March 04, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: IRGC Exercises in the Strait, Rouhani in Qom


Iran’s Great Prophet 9 [Payambar-e Azam 9] military exercises were held February 25-27 throughout the Persian Gulf and showcased the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’s latest weapons and capabilities. Tehran did not initiate the drills to pressure the P5+1 to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, and the absence of members of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration and senior advisors to the Supreme Leader from the exercises indicates their routine nature. Official rhetoric about and operational framework of the drills indicate a concerted effort by the regime to deter a US invasion or other major American military operations. It is unlikely Tehran’s technological gains are as advanced as Iranian senior officials claim, but when viewed in tandem with December’s Artesh exercises (which focused on defending against a potential US air strike) the IRGC exercises underscore Iran’s continued push to strengthen its conventional capabilities vis-à-vis the United States, regardless of its political and economic constraints. On the nuclear front, Rouhani met with Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi in Qom on February 25 to prepare for the March 10-11 gathering of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, where Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will discuss the status of the nuclear negotiations. Rouhani’s outreach ahead of this meeting was intended to secure political support among Iranian scholars and clerics for his negotiating policy and to reassure sceptics at home who fear he may sacrifice Iran’s national interests in nuclear research and development. Rouhani’s prudent decision to travel to the religious and political epicentre of Iran was embraced by conservatives, securing Zarif a tactical advantage for his briefing next week.


IRGC exercises designed to deter an invasion

The IRGC’s three-day exercises included joint land, air, and sea operations throughout the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and southern Iran. The exercises included speedboat maneuverers against a mock US carrier on day one, land exercises showcasing mobility and counter-mobility movements on day two, and a combined air-naval-ground exercise on day three. The exercise involving gunboat and helicopter attacks on a model of a US Nimitz-class aircraft carrier had been planned since early spring 2014. The IRGC’s ground force exercises included ten divisions operating as a consolidated force throughout nearly three hundred locations in Iran’s south and southwest. Exercises also tested the IRGC’s naval radar, cruise missiles, sea mines, heavy machine guns, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, helicopters, armor-penetrating roadside mines, and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. The additional tests of Iran’s Fateh 110 and Zalzal ballistic missiles, along with the drills and unveiled weapons advances, reinforced the Supreme Leader’s recent call to enhance Iran’s military capabilities “irrespective” of the nuclear negotiations.


Senior IRGC officials, including IRGC Navy Commander Brigadier General Ali Fadavi, IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami, and IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour, have touted Iran’s ability to deter an attack by the United States. Other officials, such as Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, IRGC Commander Major General, Mohammad Ali Jafari, and Defense Minister IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, claimed Iran is capable of becoming the region’s guarantor of security, replacing the West as the dominant power.


Rouhani courts clerical support for nuclear negotiation policy

Rouhani spoke with scholars, clerics, and scientists in Qom on February 25, including Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi. Rouhani explained his nuclear negotiations policy was “to take the weapon of sanctions away from the enemy,” and to continue talks so that Iran “will not miss the path of its scientific development.” Tehran Interim Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat al-Eslam Kazem Sadeghi thanked Rouhani for his promising position on the nuclear issue, while Qom Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Ali Rezi Arafi praised Rouhani’s visit to Qom. Aware of the religious authorities’ concerns that Iran’s national interests in nuclear research and development will be sacrificed in the negotiations, Rouhani made this trip in a concerted effort to gain support for the nuclear talks ahead of Foreign Minister Zarif’s meeting with the Assembly of Experts.  


Mehrdad Moarefian is an Iran Analyst at the Critical Threats Project. Tara Beeny is a Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. This guest report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project.