Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Dangerous Bluff

Each year, for about 8 years, the month of January has brought the prediction; 'This will be the year of Iran; It's always been possible, but I've never been convinced, I'm not convinced that it will come true this year either, but, all the reasons why it might are coming to a head. It's not just that after all this time the ability of the Iranians to ‘break out' and build nuclear weapons is much more advanced. It is a range of other factors.
Failed Diplomacy

Diplomacy has failed. Red lines have been crossed. Iran is moving its most sensitive equipment into hardened bunkers. Bunker busting missiles have been ordered. War games have been played. Major US troops concentrations are now out of region. The US has just tightened sanctions; the EU may do so at the end of the month. 
Saber Rattling

The saber rattling continues in the region. The US has just tightened sanctions, the EU may do so at the end of the month. There are arguments in favor of attacking Iran, and arguments against; both have consequences. Attack Iran, smash its air defenses, and navy, take out its nuclear weapons capability, and you curtail what critics say is Tehran’s malign influence throughout the Middle East. Air strikes might persuade the countries which fear Iran that they do not need their own nuclear arsenals. A military strike might hasten the end of the Mullah’s theocracy.

Don't attack Iran, and the theory goes; Tehran gets the bomb dominates the Middle East, sparks a regional nuclear arms race, and possibly attacks Israel... Those opposing military action point out that it might not work, and at best would only delay the nuclear project. The retaliation by Iran would be enormous. It can reach out into the world via its military proxies, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Its own conventional weapons can reach Israel. The Gulf would likely be closed to ships causing the oil price to double and ensuring a global recession. Those against an attack argue that air strikes would actually make the Iranians close ranks around their leaders, thus strengthening the regime.
USS John C Stennis

The Iranians have just finished ten days of military exercises n the Gulf. Every ship which sailed, every mine laid, and every missile launched, was meant to convey the same message. It is a message which defines Iranian foreign policy as it looks westward. It is a maxim in Tehran that 'If the Gulf is not safe for Iran, it is not safe for anyone'.  The war games were to show the world that Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes 20% of the world's oil needs. The Strait, leading from the Gulf out to open waters is just 34 miles across at its narrowest point. With the Iranians practicing their 'we can sink American ships and oil tankers' routine, the US decided to sail the USS John C Stennis aircraft carrier group through the Strait.

Today the head of Iran’s army said 'We advise and insist that this warship not return to its former base in the Persian Gulf,” Brigadier General Ataollah Salehi added - “We don’t have the intention of repeating our warning, and we warn only once So, if the Stennis decides it wants to go to the US 5th fleet's base in Bahrain, what does it do? Well it simply sails straight back through the Strait. If not, President Obama makes America look weak in an election year, and that gives the Iranians a choice; to take 'action' or to back down. 'Action' could take various forms, it doesn't have to be an attack on the carrier fleet, but it would have to be something provocative and both sides are playing with fire, in a dangerous place, at a dangerous time, Or, Will Obama have the same fate as Carter?” “What has happened in recent months, and will probably continue, brings up memories of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and its impact on the defeat of the Democrats and Jimmy Carter’s personal failure.  Perhaps finally, as a result of the blows received from the Iran front, Obama will become one of the few single term U.S. presidents – unless in the few remaining months he carries out serious reforms in bilateral relations and comes down from his ivory tower and returns to the negotiating table with Iran as an equal.”

Iran’s recent “blows” against the United States is no doubt referring to the U.S. drone currently in Iranian hands, the capture of a supposed U.S. spy and Iran’s continuing ability to continue with its nuclear program, including claims that Tehran is transferring sensitive nuclear activities to fortified underground sites.

Although ASR Iran isn’t believed to be a mouthpiece of the regime, its observations are often an accurate reflection of the opinions of the Iranian leadership and its supporters, many of whom now believe that Iran has not only not “lost” to Barack Obama, but that the regime might actually be coming out on top.
Mohammad Reza Rahimi

Tuesday’s threat by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz “if the West imposes sanctions on Iran's oil shipments” was not only a warning aimed at the West generally, but also bears the hallmarks of an Iranian political trap for Obama as he heads into an election year.
It’s no secret that the U.S. economy is Obama’s Achilles’ heel. Iran knows that by closing the Strait of Hormuz, oil prices could rise significantly, doing further damage to an already faltering U.S. economy. With the U.S. presidential election less than a year away, this could be the kiss of death for Obama’s reelection chances. A sudden rise in oil prices could do to Obama’s reelection bid what Ayatollah Ali Khomeini’s 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy did to Carter’s reelection ambitions, namely wreck them.
And if at any point after sanctions were imposed Obama tried to limit the damage of  high energy prices by then waiving sanctions (something the new legislation allows him to) then he’d be stepping into another trap, one of looking “weak” on Iran. Any Republican opponent would revel in the opportunity to present Obama as both the man who wrecked the economy, and then the leader who “chickened out” against Iran’s rulers.
Obama therefore has no choice now but to push ahead – the U.S. Congress has ripped out its reverse gear. But in doing so, he may be damned if he moves forward, and damned if he doesn’t.
So, are Iran’s leaders right to congratulate themselves for upping the ante by issuing the challenge over Hormuz? Certainly, if Obama doesn’t want to see his already uncertain electoral chances sink in the Persian Gulf then he will need to tread carefully.
However, Iran’s leaders need to be careful, too. By blockading the Strait of Hormuz, Iran would in essence be declaring war against Persian Gulf states and members of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, many of whom use the strait to export oil and liquefied natural gas.
Not only would such a move place these countries squarely in the U.S. camp, but it could also backfire by making Iran look weak if it didn’t follow through. It’s no secret that Iran needs the strait to export its own oil, and it’s hard not to see Iran backing down under pressure of its neighbors to lift a blockade to help its own economy. In doing so, it would look weak in its neighbors’ eyes.
Blocking the strait would also likely push these same neighbors to consider a pipeline into the Arabian Sea, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, a move that in the long run would undermine the strait’s strategic value to Iran.
And even if Iran did try to create a blockade, what if other countries in the region tried to send a civilian vessel through the strait? Would Iran really try to sink a Qatari ship or a Bahraini tanker? Such a move would give ally the United States justification to enter the fray, and the powerful U.S. fifth fleet would not only have superior firepower, but also legal justification to flex its muscles. But Having laid a political mine for Obama, Iran’s leaders will need all their navigational skills to avoid falling into their own trap.

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