By Sébastien Roblin
August 15, 2020
A lot of suspicious, strange and downright surreal things have been happening in Iran these days. Some of them seem straight out of an action thriller, as a series of unexplained explosions have riddled Iranian nuclear facilities. And some of them really are straight out of Hollywood — a fake air force carrier supposedly built for a film by Oliver Stone’s son was the subject of a bizarre staged attack by Iran in July.
Then on Wednesday, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker owned by a Greek company was seized near the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian special forces rappelling down onto its deck via fast-ropes from an orbiting helicopter. The commando move was short-lived, however, as the tanker was released from custody mere hours later.
And unfortunately for Iran, the mock assault it mounted on the dummy carrier to similarly evoke fear in the militaries of the U.S. and regional enemies like Saudi Arabia instead concluded more like a comedy. After running motorboats in circles around the carrier and pelting it with rockets and missiles that seemed to do only modest damage, the fake carrier capsized in shallow water while being towed back to port — creating a navigational hazard outside a key Iranian naval base.
While these dramatic renditions have their humorous aspects for Iran’s antagonists, they point to a less amusing and more dangerous bottom line: Under the “maximum pressure” campaign that Washington is imposing on Tehran, potentially with help from U.S. allies such as Israel, the Iranians are escalating their tit-for-tat responses to a degree that risks a real conflict, or at least undermining U.S. national security interests — including a growing partnership with China.
The stakes have been raised by the sabotage of Iranian strategic facilities that has recently plagued the country. Between the end of June through mid-July, Iranian industrial and nuclear sites, power plants, a medical clinic and oil pipelines across the Islamic Republic began mysteriously exploding. It is generally believed that at least some of these incidents were due to cyberattacks or other forms of sabotage orchestrated by Israel or the United States or both.
For example, anonymous intelligence officials told The New York Times that a July fire at the Natanz fuel enrichment facility, which may have delayed Iran’s nuclear program by several months, was caused by a bomb planted by Israel. When a previously unheard of domestic group claimed responsibility, it only raised speculation as to whether it was a cover story or a local proxy of Israel’s.
For now, the risk of Iranian retaliation for the economic and cyber-pressure campaign is held somewhat at bay by the country’s clear military limitations. Take the recent fake carrier episode, intended to remind the U.S. Navy and its Middle East counterparts that Iran could disrupt important energy shipping routes if it so desired.
Video of the exercise appears to show that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy pounded the dummy carrier with everything from crude rockets fired by swarms of tiny motorboats to sea-skimming anti-ship missiles launched by helicopter to limpet mines carried by frogmen to truck-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles. In the finale, Iranian commandos swooped down from helicopters onto the carrier’s deck.
Iran state media claimed the IRGC also targeted the carrier’s bridge with drones and used its Nour satellite launched in April to observe the attack, which if true implies it could be used to locate a real U.S. carrier for targeting. Yet the footage released by Iran shows only one shot of a sea-skimming (rather than ballistic) missile hitting the side of the carrier. Satellite photos of the carrier show damage to the mock planes on the flight deck but not penetrating holes, suggesting Iran’s plunging ballistic missiles either missed or weren’t aimed at the carrier.
Iran’s aircraft carrier punching bag dates back several years, and the dramatized attack in July wasn’t the only one it’s undergone. It was first spotted under construction in the Iranian naval base of Bandar Abbas in 2014. Iran said it was a prop for a movie called “Airbus” supposedly involving Val Kilmer and Sean Stone, Oliver’s son.