Last Tuesday a senior Iranian military official threatened to deploy Iranian naval vessels to the United States’ Eastern coast.
“As the global arrogance (forces of imperialism) [read United States] have a (military) presence near our sea borders, we also plan to have a strong presence near the U.S. sea borders,” Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said at a conference marking the 31st anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) according to a number of different Iranian and Western news sources.
Additionally, in response to whether Iran would accept a U.S. proposal for a direct hotline to mitigate against unintended conflict between Tehran and Washington in the Persian Gulf, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi said, “When we go to the Gulf of Mexico, we will establish direct communication with them.” Fadavi is the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Navy forces (Iran has two militaries, the IRGC and the regular military.)
The entire episode is notable mainly because it is so typical of Iran. To begin with, the Iranian Navy is nowhere near capable of being able to support an extended deployment of any level at such a large distance. As the boys at Danger Room note, in the best circumstances Iranian vessels would be able to make a one-way trip to the U.S. coast. Rather, as it has repeatedly done in the past especially with its nuclear program, the Iranian government is trying to portray itself as far more powerful than is actually the case. As White House spokesman Jay Carney put it on Wednesday, “we don’t take these statements seriously, given that they do not reflect at all Iran’s naval capabilities.” Pentagon spokesman George Little also dismissed Iran’s threat.
Secondly, as is so often the case with Iran, the threat to deploy near the U.S. coast is largely symbolic. By making the threat Iran was trying to highlight why it objects to the U.S. Navy’s presence in Iran’s own backyard, the Persian Gulf. Less this point be lost on anyone (and of course it was still lost on Western media), Favadi followed his Gulf of Mexico bit by reiterating, “In the view of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the illegitimate presence of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf makes no sense.”
This is actually the more interesting point of the whole episode. In recent weeks Iran has beenespecially vocal in condemning the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Persian Gulf. While in New York for the U.N. General Assembly last week, for instance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told journaliststhat the best way to avoid regional conflict, “is for the foreign forces to leave the Persian Gulf. There is no need in the Persian Gulf for the presence of the NATO forces,”
This is somewhat odd. Although Iran certainly opposes the U.S. presence and hopes to eject Washington from the entire region, the U.S. Navy has been deployed in the Gulf for decades and was even been involved in a brief armed conflict with Iran (the 1986-1987 Tanker War). This, therefore, raises the question on why Iran is suddenly so vocal in expressing its opposition.
At least two factors are at play here. The first is that Iran is trying to embarrass the Persian Gulf monarchies-particularly Saudi Arabia and Bahrain- that provide support to the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Gulf. Bahrain has appeared to have put down most of its domestic unrest-with Saudi and GCC help- at least for now. This is a blow to Iran who only stands to benefit from a Shi’ite uprising in Bahrain. Making matters worse for Tehran is that the lack of unrest in places like Bahrain has basically put its sole ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s, crackdown on domestic opponents at the front and center of coverage of the Arab Spring.
Thus, Tehran is likely hoping to highlight the support these regimes give to the U.S. to rekindle the revolutionary spirit. This is unlikely to work for two reasons: first, foreign Navies are by their very nature much less intrusive to host nations than are ground troops; and two, the Arab Spring has always been and continues to be driven by domestic issues, not the United States’ foreign policy.
The second factor that probably factors into Iran’s thinking is that the United States is at a crossroads in its Middle East and South Asian policies. With all U.S. troops scheduled to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of this year and 2014 respectively, Washington’s future role in these regions, both of which border Iran, is unclear. The Arab spring has only added to this ambiguity.
Iran has long been determined to eject the United States from the region. By making it difficult for the U.S. to be able to find host nations’ willing and able to host a U.S. presence, Iran is likely hoping it can influence Washington’s upcoming decisions on these matters in its own favor.