The incident was described in detail by US Central Command, and was decried as an unsafe and unprofessional deviation from the usual interactions among Iranian and Western vessels in the region. But on Thursday, a spokesperson for the IRGC said not only that the test in question did not occur as described, but also that the IRGC naval forces had not conducted any exercises at all during the preceding week.
The implausibility of this claim is underscored by the fact that Voice of America News and various other outlets have indicated that the test was witnessed by a French frigate and a number of commercial vessels, as well as by the American aircraft carrier and two American destroyers. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that some Iranians whose primary sources of news are Iranian state media and propaganda networks will only have access to the IRGC side of the story, which describes the US account as false claims and “psychological warfare.”
The IRGC’s provocation and subsequent denial thus serves the dual purpose of demonstrating defiance to Western powers and also leading some Iranians to believe that such defiance is justified by supposed persecution of the Islamic Republic by the West.
Tehran’s treatment of the Strait of Hormuz confrontation is reminiscent of its propaganda efforts in the wake of preceding provocations, such as the test firing of two long-range ballistic missiles, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions barring Iran from work on potential delivery systems for nuclear weapons.
Although congressional Republicans and other opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement have been frustrated with the relative lack of response from the Obama administration in the wake of those tests, preliminary reports emerged this week to indicate that the US Treasury Department was preparing new sanctions on companies with ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program.
The Fiscal Times elaborated on Thursday by specifying the United Arab Emirates-based Mabrooka Trading and the Iranian Ministry of Defense for Armed Forces Logistics as two entities that are likely to be subjected to these new sanctions. While more explicit details are so far lacking with regard to these enforcement measures, it is possible that the Strait of Hormuz incident helped to justify this American announcement.
The interplay between these issues may also suggest a broader deterioration in relations between the two countries at a time when proponents of the nuclear deal are looking forward to large-scale rapprochement. In fact, the Fiscal Times suggested that the implementation of the sanctions was likely to elicit a response from Tehran that might be “more dramatic than expected.”
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivered a letter to Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan, ordering the Iranian armed forces to accelerate production of missiles in response to the sanctions. The message was shared publicly via Rouhani’s website and apparently constitutes the personal response from his administration, which is regarded by some Western leaders as being comparatively moderate. Critics of Iran, including the dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran, categorically reject this characterization, and Thursday’s letter may give additional fuel to their arguments, especially if it is a precursor to more a more serious response later on.
In any event, that letter strongly reiterates the defiance that had previously been expressed by Iranian officials in both word and deed. The October and November ballistic missile tests followed up on declarations that Iran would not abide by any restrictions that Iran considers to be beyond the scope of its nuclear enrichment program. This separation of the issues was subsequently justified, as Thomson Reuters reminded readers on Thursday, via the claim that the test-fired weapons were not “intended” to carry nuclear warheads, even though they were capable of doing so.
Rouhani’s letter once again claimed that the issue of Iran’s missile supply is entirely separate from the nuclear issue. But this seems to tacitly acknowledge what the Obama administration has long said in defense of the nuclear agreement: that the US and Europe retain the right to impose sanctions on non-nuclear issues such as human rights and support for terrorism, without violating the deal.
The Iranians have repeatedly tried to characterize any sanctions enforcement – as well as any tangential measures like the recent ban on visa waivers for Iranian travelers – as de facto violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But Tehran’s eagerness to separate the nuclear agreement from the issue of nuclear-capable missiles may help to undermine that argument.
This in turn may open the way for more serious conflict to take place between the two countries while the deal remains technically in place. And the latest provocations in the Strait of Hormuz lead some to believe that this is a likely outcome. Considering that Iran also shadowed Western vessels, attempted to run a US-supported blockade, and seized a Marshall Islands-flagged commercial vessel earlier in 2015, some experts anticipated more such confrontations in the future.
The Navy Times quoted Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International studies, as saying that the continuation of these sorts of Iranian activities in the Persian Gulf would help to make sure that Iran is “at least as serious a threat” as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the coming year.