Iran is taking advantage of unrest in neighboring Iraq to stockpile short-range ballistic missiles there, according to a report Wednesday.
Quoting American intelligence and military officials, the New York Times reported the missile buildup was part of an Iranian effort to project power in the Middle East as the United States increases its military forces in the region following a series of attacks blamed on Iran.
The intelligence officials said the missiles threaten US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as American troops stationed in the area.
The officials would not comment on the type of missiles Iran is secreting into Iraq, but the report noted a short-range missile with a range of 600 miles (965 kilometers) could strike Jerusalem from Baghdad.
Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, who recently visited Iraq, told the newspaper Iran’s placement of missiles in its western neighbor was being overlooked.
“People are not paying enough attention to the fact that ballistic missiles in the last year have been placed in Iraq by Iran with the ability to project violence on the region,” she said.
She added that though Iraqis “do not want to be led around on a leash by the Iranians,” Iran was best positioned to exploit the anti-government protests in Iraq.
At least 400 people have died since the leaderless demonstrations shook Iraq on October 1, with thousands of Iraqis taking to the streets in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite southern Iraq decrying corruption, poor services, and lack of jobs and calling for an end to the political system that was imposed after the 2003 US invasion.
The protests, which have included demonstrators railing against Iran’s influence in the country, prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Madi. Officials and experts have warned of a potential political crisis because of disagreement among Iraqi leaders over which parties control the largest bloc of seats in parliament.
On Tuesday, anti-government protesters in the holy city of Najaf burned tires and hurled them toward the main gate of the Iranian consulate, burning it for the third time in the span of a week.
Iran was also rocked recently by anti-government protests, with rights groups reporting over 200 people killed in the crackdown.
Reuters first reported last year that Iran was placing ballistic missiles with its Shiite proxies in Iraq and also working to make sure its allied militias in the country are capable of building more rockets indigenously.
The deployment was meant to improve Iran’s ability to retaliate against any Western or Arab attacks on its territory, as well as to expand its options for attacking opponents in the region, Reuters said at the time.
A series of airstrikes in Iraq on Iranian-linked bases and weapons earlier this year was blamed on Israel by Iraqi leaders. Israel has not confirmed its involvement in the attacks, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted at the possibility that it has struck in Iraq.
Israel views Iran as its greatest threat, and has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in Syria in recent years aimed primarily at preventing the transfers of sophisticated weapons, including guided missiles, to the Iran-backed, Lebanese Hezbollah terror group.
Israel has repeatedly said that it will not accept Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and that it will retaliate for any attack on the Jewish state.
Tensions have risen in the Persian Gulf since May last year when US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the nuclear deal between major powers and Iran and began reimposing crippling sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure.”
They flared again this May when Iran began reducing its own commitments under the deal and the US deployed military assets to the region.
Since then, ships have also been attacked, drones downed, and oil tankers seized. In September, Saudi oil facilities were also attacked in a cruise missile and drone strike blamed on Iran.
Israeli and US officials have warned Iran may be planning similar attacks.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom said Wednesday that “Iran’s developments of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles” goes against a UN Security Council resolution calling on Tehran not to undertake any activity related to such missiles.