Are we already at war with Iran?
In response to its widely suspected nuclear weapons program, President Obama helped impose some of the toughest embargos on Iranian exports in history in 2012, suppressing the Iranian state’s oil export capacity by 55% this year. Iran dropped three points, to fifth largest OPEC oil producer, falling behind both Venezuela and Kuwait. The EU dropped imports of Iranian crude in July, and production fell in tune. The Central Bank of Iran was targeted, an unprecedented move.
The scale and breadth of the operation conducted against the Iranian economy is somewhat staggering, and required over a year of complex coordination. Reuters details the intense diplomatic maneuvers senior U.S. and European officials went through to enact the sanctions without disrupting the global economy. This required both ramping up production elsewhere, and managing who could afford to eliminate or reduce oil trade with Iran. Aggressive moves by Israel led some in the EU to fear an Israeli attack which could destabilize the region, convincing many to lend their support. Greeks feared the economic sanctions would destabilize their credit-friendly relationship with Iran, necessitating the EU to liaise with the Saudis to ensure a steady supply of oil. Some of Tehran’s biggest customers, including China, India, Japan, and Turkey all had to be urged to buy less Iranian oil.
In October, Vice President Joe Biden referred to them in a heated debate with candidate Paul Ryan, claiming they were the “most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions,” adding:
"The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50% fewer exports of oil. He sees the currency going into the tank. He sees the economy going into free fall, and he sees the world for the first time totally united in opposition to him getting a nuclear weapon."
The Saudis cranked up production to a “30-year high above 10 million [barrels per day] and kept it high until October.” Libya more than septupled its production, going from 200,000 barrels a day to more than 1.5 million. Even Iraq has increased production in the wake of Iranian sanctions, producing some 500,000 more barrels a day by September 2012 than a year prior.
These maneuvers look an awful lot like an economic war to me, conducted to assuage Israelis and prevent or post-pone a preemptive attack on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. The international community, particularly the West, has further isolated the regime than ever before, aided and abetted by regional allies eager to carve out a chunk of the missing Iranian oil profits.
“Everyone is high maintenance these days … The major players all need high oil prices for their own reasons,” said former Iranian diplomat and energy consultant Mehdi Varzi. These interests include maintaining internal stability (Iraq, as it seeks to rebuild a functional economy) and maintaining the stability of the energy market (Saudi Arabia).
This war has a physical component too: Stuxnet, a virus used to attack and sabotage Iranian nuclear centrifuges, is widely rumored to have originated from the United States or Israel, while Iranian forces shot down and captured an American drone last year. This year Iranian pilots engaged another, but failed to shoot it down. Measured by occasional crossfire, this is already a shooting war.
All this points to growing tension between the United States and Israel on one side and Iran in the other. Israel is the wild card, reported to have very nearly launched a unilateral attack in 2010.
We are already at war with Iran in the very meaningful sense that we are destroying their economy. Tougher sanctions begin in February. At a UN conference in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a rough deadline of summer 2013 before they would be forced to take action. He officially launched his re-election campaign on the 26, with the platform of being “the candidate best prepared to protect Israel from threats posed by the nuclear program of rival Iran.”
All this despite unclear evidence as to how far Iran has actually progressed towards a weapon. In 2004, weapons inspector Hans Blix and IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei criticized the Bush administration for going to war before their investigations were complete. With tensions at a high, that process could potentially repeat itself. 2013 looks like the year this economic war gets hot.