Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei burst out Wednesday, May 6 with an angry tirade: “US military threats in the last few days may scupper the nuclear talks with Iran,” he said. “Holding nuclear talks under the shadow of threat is unacceptable for Iran… US officials have threatened military action against Iran if Iran refuses to accept this or that nuclear condition, What does negotiation mean under the shadow of threat?” he asked.
This was Khamenei's answer to a comment made by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on April 10, when he said:
“We have the capability to shut down, set back and destroy the Iranian nuclear program and I believe the Iranians know that and understand that,” he said, in reference to the US army’s most powerful ground-penetrating bomb, the Massive Ordinance Penetrator-MOP.
Tehran also had a reckoning with Washington for sending the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group to the Gulf of Aden last month, to prevent an Iranian naval convoy unloading weapons for Yemen’s rebel Houthis or seizing control of the strategic Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
Khamenei needs military action as levers of control
Khamenei’s outburst was also a declaration of intent that Iran’s nuclear talks with the world powers would henceforth be accompanied by the background noise of military incidents.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report that Khamenei is under heavy pressure home and needs to assert his control over the complicated web of events in which Iran is involved:
1. He needs to keep a hold on the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), whose leaders are furious over the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program incorporated in the accord as it is drafted. They are especially irked by US demands to impose foreign inspections on Iran’s military nuclear sites.
To help the supreme leader pacify the IRGC, Obama has come to the rescue with a plan to relieve the Guards of sanctions (as reported in detail in the lead-article of this issue.)
2. Khamenei is also acting to calibrate the level of flames in four arenas: the home front, the Syria and Yemeni wars and the exercise of Iranian naval mastery over the strategic Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Bab el-Mandeb.
With new military initiatives afoot, he can blow them hot or cold to suit his ends of the moment.
The Maersk Tigris incident part of a wider provocation
In the last week of April, the Revolutionary Guards Navy raised tensions in the Gulf region and struck at relations with Washington by seizing the Marshall Islands-flagged MV Maersk Tigris container ship in the Strait of Hormuz.
Ten days later, it was released on the orders of the supreme leader.
In commandeering the ship, the IRGC perpetrated two major violations of international law: They seized the vessel in international waters, flaunting their defiance of the treaties which Tehran has signed and, and, furthermore, sent marines to first fire on the commercial vessel, then board it and take over the helm and ships’ communications.
Although the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the US Navy were blazing mad over the outrage, the White house made them play it down.
At length, they were allowed to announce on April 30 that the US Navy had begun accompanying American and British-flagged ships in the Strait of Hormuz, in response to Iran’s seizure of MV Maersk Tigris.
That too did not last long.
Thursday, May 7, the Pentagon said that US navy warships were no longer “accompanying American and British-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.”
Another Iranian flotilla is steaming toward Yemen
Did that mean that the Iranian naval threat had been lifted? Not at all, say DEBKA Weekly’s sources. If anything it is escalating.
And the next incident was not long in coming: On Monday, May 4, an Iranian naval group pursued a US warship and military planes through waters off the southern coast of Yemen. Iranian state media put it this way: A US warship and several planes “changed direction”… after encountering an Iranian naval fleet during a patrol in the Gulf of Aden near Yemen.” The Iranian Fars news agency reported: US military assets “fled after they approached an Iranian naval fleet and were warned to move away.”
The Pentagon, challenged to explain what was happening, said only that it is aware of the Iranian reports but “no such interaction has occurred” as described.
So what was really going on?
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources fill in the gaps left by the Pentagon.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are only just starting their campaign of military provocations against the US Navy around Bab el-Mandeb, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden waters around Yemen.
A flotilla of three Iranian warships loaded with military supplies for Yemen’s Houthi rebels is again steaming toward Yemen.
Revolutionary Guards set scene for naval showdown with the US
Tehran is blatantly disregarding President Barack Obama’s warning last month that Iranian vessels would not be permitted to unload those supplies, or interfere with the freedom of navigation in Gulf of Aden waters. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated this pledge to Saudi Arabia.
The Revolutionary Guards high command and top Iranian government official already have plans in place for the contingency of an American destroyer’s demand to inspect the freight of one of the Iranian vessels or a US Marines attempt to board a ship to search for illicit weapons.
IRGC commanders have resolved that if President Hassan Rouhani makes substantial nuclear concessions in lieu of sanctions relief, then Iranian battleships will stage a violent showdown with the US fleet.
An American response to this provocation would ratchet the clash up to a state of war – and terminate nuclear diplomacy. The Guards would repeat the supreme leader’s dictate of May 6: “Holding nuclear talks under shadow of threat is unacceptable for Iran…”
According to our sources, the Guards’ plans are well advanced and may extend to seizing civilian sea crews or US military personnel as hostages.