Why did Khamenei launch 12 ballistic missiles at Erbil at the height of the nuclear talks?

Amid discussions over the mullahs' controversial nuclear program and a possible agreement with the international community to tame the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions, the regime in Tehran fired 12 ballistic missiles at Erbil, in Northern Iraq. The timing of this action may seem very unusual, and what seems even more bizarre is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officially took responsibility for this terrorist attack at the same time as the Iranian regime was insisting that the IRGC be removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations as a condition for the Vienna negotiations’ success.

This may seem irrational to anyone with a conventional and logical mindset. Doesn't Tehran know what it is doing and what the consequences might be? Was the missile launch the result of a miscalculation? To answer these essential questions, one should look at Iran’s socio-political situation, the fragile state of the government in Iran and what may lie ahead.

Let's go back a little bit. On 18 June 2021, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei paid a high political price to appoint Ebrahim Raisi as the country's new president. Khamenei's decision essentially represented a severing of ties with half of his regime, the so-called moderate faction. It was also part of a larger strategy to unify the government and consolidate power for the officials at the very top of the ruling system.

Raisi was one of the foremost perpetrators of the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, which claimed 30,000 victims, 90 percent of whom were activists with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran/ Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK). His appointment to the presidency was the culmination of a process that began with the parliamentary election in February 2020, during which only the most hardline candidates with the greatest loyalty to the supreme leader were allowed to appear on the ballot. The election resulted in Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a notorious IRGC commander, being appointed Speaker of the Parliament.

Since the regime’s inception more than forty years ago, it has based its survival firstly on internal repression and secondly on regional interventionism and the exportation of terrorism and extremism. Acquiring a nuclear bomb is perceived as the guaranteed third goal for the clerical rulers to secure their regime’s survival. Khamenei understands very well that in order to survive, its regime must continue walking each of these paths. 

But the Iranian people's discontent and dissatisfaction with the government has resulted in eight nationwide anti-government uprisings since December 2017. This is the sole reason why Khamenei was in a rush to bring unity to his regime, so it could stand against the ever-growing wave of protests and demonstrations in Iran.

Slogans like "Death to Khamenei" and "Death to the dictator" have become commonplace across the nation, and images of the regime's supreme leader have been set on fire in various cities. In November 2019, when nearly 200 Iranian cities witnessed a massive popular uprising, the regime was close to the brink of overthrow. It managed to survive only after Khamenei explicitly ordered the IRGC and its security forces to shoot to kill the protesters. More than 1,500 defenseless demonstrators were killed on the spot. But exactly two months later, the frustrated and discontented people again took to the streets. It was a profound sign of the people’s hatred for the entire regime.

In 2021, a major uprising took place in Iran almost every four months. Such volatility shows that even Raisi’s appointment and the intensification of repression has not impeded the people's commitment to change. Furthermore, for the past few years, the MEK’s ‘Resistance Units’ have been increasingly involved in organizing and directing uprisings and social protests to break the spell of repression inside Iran. This has made the regime doubly fragile, and Khamenei has failed to find a way out of this strategic impasse.

Last year, the Resistance Units launched a series of operations that regime officials are still baffled to respond to. A newly unveiled statue of the late IRGC Quds Force commander - Qassem Soleimani - was set on fire in January 2022, and the country’s National TV channels were hijacked to broadcast images of the Resistance leadership later that same month. Such activities have shaken the regime to the core. 

Khamenei is in dire need of a loyal repressive force to curb the growing uprisings and protests. However, Khamenei knows that this is not easy to maintain if it cannot rely on a strong central government. Terrorist attacks beyond Iran’s borders serve as a show of strength for the regime and thus bolster the morale of a repressive force tasked with suppressing future protests and uprisings. 

Launching missiles into Erbil, Iraq, fully aligns with Ali Khamenei's strategy. It is an act of desperation based on a strong need to maintain the power balance within the regime. But it has been emboldened by the weak foreign policy of Western adversaries, which has granted the regime impunity regarding such actions. The regime has never been held accountable for the long list of terrorist activities it has committed beyond its borders.

Khamenei's first and last priority is to maintain his rule, despite advances by the internal “enemy” - the Iranian people and their organized Resistance movement. Khamenei knows better than anyone else that 2022 is entirely different from 2015, when the JCPOA nuclear deal was signed and the regime was thus granted some respite from its crises. This time, no nuclear deal can change the regime's destiny.