A disturbing development — which is a surprise only in terms of the length of time the confrontation has taken to mature — occurred this week over Iran’s nuclear plans. Of all of the world’s present “hot spots,” this is the one most likely to lead to World War III.
Interestingly enough, the exchange in communications between the US and Iran has taken place at Christmas time; a meaningless occasion in Iran, and a time at which the obviously sensitive news reports can be buried amid feel-good stories in America.
For those who have missed the fun — and I don’t speak in jest; I’m deadly serious — Iran has responded to the UN-authorised sanctions due to take effect on Sunday by stating that should the said sanctions be implemented, it will close the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly a third of the world’s oil supply must pass as sea freight from the Middle East.
The US has simply stated that should Iran pursue such a course of action, it will respond with military force.
And that should worry people.
Most people know that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear capacity; the only area of disagreement is over its intent.
Iran says it wants nuclear energy for the peaceful generation of domestic electricity supplies; most of the rest of the world — including certain countries trying to shield Iran from Western retribution — believe it seeks nuclear weaponry capability.
Certainly, utterances from the lunatic Iranian dictator, Ahmadinejad, to the effect that he seeks to “wipe Israel of the face of the Earth” tend to underscore the latter rather than the former.
One of the first things I’d point out is that the sanctions due to be implemented on New Year’s Day are, on paper, authorised by the United Nations Security Council.
The problem is that both Russia and China abstained from the vote.
Russia, traditionally, has been a friend to Iran; Russia also has an awful lot of oil buried under the Siberian Steppes. It stands to lose relatively little from any conflict over oil.
Russia also has an awful lot of nuclear warheads.
China, on the other hand, is a mischief-maker; nobody really knows what its real intentions are, but at face value, China doesn’t exactly present as a model international citizen, with its bellicose activities in south-east Asia, its emergent alliances in South America and in Africa, and its economic stunts designed to show others who’s the boss.
China, too, has many nuclear warheads, which will be interesting should it ever attempt to retake Taiwan by force: the USA is obliged at law to defend Taiwan from China, and the day must come when China attempts to “reunify” with the renegade island republic.
China’s abstention from the vote on sanctions against Iran is perhaps less troubling than that of Russia; nevertheless, the Chinese seek to keep their options open on this issue, and in many respects that’s a very bad thing.
The dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions isn’t about politics; it’s about power.
On the one hand, the Iranians point to US activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and say “Look! The US is an international criminal! How dare they…”
Which conveniently overlooks the fact that a) Afghanistan was a proven harbour, training ground and safe-haven for terrorists, b) ten years ago the USA was justifiably seeking retribution for the despicable attacks of September 11, and c) it was Tony Blair of the UK, not George W. Bush of the USA, who provided the fabricated “intelligence dossier” for the Allies to invade Iraq.
But on the other hand, the fundamentalist Muslim regime in Iran has never — never — made any secret of its desire to see the destruction of Israel; the only thing different about the current Iranian leadership is the fact it’s said so explicitly.
So, who do you believe?
Do you believe Iran, with its limitless supply of cheap and easily recoverable oil, that it needs nuclear energy for electricity?
Or do you believe everyone else (except the Russians and the Chinese) and decide that Iran not only wants to become a nuclear weapons state, but wishes to use those weapons?
Or do you take the Russian/Chinese view, which essentially boils down to “nothing to see here people…move on…” and have faith that everything will be OK in the end?
I’d dismiss the Russian/Chinese position for the pap that it is; it isn’t even their position. Should push come to shove, neither country will be sitting around waiting to see what happens.
Insofar as the dispute over the Strait of Hormuz is concerned, however, it needs to be pointed out that the Strait isn’t just located in international waters, but that it is one of the world’s major sea routes, and pivotal to world trade — and not just in oil.
Were the Iranians to close the Strait it would, technically, be an act of war.
So what happens?
To me, it was always inevitable that Iran’s standoff with the West would end in some kind of armed conflict; the only questions were around timing and the shape such a conflict might take.
Iran — like so many countries historically run by fanatics — has been steadfast and resolute in its objectives.
Just as Hitler sought to rearm Germany under the noses of his European neighbours in the 1930s (and made Winston Churchill — the only political figure who saw through the appeasement thrown at Hitler and called the danger emanating from the Third Reich for what it was — look like an eccentric fool), so too has Iran attempted to play the world community for fools.
A couple of years ago, at about this time of year, an article appeared in the respected British conservative opinion magazine, The Spectator, in which prediction was made of an Israeli attack on Iran “in the new year” and that the attack was “likely to be nuclear.”
(Forgive me being a little vague; not knowing The Red And The Blue would ever come along at the time, I didn’t keep my copy of the magazine. The quotations I’ve made, however, stuck in my mind the day I read the article, and are accurate).
The central tenet was this: Israel — if the US didn’t do it first — would never allow Iran to go nuclear; rather than wait to receive a warhead detonated over Tel Aviv, Israel would use a neutron bomb as a depth penetration charge to pre-emptively destroy enrichment centrifuges that at the time were being installed by Iran deep beneath the ground.
It went on to add that such an attack might just be what Iran wanted, canvassing the idea that it may have bought a couple of nuclear warheads “off the shelf” and would respond with these to any attack by Israel. I don’t subscribe to that portion of The Spectator‘s case.
Even so, by all verifiable accounts, the Iranian nuclear programme is long beyond the point of underground centrifuges, and almost at the point where a call must be made: is the intent peaceful nuclear energy, or offensive nuclear weaponry capability?
To me, the belligerent threat by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz — and thereby attempt to plunge the world into economic depression — goes a long way toward providing the answer.
Iran can’t say it wasn’t warned: it has resisted all attempts by the world community and in particular, independent international bodies governing the responsible use of atomic energy, to verify its claims about peaceful electricity generation.
Of course sanctions were going to be imposed, and enforced.
Yet Iran now openly portends to behave like an international spoilt brat and attempt to punish those who seek to hold it to account for its actions.
And, as I said earlier, closing a sea lane in international waters is tantamount to an act of war.
Unless cooler heads prevail, and there is no closure of the Strait and thus no military action — and when talking about Iran, it’s difficult to see how cooler heads could prevail — I see this playing out one of two ways.
Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz, and the USA attacks Iranian forces and — possibly — Iran itself; remember, with Iraq finished and Afghanistan being scaled back, the US has deep reserves of available troops, military hardware, and firepower.
Scenario one: Iran is repelled, and the Strait of Hormuz is reopened in short order; Russia, China and other nations allow the US and Iran to sort the matter out; and disruption to world trade and the flow of oil is minimal and the event, overall, is brief.
Scenario two: the US attacks Iran as per the above scenario; Russia and China come to Iran’s aid militarily; and someone — someone — lobs a nuclear warhead into the equation.
That’s the risk. That’s the danger. Iran calculates America doesn’t have the heart or the brains or the stomach to take the risk.
Yet someone will take the risk; and if the USA doesn’t take it directly, Israel will, believing (correctly, I think) that it faces an existential threat. And if Israel acts first, the US will defend it to the hilt.
Either way, the prospect of nuclear escalation is there; it is real, and this is one potential conflict that isn’t necessarily as predictable in terms of its outcome as other American military adventures have been.
I’m quite open about the fact I’m a friend of Israel and a friend to the Jewish people, but my views in this regard are informed by fact, not fanaticism.
Iran has forced the international community to a point where a great danger and — to use the words of Churchill — a gathering storm are about to be played out.
A dangerous game indeed; and the outcome far from certain.