On Wednesday, January 13, South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jung-Kun met with a number of Iranian officials in Tehran but was rebuffed in his efforts to secure the release of a South Korean-flagged tanker that was seized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on January 4.
The incident is apparently part of Iran’s bid to compel the South Korean government to facilitate the release of seven billion dollars in frozen Iranian assets, but the accompanying show of force by the IRGC may have also been intended to reinforce an aggressive posture toward the United States and other leading adversaries.
This latter motive was on display in other developments that coincided with Tehran’s public rejection of negotiations that might facilitate the release of the tanker, Hankuk Chemi.
Wednesday also marked the first of two consecutive days of military drills outside the Strait of Hormuz, in the Gulf of Oman. The operation involved the test firing of surface-to-surface cruise missiles, the development of which had been lauded by Iranian military figures in prior months as a deterrent against Western influence in the region.
Images of the two-day drills were shared widely via Iranian state media on Thursday, though officials strayed from familiar patterns by sharing few specific details about the equipment that was used.
In July, however, the Islamic Republic professed to have tested cruise missiles with a range of about 275 miles. This sort of gesture represents an expansion of the regime’s preexisting focus on ballistic missile technology, which noticeably persisted in the run-up to this week’s naval exercises.
Recently, Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, the head of the IRGC’s naval division, participated in a ceremony to unveil a new underground missile base that is reported to be several miles long and located near the Persian Gulf coast.
Soon thereafter, he appeared on state television to deliver remarks highlighting a range of supposed examples of Iran demonstrating effective strength in the surrounding region.
Among these were the 2019 downing of an American spy drone that authorities said had strayed into Iranian airspace, though the U.S. said it was continually operating over international waters.
That incident brought Iran and the U.S. to the brink of war, with President Donald Trump reportedly calling off a planned retaliatory airstrike at the last moment, after determining that the likely casualties would constitute a disproportionate response to the destruction of an unmanned aircraft.
Trump would make a similar calculation the following year after Iran launched a volley of missiles at Iraqi military bases where U.S. personnel were stationed, causing traumatic brain injuries in dozens but killing none.
In that case, the Iranian strike was itself a retaliation against the killing, on January 3, 2020, of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s foreign special operations division, the Quds Force.
The recent first anniversary of the Soleimani killing raised widespread concerns that Iran might take further provocative actions and once again inflame the danger of open conflict.
Hardline officials and members of the IRGC had never really ceased to threaten such retaliation in the intervening year, and so American forces made a point of demonstrating their readiness to meet any regional threat, in hopes of deterring Iran.
This included the deployment of a guided-missile submarine, the USS Georgia, to the Persian Gulf, as well as four separate deployments of B-52 bombers to fly non-stop from the U.S. to the edge of Iranian airspace.
If Tehran did have any concrete plans for violently marking the anniversary of Soleimani’s death, it would appear that the deterrence worked, since there have been no reports of anything other than performative saber-rattling by Iranian forces.
However, there are also signs that American officials believe the threat has not sufficiently abated. Following the passage of the January 3 anniversary, it was announced that Georgia would be departing the Persian Gulf and returning home, but this announcement was promptly reversed by the Department of Defense, and Thursday’s Iranian missile drills ended up taking place in the immediate vicinity of the submarine.
In fact, that American vessel even appeared in Iranian state media broadcasts, where it was presumably intended to given the impression that Iranian shows of force had effectively deterred a more heavily-armed “enemy” from encroaching directly onto Iranian territory.
That message was separately conveyed on Wednesday by Tangsiri and others, as they sought to turn public attention toward another recent anniversary, arguably overshadowing unfulfilled, hardline demands for a retaliatory display on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death.
In lieu of such a display, Tangsiri attempted to portray his forces as having already conclusively demonstrated that Iran is prepared to repel further aggression from Western powers.
“If a country intends to invade or threaten our Islamic homeland, as on January 13, 2016, our answer will be absolutely decisive and tough,” he said, referring to an incident exactly five years ago in which the IRGC seized a U.S. Navy boat, briefly detained 10 sailors, and used their images extensively in state propaganda.
A statue was later erected to commemorate the arrests, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei awarded the nation’s highest honor to the IRGC members who were involved.
However, Tangsiri’s reference to foreign invasion dramatically overstates the facts of the case. The boat in question only barely strayed into Iran’s territorial waters after breaking down during a training exercise near Farsi Island.
The accompanying fanfare from Iranian media was somewhat undercut by the fact that the sailors’ release was negotiated after about a day, and carried out without further incident or any known concessions on the American side.
That being the case, it seems reasonable to conclude that ongoing references to the incident in Iran are intended primarily or solely for a domestic audience, and especially for hardline entities that are eager to believe in the narrative of an effective “Resistance Front” against Western influence in the region.
The latest military drills and displays of new weapons, however, are most likely intended both to reinforce this narrative domestically and to raise concerns among Western policymakers about the possibility of future conflict, which may be costly even if it doesn’t pose a genuine, long-term threat to the U.S. military.
In a recent editorial for Fox News, Heritage Foundation scholar James Carafano argued that Iran’s impulse to exploit these concerns is especially strong now that the U.S. is transitioning from the Trump administration to the Biden administration.
The latter has signaled interest in returning to the nuclear deal from which his predecessor withdrew. And Carafano believes that this has encouraged Iran in the belief that it will soon be able to return to prior conditions in which “it had good success with past American administrations and the Europeans by acting increasingly aggressive.”
“This is not just about going back to the deal. If that is all Tehran wanted, it could have just sat pat and done nothing. This is about getting an even sweeter deal than they got from Obama,” Carafano added, referring to the administration in which Biden served as vice president.
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S.-led six other world powers in negotiating the controversial agreement that granted Iran wide-ranging relief from economic sanctions in exchange for voluntary restrictions on Iran’s enrichment and stockpiling of nuclear material.
After President Trump triggered the re-imposition of sanctions, the Iranians began violating the terms of the deal, abandoning them altogether in January 2020 after the Soleimani incident.
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have remained in the country since then, but their most prominent role has since become the confirmation of incremental steps toward nuclear weapons capability which Iran has proudly announced, albeit while denying that that is the end goal.
Last week, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had begun enriching uranium to 20 percent fissile purity, thereby returning to the level of progress the country had achieved before entering into the 2015 agreement.
Now, Iran is reported to be further reducing compliance with the deal by starting research on the production of uranium metal. Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran was explicitly barred from conducting that research for 15 years.
However, the regime underscored the ease with which these provisions can be broken when it casually informed the IAEA of its intentions. If the research ultimately yields an enriched final product, that uranium metal would have the potential to be used in the core of a nuclear weapon.
The latest violation has predictably put Iran’s most serious critics on edge, especially after observing that violation in the context of Iran’s ongoing nuclear build-up. The government of Israel has called upon the United Nations to immediately convene meetings to discuss these developments.
More specifically, it has urged a comprehensive embargo on military equipment and missile technology. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice for National Security Advisor, emphasized that the Biden administration would act “in consultation with our allies and partners.”
And although he showed considerable interest in negotiations as an alternative to the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy, Sullivan also said that the goal of those negotiations would be “to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.”