With drone airstrikes attacking Saudi oil facilities and other provocative actions, it’s clear that the government of Iran is thirsting for a military confrontation with the United States, according to a local expert on the politics of the region.
“The Iranian regime is desperate for confrontation,” said Mehrdad Kia, an Iranian-born professor of history at the University of Montana and the director of the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center. “They believe that playing this cat-and-mouse game will enhance their prestige, make (them) look sympathetic, and then they can blame the U.S. for the terrible economic situation and get away with it.”
With a large, educated middle class that is increasingly frustrated with the actions of the government of the Islamic Republic, the country’s leaders believe a conflict with the U.S. could inflame nationalistic passions and unite the people, according to Kia.
“From the perspective of the Islamic regime, they know they are very unpopular,” Kia explained. “They are sort of declining rapidly in terms of political legitimacy.”
Due to sanctions imposed by the U.S., the economy isn’t faring well in Iran.
“The regime believes a limited military confrontation would restore some form of credibility or legitimacy or a limited amount of sympathy for the regime at least,” Kia went on. “Iranians, despite opposition to the regime, are a very patriotic, very ancient people. Unlike some of the Arab regimes next door, they were not created by the British as artificial states. Iran has 2,500 years of recorded history. For that reason there is a pride about the national identity.”
In countries all over the world throughout recorded history, wars have fueled nationalistic pride, Kia explained.
The government of Iran is "thinking that a confrontation with the U.S. is the last card,” he said. “It could generate a patriotic response against the West. Then they are thinking, ‘We can also blame all problems, from political to economic to financial, on the U.S.'”
And because the U.S. is stretched thin in the region because of ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the Iranian government is confident they cannot be overthrown.
“Therefore, a limited confrontation, at the worst-case scenario the U.S. would hit oil installations or air bases or military bases, that would be fine,” Kia said. “That would enhance the regime as one who has stood up to the arrogance and hegemonic attitude of the U.S. in the region.”
This is why many believe Iran was behind a drone strike that took out much of Saudi Arabia’s oil production earlier this fall.
“They want to lash back against the sanctions so they are looking for provocation, which would force the U.S. and its allies and Israel to some degree to respond,” Kia said.
The country has a population approaching 85 million and has one of the largest middle classes in that part of the world, he said.
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"In sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, Iran has a very large educated female workforce," Kia continued. "Fifty-seven percent of all university graduates in Iran are women. Therefore, there is a fundamental tension within the society as a whole, which overwhelmingly despises the regime in Tehran and the government."
There were massive demonstrations in 2009 and 2018 over allegations of stolen elections, he said.
"In both cases the protesters were demanding for the removal of the regime and creating a more democratic and transparent system," he said. The Iranian government is approaching a "police state" status like North Korea, except unlike that country, there is no evidence that the people love their leader.
While Tehran might want conflict, other countries in the region and the U.S. are hesitant.
"It might ignite the entire region," Kia explained. "It's very risky. It makes the administration in Washington, and it was the same for Obama, far more cautious. We have options, but none we can adopt without serious consequences."
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on Sept. 14, after the attacks, that Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while its leaders pretend to engage in diplomacy.
"We call on all nations to publicly and unequivocally condemn Iran’s attacks," a second tweet from Pompeo read. "The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression."
Bob Seidenschwarz, the president emeritus of the Montana World Affairs Council, makes it his business to study geopolitical conflict as a licensed financial adviser in Missoula.
He agrees with Kia's assessment of the situation.
"This isn't a one-off," he said, referring to the attack on the Saudi oil facility. "This is the beginning. We should expect an ongoing retaliatory relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia."
He said there's the potential for oil prices to rise if conflicts keep happening.
"There's potential disruption to a global economy that is already showing signs of slowing," he explained. "Oil spiking can exacerbate the situation. We are not running out of oil that markets would have available. But with the situation in Venezuela, Libya and other geopolitical risks, this is kind of getting ugly pretty fast."