No one should doubt the potential seriousness of Iran’s increased military defiance in the face of growing international pressure over its nuclear program.
The completion of the Velayat-90 war games near the Strait of Hormuz in no way brings any relaxation of the tension in the region. Quite the contrary.
We have seen the testing of two missile systems, the threat to block the passage of shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and the warning from an Iranian general that US aircraft carriers should not re-enter the Gulf.
The Iranian government is in financial and political trouble. The economy is collapsing and dissent, both within the leadership and among ordinary Iranians, is growing. Faced with this, the regime is ratcheting up tension militarily so that it can exploit the one clear option that it has left, nationalism. Whatever the populace may think about their government, there can be little doubt that most Iranians would rally around the flag if their country were attacked or seemed to be in imminent danger of attack.
Hence the studious provocation of the outside world as new sanctions promise to make the country’s economic mess even worse. There is, of course, also a subtext here. Quite apart from trying to rally waning domestic support by claiming the country is in danger, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears determined on the creation of a crescent of Iranian hegemony from Lebanon to the Arabian Gulf. There is a growing conviction on this side of the Gulf that, in pursuit of this ambition, the Iranians have interfered throughout the region, most obviously in Iraq and Bahrain, and have tried to interfere in Yemen and even in the Eastern Province.
Nor can we forget that Iran continues to illegally hold on to the UAE’s Tunb islands and Abu Musa which it seized in 1971, or that from time to time it makes outrageous claims on Bahrain. From their latest actions and pronouncements, the Iranians clearly regard the entire Gulf as their private back yard.
Any attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz would be provocative in the extreme. However, it must be asked if this is anything but a bluff. To close the channel would block its own oil exports as well as those of the other countries around the Gulf. Nor should one crucial fact be forgotten: The bulk of oil exports from Gulf ports goes to Asia, with one of the most important customers for most Gulf oil states being China.
Beijing, along with South Korea and Japan, are key buyers of Iranian oil. If new US sanctions on the Iranian central bank force the latter two countries to stop purchases, China would probably become Teheran’s main source of foreign currency earnings. That might suit the Chinese, because there would be more Iranian oil for them to buy. However, it would be a very different matter if its entire oil supply from the Gulf were blocked by the Iranian Navy.
In these circumstances, it is hard to see that Beijing can sit back and watch this perilous situation in the Gulf develop. Along with Russia, China has until now been ambivalent about the nature of the Iranian nuclear program and its saber rattling throughout the region. Russia sponsored and supported the development of atomic power in Iran for civilian purposes. Yet it is either unable or unwilling to use the leverage it has thus acquired to urge caution on Teheran. Besides, greater Gulf tension drives oil prices higher, which is more money in Moscow’s pocket.
It is a very different matter for the Chinese. Iranian antics already mean they must pay more for its oil. Now Iran’s behavior also clearly jeopardizes their entire supply from the Gulf.
Beijing has been working hard to develop its commercial relations in the Middle East, not least in the Kingdom. There are major business opportunities for Chinese companies. If Teheran is allowed to continue its dangerous brinkmanship and bring about conflict, the consequences could be far-reaching. Therefore it is in the interests of China to take a lead role here, in defusing the regional tension. It probably has the most influence of any country on Teheran. It also stands to benefit handsomely in terms of regional gratitude, if it can check Iran’s dangerous ambitions.
Meanwhile, if Iran genuinely wants stability and security in the region, it should press the reset button, simply by permitting a full inspection of its nuclear program. If the International Atomic Energy Agency were given unfettered access to Iranian nuclear facilities, it could validate Teheran’s constant claim that its work on atomic power is for purely peaceful purposes.
Unfortunately Teheran so far refuses, either because its nuclear plans are indeed anything but civil, or possibly because such a move might appear as weakness, a caving in to the hated US.
Thus, with every further saber rattle from both Washington and Teheran, this most obvious course seems ever more unlikely.
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