The Dangers of an Anxious Iranian Government Perceiving a ‘Psychological War’
On Tuesday, President Ahmadinejad accused the United States and “internal enemies” of waging a “psychological war” against Iran in an attempt to stop Iranians from ditching the weakening rial for U.S. dollars. This “war” refers to the significant problems Iran faces, including the U.S.-led economic sanctions, a threatened Israeli military strike, and now internal protests. While this perceived psychological war against Iran has yet to turn into a physical conflict, the United States and Israel must be aware that increasing pressure may cause the Iranian military and government to act erratically, which may lead to Iranian military action.
The economic sanctions currently in place have been criticized, predominantly by Israel, as ineffective in dissuading Iran from its course toward nuclear energy. However, the falling rial and the protests provide evidence that the sanctions are deeply hurting Iran. On Wednesday, people went to the streets in Tehran to protest the government’s inability to stop the rial from falling by 40 percent to the U.S. dollar last week. Many expressed anger that Iran’s government had forgotten them, choosing to send billions of dollars to support the Assad regime in Syria instead of working to solve domestic economic issues. Additionally, the fact that Iranian leaders have offered a plan to end the nuclear crisis, although it would not work, shows that the leaders are feeling the pressure.
In addition to the severe economic challenges Iran is currently facing, pressuring the Iranian government and military through hawkish rhetoric and action pushes them to be on edge, placing them in a position to make mistakes. A classified Pentagon report states, “Iranian air defense units have taken inappropriate actions dozens of time.” Misguided Iranian action due to anxiety over a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities in 2007 and 2008 pushed Iran to mistakenly fire upon civilian airliners and even one of its own military aircraft.
Moreover, Iran will be on edge due to the U.S.-Israeli joint military exercise scheduled to occur next month. In 2008, with Iran already wary about a possible Israeli strike against its nuclear program, Israel conducted a warplane exercise near the Mediterranean. Iran responded with its own exercises involving air-to-ground attack training at ranges appearing to be replicas of an Israeli nuclear facility and the Israeli city, Haifa.
The combination of economic sanctions, protests against economic weakness, Israeli hawkish rhetoric, and the joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise next month means growing anxiety among Iranian leaders. As summer 2012 (the time frame which Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted at in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly) passes, Iran will grow increasingly anxious. The international community must continue to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program, although Israel and the U.S. must be especially careful to avoid making Iran so anxious that it strikes first.