Thursday, 7th May 2020

GCC’s coronavirus and other crises offer an opportunity for Iran

The Gulf Co-operation Council states are in a more delicate and divided condition than they have been for decades – a set of circumstances which presents significant opportunities for Iran. However, understanding how and where Tehran might try to exploit their discomfort is as difficult as ever. An analysis of Iran’s understanding of its key enemies’ weaknesses and the Iranian military machine’s most relevant capabilities might help.

The economic and healthcare crises generated by coronavirus and record low oil prices come on top of myriad political tensions for GCC states, including the ruinous war in Yemen, from which Saudi Arabia is unable to extricate itself, and stumbling economic reform programmes such as the kingdom’s Vision 2030. The UAE is looking over-exposed as it extends its global reach on Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (MBZ)’s watch, being active in Libya, at cross-purposes with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, cosying up to President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and with the creative engine of Dubai at risk from the global close-down. Bahrain and Oman look particularly vulnerable to the economic storms, threatening the potential in both countries (and to a lesser extent Kuwait) for internal stability issues if the crisis is prolonged. Qatar, meanwhile, remains partially isolated by the boycott of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Tehran is certainly not immune from the coronavirus and oil crises – it is particularly vulnerable to both, as an apparently unending flow of negative data underline. Among the welter of issues to worry about are the crippling effects of US sanctions and barely contained popular opposition to the theocratic leadership. However, its proxies are in the ascendency in Yemen and Syria, while the September 2019 attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais demonstrated that Iran has developed a formidable strike capability (GSN 1,091/8). This cannot easily be countered, cowing both Saudi Arabia and the UAE into pursuing a more conciliatory path.

In further good news for Tehran, the signs of a developing split between the Saudis and the UAE is open to exploitation. Iranian strategists also know that relations between Riyadh and Washington have never been so bad that a cohort of Republican senators would propose legislation, as they did on 9 April, to withdraw United States troops from the kingdom (see Energy and industry). Saudi Arabia finds itself dangerously at odds with the oil lobby in the US, with whom it is competing for market share, and knows President Donald Trump is not a reliable ally.

Domestically in Iran, dissent has risen on the back of government ineptitude, hunger and reductions in subsidies, but the internal security forces are strong and the authorities are well aware that the best way to drown out dissent is to unify the nation behind an external threat – for which it can look to its Gulf neighbours and/or Trump’s version of the Great Satan.

Iran has consistently achieved strategic surprise to advance its foreign agenda. Consequently, when and where it might act in the current circumstances is unlikely to be easily predictable. Based on a reading of the government’s tightly-controlled media output, a security analyst told GSN he believes the current Iranian short-term aims are probably to open up the rifts between Saudi Arabia, the US and the UAE, to force Riyadh to accept the punitive peace terms cementing the Houthis’ position in Yemen, and secure reductions in the US regional military presence.

Iran appears to have been particularly annoyed by US Marine activity inside the Gulf, especially after the Americans used pre-positioned armoured vehicles, brought in from Diego Garcia, during an exercise in the UAE. More recently they were upset when the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit mounted a mock invasion of the Saudi islands of Karan and Kurayn; the Iranians responded by announcing an expansion of housing development on the Gulf islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs (claimed by the UAE but held for decades by Iran). And, of course, the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) Quds Force commander General Qassim Soleimani has not yet been avenged.

Iran’s hard-line ideological resolve has, if anything, been strengthened by the failure of the 2015 nuclear deal to deliver sanctions relief and then by Soleimani’s clinical assassination in Baghdad. Tehran has a clear aim to spread its Islamo-nationalist influence across the Muslim world and a strategy for achieving this by making steady, cumulative gains, without ever provoking full-on retaliation.

In pursuit of this aim, Iran can employ a well-proven selection of weapons and tactics. Whereas its ballistic missiles and conventional forces can be countered, Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) fleet is harder to deal with, as was well demonstrated in last September’s attacks. On 18 April, defence minister Amir Hatami claimed Iran had a new UAV with a 1,500km range. The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force has also received more Kaman-12s, a stealth-profiled UAV with a range of 1,000km, and Ababil-3s, which are based on South Africa’s Denel Dynamics Seeker, which are extremely accurate and with a combat range exceeding 200km. Swelling this fleet are bespoke UAVs supplied covertly to proxies, their Iranian origins disguised.

As revealed during the Velayat-97 military exercise in February 2019, the Iranians are also able to fire Jask-2 cruise missiles from submerged vessels of their large fleet of Ghadir submarines (GSN 1,076/8). This capability, not yet used in anger, places a high proportion of key GCC targets within range – dangerously so because the threat would be very difficult to detect or pre-empt.

Possible targets

Taken together, these systems give Iran the tactical capability to launch – without warning – large-scale, difficult-to-counter UAV attacks across a wide geographical area. With oil-related targets such as Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura complex having less value at a time when oil supply is outstripping demand, the Iranians might decide to focus instead on key infrastructure targets, such as the hybrid desalination plant at Ras Al-Khair, which is critical to Riyadh’s water supply, or Abu Dhabi’s Barakah nuclear power site. An unattributable strike on the US Navy might be too risky to pull off, but the Iranians might nonetheless be tempted because of the potential pay-back.

Iranian skill at targeting vulnerable shipping entering the Gulf remains undiminished, which is all the more effective politically when ships from vulnerable third-party nations are targeted. There has been a series of clashes at sea in recent weeks, which all came close to escalation into major incidents.

Using its Quds Force and proxies, Iran has a broad range of other targets across the wider region, which it could engage through terrorism without leaving immediately detectible fingerprints. Circumstances favour the Iranians; at this delicate time, they have the initiative, and both the desire and the means to edge forward with their agenda. A surprise should be expected.

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