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    Middle East
     Jan 19, 2012

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Red lines in the Strait of Hormuz
By George Friedman

The United States reportedly sent a letter to Iran via multiple intermediaries last week warning Tehran that any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz constituted a red line for Washington.

The same week, a chemist associated with Iran's nuclear program was killed in Tehran. In Ankara, Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani met with Turkish officials and has been floating hints of flexibility in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

This week, a routine rotation of United States aircraft carriers is taking place in the Middle East, with the potential for three carrier strike groups to be on station in the US Fifth Fleet's area of operations and a fourth carrier strike group based in Japan about a week's transit from the region.

Next week, General Michael Dempsey, chairman of the Joint


Chiefs of Staff, will travel to Israel to meet with senior Israeli officials. And Iran is scheduling another set of war games in the Persian Gulf for February that will focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' irregular tactics for closing the Strait of Hormuz.

While tensions are escalating in the Persian Gulf, the financial crisis in Europe has continued, with downgrades in France's credit rating the latest blow. Meanwhile, China continued its struggle to maintain exports in the face of economic weakness among its major customers while inflation continued to increase the cost of Chinese exports.

Fundamental changes in how Europe and China work and their long-term consequences represent the major systemic shifts in the international system. In the more immediate future, however, the US-Iranian dynamic has the most serious potential consequences for the world.

The US-Iranian dynamic
The increasing tensions in the region are not unexpected. As we have argued for some time, the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent decision to withdraw created a massive power vacuum in Iraq that Iran needed - and was able - to fill.

Iran and Iraq fought a brutal war in the 1980s that caused about 1 million Iranian casualties, and Iran's fundamental national interest is assuring that no Iraqi regime able to threaten Iranian national security re-emerges. The US invasion and withdrawal from Iraq provided Iran an opportunity to secure its western frontier, one it could not pass on.

If Iran does come to have a dominant influence in Iraq - and I don't mean Iran turning Iraq into a satellite - several things follow. Most important, the status of the Arabian Peninsula is subject to change. On paper, Iran has the most substantial conventional military force of any nation in the Persian Gulf.

Absent outside players, power on paper is not insignificant. While technologically sophisticated, the military strength of the Arabian Peninsula nations on paper is much smaller, and they lack the Iranian military's ideologically committed manpower.

But Iran's direct military power is more the backdrop than the main engine of Iranian power. It is the strength of Tehran's covert capabilities and influence that makes Iran significant. Iran's covert intelligence capability is quite good. It has spent decades building political alliances by a range of means, and not only by nefarious methods.

The Iranians have worked among the Shi'ites, but not exclusively so; they have built a network of influence among a range of classes and religious and ethnic groups. And they have systematically built alliances and relationships with significant figures to counter overt US power. With US military power departing Iraq, Iran's relationships become all the more valuable.

The withdrawal of US forces has had a profound psychological impact on the political elites of the Persian Gulf. Since the decline of British power after World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of the Arabian Peninsula's elites and therefore of the flow of oil from the region.

The foundation of that guarantee has been military power, as seen in the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The United States still has substantial military power in the Persian Gulf, and its air and naval forces could likely cope with any overt provocation by Iran.

But that's not how the Iranians operate. For all their rhetoric, they are cautious in their policies. This does not mean they are passive. It simply means that they avoid high-risk moves. They will rely on their covert capabilities and relationships. Those relationships now exist in an environment in which many reasonable Arab leaders see a shift in the balance of power, with the United States growing weaker and less predictable in the region and Iran becoming stronger.

This provides fertile soil for Iranian allies to pressure regional regimes into accommodations with Iran.

The Syrian angle
Events in Syria compound this situation. The purported imminent collapse of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria has proved less imminent than many in the West imagined. At the same time, the isolation of the Assad regime by the West - and more important, by other Arab countries - has created a situation where the regime is more dependent than ever on Iran.

Should the Assad regime - or the Syrian regime without al Assad - survive, Iran would therefore enjoy tremendous influence with Syria, as well as with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The current course in Iraq coupled with the survival of an Alawite regime in Syria would create an Iranian sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

This would represent a fundamental shift in the regional balance of power and probably would redefine Iranian relations with the Arabian Peninsula. This is obviously in Iran's interest. It is not in the interests of the United States, however.

The United States has sought to head this off via a twofold response. Clandestinely, it has engaged in an active campaign of sabotage and assassination targeting Iran's nuclear efforts. Publicly, it has created a sanctions regime against Iran, most recently targeting Iran's oil exports. However, the latter effort faces many challenges.

Japan, the number two buyer of Iranian crude, has pledged its support but has not outlined concrete plans to reduce its purchases. The Chinese and Indians - Iran's number one and three buyers of crude, respectively - will continue to buy from Iran despite increased US pressure.

Despite US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's visit last week, the Chinese are not prepared to impose sanctions, and the Russians are not likely to enforce sanctions even if they agreed to them. Turkey is unwilling to create a confrontation with Iran and is trying to remain a vital trade conduit for the Iranians regardless of sanctions.

At the same time, while the Europeans seem prepared to participate in harder-hitting sanctions on Iranian oil, they already have delayed action on these sanctions and certainly are in no position politically or otherwise to participate in military action. The European economic crisis is at root a political crisis, so even if the Europeans could add significant military weight, which they generally lack, concerted action of any sort is unlikely.

Neither, for that matter, does the United States have the ability to do much militarily. Invading Iran is out of the question. The mountainous geography of Iran, a nation of about 70 million people, makes direct occupation impossible given available American forces.

Air operations against Iran are an option, but they could not be confined to nuclear facilities. Iran still doesn't have nuclear weapons, and while nuclear weapons would compound the strategic problem, the problem would still exist without them. The center of gravity of Iran's power is the relative strength of its conventional forces in the region. Absent those, Iran would be less capable of wielding covert power, as the psychological matrix would shift. 

Continued 1 2  

China weighs 'right side of history' in Gulf (Jan 18, '12)

Iran has pay back in mind (Jan 14, '12)

Pakistan courts step into the fray

2. In signal to Israel, US delays war games

3. China weighs 'right side of history' in Gulf

4. Angry Birds head for China

5. God's promises and man's preferences

6. US, Thailand tussle over terror plot

7. Afghanistan: What is truly deplorable

8. The limits of reform in Myanmar

9. Philippines emerges from economic shade

10. Taiwan's opposition licks its wounds

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Dec 17, 2011)


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