Dual Blows to Iran’s Armed Forces

On Sunday evening, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck another Iranian vessel, the Konarak, with a Noor anti-ship missile. Initial reports indicate 19 sailors were killed, with 15 injured. Three areas to watch after this latest incident include the dual blows to Iran’s armed forces in recent months, competition between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Artesh, as well as the future of Iran’s naval leadership.

Iran has two militaries—the IRGC and the conventional Artesh forces. For the regime, last year was difficult by any measure for the IRGC. The death of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and the downing of a Ukrainian jetliner were body blows. Soleimani’s singular stature has sent Tehran scrambling to fill the void he left. The IRGC’s admission that it mistook a civilian jetliner for hostile aircraft left a public who was already seething from increased gas prices reeling over regime mismanagement. Sunday’s incident involving the Artesh Navy will implicate both Iranian militaries in grievous accidents within only months of each other, reinforcing the narrative among some elements of Iranian society of a regime that is increasingly adrift. It will also fuel questions over military readiness.

But the structural differences between the IRGC and Artesh will make it more difficult for Artesh to recover as swiftly from this incident as the IRGC did following the downing of the Ukrainian airliner. In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, there was always tension between the IRGC and Artesh, given Artesh’s association with the Pahlavi monarchy. According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, “[a]lthough today both militaries provide essential security functions for Iran and coordinate regularly, some rivalry remains, resulting from their uneven access to resources, varying levels of influence with the regime, and inherent overlap in missions and responsibilities.” For example, in 2019, 29 percent of the defense budget went to the IRGC whereas only 12 percent went to Artesh.

As a result, the IRGC has a greater ability to absorb shocks to its brand than Artesh. Recent weeks have witnessed the IRGC attempting to burnish its image by showcasing its efforts to protect the public amid the coronavirus outbreak. It has also used a recent standoff with the U.S. Navy for propaganda—with conservative dailies featuring a now iconic image of an armed guardsman pointing at a U.S. warship. That’s not to mention the IRGC successfully launching a military satellite into orbit for the first time after failures to launch into orbit communication satellites, operated under the auspices of Iran’s Space Agency and the Ministry of Defense. While Tehran did task Artesh with decontamination and the establishment of hospitals amid the coronavirus, the IRGC has taken on a more visible role in the response, establishing its own Shafa base to deal with the pandemic. Artesh will thus have less of an opportunity than the IRGC to quickly recover from this naval setback given its unequal standing and infrastructure inside the regime.

Lastly, Sunday’s accident is not the first during the tenure of the commander of the Artesh Navy, Hossein Khanzadi, who has held his position since 2017. In 2018, the Damavand destroyer sank after it crashed into a jetty. With the Konarak reentering into service that same year, only now to have been severely damaged, this is yet another black mark during Khanzadi’s tenure despite the recent overhaul of the Damavand. His predecessor had served in the position for a decade, but there is precedent for brief tenures for Iran’s naval commanders as well as shakeups after setbacks. For instance, Sajjad Kouchaki-Badelani served only from 2005-07. Upon ascension as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced Rear Admiral Mohammad-Hossein Malekzadegan with Ali Shamkhani, following destruction of Iranian warships during the Iran-Iraq War. The expiration of the arms embargo—after which Iran will be able to acquire warships—as well as Khanzadi’s naval ambition to build a nuclear-powered submarine amid the standoff over the Iran nuclear deal will also inevitably put the Artesh Navy under the microscope. Therefore, the longevity of Khanzadi’s tenure will be important to monitor in the months ahead.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).