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Crisis Bubbling In Gulf Waters – OpEd

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By Osama Al Sharif

A new crisis is bubbling under the surface between Iran and the United States in the wake of large-scale naval exercises carried out by Iran in the Arabian Gulf, and Washington’s decision to impose further economic sanctions on Tehran.

Iran’s 10-day war games reached a climax earlier in the week when it was announced that it had successfully tested at least two long-range shore-to-sea and surface-to-surface cruise missiles, thus following up on its warning that it could shut the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway through which at least 40 percent of the world’s oil or about 17 million barrels a day, is shipped if sanctions affected its oil exports.

On Monday Iranian news agencies reported that Iran has produced its first domestically made nuclear fuel rod, which was inserted into the core of Tehran’s atomic research reactor after performance tests. Until that revelation it was thought that Iran was years behind in developing such technology. The announcement was preceded by an official offer to restart talks with the West on the country’s controversial atomic program. The Iranians have always insisted that their nuclear program is aimed at peaceful civilian uses only.

A war of words ensued between Washington and Tehran as Iran threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz if new sanctions aimed at preventing it from selling its oil were imposed. The US sanctions, signed into law by President Barack Obama last week, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out dealings with the Iranian Central Bank. Companies that buy Iranian oil are being pressured to stop doing so. The European Union is also considering a ban on imports of oil from Iran, the world’s third-largest oil exporter with 2.5 million barrels shipped daily. Japan, which relies on imports of Iranian oil, is now looking for alternatives to avoid US sanctions.

There is no doubt that mounting sanctions have had a negative effect on Iran’s ailing economy. This latest round will target Iran’s oil exports, the country’s major source of foreign currency. It is no wonder that Tehran has used the latest naval exercises as a show of strength while warning that if it is prevented from selling its oil no one else will be allowed to as well.

Iran’s latest act of brinkmanship comes few days after the US completed its withdrawal from Iraq and redeployed some of its troops in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. In fact the US Navy was not very far from where Iranian frigates and cruisers were conducting their war games. The possibility of a flare-up between the two countries has always been there, but now tension has heightened to dangerous levels.

Perhaps the renewed pressure on Iran, now that the US has exited Iraq, is understandable. The West has never been satisfied with Tehran’s performance and transparency during previous rounds of talks. Now according to Iran’s official news agency Saeed Jalili, the country’s top nuclear negotiator, is planning to submit a letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on fresh talks about its nuclear program.

Progress in talks will depend on many factors, including Iran’s reaction to new economic penalties and revisiting previous suggestions that Iran stops uranium enrichment in return for buying the nuclear fuel from external sources. But news that Tehran has successfully produced a nuclear fuel rod will set off angry reactions from the United States and Israel, in particular.

The new crisis comes at a time when Iran’s relations with its Arab Gulf neighbors are at their lowest levels. Few days ago the United Arab Emirates announced a $3.48 billion advanced anti-missile interception system with the United States.

The timing of the announcement underlines the Gulf States’ increased suspicions of Iranian intentions to the region’s security. The latest Iranian missile tests, and its threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, will not bode well in other Gulf capitals. It may trigger a new arms race.

It is not likely that Iran will make important compromises on its nuclear program. President Ahmadijejad has been defiant all along and in this particular case he has the full backing of the country’s spiritual and political leaders. The West, and Israel, on the other hand are convinced that Iran’s increasing military might, its long-time hostility toward the US and Israel, undermine Tehran’s credibility when it comes to the true goals of its nuclear program.

This latest episode could lead to the eruption of a major crisis between Iran and the West. Choking off Iran’s economy might not force Tehran into submission. It may give Iranian hard-liners the ammunition they need to pursue hostile policies. There is so much at stake if the latest crisis develops into full military confrontation. It will even be worse if Israel carries out a stunning preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear installations.

The Europeans should respond positively to Iran’s latest overture. Diplomacy must be allowed to function at this stage if the crisis is to be defused. Otherwise no one really knows to what extent the Iranians will be willing to go to protect their interests.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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