Iran in Provocative Mood as Trump Presidency Looms

Ed Blanche

BEIRUT — Iran appears to be bent on provoking the United States during the countdown to Donald Trump taking office as president of the United States on January 20.
In the latest of a series of confrontations in the Gulf and the Red Sea, US officials said a small Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) vessel pointed its heavy machine gun at a US Navy MH-60 helicopter, which flew within 800 metres of it in international waters in the Gulf on November 26.
No shots were fired but one US official observed that the Iranian action was “provocative and could be seen as an escalation”.
Fuelling the tension is Trump’s insistence that he will seek to renegotiate the landmark July 2015 agreement between Iran and US-led global powers that curtails Tehran’s contentious nuclear programme in return for lifting crippling international sanctions.
Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said if Trump attempts to tear up the agreement, and reimpose sanctions, Iran will retaliate.
Trump has repeatedly threatened to get tough with Iran and, after a US Navy ship in the Gulf was forced to change course when an Iranian fast-attack craft raced within 90 metres of it in September, warned that Iranian vessels harassing US ships would be “shot out of the water”.
“Strategically speaking, neither the United States nor Iran is in a position to renew tension in the Gulf by throwing out their nuclear deal,” observed analyst Reva Goujon of the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor. “But domestic politics could put that theory to the test.”
Trump, the hard-line cabinet he is assembling, along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, are convinced that Iran is using substantial assets unfrozen by the nuclear deal and from a post-sanctions increase in oil revenues on military expansion and on its growing army of armed regional proxies.
Indeed, that seems to be the case. On November 26, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Major-General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, a hardliner recently appointed armed forces chief of staff, as saying Tehran is considering establishing naval bases in Syria and Yemen, countries where the IRGC is engaged in fighting.
Bagheri said the bases were “ten times more important” than a nuclear arsenal and create “deterrence”. He added: “When two-thirds of the world’s population lives near shores and the world economy depends on the sea, we have to take measures.”
This is the first time Iranian military chiefs have publicly talked about naval bases in other regional countries, a strategy hitherto never attempted by any Middle Eastern power.
Bagheri’s ambition underlines a general trend by Iran to upgrade its conventional military forces to an extent that is alarming the United States and Arab powers.
Iran’s long-neglected regular army has been eclipsed since 1979 by the ideologically driven IRGC, while its air force is largely equipped with ageing and obsolete aircraft because of international arms embargoes dating from the Islamic revolution. Its navy’s main assets are four aging Kilo-class submarines bought from Russia in the 1980s and 1990s.
Khamenei, decreed on August 31 that “to secure our population, our country and our future we have to increase our offensive capabilities as well as our defensive capabilities” and to ensure that “oppressive powers feel threatened” — meaning the United States and its Western allies.
US officials say there is growing concern, not just in Washington but in the West generally and among Iran’s regional rivals including long-time opponents Israel and Saudi Arabia, about Tehran’s ambitious military expansion. They point to what they say is an emerging arms agreement between Tehran and Moscow worth $10 billion.
Compared to the massive amounts Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have spent on weapons over the last 20 years, that is a fairly modest figure.
But given Iran’s swelling arsenal of ballistic missiles and the strength of the IRGC, along with its legion of Shia militias, building up its conventional forces points to a more aggressive foreign policy.
By all accounts, Iran is seeking T-90 tanks to replace the elderly T-72s and even older T-62s and the ancient British Chieftains and US-built M-47s and M-48s it inherited when the US-backed monarchy was toppled in 1979.
Tehran also wants advanced, radar-controlled artillery weapons and Russia’s new Su-33 fighter for its dilapidated air force that mainly consists of Vietnam-era US F-4 Phantom ground attack jets and F-14 Tomcat fighters.
The generals in Tehran, now under the command of the hard-charging Bagheri, are also looking to China, which is producing advanced weapons systems.
“Over the last few years, an emerging triangle has been shaping in front of us: A pact between Iran, Russia and China,” observed Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iranian specialist with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“China is the least enthusiastic member of this triangle. Iran and Russia, on the other hand, have been vocal and excited about this.”
Iran and Russia are key supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and their military intervention in the Syrian war has prevented him from being toppled. Tehran and Moscow are in Syria for their own strategic reasons, primarily to expand their influence and power in the Middle East.
Ghasseminejad and other analysts say Iran’s potential arms deal with Moscow would violate the spirit of the July 2015 accord and challenge UN Security Council resolutions that ban Iran’s acquisition of offensive weapons.
Iran has already thrown down the gauntlet with a string of at least nine ballistic missiles tests in recent months that the Americans claim violates UN Security Council Resolution 2231, citing the missiles as offensive weapons. Tehran insists the missiles are defensive in nature because they act as a deterrent against attack.
Bagheri, addressing a military parade in Tehran in October to mark Iran’s 1980-88 war with Iraq, asserted that Iran needs long-range missiles to deter its enemies and avoid the fate of regional states such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
At the same time, amid the recent targeting of US ships in the Gulf and the Red Sea, Iran’s hardliners, including Khamenei, have stepped up their rhetoric against the US role in Yemen. They say the United States, which provides Saudi Arabia with intelligence and in-flight refuelling for its US-built jets, is running the war.
Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a major Israeli-backed think-tank, observed that “the regime will likely view any attempt to place limitations on its ballistic missile programme as an obstacle to Iran’s legitimate self-defence”.
And that, in the context of what the Iranian leadership these days refers to as “the borders of national security” — which encompasses territory beyond the Islamic Republic’s geographic frontiers — underlines how Tehran’s concept of national security has expanded, requiring much greater military capabilities and the means to project power.
Ed Blanche
has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
Copyright ©2016 The Arab Weekly