war on the rocks

Iran Gave Back the Sailors, but the Persian Gulf is Still a Powder Keg

January 13, 2016

There is no getting around it. Yesterday’s seizure of two U.S. naval vessels by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was not a minor incident. It was significant and could have gone a lot worse. That it was resolved peacefully, and in relatively short order, is good news. But there is also cause for concern.

Iran is dealing with the aftermath of a historic diplomatic agreement. The nuclear deal promised to end Iran’s marginalization and free it from the burden of sanctions. It even embodied the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. But getting the deal done also frayed tensions within Iran’s regime. Hardliners, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), had to put aside their immediate goals of “resistance” to the United States at all costs in order to make compromise on the nuclear issue possible. What is more, the deal was a boon for the Rouhani government, and for the pragmatic and reformist political camps in general. By reaching a deal with the West on the nuclear issue, Rouhani and his reformist supporters showed that their path of moderation in international affairs could achieve tangible results that benefited all Iranians.

This is a problem for the IRGC. The organization will gain from a deal, too. But now it fears losing ground to the reformists in Iran and to the United States in the Middle East. The Guards do not want a moderation in foreign policy. With Iran’s parliamentary elections coming up, and with the soaring tensions between Tehran and its Gulf Arab neighbors as a backdrop, the IRGC likely feels that it needs remind everyone of its formidability.

In other words, this is a sensitive time to be sailing in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy has had numerous encounters with the IRGC Navy in the Persian Gulf. The operating area is relatively small, particularly near the narrow Strait of Hormuz, so for the two navies to cross paths from time to time is expected. Some of the incidents can appear more provocative than others, but for the most part, the IRGC keeps its distance and has not pushed the envelope to the point of an armed clash. Yet, there has always been a question about how far the IRGC might go.

The IRGC is a master of identifying the redlines of its enemies, and then crossing those lines centimeters at a time. It probes, gathers information, and then probes again. This has helped the IRGC establish a reputation of unpredictability. It keeps its enemies at the ready and tensions high in the Persian Gulf.

Most of the world would like to see the Persian Gulf as a center of commerce and shipping, but the IRGC sees it as an active conflict zone. It has never accepted the presence of U.S. forces in the region and considers the expulsion of those forces from the Gulf as one of its main goals. Many take this as little more than bluster. It’s not. The IRGC knows that it is outmatched by U.S. forces, and therefore cannot directly challenge them in the Persian Gulf. But that does not mean it does not look for opportunities to remind U.S. counterparts of its intentions. Or embarrass Washington by putting it in a no-win situation.

The recent ballistic missile tests in the Strait of Hormuz, which came within a mile of U.S. naval vessels, is an example of the IRGC’s willingness to take bold action. The IRGC risked a U.S. military response, and narrowly avoided incurring a new batch of sanctions from the Obama administration, all to prove the point that it had the capabilities to challenge the U.S. Navy. Yesterday’s seizure of two U.S. Navy riverine command boats, and detention of 10 American sailors, could have been far more problematic. Details are still scant regarding how the boats came to be commandeered by the IRGC. Reports suggest that at least one of the boats had mechanical problems and somehow drifted into Iranian territorial waters near Iran’s Farsi Island. The IRGC obviously considered this a violation of Iranian sovereignty, and acted decisively. I assume, without any knowledge of the matter, that U.S. forces were told not to resist the Iranians.

The ramifications of this incident are unclear. On the one hand, there are some positive signs. For one, escalation was avoided and the IRGC released the sailors and boats relatively quickly. This is a testament to the new avenues of diplomacy established between the Obama administration and the Rouhani government. The effort to resolve the situation included direct engagement between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. With Kerry and Zarif, there are now clear and open channels of communication between Washington and Tehran. This is something that did not exist a few years ago, and a very positive sign.

On the other hand, the recent uptick in the IRGC’s provocative behavior is worrisome. Not only does it put improving but fragile relations between Washington and Tehran in jeopardy, it undermines security in the Persian Gulf, and makes conflict a very real possibility. Iran should be building on the nuclear deal to improve relations with its neighbors and the United States, and re-emerge from its isolation. The nuclear deal showed a side of the Iranian regime that many doubted existed. Iran could compromise, it could build trust, and it could move on from the belligerence of the days of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the IRGC does not seem to want to move on.

To the IRGC, the United States is an enemy. Despite a convergence of interest regarding the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and jihadism more broadly, the IRGC does not trust the United States nor does it have any interest in ceding its ambition of driving U.S. forces out of the region. Many pundits and policymakers hoped that the nuclear deal would be the beginning of Iran’s transformation from rabble-rouser to responsible regional power. It might still be. But for now, it appears that the IRGC is taking advantage of the decreased international pressure on Iran to reassert itself. It is probing redlines and it will continue to do so until those redlines are made unequivocal.

The danger in the Farsi Island incident is not so much that the IRGC acted, but what it has learned from having acted. If the IRGC feels that it can push redlines and take provocative steps against the United States without consequence, either by the government in Tehran or by Washington, it will continue to do so. Such a dynamic is dangerous for Iran and for the United States. It is a reminder that the Persian Gulf is still a powder keg that only needs a spark.


Afshon Ostovar is the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, forthcoming April 1, 2016 from Oxford University Press.