The Islamic Republic of Recklessness

You might not think high-risk aggression is in Iran’s national interest, but leaders in Tehran have long disagreed.

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 18, 2016.
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in Tehran, Iran on Sept. 18, 2016. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iran is the most likely culprit for the attacks on two oil tankers on June 13 near the Strait of Hormuz, a critical chokepoint for Middle East shipping and petroleum exports. Washington’s assessment that the country was likely behind the attack appears to have been based on ample evidence, including video from a drone and surveillance plane, connecting naval forces belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to both incidents.

Iran, of course, denies the charge. Officials in Tehran, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have strongly suggested that this was a false-flag operation. Such excuse-making has been lent support by an apparent mystery surrounding the incident: If Iran were responsible for the attack, what would its strategy have been? Why would Iran risk alienating neutral states and further antagonizing its neighbors—much less provoking a potential open war with Washington—by committing such acts?

Such questions are meant to cast doubt on Iran’s participation or at least the participation of top government officials. Anyone deeply informed about Iranian strategic culture, however, knows they only reinforce Tehran’s apparent guilt.

One common analysis is that Iran wouldn’t take such needless risks; rather, any evidence seemingly implicating the country is more likely to be part of an elaborate conspiracy to frame Iran and dupe the United States into starting a war. The problem is that this selectively ignores history. Iran’s history is replete with examples of it risking escalation with the United States to push back against foreign pressure—particularly sanctions but also against the threat of military action. The IRGC’s operations in support of Shiite militia allies during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq are a prime example. But there are many others, including Iran’s part in the so-called Tanker War in the mid-1980s, which was an outgrowth of the Iran-Iraq War and which brought the U.S. Navy to the Persian Gulf in the first place.

Another explanation supposes that while Iranian forces might have been behind the incident, it was likely a rogue operation by the IRGC and not something sanctioned by the regime. The thinking here is that the IRGC, notoriously against compromise with the United States, would pursue such actions in order to embarrass President Hassan Rouhani and undermine any potential diplomacy with the United States. The timing of these attacks—which roughly corresponded with a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which the Japanese premier was believed to be carrying a message from President Donald Trump encouraging U.S.-Iran talks—made this scenario appear even more plausible to those inclined to believe it.

However, as with the first scenario, the rogue option similarly misunderstands how Tehran’s decision-making works and the IRGC’s place within that system. Iran is a tightly controlled authoritarian state, with a centralized decision-making process. The IRGC is the country’s preeminent military institution and directly involved in its strategic decision-making. While official entities (such as the IRGC and the executive branch of government) can disagree, challenge one another, and even operate in opposing ways domestically, for an operation with large, geostrategic implications to go forward, it would have to be vetted and approved at the highest levels. The IRGC is a professional organization, and it follows a strict chain of command. Were the IRGC to be involved in these attacks, it is highly doubtful that it would have done so without permission from the supreme leader’s office.

The most plausible explanation is that the attacks were a calculated operation by the IRGC, fully approved at the highest level of Iran’s leadership. The evidence already points in that direction, the most damning piece of which is a video captured by a U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft, which shows an IRGC Navy Gashti-class patrol boat pulling up alongside the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous hours after the tanker was originally struck. In the released footage, the crew of the Iranian vessel is seen pulling a suspected unexploded limpet mine off the ship’s hull before quickly speeding away toward Iran’s nearby port at Bandar-e Jask. The implication seems to be that the IRGC didn’t want to risk the device being found because it could have been used to easily trace the attacks back to Iran. In a tweet, Iran’s Press TV, showing a shorter snippet of that footage, which cut out the portion showing the limpet mine being removed, confirms that the vessel was Iranian but claims that it was there as part of an Iran-led rescue effort. A U.S. MQ-9 drone also spotted IRGC vessels “closing in” on the tankers hours prior to the attack. The IRGC fired a surface-to-air missile at the drone but missed. Crew members of the Japanese tanker also reported spotting Iranian vessels nearby.

That the IRGC might be behind this attack should be uncontroversial. It has the capability to do so and routinely showcases that capability in annual maritime war exercises. The IRGC has also warned, countless times in the past, that if pressed too hard, it would seek to shut down maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. Rouhani has made similar warnings in response to U.S. economic sanctions.

The core question, therefore, is not whether Iran was likely behind this but rather—how exactly might such behavior advance Iran’s interests? The most plausible answer follows from the bind that the Trump administration’s crippling economic sanctions have left Iran in. Given poor relations with its neighbors, and the absence of any great power willing to be its champion, Iran’s options are limited to three basic choices: 1) It can weather the storm and hope that U.S. policy might change after the 2020 U.S. presidential election; 2) Iran can capitulate by agreeing to talks and pursuing compromise; or 3) Iran can push back and try to regain some leverage in its relations with Washington.

What we are seeing now is probably a manifestation of Iran pursuing the latter option. By likely attacking civilian vessels in the Emirati port of Fujairah last month, and participating in the attacks on the two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, Iran has shown an ability and, more importantly, a willingness to escalate against the region’s civilian maritime traffic and by extension the global petroleum-based economy. This raises the stakes for Iran’s neighbors by increasing shipping insurance rates and the cost of all imports and exports. In this way, Iran might be attempting to expose the fragility of the region’s economy and hint at how much damage could be done to all regional and connected economies were a full-fledged war to erupt in the Persian Gulf.

Moreover, by displaying a willingness to target civilian maritime traffic, Iran is challenging the United States and its regional allies to a test of wills. Iran is forcing the Trump administration to confront the limits of its maximum pressure campaign and revealing the flexibility of U.S. red lines. The attacks in Fujairah led to a muted response by the Trump administration. Instead of escalating, the United States, along with most U.S. allies, sought to deescalate tensions. The culmination of that effort was Abe’s diplomatic mission to Tehran—an effort that was quickly overtaken by the explosions in the Gulf of Oman. As much as Iran might be signaling a willingness to expand tensions into conflict, it is also probably trying to find a way, short of war, out of its current predicament. Yet, with nobody talking, messages by deed are often lost in translation.

Afshon Ostovar is the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and an assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. All views expressed are his own.