Jan 1, 2012

Hormuz flashpoint

The announcement on Thursday of a major arms deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States comes at a time when regional tensions centred on the Straits of Hormuz, are rising by the day. There is no direct linkage between the $30 billion sale and the current crisis as the deal was planned over a year ago, but Iran will see the symbolism. The origins of the problem lie in the Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz to oil-carrying traffic if the USA tightens sanctions still further against it; as a part of the American response to what it sees as an emerging nuclear capability on the part of Iran. The American response to the ‘Iranian threat’ is that it is a reflection of the ‘irrational’ behaviour of the Tehran government. This is not the first time that this vital seaway has been the focus of international tension. Both Gulf Wars saw increased naval activity by coalition navies, and the USA, Britain and others maintain standing patrols to protect the Straits which see an average of 13 tankers a day passing through carrying 33 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipment, representing 17 percent of all oil traded worldwide. The Iranian threat to close the Straits as easily ‘as drinking a glass of water’ may be bravado as the Iranian navy would be no match for the forces quickly deployed against it – but the Iranians have naval assets which could severely interdict traffic. To strengthen their point the Iranians in the last week carried out naval exercises and deployed a surveillance aircraft to monitor a US carrier passing through the Strait. On Saturday there were conflicting reports regarding the firing of a long-range missile by the Iranians – with the semi-official ‘Fars’ news agency saying a missile was fired, but an Iranian navy spokesman saying it had not – but would be in the coming days. The seriousness of the situation must not be underestimated. From the Iranian perspective they are surrounded by hostile states bent on their overthrow or destruction. This is not mere paranoia, and although Iran is militarily no match for any of the states ranged against it, there is a real possibility that conflict could break out if Iran judged the threat to itself to be existential. America will aggressively protect its interests in the region, and will support Saudi Arabia which is the historic enemy of the Iranians. There may be a sense of desperation in the Iranian threat as the sanctions begin to bite, and the situation is on a hair-trigger. The Straits of Hormuz are one of the few places in the world which has the potential to spark major conflict. Cool heads rather than hot words are the need of the hour.

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