A lot of suspicious, strange and downright surreal things have been happening in Iran these days. Some of them seem straight out of an action thriller, as a series of unexplained explosions have riddled Iranian nuclear facilities. And some of them really are straight out of Hollywood — a fake air force carrier supposedly built for a film by Oliver Stone’s son was the subject of a bizarre staged attack by Iran in July.
The mock assault it mounted on the dummy carrier to evoke fear in the militaries of the U.S. and regional enemies like Saudi Arabia instead concluded more like a comedy.
Then on Wednesday, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker owned by a Greek company was seized near the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian special forces rappelling down onto its deck via fast-ropes from an orbiting helicopter. The commando move was short-lived, however, as the tanker was released from custody mere hours later.
And unfortunately for Iran, the mock assault it mounted on the dummy carrier to similarly evoke fear in the militaries of the U.S. and regional enemies like Saudi Arabia instead concluded more like a comedy. After running motorboats in circles around the carrier and pelting it with rockets and missiles that seemed to do only modest damage, the fake carrier capsized in shallow water while being towed back to port — creating a navigational hazard outside a key Iranian naval base.
While these dramatic renditions have their humorous aspects for Iran’s antagonists, they point to a less amusing and more dangerous bottom line: Under the “maximum pressure” campaign that Washington is imposing on Tehran, potentially with help from U.S. allies such as Israel, the Iranians are escalating their tit-for-tat responses to a degree that risks a real conflict, or at least undermining U.S. national security interests — including a growing partnership with China.
The stakes have been raised by the sabotage of Iranian strategic facilities that has recently plagued the country. Between the end of June through mid-July, Iranian industrial and nuclear sites, power plants, a medical clinic and oil pipelines across the Islamic Republic began mysteriously exploding. It is generally believed that at least some of these incidents were due to cyberattacks or other forms of sabotage orchestrated by Israel or the United States or both.
For example, anonymous intelligence officials told The New York Times that a July fire at the Natanz fuel enrichment facility, which may have delayed Iran’s nuclear program by several months, was caused by a bomb planted by Israel. When a previously unheard of domestic group claimed responsibility, it only raised speculation as to whether it was a cover story or a local proxy of Israel’s.
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For now, the risk of Iranian retaliation for the economic and cyber-pressure campaign is held somewhat at bay by the country’s clear military limitations. Take the recent fake carrier episode, intended to remind the U.S. Navy and its Middle East counterparts that Iran could disrupt important energy shipping routes if it so desired.
Video of the exercise appears to show that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy pounded the dummy carrier with everything from crude rockets fired by swarms of tiny motorboats to sea-skimming anti-ship missiles launched by helicopter to limpet mines carried by frogmen to truck-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles. In the finale, Iranian commandos swooped down from helicopters onto the carrier’s deck.
Iran state media claimed the IRGC also targeted the carrier’s bridge with drones and used its Nour satellite launched in April to observe the attack, which if true implies it could be used to locate a real U.S. carrier for targeting. Yet the footage released by Iran shows only one shot of a sea-skimming (rather than ballistic) missile hitting the side of the carrier. Satellite photos of the carrier show damage to the mock planes on the flight deck but not penetrating holes, suggesting Iran’s plunging ballistic missiles either missed or weren’t aimed at the carrier.
Iran’s aircraft carrier punching bag dates back several years, and the dramatized attack in July wasn’t the only one it’s undergone. It was first spotted under construction in the Iranian naval base of Bandar Abbas in 2014. Iran said it was a prop for a movie called “Airbus” supposedly involving Val Kilmer and Sean Stone, Oliver's son.
The film doesn’t appear to have been made. Instead, in February 2015, Iran staged a similar exercise as last week’s, though the mock ship that time intentionally sustained heavy damage when an explosive charge on her deck set off a huge blast worthy of a Michael Bay film.
Last summer, satellite photos showed Iran had begun repairing the battered mockup. That Iran has resorted to trotting out the carrier a second time might seem like validation for the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy, which began after Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from a nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and imposed crippling economic sanctions.
But viewing these latest attacks on Iran and its botched shows of force as a victory for U.S. policy only works if you ignore that this approach has actually only fostered the very behaviors it was meant to forestall, and could eventually result in an Iranian military-economic partnership with China.
Iran’s boarding of the Greek-owned tanker was likely a retaliation for the cancelation of oil shipments from Iran to Venezuela due to pressure on Greek shipping from U.S. sanctions.
A year earlier, Iran began a series of both overt and thinly veiled attacks in the Persian Gulf, apparently sabotaging civilian tankers with limpet mines, shooting down an expensive unarmed U.S. Navy drone and striking Saudi oil refineries with drones and missiles, causing a perceptible dent in global oil output for several days.
Tehran also appears to have mobilized pro-Iranian militias in Iraq to begin bombarding U.S. bases there with rockets. These militias reportedly killed a civilian U.S. contractor in December 2019 and later two American soldiers and one British soldier in March.
In January, the U.S. struck back by brazenly killing Iran’s most prominent general shortly after he arrived to visit Iraq, to which Iran riposted four days later with a barrage of ballistic missiles aimed at U.S. bases in Iraq that only narrowly averted killing U.S. troops.
Iran hawks who opposed the nuclear deal boast that the renewed sanctions and attacks covert and not-so-covert are genuinely hurting Iran and Iranians, and responsible in part for its current economic misery. They point to large-scale protests in Iran on concerns ranging from the spiraling economy to the mishandled COVID-19 pandemic and even the accidental shooting down of an airliner by Iranian security forces.
But Washington’s end goal is not (or at least shouldn’t be) to hurt Iranians, but to compel Tehran to cease its most problematic policies. In fact, the reverse is happening, as Iran has progressively abandoned the constraints it was observing on its nuclear program, continuing to improve weapons systems such as ballistic missiles and stirring up greater regional instability than before. Of course, improvements to those missiles are more in evidence than ever two years after quitting the deal.
The result is a loss: An Iran experiencing moderate economic performance, not building nuclear warheads and not launching overt attacks on U.S. forces prior to 2018 is now suffering economically, has resumed development of nuclear capability and has repeatedly targeted civilian and U.S. military targets.
The possible alliance with China shows that imposing hardship on Tehran does not by itself advance U.S. interests, and can actually backfire.
In short, the “maximum pressure” strategy aimed at Iran has backfired by heightening the frequency of violent confrontations and empowering hard-liners in Tehran by discrediting attempts by moderates to negotiate with the United States. Worse, prolonged economic depression has reportedly encouraged Tehran to pursue a deal in which it sells cheap oil to China for 25 years in exchange for up to $400 billion in economic and military assistance. If that occurs, it could be a disastrous outcome for U.S. foreign policy by making Iran less susceptible to sanctions and giving China a new foothold in the Middle East.
To be fair, it’s too early to tell whether the Iran-China alliance will happen, and how deep the alignment will be, as it faces significant domestic opposition in Iran. But at a minimum, the possible alliance with China shows that imposing hardship on Tehran does not by itself advance U.S. interests, and can actually backfire. After all, sanctions are only meant to be the means to achieving the positive end of a nonnuclear and less destabilizing Iran.
But as the latest beating of Iran’s mock carrier emphasizes, that end is nowhere in sight.