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Friday, Jan 20, 2012, 11:08 am

Heading Toward War? U.S.-Iran Relations Continue to Deteriorate

By David Szydloski

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Iran conducting naval war games in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month.
(Photo by Ebrahim Noroozi/AFP/Getty Images)

Following new sanctions against Iran included in last month's defense spending, U.S. relations with Iran have continued to deteriorate. While critics of U.S. policy  warn that we may be headed for war, some pundits are calling openly for U.S.-led regime change. 

As I wrote previously, the new sanctions on Iran are extremely broad, affecting not only the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) but all financial institutions that do business with the CBI. Sanctions on the CBI can also potentially limit Tehran’s ability to sell its crude oil, as many of those transactions are facilitated by the bank.

Iran’s response, predictably, has been one of defiance. Speaking against the sanctions during his current tour of Central and South America, Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad argued that the U.S. policy toward Iran is simply an attempt to destabilize the country, perhaps to justify a future armed attack. Similarly, the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has recently warned Arab states that they should not “put themselves in a dangerous position in aligning themselves too closely to the U.S.”.

However, it is Iran’s threat to blockade the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, in which 35% of the world’s seabourne crude oil supply (17 million barrels) passes through each day, that has raised the most concerns in the west.

U.S. policy toward Iran is sending mixed messages. On one hand, the Obama administration has in several instances tried to dampen rising tensions. When the CBI sanctions were working their way through the Senate, the president expressed concern that they might alienate allies. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner argued that sanctions could drive up oil prices and actually provide Iran with more resources to pursue its nuclear program. Dr. Juan Cole also notes that the postponement and potential cancellation of the U.S.-Israeli war games, "Austere Challenge 2012," may have been a decision to avoid signalling the threat of a joint U.S.-Israeli military attack in the region. 

On the other hand, the new sanctions have only made Iran less inclined to come to the table for negotiations—such as the six-party talks set to resume in Turkey later this year. A U.S. intelligence official actually acknowledged to the Washington Post recently that the goal of the sanctions was to destabilize the country, although these remarks were later qualified. 

This is not the first time that dire U.S. rhetoric on Iran's nuclear capabilities has smacked of hypocrisy. In May 2010, the U.S. blocked a Brazil-Turkey plan, similar to one proposed by the U.S. in 2009, for Iran to ship out some of its low-enriched uranium fuel for 20% enriched fuel to be used for the Tehran Research Reactor, because the U.S. felt that Iran would be left with too much low-enriched uranium.

Also, the continued attacks on Iran’s nuclear program have made the country more suspicious of the U.S.—whether or not they have played a role in the attacks. The U.S. has recently missed an opportunity to vigorously condemn the murder of Mostafa Rahimi Roshan, who worked at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility, as an act of terrorism. [Glen Greenwald has a great write-up on this issue, which should be read in its entirety.]

As Greenwald has argued repeatedly, the U.S. media continually exaggerates the threat that Iran and its nuclear program present to the rest of the world. For example, frequent misunderstanding surrounds the Fordow enrichment facility, which can enrich uranium to 20% much more quickly and efficiently than Iran's Natanz facility. When Iran declared the Fordow facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2009, many news reports claimed that it only did so because the facility's "secrecy" had already been compromised. Gareth Porter has written a great article directly attacking this untruth:

The idea that Iran was planning to enrich uranium secretly at Fordow assumes that the Iranians were not aware that US intelligence had been carrying out aerial surveillance of the site for years. That is hardly credible in light of the fact that the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), the armed opposition group with links to both US and Israeli intelligence, had drawn attention to the Fordow site in a December 2005 press conference - well before it had been selected for a second enrichment plant.

Currently, the Fordow facility is active while under IAEA surveillance with all nuclear material in the facility remaining “under the agency’s containment.”

Another often overinflated concern is the potential blockading of the Strait of Hormuz. But, while Iran's increase in naval exercises in the strait are worrisome, the country lacks the naval capability to do more than temporarily interrupt oil shipments for a short period of time while risking the potential of having its entire navy, and a good chunk of its air force, destroyed. Iran clearly benefits much more in threatening a blockade—and sending oil prices through the roof—than in fulfilling its threat.

Despite the fact that Iran may not  be the noble victim that its government paints it to be (just consider its recent crackdowns on dissident reporters), the United States now has the opportunity to more actively engage Iran diplomatically for the benefit of both countries and the rest of the world. George Thielmann, Senior Fellow at the Arms Control Association, has written a brief on this issue which thoughtfully considers how the U.S. engaged other countries with which it had difficult relations in the past—such as Stalin’s U.S.S.R and Mao’s China. He suggests that the 1972 Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could be a template for a similar agreement with Iran to ensure that problems in high-tension areas like the Strait of Hormuz can be resolved without escalation.

UPDATE: (1/23/2012) The previous draft of this article said that 35% of the world's crude oild supply travels through the Strait of Hormuz each day. In fact, it should have read 35% of the world's seabourne crude oil. The 17 million barrels that travels through the strait each day makes up 20% of the overall world supply of crude oil. (hattip Dad)

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