Update from AIJAC
Update 08/19 #02
This Update is focussed on the Iranian approach to the “tanker war” in the Persian Gulf – and to the seldom understood reality that Iran is not merely seizing and attacking tankers in response to the pressure it is under, but is actually asserting a direct claim to control and ownership of the economically vital Strait of Hormuz and wider Persian Gulf.
We lead with a short article on Iranian intentions in the “tanker war” from Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post. He notes that Iranian behaviour in seizing and bombing tankers, often in international waters, is designed to send the message “We can do whatever we want in our Gulf and Strait.” In the face of US restraint and the slowness of international efforts to build a coalition to defend ships passing through the vital Gulf chokepoint, it is sending a signal in particular to Gulf neighbours that Teheran is the real power controlling the Gulf. Moreover, this Iranian strategy is getting some positive responses from those neighbours, particularly the UAE. For Frantzman’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE.
Next up are excerpts from a longer document produced by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) which demonstrates that the Iranian regime regularly asserts – and has for years – that that Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz rightfully belong to Iran and it is Iran that has the right to control and police what happens in them. MEMRI quotes numerous Iranian political and military officials, as well as regime media outlets, to demonstrate the widespread nature of this regime claim. Among those quoted are supposed moderates like President Hassan Rouhani (quoted in the excerpts below) and Foreign Minister Javed Zarif (quoted only in the longer document). For this important documentation on what the Iranian regime really thinks about “freedom of navigation” in the Gulf, CLICK HERE.
Finally, American scholar Michael Rubin notes how the recent Gulf tensions underline a regional arms race in which Iran is making major strides in technology and has growing capacities which should not be underestimated. Rubin takes note of rapid Iranian achievements in drones, missiles, satellites, and even nanotechnology. While he says Iran lags behind in cutting edge military technologies like hypersonic weaponry, robotics and autonomous systems, they may even be able to find ways to catch up with respect to the latter two. For his knowledgeable and worrisome discussion in detail, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Reports that Iran’s ageing Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is promoting a presidential candidate, as well as a possible hardline successor as Supreme Leader
- A previous argument from Seth Frantzman that the lack of a coherent Western strategy is helping Iran in the current standoff.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Tzvi Fleischer, together with other AIJAC staffers, offers a backgrounder on how the quest for a new International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General, following the death of incumbent Yukiya Amano, may affect the Iran nuclear situation.
- Judy Maynard on the latest examples of absurd arguments being put forward by anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions advocates as to why certain companies should be boycotted.
- Oved Lobel looks at signs of renewed and growing relations between Hamas and Iran and their worrying implications.
- Tzvi Fleischer in the Australian Jewish News on the absurdity of UN claims singling out Israel as the only state condemned by name over women’s rights, when Israel is actually making major strides in helping Israeli Arab women.
- Brian Carlton of the “Tasmania Talks” radio program interviews Colin Rubenstein on the regional and global threat posed by Iran.
IRAN THINKS IT CAN DO WHATEVER IT WANTS IN THE GULF – ANALYSIS
Tehran has read the American playbook and through its recent actions is attempting to assert power in the Persian Gulf, power beyond just the areas controlled by its coastal waters.
BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Jerusalem Post, Aug. 5, 2019
Iran said that it seized another ship on Sunday – an oil tanker it accused of smuggling oil from Iraq. Tehran has also mocked America’s attempt to create an international coalition to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. In short, Iran’s message is: We can do whatever we want in our Gulf and Strait.
This is a far cry from the early days of May when the US warned Tehran against any provocations and threatened “unrelenting force.” Instead Washington has been cautious in its response. First came the sabotage of four tankers in May 12 and then the attack on two more on June 13, rockets fired near US bases in Iraq in mid-June, the downing of the US drone on June 20, harassment of a British oil tanker on July 11, capture of the tanker Riah on July 13 and the capture of a British tanker on July 19, as well as the recent seizing of another tanker on August 4.
Iran would argue that all of these incidents are responses, or deny that it had even carried out some of them. But it increasingly appears that the Islamic republic is involved not only in the attacks in Iraq, but also attacks in Saudi Arabia and against the tankers. But the real message is that Iran can do what it wants, and there is no “unrelenting” response. In fact, there is little response. The US has said that sanctions are breaking Iran and that it is facing “relentless” pressure. Iran says it faces “economic terrorism” and accuses the US and UK, as well as others, of working against it. Iran is scrapping parts of the nuclear deal in response.
But its real message is closer to home. Iran knows that no country has the stomach for a conflict with it, and most won’t join a US coalition in the Gulf. It also knows that the UK wants de-escalation amid the Brexit crisis and that US President Donald Trump does not want war.
Tehran has read the American playbook and, through its recent actions, is attempting to assert power in the Persian Gulf: power not just in the areas controlled by its coastal waters, but real power – to show that it is the only one that guarantees security in the Gulf.
Iran has said as much and wants to show that this is the case. Yet it holds out a fig leaf about peace to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Javad Zarif, who was sanctioned by the US last week, has reached out to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. The UAE appears to be reciprocating, with one Emirati minister indicating that both Gulf countries want diplomacy over conflict.
Following Iran’s Seizure Of British Oil Tanker, Senior Iranian Officials Again Declare: The Persian Gulf Is Iranian Territory; Iran’s Armed Forces Are Responsible For Security In It, In Strait Of Hormuz, Gulf Of Oman
Middle East Media Research Institute, August 2, 2019 (excerpted from a longer document available here)
Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrolling around the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero (AFP/Getty Images). Iran’s seizure of the ship involves asserting a claim to control all of the Persian Gulf.
On July 4, 2019, British forces detained an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar. On July 19, commando forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had seized an empty British-flagged oil tanker, the Stena Impero, which was en route from the UAE port of Fujairah to Saudi Arabia. Iranian spokesmen from across the Iranian political spectrum expressed pride in the seizure of the vessel and praised the IRGC for its anti-British operation.
Following these tanker incidents, Iranian spokesmen are reiterating the position that the regime has maintained for years: that the Persian Gulf is Iranian sovereign territory, that Iran is responsible for the Strait of Hormuz, and that IRGC forces are carrying out legitimate and legal policing activity in them, to ensure shipping security and to protect Iran’s borders. The pragmatic daily Ebtekar, which supports the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, further emphasized that the Strait of Hormuz is Iranian sovereign territory.
Iranian regime officials have provided various reasons for the detention of the British tanker: violating Persian Gulf shipping regulations by entering via the exit lane, colliding with a fishing vessel, and turning off its navigation systems. All are derived from the regime’s position that IRGC forces are carrying out legitimate and legal policing in the Gulf, since it is Iranian sovereign territory and/or under Iranian responsibility.
This Iranian position was explicitly reiterated as early as February 2019, by IRGC Navy commander Gen. Alireza Tangsiri (see Appendix) and was emphasized further when it was expressed by President Rohani in a conversation with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, as Oman is a local ally of Iran. He also said it in statements to French President Emmanuel Macron in an attempt to preempt the establishment of a European naval police force. President Rohani said in his July 28 Tehran meeting with Foreign Minister bin Alawi: “Iran and Oman bear on their shoulders most of the responsibility for providing security in the Strait of Hormuz. Not only does the presence of foreign forces not help security in the region, it actually is the main cause of tension in the region.” On July 30, Rohani said in a phone conversation with President Macron: “Iran always was and always will be the main provider of security and shipping freedom in the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman.”
It should be noted that along with stressing this principled position, senior regime spokesmen also emphasize their right to retaliation and reprisal operations in order to deter the West from “piracy” directed against Iran. For more on these threats to act against Britain, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No, 8183, Senior Iranian Officials Threaten Britain With Retaliation For Its Seizure Of Iranian Tanker, Warn Europe Its Security Is At Risk If It Won’t Meet Its JCPOA Obligations, July 19, 2019.
This paper will review Iranian regime officials’ statements expressing the regime’s position that it protects the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, along with their acknowledgements that the seizure of the British tanker was retaliatory, explaining that it is based in international law. ——————-
Iran’s navy and political class are claiming that Iranian law applies to all of the Persian Gulf, and in effect, that the whole vital area belongs to Iran.
Iranian Army Naval Commander Adm. Khanzadi: “The First Law That Applies In This [Persian Gulf] Region Is Iranian Maritime Law – And Only Then International Law”
The position that the Persian Gulf is Iranian territory was expressed clearly by Iranian Army naval commander Adm. Ali Khanzadi in a comprehensive July 21, 2019 interview with the IRGC publication YJC that was published two days later. He said…
“Iran’s armed forces, and all the country’s naval forces, are present in the water as a uniform body, and provide perfect security to the maritime areas under Iranian control and also to the seas around these areas, and operate within the legal Iranian and international maritime framework. International maritime law includes a section stating that international maritime laws do not supersede the laws of the littoral countries. Therefore, the first law that applies in this [Persian Gulf] region is Iranian maritime law – and only then international law.
Adm. Khanzadi: “Iran’s Armed Forces Are Responsible For Providing Security For The Persian Gulf And The Gulf Of Oman”
“This [British] tanker violated both Iranian maritime law and international maritime law. It entered the Strait of Hormuz in the wrong lane, and turned off its navigation system. There may also have been English military forces on deck, which is banned on commercial vessels, and we are checking that. The IRGC Navy operated very professionally, and in an outstanding manner… Those who are forced to follow international law and maritime regimes [i.e. the West] must be bound by these laws so that others will follow them. If these laws are not followed in the global arena, this will definitely cause unrest that will threaten the interests of all countries.”
“Iran’s armed forces are responsible for providing security in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and until now they have fulfilled this role in an outstanding manner in the north of these regions
Iranian President Rohani: The IRGC Is Responsible For Strait Of Hormuz Security; Iran Has Always Been The Protector Of The Persian Gulf
President Rohani also said, at a July 24, 2019 government meeting, that the IRGC is responsible for security in the international Strait of Hormuz, and that historically Iran has always been the protector of the Persian Gulf: “The Strait of Hormuz is in a very important location, and there is no room for joking there and it is no place for any country to want to ignore the international laws and enter it against traffic while disregarding the warnings of the IRGC, which is responsible for security in the Strait of Hormuz. The main responsibility for protecting the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is primarily Iran’s and the neighboring countries’ and [this responsibility] has nothing to do with other [countries, that is, the U.S., Britain, etc.]. The Iranian nation has always been the protector of the Persian Gulf…
“The IRGC boldly and forcibly detained the criminal British vessel because it did not obey any [of the IRGC soldiers’] orders and warnings. The IRGC carried out a highly professional and correct precision operation, and I believe that the whole world should be grateful to it for the security in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian Pragmatic Daily Ebtekar: Iranian Sovereignty In Strait Of Hormuz Is Red Line
The pragmatic Iranian daily Ebtekar stated in a July 31, 2019 article titled “The Red Line in the Strait of Hormuz” that Iran has natural and historic sovereignty over the strait. It wrote: “Despite the Europeans’, particularly Britain’s, diligence in reducing tensions with Iran, Washington has sneakily changed the playing field into an arena of hostility with Iran. Iran’s natural and historic sovereignty over the Strait of Hormuz was exposed to an adventurous and tactical operation…”
IRGC Navy Commander Gen. Alireza Tangsiri: “We are preparing every day in the Persian Gulf, and obtaining special equipment to protect the region that was given to us.”
On May 6, 2019, MEMRI published Inquiry and Analysis No. 1452, How Will Iran Prevent The Export Of Oil From The Persian Gulf To World Markets?, in which IRGC Navy Commander Gen. Alireza Tangsiri, in a February 25, 2019 interview with Al-Alam TV, explained the Iranian perception that the Persian Gulf historically belongs to Iran and that Iran therefore controls it and monitors every vessel that enters it. He also clarified that Iran sees the foreign forces in the Persian Gulf as a threat and is therefore reinforcing its navy there. The following are the main points of his interview.
First, Tangsiri explained that the navy of the Iranian Armed Forces and the IRGC Navy divide Iran’s territorial waters between them: “In the Persian Gulf area, the Armed Forces’ navy is present in the Gulf of Oman, from the Strait of Hormuz [eastwards] towards the Indian Ocean and the southern seas, whereas the IRGC Navy is in charge of the Persian Gulf [itself, west of] the Strait of Hormuz. We have 1,375 kilometers of maritime border with the waters of the Persian Gulf. In Hormozgan Province, there are 14 very important strategic islands; Bushehr Province has three, and Khuzestan has two important islands, at the mouth of the Khawr Musa strait.
“The Persian Gulf is a very important area, 250,000 square kilometers. The IRGC Navy has been placed in charge of this area, and is present on all its coasts and monitors every foreign presence in it. Outside this area, namely [along] the Gulf of Oman, the IRGC has two independent posts, one in Jask and the other in Chabahar… We are preparing every day in the Persian Gulf, and obtaining special equipment to protect the region that was given to us. We have planned and are ready [for an operation] beyond the Persian Gulf and the waters beyond our country…
Iran’s Military Is Making Strides Into Twenty-First Century Technology
Recent Iranian ship interceptions highlight Iran’s military challenge and continue to drive a regional arms race. Whereas Gulf Cooperation Council states spend lavishly on high-end, off-the-shelf, U.S.-built platforms, decades of sanctions and post-revolutionary strategic decisions to be militarily self-sufficient has led Islamic Republic to focus more on its own indigenous industries. Direct comparisons of defense spending between Arab states and Iran is difficult. While a superficial reading of public statistics shows Saudi and Emirati spending far outstrips Iran’s as a proportion of GDP, it would be a mistake to take public Iranian statistics at face value. Still, post-revolutionary Iran has long embraced asymmetric strategies such as terrorism or perhaps nuclear technologies to counter enemies, both real or imagined.
This should not surprise. Historically, many Middle Eastern countries have approached technology with suspicion, but Iran has been the exception. In the early twentieth century, for example, Saudi clerics resisted first the introduction of the telegraph and then radio. Into the 1970s, some Saudi clerics complained that television was a plot dreamed up in the West to separate Muslim children from God (some savvy clerics subsequently embraced the medium to spread their radical Wahabi perspectives). The Iranian Shah Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896) sponsored his own telegraph line in Tehran just over a decade after Samuel Morse laid America’s first long distance line. Both the Iranian government and public readily embraced almost every new generational technology, despite Iran’s often repressive political atmosphere. (The Iranian historian Hussein Ardakani, unfortunately writing only in Persian, chronicled this embrace in his seminal History of the Institutions of a New Civilization in Iran).
The same dynamic has been true regarding the internet. Many Arab countries initially rejected or sought to suppress internet access as much for cultural reticence as politics, but within the Middle East, Iran and Israel stood in sharp contrast. In 1993, Iran became the second country in the Middle East after Israel to connect to the internet.
As the Iranian leadership embraces new technologies, its whole-of-government approach means that its work occurs not only on military bases, but also in Iran’s universities and nominally civilian companies within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ economic empire. Indeed, one of the primary motives for the Islamic Republic to send students—especially the children of regime elites and other loyalists—to Western universities and to invest heavily in cyber-espionage is to gain access to the latest in advanced technical fields.
There is a persistent tendency within Washington to underestimate Iran; indeed, this was one of the reasons why the Islamic Republic was able to keep its covert nuclear enrichment and weapons research secret for so long. Iran’s entire nuclear program—not only enrichment and energy generation but also, according to pre-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting, detonator development and a neutron initiator—demonstrated the Iranian ability to achieve advanced technological abilities indigenously.
The Natanz a hardened Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP), built secretly by the Iranian regime and first exposed by Iranian opposition sources in August, 2002: the Western tendency to underestimate Iran contributed to the failure to identify Iran’s nuclear progress earlier.
Simply put, Iranian engineers and scientists are adept at developing cutting edge military technologies. It has been ten years, for example, since Iran successfully launched its first satellite into orbit, an event which then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said proved the “divine view of Iranians towards science.” In the decade since, Iran’s space agency has successfully launched more than a half dozen satellites; more satellite launches are slated for this year. Of course, satellite launch technology can provide cover for advanced ballistic missile work. Perhaps this is why last year Iranian scientists developed a gyroscope to augment inertial navigation in Iran’s ballistic missiles.
The Iranian government has also encouraged nanotechnology investment. On January 31, 2015, for example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visited a nanotechnology exhibition and, claiming that Iran ranked seventh internationally in nanotechnology, urged even greater progress. “You should move forward and you should not abandon the thought of making progress—in this area—on a daily basis,” he said.
Iranian students in Bushehr subsequently joined a rigorous nanotech education program, and the Iranian government has sponsored nanotechnology Olympiads in which top students can compete against each other and which the Iranian government can use for recruitment. There have now been eleven nanotechnology festivals in Tehran meant to provide resources for Iranian students and to facilitate partnerships between Iranian firms and foreign partners, and a twelfth slated for October.
Recent incidents not only with the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf but also in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have also highlighted Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) work. Iran put its first drone into operation in 1985, a decade or two before many other regional states did. Today the IRGC maintains perhaps a dozen different UAV models, the newest of which operate in day and night, utilize GPS guidance, and remain airborne for twelve hours at a time.
While diplomats continue to focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the next generation of military technology involves hypersonic weaponry, robotics, and autonomous systems. There is no indication that the Islamic Republic has the ability to engage in hypersonic work, nor are their allies in China and Russia willing to trust them with such data and technology. Robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence are another matter.
There are three ways Iran might speed up its acquisition of such technologies: Foreign education, overt assistance from China and Russia, or espionage. It may not be politically correct to discuss potential threats posed by Iranian students in American (or European) universities, but the risk is real. Slightly more than half of the twelve thousand Iranian students studying in the United States in academic year 2016–2017, for example, studied engineering, and another 12 percent pursued math or computer science degrees. While the Trump administration’s more restrictive policy might curtail visas for some, students might simply turn to universities in Russia, China, India or, most permissive of all, Europe. Even if the vast majority of Iranian students have no desire to serve their regime, the reality of the Iranian economy means that, upon their return, many would have little choice but to work for government—or IRGC—directed projects.
And, for all the pride Iranian leaders take in Iran’s indigenous industries, the regime has not hesitated to accept covert nuclear and ballistic missile assistance from North Korea, and broader, more overt help from Russia and China. Tehran and Beijing, for example, have created joint nanotech centers in China and active links between Iranian and Chinese nanotech companies. Russian leaders, especially, seem willing not only to export technology to Iran, but also to allow Iranian scientists to manufacture it themselves. Just this year, Tasnim News, an outlet affiliated with the IRGC, announced that Iranian engineers were seeking to manufacture a version of Russia’s Pantsir anti-aircraft missile system inside Iran. Robotics might be the next target of Russo-Iranian cooperation. On June 24, 2019, Iran’s deputy defense minister visited Moscow to attend a “Military-Technical Forum” attended by over twelve hundred Russian and foreign companies, many of which work in robotics.
Russia might be willing to share, but Western technology remains the gold standard. It is here that deception and espionage come into play. European permissiveness plays into Iranian hands. In 2008, for example, IRGC-linked Qods Aviation sought to use French intermediaries to purchase German components for Iran’s UAV program. Five years later, German prosecutors charged a German-Iranian dual citizen and an Iranian man with the illegal export of sixty-one aircraft engines to use in its drone program. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia likewise indicted Australian national David Levick and his company ICM Components for a scheme to export drones and other technology to Iran.
For every successful interdiction, there is some technology which does get through. The Iranian Ayoub drone flown by Hezbollah and downed by Israel after it penetrated airspace near Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona was actually manufactured by the German company Siemens and Bockstiegel and purchased by an IRGC front company. Iran has also repeatedly claimed to have reverse-engineered the US RQ-170 downed over Iran in December 2011. As for cyber espionage, the growing Iranian cyber bureaucracy is well-documented, well-resourced, and growing.
However it acquires technology, Iranian military tacticians increasingly appear to be incorporating artificial intelligence if not fully autonomous systems into their platforms. The IRGC has recently drilled “Fuji assaults” in which artificial intelligence helps coordinate boats, planes, tanks, and drones in a broad attack. The IRGC used similar tactics during the battle against the Islamic State in the eastern Euphrates region. On June 12, 2019, Iranian Air Defense Force commander Alireza Sabahifard announced a new air defense system that can detect stealth UAVs and which may also utilize some basic artificial intelligence in its operation. That Iranian authorities successfully downed a U.S. drone just a month later suggests that Iranian advances, even if Iranian authorities exaggerate, should not be easily dismissed.
Iran is also pushing forward with its own drone capabilities and other robotics. In October 2018, Tehran hosted an International Conference on Robotics and Mechatronics in which academics presented their research, much of which focused on optimizing flight paths, and UAV deconfliction and collision avoidance. One paper, for example, unveiled a new methodology to coordinate multiple flying robots in an “obstacle-laden environment.” Another researcher proposed a new algorithm to reduce UAV fuel consumption and distance traveled. A researcher from Lebanon explored various properties and optimizations for underwater drones. Other research utilized particle swarm optimization and statistical software to improve UAV controls. A June 2019 Tasnim article meanwhile discussed how artificial intelligence could create threats to “psychological security” by utilizing drones or autonomous vehicles for suicide operations. That state-controlled press regularly reports on robotic development in places like Australia’s Queensland University of Technology or Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States shows official interest in developing robotics further.
The question for policymakers in Washington and among America’s Gulf allies is how Iranian acquisition of robotics and artificial intelligence technologies might impact basic assumptions about Iranian behavior and alter the regional military balance. Iran’s military industries may not yet have developed or been able to field the robotic and autonomous systems that now populate American, Chinese, and Russian arsenals, but they may not remain far behind for long.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.