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Why IRGC is the main suspect behind tankers’ attacks

Jun 18,2019 - Last updated at Jun 18,2019

Iran stands accused of carrying out last week’s twin attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman as more countries point the finger at Tehran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that “there’s no doubt” that Iran was behind the attacks and others, adding that “the intelligence community has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it”. Also on Sunday, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said Britain is “almost certain” Iran was behind the attacks on the oil tankers. “We don’t believe anyone else could have done this,” he said.

Iran has rejected these accusations. But its position is weak, as circumstantial evidence piles up against it and there is one main suspect whose threats in the past resonate today in the wake of the serious incidents in the Gulf of Oman, and that is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The IRGC has the means and capabilities to carry out threats to disrupt the flow of oil through the Arab Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea. It is also the main suspect behind last month’s attacks against tankers off Fujaira Port.

The circumstances surrounding these attacks raise questions about who is really in charge in Tehran. The attacks took place as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in historic visit. Abe was reportedly carrying a message from US President Donald Trump; one that Khamenei had refused to respond to. The IRGC answers directly to Khamenei and runs its own maritime force independently from the Iranian navy. Neither the Iranian president, nor the minister of defence, has authority over the IRGC.

The US Central Command provided a surveillance video that showed one of the IRGC patrol boats removing an unexploded limpet mine from the hull of one of the damaged tankers. Another account by the same source noted that “a US aircraft observed an IRGC Hendijan-class patrol boat and multiple IRGC fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft [FAC/FIAC] in the vicinity of the M/T Altair”, one of the damaged tankers.

It is not the first time that these patrol boats had harassed vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC carries out regular naval exercises in the Gulf waters to show its capabilities and flex its muscles.

The latest incidents come at the height of escalating tensions between Iran, on the one hand, and its Arab neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the US on the other. President Donald Trump’s administration had imposed additional sanctions on Tehran recently, effectively stopping it from exporting its oil. These sanctions had tightened the grip on the struggling Iranian economy. Even though both sides say they want to avoid war, attempts to find a diplomatic path to renegotiate a nuclear deal had stalled. The US, now joined by a number of Gulf and European countries, wants the new deal to include limitations on Iran’s ballistic programme and curtailment of its meddling in the region’s affairs.

But as the Iranian government seeks to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the IRGC has a different priority. Since it was created after the Iranian revolution of 1979 to be part of the armed forces, it has expanded and diversified its activities in and outside Iran. It has access to ground, naval and air forces and is comprised of 120,000 members, in addition to 90,000 volunteers in the paramilitary Basij militia. Today, it is a multibillion-dollar network that controls business, automotive, energy, telecommunications, real estate, construction and smuggling, among others, and is active, through the notorious Al Quds Brigade, in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

It stands to lose its clout in these countries as well as inside Iran if the biting sanctions continue. Making things worse is President Trump’s decision in April 2019 to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO), making it the first designated FTO that is a part of another government. Such designation means that the IRGC’s financial activities will be under heavy scrutiny.

The IRGC is a state within a state and it is the backbone of the rule of the ayatollahs and without it, the iron-clad control of Iranian affairs would not be possible.

It is highly unlikely that President Hassan Rouhani has any influence over the activities of the IRGC. And it is possible that last week’s attacks were carried out directly by the IRGC without the government’s knowledge. These are disturbing conclusions but they help explain Iran’s erratic and contradictory behaviour.

The US is right to demand that a new deal with Tehran includes curtailment of its long-range ballistic programme and its incriminating regional activities. Europe should also step in and a future deal, if reached, must be expanded to guarantee the maritime safety of the strategically important Gulf region.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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