IRGC General Mohammad Ali Jafari boasted that the exercises would send a message to the United States and other “extraterritorial powers,” demonstrating the might of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Meanwhile, Admiral Ali Fadavi, the head of the IRGC naval forces claimed that actual US aircraft carriers could be destroyed in a chain reaction following a direct hit from one of Iran’s missiles.
However, the AP also quoted a spokesperson for the US Navy as saying that the military is unconcerned about the drills, which appeared as little more than an attempt “to destroy the equivalent of a Hollywood movie set.”
The AP notes that this is the first such drill to involve a replica aircraft carrier. But it is not the first to simulate an attack on other classes of US warships. Those prior drills led to Fadavi claiming that Iran would be capable of destroying such a ship in less than one minute. But those exercises were similarly disregarded by Western observers, who noted that the supposed replica US warship was completely stationary and defenseless and was severely listing to one side.
While the threat represented by these activities may thus be less than credible, they demonstrate a clear pattern of antagonism and attempted intimidation on the part of the IRGC and other militarist elements of Iranian government and society. Perhaps more alarming, there are growing indications that such aggressive anti-Western attitudes are being actively promoted throughout that society.
As a case in point, Al Monitor reports that the IRGC has announced plans to reopen high schools that were staffed and run entirely by IRGC members between 1982 and 1999. According to Al Monitor, all of the educational content and disciplinary procedures of these once-and-future schools were “designed carefully through a plan to prepare the students as loyal and ideologically fitting cadres of the IRGC.”
In other words, the Revolutionary Guards are set to re-open centers for their own propaganda within the heart of the Iranian education system. What’s more, such measures as these have either explicit or implicit support from the highest levels of the Iranian government. The budget for the forthcoming Iranian year, which begins on March 21, includes a 64 percent increase in funding for the IRGC’s activities, which extend from domestic security and propaganda to foreign paramilitary operations.
This comes at a time when, according to another Al Monitor report, thousands of Iranian teachers are protesting the forthcoming budget, noting that its increase in teacher salaries falls far short of the rate of inflation and thus worsens an already difficult economic situation for the nation’s teachers. The announcement of the IRGC alternative schools indicates that in effect the government is drawing funding away from established schools in order to facilitate the paramilitary group’s renewed venture into education.
Al Monitor also notes that the IRGC never entirely left the domain of education, as evidenced by the continued operation of the University Basij, which was founded under direct orders from Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as part of a project to create a “20 million strong army.”
The Basij is increasingly active both inside Iran and beyond its borders. Late last year, the Iranian parliament introduced legislation to give the civilian militia group greater authority to confront and harass fellow citizens for alleged violations of religious laws and regulations. Government officials have shown similar support for the hardline religious ideologies of the IRGC in various other areas, through actions enforcing strict gender separation and further cracking down on religious minorities and supposed foreign influence.
There is considerable pushback against the ongoing trend in favor of greater religious restrictions, as evidenced by a letter sent by activists calling for an end to the ban on women’s attendance at public sporting events. According to a report issued Wednesday by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the letter calls upon the international soccer organization FIFA to revoke Iran’s membership or at least bar Iran from hosting tournaments and games.
But such activism is risky and the letter refers to arrests and beatings that have resulted from other attempts to call attention to the issue of gender segregation. Enhanced recruitment for the IRGC and Basij through official schools and universities may further increase the threats faced by activists both from the official security apparatus and from its civilian supporters.
Furthermore, the religious motivations of the IRGC and the Basij pose a threat not only to domestic activists and religious minorities, but also to the foreign targets of what has been described as an apocalyptic worldview. High-ranking Iranian officials have frequently called for the outright destruction of the Jewish state of Israel, and foreign activities of the IRGC are often thought to be aimed at this ultimate goal.
Breaking Israel News notes that IRGC official Hossein Hemedani announced in May 2014 that 130,000 Basij fighters had received specialized training and been ordered to be remain ready for deployment to Syria at a moment’s notice in order to participate in an attack against Israel. The same article points out that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have spent the past two years coordinating and preparing for such an attack, with recent offensives against Syrian rebels serving to secure territory for Iran in service of a larger goal of encircling Israel.
The article quotes a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute as saying, “A victory in this region will bring the Iranian forces closer to the Jordanian border in the south and the Israeli border in the west, will prepare the ground for defeating the opposition forces in the Quneitra area, and will enable the creation of a territorial continuum of resistance axis forces stretching from Dar’a through Damascus and Quneitra to Lebanon.”