FPI Bulletin: Iran’s Naval Aggression and Regional Ambitions
The Iranian navy’s recent seizure of a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz reflects both its longstanding efforts to project power abroad and its distinct status as a symbol of Iranian might. The capture also indicates that ongoing nuclear negotiations have failed to stem Iran’s regional aggression. In fact, by treating Tehran’s belligerence as a distraction from its efforts to secure a nuclear deal, the Obama administration has undercut American influence in the region — and sent Iran the message that it can continue its aggression with relative impunity.
A Symbol of Iranian Power
For the regime, the Iranian navy functions not merely as a military force, but as a reflection of the country’s strength and its emergence from generations of subservience to Western powers. As Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asserted in a 2011 speech, Iran’s naval forces “are the symbols of the might of the Iranian nation” and “make up for a long era of backwardness.” “The era when imperialist powers decided the destinies of nations through their military presence,” he added, “is over.”
Put differently, Iran views its navy as one of its most powerful instruments to challenge U.S. influence in the region. “The Americans presume to be a superpower,” said Iranian naval commander Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi in May 2014, “and they point at their military capability as one of the criteria and signs of being a superpower. America’s military might lies in its naval capability, and it is only by means of its navy that it can ... reach other places in order to actualize its imperialist goals.” Iran, Fadavi added, seeks “to destroy the U.S. Navy.”
The Iranian navy’s position in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which spans just 21 miles at its narrowest point and channels 40 percent of the world’s oil tanker traffic, strengthens its ability to intimidate both the United States and the international community as a whole. Indeed, unlike Iran’s conventional army or air force, the navy is uniquely positioned to block the free flow of oil, which America’s own position in the Gulf aims in part to secure. Thus, Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened to close the Strait if the West fails to meet their demands. In February 2015, the regime mouthpiece Kayhan gloated that its “closure would be a nightmare for America and the global economy” and “make it the graveyard of the American superpower.”
To be sure, Tehran recognizes that U.S. naval forces could easily trounce Iran’s in any conventional conflict. Accordingly, Iran has adopted a strategy of asymmetrical warfare that emphasizes the use of hundreds of smaller vessels that can conduct swarm attacks, lay mines, and wage suicide operations. Such tactics, writes Michael Connell of the Center for Naval Analyses, constitute a “deterrence-based model of attrition warfare that raises an opponent’s risks and costs, rather than reducing its own. The goal is to inflict a psychological defeat that inhibits an enemy’s willingness to fight.”
The Iranian navy has also sought to enhance its regional standing, and hence its ability to deter threats, by partnering with U.S. adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Sudan. Similarly, its unfulfilled threats to deploy Iranian warships to the Atlantic suggest that it aspires to intimidate the United States closer to home. As navy commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said last year, “Like the arrogant powers that are present near our maritime borders, we will also have a powerful presence close to the American marine borders.”
Ultimately, Tehran is betting that it can expel America from the region. Iran’s frequent provocations in the Gulf over the years, including its blustery rhetoric, speak precisely to this conviction, trumpeting the inevitability of Iranian victory, the futility of resisting it, and the ephemerality of American resolve. As Fadavi put it in February 2014, “The Americans will know [Iran’s true power] when their warships, with over 5,000 aboard, sink during a confrontation with Iran, and when they have to search the depths of the sea for their bodies.”
A History of Violence
Naval conflict between the West and Iran dates to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and illustrates its consistent adherence to the principles of asymmetric warfare. During the anti-shipping campaigns known as the Tanker War, the United States boosted its presence in the region to deter the Iranian attacks against neutral shipping that followed Iraqi attacks on Iranian shipping. In 1988, after an Iranian mine damaged an American ship, the United States executed Operation Praying Mantis, sinking or destroying three Iranian warships, among other vessels.
In 2004, Iran captured eight British sailors, subjected them to a mock execution, and released them after three days of international pressure. As one sailor recalled, “we were taken off a bus and walked into this sort of wasteland and walked into a ditch, and there was four or five Iranians with automatic weapons, AK-47s, on the top of the ditch — cocked their weapons, made ready, and we think to ourselves well, this is it. Time is up.”
In 2007, Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines, releasing them after nearly two weeks of international pressure. During their imprisonment, one of them recounted, the British personnel “were put up against the wall, hands bound, blindfolded, and there [were] people who were talking weapons in the background.”
In 2008, five Iranian speedboats approached three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz, maneuvered aggressively, and threatened to destroy them. In 2012, three Iranian speedboats armed with a mounted gun chased U.S. ships in the Strait. In 2014, the Pentagon released a report stating that Iran has developed anti-ship ballistic missiles capable of striking maritime activity throughout the Persian Gulf. In February 2015, Iran destroyed a mock U.S. aircraft carrier as part of a war game; an Iranian spokesman called the move “a psychological and media operation.” And in April 2015, Tehran deployed warships off the coast of Yemen to supply arms to Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The latest act of Iranian naval aggression, this time against the Marshall Island-flagged ship known as the Maersk Tigris, comes at a particularly volatile point in nuclear negotiations. On April 2, the P5+1 and Iran concluded a framework agreement that would putatively form the basis of a final deal, which the parties must negotiate by a June 30 deadline. However, Iran’s behavior suggests that it sees no contradiction between its efforts to reach a nuclear agreement and its regional hegemonic ambitions.
The reason is clear: The Obama administration also sees no contradiction between Tehran’s aggression and the negotiated resolution of nuclear concerns. Specifically, Washington fears that challenging Iran’s drive for regional supremacy would undermine prospects for a final agreement, and therefore has largely turned a blind eye to its brazen provocations. As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has argued, Iran’s naval aggression simply reinforces the need to finalize a nuclear deal in order to prevent Tehran from becoming “even more destabilizing” and “even more dangerous.”
The opposite is the case. By signing an agreement that would allow Tehran to retain its nuclear infrastructure, resume all nuclear activities after 10 to 15 years, and receive sanctions relief prior to full compliance with the deal, the Obama administration would embolden the regime to continue its regional aggression, secure in the knowledge that its growing nuclear capabilities will increasingly shield it from retaliation. Thus, Iran could murder Americans overseas, sponsor genocide in Syria, and dominate Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, yet still receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief at the same time.
In other words, the administration’s strategy actually incentivizes the regime to continue its efforts to dominate the Middle East rather than halt them.
To combat Iran’s aggression at sea, the United States must also combat Iran’s aggression in the region and its intransigence in the negotiating room. It must insist on a good nuclear deal that actually prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and links sanctions relief both to compliance and to Iran’s cessation of its support for terrorism. Unfortunately, by supporting an agreement that would permit Iran to become a threshold nuclear state and wreak havoc in the Middle East with impunity, the Obama administration will likely exacerbate the very problems it aims to solve.
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