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Iranian Trade and Conflict: An Economic Analysis

All eyes are on Iran as tensions flare up between it and the U.S. The popular discussion centers around immediate concerns of escalating retaliations day-by-day and tweet-by-tweet. In order to derive further insights, one benefits from zooming out and reviewing this conflict from a bird’s eye view. The economic and geopolitical factors of Iranian trade and conflict reveal resolute realities underneath the shifting surfaces of official-state gestures, journalist punditry, and partisan narratives. How would Iran deal with stronger economic isolation and reduced geographic mobility imposed by the U.S.? The outcomes of an intensifying conflict will be and perhaps are already determined by the few choices remaining to Iran.

The Specter of War

It’s no surprise Iranian-U.S. relations aren’t so friendly. They’ve been bitter cold-enemies since the 1970s when the Iranian Revolution rejected westernization. There were moments of nuanced collaboration in America’s first forays into the Middle East throughout the 1980s-1990s. George W. Bush snuffed out any miniscule warm relations through aligned interests with a harsh declaration of Iran’s role in a global terrorist axis shortly after 9/11. The turn of the century marked America’s reemphasis on animosity towards Iran. Western rhetoric became more polemic towards Iran which provoked the specter of another war looming in the shadow of Iraq. Iran’s defensiveness has hindered, although not off the table, U.S. ambitions for full-scale invasion. Occupation efforts would be dubious given the Iranian people are fueled by the same independent spirit of their revolution as any red-blooded, bible-thumping, gut-touting American on the 4th of July. This leaves economic warfare as the primary weapon. Sanctions have been ratcheted up and expanded to other countries which forced Iran to strategize under pressure well before any of the recent incidents.

The Big Trade: Crude Petroleum

The general goal of economic sanctions is too diminish all foreign trade that will affect many domestic industries to compel mass strife and political reform. There’s really only one primary objective when it comes to Iran: oil exports. Crude petroleum makes up 72% of Iran’s total export of $53.7 billion. [1] The abundance of the dark resource was the impetus for imperial ambitions of western powers in the early twentieth century and the crux of independent Iran’s ability to persist. The centrality of it to the Iranian economy is a strength and vulnerability at the same time. If the U.S. escalates the situation to a blockade of the 21 mile Straight of Hormuz, Iran’s only global shipping route in or out, it could eviscerate all trade to Iran. As Peter Zeihan, geopolitical strategist, remarks, “an American effort to remove Iran from play could be completed in a single afternoon…reentering energy markets would take years.” [1.2] This vulnerability is not exclusive as it extends to every trading partner buying that oil.

The top 6 destinations for Iranian oil exports are: China at 28%, India at 22%, South Korea at 18%, Japan at 8.2%, Italy at 8%, and France at 5.9%. [2] Of their total crude imports, Iran’s exports make up 7.5% for China, 11% for India, 13% for South Korea, 5.5% for Japan, 12% for Italy, and 11% for France. This crowd could certainly punch above Iran’s weight class to soften U.S. retribution and has the economic incentive to protect their own interests.

The great eastern rival of the U.S., China, pragmatically vacuums up any resource for its rapid industrialization and massive population which has made it somewhat immune to western prohibitions especially with its own tariff war with Trump. India has similar resource demands and stronger economic ties to the region but is less flagrant than China. South Korea and Japan are staunch U.S. allies and, while not ideal for two natural resource lacking nations, will comply. Italy and France represent the long-standing internal dispute within the western powers. Europe is more energy import dependent than the U.S. and doesn’t desire further energy shortages arising from U.S. strategy in its two biggest suppliers: the Middle East and Russia. It’s worth noting that France’s massive and long-lasting Yellow Vest protests were directly incited by a rise in gas prices.

The pressures of international relations appear to bind up unilateral U.S. decisions to a certain degree. How would the U.S. solve complaints of these countries needing oil imports? Simple, it gives them what they want. The U.S. has never been a major exporter of crude oil and of the meager amounts it did export, it exclusively went to Canada. In 2012, it exported $238 million, in 2017 exported $19.4 billion, and 2019 estimates suggest about $60 billion. [3][4] In January of 2010, it exported 33 thousand barrels per day and as of October 2019 exported 3,383 thousand barrels per day. [5] These aren’t just increases, these are quantum leaps in orders of magnitude. The U.S. energy sector is rapidly expanding into international markets due to private sector initiative assisted by the lifting of export restrictions in 2015.

Let’s take a look at Iran’s trading partners’ portfolio with the U.S. South Korea went from $132 million in 2015 to $761 million in 2017. [6] Recent estimates suggest that South Korea increased its imports from the U.S. by 80.4% while dropping those from Iran by 45.9%. [7] India decreased Iranian imports by 48% and rose U.S. ones by nearly 400%. [8] U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, even articulated “India should boost oil and gas purchases from Washington to cut reliance on difficult regimes.” [8.2] China went from importing $16.7 million of crude oil from the U.S. to $3.8 billion in 2017. [9] The trade war shenanigans reduced more recent trading figures.

Other countries followed similar paths. Italy has increased U.S. imports as well but has its eye on Mediterranean sources coming online. In the near future those new flows will alleviate other European countries too. Most of these countries are in long-standing U.S. alliances, have started increasing relations, or have purely pragmatic trading ties with Iran. For instance, China has been increasing imports from alternative sources such as Angola and would rather preserve political capital for its own Asian sphere. The biggest alternative source to Iranian oil is obviously Saudi Arabia. Most countries have stepped up their imports from the kingdom.

Regional Power Puncher

The U.S. backed Saudi Arabia might be well suited to meet the increased demands. Although, they happen to be neighbors with the aggrieved country which is ranked as the 14th strongest military in the world. Most of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and infrastructure exist on the coast of the Persian Gulf. They share the Straight of Hormuz bottleneck to global markets. To the extent that Iran has a navy, its main purpose is to dominate the Gulf. This will cause massive problems for the Saudis and anyone else in what is, for all intents and purposes, Iran’s lake. Seth G. Jones, Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, states, “as part of its irregular naval doctrine, Iran employs smaller vessels that emphasize speed and mobility. Iran could employ these fast-attack vessels to fire on tankers, lay mines, or conduct swarming tactics to isolate and overwhelm targets.” [9.2] A U.S. blockade would be like locking the fox in the hen house and still expecting to get eggs the next morning. As Samson brought down the Philistine temple on himself and his enemies in ancient biblical times so too would Iran destroy any transport capability of its neighbors.

Complementarily, the Iranians can launch missiles, conduct conventional operations, and stir up proxies. “Iran maintains the largest ballistic and cruise missile force in Middle East, capable of striking targets as far as 2,500 kilometers from its borders.” (Jones) Iran recently demonstrated its ability and willingness to target Saudi oil facilities this past year. Iran’s mountain terrain provides a defensive bulwark from invasion but also does little to inhibit their offensiveness. [9.3] Saudi Arabia has some plans to mitigate this by reorienting to its East-West pipeline to ship through south to Asia, through the Red Sea, and north to Europe, through the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline in Egypt. [10] It’s unlikely this will prove totally effective for the kingdom and other gulf states as it requires the improbable turning on a dime of supply chains and a lack of interference at origin points.

Bread Over Oil

Iran can lash out in reprisal but ultimately will be drastically weakened by a U.S. blockade. Economic activity of all sorts will drop but in times of war the most crucial necessity is food. If Iran can’t at least feed its civilian and military populations, any hopes of resisting the global western powers are doomed.

Relative to the Middle East, Iran is fairly self-sufficient in food production and consumption. It is above average on the Global Hunger Index for the region. [11] In 1979, it imported 65% of its food; but now produces 66%. [12] It still faces the challenges of having only 11% cultivable land and needing to import double the percentage of OECD countries. [13] Zeihan suggests that Iran imports between 25-49.9% of consumption making it more self-sufficient than its Middle Eastern neighbors but still food insecure. [14] Iran’s authoritarian state and traditionalist culture might struggle through commercial hardship but dwindling calories doom defiance. But what if there was a way out of the conundrum? A way not south to the Persian Gulf but counterintuitively north to the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian Sea Cure

Zeihan’s food security map indicates food secure and net exporting Russia and Kazakhstan sharing the body of water with Iran. $1.31 billion or about 25% of Iranian exports from Russia consist of barley, corn, and wheat. [15] Another $485 million or 26% of exports, from Kazakhstan, is barley. [16] Any short falls in food could be offset by increased imports from these two countries. Other Central Asian countries around the Sea could assist in economic stimulus and it wouldn’t be starting from scratch.

In 2018, the Caspian nations all came together to sign a landmark deal after decades of stalemate. [17] It has been described as a “regional constitution” that provides a framework for navigation and energy deposits on the seafloor. While that will boost multilateral integration further, Iran also recently signed a bilateral agreement with Kazakhstan this past autumn. "The agreement includes establishment of Iranian banks in Kazakhstan…[and] increasing the [total] bilateral trade volume.” [18] Similarly, Russia has shown a friendly hand in the past, such as it’s 2014 $20 billion trade deal to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran, as well as recently increasing exports to Iran by 40%. [19]

The Sea is alleged to already be an escape from sanctions for Iran’s oil. It is suspected to be sent up the Sea, mixed into Russian pipelines, and sold to Europe as a Russian export. It also just happens to be the case that Russia is rapidly expanding its main Caspian Sea port of Makhachkala. In 2018, crude oil imports at Makhachkala increased by 198% and as of October 2019, oil imports into Makhachkala doubled. [20] The official story is that the other Central Asian nations are the ones boosting the port but those numbers certainly raise speculation.

But why would these countries help Iran? It’s not like they need oil. They are all in the same game and Iran is a competitor. Iran doesn’t have much else to offer in trade and would be losing purchasing power quickly with decreasing revenues and increasing inflation. Sure, Russia gets a kick out of poking the western powers in the eye but how far does that alone get Iran? What bargaining chip does it have? Bluntly, it can fight.

The Switzerland of the Middle East

History doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme. The experiences of other countries could suggest what is to come for Iran. A collapse into a failed state like Iraq and Libya seems unlikely because of Iran’s defensive capabilities, minor self-sufficiency, and northern life-lines. Vietnam of the mid-20th century defeated French occupation forces and, while decimated by the later introduction of the U.S., endured in subsistence that led to victory. There’s certainly merit to that comparison but an even better one might be farther west and further back in time.

Switzerland of an earlier era, give-or-take 15th century, wasn’t as we know it today. It was divided among European powers like Francia and the Holy Roman Empire. They started to make a name for themselves in martial acumen culminating in the 1499 Swabian War victory. A triumph that gave them official independence. This ushered in their renowned reputation as the best soldiers of Europe.

As talented as the Swiss were they were still a relatively small nation surrounded by larger ones in a time of conquest. A lack of natural resources to trade didn’t make things anything easier. Aside from being a crossroad of mountain passes, the Swiss didn’t have much to sustain their independence. That was until an out-of-the-box idea was thought: what if we exported our soldiers? And just like that the Swiss mercenary market was born. Any power player in Europe hired a Swiss contingent to augment their forces. They were so sought-after that the Catholic Pope made them his personal guard and is a distinction that has ceremonially continued to the present day.

It wouldn’t be strange for Swiss to be on both sides of the battlefield. Swiss mercenary contracts often stipulated that their homeland couldn’t be invaded by their employer and they could return to defend it if another force besieged it. A status quo emerged where belligerents would both implicitly agree to not rock the boat of mercenary human capital. It would be too costly for anyone of them to lose their Swiss. This is what led to the Swiss tradition of neutrality [21] that has protected its sovereignty not just through two world wars but for centuries. Machiavelli wrote "the Switzers are completely armed and quite free." [22]

Ok, I know this is a leap but let’s compare and contrast. Switzerland and Iran are both deficient in natural resources or dependent on one. Both are intersections of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. Both are navally weak or without all together but have strong land armies. Both are largely land-locked mountainous regions with semi-autonomous zones. Both have large-to-excessive populations surrounded by nearby conflicts. On the other hand, Switzerland has green forests and rivers whereas Iran has arid deserts and coastlines.

The parallel is not so outlandish and could be the optimal example for Iran to model. It may already be on that path. The U.S. assassination of General Soleimani sparked the rising tensions. Soleimani was a prominent symbol of Iranian proxy and unconventional warfare. Iranians have been behind the scenes advising and directly fighting in many external conflicts. Iran assisted Syria and Iraq in combatting radical militias and had 2,100 Iranian soldiers killed over the past 7 years. [23] Iran has been helping Yemeni rebels against Saudi intrusions. Iran even provided arms during the 1990s Bosnian War.

Iran’s primary foreign expeditions concern its general strategy of solidifying a hegemony of the Shia Crescent. A territory of mostly Shiite Muslims stretching from Lebanon through Syria across Iraq down the Persian Gulf concluding in Yemen. Any Shiite force is likely to be supported by the Iranians in some manner. It’s probable that Iran could amplify these activities not for their own national interests but for others’. Especially if no other choices remain.

The Eurasian Moment

In his 1997 “The Grand Chessboard”, American geopolitical theorist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, wrote that “Eurasia is the center of the world and that he who controls Eurasia controls the world.” [24] This was not lost on Russia and still preoccupies its leaders’ minds. Chiefly, Russia needs to extend boundaries far enough away to create buffer zones and fortify access points to protect its national security. Its southern underbelly is a mix of chaotic instability and the presence of western powers. It would desire a way to secure the Caucus access points and to create a sphere of influence in the Islamic world to counter the westerners.

The “Eurasian” vision has deep intellectual roots in Russia. Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian geopolitical strategist and nicked named “Putin’s Brain,” [25] is the main contemporary mahatma of Eurasianism. He traces the natural foundations of the theory to geography. Large-scale terrestrial boundaries section off the largest unit of humans: the civilization. Just as there are European and Asian civilizations, there is a Eurasian one according to Dugin. While containing Slavic, Turkic, Siberian, and other various ethnic groups, the flat plains of the landmass enabled integration into a cohesive civilizational bloc. An idealist might interpret a sound logic and narrative, however, a cynic might snicker at the cookie-cutter fit of Eurasian civilization vis-as-vis the former Soviet Union.

Whether noble intentions of commonwealth or convenient strategy to recolonize nations opposed to direct submission, Dugin’s ideas have propagated in his home and abroad. Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, John B. Dunlop, highlights:

[Dugin's] The Foundations of Geopolitics sold out in four editions, and continues to be assigned as a textbook at the General Staff Academy and other military universities in Russia…There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted a comparable influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elite. [26]

Iranian state hardliners also feel an affinity for Dugin who has been a frequent visitor and is celebrated as a “great philosopher” in the land of Zoroastrianism. [27]

A Match Made in Moscow

For all the philosophical underpinnings, at the end of the day, Iran can export manpower to Russia’s diminishing supply. Russia’s population peaked at 150 million in the 1990s, fell to 144 million, and is expected to be 135 million in 2050. [28] Qualitatively, its population is elder-top-heavy which means the amount of fighting and working age young people is further restricted. Additionally, the core "русские" (russkiye) ethnic group is declining more so than other minor groups indicating future challenges to military recruitment and morale. In contrast, Iran has a healthy demographic pyramid at a current population of about 80 million, a doubling since the 1979 revolution, and is estimated to grow to 100 million by 2050. [29] The Russians, not to mention the loosely populated Caspian bloc, could offset their numbers with assistance from a dependent Iran, principally in Middle Eastern theaters.

Military relations were most prominently nurtured in the Syrian Civil War. Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator and close ally of Putin, described “[Iran] is on the ground and we are in the skies…Russia and Iran have created a durable alliance…Russia would naturally ally with countries, such as Iran, which face pressure from the U.S. government…which can evolve into a strategic relationship.” [30] Ruslan Pukhov, Director at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, zooms out to remark on the key factors of the Russia-Iran rapprochement: centuries-old political, economic and cultural relations; both countries’ commitment to a multipolar world order and unwillingness to obey the U.S. dictatorship; countering sanctions; joint efforts to maintain regional security in the South Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia; joint fight against terrorism and drug trafficking; military cooperation in Syria; arms trade and economic cooperation.” [31] This collaboration has been evolving for a while considering the history of Russia selling submarines, aircraft, bombers, surface-to-air missiles, and miscellaneous military technology. The most provocative deal having been uranium-enrichment equipment. [32]

The Russians at the very least expect Iranians to secure dominance in the Islamic world in return. The Shia crescent represents a suitable buffer zone already and is bereft of other Islamic countries with competing interests. The main Middle Eastern potential regional hegemons, that Russia could partner with, are Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. Turkey has too many conflicting interests in Southeastern Europe. Saudi Arabia has no where near the equivalent military. Pakistan is too distant from center stage and is constantly on nuclear war footing with neighboring India. Those three are all established allies of America too. Pukhov has quipped, “the room for cooperation knowing that there is a big elephant, also known as the United States, in the room with you, you’re never alone in this bed. You sleep with three. And with the Iranians we can sleep together. It’s much better than ménage à trois.” [33] On top of that, those three Sunni countries have all demonstrated excitement of antagonisms among the Sunni diaspora outside the Middle East.

Russia’s domestic minority Muslim population is majority Sunni and would be vulnerable to similar excitement. The Shiite Iranians have contained their operations to regional matters and could be utilized as a moderating influence to lead Russian Muslims. While the Sunni-Shia divide might appear intractable, Taras Cherniyenko, Director at the Prague Institute of the Dialogue of Civilizations, conjectured that “as a result of Soviet anti-religious efforts, few Muslims, Sunni or Shiite in Russia can explain the distinction between them…[going further] precisely Shiite Islam can be a most effective factor in blocking the activity of various kinds of reactionaries who speak out in the name of Islam.” [34] The Shiite factor can also work as an advantage in managing areas like the Shiite majority Azerbaijan. Stronger relations would contribute to locking down that section of Caucus access to the Russian heartland and as a side-effect possibly settle down acrimony of Iran’s domestic Azerbaijani minority.


Russia lacks raw manpower and a narrative to directly administer its desired territorial ambitions for national security. Iran proves to be a more than sufficient partner to effectively provide marshal services across Russia’s external southern periphery. Iran has a persuasive narrative to unite Islamic communities from both ancient and transnational revolutionary perspectives. This could extend to stabilizing Muslim populations within the interior of Russia too. Other countries within the proposed Eurasian civilization could benefit from the unique Iranian comparative advantage and aggrandize their roles in the multipolar future. Dugin once said, “I did not find a positive attitude towards Russia among Iranians…Perhaps we should search for a key to open this door between the two countries. I have worked toward this goal for the past 20 years but I must confess that I have not been very successful.” [35] A more intense U.S.-Iranian conflict could be the key to opening the door to the Eurasian moment by creating an environment compelling Iran into a deeper partnership with Russia. Iran could survive war with the U.S. by trading its premier export of oil to mercenaries.


P.S. The Wall Street Journal reported Switzerland acting as the primary mediator between the U.S. and Iran...Food for thought.



[1] “Iran.” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[1.2] Zeihan, Peter. The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder. 2016.

[2] “Where does Iran export Crude Petroleum to? (2017)” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[3] “What does the United States export? (1995-2017)” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[4] United States, Congress, Census Bureau and Economic Analysis Bureau . “Monthly U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services, November 2019.”, January 7, 2020.

[5] U.S. Exports of Crude Oil (Thousand Barrels per Day), EIA,

[6] “What does South Korea import from the United States? (1995-2017)” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[7] Chung, Jane. “South Korea's November U.S. Crude Imports up 80.4% on-Year.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 15 Dec. 2019,

[8] Verma, Nidhi. “Filling Iran Oil Gap in India: U.S. Supplies Outshine Middle East Crude.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 24 June 2019,

[8.2] ibid 8

[9] “What does China import from the United States? (1995-2017)” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[9.2] Jones, Seth G. “Containing Tehran: Understanding Iran’s Power and Exploiting Its Vulnerabilities” Report, Center for Strategic & International Studies, January 2020

[9.3] ibid 1.2

[10] “Factbox: Risks to Middle East Oil and Gas Shipping Routes.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 26 July 2018,

[11] “2019 Global Hunder Index” Concern Worldwide US, International Food and Policy Research Institute, and Welthungerhilfe. October 2019.

[12] Heslot, Soazic. “Iran's Food Security.” Future Directions International, 28 Jan. 2016,

[13] ibid 12

[14] ibid 1.2

[15] “What does Iran import from the Russia? (2017)” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[16] “What does Iran import from the Kazakhstan? (2017)” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, The MIT Media Lab,

[17] Greenwood, Phoebe. “Landmark Caspian Sea Deal Signed by Five Coastal Nations.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 12 Aug. 2018,

[18] FarsNews Agency - Iran, Kazakhstan to Broaden Ties in All Areas,

[19] Bryza, Matthew. “Is Rosneft Undermining ‘Maximum Pressure’ on Venezuela and Iran as Trump Looks Away?” Atlantic Council, 27 Nov. 2019,

[20] ibid 19

[21] Bonjour, Edgar & Hottinger, Mary. “Swiss Neutrality, Its History and Meaning”, G. Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1946

[22] Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince”, 1532

[23] “Tehran: 2,100 Iranian Soldiers Killed in Syria and Iraq.” Middle East Monitor, 7 Mar. 2018,

[24] Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “The Grand Chessboard”, Basic Books. 1997

[25] Goldhill, Olivia. “The Philosopher Known as ‘Putin's Brain’ Is a Big Fan of Trump.” Quartz, Quartz, 24 Dec. 2016,

[26] Clover, Charles. “The Unlikely Origins of Russia's Manifest Destiny.” Foreign Policy, 27 July 2016,

[27] Haghighatnejad, Reza. “‘Putin's Brain," the Darling of Iran's Hardliners.” IranWire, 14 November 2017,

[28] “Population Pyramids of the World from 1950 to 2100: Russia.”,

[29] “Population Pyramids of the World from 1950 to 2100: Iran Islamic Republic.”,

[30] Erlich, Reese. “Trump Is Driving Iran into Russia's Arms.” Foreign Policy, 29 May 2019,

[31] “Russia-Iran Relations: Agreements and Disagreements” Lecture, Center for Strategic & International Studies, September 18, 2019

[32] Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”, Touchstone. 1996

[33] ibid 31

[34] Goble, Paul. “Who Will Manage the 2 Million Shiites of Russia?” The Moscow Times, The Moscow Times, 13 Jan. 2020,

[35] ibid 27


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