Much of the discussion of these operations so far has focused on the implications for possible future clashes between the interests of Western powers and the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Zinke’s comments to Breitbart News elaborated upon that situation with harsh words for the Obama administration regarding a policy that some see as paving the way for a destabilizing Iranian influence in the broader Middle East.
In particular, Zinke was critical of the fact that the US is committing resources and manpower to the fight against the Islamic State, yet is moving toward an end result in which Iran’s presence is promoted at the expense of safeguarding American interests. Zinke explicitly accused the Obama administration of “placating” Tehran in this and other matters, and he argued that the US had left a power vacuum in post-occupation Iraq, which Iran rushed to fill.
The Breitbart report also indicates that the current landscape of conflict in Iraq includes approximately 50 Shiite militias, mostly affiliated with Iran. Mainstream estimates for the number of fighters in these groups ranges from 60,000 to 140,000, many of whom have access to tanks and other heavy weaponry. Such militias are part of the supporting infrastructure for Iran’s regional projects, which often appear to be aimed at the pursuit of hegemonic influence.
This goal is evident in Iran’s involvement in the fighting in Iraq and especially in Syria, where Tehran has refused to contemplate a negotiated solution that includes the removal of President Bashar al-Assad from power. But these two conflict zones are far from being the only notable spheres of Iranian influence or potential influence. A third regional civil war is raging in Yemen, where Iran has been accused not only of participating on the side of Shiite rebels, but also instigating their offensive in the first place.
Bahrain is yet another outlet for Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and in this case those ambitions are expressed not through traditional warfare or influence over the existing government, but through the sponsorship of domestic terrorism by Shiite militant groups. In the past, Bahrain citizens have been arrested for bomb plots and the illicit stockpiling of arms, and they have been linked to the Iranian government or other Iran-backed terror groups.
On Wednesday, Reuters indicated that this is an ongoing situation, when it reported that Bahraini authorities had arrested 18 members of a “secret cell” advocating for violent revolt against the country’s government and making contacts with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
Competition with the Saudis
This situation in Bahrain is not only relevant to the conflict and competition between Iran and the US, which operates its Fifth Naval Fleet out of a base on the small island nation; it is also relevant to the persistent and apparently deepening conflict between Shiite Iran and its main Sunni rival in the region, Saudi Arabia. That is, Bahrain has long been recognized as an arena for competition between Iranian and Saudi influence.
Such regional influence is arguably more crucial than ever to both sides of that divide, since relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been especially strained in recent months. In fact, Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic in January, after Iranian mobs sacked the Saudi embassy and consulate in response to the execution of a Saudi Shiite dissident cleric.
his breakdown in relations has had consequences for global politics and for the international oil market, which is still struggling to more fully recover from a drop in value to approximately 25 dollars per barrel last year. The conflict manifested itself over the past several weeks in discussions between OPEC and non-OPEC countries over a possible freeze in oil production. Iran refused to participate in any such freeze until such time as it had recovered its pre-sanctions oil output levels, leading the Saudis to cancel the agreement with other nations, thus keeping economic pressure on Iran during its would-be recovery.
On Wednesday, Gulf News reported that Iran had reiterated its refusal to participate in an output freeze. Mahdi Asali, Iran’s representative to OPEC said as much one day ahead of an OPEC meeting. He added, “The issue of output rationing can be discussed after the market stabilizes.” But this comes after Iran has already reportedly fulfilled its own criteria for participating in the freeze. That is, Iranian oil officials and many independent analysts have concluded that the country has raised its own output to about four million barrels per day, in line with its figures from before the imposition of large-scale economic sanctions.
Naturally, Saudi economic pressures on the Islamic Republic are aimed at counteracting this situation and preventing the Shiite powerhouse from having additional resources to bring to bear on its regional ambitions and its conflict with traditional enemies. Many critics of Iran, other than the Saudis, have expressed vivid concerns about the potential effects of both sanctions relief and expanded trade for Iranian oil and other commodities. These include concerns about the financing of Iran’s traditional military capabilities, as well as its alternative methods for extending its influence and competing with the US and its allies.
Real War and “Soft War”
The security and technology website OODA Loop commented upon one such alternative method in particular on Wednesday. It argued that the relief from US-led economic sanctions could help Iran to greatly improve its cyberespionage and cyberterrorism capabilities, at a time when it has already been devoting a great deal of effort and money to that same project.
The article finds that one billion dollars’ worth of investments were made in 2011 into the development of the country’s spying capabilities. In 2012, the regime claimed that it had hired some 120,000 new personnel for these same capabilities. Many of those capabilities are offensive in nature, posing a direct threat to the US as indicated by last month’s acknowledgement of breaches of a US dam and other infrastructure. But other capabilities relate simply to regional intelligence gathering and similar activities, thereby posing a more indirect threat to Western interests.
But in spite of these suggestions that sanctions relief has given a boost to Iran’s “soft war” with the US and actual warfare in the Middle East, it remains the case that the Islamic Republic is pushing for the US to better facilitate Western investment in Iranian markets, thereby accelerating its would-be recovery.
The Times of Israel reported on Wednesday that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had once again commented on the supposed threat posed to international banks by outstanding US sanctions on Iran. A variety of Western businesses have expressed interest in investing in those markets but have also remained wary of the possibility of opening themselves up to sanctions relief or other consequences.
Although the Iranians have repeatedly blamed the US for this situation, various independent analysts have emphasized that it is in Iran’s power to remove the sanctions threat by changing its own behavior and demonstrating an end to money laundering and the sponsorship of terrorism. But the Islamic Republic has been slow not only in making these sorts of changes but also in taking even more straightforward steps to reengage with global transactions systems.
Although Iran was cleared for participation in the SWIFT system early this year, it was only on Wednesday that Emirates 24/7reported that an Iranian official actually acknowledged that the country’s central bank would be reentering the system. The tension between this inaction and the recurring complaints suggests that the Iranians may be using those complaints simply as part of an effort to gain greater international influence and greater concessions from the West, in line with Zinke’s notion that the Obama administration has been prone to placating the Islamic Republic.