- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Iran captured world attention by launching its first military satellite into orbit just weeks ago, but its armed forces remain plagued by high-profile mishaps that undermine the Islamic Republic’s carefully crafted image as a major regional power.

The death of 19 Iranians in a friendly-fire missile debacle Monday follows a pattern that saw Tehran’s military embarrassingly shoot down a civilian airliner, killing all 176 people on board four months ago.

The two deadly errors stand in stark contrast to Iran’s portrayal of itself as capable of going toe-to-toe with such Mideast rivals as Israel and Saudi Arabia — let alone fend off any potential American attacks on its homeland.

It’s a reality Iranian leaders are less than eager to admit, according to some regional analysts who warn that Tehran could seek to cover up its costly military mistakes by lashing out at Riyadh or Washington.

Iranian military aggression could also be spurred by a desire on the part of leaders in Tehran to cover up their poor management of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has drawn rebuke from countries across the Middle East as infected people flee Iran and drive up case counts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other nearby nations.

“This is a very highly ideological regime. I think it’s more likely to react to the signs of obvious incompetence by ratcheting up the rhetoric to compensate for this evidence that it’s really not as powerful as it claims to be or as effective as it claims to be,” said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“It’s more likely to puff out its chest and fall back on the same old ideological bromides. The regime knows it is militarily weak but it tries to compensate by saying, ‘We’re willing to sacrifice more than you soft Westerners,’” Mr. Phillips told The Washington Times in an interview Tuesday.

The deadly Iranian military mistakes have largely involve weaponry produced domestically in Iran and come as the Trump administration pushes to extend a United Nations embargo on foreign weapons sales to Tehran — particularly from Russia and China.

It remains to be seen whether the mistakes might strengthen Washington’s case. Some analysts believe the recent incidents underscore the administration’s argument that Iran is not only an irresponsible actor, but that Tehran is actually incapable of policing its own military.

Top administration officials warned last week that if Russia, China or any other nation blocks an extension of an existing arms embargo, the U.S. would seek to “snap back” into place global economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.

President Trump withdrew the U.S. from that pact in 2018, though other signatories — including key American allies in Europe — have tried to preserve it.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have steadily increased following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, nearly culminating in a war earlier this year after Iranian-backed militias in Iraq targeted American forces and Washington responded with an airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Iran sought to avenge the Soleimani strike by launching missiles at U.S. forces stationed at Iraq’s al-Asad Air Base. Dozens of American service members suffered traumatic brain injuries during the assault.

At the time, the Iranian government enjoyed at least some backing among its citizens, many of whom were angry at the U.S. for targeting and killing Soleimani. But that popular support was quickly squandered when it became clear the Iranian military had also unintentionally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, just hours after launching missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.

Iranian leaders ultimately issued a public apology amid growing domestic protests.

The more recent mishap that occurred this week was far less deadly, but perhaps even more humiliating for Tehran. During a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman on Monday, an Iranian warship accidentally fired a missile on one of its own support vessels.

“The incident took place in the perimeter of Iran’s southern Bandar-e Jask port on the Gulf of Oman during Iranian Navy drills on Sunday afternoon, in which 19 sailors were killed and 15 others were injured,” state television reported the Iranian navy as saying.

The accidental strike on its own forces came at a crucial moment for Tehran, which in recent weeks has once again provoked a standoff with the U.S. after Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats last month harassed American warships conducting drills in international waters.

Mr. Trump responded to the standoff by vowing to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats” that threaten any American vessels.

After previous rounds of Iranian aggression, the president has suggested that Iran made a mistake and perhaps was not able to keep control over its own military.

Last June, after Iran shot down a U.S. drone over international waters, Mr. Trump said it was entirely possible that senior Iranian leadership in Tehran hadn’t signed off on the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional,” the president said at the time.

Some analysts say such a mistake doesn’t seem far-fetched, and that the Iranian military suffers from a host of serious shortcomings.

U.S. economic sanctions over the past two years have crushed the Iranian economy, and the coronavirus pandemic and coinciding free fall of global oil prices are only further inhibiting the Iranian governments access to funds.

As a result, analysts argue, Tehran has less money to spend on equipment and training for its military, potentially leading to deadly errors.

“The conventional military is not very strong, not very well-trained, and not very well-equipped,” said Mr. Phillips said. “I think they rush things. They rush weapons systems into operation without adequate testing. A lot of their missiles don’t function very well. They have a lot of accidents on some of their missile bases where people are killed by explosions. I don’t think they operate with the same degree of safety consciousness and testing that Western militaries commonly use.”

Still, Iran has proven itself capable of inflicting damage. In addition to the attack on al-Asad Air Base and the downing of an American drone last summer, U.S., Saudi and European officials have blamed Iran for September 2019 missile strikes that damaged key oil fields inside Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s military also has shown the ability to detain commercial ships traveling through the waters off its coast. Last July, for example, it halted a British oil tanker and kept its crew hostage for several days.

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