Experts expect more provocations from Iran

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Iran’s rocket launch near a U.S. aircraft carrier is likely a sign of things to come, say experts on the regime — especially as Tehran offers concessions under the nuclear deal negotiated earlier this year.

U.S. military officials on Tuesday revealed that Iran had conducted what they called a “highly provocative” live-fire exercise within a mile from a U.S. aircraft carrier. 

Although Iran has conducted two other such exercises within the past year or so — one in April and one in October 2014  — a Navy official said this last exercise, which took place on Dec. 26, was unique in that it was conducted “much closer” to U.S. ships than before. 

It came one day after the White House celebrated a milestone on the nuclear deal — Iran’s shipping of most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country.  

Experts say they expect similar behavior going forward.

They argue that Tehran is seeking to send a message to the U.S., the region and its own citizens that despite the deal, Iran has no intention of working more broadly with the United States.

“Despite the recent agreement on the nuclear situation...I think they're saying to us, we're still not going to roll over on anything else,” said Retired Navy Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the United States Naval Institute.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMarines reignite debate on women in combat Gun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA Report: Prominent neoconservative to fundraise for Clinton MORE (R-Ariz.) used the latest altercation to argue that the administration was turning a blind eye to Iranian saber rattling ahead of important elections in that country early next year.

“The administration's desperate attempts to get sanctions relief before the elections in February based on an unfounded belief that it will promote what they perceive as a 'moderate' political strain in Iran is both naïve and dangerous,” McCain said in a statement.

“A rush to sanctions relief threatens to embolden an increasingly aggressive Iranian regime that has no intention of normalizing relations with the West or of retreating from a malign policy intended to destabilize the Middle East," he added. 

The recent action fits into a long-term pattern of behavior by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz — an internationally recognized sea lane that is technically Iranian territory.

Still, many U.S. observers say it has to be seen in the political context of the nuclear deal.

“There is no consensus in Iran that this agreement should lead to an overall improvement in U.S. and Iranian relations,” said Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“The Supreme Leader has flatly said that it won't, at least in the near-term. Many conservatives have repeated the same, many senior officers in [Iran's military] have repeated it,” he said. 

Even more aggressive behavior is possible, especially as Iran nears two critical elections in February — one for the popular assembly and one for the council that chooses the next supreme leader.

“The power struggles in Iran make it likely that there will be further incidents,” Cordesman said  

He described the attitude within the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps towards the deal is “very hard-line,” and that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has had to strike a balance between backing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' rhetoric and allowing the nuclear agreement to go ahead. 

There is always a risk with encounters between the United States and Iran in the narrow and busy waterway.

The U.S. Navy sank several Iranian ships in 1988 after one of its ships struck an Iranian mine. Months later, the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people. U.S. and Iranian forces also had a standoff in 2008 in the strait that almost turned violent.

Experts also link Iran’s behavior to a regional power struggle.

Cordesman said Iran — which is predominantly Shia — is showing its Sunni Arab Gulf region rivals that it has “a major asymmetric air, missile and naval capability in the Gulf.”

Experts say these regional tensions — which are fueling an ongoing conventional arms race — are going to get worse due to a decline in oil prices, which will hurt U.S. allies more than Iran. 

Barbara Slavin, South Asia Center Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Iran's behavior, regardless of motive, is undercutting a better relationship with the U.S. 

“It contributes to a sour atmosphere in which Congress is more likely to take actions that would undercut the nuclear deal. It makes it harder for Obama to defend against these activities,” she said. 

Daly said the exercise is “a reminder that we've got to stay on our toes." 

“It just shows in general that the Iranians need a counterbalance. If left on their own, they would bully their way into situations where people felt intimated or unable to transit international straits that are important for commerce, and you can't let that pass,” he said. 

“It is important to be there to deter bad behavior and support and reassure our allies on the other side of the Gulf,” he said.