Iran is rolling out one defiant step after another these days. In recent days it has begun ten days of naval games in the Straits of Hormuz while warning that it would close those straits to oil shipments if it is attacked. It has warned Turkey that, if attacked, it will respond by attacking NATO facilities on Turkish soil. It has announced the successful construction of its first nuclear fuel rod. It has tested a medium range missile. The recent upsurge in sectarian violence and polarization in Iraq seems to reflect in part Iranian efforts to deepen relations with militant Shiites next door.Close the Strait of Hormuz if attacked? Or merely inconvenienced?
Iran also seems to be stepping up its efforts to forge relationships with some Latin American countries whose leaders are not overly fond of the United States. The great A-jad has a four country tour planned this month as Iran looks to build economic and security relationships that might help it evade sanctions.
Iran has kicked off a 10-day naval exercise in international waters, near the Strait of Hormuz. From the AP:The exercises, dubbed "Velayat 90," could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels in the area.
The war games cover a 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) stretch of sea off the Strait of Hormuz, northern parts of the Indian Ocean and into the Gulf of Aden, near the entrance to the Red Sea, state TV reported.
The drill will be Iran's latest show of strength in the face of mounting international criticism over its controversial nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Tehran denies those charges, insisting the program is for peaceful purposes
Those "U.S. Navy vessels in the area" are part of the John C. Stennis carrier battle group, which has been operating in the area for several weeks. In fact, an E-2C Hawkeye from the carrier's air group flew the last American mission over Iraq last weekend.Iran reportedly plans to use its exercise to show off military hardware that could be used to close the Strait of Hormuz, including submarines, anti-ship missiles, drones, manned aircraft and surface vessels. The drill took on added significance when an Iranian politician recently boasted that Iran might actually close off the strategic waterway during the drill. However, the Iranian foreign ministry quickly backed off that claim, although military officers have reaffirmed Tehran's ability to carry out such actions.
Close the strait as part of the exercise? Or this:
Iran's naval exercise comes on the heels of its recent "capture" of a U.S. RQ-170 reconnaissance drone. Tehran claims it successfully hacked into the aircraft's guidance signal, forcing it to land in Iranian territory. Military spokesmen say Iran is demonstrating its full range of military capabilities during the exercise, utilizing surface vessels, submarines, aircraft, drones and other assets.
But, as we've pointed out before, care must be taken in estimating Tehran's tactical abilities. For example, Iran's naval forces look impressive enough on paper, until you consider that many naval units only rarely put to sea, including its diesel submarines. There's also the critical matter of airpower; Tehran would quickly lose air superiority over the strait in a battle with the U.S., leaving ships, subs, and land-based missile sites even vulnerable to attack.Still, Iran doesn't need to win a protracted struggle with American forces to effectively close the Strait of Hormuz. Once the first tanker hits a mine, or is struck by a missile, insurance underwriters will stop issuing coverage for commercial traffic in the region, reducing the flow of crude to a trickle--with a corresponding (and predictable) impact on oil and gas prices. Even a brief interruption in oil traffic through the strait would send prices skyrocketing towards the $200 level mentioned into today's analysis.Why would the mullahs choose such a path? For a variety of reasons, including retaliation for new sanctions being imposed by the United States. By closing the strait--even for a few days--Iran believes it can strike a telling blow against the west, and undercut U.S. efforts to punish Tehran. It would also serve another, key geopolitical purpose: demonstrating that Iranian power is on the ascendancy, while America slowly withdraws from the Persian Gulf region.Late today, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul said new sanctions against Iran were "acts of war." Go figure. So far, the Obama Administration seems willing to stay the course, and risk the consequences of further adventurism by Tehran. In reality, they have little choice. Washington has been ignoring the Iranian menace for far too long and we're facing the potentially dire consequences of our own inaction.
Suffice it to say that Ron Paul is an idiot; this statement is another example of why he has no business in the POTUS business. But I digress.
The real issue seems to be the sanctions. Sanctions rarely (if ever) work against totalitarian regimes. So what's going on here? Michael Ledeen:
Big news today from Iran, confirming once again that the hapless regime in Tehran proceeds down its death spiral. The first is the spectacular collapse of the national currency, which has lost 35% of its value since September. The second headline, in an extraordinary press conference by the effective commander of the revolutionary guards, is the admission that the incarcerated leaders of the green movement have so much powerful support that the regime dares not prosecute them.He continues:
The crash of the rial him has been linked to the latest round of sanctions, the ones aimed against the Iranian central bank. These are, at least for the moment, unilateral American sanctions, but their import is global, since they are aimed at anyone doing business in Iran’s oil sector. Those transactions invariably go through the central bank, and the American sanctions confront would-be purchasers of Iranian crude oil with an unpleasant choice: either do business with America or do business with Iran.
The ayatollahs, in their usual blustery way, have pooh-poohed the effect of the sanctions, insisting that Iran is so strong that even such harsh measures will have little effect. But nobody in Iran believes that. There are long lines at the money changers, and one leading government supporter puts the matter in chilling perspective: Iranian industry “cannot continue to exist” with the rial at today’s level.
As the Washington Post’s man in Tehran says, this is a devastating blow to the regime, both because it further exposes their inability to cope with the Great Satan—whose destruction, after all, is the core mission of the Islamic Republic—and because the Iranian people know that their oppressors are making out like bandits[.]
[T]he regime is failing to meet the basic needs of the Iranian people (nothing really new there; strikers at the Shiraz Telecommunications Factory haven’t been paid for 26 months), and the people don’t like it.Walter Russell Mead seems to agree:
This debacle coincides with an amazing confession of weakness from the highest level of the regime: Ali Saeedi is the supreme leader’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards, and since Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei commands the Guards, Saeedi’s words are authoritative. Asked why Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi–the two Green Movement leaders who have been held in isolation for more than ten months—Saeedi publicly stated that it can’t be done, because the two have such powerful support. The opposition leaders can’t be prosecuted, he said, “because they have supporters and followers” as well as “a few turban-heads [clerics] who continue to back elements within the sedition.”
Indeed, Karroubi’s wife has been released from captivity, and she communicates her husband’s thoughts to the Green Movement. Most recently, this consisted of instructions to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for March. This is yet another direct challenge to Khamenei, who has always boasted (often falsely) that Iranian elections produce huge turnouts.
Those who believe the Green Movement has been crushed need to reflect on these developments, which seem to me to prove the opposite: the regime fears the movement, doesn’t dare take decisive action against its leaders, and faces further protests against a background of mounting failure.
And yet, Khamenei’s killers continue to attack us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we still have not openly supported his opponents, any more than we have supported Assad’s opponents in Syria. How many Americans have to die at the hands of this wicked regime before we help the Iranian and Syrian people put an end to their long national agony?
[T]his looks like the defiance of a cornered animal rather than the insolence of a rising power. Iran’s chief regional ally, Syria, continues to disintegrate. Hamas, the radical Palestinian group whose previous links with Iran gave the unpopular Shiite Persians greater standing in the mostly Sunni Arab world, is shifting from a Syria-Iran alliance toward one with Turkey and possibly Egypt. The rial continues to fall as sanctions hit the weak economy. The recent decision to stop fuel subsidies will make the government less popular at a time of great stress. As protests sweep Russia, Putin seems to be shifting toward a more cautious foreign policy, one that offers little comfort to Iran. China, too, is unlikely to offer anything more than a bit of political cover at the UN.Let's hope so.
The wisest course for the US would appear to be steady as we go: continue ratcheting up sanctions, watch for danger signs in Iranian-Latin dealings, strengthen the coalition, increase the direct pressure on Tehran and press for the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria.
Recent headline arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not to mention a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jordan this week, suggest that the US and its allies have something like this in mind. It would be fatuous and naive to suppose that sanctions will inevitably change Tehran’s nuclear calculation or lead it to a more realistic regional policy; but it would be foolish not to recognize that the situation keeps moving in our favor.
Push, watch, wait, prepare: those are the four things the US needs to do in 2012. Tehran is off balance and flailing; the Supreme Leader is not as happy with President A-jad as he once was and the fissures in the Iranian ruling elite seem to be widening.
The US goal of stopping the Iranian nuclear program without war remains a stretch, but the US position continues to improve while Iran’s options narrow.