Of course, the underlying matter is the regime that currently governs the Islamic Republic of Iran – bent on exporting its brand of revolution; supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and, more erratically, Hamas; hectoring any state that does not see things as the ayatollahs do; meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan; fomenting trouble throughout the Middle East, most recently during the uprisings colloquially dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently even made mischief in America’s back yard, visiting Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador. All of this comes together in Iran’s quest to build nuclear weapons.
The problem is nuclear weapons in the hands of such a regime. Little imagination is needed to think how nuclear weapons will embolden Tehran. And, if the world has been timid and slow to confront Iran until now, little imagination is needed to think how it will be intimidated by the prospect of an Iranian missile or Iranian-sponsored terrorists delivering a nuclear bomb.
And do not imagine that if the west, led by the United States, is unable to thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions, that other regional powers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt – will not consider nuclear options of their own. In the volatile Middle East, that would be a recipe for disaster.
After years of disagreeing on the severity and timing of the threat, the United States, the European Union and other like-minded states have come to a common understanding that the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is grave and imminent. Estimates of when Iran could reach the point at which its acquisition of nuclear weapons would be certain vary between nine and fifteen months – that is what makes 2012 a crucial year.
And 2012 began fraught with tension. Anxious to avoid war, the western powers have been tightening the grip of sanctions on Iran. Warning against further tightening, on December 29, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said, “Not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz,” the narrow strait that separates the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
17 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Hormuz each day – one third of the world’s seaborne oil traffic – not only from Iran, but from Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer, Iraq and the other Gulf States. “Interference with the transit of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated,” retorted a Pentagon spokesman.
Then, as the American aircraft carrier USS Stennis sailed out of the Persian Gulf on January 3, Iranian Army Chief Major General Ataollah Salehi taunted, “We recommend to the American warship that passed through the Strait of Hormuz and went to the Gulf of Oman not to return to the Persian Gulf.”Less than three weeks later, the USS Lincoln, another aircraft carrier, flanked by British and French warships, entered the Gulf. Now Iran faces not only the Lincoln Carrier Strike Group but also a second group led by the USS Vinson. Moreover, America maintains the headquarters of the 5th Fleet at Manama, Bahrain, a presence that other Gulf States welcome.
In this light, Iranian taunts seem a tad silly. Equally silly are Iranian Revolutionary Guards manning small, fast vessels racing toward western warships, but this is dangerous behavior. And an attempt to repeat something like the 2007 seizure of a British warship cannot be excluded. Despite the considerable restraint exhibited by western navies, a clash in the Gulf is possible. Moreover, the Iranian nuclear program proceeds.
Consequently, rumblings of more trouble ahead are heard around the globe. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a candidate to become the Republican Party’s nominee for president, said that an Iranian attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz “will be considered an act of war,” and, “If you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” Another candidate, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, agreed that there might be no alternative to military action.
However, both agree that all other measures should first be exhausted. And an official Washington view was offered by Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, upon return from a recent trip to Israel. “I just think,” General Dempsey said, “that it is premature to be deciding that the economic and diplomatic approach is inadequate.”
Unsurprisingly, Israel is rife with debate over how to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons drive. But talk in Israel is indeed debate, not a rush to attack as is often depicted outside the country. Some Israelis believe that a strike against Iran may be an existential necessity, that threats of Iranian retaliation are exaggerated and that, in any case, the dangers will only increase if Iran gets the bomb.
However, other Israelis wonder if Israel has the means to carry out an effective strike, whether it would have American support and whether all other avenues have been exhausted. On January 18, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that considerations of war remain “very far off.”
Barring unforeseen events, it seems that the western countries will continue to pressure Iran through most of 2012, waiting to see if tougher sanctions yield any results. In this regard, the European Union has just approved unprecedented sanctions – a ban on transport, purchase or import of Iranian oil and a freeze on the European held assets of the Iranian National Bank.
The EU currently imports about 18% of Iran’s oil exports.
India and China may buy the Iranian oil that the EU refuses to import. Meanwhile, China and Russia are doing everything to undermine the western sanctions. Ironically, to the extent that they encourage Iran to resist, they may bring about the very consequence they claim to want to avoid. We may know by year’s end.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 87, published 13 February 2012.