Iran’s Actions in the Gulf Linked to Iraq Tensions


From the Aramco attack in September to last week’s provocative actions against an assortment of US navy warships, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) has shown great resolve in disrupting maritime traffic in Gulf waters.

The video and pictures of 11 Iranian speedboat-type craft released by the US Navy showing the aggressive encirclement of the USS Lewis B. Puller and other vessels from the US Coast Guard reveal the bold violation of the  Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). In disregard to internationally recognized maritime customs, the speeding IRGCN boats came as close to the vessels as 25 feet.

As per the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), the US vessels involved included the USS Lewis B. Puller, USS Paul Hamilton, USS Firebolt, USS Sirocco, USCGC Wrangell, and USCGC Maui. The US Navy ships issued bridge-to-bridge radio warnings in addition to using long-range acoustic noisemakers, horns, and warning shots. The IRGCN took an hour to respond to persistent bridge-to-bridge radio calls.

Evidently, this was not a one-off incident. In April, Iran detained Hong Kong-registered oil tanker SC Taipei briefly in the Gulf of Oman. In December 2019, the USS Abraham Lincoln was interrupted briefly from entering the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian armed boats. In July, the IRGC sparked a row with the UK after it detained the oil tanker Stena Impero.  Another incident highlighting Iran’s muscle-flexing  was its shooting down of a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk drone over the Gulf of Oman in June 2019.

The IRGC’s provocations are based on clever assessments. It is employing swarms of heavily armed motorboats to launch asymmetric attacks on maritime assets. This is a naval strategy fraught with dangers but consistent with its ongoing policy in Gulf waters.

Iran has a massive fleet of over 1,500 fast boats which are perfect for patrolling  shallow littoral waters. In addition, Iran has armed them with anti-ship ballistic missiles, unguided rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank munitions and recoilless rifles. An assortment of low-radar cross-section crafts, open-top small boats and inflatable watercraft form a specialized navy at minimal cost, one designed to deter the movement of sophisticated ships. Iran’s suicide boats pose a formidable challenge to foreign naval task forces operating in Gulf waters i.e. America, Britain, and France.

 It is yet to be proven but, it is likely, that Tehran would complement its speedboat swarms with short and long-range anti-ship and cruise missiles. The IRGC has positioned radars and missiles along the Gulf coast in a trigger-ready status.

The IRGC initiating an armed conflict is probable, despite the coronavirus pandemic hitting Iran extremely hard. Whenever the threat to Iranian assets heightens in Iraq and Syria, the IRGC initiates aggression in Gulf waters. With the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) facing inevitable attacks in Iraq, volatility in the peninsula is set to reach new heights.

In his bid to tone down the IRGC’s posturing, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called April 15 a ‘yearly reminder’ to US military assets in the Gulf, referring to his last year’s tweet, “US Navy can’t seem to find its way around our waters. Perhaps because it hasn’t figured out its name: Persian Gulf, as it’s been called for 2,000 yrs longer than the US has existed. Or maybe it doesn’t know what it’s doing in our backyard, 7,000 miles from home.”

For centuries, Iran has attempted to dominate Gulf waters. Its Arab rivals might be more powerful and have western support, but Tehran still occupies three strategic islands in the heart of the peninsula i.e. Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb.  These islands help Iran position itself better in Gulf waters but also narrows the shipping lane for rival vessels. The IRGC has bases situated in these islands from which it threatens maritime navigation in Gulf waters.

As long as, Iran continues to interfere in neighboring states and US sanctions remain in place, it will employ underdog tactics. It must outlive foreign pressure and keep up its provocative actions but short of igniting a full-scale conflict till October at least, when the UN is set to permit Tehran to purchase conventional weapons, although of a limited kind.

Editorial Team