Iranian War Drums

A showdown looms in the Strait of Hormuz.

After threatening only days ago to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which twenty percent of the world’s oil supplies moves, the Iranian government has once again engaged in ominous sabre-rattling.

The mullah regime’s latest threat involves a warning to the United States on Tuesday not to send its naval task force group, headed by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, back to the Persian Gulf. The Stennis had already left Gulf waters last week en route to the Afghan war theater and is now “somewhere between Oman and Pakistan."

“I advise, recommend and warn them [the Americans] over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once,” Iranian Army Chief Ataollah Salehi reportedly stated.

The reason for Iran’s latest bellicose outburst is that the Obama administration is implementing a strict set of sanctions that could seriously damage, even topple, the Iranian government. The latest punitive measures are being imposed because Iran is still refusing, despite worldwide condemnation, to give up its nuclear weapons program. The fact Iran may be as little as a year away from developing its first nuclear weapon accounts for the sanctions' severity. The International Atomic Energy Commission also reported recently that Iranian scientists are “working to design a nuclear warhead.”

Iran’s rulers have survived previous sanction attempts to halt their nuclear program because Iran is the fourth-largest energy exporter in the world. Its sales of oil and gas, which comprise the country’s largest exports, have allowed the Iranian government to maintain the enormous state subsidy system that has, more or less, maintained social peace in the country. There have been anti-government demonstrations in Iran, but they have failed to develop into "Arab Spring"-like movements that have brought about regime change in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

But the latest restrictions were constructed to target those all-important oil revenues, the mullah regime’s life blood. In the future, countries that buy Iranian oil will not be allowed to “conduct financial transactions in the United States.” Governments who continue to do so would thus be excluded from a major part of the world’s financial system. In essence, what these new sanctions amount to is an embargo on Iranian oil.

It is obviously believed a US-induced boycott of Iranian oil will cause such economic havoc in Iran that the mullahs will give up their nuclear ambitions and “come back into compliance with its international obligations.” What is left unspoken, however, is that it is most likely hoped the ensuing economic disruption after the sanctions begin to bite will lead to the mullahs’ undoing. It was in response to this embargoing of its oil that the Iranian government issued its first threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s vice president stated “even one drop of oil” will not pass through the strait if Iran’s oil exports were affected.

But as with all plans, there are also setbacks. A major concern regarding the latest sanctions is that it is “unclear” whether there will be enough alternative sources of oil to make up for the expected reduction in Iranian exports. A second problem is that oil prices would also certainly rise at a time when many countries are in recession. And while Western nations are expected to co-operate with the boycott, China, which imports a lot of its oil from Iran, will definitely be more problematic.

“The only strategy that is going to work here is one where you get the cooperation of oil buyers,” said one analyst in the New York Times. “You could imagine the Europeans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans cooperating, and then China would suck up all of the oil that was initially going to everyone else.”

For its part, the United States regards the latest Iranian warning regarding its carrier battle group as a sign of desperation, caused by a wobbling economy and a weak currency brought on by previous sanctions. As expected, the US Navy said it will carry on as usual. Commander Bill Speaks stated in the Office of the Secretary of Defense that US naval deployment in the Gulf “will continue as it has for decades.”

The question that now has to be asked, however, is how desperate the Iranian regime really is and just how serious are its threats? With their possible demise staring them in the face, would the mullahs risk such reckless actions as a military attack on US warships or an attempted closure of the Strait of Hormuz that would provoke a heavy American military response?

With regard to the American sanctions, the mullahs are undoubtedly facing the greatest danger to their survival since the 1980s Iran-Iraq war - and fully realize it. The seriousness of their threats attests to this. So with economic strangulation a distinct possibility if no action is taken, the Iranian regime will probably choose to embark on a military adventure.

Such a grim course of action would not only serve to divert the Iranian people’s troubles away from the country’s economic woes, it would also fit in nicely with Shi’ite theology that wars and bloodshed have to occur before the twelfth imam reappears at the end of times. The belief in the ‘Hidden Imam’ is held so deeply among some Iranians that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even spoke about him from the podium at the United Nations.

In a loose comparison, Japan was also a country that at one time faced Iran’s current dilemma. After America embargoed oil shipments to the Asian power in July 1941, it was left with a choice of either military action or decline. As America soon, and painfully, found out, Japan preferred to fight rather than change its militaristic ways. And like Japan, Iran is also a country with a long and proud history with a sense of greatness and mission that comes from once being a great empire. It will most likely also rather fight than face inevitable decline.

Asia Times writer David Goldman, whose columns appear under the literary pseudonym Spengler, offers another reason why Iran will probably fight instead of capitulate. According to Goldman, if Iran is going to re-establish itself as a Middle Eastern power, it has to go to war now because the country’s fertility rate has dropped so low, 1.7 children per female, it won’t have the men in 20 years to wage war. Due to this “demographic catastrophe,” Goldman maintains it is now or never for Iran.

But an Iranian military assault may not involve the closing of the Strait of Hormuz or an attack on an American warship, although Iran does have a few modern, Russian-built submarines possessing anti-ship missiles. Iran could launch missiles at Saudi Arabia’s major oil facilities, located just across the Persian Gulf, on which America depends. Oil wells in neighboring Azerbaijan, which also exports to the West, would also be targeted for destruction. Missile development, aided by North Korea, is the one area of military technology, in which Iran has spent a substantial amount of money. And with the last American troops leaving Iraq, there is also nothing to stop that country from becoming a target for Iranian military aggression.

But whatever the Iranians decide, there is one thing that is certain in this high stakes game of Persian Gulf brinkmanship: when the next American aircraft carrier attempts to return to Gulf waters through the Strait of Hormuz, the world will be holding its breath.

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