TSG IntelBrief: Iran Tests the U.S. in the Persian Gulf
September 1, 2016
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Recent confrontations between the U.S. and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navies reflect dissatisfaction among Iran’s hardliners with the results of the multilateral nuclear deal.
• The challenges represent the IRGC’s attempt to demonstrate the ability to defend Iran’s homeland and control the avenues of approach to Iran, including the vital Strait of Hormuz.
• The confrontations also represent an Iranian probe of U.S. intentions in the Persian Gulf region in the wake of the nuclear agreement.
• Further confrontations could halt Iran’s reintegration into the global diplomatic and economic community, and escalation could cause the nuclear deal to unravel altogether.
On back-to-back days on August 23 and 24, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy small patrol craft conducted four high-speed approaches of five U.S. Navy ships—two coastal patrol boats and three guided-missile destroyers—in the northern Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. In one of the incidents, a U.S. coastal patrol boat fired three warning shots, causing the IRGC Navy craft to turn away from a head-on approach of another U.S. vessel. According to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, all the U.S. ships were on routine missions in international waters. The U.S. stated IRGC Navy actions constituted ‘dangerous’ and ‘unprofessional’ acts that violated international law. No shots were fired directly at the vessels of either side, and there were no injuries.
Earlier in August, the IRGC Navy conducted several live-fire drills near U.S. Navy vessels in the Gulf. The provocations came ten days after IRGC Navy commander Admiral Ali Fadavi reiterated a threat to retaliate for any attack on Iran by closing the Strait, through which one-third of all seaborne traded oil flows. The number of potentially dangerous confrontations between U.S. and Iranian warships has increased by 50% from a similar time period in 2015—defying hopes that relations would improve following the January 2016 implementation of the multilateral nuclear agreement. In the past, these types of incidents have tended to occur in spates. It is difficult to predict whether last week’s incidents will recur, cease, or escalate.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—who has always been suspicious of U.S. intentions and critical of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf—recently asserted that Iran is not seeing the economic benefits promised by the nuclear deal. He blames the disappointing results directly on the U.S., saying that remaining U.S. sanctions are causing international banks to stay out of Iran’s market. He and top IRGC commanders have also stressed that the nuclear agreement was a limited transaction that does not alter Iran’s consideration of the U.S. as ‘hostile.’ The recent provocations are further evidence of this stance.
Regardless of the future course of these incidents, it is possible to draw certain conclusions from them. First and foremost, the IRGC and its Navy reflect the views of Iran’s hardliners, and it sees Khamenei’s recent statements as license to challenge the U.S. In so doing, the hardliners accomplish the additional goal of undermining the architect of the nuclear deal, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Hardliners have criticized Rouhani for trusting U.S. promises that the Iranian public would experience immediate benefits from sanctions relief—benefits that have been slow to materialize thus far. The IRGC Navy actions directly threaten Rouhani’s strategy of greater integration into the U.S.-led international diplomatic and economic community—integration that might undermine the IRGC’s business interests and the hardliner-linked conglomerates that currently dominate Iran’s economy.
At a strategic level, the naval incidents represent efforts by Iranian hardliners to show that the nuclear deal did not reduce Iran’s role as a major Persian Gulf military power or constrain its national security options. The Iranian naval actions demonstrate that Iran retains the ability to defend itself despite giving up the option, at least in the near future, of developing a nuclear weapon. To this extent, the naval provocations go hand-in-hand with Iran’s expansion of its arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, naval mines, small submarines, and armed drones—all of which enable Iran to project power, defend its territory, and control the avenues of approach to its borders. The growth of these capabilities represented the core finding of the most recent U.S. Defense Department report on Iran’s military power.
Another factor driving the naval provocations is the intent to probe U.S. resolve and intentions in the context of the nuclear agreement. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have questioned the U.S. commitment to Gulf security now that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has lessened. Iranian leaders have similar questions, and the naval confrontations might represent an attempt to probe U.S. reaction, determining whether the U.S. willingness to respond to such challenges has been reduced. Iranian leaders appear to be calculating whether or not the U.S. will seek to preserve the nuclear deal at all costs, and therefore not risk engaging in actual hostilities. Such hostilities would jeopardize the nuclear agreement by prompting the imposition of new economic sanctions on Iran, potentially triggering Iran’s hardliners to abrogate the deal altogether.
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