Grace LiuAbu Musa Island: The “Beating Heart” of Iran in the Persian Gulf

by Cyrus Jabbari, CNS Graduate Research Assistant

Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who commanded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for eight years until April 2019, referred to Abu Musa Island as Iran’s beating heart at the beginning of this year. Recent military deployments and actions taken by the IRGC on the island indeed suggest that Abu Musa may serve as the crux of Iran’s asymmetric warfare operations in the Persian Gulf, which have significantly exacerbated its ongoing crisis with regional and Western powers in the past few months.

Precipitating Events

Crisis in the Gulf has greatly intensified since at least April 2019, shortly after the United States designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) and issued a series of sanctions on Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) entities that are key assets to Iran’s economy and are allegedly major contributors to Iran’s proliferation activities. The United States reported that Iran’s loading missiles onto civilian boats at military ports invoked a U.S. response to deploy a carrier strike group and strategic bomber group to the region. Since then, Iran has purportedly supported or directed paramilitary groups in conducting attacks on energy infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, on airports in Saudi Arabia, and on the U.S. embassy complex in Iraq. Additionally, Iran had downed a U.S. surveillance drone, apparently ushering a hybrid retaliatory response of cyber attacks, sanctions, and increased military deployments to the region by the United States.

Naval incidents in the region, however, have received the most international attention and responses. Since May 2019, Iran has progressed from allegedly perpetrating covert kinetic attacks on vessels carrying hydrocarbon resources through the region’s waters, to overt interdictions and seizures. On May 12, 2019, four vessels were attacked with limpet mines in the coastal waters of the United Arab Emirates near the port of Fujairah. One month later, another two vessels in the Gulf of Oman also suffered limpet mine detonations. Despite a great deal of intelligence indicating Iran, and specifically elements of the IRGC, as the perpetrators, many observers and governments were cautious to attribute responsibility for these attacks to the IRGC, or even to Iran. Skepticism, conspiracy theories, and outright disinformation surrounding these and recent events have been a hallmark of the crisis, obfuscating attempts at ensuring attribution and accountability for Iran’s actions.

Nevertheless, Iran has since July 2019 become more overtly hostile and provocative through IRGC Navy (IRGCN) forces in a series of seizures of foreign commercial vessels and continuous harassment of foreign military assets recently deployed to the region. IRGC forces publicized their seizure of a UAE tanker, and increasingly have targeted British vessels, such as an attempted interdiction of BRITISH HERITAGE, the seizure of STENA IMPERO, and the detention and subsequent release of MESDAR. The United Kingdom has deployed its naval forces in the region to escort ships, and reported 85 interactions with IRI forces in the month of July alone. Meanwhile, IRGC leadership has announced that it is capable of seizures even against vessels escorted by U.S. or U.K. naval forces, and IRI authorities argue that they maintain the right to seize vessels in its territorial waters.

Recent Developments

The IRI has historically used its long-disputed territorial claims as a pretext for conducting hostile and provocative military actions against adversaries, and Abu Musa Island is a key enabler of this strategy. Abu Musa’s role may be more prominent than previously considered, as the island caught Western media headlines nearly a week ago. Its appearance outside Arab and Iranian news outlets and international court tribunals has been rather rare in the past two decades, at least since it was previously rumored in the 1990s as a chemical weapons storage facility. However, now Iran has placed GPS jammers on Abu Musa, which U.S. officials reportedly believe have interfered with civilian aircraft and ship navigation systems, possibly to cause assets to wander into IRI air and naval territorial claims for Iran to seize.

Abu Musa’s GPS jammers are just the latest addition to an island that has received significant attention from senior IRI military, clerical, and political leaders, and heavy investment and deployment of military assets in recent years, especially this year. Abu Musa hosts civilian inhabitants and some tourists, which pose challenges to suggestions of surgical strikes or invasion options that could incur collateral casualties.

Still, Iran openly admits that the island is controlled by the IRGCN, which allows the U.S. some flexibility in military options given its recent FTO designation of the IRGC. This admission may help policymakers avoid uncertainties in authorizing use of military force vis-à-vis possible co-location of one authorized entity, the IRGCN, and an unauthorized one, the IRI Artesh Navy (IRIN). Such ambiguities may have hampered response options to the June 2019 limpet mine attacks, which some analyses asserted were perpetrated by IRGC personnel operating from Bandar Jask, but were still paralyzed by contradicting reports of Bandar Jask as an IRIN base.

As the situation intensifies in the Gulf region, and Abu Musa becomes a more prominent point of future IRI asymmetric warfare operations, it is worth examining how this 13 square km island has grown to be a focal point of IRGC defenses around Iran.

Increased Military Deployments and Operations at Abu Musa

IRI forces are revitalizing and expanding air defense, intelligence, and naval emplacements and support facilities, fielding new strategic weapons systems, and increasing IRGC operations at Abu Musa. IRGCN deploys naval guards and marine personnel to Abu Musa, but the size of its deployed force is unclear. IRGCN maintains land-based long-range anti-ship missiles (AShM) and launchers, naval and anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, and coastal surveillance radar systems. IRGCN is reportedly improving command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) underground stations and aboveground radar systems. IRGCN appears to have recently fielded indigenously produced mid-range SAM systems, and the IRI appears to be expanding vessel stations, air station hangars, and support facilities. Below are two such areas of construction:

The IRGC also reportedly maintains various ground-launched short-range ballistic missile (SRBMs) systems and possibly cruise missiles, though no available imagery substantiates these reports, and such systems are likely maintained in underground facilities accessed by some of the tunnel entrances that can be seen around the island.

Increased IRI Asymmetric Warfare Capacities and Motivations

Expansion of IRGC forces and multi-layered defense at Abu Musa will almost certainly enhance IRI capacities and motivations for asymmetric warfare operations, and will likely enable its ability to deter adversaries and control risks of escalation of conflict to force-on-force engagements. IRGC forces regularly conduct exercises and operations from Abu Musa, and they demonstrate a growing capacity to attack key economic interests and intimidate or harass adversarial military forces. Iran’s deployment and use of newer, indigenously-produced systems such as the Gashti-class boats and Sevome Khordad SAM systems against U.S. and allied military and commercial assets suggests that the IRGC is becoming more comfortable with these more advanced systems. Meanwhile, IRI military planners and strategists are seeking to translate more ambitious and hostile asymmetric warfare doctrines into strategies and tactics. IRI forces deployed to Abu Musa will very likely facilitate asymmetric warfare operations in future, and will be utilized to project influence and control levels of conflict escalation with regional adversaries.

It remains unclear whether Abu Musa Island has been the base of operations for some of the IRGC-perpetrated seizures and detentions in recent months.  However, based on the available evidence collected through ground and satellite imagery, as well as Farsi language-based sources, it is clear that Abu Musa will very likely enable or directly support future naval, air, and/or missile operations against U.S., allied, and partner military and commercial assets.