With 10 days of naval exercises by Iran having just been completed, including the testing of long-range ballistic missiles, the naval commander for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, has announced further activities next month. Fadavi has said that the drill in February will be “different compared to previous exercises held by the IRGC”.
The exercises, coupled with the warning that Iran could close the strait of Hormuz, the narrowest point in the Persian Gulf, through which a fifth of the world’s traded oil passes, has now encouraged the United States and Israel to announce that they are to carry out extensive joint maneuvers in the region. The U.S. and UK have said they will act to keep the shipping lanes open. Philip Hammond, the British defense secretary, said during a visit to Washington: “Disruption to the flow of oil through the strait of Hormuz would threaten regional and global economic growth. Any attempt by Iran to close the strait would be illegal and unsuccessful.”
The planned U.S./Israeli maneuvers will involve thousands of troops and will test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets. Israel and the U.S. have developed the Arrow anti-ballistic system, which is designed to intercept Iranian missiles in the stratosphere.
At the end of January, it is anticipated that European Union foreign ministers will agree to impose an embargo on Iranian oil imports. The action follows a report in November by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which supported western allegations that Iran had worked on nuclear weapon design.
While the U.S. and EU believe tough action is needed in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program there is nevertheless a risk of damage to the shaky economies of the developed world. Iran is an important oil producer and exports around 2.3 million barrels a day. Even though there are guarantees in place from Saudi Arabia to make up any shortfall in Iranian oil supply, this would use up virtually all of the spare capacity from the world’s biggest producer. The last time that happened, in 2008, oil prices climbed to almost $150 a barrel. Prices are currently running at around $110 a barrel. A leap to $150 a barrel would, without question, lead to a deep global recession in 2012.
It is clear then that the stakes are high for all sides in the dispute. The threat of loss of supply may be enough to trigger recession in the West, while the reality of choking off the Persian Gulf certainly would result in recession.
In Iran, parliamentary elections are scheduled for March this year with a presidential election planned for 2013. The one is in many respects a rehearsal for the other, with many observers seeing the March elections as a showdown between supporters of President Ahmadinejad on one side and conservatives close to Ayatollah Khamenei on the other. The fact is that all independent, left and progressive forces have already openly protested about the conditions in which the parliamentary elections are taking place by announcing their decision to boycott them altogether.
Khamenei himself has acknowledged the sensitivity of the poll in March, stating that “To some extent, elections have always been a challenging issue for our country,” and going on to ask people “to be careful that this challenge does not hurt the country’s security”.
This is clearly a coded warning to any reformist and opposition groups not to “rock the boat,” especially in the face of the external threat from the U.S., EU and Israel. Although more than 5,000 candidates have put their names forward for the parliamentary elections, the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, the body of conservative clerics and lawyers in charge of vetting all candidates before elections, will publish the names of those approved by the regime. In the past, the Council has blocked many, including former MPs, from running. It was indeed announced this week that 500 of the 5,000 candidates registered for the March election have already been disqualified. This includes about 20 outspoken and independent MPs serving in the current outgoing parliament.
The election is the first significant test of the regime’s ability to bring people to the polls and control the outcome in its favor since the 2009 presidential election, which saw widespread vote-rigging and the “election” for a second term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the face of well-documented opposition claims that they had outpolled the incumbent president. In 2009 the regime responded by deploying brute force to silence the mass protest movement. Nearly 100 protesters were killed and thousands of activists were imprisoned. The opposition candidates have been detained since that time and denied any right to speak openly on any issue.
The recent announcement that Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, an Iranian-American born in Arizona in 1983, is to be sentenced to death for confessing to being a CIA agent will do little to improve relations between the U.S. and the regime. With U.S. Congress financial sanctions aimed at Iran’s oil trade, due to come into effect in June, the stage is set for ongoing drama in the Persian Gulf and the potential for wider economic and military impact if all sides cannot be brought to the discussion table.
No one can be in any doubt that this situation, if not resolved, could lead to a major conflagration of unimaginable proportions and with consequences that will reverberate throughout the Middle East and across the world. Everything possible must be done to ensure that a military conflict is prevented, including the withdrawal of U.S. and British naval forces from the Persian Gulf.
Photo: The aiircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush passes through the Strait of Hormuz, Oct. 9, 2011. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Betsy Knapper.