The Age of Economic Warfare Begins. Will It Lead to a Conventional War?

In the early hours of May 10, a day after the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel launched a missile attack on “Iranian military facilities” in Syria, allegedly to punish the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for having fired 20 missiles at Israeli military positions. This happened in the Golan Heights area, where, to believe the Israelis, some elements of Iran’s Al-Quds unit are deployed. The attack killed a number of Syrians. During the period of hostilities, the Israeli military launched over 100 strikes at the Iranian contingent in Syria, which cooperates with the Russian force. But Moscow never retaliated against Israel, nor even criticized it, although occasionally Russian military equipment that had been sold to Iran came under fire.

Following this serious event, there were media reports that the Middle East was on the verge of war. The Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, made a more restrained statement to the effect that Israel was not seeking to escalate tensions. “I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message,” he said. Although countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia are dreaming of escalating their confrontation with Iran in order to open the gate to war, they want it to be fought by the United States and are unwilling to become involved directly. Israel has the bitter experience of waging (and losing) a war in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000; Saudi Arabia is facing a similar failure in Yemen. Despite their resolute efforts, Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia are in a deadlock, being unable to change the balance of power in Lebanon against Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, for the last 36 years.

Where is the conflict headed?

All of this is occurring against the background of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, under which Iran has halted its nuclear program in exchange for a reduction in sanctions.

The Iranians have been fully complying with the JCPOA, but this did not stop Donald Trump from walking away from the nuclear agreement with Iran. Despite the best efforts of the Iranians to convince the rest of the world that they are faithfully adhering to the 2015 agreement, the JCPOA itself is now on life support, if not dead already. And, of course, the Iranians realize that the EU, no matter how “angry and humiliated,” will hardly be able to withstand Trump’s pressure. According to deputy head of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, the Europeans are powerless to save the deal. Although the EU is going out of its way to show – particularly in the days immediately after Trump’s announcement – that they are not America’s “vassals” and will continue to implement the deal, that they are even ready to challenge the US unilateral sanctions against Iran at the WTO, etc., this looks increasingly utopian.

Just look at what has happened only recently. A Danish shipping company, Maersk, has declared that it will not berth merchant ships at the Iranian coast in the Gulf and has already stopped sending ships to Iran; Merkel has stated that her government will not be able to compensate damage to German companies, which will come under US sanctions because of their cooperation with Iran; Macron has declared that France “has no intention to engage in a trade war with the United States.” Total, the biggest French oil and gas company, has announced that it intends to withdraw from its project with Iran unless supported by the EU and granted a special waiver from the US. All of this suggests just one conclusion: the Iranian economy will continue to be strongly affected because international banks and companies will in every way seek to avoid US sanctions.

Note, too, that oil prices surged immediately in the wake of these events (both Trump’s statement at 9 pm on May 8 and the exchange of missile strikes in the early hours of May 10). It certainly cannot be overlooked that there are speculators who will benefit from Iran’s isolation from the European markets.

Given the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the way of presenting Iranian missile strikes on Israel is also aimed at creating a negative image of Iran as an extension of Trump’s statements. Right now, it cannot be predicted how the conflict will develop, for this depends on domestic politics in Iran and the country’s ability to manage relations with the international community. Still, as I see it, there will be no military conflict in the near future.

First, the age of economic warfare has begun. After Iraq, it will be very hard to convince the US legislators and Americans in general that military operations are required. The US has grown fond of sanctions as an alternative.[1]

If we take the worst-case scenario and assume that Tel Aviv and Riyadh will pressure the unpredictable Trump into war or that this will happen because of a miscalculation similar to one that led the US to plunge Iraq into chaos, it is clear that strikes on select facilities is the only possibility. But what comes after that? Of course, any outcome will affect the Iranian economy, hitting ordinary citizens the hardest.

Is there a way out?

Who would have predicted such a subversion of orientalist expectations? It is not Iran’s reliability but the reliability of its Western partners that is in question. The Europeans should think how to oppose the US rather than cave in to the pressure. They should revise their priorities in light of the history of their relations with the US and Iran in the 21st century, during which time the United States has imposed policies on the EU that benefitted itself in exchange for bolstering the economically vulnerable European bloc.

What are Iran’s options?

Iran maintains hope for partners like Russia and China, but regrettably this strategic triangle is unable to reshape the entire system of international relations. Besides, Russia and China are interested in advancing their interests outside of their alliance with Iran. For example, the next day after Netanyahu’s latest visit to Moscow, Moscow backed off its intention to sell to Syria or deploy there its S-300 systems and thus protect it from further air attacks.

It is clear that Iran will continue to promote its interests internationally in the same way. But it is still an open question whether or not it will change its priorities. It is quite probable that the countries with ongoing nuclear programs will soon pool efforts to create a mechanism to contain US political and economic pressure. At the same time, it would be fair to assume that Iran will continue with its good-neighbor foreign policy, using the tools of cultural diplomacy to cultivate and maintain real allies in the fight against US hegemony.    

[1] The United States is convinced that sanctions are effective despite evidence to the contrary. The first US sanctions were introduced against Japan some time before World War II. The sanctions against the small island nation of Cuba were imposed in 1960 and tightened in 1962; despite remaining in place for over 57 years now, they have led to nothing, and stand no chance of succeeding in the future. But there are politicians who defend them. The effectiveness of sanctions is largely based on subjective impressions. Of course, the Iranians are tired after 40 years of hard-hitting sanctions. Moreover, as we know, sanctions affect ordinary people more than the government or the regime.   



Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.