Reuters: Iran vessel ‘harasses,’ sails close to U.S. Navy ship in Gulf: U.S. officials, the fourth incident in a month.
The most obvious association is with the increased U.S. ground presence in Iraq, and the pending near-term expulsion or severe diminution of ISIS in Iraq. But this observation doesn’t nail down the purpose. Some candidates:
- To intimidate the U.S. to the extent that a continued presence on the current scale would be thought too risky.
- To provoke an incident, such as the sinking of an Iranian speedboat. This would be used to motivate and excuse actions by Iranian forces and Shiite militia against the U.S. presence.
- To set a confrontational example, with two purposes: A: In order to block potential co-opting of Shiite politics by the U.S. B: To motivate Shiite insurgency against the U.S. presence.
As a bare list, these are undecidable. But let’s consider further. The speedboats are operated by the navy of the Republican Guard, which is separate from Iran’s other navy. In recent years, the Republican Guard has emerged as a power center distinct from the theologians of Qom. But it is still infused with religious fervor, and retains legitimacy conferred by the conservative faction of the Qom clerics. Of note, Qom has recently tilted in the conservative direction, the latest of several perturbations within the past five years.
The speedboat activity probably derives from the conservative clerics. The only other candidate for instigation is the Guard itself. Regardless of whose idea it is, it would not occur without the approval of the conservative clerical faction.
This allows consideration of a process unknown to western thought. Unlike Sunni Islam, which has no interpreters officially distinguished by the religion, Shia Islam requires that every follower choose a teacher, who is himself schooled in jurisprudence of Islamic law. The teachers are arrayed in a complex hierarchy of accomplishment. The most accomplished are referred to as marja-e taqlid, meaning “source of emulation, or marjaʿ taqlīdī, “source to imitate.”
This permeates Iranian society with something akin to the therapy prescribed by behavioral psychology. The Western behavioral analogy is, “obtain the correct behavior and the thoughts will take care of themselves.” It explains the extreme contrast in Iran between behavior behind the closed doors of private residences, which is rarely interfered with, and public display of the like.
Since the speedboat activity originates in the minds of religious thinkers, it is likely intended for imitation. This thought process is alien to Western diplomats, except, possibly, those who have gone native.
Of the list of motives, the last one, “to set a confrontational example”, option B, is most congruent with marjaʿ taqlīdī.