Iran's New Imperialism

March 30, 2009 Topic: EnergyMilitary StrategySecurity Region: Persian GulfMiddle East Tags: Diplomacy

Iran's New Imperialism

Iran is threatening smaller Gulf states like Bahrain and raising the hackles of its Arab neighbors. Are Tehran’s imperial dreams going to be a nightmare for America?

A longer version of this article is available here.


Iran has made little secret of its strategy: widen its power through proxy warfare and gain control of the Gulf's oil. It has the means, motive and opportunity to expand its empire across the Persian Gulf.

Not only does Iran intend to become the first hydrocarbon empire, Tehran is painfully aware that oil is its lifeblood. Given the widening disparity between Iran's real and claimed reserves-and if current levels of depletion continue-Iran knows that it could be tapped out within ten years. Without energy, or revenues from energy exports, Iran would become domestically unstable, and obviously any of its greater international ambitions would die. To satisfy domestic demand, Tehran in the not-too-distant future must look elsewhere, and Saudi Arabia for one-with its extensive reserves and weak government-is a prime target for takeover.

That may not be as difficult as it seems. Iran's reach is long. On one level, its proxy Hezbollah has the ability to stir up domestic unrest and sabotage oil fields along the Persian Gulf (which is 90 percent Shia and where, incidentally, the bulk of Gulf oil sits). The area's Arab Shia are increasingly susceptible to Iran's gravity, putting the Sunni sheikhdoms in peril without a single missile ever being fired. Since the 2003 invasion, Iran has moved quickly into Iraq's Shia shrine cities, in particular Najaf, where it has embraced Iraq's Shia clergy. The objective has been to demonstrate to the Gulf's Shia that Iran dominates all the spiritual centers of Shia Islam. If Iran is as successful in this as it was in exploiting Lebanon, then most of the Gulf, at least in the sense of sectarian allegiance, will be under Iran's sway.

Then, on another level, there's pure military blackmail. As tension with Washington rose after the invasion of Iraq, the Iranians made a point of going to the Gulf states to inform them that in the event of a conflict with the United States or Israel, Iran would either prohibit exports through the Strait of Hormuz or destroy the Arab oil facilities that sit along the rim of the Gulf-all vulnerable to attacks by surface-to-surface missiles. The Arab sheikhdoms are militarily weak; there's nothing they can do to fight back. And lest we forget, Iran is the only true local power in the Gulf. If the United States were to reduce its presence in the region, Iran, without serious impediment, could intimidate the Gulf Arabs into accepting Iranian suzerainty over the Gulf's waters.

Worst-case scenario, this is where we end up: Bahrain would be the first Arab sheikhdom to fall under Iran's control, and as Bahrain goes, so goes the Persian Gulf. With its 70 percent Shia population, gaining control of the country would only be a matter of Iran inciting its Bahraini Shia proxies to declare the end of the monarchy and then stepping in with armed force to support the new "legitimate" government.

The other sheikhdoms, too, would not take much to topple. They are largely unpopular regimes and militarily weak. The Shah's Iran already seized three islands from the United Arab Emirates in the 1970s. A taste of what's to come? If Iran and the United States come to blows, it is almost certain that Tehran would consider a putsch to take over Dubai, not unlike the Bahrain scenario. In fact, there are already signs of Iran's arm-twisting. In February 2008, the ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, effectively pledged his loyalty to Iran, stating that Dubai would never join a U.S.-led alliance in an attack on Iran. Because Iran continues to occupy three islands belonging to the UAE, many Arabs look at a statement like this as tantamount to capitulation.

As for the rest of the Gulf Arabs, the sword of Damocles is their oil wells. It would only be a matter of sinking a few tankers to stop traffic through the Strait of Hormuz connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman (as Tehran already often threatens to do), to take 17 million barrels of oil a day off world markets, driving up the price of gasoline in the United States to $10-12 a gallon. The UAE is so worried about this scenario that a senior official in Dubai recently proposed building a canal to bypass Hormuz.

The best thing about disaster scenarios is that they rarely come about. But as Iran moves through the Middle East with its tried-and-successful strategy of imperialism via proxy, of bridging sectarian differences, of blackmailing oil exports, of adapting advanced weapons to classic guerilla tactics and of thwarting modern armies, we must consider that Tehran could very well succeed in establishing the virtual empire it seeks.


Robert Baer is a former CIA field officer who served in the Middle East for nearly twenty-one years. He is the author of the book The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower (Crown, September 2008).