Eleven Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard fast boats harassed U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf in mid April. Footage released by the U.S. Navy shows the Iranian speed boats with machine guns mounted on the front buzzing around the USS Lewis Puller and the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton. Tehran is upping its harassment amid the coronavirus pandemic and, playing out in the Pacific, a U.S. Navy controversy in which carrier captain Brett Crozier was very publicly relieved of command for actions during the pandemic. It reflects Iran's decision to suddenly test the U.S. Navy's response to pressure America's presence across the Middle East.
Iran's regime is not secretive about its motives. On just one day this week its state-run media outlet Press TV ran on its homepage six articles slamming the U.S. and allies in the region. Iran claims that the U.S. is gambling with disaster in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, and that the tensions are linked to Washington's decision to leave the Iran Deal in 2018. The naval harassment is not just a protest against U.S. sanctions, though. It is related to rising tensions over the past year that has seen deadly rocket attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, mining of at least six ships in the Gulf of Oman, and a drone attack on Saudi Arabia, as well as threats to Israel from Iranian allies in Lebanon and Syria.
Iran wants to show that it can provoke the most powerful navy in the world.
Iran's small navy is no match for the U.S., but Tehran has shown in the past that it can waylay unsuspecting U.S. forces and allies. In 2016 it detained, filmed, and humiliated U.S. sailors in the Gulf. In 2007 it did the same to British Royal Marines. Iran uses drones, too, to harass U.S. ships, flying over the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier in 2018. Tehran doesn't always win in these standoffs. Last July the USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone because US Marines with an air defense system happened to be aboard. Washington also carried out several airstrikes in Iraq, where it killed Qasem Soleimani, the major general and archterrorist for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The U.S. Navy has also intercepted two Iranian ships laden with drones and missiles that the Islamic Republic was seeking to smuggle to Houthi allies in Yemen.
If we created a scoreboard for the last several years' worth of incidents, both Tehran and Washington could point to successes. The larger picture, though, is that Iran wants to show that it can provoke the most powerful navy in the world. An IRGC member who drove past a U.S. ship cradled his machine gun and waved his finger at U.S. Navy members photographing him, as if to both mock and warn America. This was the action not of an IRGC member who thought the U.S. Navy might sink his ship but of a man saying "This Gulf belongs to me." Tehran's fast boats came within ten yards of one U.S. ship and did donuts out in front of the others for an hour.
Iran carefully monitors U.S. reactions, learning from each incident.
Iran's military and clerical leaders, primarily concentrated around the IRGC, which views itself as the tip of the spear of Iran's "Islamic Revolution," feed off challenging America and American allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. They also carefully monitor U.S. actions, trying to ascertain what the U.S. response will be. For instance reports, indicate that when Iran planned an unprecedented attack on Saudi Arabia in September, with 25 drones and cruise missiles, it was careful not to kill Saudi citizens. In June, Tehran shot down a sophisticated surveillance drone (which cost $200 million). It said later that it had not had not targeted a U.S. P-8 plane, which had personnel on it. The message: We can kill you if we want, but we are weighing your response and options.
The Trump administration has successfully used a combination of threats and actions that kept Iran on its toes from 2017 to today. The challenge for the U.S. is that, with each incident, Iran creates a precedent it can learn from. Its Iraqi proxies killed a U.S. contractor last year near, and the Pentagon carried out airstrikes against the proxies. Then the proxies attacked the US. .embassy in Baghdad, so the U.S. killed Soleimani. After two U.S. and one U.K. service member were killed in March, the U.S. Air Force carried out more air strikes in Iraq. However, in the Gulf, the antics of the IRGC navy are different. It chooses the time and place to harass U.S. ships, and then it goes back to port. There is no tit-for-tat.
Iran is watching Washington's naval response and looking at how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting the military. It knows that U.S.-led Coalition allies, such as the U.K. and France, are withdrawing from Iraq and that in recent weeks the U.S. has walked away from a half-dozen facilities there. Tehran says that it is deploying more drones, reaching out to Qatar, where U.S. troops are based, and trying to push the Saudis back in a civil war in Yemen . If you're Tehran and you look at the Middle East, the one place where you haven't succeeded is the Gulf, where the U.S. Navy operates with impunity. Driving in circles around the U.S. Navy and thumbing your nose at its ships is one way to show that Washington doesn't hold all the cards.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.