Last weekend, it was reported that several of the IRGC’s fast-attack boats had positioned themselves approximately 600 yards away from a US Navy surveillance ship and three accompanying British ships. The initial reports indicated that the Western vessels had changed course to avoid a closer confrontation. And US Navy officials described the Iranian actions as “unprofessional,” but stopped short of calling them dangerous.
The same muted response could not be given to earlier IRGC provocations, however, as some of them involved the same types of fast-attack boats approaching US Navy ships at a high rate of speed and refusing to change course until after warning shots had been fired. IRGC activities reportedly became both more frequent and more provocative in the wake of the July 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, but also have not diminished since President Donald Trump put the Islamic Republic on notice over its missile tests and other malign behaviors.
Military demonstrations by the IRGC and by the separate Iranian military forces have apparently been aimed at presenting an image of readiness for war against traditional adversaries like the United States. But in order to justify an ongoing military buildup, these same forces have evidently been trying to portray Iran as being under a serious threat of war from the US and its allies.
The recent IRGC statement was indicative of this trend. The IRGC’s own news website, Sepah, asserted that instead of changing course to avoid a confrontation last weekend, the American and British vessels actually changed course in the direction of the IRGC boats. Hashemi, the IRGC official, was quoted as saying that the US and UK have “harmful, illegitimate and provocative objectives.” He went on to say, “Not only do they not want stability and security in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, but they seek to create tensions and a crisis.”
Such claims have clear propaganda value for the Islamic Republic, and this propaganda is directed not only at a domestic audience but also at actual or potential allies in the region who share the Iranian regime’s perception of Tehran as the center of Islamic resistance against Western interference in the region. What’s more, a recent Bloomberg report suggests that this propaganda narrative has been successful among Shiite minority populations in various areas of the Middle East and Africa.
The report uses Nigeria as a representative example, noting that sectarian conflict there has surged ever since the Iran-backed cleric Ibrahim El-Zakzaky founded the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, in the 1990s. More recently, that movement was accused of attempting to assassinate the chief of staff of the Nigerian Army, leading to reprisals and Zakzaky’s arrest.
Bloomberg compares both the IMN’s domestic network and its rhetoric to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite paramilitary that is directed by Tehran and has come to maintain a sort of parallel state structure within the country. The report notes that the leadership of both groups has explicitly expressed allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and it quotes IMN member Bashir Mohammad as saying, if Khamenei “says everyone who finds an American in their country should kill him, we will kill him.”
This is only one indicator that Shiites in places like Nigeria have eagerly latched onto the Iranian narrative of the US as a purely aggressive force in the Muslim world, with Iran as its leading adversary. And Bloomberg notes that Nigeria is only one example of the “unexpected places” in which Iranian influence has been growing in recent years.
This is a threat not only to Western interests, but also to traditional American allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are also named in the rhetoric that is shared among the IRGC, the IMN, Hezbollah, and other Iranian proxies. The Bloomberg report also makes mention of the keen interest that some of these American allies have shown in countering the trend of Iranian imperialism.
That imperialism has been a driving force behind the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. And Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of Arab nations seeking to beat back the Iran-backed Shiite militants that have secured a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council also took the unprecedented step last year of formally designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, thereby further angering Tehran.
The anxiety over Iran’s regional influence has led to even more unprecedented signs of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and possibly also between these powers and the Turkish government that until recently had been enjoying improved ties to the Islamic Republic. Each of these powers contributed to what was widely viewed as a major turning point in international attitudes toward Iran, at last month’s Munich Security Conference. The event saw numerous public statements decrying Iran’s regional influence and describing it as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Now there are clearly efforts underway to counter Iran’s ongoing acquisition of non-state allies by highlighting to other national governments the threat that this poses. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow specifically to carry this message to the Russia government, which has been closely allied with Iran in the context of the Syrian Civil War despite also having traditionally strong relations with Israel, which Iran has repeatedly sworn to destroy.
The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu had urged Russia to block the Iranian power corridor in Syria, which would otherwise promise to secure a permanent foothold for Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy forces in the Golan Heights, just across the border from Israel. Netanyahu also warned the Russians that there focus on helping Iran to preserve the Assad government in Syria would ultimately run the replacing ISIL terrorists in the region with another network of terrorists loyal to Iran.
This is a threat that was also highlighted by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, in remarks delivered to the international body on Wednesday. Reuters described Haley as voicing the Trump administration’s commitment to removing Iran and its proxies from Syria. Her remarks made no mention of the Assad regime, suggesting that countering Iran’s influence had become a higher priority than the very issues that sparked the Syrian Civil War in the first place.
This sense of urgency is certainly shared by a number of governments in the Middle East and beyond, even though some of them have contrasting visions for the future of Syria. But although the political situation may remain fraught for some time, many international observers have determined that Iran alone is the main threat to the successful enforcement of a long-term ceasefire.
Iran-backed forces in Syria have been seen to violate previous ceasefires, including that which followed the capture of Aleppo by forces loyal to the Assad government. In that case, Iran evidently refused to allow evacuees to proceed past a checkpoint until Shiites had been released from rebel-held areas. This underlines a widely-recognized Iranian project of partitioning the region into Shiite and Sunni enclaves, with an eye toward creating a region-wide “Shiite crescent” with its capital in Iran and with a mission of unified combat against Western interests.