By Boris Volkhonsky
The U.S. – Iranian standoff in the Strait of Hormuz is escalating. While the U.S. Commander-in-Chief is vacationing in Hawaii, the harsh exchange of belligerent remarks between the two adversaries is continues. Iran goes on threatening that it will shut off the Strait of Hormuz to all commercial shipping, if stricter sanctions are imposed. The U.S. Navy keeps on insisting that it will not tolerate any such actions. Recently, such threats have been substantiated by the presence of at least two U.S. warships in the Gulf of Oman the where Iranian Navy is holding its 10-day drill “Velayat 90”. The ships, the nuclear powered aircraft carrier “USS John C. Stennis” and the missile-launching destroyer “USS Mobile Bay”, before entering the Gulf of Oman, had crossed the Strait of Hormuz which Iran promised to shut off.
So, what is it all about? The U.S. claims that the sanctions it insists on are related only to the threat coming out of Iran’s nuclear program. The prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons seems to be a real concern for the world’s most powerful nation, the U.S.A., and the only Middle East country already possessing nukes, that is Israel.
Iran, for its part, insists that its nuclear program has only peaceful aims and is onfined to energy needs.
What is most dangerous about the standoff is the prospect that it will involve much more than only regional powers. The Persian Gulf region is vital for strategic interests of the growing powers of Asia, first of all, India and China, which rely upon oil imports.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already expressed its concern over the developments in the region, without specifically mentioning which of the parties this concern is addressed to. “China hopes that peace and stability can be maintained in the strait,” said ministry spokesman Hong Lei. And China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun paid a brief visit to Iran for talks “on Sino-Iranian relations and regional issues.”
Despite the escalation of belligerent exchanges, most analysts point out that the probability of an open military confrontation is quite low. Then, what aims do both parties pursue?
As for Iran’s nuclear program, the Western worries and consequent sanctions have been in place for years and they haven’t stopped Iran from going on along its course of developing nuclear technologies. Therefore, new sanctions will be futile at best, or could backfire at the U.S. and its European allies dependent (although to a lesser degree than Asian powers) on oil imports from Iran and Persian Gulf area.
Iran’s threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz are also unlikely to be implemented. First, such an action would be a direct violation of the international Law of the Sea and the status of the Strait as having a universally acceptable two mile-wide passage. Therefore, such actions could lead to the further isolation of Iran with even countries not being eager to support sanctions turning their backs on Iran. Second, the total force of Iranian Navy can hardly match that of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and any harsh unilateral actions could lead to other countries (primarily the Gulf monarchies, but also the U.S.’ West European allies) assisting the U.S. in its efforts to unblock the Strait. And third (and most important), oil export accounts for almost 80 percent of Iranian revenues, and most if not all of Iranian oil goes via the Strait of Hormuz. Therefore, a blockade of the Strait would be suicidal for Iran itself.
But then, why all the fuss?
The answer does not lie in the nuclear issue, but purely in the oil field.
Iranian threats have led to a rise (although, short lived) in global oil prices. Further threats can sustain the tendency for the benefit of oil exporters, including the world’s third largest exporter, Iran.
On the other hand, for the U.S., Iran remains the last “pain in the neck” preventing it from establishing a “Great Middle East” from Morocco to Pakistan under total American control. Therefore, its primary aim is to overthrow the existing regime in Iran by whatever means are at their disposal, and using the support of ANY regional or global accomplice.
In a recent editorial, The New York Times wrote, “Tehran’s latest threat to block global oil shipping should leave no doubt about its recklessness and its contempt for international law. This is not a government any country should want to see acquire nuclear weapons.”
Wouldn’t it be proper to reformulate the sentence slightly? “Washington’s foreign policy for the latest several decades, its bombing of Yugoslavia and Libya, bombing an occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, arm-twisting policies towards all others, should leave no doubt about its recklessness and its contempt for international law. This is not a government any country should want to see dictating to others what they should do, and what to have.”