The hardline paramilitary organization has been behind a number of confrontations with US Naval vessels in and around the Persian Gulf, as well as the seizure of Western-flagged commercial vessels. Some of those seizures have been explained in terms of debts ostensibly owed by the vessels operators to the Islamic Republic, but these official claims by the Iranian authorities have sometimes been contradicted by analysts claiming that those seizures were more likely motivated by perceived slights or by the desire for another show of force to regional and Western adversaries.
Whatever the case may be, the acquisition of formal authority for these sorts of seizures is further evidence of the increasing power that the IRGC wields over Iran’s foreign policy activities as well as its domestic affairs. In February, the relative lack of separation between IRGC rhetoric and formal Iranian foreign policy was made clear by separate military demonstrations carried out by the paramilitary and the traditional armed forced, both of which were accompanied by explicit statements of readiness for war with such foreign powers as the United States.
But although antagonism toward the US has always been central to the hardline self-image of the Islamic Republic, recent shows of force are presumably meant to have the more immediate effect of intimidating regional allies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, toward which Iran has been experiencing escalating tensions in recent months.
That pattern continues as Iran and the Gulf Arab states remain embroiled in proxy wars, especially in Yemen, where Iran-backed Shiite militants launched a rebellion in 2015 against President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi. Not only has Yemen remained the location of an escalating war between a Saudi-led coalition and militants who have apparently received training and supplies from the IRGC; it has also been the focus of competing Saudi and Iranian propaganda efforts aimed at shaping the international community’s perspective of each party to the conflict.
That propaganda war was prominently on display on Wednesday when Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV ran an article detailing the foreign ministry’s position that it is only Saudi Arabia and its allies, and not the Islamic Republic of Iran, that have contributed to the escalation of the sectarian conflict in Yemen. The foreign ministry’s comments to this effect reportedly came in response to public statements by United Arab Emirates countries suggesting precisely the opposite.
The Press TV article categorically denied that Iran was supporting the Houthis, but this claim appears to be at odds with later remarks in the same article, which praised the Yemeni rebels for retaliatory attacks against Saudi forces and “other members of the warmongering coalition.” Nevertheless, according to Iran Front Page News, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated Iran’s claims of innocence in an interview, where he said that Saudi Arabia had pursued war in Yemen while the Islamic Republic had endeavored to contribute to a peace process ever since the war broke out.
Not only are such remarks at odds with the tone of much Iranian media and contrary to the competing claims of much Arab media, they are also at odds with various international reports about the seizure of arms shipments apparently en route from Iran to Yemen. Opponents of the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have endeavored to gather intelligence showing a constant IRGC presence on the Arabian Peninsula, as a clear contributing factor to the Yemeni Civil War and other regional conflicts.
In light of these and other reports, it is virtually impossible to take Tehran’s claims seriously when it attempts to ascribe blame to regional adversaries alone, while not so much as acknowledging the demonstrated Iranian role. But this narrative is arguably the only one that Iran can hope to use to drive Saudi Arabia and its allies out of key areas of Iranian influence, as the regime apparently aspires to do.
This ambition is suggested by Iran’s reaction to certain other regional developments, including the visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to the capital of Iraq, where Iran has wielded considerable influence since former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to purge the national government of Sunnis, along with many moderate members of the Shiite majority.
EA Worldview described Saudi officials as “unsettled” by the Jubeir visit, and it quoted Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council as taking the opportunity to blame Saudi Arabia for the rise of ISIL in Iraq, and other terrorist organizations throughout the region. This is in line with the foreign ministry’s claim, via Press TV, that the Saudi-led coalition is “directly responsible for… the rise of terrorism… in the entire region.”
While there is no shortage of international criticism for Saudi Arabia over it contribution to sectarian tensions, many foreign policy analysts are unequivocal in assigning a great deal of the blame to Iran for the rise of ISIL, as a result of its empowerment of numerous Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, which in turn prompted various Sunni communities to seek refuge with Sunni militants.
Iran has reportedly utilized this situation to its advantage by actively relocating populations in such a way that the region is more sharply divided between Sunnis and Shiites. Many experts see the Iranian regime as aspiring to take its place at the head of a “Shiite crescent” that spans much of the region, so as to more effectively compete with the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Muslim world.
In light of this evident Iranian ambition, the leadership’s “unsettled” reaction to recent exchanges between Saudi Arabia and Iraq can be seen as being motivated by concerns over adversaries’ potential challenges to Iran as each seeks to fill the power vacuum left by the defeat of ISIL, which appears to be forthcoming.
As well as spurring Iran’s continued propaganda war with Saudi Arabia, that would-be power vacuum has also been attributed to some of the re-emerging tensions between Iran and Turkey. Although the two countries have always had fraught relations, they have managed to establish a more cooperative relationship in recent months, in spite of the fact that they had continued to support opposing factions in the Syrian Civil War.
Both Turkey and Iran, along with Russia, have contributed to the establishment of ceasefire agreements following such milestones in that war as the capture of Aleppo from moderate Syrian rebels, but forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. But some reports have also highlighted apparent violations of those agreements undertaken by Iran or its local proxies. This is certainly one source of strain on the cooperative relationship between Iran and Turkey, and that strain stands to become more pronounced as both countries recognize the immediate significance of their positions in Syria and Iraq to their long-term regional strategies.
On one hand, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan have just declared a mutual commitment to improving ties, according to a report published on Wednesday by Reuters. But on the other hand, Al Jazeera notes that there has already been a considerable increase in hostility, which can be attributed to the emerging power vacuum, and which cannot expect to be ignored by either country.
The Al Jazeera report concludes by saying that regardless of current attempts at fostering good will, Turkey’s political costs are simply too high for doing anything other than confronting existing Iranian influence. The same report notes that the Turks generally consider it their responsibility to defend Sunni and Turkmen minorities that would be threatened by Iran-backed Shiite militants.
Breitbart highlighted the prevalence of these militants in its reporting on testimony delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by both liberal and conservative foreign policy scholars. The report pointed out that experts estimate more than 100,000 Shiite paramilitary fighters are operating in Iraq at the moment, and that a great many of them are loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, by their own admission. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Hardin Lang of the Center for American Progress both indicated to the Foreign Relations Committee that this situation would be a threat to American interests as well as the interests of Iran’s regional adversaries if it was not confronted head-on.
Such testimony may bode well for the prospects of international coordination on the matter – something that may already be on the agenda for regional countries, as suggested by the actions of the Saudi-led coalition, plus the recent tour of Arab nations undertaken by the Turkish president. Al Jazeera noted that this is another development that has prompted unsettled or “disturbed” Iranian reactions, since they threaten to broadly undermine the Islamic Republic’s pursuit of Shiite hegemony in the Middle East.