There is nothing to suggest that Khanzadi’s claims are credible, however. In fact, NBC News pointed out that the previous commander of the Iranian navy had made virtually identical claims in 2014 before saying that the plans to take up a position in America’s backyard had been delayed by a “change of schedule”. Furthermore, Iranian officials have a long track record of boastful comments about the country’s military capabilities, and even about its readiness for war with the United States, Israel, and their allies.
While it cannot be denied that Iran has made some strides in the development of its military technology, it nonetheless remains true that the Iranian armed forces are overwhelmingly reliant on outdated equipment. The range of Iranian ballistic missiles has increased in recent years, but the country lacks heavy warships and submarines capable of operating away from home for long periods of time. Although Iran’s air force is larger than that of its immediate neighbors, it is mostly comprised of aircraft that date back to before the 1979 Iranian revolution. Newly unveiled Iranian military equipment often turns out to be non-working mock-ups or old equipment with superficial modifications.
Propaganda and “Muslim Unity”
But these facts may go unrecognized by some Iranians whose access to information is dramatically limited by the regime’s heavy censorship. For these people and for supporters and affiliates of that regime, Khanzadi’s remarks only served as further support for a large-scale propaganda project aimed at projecting an image of the Islamic Republic as a world power capable of standing toe-to-toe with global superpowers.
Further illustrating that effort, Azer News reported on Thursday that Khanzadi’s remarks had been closely followed by a similarly boastful speech delivered to a religious conference by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In it he said that Iranian military and paramilitary forces were prepared to help any other countries in countering the “arrogance front,” a term used by the Iranian regime to describe Western powers. Khamenei’s speech also called for unity all Muslims, thus highlighting the regime’s commitment to positioning itself as the de facto leader of the Muslim world in a conflict with the US, Europe, and Israel.
This goal has certainly been a major contributing factor in the escalating tensions between Iran and its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, which fills a similar role for Sunni Muslims as Iran’s Shiite theocracy does for adherents to that branch of Islam. This in turn calls attention to Iran’s apparent efforts to develop a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Tehran to Beirut and potentially beyond, thus solidifying Iranian leadership within the Shiite-majority portion of the Muslim world.
The notion of a Shiite crescent was a major focal point in an article published by the Washington Times on Wednesday regarding the entrenchment of Iran’s influence in Syria, where a six-year civil war is evidently coming to a close following the defeat of Islamic State militants in their last territorial holdings. This had been preceded by the reclamation of territory from moderate rebels working to unseat Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an ally of the Iranian regime. The Washington Times article recalls attention to the idea that Tehran and Assad initially focused their efforts on the moderate rebels in order to provide international justification for the continued presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliates in Syrian territory.
Now that presence is poised to become permanent. Citing an intelligence report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the Washington Times reports that Mohammad Bagheri, the head of the Iranian armed forces traveled to the Syrian city of Aleppo last year in order to secure an agreement with the Assad government permitting the Iranians to remain in the country indefinitely and help to rebuild Syrian military bases.
“If the National Council’s report is accurate, then Gen. Bagheri’s agreement signals that Iran is fulfilling a strategic goal of stretching a ‘Red Crescent’ of domination west from Tehran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to Israel’s doorstep,” the article affirms.
Declarations of Intent
The NCRI’s intelligence appears to be supported by statements from the Iranian regime’s own officials, and not just Khamenei’s recent remarks about Muslim unity and Iranian leadership. Reuters reported on Thursday that the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari had used state media to declare that his organization intends to remain in Syria, assist in rebuilding, and help to establish a lasting “ceasefire”.
Jafari also underscored the supreme leader’s earlier remarks, referring to the “global arrogance” and praising a “resistance front” comprised of Iran’s regional allies and closely overlapping the theoretical Iranian-controlled Shiite crescent. In the same speech, Jafari insisted that the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah will not disarm under any circumstances. Financed and effectively controlled by Tehran since its inception, Hezbollah is now widely regarded as the model for more recently formed Iranian proxies, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the various militias that fought against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.
Jafari made no effort to conceal the ideology or goals behind Iranian support for Hezbollah, saying it “must be armed to fight against the enemy of the Lebanese nation which is Israel.” Furthermore, the Algemeiner quotes the IRGC commander as saying any forthcoming war in the Middle East would “lead to the eradication of the Zionist regime.”
Yet the ongoing financing and armament of Hezbollah is not only a threat to Israel, and neither is the more general increase in Iranian influence over the surrounding region. The Washington Times article notes that Iran’s imperialist aims in the Middle East have apparently accelerated over the past year, as it contributed directly to conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, as well as to confirmed terrorist activity in other areas. As always, Hezbollah has been a major agent of these efforts, but the regions of open conflict have created new openings for that terrorist group, which reportedly enjoys a permanent presence in Syria right alongside agents of the IRGC.
In recognition of Hezbollah’s role as an arm of Iranian imperialism, Arab states led by Saudi Arabia collectively designated the Lebanese paramilitary and political party as a terrorist group last year. This turned out to be only one aspect of an ongoing effort to push back against Iran’s regional influence. This week, an emergency meeting was held in Cairo on this same topic, after previous meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council already singled out the Islamic Republic in their policy statements. Saudi Arabia is also leading an Arab coalition in a fight against the Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.
On Thursday, Gulf Today reported that a parliamentary delegation of the United Arab Emirates had used a meeting of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly to once again call for Iran to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations. Turkey, the host of the assembly, has enjoyed closer relations with the Islamic Republic over the past year, but the two remain at odds over the future of the Assad government, which Ankara opposes despite finding common cause with Tehran in other matters. The Associated Press indicates that Turkish diplomats continued to stand by their position on Assad as of Wednesday. Turkey and Iran have both been joined by Russia in negotiating over the situation in Syria, and representatives of all three met this week at the Russian resort town of Sochi.
Subtle Support from Rouhani
At a glance, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seemed to agree with the UAE’s call for non-interference when he spoke at the Sochi gathering. Reuters reports him as saying foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict must come to an end. However, the report notes that he Rouhani did not specifically identify any specific foreign parties. And while he did not call attention to Iran’s own influence over the conflict, he qualified his remarks by saying that foreign military presence in Syria would be acceptable if it was at the request of Damascus.
Considering that the Iranian president gave no indication of plans for the removal of Iranian forces from that conflict zone, his remarks would appear to support the aforementioned intelligence report by the NCRI, which indicated that the Assad government had effectively requested Iranian presence by signing off on an agreement with the head of the Iranian armed forces, at the request of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Although Rouhani was initially regarded by some as a moderate who would oversee rapprochement with Western nations, he has failed to live up to that reputation since his first-term election in 2013. Furthermore, various reports have suggested even more open alignment between the president and hardliner entities like the supreme leader and the IRGC since Rouhani’s reelection in May of this year. The president did oversee the negotiation of a nuclear deal with the US and five other Western powers in 2015, but he has made no recognizable effort to stand against subsequent escalations in anti-Western rhetoric or against worsening tensions with regional rivals.
Illustrating the apparent absence of serious factional divisions, the Rouhani government has provided several funding increases to the Revolutionary Guards and the armed forces, as well as contributing to the boastful public commentary regarding Iran’s military and missile capabilities. An editorial in Forbes pointed out on Thursday that the budget for Iran’s five military entities is 13.5 billion dollars for the current Iranian year. More than half of this is earmarked for the IRGC, whose budget is 24 percent greater this year than last.
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement last month that he would not certify Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement, the White House undertook measures to greatly expand sanctions against the Islamic Republic and particularly against the IRGC, which it identified as a global sponsor of terrorism. As the Trump administration strives to build consensus around this assertive Iran policy, there is little doubt that it will continue to point to these various indicators of Iran’s regional interference and belligerence. To these the White House may now add the direct threats issued against the US itself by the new head of the Iranian navy.