Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Closing the gaps around Iranian expansion

The United States has bolstered its minesweeping capabilities in the Persian Gulf as the potential for U.S. led negotiations with Iran still threaten to collapse. The complete U.S. force structure in the region is unknown, for reasons of operational security, but the contingent of ships with mine countermeasures is now an intimidating and important presence.

The U.S. Navy is moving small, unmanned underwater vehicles to the Persian Gulf to help seek out and destroy sea mines. The Navy bought dozens of the German-made vehicles, known as Sea Fox, in February, after a request by Marine Gen. James Mattis, the head U.S. commander in the Middle East. The Pentagon also added four MH-53 minesweeping helicopters and four minesweeping ships – bringing its total to eight.

United States warships are more or less permanently present in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. fifth fleet has leased a port from Bahrain since 1995. Since then the region has been one of the most active for U.S. foreign policy and doesn’t look like cooling down for the foreseeable future.

Today the main perceived threat comes from the rising influence of Iran made possible by (and escalated by) a drastic U.S. military drawdown in the Middle East. The completion of the Iraq war has removed thousands of Western troops and created somewhat of a vacuum in the region. Iran has viewed this as an enormous opportunity to re-establish influence throughout the Middle East.

The Iranian strategic imperative of controlling its western front in Iraq was effectively attained with a strong Iraqi Shiite government voted into power in 2010. Tehran won’t have to worry about an anti-Iran regime rising up along this border so long as Nouri al-Maliki remains in power. Gone are the days when Saddam Hussain’s Iraq intimidated and fought a brutal power struggle with Iran. However there is still much Iran needs to accomplish to achieve hegemony over the region.

Their nuclear program is a calculated method to deter larger countries, especially the United States, from interfering in their expansionist plans. Whether or not Tehran eventually develops a bomb is beside the point. Right now the threat of working on creating a nuclear weapon is enough to deter the U.S. from becoming too arrogant towards them.

Many countries around the region are worried about Iran becoming more powerful. Saudi Arabia is especially concerned as Iranian Persians are an historical enemy to the Arabs and the Emirate still has a large amount of precious oil to extract in the future. If the Saudi royal family were to have their long-time American patron withdraw even more forces from the Middle East it fears that Tehran would pressure the Kingdom. If Tehran were to develop a nuclear weapon, some sort of nuclear blackmail is not out of the question. Many of the other Arab governments feel the same way and are quietly working to limit Iranian expansion. Even Israel is making plans to interdict Iranian ambitions, playing an effective “bad-cop” to the other negotiating country’s “good cop”.

Exactly how all this will play out is unknown. Western and Arab diplomats continue to sit at endless meetings across from increasingly competent Iranian negotiators, and neither party appears to break ground. In response to the deadlock, other measures are being steadily built up on the side-lines. Sanctions against the Iranian regime are increasing; their goal is to strangle Tehran into reversing its trajectory and giving up its nuclear program. Some countries are participating in these sanctions but, just as with all rules, there are inevitably ways to bend or circumvent them entirely.

It has been a known potential for many years now that Iran can threaten the Strait of Hormuz. Given their proximity to the strait and the difficulty of defending the whole waterway indefinitely, this threat has to be taken seriously.

About 20 percent of world oil supplies pass through the 21 nautical mile wide bottleneck, although much of this energy is destined for Asian markets not European or American. Therefore the international community is taking important measures to protect this strait from even the threat of danger.

News from the Persian Gulf today indicate that Western and Gulf military planners are focusing intently on what they can do to limit Iranian movements. Apparently militaries from more than 20 nations will come together September 16-27 to participate in a defensive exercise in the international waterways of the Middle East, U.S. Central Command announced in a press release July 17.

Gen. James N. Mattis, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, said the exercise would focus on a hypothetical threat from an extremist organization to mine the international strategic waterways of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. However Gen. Mattis explained that exercise activities will not extend into the Strait of Hormuz.

Considering the intense public relations campaign of a few months ago, it would be difficult to believe these manoeuvres are not intended to prepare for possible Iranian aggression. Yet it was Pentagon Press Secretary George Little that said on July 17 that the exercise is not aimed at delivering a message to Iran. He said it is aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in the international waterways of the Middle East and promoting regional stability in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

The closure of the critical strait would cripple the already weak global recovery by cutting off energy imports. Holding these exercises should give oil investors confidence that freedom of movement through the strait will be maintained regardless of military interference. However, the presence of international warships is not impressing fidgety markets. Any murmur from Iran about mining the waters or closing the strait through other means still sends oil prices moving upwards.

Placing more minesweepers in the Persian Gulf will ensure that the strait is quickly reopened if Tehran decides to give the word to scatter shipping mines. But this is an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff measure. Tehran knows perfectly well that the international community cannot stop it from closing the strait initially, but it can force it back open. The way the markets are already acting, reopening the strait could be too late even if the clearance takes only a few days to widen a shipping lane enough for tankers to cruise. Significant damage to the global market would have been done and oil prices, although quickly dropping away from their high, would remain much higher than today and potentially stay there for some time.

Any mining option should be a last resort for Iran as it would negatively affect their already struggling economy as well. Iran is not well known for exports besides pistachios, carpets and crude oil. Pipelines out of Iran are poorly suited to export oil to their current Asian markets if they cannot flow to the Persian Gulf. Blocking the flow of Iranian crude to a country like China that depends more every day on imported energy is a real problem for Beijing. Needless to say, the sanction regime is not being followed by China as they’re interests with Iran are economic, not military, and any Iranian nuclear shadow would not stretch over China in the short to medium future.

However the international community forces Iran to negotiate, the build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf will be only a single variable. P 5+1 countries (those participating in the negotiations with Iran) are ensuring that any leverage Iran currently has in the Persian Gulf is limited. It will be crucial to watch for any additional minesweepers en-route to the region or the addition of larger forces. Such an increase could herald more kinetic measures being prepared.

However, the exercises planned for later this year are unlikely to be the dogs of war barking for release. They are an example of the extremely rational military forecasting minds that never leave human lives up to chance and fate. 

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