War in the Gulf: real and virtual

Iran’s state-run Press TV announced on February 15 that in response to the EU sanctions Tehran was suspending oil deliveries to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and the Netherlands. On the same day Iran`s oil ministry denied the report…

On January 23 foreign ministers of 27 EU member states imposed an oil embargo on Iran from July 1, banned all new oil contracts with the country and also agreed a freeze on the assets of Iran’s central bank in the EU. The sanctions prohibit the import, purchase and transport of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products as well as related finance and insurance. Additional restrictions were placed on Iran’s central bank and in the trade of gold, precious metals and diamonds. Three more Iranian officials and eight companies were added to the EU`s ‘persona non grata’ list.

On February 4 Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi said that Tehran could adopt sanctions that would mirror those of the EU. Earlier, after the US sanctions, First Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said: “If Iran oil is banned, not a single drop of oil will pass through Hormuz Strait”. Shortly after the announcement was made, naval forces of the countries involved in the conflict started flexing their muscles in the Gulf.
Suspending oil deliveries through Hormuz Strait is a real problem for the West. Up to 17 billion barrels of oil were exported through this route in 2011. Analysts offer different forecasts, though they all agree that in case the deliveries are blocked, oil prices will rise from present $115-$120 per barrel to $150 or even $120.

Certainly, apart from being engaged in battles, US Marines dispatched to the Gulf will regularly remove Iranian mines in the area, which, however, will not ensure free navigation there: attacks on oil tankers using inflatable and motor boats are quite likely.

There is always a chance that Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz using resources ‘at hand’, so to speak. Since all military experts doubt the blitzkrieg, there could begin a protracted war, with Iran targeting the West`s dependence on oil produced in the Gulf.

US President Barack Obama addressed Iran`s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that an attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz will be viewed as a ‘threat to the US vital interests’. We have already heard something of the kind. In January of 1980, after the Iranian revolution that toppled the shah, the then US president Jimmy Carter, speaking in Congress, said: “Persian Gulf oil is a vital interest of the US that must be defended by any means necessary, including military force”.

That period of silent confrontation had its victims: in 1988 the USS Vincennes missile cruiser fired two radar-guided missiles and shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 civilian airliner over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board. The tragedy is rarely spoken about in US, while for Iranians this is a never ending pain.

After two wars against Iraq, the US took on the responsibilities of patrolling oil deliveries through the Gulf. And Iran has always argued the US leadership in the region. Ironically, after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, the US presence in the region is not as strong as it may seem. Shiite majority in Iraq spoke up to determine the life in the country on their own. Iran sponsored the enlisting of supporters in Afghanistan. Syria is also in the sphere of Iran`s influence. Considering Tehran`s ties with Hamas and Hezbollah, strategically Iran has become even stronger.

Debates on who will control energy routes from the Middle East to the West are becoming hotter.

The political situation inside the U.S. is another reason for the dispute between Washington and Tehran to be resolved by means of force. Americans are going to elect a new leader in November; meanwhile the current US president is being criticized for his feckless Iran policy.

When he just assumed office in 2008, Obama pledged improvement in relations with Iran, which sounded reasonable: by reviving the tradition of the US-Iranian relations which they used to be under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Washington would have obtained long-term control over the entire region, that is to say – over Iran’s oil deliveries.

Nothing of the kind happened. Perhaps, Obama faced an obstacle: Israeli lobby and that of the US military circles, who sought ‘cleansing’ of anti-western regimes. Very soon the course changed to mount more pressure on Iran, establish contacts with the fifth column and prevent Tehran from receiving money raised from energy exports.

So, what should we expect to happen if Hormuz Strait is blocked and the US launches a war?

China is the world’s biggest buyer of Iran’s oil, accounting for 22 percent of its exports. Beijing is aware of a possible threat and has already taken preventive measures. Although officially China opposes any sanctions against Iran, it can`t afford to ignore the threat. This month China has cut purchases of Iranian oil almost by half, focusing instead on energy cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Angola, Nigeria and Russia. At the same time, many countries could benefit from the losses China is going to face in case Hormuz Strait is blocked.

For example, Riyadh will be view this as an opportunity to increase oil production. The country`s royal family is using additional financial sources to coax the people to stay calm and thus avoid the Arab Spring scenario. Meanwhile, Russian companies have been already contacted to supply more oil than agreed.
Obviously, Washington won`t give such tidbit either to Moscow and Caracas or to Saudi Arabia. The Strait of Hormuz is turning into an area of ‘controlled clashes’ when there is neither war nor peace. The so-called information leakages are not all ‘accidental’. Such hoaxes claim that Iran, pressed by the US, the EU and the UN sanctions (resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803 and 1929) will inspect oil tankers and merchant ships, thus hampering shipping of Persian oil.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor`s responded to the situation by saying that in case things unfold this way, this will support oil prices because markets would increasingly view armed conflict as “a real, if remote, possibility”.

Professor Michael Clair was right when he said that “oil, the prestige of global leadership, Iran`s claims for a regional superpower status and US domestic policy are stirring up tensions in Hormuz Strait, making it the most dangerous place on earth”.

The opposing sides are testing each other`s ability to demonstrate a strong political will. Actually, what we see now is a virtual fight but just a single wrong gesture can turn it into a real one…

Vadim Vikhrov, Strategic Culture Foundation

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