The most recent threat by Iran to block the Strait of Hormuz and choke off the flow of the world’s oil supply, while frightening to some, really represents a golden opportunity.
Truly, it’s been a decade of cat-and-mouse games between U.N. inspectors trying genuinely to peek under the hood of Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program and Iranians misdirecting, parsing, spinning and lying, all the while putting up new secret nuclear facilities and acquiring nuclear components from the global black market.
Over 10 long years, the international community has alternated between the extremes of totally ignoring Iran, to being engaged but exasperated by a lack of good options, to saber-rattling threats of war. From a political standpoint, it’s been a manic decade.
The political classes in the West and Asia seem to be divided into two camps: the advocates for diplomacy and negotiation, or, the proponents of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But then a gift arrived, ironically, from Iran.
Senior Iranian political and military officials in December threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz and prevent oil from flowing to world markets. Iran’s threat came in response to teethy new U.S.-European sanctions being signed.
These sanctions squeeze Iran’s Central Bank from being able to sell Iran’s oil. They penalize those members of the global community who continue to trade with Iran.
This is not an act of war (as Iran claims), but it will extract a damn painful economic price. So Iran has set a new “red line” with the West, should the latest sanctions hit.
Iran has said it will attack the global economy and hurt the West and her Asian allies by creating a spike in oil prices and cutting available supplies by way of blocking the vulnerable Strait of Hormuz.
Vital choke point
The Strait of Hormuz is by far the world’s most important choke point through which 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide passes. The threat betrays a mounting desperation within Iran and it gives the West options it has lacked to date. How so?
Iran has promised to militarily block the Strait if the new sanctions take effect. With this act, Iran will have taken overt aggression against not just the West but the world.
So where is the gift in this tale?
The world economy can hardly be held hostage to Iran’s whims and U.S. leaders will be left with the responsibility of unblocking the Strait of Hormuz using force. So now instead of there being just two unattractive options for dealing with Iran (diplomacy vs. military force) — a new, “third way” is available.
As soon as the first Iranian mines hit the water to block the Strait of Hormuz to stop oil flows, Iran would have committed an act of war against the world economy. The international community and the U.S. would have great latitude for military action to free the Strait.
How could this unfold? A military plan would have to include the elimination of the offending Iranian ships or subs laying mines and the destruction of missiles that might menace shipping. Most of Iran’s navy would find itself gracing the bottom of the sea. Major U.S. Marine amphibious landings on Iran’s coast and Army airborne drops deep inside the sparsely populated Hormozgan region would seize and create a physical cordon, an occupied buffer zone between Iran and the Strait.
It would be a very long time before the West gave this territory back to Iran.
The threat to the Strait and shipping would be eliminated. The United States would have the advantage of “strategic surprise.” The Iranian leadership is comfortable today in the false notion that the seizure of sovereign Iranian territory is inconceivable.
Most important, by seizing Hormozgan, the West would have a forward base from within Iran to conduct attacks on the known nuclear sites. No longer could Iran find a sense of security in how difficult it would be for Israel or the West to conduct a long-range air attack from thousands of miles away on its nuclear sites.
Iran’s threat to block the Strait has given the West far clearer options. Played right, the current situation can be made into a game changer. By changing the calculus and dynamics of the negotiation, the current impasse can be broken. A diplomatic solution to the crisis might become far more attractive to Iran.
No sane person wants a war. As long as the pressure on Iran is real and mounting, diplomacy will likely have a much better chance of succeeding.
There now exists the opportunity for the West to leverage upon Iran’s threat, and make it clear that should Iran block the Strait (or should any conflict arise), it will mean the punitive seizure of Iran’s southern state of Hormozgan.
Perhaps in this way a military conflict between the West and Iran can be averted and a peaceful deal done. This may be the best way today to end the threat and, to finally, end Iran’s rogue nuclear weapon adventure.
Paul Kane is a Marine veteran of Iraq and a former fellow of Harvard’s International Security Program. He wrote this for McClatchy Newspapers.