During a graduation at Iran’s main army academy, the country’s leader lay down a tougher military posture for the Islamic Republic. Iran must never hesitate to display its power in a hard-edged world where the weak pay the price, he told the newly minted officers.
“We answer threats with threats,” said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the November ceremony.
Less than two months later, Khamenei words were echoed by commanders who warned that Iran could block oil tanker shipping lanes in the Gulf in retaliation for new American sanctions, and they described foreign forces — including a recent visit by an U.S. aircraft carrier — as unwelcome interlopers in the region.
But Tehran’s bluster likely holds other messages directed to the Iranian public.
The greater emphasis on displays of military strength and brinkmanship-style posturing may reflect mounting insecurities among Iran’s leadership, experts say. There’s certainly is no shortage of concerns for Iran’s ruling clerics and the powerful Revolutionary Guard force that increasingly directs the country’s policies.
The latest U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s Central Bank and oil industry — and the possibility that Europe could follow suit — sent the Iranian currency into temporary free-fall and forced emergency efforts this week to stabilize markets, even though the sanctions have yet to even go into effect. The fading economy looms as a potential trigger to revive the opposition movement before parliament elections in March — the first major voting since disputed presidential elections in 2009 that touched off Iran’s most serious internal turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“They want to show a public, facing more economic hardships, that Iran is strong, capable and not afraid to fight if it has to,” said Abdulaziz Sager, director of the Gulf Research Center headquartered in Geneva.
Iran also sees itself locked in an escalating cloak-and-dagger conflict with the U.S. and its allies. Iran this week said it started production of remote-controlled surveillance helicopters in an apparent response to American spy craft, including a sophisticated CIA drone captured by Iran last month.
The Revolutionary Guard now plans another naval exercise in February in the strategic Strait of Hormuz — the pathway for more than a third of the world’s oil tanker traffic. Iran this week wrapped up 10 days of maritime war games that included a threat that it was capable of choking off the strait as backlash to the latest sanctions.
But Iran also is seriously outgunned.
U.S. forces have major bases across the Gulf, including air wings and the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, and are backed by Gulf Arab leaders who see Iran as their main threat. Last month, the U.S. reached a deal to sell $3.48 billion worth of missiles and related technology to the United Arab Emirates and announced the sale of $30 billion worth of F-15SA fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
Iran, in turn, has invested heavily in upgrading its missile range — covering Israel and the entire Gulf region — and has developed anti-ship arsenals based on Chinese designs. Last year, two Iranian warships sailed into the Mediterranean for the first time since the Islamic Revolution and made a port call in Syria, the most important Iranian ally in the Arab world.
But the widening uprising against the regime of Syria’s Bashar Assad has left Iranian leaders contemplating a region without any reliable friends. At the same time, Iran has slightly tempered its belligerent tone with an offer to reopen nuclear talks with world powers.
The hard-line military approach could be “an attempt to camouflage the fact that they may have decided to start negotiating again,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“At the end, they have no choice but to enter talks because these sanctions are going to hurt and hurt badly,” she said.
Iran even has described it in martial terms. The economy minister on Thursday blasted the West for declaring “economic war.”
Earlier, the defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, said there is no place for foreign forces in the Gulf and Iran’s army chief warned Washington not to bring back the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which left the Gulf last week.
The White House dismissed the ultimatums and claimed Iran was seeking to “divert attention from its behavior and domestic problems.”
The editor of the independent Mardomsalari newspaper in Tehran agrees with Washington’s assessment — to a point.
Hamid Reza Shokouhi said Iran’s chest-pounding is partly military bluster in response to the tighter sanctions. But he also senses a shift in Iran’s military doctrine as outlined by Khamenei at the army academy: Bolder and more frequent displays of power and no letup in Tehran’s efforts to keep the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies always guessing.
“Iran is feeling the extra pressure from sanctions on oil and the banking sectors,” said Shokouhi. “So Iran feels it is forced to react. The military is how they do it.”
Khamenei described it as the realities of the world still ruled by “the power of bayonets and weapons” and where “bullying powers are trying to take control of the destiny of other nations with iron fists.”
“Only a nation that proves its preparedness for defense will be secure from harm,” he said at the military academy.
There’s also implicit warnings to America’s Gulf Arab allies, including Tehran’s main Saudi rivals. In Iran’s view, they have betrayed the region by turning to the U.S. as a protector.
“For Iran, there is again the opportunity to remind the (Gulf) states that there are consequences for their reliance on the U.S. for security,” said Simon Henderson, a Mideast analyst at the Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
But few see Iran’s higher military profile setting any clear course for conflict. Instead, it’s more of a signal that Iran’s armed forces — and particularly the Revolutionary Guard – are increasingly in control of policies since the crackdown on dissent after the postelection chaos in 2009.
“Iran may be ramping up the pressures, but it’s not entirely reckless either,” said Paul Rogers, who follows international defense affairs at Bradford University in Britain.
“There doesn’t seem to be a substantial risk of conflict. Yet in any kind of high-tension environment, there’s always the chance of that a mistake or a misinterpreted action can set things in motion,” he said. “It’s the unexpected thing that is the most dangerous in a situation like this.”