By Mamdouh G. Salameh
The only sanctions able to hurt Iran are those that ban its crude oil exports, but getting the international community to agree on such sanctions is virtually impossible. The international political and economic repercussions of these sanctions would be so huge that they are not worth pondering. Even if, by the very unlikely chance, such sanctions were agreed upon by the United Nations Security Council, Iran’s retaliation would be immediate and destructive.
Iran could easily mine the Strait of Hormuz in the face of the 17 million barrels of oil a day (mbd) exported by the Arab Gulf oil producers. This would push the price of oil to more than $150-$200 a barrel (it is currently about $100 a barrel). The biggest loser, of course, would be the biggest oil consumer — namely the United States, which imports 12-14 million barrels of oil every day. This would spell an economic catastrophe for the United States in particular and the world-at-large. And, in a blatant act of defiance, Iran could even sabotage Saudi oil installations in Ras Tannura and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, thus plunging the world into the largest oil crisis in its history. That is why sanctions against Iran will not work.
Likewise, a naval blockade to enforce sanctions would prove futile and could lead to a war between the United States and Iran, with disastrous implications for the Middle East and US interests in the Gulf.
Like sanctions, war will not work either. A war could not deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program and seeking nuclear weapons. Such a war could only be waged by the United States or Israel or both jointly. The flaw in this approach is that Iran unfortunately holds all the trump cards, meaning that it could inflict so much damage on the aggressor as to make the war untenable. Moreover, the United States and Israel can’t win such a war without themselves using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran, something also unthinkable.
Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear installations in a more limited strike, but the damage would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it outright. The retaliation from Iran would be so devastating as to make Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006 look like child’s play. You may recall that Israel got a bloody nose at the hands of Hezbollah, with Iran-supplied rockets raining down on Israel and forcing 500,000 Israelis from the north of Israel to flee to the interior. One can only imagine what Iranian missiles targeting Israeli cities could do.
The United States has neither the appetite nor the forces for another war in the Middle East, particularly after its debacle in Iraq. US generals are scared witless of Israel dragging them into war with Iran, a war they know they cannot win (short of destroying Iran with nuclear weapons as they did with Japan in World War II).
US military doctrine has always been that the US will only go to war with overwhelming power and a certainty that it will win the war. Case in point is the invasion of Iraq and, previously, the invasion of tiny Granada where the US used the might of a superpower against a country that did not even have an army.
Being forced into a war with Iran is a completely different matter. Iran’s retaliation against the United States would be to plunge the world into the biggest oil crisis it has ever witnessed. Moreover, Iran would use its Shiite supporters within Iraq to destabilize the country in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
For these reasons, neither sanctions nor war against Iran will force it to relinquish its nuclear program and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Iranian regime feels it is so well-entrenched that a regime change is virtually impossible.
The flaw in the arguments used by the United States, Israel and the European Union against Iran’s nuclear program is the apparent double standard. How can the US expect to persuade Iran to relinquish its nuclear program when America has acquiesced to India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons? The US has even signed a nuclear partnership pact with India.
I am all for a nuclear-free Middle East. If Iran manages to develop nuclear weapons, then Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might also try to buy a ready-made nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Egypt and Syria might try to develop their own nuclear weapons with the help of North Korea or Pakistan or even China. A nuclear race in the Middle East will enhance the probability of a wider war in the region.
The pursuit of a nuclear-free Middle East, on the other hand, would test the sincerity of the United States about non-proliferation, not only where Iran is concerned but also for Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. If the United States wants to pursue a nuclear-free Middle East, it has first and foremost to persuade Israel to relinquish the nuclear warheads that it has. The problem is that the United States does not want Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. Even if it did, the US has no power to force Israel to give up its weapons and Israel will never succumb to pressure in this regard. And therein lies the rub.
Were France, for instance, to table a resolution to the Security Council aimed at declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free region, the permanent members and other non-permanent numbers would have to vote on it. The test for the United States would be whether or not to support the resolution, knowing full well that the resolution would affect Israel’s status as a nuclear state. This would be the real test and I bet my money on a veto vote by the United States.
Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and will face down the United States, the European Union, Israel and the world community to do it. The US and its allies can do nothing militarily, economically or with sanctions to stop Iran. I believe the US and its allies, including Israel, will end up acquiescing to a nuclear Iran. Who knows, they might even form an “unholy alliance” made up of the US, Israel and Iran to siphon the oil and energy resources of the Arab gulf countries, something reminiscent of the US invasion of Iraq.
Iran looks with envy at the great oil resources of its Arab neighbors across the Gulf and hopes that one day it can get its hands on them or at least derive some share from this great wealth. A nuclear Iran desperate for oil could grab some of the gas and oil assets of its Gulf neighbors. It could also hold its Gulf neighbors hostage by threatening to block their oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz unless they share their wealth. The United States would certainly not come to the defense of its Arab allies against a nuclear Iran.
Iran is a hegemonic power by nature. Under the administration of US President Richard Nixon, it received the support and cooperation of the United States to establish itself as policeman of the Gulf. A nuclear Iran aspires to assume that role again independently from the United States. This is where a clash of national interests between the United States and Iran could arise.
Mamdouh G. Salameh is an international oil economist, a consultant to the World Bank in Washington DC, and a technical expert for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.