How Iran Can Miscalculate in the Gulf

Here at The Glittering Eye I’ve written repeatedly that regardless of what Sy Hersh and his unidentified sources say and however loud the saber-rattling from the Bush Administration I think it’s extremely unlikely that either Israel or the U. S. will bomb or invade Iran in the foreseeable future. I believe those who think otherwise are badly misreading the political situation both in Israel and the United States. I’ve also made the observation that all bets were off if the Iranians did something stupid. This is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind:

TEHRAN, Iran – The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the country would impose controls on shipping in the vital Gulf oil route if Iran was attacked, a newspaper reported on Saturday.

Fear of an escalation in the standoff between the West and Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, have been one factor propping up sky-high oil prices. Crude hit a record level on international markets near $143 a barrel on Friday.

Speculation about a possible attack on Iran because of its disputed nuclear ambitions has risen since a report this month said Israel had practiced such a strike, prompting increasingly tough talk of retaliation, if pushed, from Tehran.

“Naturally every country under attack by an enemy uses all its capacity and opportunities to confront the enemy,” Guards commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari told Jam-e Jam newspaper in some of the toughest language Iran has used so far.

“Regarding the main route for exiting energy, Iran will definitely act to impose control on the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz,” he said of the Gulf waterway through which about two-fifths of all globally traded oil passes.

Let’s engage in a little thought exercise. Imagine that Israel attacks Iran’s Natanz nuclear research facility. I don’t believe for a minute that this will happen but let’s pretend. Let’s further imagine that Iran is as good as the Revolutionary Guards commander’s word and they move to “control”, i.e. eliminate or restrict shipping in the Gulf. What happens then?

Neither the Gulf nor the Strait of Hormuz belongs to Iran (whatever the Iranians might believe). I suspect that other Gulf nations would protest to the United Nations Security Council, possibly at the urging of the United States. If it’s prudent the United States would request and receive permission to use military force to re-open the Gulf and keep it open. They’d receive it because France and China in the near term are at least as dependent on the oil that’s shipped through the Gulf as we are, possibly more so. Despite its ties to Iran Russia, isolated, would abstain.

Within 72 hours of the United States actually going into action the Iranian Air Force would have ceased to exist as an effective fighting force and we’d have control of the air. We’d use that to punish Iranian ships, shore batteries, and command and control. If Iran mined or otherwise blocked the Strait of Hormuz, our navy would remove the obstructions. The harder Iran attempted to harrass shipping with missiles, the more we’d go after Iranian command and control.

Iran’s leadership would be on the horns of a dilemma. They could unwillingly accept the status quo which would leave them effectively blockaded or they could retaliate. If they retaliated, they’d have provided a darned good prima facie for removing the Iranian regime.

Note that up to this point I haven’t mentioned any use of U. S. ground troops. Everything I’ve described is well within U. S. air and naval capabilities and at this point those forces are largely sitting Iraq and Afghanistan out. We’ve got plenty of excess capacity for that sort of activity.

The key point here is that the Iranians are not in a position of strength. They’re in a position of strength as long as they don’t attract U. S. air and naval attacks.

So far the mullahs in Iran haven’t been that stupid. So far they have played the game of brinksmanship very cannily and their smartest move is to continue to do so. Even if they were provoked drawing the rest of the world into the conflict by closing the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz would be stupid. I don’t believe they’ll do it.

8 comments… add one
  • hass Link

    There is no STANDOFF. The media are presenting this as a FALSE DILEMMA, according to which we must either sanction/bomb Iran, or else Iran will get a nuclear weapon. This is false – there is a perfectly reasonable peaceful solution widely endorsed by American and International experts: multinational enrichment on Iranian soil
    See for more details.

  • Ah, but Iran rejects that potential solution, despite all the carrots offered. So now what?

  • hass, if you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve written here over the last four years, you’ll recognize that I don’t believe that armed conflict between Iran and the United States is inevitable, indeed, I don’t believe it’s even likely unless the Iranian regime insists on it. I’ve repeatedly called for more honest dplomacy on the U. S.’s part to resolve the differences between the two countries.

    Jeff, the carrots we (or the EU 3) have offered have been pretty hollow IMO.

  • Jeff,

    “A controversial plan put forth by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to end the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program is getting increased interest from senior members of both parties in Congress and nonproliferation specialists.

    The plan, which was rejected three years ago by the Bush administration, argues for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy: Rather than trying to halt Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium, the United States should help build an internationally run enrichment facility inside Iran to replace Iran’s current facilities.

    …Iranian officials proposed building an international enrichment plant inside Iran in a letter they submitted to the United Nations [in May 2008]…In early 2005, officials from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency studied the idea of placing a facility inside Iran. Later that year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran gave a speech at the UN inviting other countries to join in Iran’s enrichment facility. U.S. officials dismissed it as insincere.”


    Regards, C

  • Despite its ties to Iran Russia, isolated, would abstain.

    I don’t think the Russians need to abstain in this situation. Indeed, given that the price of oil would sky rocket in this situation they would have a good reason to object to such a motion. Of course, the US would just have to go it alone again (effectively, as no numbeer of allies seems to mean anything unless the UN approves of US action), further damamging US diplomatic standing, which would also be in Russia’s interests.

  • Andy Link

    There is no way the US will support an enrichment facility inside Iran as long as the US believes Iran intends to build or have the capability to build a nuclear weapon. An international enrichment facility would not only take much of the financial burden off of Iran, but it would also transfer advanced centrifuge technology which Iran – a nonstarter from the US perspective and probably the Europeans as well. The US would never support what amounts to subsidizing the handover of such technology that could be used in a parallel track, covert program. Enrichment technology suppliers have long insisted that such multinational facilities be built and maintained on the soil of an NPT nuclear weapon’s state. Building one in Iran would be a break with that as well.

    Is such a deal possible? Certainly, but it’s very unlikely and will not occur until the AP is ratified and implemented in Iran – at a minimum.

  • Fletcher Christian Link

    I suspect that the problem of potential proliferation in Iran may well be solved by simply giving them nuclear weapons.


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