Iran in provocative mood as Trump presidency looms

Sunday 11/12/2016
A Februray 2016 file picture shows Iranian soldiers walking past a giant board displaying a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, at the Behesht-e Zahra (Zahra’s Paradise) cemetery in southern Tehran. (AFP)

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 20th.
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 26th.
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 26th, 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 31st 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.