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    Middle East
     Jan 19, 2012


Page 2 of 2
Red lines in the Strait of Hormuz
By George Friedman

An air campaign against Iran's conventional forces would play to American military strengths, but it has two problems. First, it would be an extended campaign, one lasting months. Iran's capabilities are large and dispersed, and as seen in Desert Storm and Kosovo against weaker opponents, such operations take a long time and are not guaranteed to be effective.

Second, the Iranians have counters. One is the Strait of Hormuz. The second is the use of its special operations forces and allies in and out of the region to conduct terrorist attacks. An extended air campaign coupled with terrorist attacks could increase distrust of American power rather than increase it among US allies, to say nothing of the question of whether Washington could sustain

 

political support in a coalition or within the United States itself.

The covert option
The United States and Israel both have covert options as well. They have networks of influence in the region and highly capable covert forces, which they have said publicly that they would use to limit Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons without resorting to overt force.

We assume, though we lack evidence, that the assassination of the Iranian chemist associated with the country's nuclear program last week was either a US or Israeli operation or some combination of the two. Not only did it eliminate a scientist, it also bred insecurity and morale problems among those working on the program. It also signaled the region that the United States and Israel have options inside Iran.

The US desire to support an Iranian anti-government movement generally has failed. Tehran showed in 2009 that it could suppress demonstrations, and it was obvious that the demonstrators did not have the widespread support needed to overcome such repression.

Though the United States has sought to support internal dissidents in Iran since 1979, it has not succeeded in producing a meaningful threat to the clerical regime. Therefore, covert operations are being aimed directly at the nuclear program with the hope that successes there might ripple through other, more immediately significant sectors.

As we have long argued, the Iranians already have a "nuclear option", namely, the prospect of blockading the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 35% of seaborne crude and 20% of the world's traded oil passes daily. Doing so would hurt them, too. But failing to deter an air or covert campaign, they might choose to close off the strait. Temporarily disrupting the flow of oil, even intermittently, could rapidly create a global economic crisis given the fragility of the world economy.

The United States does not want to see that. Washington will be extremely cautious in its actions unless it can act with a high degree of assurance that it can prevent such a disruption, something difficult to guarantee.

It also will restrain Israel, which might have the ability to strike at a few nuclear facilities but lacks the force to completely eliminate the program much less target Iran's conventional capability and manage the consequences of that strike in the Strait of Hormuz. Only the United States could do all that, and given the possible consequences, it will be loathe to attempt it.

The United States continues, therefore, with sanctions and covert actions while Iran continues building its covert power in Iraq and in the region.

Each will try to convince the region that its power will be supreme in a year. The region is skeptical of both, but will have to live with one of the two, or with an ongoing test of wills - an unnerving prospect.

Each side is seeking to magnify its power for psychological effect without crossing a red line that prompts the other to take extreme measures. Iran signals its willingness to attempt to close Hormuz and its development of nuclear weapons, but it doesn't cross the line to actually closing the strait or detonating a nuclear device.

The United States pressures Iran and moves forces around, but it doesn't cross the red line of commencing military actions. Thus, each avoids triggering unacceptable actions by the other.

The problem for the United States is that the status quo ultimately works against it. If Assad survives and if the situation in Iraq proceeds as it has been proceeding, then Iran is creating a reality that will define the region.

The United States does not have a broad and effective coalition, and certainly not one that would rally in the event of war. It has only Israel, and Israel is as uneasy with direct military action as the United States is. It does not want to see a failed attack and it does not want to see more instability in the Arab world.

For all its rhetoric, Israel has a weak hand to play. The only virtue of the American hand is that it is stronger - but only relatively speaking.

For the United States, preventing the expansion of an Iranian sphere of influence is a primary concern. Iraq is going to be a difficult arena to stop Iran's expansion. Syria therefore is key at present. Assad appears weak, and his replacement by a Sunni government would limit - but not destroy - any Iranian sphere of influence.

It would be a reversal for Iran, and the United States badly needs to apply one. But the problem is that the United States cannot be seen as the direct agent of regime change in Syria, and Assad is not as weak as has been claimed. Even so, Syria is where the United States can work to block Iran without crossing Iran's red lines.

The normal outcome of a situation like this one, in which neither Iran nor the United States can afford to cross the other's red lines since the consequences would be too great for each, would be some sort of negotiation toward a longer-term accommodation.

Ideology aside - and the United States negotiating with the "axis of evil" or Iran with the "Great Satan" would be tough sells to their respective domestic audiences - the problem with this is that it is difficult to see what each has to offer the other.

What Iran wants - a dominant position in the region and a redefinition of how oil revenues are allocated and distributed - would make the United States dependent on Iran. What the United States wants - an Iran that does not build a sphere of influence but instead remains within its borders - would cost Iran a historic opportunity to assert its longstanding claims.

We find ourselves in a situation in which neither side wants to force the other into extreme steps and neither side is in a position to enter into broader accommodations. And that's what makes the situation dangerous. When fundamental issues are at stake, each side is in a position to profoundly harm the other if pressed, and neither side is in a position to negotiate a broad settlement, a long game of chess ensues. And in that game of chess, the possibilities of miscalculation, of a bluff that the other side mistakes for an action, are very real.

Europe and China are redefining the way the world works. But kingdoms run on oil, as someone once said, and a lot of oil comes through Hormuz. Iran may or may not be able to close the strait, and that reshapes Europe and China. The New Year thus begins where we expected: at the Strait of Hormuz.

(Published with permission from STRATFOR, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company. Copyright 2012 Stratfor.)

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