Reuters reports that Tasnim News Agency, an outlet close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, published remarks to that effect on Saturday, saying that Tehran has many available options for “neutralizing” the sanctions and that the regional influence of the Islamic Republic cannot be curtailed in accordance with Western interests.
Among the specific threats underlying Tasnim’s claims were quotations from Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in which he reiterated the country’s longstanding insistence that it is willing and able to close the Strait of Hormuz to global shipping traffic in retaliation for any perceived aggression on the part of the US or its allies.
At present, about a third of the world’s seaborne oil passes through the narrow strait at the end of the Persian Gulf, which the naval forces of the IRGC are tasked with patrolling and defending. Associated vessels are well known for unsafely approaching US warships transiting the area, in a recurring show of force that is supposed to signal Iranian readiness for conflict with a military superpower.
This explanation for the motives of the IRGC and some factions of Iran’s regular military are not merely speculative. Reuters quoted Shamkhani as boasting of such readiness on Saturday, saying, “Iran is capable of confronting any military threat … Trump and Israel are well aware of Iran’s military might. They know that they cannot enter a war with Iran. That is why they publicly threaten Iran.”
It is far from being the only statement to this effect in recent months, as tensions between Iran and the US have ramped up.
Last Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, sometimes identified as a moderate by the standards of the clerical regime, acknowledged this escalation and appeared to embrace the provocative response that is typical of hardliners. Reuters quoted him as saying, “The struggle between Iran and America is currently at a maximum.
America has employed all its power against us.” He went on to assert that US sanctions and other efforts to prevent international businesses from conducting transactions with Iran are “one-hundred percent a terrorist act.”
The comments arguably represent endorsement of Iran’s ongoing military buildup and aggressive response to US-led pressure, especially considering that the remarks closely coincided with a large-scale military demonstration that spanned three days and what Iranian state media referred to as “a vast area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean.” According to another Reuters report, the war games began on Friday and involved approximately 100 Iranian vessels, including a newly unveiled submarine equipped with intermediate range cruise missiles.
Embracing the Potential for Conflicts
A successful test of one of those missiles reportedly took place on Sunday. While the Islamic Republic News Agency praised this development, representatives of the IRGC went further by insisting that the cruise missile was launched in spite of efforts by foreign “enemies” to sabotage this and similar weapons. Al Jazeera quoted Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Guards’ aerospace force, as saying that the would-be sabotage involved an imported component but, “they couldn’t do a damn thing because we had seen this coming from the start and had reinforced this sector.”
But while Hajizadeh’s comments aim to give the impression that Iran stands toe-to-toe with the US in both military readiness and counterintelligence, the rest of the Al Jazeera report suggests the distinct possibility that the IRGC saw sabotage coming because Western and Israeli politicians and intelligence sources have made no secret of their intention to carry out such a program over the long term.
Additionally, the available data on Iranian missile tests suggests that the program has been successful in the past. Over a period of 11 years, an estimated 67 percent of those launches have failed. Foreign sabotage may account for only a portion of this figure, but most any other factors would necessarily undermine the Iranian regime’s efforts to portray itself as having made unqualified advancements in military technology during that same time.
Nevertheless, the IRGC and hardline Iranian officials lean heavily on that propaganda to project an image of strength for domestic audiences and to justify and promote ongoing military provocations. At the same time, Tehran makes recognizable efforts to portray missile tests and military demonstrations as part of a response to constant threats from foreign adversaries including but not limited to the US.
In remarks at this month’s Munich Security Conference and in a subsequent newspaper interview, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif connected US foreign policy to that of Iran’s regional arch-enemy Israel and said that both states’ actions were increasing chances of open conflict. Asked about the possibility of war between Iran and Israel, Zarif said “we cannot exclude the possibility,” according to Reuters.
The Jewish state has repeatedly committed to preventing Iran from securing a permanent foothold in neighboring Syria, where Iran helped the dictator Bashar al-Assad to hold onto power in the midst of an eight-year civil war. For its part, Iran has similarly committed to keeping forces in the country at least until all domestic rebellion is dislodged. The Islamic Republic is also reported to be developing permanent military bases in Syria, and it recently began work on a highway that is expected to connect Tehran to Damascus via Iraq.
The strength of Iran’s influence over Syria was arguably reinforced once again on Monday when Assad visited Tehran for the first time since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Syrian media described the two leaders as agreeing “to continue cooperation at all levels for the interests of the two friendly nations,” and Khamenei reportedly praised Assad as a hero for setting the stage for closer relations not only between the two nations but also between Syria and the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, which also played a substantial role in the military defense of the Assad regime, potentially securing a permanent foothold on Israel’s eastern border in the process.
Notably, the meeting’s dialogue included clear references to an adversarial posture toward the West. Khamenei and other hardline figures have long promoted the notion of an “axis of Resistance” against Western and Israeli interests, with Iran at its center. The axis ostensibly aspires to include any and all Muslim-majority nations in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, but Tehran has had little success to date in shaming countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into abandoning their alliances with the US and Europe. Accordingly, the Gulf Arab states are cited right alongside the US in Iranian propaganda that portrays an imminent or recurring foreign threat.
Broad Responses to Narrow Threats
As one example of that propaganda, Iran was quick to attribute to Saudi Arabia a recent terrorist attack that targeted a bus carrying off-duty IRGC officers in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan. Regime officials refused to back down from that accusation even after the government’s official narrative changed to say that the perpetrators of the attack were Iranian and were supported by a terrorist group across the border in Pakistan. In fact, the revised narrative appears to simultaneously blame nearly all of Iran’s regional adversaries, thereby setting the stage for the IRGC and the regime as a whole to take as broad an approach to retaliation as they like.
This was specifically the message of an article published in Tabnak last Friday, which quoted Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s lieutenant commander, as saying that the organization’s “revenge” will not stop with the actual members of the terrorist cell involved in the attack. “The scale of Iran’s revenge is not limited to clashes with four terrorists,” he said, adding that the IRGC would target anyone “who they are linked to.” And as per the public statements that Iranian officials have already made, this might be seen as including the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among others.
Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign special operations branch, the Quds Force, reaffirmed this possibility in remarks that took direct aim at the Saudis and highlighted a competition between Iran and its regional rival for influence over the Gulf States and the Muslim world. “Saudi Arabia is building its regional influence with money only. This is a false influence and a failure…We will take revenge for our martyrs… [and] it might be anywhere around the world,” he said on Thursday in remarks to Tasnim.
The regime’s broad condemnation of various “enemies” is reminiscent of its response to other crises. In early 2018, when the country was gripped by an anti-government uprising involving demonstrations in more than 100 cities and towns, Supreme Leader Khamenei and other officials disregarded the domestic roots of the Resistance movement in favor of a narrative that ascribed the protests to a “triangle of enemies” consisting of the Gulf Arab nations, Israel, and the US, with members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran merely acting as foot soldiers in a foreign plot.
In working to contain that plot, Iran has taken aim at domestic activists but has also cracked down on foreign nationals and all supposed conduits for Western influence, as well as striving to place more restrictions on the internet. As Agence France-Presse reported on Monday, Iran’s information and telecommunications minister has come under fire from hardliners over his former opposition to plans to ban Instagram, the last major social network site to be permitted in the Islamic Republic, and for supposedly leaving the Iranian internet vulnerable to both foreign influence and domestic organizing among dissident groups.
For the time being, President Rouhani is supporting Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi amidst calls for his resignation. But Rouhani has been widely criticized during his six-year tenure for failing to seriously oppose hardline pressures or follow up on campaign promises regarding domestic freedom and better relations with the international community. In spite of this, Foreign Minister Zarif was recently forced to defend the administration’s record of subservience of the supreme leader saying in a parliamentary debate, “It is not true that we acted against the will of the supreme leader… We are not a system in which people can act on their own. We can do nothing in this country without having to report it.”
On Monday, Zarif was conspicuously absent from the meeting between Khamenei and Assad, and later that same day he abruptly announced via Instagram that he is stepping down from his position. He did not give a reason but apologized for “shortcomings and flaws” in his role, possibly hinting at his succumbing to pressure from a hardline faction that intends to adopt an even more confrontational approach to foreign affairs.