As of early September, there had been more than twice as many close encounters between US Navy vessels and the IRGC than during the same period last year. In one such incident, an IRGC patrol boat approached a US warship at a high rate of speed and refused to disengage until warning shots were fired into the water. In other incidents at around the same time, the IRGC vessels ignored multiple visual and audio warnings before departing from the American vessels.
Such provocations were presumably aimed at demonstrating Iran’s “swarm tactics,” which some military officers have described as being capable of sinking an American warship in under a minute. These sorts of statements are not generally taken seriously, and American naval forces have taken measures to counteract those tactics, as by equipping ships with attack helicopters capable of engaging fast-moving patrol boats. Nevertheless, the increased number of IRGC provocations highlights the importance of Iran’s anti-Western propaganda.
Some such propaganda has also focused on Iran’s missile programs. Last month, the IRGC claimed to have unveiled its most advanced domestically-produced missile, shortly after it had contacted two American Navy jets and threatened to shoot them down with missiles if they strayed out of international territory and into Iranian airspace.
But concurrent with much of this anti-American propaganda, the Islamic Republic has also targeted much of its propaganda against regional rival Saudi Arabia, although these sorts of broadcasts have tended not to be military in nature. Instead, figures like Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have attacked the Saudis over their supposed contributions to sectarian conflict in the region, and also over their stewardship of the central Islamic pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has virtually parroted Iran’s accusations of sectarianism, noting such factors as Iran’s sponsorship of Shiite paramilitaries like Hezbollah, which several Gulf Arab statements joined in declaring a terrorist organization earlier this year. Many reports have highlighted the mutual condemnations as examples of deteriorating relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which are involved in multiple regional conflicts, on opposite sides.
Despite the proxy wars, direct military provocations have not been prominent between the two countries until now. Saudi Arabia undertook its “Gulf Shield” naval exercise this week with the declared purpose of preparing to confront “any possible aggression.” Though the statement did not mention Iran by name, it is understood that that is the perceived source of such possible aggression. Iran’s support of a rebellion against the government of Yemen was arguably part of a strategy to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula and put additional pressure on the Saudi kingdom. And in January of this year, the Iranian regime apparently encouraged hardline mobs to storm the Saudi embassy and consulate after Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite dissident cleric. The latter incident led the Saudis to sever diplomatic relations with Iran, after which some Arab partners followed suit by downgrading their own relations with Iran.
Despite the destabilizing nature of these Iranian activities, the IRGC statement on Riyadh’s naval exercise declared, “The Revolutionary Guards naval forces believe this war game is mainly to create tension and destabilize the Persian Gulf.” The statement was accompanied by a warning that threatened to escalate any instability that might result from the exercise.
Outright war between Iran and Saudi Arabia still appears to be only a remote possibility. But it also seems to grow more remote as the proxy war between the two Middle Eastern powers continues to spread. An article appeared in Foreign Affairs on Wednesday which argued that that proxy war – already raging in Yemen and Syria – might soon emerge in Afghanistan, where both Iran and Saudi Arabia have long histories and persistent foreign policy interests.
The article notes that Iran has been looking to Afghani entities including the Taliban as potential allies in the conflict against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has various incentives to confront Iran over its potential expansion of influence to Afghanistan. For instance, Foreign Affairs notes that the Saudis are concerned by the withdrawal of American power from the region, which has convinced the Arab kingdoms that they must either personally take control of regional policy or expand their own influence and use it as a bargaining chip with the West.
As tensions escalate, Foreign Affairs argues that the US and its NATO partners must take serious measures to counteract the trend by convincing Saudi Arabia and Iran to communicate and compromise. But this might be a hard sell with the Saudis as long as they continue to see Iranian influence as expanding across the region and going essentially unchallenged by the West.
Iranian outreach to the Taliban is one example of this expansion, but there are many others. Iran’s role in its neighbor to the West, Iraq, has been a particular area of concern, especially given the influence that the Islamic Republic wielded under the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. That government oversaw the consolidation of power into a small number of Shiite hands, reflecting close affinity with Iran’s Shiite theocracy. This in turn was cited by many foreign policy analysts as a leading factor in the rise of the Islamic State as a Sunni alternative to Maliki’s rule.
Although Maliki has since been forced to step down in favor of current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the question of Iranian influence remains very serious. Many of the forces fighting the Islamic State today are directly linked to Iran and the IRGC, and some have publicly pledged allegiance to the Iranian supreme leader, ahead of the Iraqi government.
Iraq’s dependence on such figures helps to blur the political and military boundaries between the two countries. And this trend could continue as Iran and Iraq discuss other forms of mutual cooperation. On Wednesday, Iraq Business News reported that Hassan Qashqavi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular, Parliamentary and Expatriates’ Affairs had expressed keen interest in removing visa requirements for visitors traveling from Iran to Iraq, and vice versa.
Although public statements regarding such an arrangement have focused on the benefits for trade and tourism, it would also potentially make it easier for Iran to traffic fighters to Iraqi militias, some of which are internationally recognized as terrorist groups. Even in absence of such an arrangement, Iran has already violated international laws to conduct such trafficking. IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani has repeatedly traveled back and forth between the two countries in violation of a travel ban imposed on him over contributions to international terrorism.
In other countries, also, Iran’s influence has persisted even after being linked to terrorist activity. In Nigeria, this fact was brought to attention by protestors who urged the federal government to prosecute Shiite dissident Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, who allegedly has ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Last December, a group led by Zakzaky attacked a Nigeria military convoy. According to Nigeria’s Tribune Online, well as calling for the prosecution of Zakzaky’s case, the protestors are also seeking the complete severance of relations between Nigeria and Iran – relations that they say have “become cancerous” and represent an escalating threat of sectarianism.
But at the same time that some entities throughout the Middle East and Africa are pushing back against Iran’s expanding influence, others are clearly embracing it. This is the case, for instance, with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose shift toward Iran has coincided with an internal shift toward authoritarianism.
An article published on Wednesday by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies outlined aspects of this shift, which is proceeding in spite of longstanding tensions between Iran and Turkey, especially over their affiliations with different factions in the Syrian Civil War. But the article mainly focuses on charting the different courses that Iran and Turkey have taken through recent history, and using this to explain why it would be in Turkey’s interest to avoid further embracing Tehran.
The article argues that Turkey has been the beneficiary of steady economic growth and multi-party mutual protection specifically because it decided to work within international systems throughout the recent decades. Iran, by contrast, has made itself a global pariah and has thrown itself into financial crisis by maintaining an uncompromising rebellion against that system ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The persistence of this rebellion can be seen, for instance, in the escalating confrontations in the Persian Gulf even after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations with six world powers last year. The Foundation article thus argues that Turkey will be opening itself up to similar consequences if it opts to join in that rebellion. And this line of argument is one that could be employed by the West to similarly encourage other regional states to shy away from Iran, thus alleviating Saudi anxieties about expanding influence.