April 28, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Iran's Dangerous Calculations on the Sea

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy fired at and then later detained the Marshall-Islands-flagged M/V Maersk Tigris on April 28 as it entered the Strait of Hormuz. The US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain dispatched a destroyer, the USS Farragut, in response to theMaersk Tigris’ distress call. Official Iranian explanations for these actions conflict so far, and the IRGC’s next moves remain uncertain. Regardless, the United States must recognize it is likely entering a period of escalatory Iranian military behavior and risk-taking driven first by the conflict with Saudi Arabia over Yemen and second by the expectations of greater freedom of action in a post-nuclear deal Middle East. Whether or not this is a concerted campaign, we are being tested.

The Maersk Tigris incident is the second high-stakes naval confrontation with Tehran in the past week. If you are still deciphering last week’s near-confrontation between the US Navy and a convoy of Iranian cargo ships in the Gulf of Aden, you are not alone. The operation was ludicrous. The main Iranian ship, accompanied by six other smaller vessels apparently to lighter the cargo onto shore, was allegedly carrying surface to air missiles, rockets and other weapons from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the al Houthi rebels in Yemen. Containers likely holding such arms were reportedly visible on the deck of the main ship. Two Iranian Navy warships were also in the area presumably to escort the ships as they approached Yemeni waters. To term this an ostentatious challenge to Saudi Arabia as it conducts military operations in Yemen would be an understatement. It was certainly an unprecedented and indiscreet move by the IRGC, even if it had not been in direct violation of a recently passed United Nations’ embargo against weapons transfers to the al Houthis.

Was the IRGC seriously expecting to deliver advanced weaponry to Yemen’s al Houthis this way? Did the IRGC want to simply test Saudi and US boundaries in the region as we approach a nuclear agreement? Did Iran really expect to show the Saudi Navy’s blockade of Yemen to be a paper tiger and just sail right through? Or did the IRGC have no real expectation of successfully delivering the weapons and this was an attempt to force the Saudis to curtail their operations in Yemen? Was this a distraction, or a cover, for other IRGC activities?

The most likely explanation is the convoy was meant to significantly ratchet up pressure on Saudi Arabia and to probe US redlines. The ships turned around once the USS Rooseveltcarrier strike group began to shadow the convoy and when the Iranians—mistakenly—thought they had achieved a major diplomatic victory and Yemeni ceasefire when the Saudis re-designated Operation Decisive Storm as Operation Restoring Hope on April 21.

This latter misjudgment by Tehran is another warning sign, and we should be prepared for further miscalculations as the regional conflict broadens. Iranian leaders are becoming more emotional about Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen and are personalizing their effort to discredit the Saudis. The Commander of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari even said “the House of Saud is facing collapse” because of its actions in Yemen. Hyperbole aside, Iran is showing real frustration at its deteriorated ability to understand and communicate with the new Saudi leadership under King Salman.

This is not over. This was not the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which deft de-escalation prevented future brinkmanship. Iranian intent to arm the al Houthis is unlikely to be easily deterred. The IRGC will simply look to employ more subtle methods to get weapons to Yemen. The United States has at least established extreme boundaries for accepted behavior—a real redline. But our stated policies on potential interdictions need to be far more coherent than they were last week. The tests are not going to get any easier.