi government in a security dilemma. KH is an important security partner for Iraq's fight against the Islamic State and other regional oppositional forces.  On the other hand, the Iraqi government’s ties with the US are essential to its development, as it has received billions of dollars of American  humanitarian and military aid, and at least USD$1.25 billion in direct military support since 2015. Seemingly, Iraqi officials are in a vulnerable position, as any direct support for KH risks the Republic losing America’s security and humanitarian resources. This concern has been acknowledged by the paramilitary group themselves, who allegedly announced on Telegram their intentions to halt military attacks against the US, to prevent the “embarrassment of [the] Iraqi government”, demonstrating KH’s understanding of Iraq’s sensitive position.  

Iraq has attempted to navigate this dilemma by affirming its neutrality.  Soon after the Tower 22 incident, Iraqi officials condemned the incident, demanding “an end to the cycle of violence." Government spokesperson Bassem al-Awadi also extended a hand to “collaborate on establishing fundamental rules to prevent further repercussions in the region and curb the escalation of conflict." Equally, Iraq has condemned the killing of Abu Baqir, labelling the US as a “factor for instability” for the war-torn country. However, Iraq’s stability lies on KH’s non-retaliation promise, as counter-efforts will only exacerbate tensions. 

A threatened Iran

Further, KH’s association with Iran poses broader regional concerns. President Biden did not hesitate from attributing the Tower 22 attack to “radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq”. This accusation followed the discovery of a Shahed-136 drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used in the attack.  These drones are developed by the Iranian Shahed Aviation Industries, who are closely associated with the IRGC Aerospace Force. Iran, however, rejects these allegations, and has asserted that it is “not involved in the decision making of resistance groups".

Since 1979, Iran has maintained an expansive network of resistance groups through which it conducts proxy warfare across its regional periphery. Known as the Axis of Resistance (AOR), this military and political network includes the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and KH across Iraq and Syria. The network has historically supported Iran’s military interests across the region, compartmentalising conflicts and preventing direct military violations of Iraqi sovereignty.  However, the US’ recent killing of Abu Baqir has significantly disrupted this proxy network, risking the efficacy of Iran’s objectives in the region. 

While KH has currently suspended its anti-US operations, the AOR may redirect efforts elsewhere to further Iranian interests. This has been suggested by Iran's labelling of America as the “aggressors” whilst denying the country’s  involvement in the Tower 22 attacks. Arguably, the AOR may call for the Houthis to dial up their military efforts against the US in Yemen and the Red Sea. Such redirection may allow Iranian proxies to continue disrupting the US and its allies without risking resources and irreversibly heightening tensions. 

However, others speculate that the threats against Iran have proven effective in restraining further aggression. While Iran has publicly announced its military’s willingness to counter further US involvement, its officials are reportedly urging AOR groups to “exercise restraint”.   It is speculated that Iran is concerned about reversing the AOR’s victories, in their ability to direct the “world’s focus” towards Gaza and prolong the Gulf’s normalisations with Israel. While speculation abounds, Iran is undeniably threatened - both publicly and militarily - by the continued attacks. 

A threatened region 

The Tower 22 attack has sent shock waves across the Middle East. The US’ killing of Abu Baqir in response has violated Iraq’s territorial sovereignty and weakened Iranian proxy actors, challenging Iran’s regional agenda. With multiple sets of competing interests at stake, the region risks further violence and escalation unless all sides reach a compromise.

Verena Youssef is the Middle East Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Verena is a final year Law/Arts student, set to complete her studies early this year. She has a strong passion for international law and is particularly interested in Middle Eastern policy.  

A proud Egyptian/Australian, Verena enjoys applying her degree in a manner that increases education about the flourishing region.


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