January 15th, 2008
sorry, just a little long....
The revelation of a naval threat from Iran in the Strait of Hormuz just before the president got on board Air Force One for his trip to the region was fortuitous, to say the least. The Iranians insisted that there was nothing unusual about the incident, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said that "Some political factions in the U.S. are pursuing adventurism to help Bush to spread Iran-phobia in the region. U.S. officials should apologize to Iran, regional countries and the American people." This probably won't happen, but he undoubtedly will be grateful that the Iranians said there was nothing out of the ordinary about the incident. If this incident was routine, and if the U.S. war games have any predictive ability, it means that the Iranians are staging routine incidents, any one of which could lead to a military confrontation in the strait. Bush undoubtedly will be distributing the Iranian statement at each of his stops. |
Leaving aside the politics for a moment, the Iranian naval threat is a far more realistic, immediate and devastating threat to regional interests than the nuclear threat ever was. Building an atomic weapon was probably beyond Iran's capabilities, while just building a device -- an unwieldy and delicate system that would explode under controlled circumstances -- was years away. In contrast, the naval threat in the Strait of Hormuz is within Iran's reach right now. Success is far from a slam dunk considering the clear preponderance of power in favor of U.S. naval forces, but it is not a fantasy strategy by any means.
And its consequences are immediate and affect the Islamic states in ways that a nuclear strike against Israel doesn't. Getting the Saudis to stand against Iran over an attack against Israel is a reach, regardless of the threat. Getting the Saudis worked up over cash flow while oil prices are near all-time highs does not need a great deal of persuading. Whatever happened in the strait Jan. 6, Bush has arrived in the region with a theme of widespread regional interest: keeping the Strait of Hormuz open in the face of a real threat. We are not certain that a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier could be sunk using small swarming ships. But we are certain that the strait could be closed or made too dangerous for tankers for at least a short period. And we know that, as in land warfare, finding the bases that are launching ships as small as speedboats would be tough. This threat had substance.
By dropping the Iranian nuclear threat and shifting to the threat to the strait, Bush moves the Iran issue from being one involving the United States and Israel to being one that excludes Israel but involves every oil producer in the region. None of them wants this to happen, and all of them must take the threat seriously. If it can establish the threat, the United States goes from being an advocate against Iran to being the guarantor of very real Arab interests. And if the price Arabs must pay for the United States to keep the strait open is helping shut down the jihadist threat in Iraq, that is a small price indeed.
This puts Iran in a tough position. Prior to the issuance of the NIE, the Iranians had shifted some of their policies on Iraq. The decline in violence in Iraq is partly because of the surge, but it also is because Iran has cut back on some of the things it used to do, particularly supporting Shiite militias with weapons and money and urging them to attack Sunnis. It also is clear that the limits it had imposed on some of the Iraqi Shiite politicians in the latter's dealings with their Sunni counterparts have shifted. The new law allowing Baath Party members to return to public life could not possibly have been passed without Iranian acquiescence.
Clearly, Iran has changed its actions in Iraq as the United States has changed its stance on Iranian nuclear weapons. But Iran shied away from reaching an open accommodation with the United States over Iraq following the NIE. Factional splits in Iran are opening up as elections approach, and while the Iranians have shifted their behavior, they have not shifted their public position. The United States sees a shift of Iran's public position as crucial in order to convince Iraqi factions, particularly all of the Shiite parties, to move toward a political conclusion. Reining in militias is great, but Washington wants and needs the final step. The NIE shift, which took the nuclear issue off the table, was not enough to do it. By raising the level of tension over a real threat -- and one that has undebatable regional consequences -- the United States is hoping to shape the internal political discussion in Iran toward an open participation in reshaping Iraq.
Iran doesn't want to take this step for three good reasons. First, it wants to keep its options open. It does not trust the United States not to use a public accord over Iraq as a platform to increase U.S. influence in Iraq and increase the threat to Iran. Second, Tehran has a domestic political problem. In the same way that Bush saw an avalanche of protest from his supporters over the NIE, the Iranians will see resistance to open collaboration. Finally, the Iranians are not sure they need a public agreement. From their point of view, they have delivered on Iraq, the United States has delivered on the NIE and things are moving in a satisfactory direction. Why go public? The American desire to show the Iraqi Shia that Iran has publicly abandoned the quest for a Shiite Iraq doesn't do Iran a bit of good.
The Iranians have used the construction of what we might call a guerrilla navy as a lever with the United States and as a means to divide the United States from the Arabs. The Iranians' argument to the Arabs has been, "If the United States pushes us too far, we will close the strait. Therefore, keep the Americans from pushing us too far." The Americans have responded by saying that the Iranians now have the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, potentially regardless of what the U.S. Navy does. Therefore, unless the Arabs want to be at the mercy of Iran, they must join the United States in an anti-Iranian coalition that brings Iran under control. In its wooing of the Arabs, Washington will emphasize just how out of control the Iranians are, pointing out that Tehran is admitting that the kind of harassment seen Jan. 6 is routine. One day -- and the day will be chosen by Iran -- this will all get really out of hand.
The Iranians have a great deal to gain from having the ability to close the strait, but very little from actually closing it. The United States is putting Iran in a position such that the Gulf Arabs will be asking Tehran for assurances that Iran will not take any action. The Iranians will give assurances, setting the stage for a regional demand that the Iranians disperse their speedboats, which are purely offensive weapons of little defensive purpose.
The United States, having simplified the situation for the Iranians with the NIE and not gotten the response it wanted, now is complicating the situation again with a completely new framework -- a much more effective framework than the previous one it used.
In the end, this isn't about the Strait of Hormuz. Iran isn't going to take on the U.S. Navy, and the Navy isn't quite as vulnerable as it claims -- and therefore, the United States obviously is not nearly as trigger-happy as it would like to project. Washington has played a strong card. The issue now is whether it can get Iran into a public resolution over Iraq.
The Iranians appear on board with the private solution. They don't seem eager for a public one. The anti-Iranian coalition might strengthen, but as clever as this U.S. maneuver is, it will not bring the Iranians public. For that, more concessions in Iraq are necessary. More to the point, for a public accommodation, the "Great Satan" and the charter member of the "Axis of Evil" need to make political adjustments in their public portrayal of one another -- hard to do in two countries facing election years.