Recent U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and last week's European Union announcement that it will impose an embargo on Iranian oil by the end of the month may lead to an increase in terrorist attacks in the region as part of a growing covert war between Iran and the West, some experts warn.
Iran is suspected of developing an illegal nuclear weapons program and the United States has been leading a multilateral front to apply pressure on the oil-rich country. With a long-standing U.S. ban on Iranian oil, the latest round of sanctions bar any foreign bank that deals with Iran's central bank from the U.S. financial system. The U.S. State Department has also praised the EU intention to ban Iranian oil from their markets. "We think that the place to get Iran's attention is with regard to its oil sector," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week. Oil exports account for some 80 percent of Iran's foreign revenue.
So far, the West's actions have prompted a dramatic escalation of rhetoric from Iran, including threats to attack U.S. Navy warships and disrupt oil exports from the petroleum-rich region. The Obama administration has made it clear that an Iranian move to close the Strait of Hormuz, a strategically important waterway from the Persian Gulf, would not be tolerated and would be met with a military response.
Experts say that the Iranians are unlikely to carry out their threats in the Gulf, in part because it would cut off their own oil shipping capabilities, but also because their military is seriously outmatched by the United States. Instead, as Iran finds itself increasingly isolated, it may respond with terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in the region. [See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]
"No one knows what they will do, but they're unlikely to do nothing," says John Deutch, former director of central intelligence and an energy security expert. "One of the problems in dealing with Iran is that they have many different avenues that they can pursue, they do have countries that support their position, and this is what makes it a very dangerous situation."
Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, says the places Iran could respond is in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You just never know what they're going to do, but more likely, and in some ways more dangerous, is that you will see Iranian responses in terms of terrorism, in terms of trying to push back on the U.S. in places like Afghanistan," Pollack says. "We've got a very large embassy in Iraq that is frequently attacked by Iranian-backed Shia groups, and I think that you could easily see an increase in that. Maybe even efforts to try to kidnap Americans in Iraq." [American Sentenced to Death in Iran for Working with CIA.]
Ambassador Dan Benjamin, who has been managing the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, commented on the threat last Friday, saying, "I don't want to engage in hypotheticals and suggest that the Iranians are going to amp up their support for terrorism," he said. "but we know that they do believe that it is a legitimate tool of policy... and we're going to be as vigilant as we can to ensure that no one is resorting to terror to strike at us or our partners."
Pollack says that Iran perceives itself to be in the midst of a war with the United States and its allies. Recent assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, vocal support for Iranian opposition groups, plus the sanctions and the rhetoric, drive Iran's perception of a concerted effort against them, says Pollack.
"As far as they're concerned, they look at it and say: 'The West has already gone to war with us. They're waging it at an asymmetric level, they're not invading our country, but they are waging war on us.' "
Both sides appear to want to avoid open military hostilities, but concerns of an escalating covert war are growing, says Pollack.