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Why Iran Targeted a Mock US Aircraft Carrier

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By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent, In Homeland Security

In the midst of its annual Great Prophet military exercise, the naval branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) used a mix of sea, air, and land assets to strike a mock U.S. aircraft carrier.

The IRG has carried out “live fire” exercises in the Persian Gulf before, but they have typically used old tankers or other unserviceable vessels for target practice. However, using a large replica of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier isn’t that big of an escalation. In fact, the use of land based anti-ship missiles and small attack craft is entirely consistent with past war games and doesn’t demonstrate any new weaponry or tactical capabilities.


Video of the bombing (YouTube)

Iran has purportedly used these tactics in the past– along with naval mines and aircraft – bolstering its four-decade long threat to close the Strait of Hormuz should the nation come under attack. This threat has repeated vociferously over the past decade with Western nations employing threats and diplomacy to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s challenge of actually following through with the threat hasn’t changed. One of the chief Iranian complaints is the presence of U.S. naval vessels – aircraft carriers in particular – in the Persian Gulf and the U.S. naval station in Bahrain. The tanker wars of the late 1980s had a profound influence on Iran who subsequently tried continuously to have the U.S. removed from the Gulf. Failing that, Tehran developed an asymmetric naval doctrine to counter the U.S. presence. Privately, Iran knows that its doctrine has problems, so it relies on the threat of retaliation to close the Strait of Hormuz (which would disrupt 40 percent of the world’s oil supply) as leverage.

Though the Great Prophet exercise is an annual event, Iran felt the need to highly publicize the carrier live fire portion, though they have toned down claims of their military prowess since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. This is significant. In the book Dangerous, but not Omnipotent from the Rand Corporation, a portion of Iran’s official military doctrine was cited and the second prong of their strategy – per the IRGC College of Command – was to “deter aggression against it by using exaggeration, ambiguity, and obfuscation about its ability to exact a prohibitive cost from potential aggressors, especially the United States and U.S. regional allies. Among other things, Iran combines official statements, well-publicized parades, set-piece exercises and shows of force, and tests of advanced systems such as intermediate-range ballistic missiles to deter adversaries from initiating conflict.”

The public nature of Iran’s statements on defense play a vital role in overall strategy, so the use of a U.S. airline carrier replica for a military exercise in the midst of nuclear negotiations with the West and large deployments of forces to Syria and Iraq should be viewed in that context, and not necessarily as meaningless boasting.

Iran wants to demonstrate, yet again, that despite its activities elsewhere – it still retains a defensive capability at home. This is important considering the Israeli view of ongoing U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations. Threats of an Israeli air campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program are still of concern in Tehran, so its government felt the need to show it’s still capable of retaliating. This retaliation may not come with an attack on U.S. forces, but it’s demonstrative of a desire to inflict at least some pain on global markets should war come.

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