In 2018, I wrote an article forecasting a possible increase of Iranian sponsored terrorism. The two main underpinning reasons for this assessment was the possible directions for China’s economic initiative and Iran’s previous reactions to economic strain. Over the last year, the U.S. has increased economic strain on Iran: the U.S. has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, labeled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps terrorists, and increased sanctions. Considering Iran’s increased production of enriched uranium, two maritime attacks in the Gulf of Oman, and its oppositional forces throughout the Middle East, it is highly probable that Iran’s swelling presence forecasts its desire for physical control over the region. This situation will worsen as sanctions increase. If the current course is continued, Russia’s, China’s, and Iran’s actions toward U.S. activities in the region may also appear justified.
Understanding Iran’s Reaction to Economic Strain
Any individual, community, or nation-state requires certain aspects to maintain their livelihood: resources, laws, security, among other things. With Iran in particular, their desire for nuclear energy is where the friction with the U.S. lies. Although Iran is increasing its uranium enrichment program under the guise of power production, the U.S. fears that the increase will lead to the production of an atomic bomb. The logic being: the timeless Arab Persian conflict puts Iran against Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the other Western-backed Arab nations, and the production of a nuclear weapon will most likely lead to violence in the Middle East. The hope from sanctions is that increasing them will diminish Iran’s ability to fund nefarious activities and will eventually help bend the targeted nation to the other’s will. Although this line of logic reasonably demands fear, this very same type of fear-mongering response led to the invasion and failure in Cuba and Vietnam. It is important to keep in mind that beyond conformity, economic strain may also result in innovation, rebellion, and/or ritualism.
In 2014, this was exactly the case. U.S. sanctions on Iran were at a previous high-water mark. Trade had dropped to $550 million. In response, Iran simply turned to China to fill its needs, increasing trade to $18 billion—innovation. Tracked by other sources, these funds were directly sponsoring the operations of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas against Western-backed forces—rebellion. Although Iran’s desire for enriched uranium is opaque at best, it is likely that the manufacturing of nuclear weapons implements a deterrent affect toward U.S. operations. Holding on to these principles, however true, and resisting Western influence is indicative of the last element—ritualism. These elements do not have to coexist, but they, to include conformity, are constant possibilities.
Due to the impact that sanctions have on the operation of the country, Iran will most likely continue this trend. In Iran, “trade” is not simply conducted through private entities. Iranian banks are owned and operated by the government. When sanctions increase, the government loses money; when trade increases, the government gains money. When the government cannot afford its operations, it is highly probable that Iran will continue to resist outside pressure, cling to tradition, and/or find new methods to obtain needed resources.
Tensions between east and west are high in the Middle East. Iran is dominating the physical space by controlling the Gulf of Oman and its alliances. Due to the quiet use of Iranian proxy fighters disguised as other forces, Iran has also avoided the spotlight. It is highly probable that the recent overt actions, although Iran is reticent to admit, indicate less fear of confrontation. If Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani are “less afraid” of the U.S., there must be a reason—it could be as simple as alliances or as scary as the possession of nuclear weapons. The United States chokehold on the Middle East has not been popular. If this direction continues, it will not be long before popular belief in the region supports Chinese, Russian, and Iranian objectives. Much like the lesson learned from the containment strategy during the Cold War, too much interference and control will force an outcome, often unexpected. In the physical realm of international security, this means toward an ally with a bigger stick and/or to get their own big stick. So, what will the U.S. do now?