Iran’s Revolutionary Guard using navy to send message to US

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Iran’s seizure of the Marshall Islands-flagged MV Maresk Tigris is the latest example of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps flexing their influence, experts tell

This move by the Revolutionary Guard comes amid ongoing negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program and an unraveling security situation in Yemen involving Iranian-backed rebels.

“There is a range of possible motivations … just a mistake (I don’t really believe that), or a way to ratchet up the pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Saudi coalition right now that is trying to constrain the opposition inside Yemen," said Army Brigadier General Ernie Audino (Ret.), who served a tour in Iraq where he commanded a team of combat advisers embedded with the Iraqi Army.

“The Iranians are feeling a little bit of pressure from the United States … threatening the straits is something they have periodically done,” said Ambassador Eric Edelman, a distinguished fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Indications show Iranian Revolutionary Guards want to reaffirm their influential position in the country.

“That is, in many ways, the real power inside Iran right now – there have been many reports that the IRGC [Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps] has not been particularly happy with where the nuclear negotiations are going right now. This could have very well been motivated … to put pressure on those nuclear negotiations,” Audino explained.

“The IRGC is the heart of the regime, so it’s hard to imagine this was a totally unauthorized or rogue act … it should be part of the negotiations because the United States has been, in my view, conceding a great deal on the nuclear issue and not contesting Iran’s effort to assert its hegemony throughout the region – this is just the latest manifestation of that,” said Edelman.

The Revolutionary Guard has tried to send a message to Washington through its naval forces in the past. In February, they used a mock U.S. aircraft carrier in its defense drills for the first time, blowing up the replica warship near the Strait of Hormuz.

Both, however, downplay the idea Iran is becoming a more significant naval power in the Middle East.

“Iran is not a maritime power right now … toe-to-toe with the U.S. naval assets in theater right now, this is a losing proposition and a big one for Iran militarily,” said Audino.

Edelman agreed, and points out that “Iran really needs to understand that they are playing with fire here potentially.”

The Strait of Hormuz is seen as one of the world's most important strategic chokepoints by volume of oil transit. In 2013, nearly 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil went through the Strait of Hormuz.

While last Friday’s interception might not be a short-term security concern, Audino points out this has a “serious economic and diplomatic effect … any disruption to that flow has an instant reaction in the market.”