News & resources

Situation Update - US / Iran Tensions

Back to blog

IRAN LAUNCHES MISSILE ATTACK ON US-COALITION ASSETS IN IRAQ, CLAIMED AS COORDINATED RESPONSE TO KILLING OF GENERAL QASSEM SULEIMANI

  • Iran launches retaliatory missile strike on military installations housing US-coalition troops in northern Iraq; initial damage assessment shows limited impact.

  • Iranian government claims the attack is part of a coordinated response to the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani.

  • Iraqi PM claims Iran warned him of retaliatory strike and this intelligence was passed to Iraqi forces operating within the target bases, potentially indicating a calibrated attack.

  • US President seeks to play down the attack, taking to social media to post “All is well!”

  • Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 crashes shortly after take-off from Tehran killing all on board; initial indications suggest technical fault despite speculation from Ukrainian government.

  • FAA imposes increased flight restrictions establishing a no-fly zone over Iraq, Iran, the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

iranusflagtension_hdv

Situation

Iran launched a series of short-range ballistic missiles targeting US-Coalition military installations in Iraq during the early hours of Wednesday morning. According to reports, bases in Anbar and Erbil were attacked at around 02:00 local time Wednesday 08 January, however at this time there are no reports of any casualties or damage within the bases. Iraq, the UK and several other coalition nations have also confirmed none of their personnel have sustained casualties.

The Iranian government have stated the attacks were part of a coordinated retaliatory response for the killing of General Qassem Suleimani during a US Drone attack on Friday. At least 15 missiles are understood to have been launched, although there are reports some did not reach their intended target and fell short on route. The missiles are believed to have been primarily Fateh-110 short-range ballistic variants, although there are indications five longer range liquid-fuel Qiam ballistic missiles were also launched.

The Iraqi Prime Minister has rejected the missile attacks by Iran on its soil, however the statement fell short of condemning the action, unlike the statement made following the US missile attack on General Qassem Suleimani’s convoy. Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated he was verbally warned by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani of the planned retaliatory missile attack on bases housing US-coalition forces in Iraq. This intelligence was then disseminated to Iraqi commanders based in military bases alongside US-coalition forces, although it is unclear if specific targets were detailed.

Emerging footage claimed to have been taken during the attacks also shows US air defence systems in action countering the incoming threat posed by the missiles although the footage has yet to be verified. The US military does have the Centurion C-RAM Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar weapon system deployed in Iraq and it is credible to assume this weapon’s platform was used as part of an integrated protection system to take out incoming missiles. This could potentially explain the lack of reported casualties and damage, especially given coalition troops were on high alert and had possibly been warned an attack was inbound.

The US President took to Twitter following the attacks, appearing to play down the missile strikes. He Tweeted “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!” President Trump is expected to make a statement today regarding the missile strikes, although there is some indication the attacks were deliberately calibrated to avoid significant casualties.

According to Ukraine's foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, there were 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians on board.  Other governments have since confirmed 10 Swedish, four Afghan, three German and three British nationals were also on-board the aircraft when it crashed. There are no reports of survivors.

The crash came only hours after the missile attack launched on Iraq from inside Iran, although at this time there is no indication the crash is anything related, with Iranian officials claiming initial investigations point to a possible engine fire which spread as the plane tried to gain altitude. Eyewitness statements appear to corroborate this. Despite initially accepting a mechanical issue as the possible cause, Ukrainian officials mysteriously retracted this statement and have declined to comment further on the cause whilst investigations are ongoing.

The incident has also heavily impacted airspace in the region. Many of the major global airlines flying routes into or over Iran and Iraq have either re-routed flights or cancelled services altogether following the Iranian missile attack. The FAA issued an emergency Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) in the early hours of 08 January effectively preventing US commercial operators from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. This is expected to have a significant impact on flight routing, with extended flight times for some services.

Analysis

These strikes are the most direct assault by Iran on the US since the seizing of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. However, following the missile strikes several top Iranian officials issued more conciliatory messages indicating that they may be seeking to draw a line under this recent escalation in tension, while placing the onerous on the US. 

Iran's Defence Minister Amir Hatami said Iran's response to any US retaliation would be proportional to the US action. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the attack was self-defence and denied seeking to escalate the situation into war. 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has tweeted that “All is well!” and that an assessment of casualties was underway, adding “So far, so good”. Contrary to this, Iranian state television has made claims that 80 US nationals were killed and helicopters/military equipment was damaged, without providing any evidence. 

There is evidence of hacking taking place across social media sites, giving speculation that Iranian proxies are carrying out targeted misinformation campaigns using softer targets such as news sources. Kuwait has confirmed its State News Agency was hacked after reports emerged from KUNA appearing to suggest US forces were declaring an imminent withdrawal from the country within three days. 

The US Department of Defense subsequently confirmed no such notification had come from the Commander in Chief of a US military camp in Kuwait and Kuwait's defence minister later confirmed the news agency had been hacked. The spreading of disinformation is likely to remain a key tactic in Iran’s cyber-attack arsenal.  The country is renowned for engaging in widespread misinformation campaigns targeting the US and its allies in the region, with the possibility these campaigns are not limited to being launched from within Iran; but are also being carried out by Iranian backed militia operating in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

The situation remains extremely unpredictable, particularly given the fractious nature of US-Iran relations, with the IRGC warning against US retaliation. Through its Telegram channel specifically, the IRGC has claimed that should the US retaliate against the overnight missile attack on military installations housing US coalition personnel in Iraq, the Iranian armed forces would target US allies in Dubai, UAE, and Haifa, Israel. Further, the leader of the Shia militia in Iraq known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq has threatened additional action; stating that it is now time for the Shia militia to avenge the other main fatality being Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. However, no specific targets have been specifically threatened and the capability of the Iran-backed group is not clear. 

Implications

The next 24-48 hours will be crucial in gauging the next steps. On one hand, Iran has been seen to have retaliated to the world’s media whilst attracting a very measured rhetoric response from the US, whilst on the other the US can use the opportunity to show that any direct military action from Iran will yield limited results. In this respect, the missile attacks could ironically bring about a short-term de-escalation to the crisis.

However, the rhetoric coming from within Iran, and in particular from the IRGC, remains threatening, warning of further hostilities should the US respond to the missile attacks overnight. Iran is drawing on the symbolic nature of the missile strikes to generate much needed support internally with a view to strengthening Iranian resolve to limit US coalition power in the Middle East.

President Trump’s scheduled statement could reveal more of an insight into the next moves, particularly if there is confirmation of no casualties or damage. This is a key element in understanding whether the missile attacks on US interests will lead to any significant retaliation from President Trump.

Following the short-range missile attacks, multiple international carriers have started clarifying their Middle East routes, altering paths that involved overflights in Iranian and Iraqi airspace. Some additional routes to/from Baghdad have also been suspended. All flights operated by Emirates and Flydubai into Baghdad have been cancelled today and the airlines have said that they will be closely monitoring the situation.

The FAA issued a statement confirming that “following the missile strike, the US FAA has now issued “Emergency Order” NOTAM’s banning all US operators from overflying the airspace Iraq, Iran, and the overwater airspace above the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, with immediate effect. This is significant given the Flight Information Region (FIR) airspace covered by the NOTAM.

Although the FAA emergency order is aimed at US commercial aircraft, a growing number of airlines from other nations are applying the airspace restrictions which is impacting services operated by British Airways, KLM, Air France, Lufthansa, Air Canada, Emirates, Flydubai, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, amongst others.

Japanese airlines ANA and JAL, and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific have stated no action is required as flight plans do not operate within airspace affected by the NOTAM.

The Russian aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, has confirmed all Russian airlines are being advised to avoid flying over Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman "due to existing risks for the safety of international civil flights." India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation also stated Indian commercial carriers were being advised to avoid Iranian, Iraqi and Persian Gulf airspace.

Qatar Airways has confirmed its flights to Iraq were operating normally.

The ongoing investigation into the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 is also expected to attract significant attention. The aircraft was a US-manufactured three-year-old Boeing 737-800 and initial reports indicate the aircraft had just taken off for Kiev when it caught fire and subsequently crashed. Communication with the cockpit is believed to have been lost approximately three minutes into the flight.

The flight was scheduled to take-off at 05:15 local time, however this slot was delayed and the aircraft took-off from Tehran at 06:12 local time with 176 people on-board.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that there should not be any speculation about the cause of the crash, although subsequent statements made aligning with Iranian authorities regarding the initial cause as being a mechanical fault were later removed, further increasing speculation the aircraft was brought down.

Despite the timing of the accident, at this time there is no further evidence to indicate the aircraft was downed by deliberate means, although investigations are ongoing. Eye-witness video and photographic footage appears to support early indications an engine caught fire in the climb out phase of the take-off, although again this footage cannot be independently verified. Both the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder have been recovered intact, however there remains some controversy as to which country ICAO should hand over the devices to for data analysation.