Also on Sunday, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said the UK is “almost certain” Iran was behind the attacks on the oil tankers. “We don’t believe anyone else could have done this,” he said.
Iran has rejected these accusations, but its position is weak as circumstantial evidence piles up against it. There is one main suspect whose threats in the past resonate in the wake of the serious incidents in the Gulf of Oman. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has the means and capabilities to carry out Iran’s threats to disrupt the flow of oil through the Arabian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea. It is also the main suspect in last month’s attacks against tankers off Fujairah port.
The circumstances surrounding these attacks raise questions about who is really in charge in Tehran. The attacks took place as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during his historic visit. Abe was reportedly carrying a message from US President Donald Trump, to which Khamenei refused to respond. The IRGC answers directly to Khamenei and runs its own maritime force independently of the Iranian navy. Neither the Iranian president nor the minister of defense has authority over the IRGC.
US Central Command provided a surveillance video and photos that showed an IRGC patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of one of the damaged tankers. Another account by the same source noted that “a US aircraft observed an IRGC Hendijan-class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft in the vicinity of the Front Altair (one of the damaged tankers).”
This is not the first time that such patrol boats had harassed vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC carries out regular naval exercises in the waters of the Gulf to show its capabilities and flex its muscles.
The latest incidents come at a time of escalating tensions between Iran, on the one hand, and its Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the US on the other. The Trump administration had imposed additional sanctions on Tehran recently, effectively stopping it from exporting its oil. These sanctions had tightened the grip on the struggling Iranian economy. Even though both sides say they want to avoid war, attempts to find a diplomatic path to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal have stalled. The US, now joined by a number of Gulf and European countries, wants the deal to include limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile program and the curtailment of its meddling in the region’s affairs.
But, as the Iranian government seeks to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, even as it announced that it will breach the limit on its stockpile of enriched uranium by June 27, the IRGC has a different priority. Since it was created to be part of the country’s armed forces in the wake of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the IRGC has expanded and diversified its activities inside and outside Iran. It has access to ground, naval and air forces and is comprised of 120,000 members, in addition to 90,000 volunteers in the paramilitary Basij militia. Today, it is a multibillion-dollar network that controls businesses in the automotive, energy, telecommunications, real estate, and construction sectors, as well as smuggling and other enterprises. It is also active, through the notorious Quds Force, in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
It stands to lose its clout in these countries, as well as inside Iran, if the biting sanctions continue. Making things worse is Trump’s decision in April to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), making it the first designated FTO that is part of another country’s government. This designation means that the IRGC’s financial activities will be under heavy scrutiny.
The IRGC is a state within a state and it is the backbone of the rule of the ayatollahs. Without it, their ironclad control of Iranian affairs would not be possible.
It is highly unlikely that President Hassan Rouhani has any influence over the activities of the IRGC. And it is possible that last week’s attacks were carried out directly by the IRGC without the government’s knowledge. These are disturbing conclusions, but they help explain Iran’s erratic and contradictory behavior.
The US is right to demand that a new deal with Tehran includes the curtailment of its long-range ballistic missile program and its incriminating regional activities. Europe should also step in and a future deal, if reached, must be expanded to guarantee the maritime safety of the strategically important Gulf region.