U.S. Sanctions Push Iran to Foreign Meddling

Iran is responding to U.S. sanctions by interfering elsewhere in the Middle East.

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In this Monday, Oct. 15, 2012 photo, released by an official website of the Iranian supreme leader's office, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a large group of Basij militia, not shown, during a tour of northeastern Iran. Iranian officials have made no secret about their desire to reopen nuclear talks with the U.S. and other world powers as economic sanctions dig deeper -- with Iran's supreme leader even depicting his envoys as waiting at the negotiating table.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

There's a tried-and-true rule in politics that, when there's trouble at home, it's time to look abroad. The Iranian regime is proving to be no exception to this axiom; as its economic fortunes have dimmed as a result of widening Western sanctions, the Iranian regime has ramped up its interference throughout the Middle East.

To get a sense of the extent of Iran's activism, one need look no further than Yemen. The impoverished southern Gulf state has been grappling with a destabilizing Shi'a rebellion for most of the past decade. That revolt, centered on the al-Houthi tribe in the country's north, has grown in scope and size since its eruption in 2004, and now represents a real threat to the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, as well as to neighboring Saudi Arabia. It is also increasingly suspected of being a proxy conflict for Iran, which has been implicated in providing significant material and political support to the Houthis.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Signs of Iran's meddling are numerous, and include the October 2012 seizure of a cargo ship carrying Iranian military equipment destined for the Houthis, as well as allegations that Tehran and Hezbollah are training the rebels in the production and usage of short-range missiles. The writing, as they say, is on the wall. "You can see Iran's hands in the growth of the Houthis," confirms one Yemeni politician. "It's a threat to Yemen, it's a threat to Saudi Arabia and it's a threat to American interests."

Iran has also stepped up its strategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, Riyadh filed a formal complaint with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Its gripe? That Iran had encroached on its territory by repeatedly flying helicopters over a strategically vital gas field. Iran similarly seized a Saudi fishing vessel off its coast in early November, spiking tensions with Riyadh in the process.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

Syria has emerged as another theater for Iranian troublemaking. Since the start of the civil war there some 20 months ago, Iran has played an outsized role in the Assad regime's battle against its own people. It has done so by sending its elite Revolutionary Guards to bolster Syria's security forces in everything from crowd control to the assassination of rebel activists. In August, a Revolutionary Guard commander admitted as much when he confirmed publicly that Iran's clerical army is "involved in fighting every aspect of a war" in Syria.

And, even though its economy is shuddering under the collective weight of Western sanctions, Iran is about to throw a financial lifeline to its most important strategic partner. Construction reportedly has begun on a $10 billion, 750-mile pipeline which, once operational in the second half of 2013, will bring gas from Iran's giant South Pars field to Syria via neighboring Iraq, greatly weakening Western efforts to isolate Damascus in the process.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Iran's hand is visible in the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas as well. Prior to the week-long conflict, conventional wisdom had held that Tehran's influence in the Palestinian territories was on the wane, with the Shi'ite Islamic Republic progressively eclipsed by the rise of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood next door in Egypt. But the so-called Gaza war showcased the extensive use of Iranian-supplied and -developed missiles by Hamas, suggesting an enduring connection between Tehran and the Palestinian Authority's main Islamist movement. And now that a tenuous ceasefire is in effect between the two sides, Iran appears to be wasting no time resupplying Hamas with the same sort of weapons.

So, while Western pressure may be having an impact on Iran's economic well-being, it hasn't helped to curb the Islamic Republic's foreign activism. Rather, it has done the opposite. Tehran, now increasingly on the fiscal ropes, appears to be ratcheting up instability abroad in a bid to remain relevant.

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