By Nader Uskowi
In the past 48 hours, they have been much talk, mostly of a belligerent tone, coming from Iran and countered by the Pentagon that the Strait of Hormuz, the vital waterway for oil tanker traffic, could or could not be closed. I leave the discussion on the feasibility of closing the Strait by the Iranian naval forces to our own Mark Pyruz and our readers and commentators informed on naval capabilities. Here I examine two scenarios in which Iran would be tempted, indeed forced to attempt closing the Strait.
1. As publicly proclaimed by Iran’s Vice President Rahimi on Tuesday, Iran will attempt to close the Strait, preventing the flow of “even one drop of oil” in the Persian Gulf, if the West were to impose sanctions against the country’s oil exports, the word’s third largest. The West (following the US lead) will not impose such sanctions, not anytime soon, fearing a dramatic rise in oil prices. They might, however, do the same indirectly: putting the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) on the blacklist, therefore disrupting the payments to the Iranians for any import of Iran oil. The US Congress has already passed legislation authorizing President Obama to impose sanctions against the CBI.
2. The second possibility, not much discussed in the press, is if and when the UAE, with the active support of Saudi Arabia, and the behind-the-scene support of the West, occupies the three disputed islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and the Lesser Tunbs in the Persian Gulf. The UAE has claimed the ownership of those islands and the Saudis and the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, have backed the UAE claim. If the Saudis and the GCC feel an imminent threat from Iran during a time of rising public discontent with the ruling families, which they appear to be acting as if they do, and if they can get the backing of the US and the West, they might just occupy the three islands in the coming months.
Iran can create much trouble for the occupying armies, but at the end of the day it might not be capable of taking the islands back. Such possibility would have severe, and yet unforeseen consequences inside Iran: the population is told, and generally believes that Iran is a mighty force and no power, least of all the lowly UAE, would dare occupying the three islands. But what if they do, and what if Iran would be unable to take them back? The Iranians would definitely attempt to close the Strait, but if they could not take the islands back, with the Strait closed or not, the public would lose the belief in the invincibility of their government and could turn against it sooner than anyone could pronounce the name of the three islands. And that could well be the ultimate goal of the UAE, the GCC and the Western allies.The tensions in the region are high. These are critical days, weeks and months in a region that even though has witnessed tense situations before, is now facing the most challenging times in recent memory.