This year was no exception. In the first place, Tasnim News Agency, an outlet that is close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, described the exercises as a “massive war game” before specifically boasting of the successful test-firing of medium and long-range cruise missiles to destroy “the hypothetical enemy’s vessels.” But much more dubious and specific rhetorical claims came from such sources as the English-language Iranian propaganda network Press TV, which claimed that the military had “warned off two US-led coalition battleships that had approached the site of the drills for surveillance.”
According to the Associated Press, some Iranian sources even went so far as to claim that an American vessel had departed the scene after Iran fired “warning shots” at it. Whether by coincidence or design, such reports effectively mirror a number of reports from recent years regarding IRGC attack boats approaching dangerously close to American ships as they transited the Persian Gulf. In some of these situations, the IRGC vessels reportedly ignored radio contact and visual warnings, changing course only after warning shots had been fired.
While the IRGC maintains its own naval forces, they are separate from the Iranian Navy itself and are tasked with security inside the Strait of Hormuz, while the Navy operates throughout a much larger geographic area. Of the Monday-Tuesday naval drills, Tasnim said, “The war game covers vast areas south of Iran, mainly the coastline stretching to the southeastern Makran region, by the sea of Oman.”
The IRGC has also been the source of particularly explicit anti-Western rhetoric, including in the context of its training exercises. In 2015, for instance, IRGC naval forces utilized “swarm tactics” to sink what officials claimed was a mock-up of an American aircraft carrier. The following year, around the time of the implementation of the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, the IRGC briefly detained 10 US sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters. Those sailors’ images were widely disseminated via Iranian state media in the subsequent days.
Also, last year, a propaganda film was released in the Islamic Republic which depicted a figure based on IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani leading a small Iranian naval force in destroying a much larger American fleet in the Persian Gulf.
Of course, the traditional Iranian Navy has also been a source of its own anti-Western rhetoric over the years. The recent claims of “warning off” an American warship appear to be an example of this, although it is not clear exactly what the original source was for such reports in outlets like Press TV.
For its part, the US contradicted the Iranian claims. According to the Associated Press, a spokesperson for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf said its ships had only received radio notifications of the Iranian drills and had not altered either their courses or their missions as a result.
Iranian officials and conservative Iranian news outlets often present the country’s military strength in terms of its ability to counter American influence over the Middle East as a whole. This, in turn, is widely seen as being connected to Iranian ambitions for regional hegemony, which the IRGC has pursued in recent years through its interventions into conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as well as through the growth of foreign proxies modeled after the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary, Hezbollah.
Interestingly, though, Iran’s latest display of ostensible military strength was preceded on Sunday by an editorial from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, which was published in the Financial Times and which decried “any domineering effort” in the region as a source of instability and a waste of national resources. “Militarism has only served to fuel disastrous adventurism,” he wrote.
But as it was framed in its re-publication in the Syria Times, the editorial supposedly put forth the view that Iran itself can set “security policy” in the broader Middle East. Accordingly, the language of the article does not seem to evoke equivalent criticism of all attempts at military buildup, either within one country or on foreign territory. Rather, it appears to use the phrase “security cooperation” to describe the establishment of a military foothold inside a country of the same region, while also demeaning more distant foreign alliances like those between Gulf Arab kingdoms and the United States.
“Security networking is not utopian,” Zarif decalred. “It is the only realistic way out of the vicious cycle of relying on extra-regional powers, exclusionary alliances and the illusion that security can be bought with petrodollars or flattery. One would expect other countries — especially our European neighbours — to see it in their own interests to urge allies in our region to adopt this policy.”
As well as immediately preceding the two-day naval drills, this editorial also came in the midst of what has widely been described as an escalating war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the future of the region. The Saudis and their allies are deeply concerned about the escalation of Iranian influence in the region, and have accordingly established a military coalition to push back against that influence in Yemen.
The traditional US-Saudi alliance has apparently strengthened over the past year in the face of President Donald Trump’s shared concerns about Iran’s apparent pursuit of regional hegemony. While figures like Zarif work to shine a pleasant light on that growth of influence, the persistent rhetoric surrounding military exercises and regional conflicts paints a different picture and does little to assuage fears of Iran undermining the interests of Western democracies while imposing its own Shiite vision of Islamic regional governance in place of the Sunni versions that have recently been advanced by prominent non-state actors.