Iran has a long history of harassing American warships in the Persian Gulf, but this practice had largely evaporated by the middle of the Trump administration for reasons that remain unclear. Other forms of provocative Iranian behavior, from seizing commercial vessels to using drones for harassment, did continue in the region. There were also a string of outright attacks, linked back to Iran, on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
In 2019, the United States and Iran notably came dangerously close to open conflict after the IRGC shot down a Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) drone over the Gulf of Oman. The U.S. government also accused Iran of directly carrying out an unprecedented combination of drone and missile strikes on targets in Saudi Arabia later that year. This all was, of course, followed by the U.S. military’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soliemani, head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its branch responsible for operations outside of the country, in Iraq in January 2020 and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missiles strikes on basing hosting American troops in that country.
President Joe Biden’s administration is now attempting to negotiate, indirectly, with Iran about the U.S. government rejoining a controversial multi-national deal regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In this context, Iranian officials have been publicly calling for Biden to relax crippling Trump-era sanctions on their country. Biden has stressed his intent not to offer any sanctions relief as a precondition to getting back into the so-called Iran Deal, but there have been reports that there may be some flexibility in this position.
Elements of the IRGC could certainly be working to try to strengthen Iran’s negotiation position and there are also certainly spoilers in Iran who are keen to undermine any rapprochement between the two countries. With all that in mind, there also have been and remain questions about just how much control Iran’s leadership actually exercises over day-to-day IRGC operations.
“The activities we usually see from the IRGC Navy are not necessarily activities directed by the supreme leader from the Iranian state, rather irresponsible actions by local commanders on scene,” Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) just today. “We are very careful so as not to get into a provocative cycle as a result of that. Luckily our guys are very good … and they’re able to de-escalate.”
Clearly, at least some elements of the IRGC would prefer to see the situation heat up.
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