By Hamid Enayat
On Friday, just one day after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker over violations of US and EU sanctions, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps publicly advocated for attempting to capture a British tanker in retaliation. Mohsen Rezaei’s threat was just one example of the militarist rhetoric that has been emanating from Iranian hardliners in the midst of escalating tensions between Iran and the West. It also highlights Tehran’s efforts to portray itself as a victim of undue pressure, thereby justifying any action that the regime happens to take in the future.
This narrative has already assisted the regime in defending the shoot-down of an American surveillance drone last month. The Islamic Republic declared that the aircraft was inside Iranian airspace at the time, but the US has insisted that it was more than 20 miles away at all times. The incident contributed to international concerns about the possibility of war between Iran and the US, especially in light of the fact that President Donald Trump reportedly ordered a retaliatory strike before cancelling it at the last minute.
Trump explained that the expected death toll from that strike would be a disproportionate response to the downing of an unmanned aircraft, and his administration warned Tehran not to mistake “restraint” for “weakness.” Nonetheless, Iranian hardliners and particularly members of the IRGC have seized upon Trump’s reversal to bolster their claim that the Islamic Republic is prepared for a military confrontation with its leading “enemy.” The White House has continually insisted that it is working to avoid such a conflict, but the response from Tehran highlights the one-sidedness of that effort.
On Wednesday, Major General Hossein Salami, the current head of the IRGC, sought to potrary the US government’s focus on economic sanctions as something other than a deliberate tactical decision. “In the current situation it is the enemies who are worried about the outbreak of war and this worry is apparent in their physical and tactical behavior,” he said. “At the current crossroads, economic war is the main field for the enemy to confront us.”
Salami went on to make bold claims not just about Iran’s military strength but also about its capacity for influencing domestic affairs in the United States. “We have unseated an American president in the past; we can do it again,” he said referring to Jimmy Carter, who his 1980 reelection bid in a landslide amidst the hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran. That incident effectively established the new, theocratic regime’s self-identity as a source of “resistance” against Western influence – something that has continued to inform both its domestic and its foreign policies throughout four decades.
Tehran’s commitment to this defiant posture has been reflected in its development of “swarm tactics” as a supposed means of overtaking large and technologically advanced American warships with small IRGC attack boats. In 2015, Iranian naval forces undertook a training exercise that involved sinking a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier. Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi boasted of their success and announced that the Islamic Republic would be capable of sinking an American flotilla in a matter of minutes. However, the exercise was ridiculed by military experts who pointed to satellite images showing that the supposed replica aircraft carrier was already listing heavily before it took fire.
Still, Iranian propaganda outlets have continued to push the narrative of Iran’s naval superiority ever since. Toward that effect, short animations and feature films have been released depicting the sinking of US Navy vessels by much smaller Iranian boats. The IRGC has also made a habit of harassing American ships as they transit the Persian Gulf, sometimes refusing to withdraw until warning shots have been fired. However, these close encounters have virtually halted in recent months, leading some supporters of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy to cite this as evidence that “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions is having its intended effect.
On the other hand, Iran’s threat against British tankers was preceded by a number of actual attacks upon tankers in the waters of the Middle East, which have been credibly traced back to Iran and the IRGC. In May, significant damage was done to two Saudi tankers and one each from the United Arab Emirates and Norway, as they lay at anchor off the coast of the UAE. Then, in June, two other vessels were apparently damaged by Iranian limpet mines shortly before the aforementioned drone shoot-down. The US released surveillance footage showing the IRGC removing an unexploded mine from the hull of one of the damaged ships, and US military officials later declared that the downing of the drone was meant to impede surveillance of similar such activities.
Despite acknowledging responsibility for the drone incident, Tehran has flouted the evidence to deny having ordered or carried out the tanker attacks. This is unsurprising because, even though such attacks would arguably support Iran’s claims of military readiness, they would also undermine the regime’s efforts to portray itself as the victim of Western aggression.
Current Iranian officials accused the British of taking illegal action with their seizure of the Grace 1, but the circumstances surrounding its journey into Mediterranean waters suggests that its owners and operators were aware of the illicit nature of their attempted sale. As well as carrying Iranian oil that is under worldwide sanction by the US, the ship was reportedly destined for Syria with the intention of selling to a refinery affiliated with the dictator and close ally of Iran, Bashar al-Assad. This made the sale subject to EU sanctions on the Assad regime, which has been accused of numerous human rights violations against the Syrian people during a more than eight-year civil war.
The Grace 1 reportedly turned off its transponder in an effort to hide its location before taking on a shipment of Iranian oil. It then travelled all the way around the southern tip of Africa to reach the Mediterranean Sea, instead of going directly through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Maritime traffic is closely monitored, but there are some areas of the world’s oceans where vessels may escape the attention of satellites. Such methods have been cited as the means by which Iran would likely try to follow through on its promise of “resistance” against US sanctions. But many outlets that have highlighted these strategies have also pointed out that they are increasingly difficult to utilize successfully, and the seizure of the Grace 1 appears to support this conclusion.
It is not clear what standing the Islamic Republic has for its claim that the route of the Grace 1 was not illegal. On Friday, the government of Panama announced its acceptance of the British decision, noting that the ship had been removed from the Panamanian shipping registry after it was credibly accused of being involved in the financing of terrorism. And while Iran’s efforts to formally dispute the ship’s seizure are discredited by multinational accounts of its sanctions-busting activity, the regime’s threats of retaliation are undermined by factual accounts of its military capabilities.
Although the threat against British tankers has so far not been repeated by current Iranian officials, a number of them have made boastful references to the downed American drone in order to suggest that such threats are credible. In a Friday prayer speech, Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, an advisor to the supreme leader, echoed Hossein Salami’s claims about Iran having “completely closed off the path [of war] for the enemy.” Kermani credited fear of Iran’s missile program with preventing American retaliation. “When Iranian missiles are able to hit a stealth drone thousands of feet in the air, how easy would it be to hit an aircraft carrier in the sea?”
But this question ignores the fact that the IRGC had previously attempted to shoot down another American drone, without success. Although the aircraft that was ultimately downed was valued at well over 100 million dollars, it was not outfitted with countermeasures against a missile attack and its wingspan was approximately that of a small commercial airliner.
Meanwhile, the militaristic rhetoric of Kermani, Salami, Rezaei, and others disregards the overall limitations of Iran’s armed forces, many of which are the result of longstanding, effective economic and diplomatic isolation at the hands of the US and its allies.
The IRGC has developed its ballistic missiles to the point at which they are theoretically able to strike American assets in the broader Middle East, but the regime has failed in several recent attempts to test multi-stage rockets that would pose a more severe threat or bring the Islamic Republic anywhere close to being able to strike targets in Europe. Other aspects of the regime’s military capabilities have been a great deal slower to develop, and Iranian military parades have been known to showcase outmoded weapons with superficial changes that are designed to make them merely look new.
The antique nature of Iranian military resources was highlighted on Wednesday by the National Interest when it reported that the country had succeeded in restoring Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers. While this represents an improvement to Iran’s air force, it is an upgrade that lags behind other militaries, including regional militaries, by upwards of 30 years. Iran first acquired the aircraft from Iraq in 1991, and some have been grounded awaiting restoring for several years. Although some Su-24s are still in service among powerful nations like Russia, they are now relegated to a supplementary role behind more modern aircraft. By contrast, the Iranian air force and the Iranian military in general is forced to rely, to a great extent, upon equipment that dates back to before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
*Hamid Enayat is an Iranian human rights activist and analyst based in Europe.