Fire in Syria…Smoke in Hormuz

The Sterett Destroyer escorts the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz, 14 February 2012. (Photo: REUTERS – Jumana El Heloueh)
Published Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Amid the mutual escalation between Iran and Western powers, the world has been fretting about what has come to be called the Strait of Hormuz Crisis. Will Iran close off the strategic waterway? How would Washington react to such an action? Will the current crisis spiral into a limited confrontation or a regional war?
Fears of a military confrontation are certainly valid, given the scale of the changes and turmoil sweeping the region and the international order as a whole. Nevertheless, neither the Iranian or American sides seem to want a direct confrontation. Both would rather employ a policy of attrition, using their allies as proxies. They see that as a more effective option and also a less costly and risky one.

This attrition, however, is not only physical. It extends to the sphere of legitimacy. Washington takes the view that stoking the Sunni-Shia sectarian rivalry undermines Iran’s legitimacy in the region, while economic sanctions and political pressure on the regime erodes its legitimacy at home. Iran, for its part, sees challenging the American presence in the region as an effective means of delegitimizing both the US-led campaign against it, and the regimes that are complicit in it.

It is hard to avoid comparisons with the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s between the US and the Soviet Union. That was certainly far more serious than the current crisis seems, given that nuclear weapons were involved. But this does not negate the latter’s destructive potential, especially now that Russia has become a party to the current crisis, as a number of Russian officials have indicated.
During the Cuban crisis, both sides found themselves in a predicament. Neither wanted a direct clash. Washington therefore decided to institute an embargo on Cuba, and abandoned the option of invading the island or bombing the Soviet missile bases there. President Kennedy even amended the rules of engagement at sea to forbid the firing even of warning shots without a direct order from him personally. On the other side, the Russians refrained from breaking the naval blockade or completing the construction of their missile bases in Cuba.

Ultimately, because of the balance of terror, each side drew red lines for the other: a Soviet red line was drawn around Cuba (the Soviet Union would not stand for a United States invasion) and a US red line was drawn to prevent the transfer of nuclear-capable missiles to its hemisphere.

In the case of Hormuz, Iran declared publicly that if its vital interests were threatened, it would proceed to close the Strait. This came amid escalating Western economic pressure and oil sanctions against Tehran, ostensibly because of its nuclear program. Washington responded that it would never allow Iran to block the waterway through which 40 percent of the world’s crude oil imports pass.
This was accompanied by the staging of military displays by both sides, in a kind of silent duel. Iran held military exercises, and the US sent aircraft carriers back to the Gulf.

The most striking part of this interaction, however, was US President Barack Obama’s letter stating that Washington had no desire to escalate the situation, and the subsequent postponement of joint military maneuvers between the US and Israel.

If these two steps indicate anything, it is that Washington has no intention of clashing directly with Tehran at this time. The US will therefore remain wary of increasing the pressure on Tehran to a point that would provoke it to take the dramatic decision to close the Strait – in other words, to go to war. Accordingly, Iran can be said to have succeeded, for now, in delineating a red line for international pressure.

Yet it is simplistic to think that Washington was unaware that Tehran had red lines which it would allow no-one to cross, even if that triggered a regional confrontation. The Americans know that Iran can adjust to economic pressure, as long as this pressure stops short of destroying its energy and banking sectors. That would deny it enormous revenues required both for domestic and foreign aims, and thus place grave strains on the regime’s domestic and international legitimacy.

The Iranians are likely to have learned much from the Soviet Union’s past mistakes. They understand that from Washington’s perspective, the destruction of the Iranian economy is the most attractive course. Accordingly, they will not hesitate, at the crucial moment, to shift the confrontation to an arena on which they are capable of countering Western economic warfare – the military arena, specifically the Strait of Hormuz. It is here that Iran possesses a range of options, from restriction to outright closure.

In that case, what is the purpose of the intensifying and ongoing Western escalation against Iran? It seems to be linked to a number of considerations:

  • First, Western escalation is partly meant to prevent Iran from intervening in support of the straitened Syrian regime, by distracting Tehran and limiting its options.
  • Second, increased escalation from Western powers meets a perceived need to send positive messages to Israel about the seriousness of Western misgivings regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Third, this increased escalation reaffirms to Washington’s allies that the Middle East remains among its major priorities, contrary to recent signals, including Obama’s recent unveiling of a new defense strategy that focuses on the Asia-Pacific region.
  • Fourth, the West’s escalation is a further way of trying to prevent Tehran from influencing the process of change underway in the Arab world.

In the absence of a decision to wage a direct conventional confrontation, the US would seem to be sticking to its strategy of containment – while toughening and deepening it, as can be seen with Syria. To Washington’s mind, a showdown with Tehran now would risk squandering the gains which the Americans and their allies believe they have made so far in Syria.

So long as the defeat of Syria appears more achievable than ever before, then efforts and resources must be concentrated there. And the defeat of Syria would have far worse consequences for Iran than any economic sanctions, however harsh. Worse even, perhaps, than a military attack on its nuclear facilities.

But a new problem comes into play at this point. Doesn’t Tehran, like Russia, consider the fall of the Syrian regime to be a red line too? The Iranian position seems clear. Syria is indeed a red line for Iran. But it differs from the others in terms of Iran’s capacity to respond if it is crossed. Tehran cannot enter into the Syrian conflict at the same level and in the same way that it could in a direct engagement.
What Iran can do is up the ante over other contentious issues with Western powers, or over regional points of friction with the US’ clients, by becoming bolder and more confrontational. Here, the crises of Syria, the Strait of Hormuz, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen all come into play, as does the conflict with Israel.

The complexity of the situation forces the chief players to make careful and constant calculations about the level of tensions and the point at which they could trigger conflict. But there is a high risk of miscalculation here given the degree of complexity, the depth and speed of the changes occurring in the region, and the intrusion of sectarian and historical passions into rational decision-making.
Miscalculation could lead to devastating war.

The furor may be over Hormuz, but its source is Syria. In other words, the smoke is in Hormuz, but the fire is in Syria. All concerned would do well to understand that.

Housam Matar is a Lebanese researcher of International Relations.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!

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