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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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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