January 26, 2012

All over the Strait of Hormuz

Iranian crisis taking a turn for worse


by S. Nihal Singh

THE danger in the United States, and now Europe, raising the stakes on Iran is that, without intending to, it could escalate into a new regional war even as President Barack Obama is winding down the Afghanistan war after declaring the American military misadventure in Iraq officially over. With the European Union having come on board in ending oil imports from Japan by July, the Western intention is to box Iran in until it cries uncle.

As it is, the payment ban for Iranian oil under pain of attracting sanctions is making the lives of Asian countries, including India, difficult. And as the US and Western Europe increase the pressure on Iran to its next level, it resembles more a game of Russian roulette rather than a well-thought-out rational policy. Tehran, for its part, shows no sign of backing off on its nuclear programme and has threatened to close the vital international oil export route of the Strait of Hormuz, which would harm Iran more than the rest of the world.

What has led the US to reach this impasse because the last thing America and the rest of the world need is another war in the region? Many factors are involved but the weightiest reason is a simple one — Israel. Israel is tied to the US by an umbilical cord. Washington’s continuing efforts are to coax Tel Aviv and its right-wing government into refraining from bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. Overwhelmingly dependent as Israel is on the United States for its survival and prosperity, it has proved that it can act on its own against American advice and still bank on US bounty and support.

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it plain that irrespective of the preference of his mentor, he is quite prepared to try to take Iranian nuclear facilities out because Tel Aviv believes that Tehran is closer to making the bomb than the US or the rest of the world. Recent feverish discussions between the highest American military official with Israel’s military and civilian establishment are an indication of the seriousness with which Washington is taking Israeli moves.

Obviously, the US and most countries believe that Iran going nuclear would vastly complicate the region’s strategic picture. Iran, of course, declares that its nuclear exertions are only for peaceful purposes. For one thing, other Middle-East states will want nuclear status as well. Psychologically, there is a sense of grievance in the region that while Israel can have nuclear weapons (with American and French assistance), the Arab world is barred. Pakistan, for one, won kudos for calling its nuclear arsenal the Muslim bomb. Apparently, attempts at hacking into Iranian nuclear computers or assassinating a string of Iranian nuclear scientists have failed to stop Tehran’s endeavours.

The tragedy is that while American efforts are directed at appeasing Israel by tightening the noose around Iran, Washington is leaving itself less and less room for manoeuvre. What happens if increasingly onerous sanctions choke off Iran’s ability to survive economically? Will its reaction be to take the path of surrender or will it strike out by closing Hormuz, irrespective of the harm it will cause itself? America has already warned that it will take counter-measures to keep the choke point open. Merely to pose these questions is to highlight the incredible dangers surrounding the present play.

While most Asian importers of Iranian oil – Japan, China, South Korea and India – will seek to reduce the quantity of Iranian oil they import, the spike in oil prices, given the new tensions in the region, will be particularly unwelcome. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has been exerting its bit, together with Russia, to stall the matter coming to the United Nations, but Washington has demonstrated that it has other means to exert pressure on many countries to side with it.

This growing crisis comes at a time of great regional tension and upheaval. The Arab League has been trying to grapple with events in Syria, which is lurching towards a civil war while its proposal to ask President Bashar al-Assad to resign in favour of his vice-president and talk to the opposition on an interim unity government has been dismissed by Damascus with contempt. No outside party seems to have a solution to the Syrian imbroglio, with more Syrian lives being lost each day.

The crisis in Iraq after the departure of US troops is getting worse, with the Shia Prime Minister, Mr Nuri al-Maliki, ostracising the Sunnis, the country’s traditional rulers, though a minority. Indeed, the Shia-Sunni divide has come to the fore surprisingly quickly. The only quiet part of Iraq is the autonomous Kurdish region which is counting its blessing. Egypt, on the other hand, is at the beginning of its new experiment with the Islamist-dominated new Parliament in place, charged with writing a new constitution.

The Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extremist Salafis – control over 70 per cent of the seats. But the essential power play is taking place between the Brotherhood and the Military Council, the post-Mubarak rulers. Reliable reports suggest that the two might make a deal for their mutual benefit. The key question will be the measure of supervision a future civilian government will have over the military’s affairs. The armed forces have many lucrative economic enterprises and had no civilian supervision of its budget, vastly stiffened with US assistance of some $ 1.3 billion a year.

Against this backdrop, the looming Iranian crisis is something the world could have done without. To compound the problem for President Obama, America has already slipped into the presidential election mode. In other words, Israel’s wishes and inclinations become even more important to the incumbent and his Republican challengers because Jews exercise much influence not only in funding election campaigns but also in the support they have of the evangelical Right.

With the developed world suffering from severer economic problems, the Iranian crisis can only add to the general gloom. Will the US find a way out of the crisis? That remains the $ 64,000 question.

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