By Boris Volkhonsky
The US and Iran have renewed their exchange of belligerent statements and symbolic deeds aimed at demonstrating their firm stance in the years-long standoff.
On Monday, as reported by London’s Daily Telegraph, Iranian parliament introduced legislation to authorize a blockade of oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait, through which a fifth of the world’s traded oil passes. That followed a ban on EU imports of Iranian oil which came into force on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon disclosed that it has for the first time sent an amphibious vessel, the USS Ponce, into the Persian Gulf region. The ship, having a capacity of about 900 troops, can be used to transport a landing force.
The US Defense Department has also doubled the number of minesweepers assigned to the Gulf to eight vessels and added an unspecified number of F-22 stealth fighters and F-15C warplanes on two of its bases.
The message sent to Iran is clear: Washington warns Tehran against any moves that can be seen as attempts to block the Strait.
Iran sent a reciprocal message starting three-day military exercise designed to simulate attacks on Western and Israeli targets in northern Semnan Desert. During the exercise, Iran’s Republican Guard test-fired missiles against a model of an American base in the Gulf.
On Wednesday, commander of the Revolutionary Guards Amir Ali Haji Zadeh said that Iran could destroy U.S. military bases across the Middle East and target Israel within minutes of being attacked.
The developments prompted many observers to express fear that among the growing tension it might be Israel who may launch the first preventive strike.
The big question still remains the same as it was several months ago, when many thought that the situation had gotten out of control and the full-scale war is imminent.
Still, most experts on Iran whom your correspondent has talked to, agree on several points.
First. Israel will hardly launch a strike without the Big Brother’s consent. Therefore, whatever belligerent statements come from Jerusalem, 99 percent of them should be regarded as pure verbal pressure aimed at frightening the foe (and probably at extracting some aid from Washington’s bosses).
Second. Iran will never launch a first strike, since such kind of action would be totally suicidal. That means that even threats to block the Hormuz Strait or attack oil tankers are no more that a continuation of the war of nerves.
Third. Any war (if it is ever going to be started) will be started by the US only. The current moment, though, is rather unfavorable for the US to start any unprovoked activity. The crisis in Syria is not over yet, and the US at the moment is mostly preoccupied with the task of toppling Bashar al-Assad (and replacing him with something like Al Qaeda?) rather than thinking of shifting its attention to other areas.
Still, it is definitely true that toppling Assad is not an aim in itself, but rather a preparatory step for doing the same with the present Iranian leadership. But in this case it should be noted that Americans seldom get involved in any war which bears a risk of a retaliatory slap in their face. And this one surely bears such risk.
Of course, Barack Obama, being criticized by his GOP opponents for being “too soft”, might be willing to launch a quick victorious war in his election year. But the fact is that a war against Iran will definitely be a long one and the ultimate victory is by no means guaranteed. In any case, the price would be too high.
All this only means that this year most probably will not witness the transformation of the present war of nerves into a full scale war. As for the year 2013, experts differ in their estimates. Much will depend on a whole array of factors, of which the outcome of the US presidential elections is important, but not the only one.
Then why has the tension around the Hormuz Strait escalated right now? One of the possible answers can be drawn from another piece of latest news that came relatively unnoticed against the belligerent background. And that is the information published by Wednesday’s Washington Post that after more than 15 hours of expert-level talks, the United States and other world powers agreed with Iran to move toward a resumption of full negotiations on Iranian nuclear program. The talks stalled last month, and many observers expressed doubts that they would ever been resumed. On Wednesday, however, the participants reached an agreement to implement the “Moscow plan”.
Against such background the exchange of belligerent statements on both sides can be seen as a part of propaganda campaign aimed at making the other side more compliant at the negotiation table.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies