Iran has issued an ultimatum. Tehran warned that it would take hostile action if the recently departed USS Stennis of Carrier Strike Group Three were to reenter the Persian Gulf. Moreover, this development comes as the Iranian military finishes large-scale war exercises in the Gulf.
Iran’s armed forces are no match for US firepower in the Gulf, or even freshly armed neighboring GCC Arab states. Its military inferiority, having been the case ever since its defeat against Iraq in 1988, should not discount Iran’s asymmetrical means to face the West in the Gulf. Iranian threats should not be taken lightly. The Islamic Republic is backed into a corner-a familiar strategic position, one that presents opportunities for Iran’s mullahs.Tehranseeks confrontation, but on its terms and the scale of which remains unknown.
Predicting Iranian actions has always been difficult. Its foreign policy and national security directives are relatively ambiguous, as strategic decisions are made from the top, devoid of written doctrinal principles, yet subject to internal political feuds between the pragmatists and radicals. Furthermore, the often debated question regardingIran’s rationality emphasizes the obscurity surrounding the country’s decision making process. With that being said,Iran’s history and sources of threat perception can help analyze the current crisis in the Persian Gulf.
Iran is a unique country in the Middle East. It is the largest Shiite Muslim state and regards itself as the standard-bearer not only for Shiites, but for all of Islam. Religious authority, which carries a great deal of credence in the Islamic world and is a position that Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran compete for. In addition to being a predominantly Shiite country, Iran is also a majority ethnic Persian state, with smaller minorities of Arabs, Azeri’s, Turkmen, Kurds, Baloch, etc. Iran’s perceived identity as both a fundamentalist Shiite and Persian state have fostered competition, fear, and conflict, with the international community and its neighbors.
Given its unique identity, Iran perceives itself as both religiously and ethnically isolated, and a constant target of foreign imperialism and interventionism. The country’s population, including notably the ruling Islamic Regime, is well accustomed to these perceptions.Iranwas invaded by Great Britain, Russia, and most recently by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the previous century. Iran’s peculiar position in the region and the international community is very much part of its national identity and psyche. Therefore, this besieged outlook has remained a consolidating tool for the Islamic regime since 1979.
History lends credence to the seriousness of current disputes between Iran, its neighbors, and the US in the Persian Gulf. Since 1980, three major wars have taken place in the region over interests relating to this vital waterway. Moreover, during the Iran-Iraq War, the US and Iran were engaged in a two-year naval confrontation to protect their respective oil interests.
At present, there are four major developments pointing towards greater confrontation in the Gulf. The first development pertains to the civil war in Syria and its effect onIran’s overall regional strategic network. Unfortunately for the Middle East’s “resistance bloc”, war in Syria threatens to toppleIran’s closest strategic ally, the Alawite Assad regime in Damascus. Assad’s allies Iran and Hezbollah are granting political and military assistance, and the regime is holding firm, yet undoubtedly weakened. If Assad were to fall, Iran would lose its premier Middle East ally and much of its influence in Lebanon, thereby weakening Hezbollah as well.
Staying in Syria, Iran has withheld funding for its former ally, Hamas, due to that group’s unwillingness to support the Assad regime. Hamas has decided, if only symbolically, that it seeks to realign with the burgeoning Sunni-Muslim Brotherhood bloc. Furthermore,Iran’s relations with neighboring Turkey have suffered setbacks due to both the US planned missile shield and Turkey’s activist position on Syria.
The second major development is the US departure from Iraq. While the US Fifth Fleet remains based in the region, the overall US military presence in the region has declined significantly.Iranhas been active in Iraq, both militarily and politically, for many years. However, Iran’s recent maneuvers and missile launches come on the heels of the US withdrawal, and are Iran’s way of flexing its military muscles. It is exhibiting its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, affect oil markets, and take a more assertive role in post-US Iraq.
Third, Iran is set to hold a presidential election this year. Like many countries, Iran is subject to internal disputes, most notably between the radicals and the pragmatists and power disputes between the Ayatollahs and the president. It is often reported that a myriad of issues exist between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad on levels of power sharing within Iran. Iran’s recent external shows of force may be the byproduct of power struggles between the Islamist elites. Confronting the West, either militarily or politically, is a sure way to foster greater domestic political support from Iran’s radical constituency.
Lastly, the EU is set to impose an oil embargo on Iran. Yes,Iran is already sanctioned; however, this is to be a total ban of Iranian oil and will have significant ramifications for Iran’s economy. Such legislation would have symbolic, diplomatic, and economic effects for Iran. Roughly half ofIran’s income derives from energy exports. Thus, Iran will undoubtedly look eastward for future oil buyers. At the same time it seems unlikely Iran will shy away from responding to some degree with force.
As previously stated,Iran’s conventional military is no match for the US; however it does have asymmetric capabilities, such as ballistic missiles, terrorism, and naval operations, which should not be taken lightly. It has the capacity to disrupt shipping and instill fear within international energy markets, resulting in increased costs for oil buyers. The latter has already taken place, as per-barrel oil costs rose in correlation with Iranian military exercises.
Iran is isolated internationally, threatened to lose much of its influence regionally, and it’s already feeble economy is set to worsen. With that being said, Iran is in a familiar strategic position and one which its most hardline leaders welcome. Tehran eyes confrontation, yet on its terms and in ways other than simply defying the IAEA. This warrants caution on the part of the West as not to fall into an Iranian entrapment, yet also avoiding non-action that would be seen as appeasement or submissive, thus a clear victory for the Islamic regime. In light of these major regional developments, confrontations devised to reignite Islamist fervor in Iran, create havoc in oil markets, consolidate regime support, and improve its strategic influence in the region and especially in the Persian Gulf are a real possibility.