As back-channel negotiations between Washington and Tehran try to dampen the risk of a military confrontation, one apparent wild card that some officials fear could further inflame tensions is the Revolutionary Guard Corps navy. US naval commanders are not confident that the Guard navy, an elite force known for its independence and fervour, can prevent zealous elements from taking hostile action, possibly even against the will of the government in Tehran.
"Can you command and control someone who is operating under that motivation?" Vice Adm Kevin J Cosgriff, former commander of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said in an interview last month. Whether the force is fully controlled by Tehran "is a concern to me", he said about two weeks before announcing his retirement from the navy. The Revolutionary Guards, a military and semipolitical organisation independent of the Iranian Armed Forces, fields its own army, air force and navy, comprising an estimated 125,000 soldiers.
Of Iran's military units, the Guard's navy has possibly had the highest number of direct and blatantly unfriendly encounters with the US navy and allied militaries. Its fast-attack ships and torpedo boats are alleged to have approached US naval vessels in a threatening manner on numerous occasions. And its sailors have kidnapped military personnel from countries that have been critical of Iran's nuclear programme, most notably the 15 British servicemen who were detained and paraded on Iranian television in March 2007. Its reputation for aggressive manoeuvres coupled with heightening regional tensions have escalated concerns among US naval officials that incidents could escalate into major maritime confrontations. Naval officers do not "want to be the next headline", said Thomas Keaney, acting director of the Strategic Studies programme at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "There is a thinking among them that you're not going to destroy my command. It's your responsibility for the people on your ship and the ship itself, and you cannot let yourself be another victim." In addition to its alleged provocations, US officials have voiced concern about the posture of the Guard's navy during day-to-day interactions at sea, which they describe as unpredictable. "There is typically a different sort of reaction when we interact with the Revolutionary Guard navy," Vice Adm Cosgriff said. "They either don't react at all on the radio, or sometimes make suggestions to us that are not of a professional nature." In contrast, he said, interactions with the conventional Iranian navy have tended to be more professional. For the past few months, for instance, the US navy has been using a special international code to communicate with the Iranian navy to avoid misunderstandings. Hooshang Amirahmadi, a professor of international relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has studied Iran, said the Revolutionary Guard Corps does adhere to a sturdy command-and-control structure. Commanders follow directives handed down by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, rather than from other political institutions, such as the presidency, held by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a former guard member. But the country's Islamic leadership had granted the Guard far more latitude than the conventional armed forces to take aggressive action against perceived threats, he said. In some situations they could take measures that could be misinterpreted as rogue. "The Revolutionary Guard follows its own set of rules," Prof Amirahmadi said. "They follow their own sense, their own perception of what is in front of them, what forces they are facing. They give you less space to manoeuvre. "The conventional army is more tolerant, patient - they follow rules and so on." Before the country's Islamic leadership consolidated power after the 1979 revolution, they created the Revolutionary Guard Corps to protect their tenuous positions from elements in the armed forces still loyal to the shah, the Iranian monarch who was deposed during the national uprising. Guard members are thought to be highly educated individuals, such as engineers, doctors and businessmen who hold lucrative commercial contracts from carpet making and oil exploration to large defence projects. They control the country's deadliest weapons, including an arsenal of Scud missiles. Many of them are ideologically driven soldiers who were hardened by eight years of war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the 1980s. Last year, the Bush administration designated the Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation for its suspected support of Iraqi insurgent groups and nuclear ambitions, the first such labelling of a branch of a nation's military by the United States. Prof Amirahmadi said it was the very nature of the Guard's raison d'ętre, and its deep connections to the ideological underpinnings of the Iranian government, that made the force notoriously scrappy. "The Guard has two functions: to defend the country, but, more importantly, to defend the revolution - so they are doubly alert, doubly hostile, doubly less forgiving" than the conventional Iranian Armed Forces, he said. "That particular view is institutionalised within this force." Beyond yesterday's announcement by the Guard, other recent declarations have helped raise the stakes in an already tense standoff with the West. Following Israeli military exercises in June described as a dress rehearsal for a strike on Iran, officials in Tehran, including Mohammed Ali Jafar, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, issued a series of threats aimed at Israel and US interests in the region. Mr Jafar suggested that if attacked by the Israelis, Iran could call upon its Lebanese ally Hizbollah to attack the Jewish state. And there is fear among US officials that Iran could upset the delicate balance recently forged in Iraq by stirring anti-US forces such as Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Iran has a reputation for striking back in indirect ways after being attacked, Prof Keaney said, and could be prepared to respond in such a way again. "When a US navy cruiser shot down an Iranian airliner in the 1980s, that had tremendous implications," he said. "We don't know what the Iranians have done since then as a way to get back at us for that." A response to an attack, he added, would be measured: "It may be military, it may be political. The Iranians would take that and say, 'OK, we're going to retaliate on our terms, either by further increasing support to al Qa'eda in Iraq, by further working with Hizbollah, or something along these lines'." Ayatollah Khamenei suggested recently that Iran could strike "big warships" stationed across the Gulf, a threat directed at the United States and its military installations across the region. US officials say they take these sort of threats seriously. Although the Revolutionary Guard's vessels are typically flagged, an aide to Vice Adm Cosgriff said there was serious concern over the force's smaller, more manoeuvrable craft, which were generally unmarked and hostile. The Guard's navy is in charge of guarding the Straits of Hormuz, through which an estimated 13 million barrels of crude oil a day pass the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates. Analysts said Iran could send small speedboats on suicide missions to attack naval vessels and disrupt the flow of oil tankers. In January, the United States accused the Guard's navy of sending five unmarked speedboats to harass US navy ships passing through the straits. The speedboats, they said, made threatening radio communication that nearly provoked a retaliation. "I am coming at you," US officials quoted the radio voice as having said during the incident. "You will explode in a couple of minutes." Reports later linked the source of the threats to a well-known prankster. Large US warships are particularly vulnerable to small, swift craft such as speedboats. The January incident invoked memories of the bombing of the USS Cole, a destroyer that sustained heavy damage and 17 US deaths after a suicide boat laden with explosive rammed into its hull off the coast of Yemen in Oct 2000. "One of the reasons I was so concerned about the January 2008 episode was because they were small boats," Vice Adm Cosgriff said. "And at the time it wasn't clear immediately that they were Iranian Revolutionary Guard." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org