Written by: Colin Offenbacker
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the modernized western nations have been on a collision course since the Iranian Revolution. Picture two massive ships sailing towards each other on the high seas. Each ship knows that their courses will meet in a dramatic and devastation collision but neither chooses to take the initiative to alter course and avoid disaster. There is a term for situations like this in the nautical world, C.B.D.R. constant bearing, decreasing range. It’s a high stakes game of chicken. This is and has been the geopolitical situation for decades, but why? Is it a matter of culture…ideology? Or perhaps it’s one of control and autonomy. Whatever the prescribed reason at the time, regime change always seems to be the sought after end-goal from the western powers. This is something that has sat in the back of my mind since the United States pulled out of the so called Iran Nuclear Deal, and especially since the Trump administration began to collect hawkish foreign policy advisor’s, like that of John Bolton. Even if it’s not publicly announced as the overall goal, this question of “what do we do about Iran” is constantly posed by the commentariat and talk heads on media networks. Whether the chosen catalyst is regional stability, supporting liberal democracy, standing up to human rights abuses or slowing nuclear proliferation, the path to these endgame’s all end at regime change. The justification for regime change, changes and shifts over time and is generally based on some contemporary series of international incidents that happen from time to time between Iran and one of the other world powers. After one of these series of incidents, the only answer offered up by western powers always ends with a requirement for a total cultural shift from the top down. For a nation whose government operates, essentially as an authoritarian theocracy, the proverbial solution of cutting the head off of the snake tends to be the reoccurring fix du jure. As the world becomes more and more connected thanks to the modern state of media and information sharing, the world’s appetite for standard regime change, as it has been carried out in the past, has dwindled and vast public support for it has disappeared.
To bring things into a present day geopolitical framing, we as modernized western nations have changed the way we carry out regime change. Perhaps it’s an attempt at learning from the mistakes of our past and the 15 years of armed conflicts, but we now have shifted away from the typical occupational boots on the ground, air strikes and covert operations, to that of economic warfare through the process known as economic sanctions. Sanctions are an interesting leveraging technique on the geopolitical stage. They allow for a bottom up approach to regime change by essentially chocking off a nations ability to do business abroad. Generally speaking sanctions are applied to governments and individuals operating at an official governmental level, but can be adapted to meet just about any level of financial coercion required to meet the level of desired pressure on a particular government. If you imagine a classic trade blockade like those of the American Revolutionary War era you wouldn’t be far from the truth of a modern-day economic sanction campaign. Unfortunately a full blown sanction campaign effects a lot more than the targeted governments. Almost all modern nations, whether ideologically more aligned with the west or not, are far from economically self-sufficient and rely on international trade to maintain fiscal solvency. Of course every nation is different, but imagine that you run a small country that doesn’t have a military powerful enough to hold it’s own on the world stage. Your nation makes a decent profit, largely by shipping commodities abroad, and without that income you cannot meet the budget requirements to “pay your bills”. Now imagine a militarily powerful foreign entity shows up, tells you that they don’t like they way you’re running things and that you must change your ways. Until you capitulate, they will not allow you to sell your goods to other nations. You cannot stand up to their military might so you must capitulate. Unless you have a strong alliance powerful friends to aid you in your struggle, you’re powerless to stand up for yourself. So you either capitulate and your nation changes to meet foreign demands, or you don’t. If you decide not to, you’ve got a new problem on your hands. Your nation now must find away to “make it though” the economically crippling period of foreign sanctions. While your economy begins to collapse, the first people to “feel” the effects of a sanctions war will be the citizens of your nation. They will very soon grow tired of your nations failing economy and before you know it THEY are demanding you go so that they can be relived of the effects of the sanctions. This is a basic example of how an economic sanctions campaign can be run to institute a bottom up form of regime change.
To tie our example to the current situation with the nation of Iran, let’s take a look at the latest series of events that has landed Iran deep in economic warfare with the United States while the wider western world stands back and holds it’s breath. Since our current situation stems from the so called Iranian Nuclear Deal we’ll start there:
May 8, 2018: The United States withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal put in place under the administration of President Barrack Obama.
May 21, 2018: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relays the demands required by the United States that the Iranian government must meet before reentering into any kind negotiations.
August 7, 2018: The administration of President Trump reimposes sanctions on Iran which were originally lifted as part of the original nuclear deal.
November 5, 2018: The so called maximum pressure campaign on Iran begins adding another round of economic sanctions.
April 8, 2019: The US designates the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization & Iran retaliates by labeling the US military terrorists as well.
May 2, 2019: The Trump administration ends the waiver program which allowed other countries to import Iranian oil and threatens that any nation do business with Iran will be subject to US sanctions.
May 5, 2019: The US send the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf in response to Iranian aggression in the area.
May 8, 2019: The Trump administration imposes additional sanctions on Iranian metal industries.
May 13, 2019: Four oil tankers are attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, the US blames Iran.
May 24, 2019: The Trump administration sends an additional 1,500 troops and other “defense capabilities” to bases in the Middle East.
June 13, 2019: Two more oil tankers are attacked in the Gulf of Oman. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blames Iran. US officials release a video that shows Iran’s involvement. Iran denies it.
June 17, 2019: Iran says it is 10 days away from surpassing the limits set by the nuclear deal on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. The US announces it is sending another 1,000 troops to the Middle East.
June 20, 2019: Iranian forces shoot down a US military drone.
June 21, 2019: Trump announces on twitter that he called off a planned air strike against Iran the night before, a strike that was intended as a retaliatory measure against Iran for the drone that was shot down.
June 24, 2019: Trump imposes more sanctions on senior Iranian officials, including their “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
July 1, 2019: Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif said Iran has breached the limits on the amount of low-enriched uranium it could stockpile under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal and will continue enriching it unless European nations help ease some of the US sanctions.
July 3, 2019: Iran confirmed its threat to increase uranium enrichment. The Iranian Supreme Leader Rouhani says: “Our enrichment rate is not going to be 3.67 percent anymore, it’s going to be as much as we want it to be.”
July 19, 2019: Iranian troops repel onto a British flagged cargo vessel via helicopter, seizing the ship and imprisoning it’s crew.
Now that we’re more-or-less up to date on our recent history with Iran, what does this time line of events spell out for the future? The short answer is that nobody but Iran really knows. In my humble opinion, the United States will NOT enter into an armed conflict with Iran unless seriously and blatantly attacked first. Simply put, I don’t believe the citizens of this country could sign off on yet another foreign war. I do however think that this economic warfare is an attempt at overthrowing the current Iranian regime, a goal that I see as righteous actually. The current Iranian regime has been a blight on the world stage since the days of the Iranian revolution, especially as far as human rights are concerned. This new age of economic warfare on the other hand, I just can’t square it away. Without being a nation officially at war with another nation, I don’t see the idea of crippling a foreign nations economy, which in turn devastates the nations civilian population, essentially using them as expendable pawns in a game of geopolitical chess, as anything but an immoral and unethical act of coercion. I don’t like saying that because even I feel like something has to be done about Iran, without any form of intervention whether it be diplomatic or otherwise, because if left totally unchecked we could be dealing with another nuclear regime like that of North Korea.
This conversation of “what to do about Iran” is one that needs to be hashed out and talked through at great length, by many people, and hopefully we’ll soon be talking about it on the podcast to so capture all the nuance the topic deserves. Until then, articles like this one will just have to do.