12.29.11

Iran’s Dangerous Game of Chicken on the Straits of Hormuz, Sanctions

Threats to shut down the vital Strait of Hormuz signal Iran’s confrontation with Washington is escalating. But if Tehran doesn’t buckle under international pressure, a U.S. attack is a real possibility, says Michael Adler.

As if the confrontation with Iran wasn’t getting scary enough, we now have pictures of Iranian commandos with stubby machine guns on boats training to close the Strait of Hormuz. This is the entrance to the Persian Gulf through which a third of the world’s oil exports pass. Fighting there could drive up the price of oil to economy-breaking levels and could, in turn, lead to a regional war in the Middle East.

But that won’t happen yet, if at all. Even the Iranians are signaling that their maneuvers are just a way of letting the world know what Tehran can do. Iran’s Navy chief, Adm. Habibolah Sayari, says closing the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water” but “right now, we don’t need to shut it,” as Iran can “control” the transit of oil. Iran is warning the United States and Europe about trying to cut off the Islamic Republic’s oil exports with new sanctions, but it knows that closing the Strait of Hormuz would be a catastrophe for Iran itself, as all its export oil ships through the strait. Oil prices dropped Wednesday, showing that the markets are unafraid the strait may be about to be shut.

We are, indeed, in the midst of a slow-motion, escalating confrontation, as Washington leads a ratcheting-up of pressure against Iran. This is taking place on several fronts. First is oil. Both the United States and Europe are moving toward new sanctions that they hope will cut off Iran’s ability to sell this crucial natural resource, the lifeblood of the Islamic Republic’s economy. They think they can do this while getting Saudi Arabia and other key producing states to pump more oil. Prices then would stay under control, Iran would have fewer clients, and its remaining markets, such as China, would be able to buy Iranian crude at a discount. This would be a body blow to Iran’s already beleaguered finances.

Another front is the political effort to isolate Iran internationally. There are also alleged covert actions that sabotage Iranian nuclear plants and assassinate scientists. And finally there is a technical effort at the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to make the case that Iran is violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty with military-related rather than peaceful nuclear work. It is a search for the “smoking gun” that would negate Iran’s claim that its atomic program is strictly a civilian effort to generate electricity and do other peaceful nuclear work. Thus far Iran has successfully, if unconvincingly, been able to hide behind the claim that its nuclear program is all about creating energy, not bombs.

In all this, the Israelis, who view an Iranian bomb as a threat to the very existence of their country, and the Americans, who see such a weapon as a massive regional threat to the Middle East and beyond, are on the same page. This has not always been the case; in the recent past some elements within the Israeli government and military establishment have pushed aggressively for a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the Israelis seem now to be convinced that the United States is not just trying to calm them down from attacking but is serious about preventing Iran from getting the bomb. A senior Israeli official told reporters this month that the United States had laid out a detailed strategy of putting enough pressure on Iran by the next IAEA meeting in Vienna in March to get results. It is not clear what this means, but one goal would be to get Iran to come clean on its program and to stop the development of nuclear weapons. Iran, of course, insists its nuclear work is a peaceful effort and says it will not bow to the sanctions and other measures directed against it. Even if the Iranians feel pressure, the question is, do they feel enough pressure to change their calculations? This is something that will play out over months.

We may be further along the road to war than most people believe.

So what is the endgame? What if the Iranians do not buckle and instead press ahead with a program to build the bomb?

Maybe we should take what U.S. officials say to heart. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent comment that the United States will do what’s needed to stop Iran from getting the bomb clearly was meant to signal that the military option is more than a bluff. Whether there will be an attack or whether this is just posturing to pressure the Iranians, the fact remains that previous statements from President Obama and his administration have already pointed to an attack if Iran insists on developing nuclear weapons.

We may be further along the road to war than most people believe, even if current policy and the significant initiatives taking place are designed to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis rather than bring about another American war in the Middle East against yet another Muslim nation. The goal of U.S. diplomacy is to avoid having to choose between accepting Iran with a bomb or having to bomb Iran. If this diplomacy fails, such a choice will have to be made.