In its report on the new drills, the Associated Press claimed that they were the first major military maneuvers since US President Donald Trump took office in January. However, there has been a notable exchange of rhetoric between the two countries, including weapons tests and declarations of readiness for war on the part of the Iranians. In this context, the AP’s claim seemed to depend on one’s particular definition of the word “major.” In fact, just last week, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the hardline paramilitary that operates independently of Iran’s traditional armed forces, conducted three days of maneuvers including the testing of supposedly advanced Iranian-made rockets.
During those demonstrations, the head of the IRGC, General Mohammad Pakpour declared that the Islamic Republic was prepared to “give a crushing response” to any threat of war from foreign powers including the US. The IRGC maintains its own naval forces, which have been involved in a number of confrontations with the US Navy and other Western countries’ maritime vessels, just in the time since the Iran nuclear agreement was implemented in January of last year.
The most recent maneuvers did not include the IRGC, a fact that arguably demonstrates that provocative behaviors are by no means limited to the acknowledged hardline organization. Indeed, corresponding declarations by officers of the Iranian Navy and officials in the Iranian defense ministry carry much the same tone as those that are generally voiced by the IRGC during and after its own demonstrations.
These statements naturally include boastful claims about the capabilities of the country’s military forces. In the present case, Russia Today reports that the military and defense ministry claimed to have successfully tested a domestically-made, sea-launched cruise missile, designated with the model name “Nasr.” Recent reports have suggested that certain types of cruise missiles might have been discussed on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations that concluded in July 2015. Depending on the content of certain “secret side deals” to that agreement, the testing of such weapons may be in violation of international guidelines that were given to the Islamic Republic for the time the nuclear deal remains in effect.
Iranian officials also claimed that the demonstrations included a new laser-guided missile system. This is made more noteworthy by the fact that the fact that Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan specified that the system was specifically designed for engaging vessels and ships. This may be viewed as running contrary to Tehran’s recurrent claim that its ongoing military development, and particularly its missile development, is purely for defensive purposes. That claim is further contradicted by Iranian Navy commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari’s characterization of the purpose of the two-day military drills.
As the Jewish Press reports, Sayyari said that the demonstration would be quickly followed by the premier of a domestically-made naval destroyer, as part of an effort to dispatch fleets to a number of countries in the region, including Turkey, which has been increasingly adversarial toward Iran as they pursue contrary outcomes for the Syrian Civil War. Sayyari also announced that the Iranian Navy’s 45th fleet would be visiting China, whose relationship with Iran has taken the opposite tack toward greater cooperation, including in the military sphere.
Critics of the previous US administration’s handling of Iran will no doubt view the Islamic Republic’s recent military development and its bold claims as a consequence of the nuclear agreement and the reduction of pressure on the leadership in Tehran. Speaking at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Vice President Mike Pence cited sanctions relief under the nuclear agreement as a major source of financial resources for the Iranians to devote to provocative behaviors including its direct military interventions and its support for terrorism throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the USA Today, Pence referred to renowned regional terrorist groups as “minions” of the Islamic Republic, a claim that is upheld by recent reports from the main Iranian opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Drawing upon intelligence gathered from networks inside the Islamic Republic, the NCRI provided significant details earlier this month about the expansion of the Revolutionary Guards’ efforts to recruit and train operatives in different countries, including but not limited to areas of open conflict like Syria and Yemen.
The NCRI added that the IRGC is responsible for the training and supply of terrorist cells in areas where there is no open conflict, and the resistance group provided reporters and policymakers with an overview of some of the Revolutionary Guards’ historical terrorist activities in regions including Bahrain, Turkey, and of course Palestine.
Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have publicly renewed their commitment to the destruction of Israel in recent weeks, especially at an event held just a week ago to discuss a coordinated Muslim opposition to the Jewish state. A recent report by Al Monitor highlighted that conference as a source of evidence in support of claims like Pence’s, that regional terrorist groups are or could be beholden to Iran.
Al Monitor notes that delegations from every major Palestinian terrorist group were in attendance to hear Iran’s expanded push to make Palestinian issues a centerpiece of its regional agenda. What’s more, each of those delegations – from Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and others – visited with IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani before hearing Khamenei’s speech, which some media described as containing some of the most vitriolic anti-Israeli comments in years.
Furthermore, the report seems to suggest that there is little basis for separation between “moderate” and “hardline” Iranian factions, at least on this issue. “Iran was keen to have all its high-profile officials at the conference,” Al Monitor explained, adding that President Hassan Rouhani, initially embraced by many Western policymakers as a possible source of reform within the regime, delivered the concluding address.
Rouhani earnestly pursued the nuclear agreement prior to its conclusion, but he has not recognizably contradicted any of the broader regime’s hardline positions, even where Iran’s nuclear program and missile development are concerned. His participation in a conference aimed mainly at terrorist groups underscores this fact, especially considering that at least some of those terrorist groups have expressed eager support for Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
For instance, Breitbart reported on Monday that Salah al-Zawawi, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s envoy to Tehran, declared that he prays Iran “will produce 1,000 nuclear bombs” in order to defend “the Islamic Republic and its principles.” The Iranian constitution mandates that Iran export its Islamic revolution – a fact that is frequently cited to explain both its anti-Israeli rallying cry and its attempt to project Iranian force throughout the region as an opponent of Western influence.