Despite the election of a new president in Iran and his seemingly more moderate cabinet picks, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) remains disproportionately powerful in directing Iranian policy. As such, Sepah News, an IRGC publication, provides an important indicator of Iranian behavior. Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri’s speech to family members of those killed during the Iran-Iraq War suggests that the IRGC-Navy will, far from “depressurizing the Gulf,” instead grow increasingly confrontational toward the United States Navy as it patrols international waters in the Persian Gulf.
Growing IRGC naval aggressiveness in the Persian Gulf may rest on a number of foundations: the IRGC and, more broadly, the Iranian public consider the Persian Gulf to be part of Iran’s “near abroad,” an area in which Iranian forces have more legitimacy to operate than American forces. Throughout the region statesmen and older officers draw parallels between a “pivot to Asia” and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s “East of Suez” speech, which presaged the British Navy’s withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971. Against such backdrop Iranian naval forces increasingly seek to display strength in order to convince littoral Arab states to make accommodation to Tehran.
Iranian naval bluster also increases tension, which, in turn, keeps the price of oil high. The IRGC benefits from high oil prices, both through its smuggling and sale of subsidized fuel and through its production in offshore oil and gas fields. As the new Iranian government seeks to address Iran’s growing economic woes, the inflated oil prices that result from Gulf tension also enable the regime to better make its payroll. Either way, Tangsiri’s speech suggests the Persian Gulf will remain a tinderbox for some time to come.