By Mark Dubowitz and Behnam Ben Taleblu
Two American reconnaissance planes flew one mile wide of Iran's airspace over the weekend, and according to a U.S. Navy official, kept a safe distance from known surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. Iran warned the planes if they remained on course, they would be shot down, according to U.S. defense officials who called the threat "unprofessional."
Iran's ongoing harassment of the U.S. military vindicates the predictions of those claiming last summer's nuclear deal would embolden rather than moderate the regime's behavior. It also underscores the dangers of a revitalized Iran flush with billions of dollars in cash and confident in the lack of any U.S. response.
The Islamic Republic has undeniably become even more aggressive since inking the nuclear accord. In addition to the most recent threats against American surveillance planes, the Islamic Republic has taken American sailors at gunpoint, harassed military ships in international waters, taken American citizens as hostages, fired missiles able to carry nuclear payloads, and broadened its support for the rogue regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as Hezbollah and other anti-American forces and terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The confrontations with the American military are primarily taking place in international waters and international airspace. Iran is challenging the U.S. right to patrol the Gulf through which 20 percent of the world's oil travels and on which the global economy depends. According to a recent Fox News report citing American defense officials, Iranian confrontations with the U.S. Navy have "nearly doubled in the first half of 2016" compared to the first half of 2015. For their part, Iranian security planners appear keen to learn from these encounters to exploit American weaknesses.
Thanks to Moscow, things have gone from bad to worse. Because of the lack of enforcement of U.S. sanctions after the nuclear deal, Iran recently received a sophisticated Russian SAM called the S-300 and reportedly deployed it around the Fordow nuclear facility. Why does Tehran need the S-300 to defend a so-called peaceful civilian nuclear facility that for the next fifteen years is not supposed to be enriching uranium? Of equal concern is that the S-300 can be used offensively. In the future, Iran may be tempted to move S-300 batteries south towards the Persian Gulf coastline. This would permit the platform's acquisition radar to lock onto aircraft as targets in a heavily trafficked international airspace, adding enhanced credibility to Iran's threats.
The Islamic Republic feels it can act aggressively with impunity. Just this week, the Commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N) derided the U.S. for "seeking direct [communications] links to the IRGC-N" in the Persian Gulf, touting that Iran was in "complete control" of those waters. He also claimed that "the presence of America in the Persian Gulf makes no sense and we have and will always know them to be the driver of insecurity and wickedness."
Despite the fact that Iran's military capabilities pale in comparison to the U.S., there has been little to no push back by the Obama administration against these provocations. Indeed, as recently noted by U.S. Naval Commander Jeremy Vaughan, the administration's fear of upsetting the delicate nuclear deal with Iran appears to have curbed even "defensive" behavior by the U.S. in the Persian Gulf.
The White House has not only failed to stand up to the regime's aggression, it is paying for it in cash. The Administration in January of this year reportedly transferred $1.7 billion dollars on pallets purportedly to settle a decades old claim by Tehran against Washington over a weapons contract inked before the extremists toppled the pro-American Shah of that country in 1979. About $400 million of that money was transferred on the same day Iran released five U.S. hostages setting off a firestorm of allegations that the Obama administration had paid a ransom. The $1.7 billion has already been allocated to the Iranian military.
We may yet learn about more cash transfers. After all, President Obama insists that the U.S. can't work with Iran through the banking system. So, with all the sanctions relief provided to Iran from the nuclear deal and the preceding negotiations since January 2014, the regime may have received as much as $33.6 billion in cash and gold. Even a portion of that cash and gold transferred to the leading state sponsor of terrorism is unprecedented in American history.
The Obama administration has weakened America's position in the Persian Gulf. The next president will be forced to break this dynamic and forcefully respond to escalating Iranian provocations. To back down further risks even more dangerous and destabilizing behavior.
Mark Dubowitz is Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst.