The Coming War with Iran?
John Bolton, United States ambassador to the United Nations,
waves to reporters after a Security Council meeting
on an Arabbacked draft resolution condemning
the Israeli military offensive in Gaza at the
United Nations headquarters in New York on
November 11, 2006.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently predicted that Israel has an “optimal window” in which to attack and destroy Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. The window opens the day after the November 4 presidential election and closes with the swearingin of George W. Bush’s successor on January 20. We believe that a brief geopolitical assessment of the Iranian nuclear standoff suggests Bolton’s view may well be correct, as Israel’s options are plainly running out. Signs during the weekend of July 1920, when the U.S. joined in direct talks with Iran, suggest that a confrontation may be avoided, but it wouldn’t be the first time that hopes flared up, only to be extinguished by intransigence.
In a June 24 interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph Bolton predicted that the twin issues governing the Knesset’s decision would be the proximity of the U.S. election and that the Sunni Arab world would equally welcome an end to Shia Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “The Israelis have one eye on the calendar because of the pace at which the Iranians are proceeding both to develop their nuclear weapons capability and to do things like increase their defenses by buying Russian antiaircraft systems,” says Bolton. He notes that the Israelis are also “obviously looking at the American election calendar.” Bolton suggests a preNovember 4 strike is unlikely, as “there’s no telling what impact it could have on the election.” But Bolton highlights Israeli fears that regardless of who wins in November, the upcoming election “could preclude military action happening for the next four years or at least delay it.”
The interview followed a Pentagon report that revealed an Israeli military exercise over the eastern Mediterranean in early June with more than 100 Israeli F15s and F16s. According to U.S. officials, the maneuvers involved flying 900 miles, about the distance from Israel to Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Was this Israeli saberrattling? The Israelis would only say its air force “regularly trains for various missions.” Saberrattling or not, it is a clear sign that the nuclear standoff with Iran is approaching a potentially dramatic denouement.
While one U.S. intelligence report concluded last year that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program, Israeli intelligence claims that assessment is wrong, and has urged preparations for a preemptive strike. Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli military analyst, confirmed: “It [Israel] has been practicing operations for a long time.”
In midJune, perceiving how quickly events were moving, the E.U. dispatched Javier Solana, its foreign policy chief, in a lastditch attempt to buy off Iran with a raft of economic incentives. When the proposal failed, the E.U. felt it had no other alternative than to impose its own sanctions, after months of procrastination not wanting to lose an important market to China. On June 23 those sanctions were duly imposed, including freezing the assets of Bank Melli, Iran’s biggest bank. Saeed Laylaz, an independent analyst in Tehran, asserted that this would isolate the Iranian economy, making it even more dependent on Chinese trade. The E.U. sanctions are the latest addition to the three sets already imposed by the U.N. and those levied unilaterally by the U.S. However, the E.U.’s intervention may simply be too little, too late.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently told Der Spiegel that international sanctions alone could not succeed. Asked about a prospective preemptive Israeli strike, Olmert said: “Israel has long had the opinion that the Iranians have a military program which they will fight to carry on. Why do you need to enrich uranium if you don’t have the facilities that can make use of this uranium for civilian purposes? The information that I have is serious enough to justify my concern about the Iranian program.”
According to David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, by year’s end Iran will have produced around 500 kilograms of lowenriched uranium he believes Tehran only needs around 700 kilograms to begin weaponsgrade uranium enrichment for a bomb. While Iran claims it is only enriching uranium for the purpose of domestic electricity production, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not help perceptions by stating that one of his regime’s chief objectives is to “wipe Israel off the map.”
Israel has watched the ineffectual diplomatic posturing of the U.N. and the E.U. with growing concern, as Iran’s uranium enrichment program has continued apace. Further, the Knesset is clearly fearful that Barack Obama’s pledge to hold direct talks with Iran “without preconditions” might become formal U.S. policy. Even European officials, desperate to avoid a military solution, perceive the na”ivet’e of Obama’s position. Francs Heisbourg, a Parisbased military analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, summed it up: “Dropping a unanimous Security Council condition would simply be interpreted by Iran and America’s allies as unconditional surrender, and America’s friends would view this as confirmation of America’s unreliability.” Though McCain is more bullish on Iran, Israel believes his election would mean more delays.
But Israel also understands something the U.N., the E.U., and even some U.S. generals don’t appear to grasp: how a Westernbacked Israeli military strike to stifle Shia Iranian ambitions is likely to play, beneath the public facade of the usual rhetoric of the Middle East’s Sunni Arab leadership. We raised this point, often overlooked by Western observers, in our feature, “E.U. and Iran: No Chance for Sanctions To Work” ET, January 2008. We see no reason to change our opinion that an Israeli or Western airstrike is the only realistic way to prevent Iran’s ideologicallydriven extremist regime from pursuing its publicly stated “foreign policy commitment” toward Israel. Our point about the lack of Arab Muslim support for Iran was in response to the fact that over 12 Sunni Muslim states, nervous over Iran’s regional ambitions, have consequently jumped on the nuclear bandwagon. It seems their confidence in U.N.style diplomacy with Iran matches our own.
Sure enough, young Islamist hotheads will be in the streets of Middle Eastern capitals in the event of a strike. For appearance’s sake, Arab Muslim leaders will condemn Israeli actions in the Western media. But ultimately, as Bolton dryly observes, “There’ll be public denunciations but no action.” Just beneath the rhetoric one will likely detect an enormous collective sigh of relief, from Riyadh to Amman to Cairo.
Israel knows its options are shrinking. With the U.S. presidency in transition from November to January, it perhaps has an opportunity to strike with much less regional fallout than many in the West believe. But if Israel were to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, just what would be the likely effect on the current world energy crisis?
The statistics are staggering and telling. Of the six countries with more than 75 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, five are in the Persian Gulf: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the biggest of all, Saudi Arabia.
Possessing more than 55 percent of world reserves, they produce about 25 million barrels per day, about 29 percent of the world’s daily production of 85 MMbbl/d. Notwithstanding recent claims about a Saudi oil production “twilight,” the region, mired in war and hostilities, is grossly underperforming in energy production. How many people know that Iran, with the world’s second largest natural gas reserves, is actually a net importer of gas? With almost all of its important gas reservoirs offshore, Iran – thanks to the international sanctions – has not been able to procure the technologies to exploit them. Being a radical Islamic republic has a large penalty associated with it.
Still, the five main players in the Middle East, along with some smaller neighbors, manage to export 18.2 million barrels per day.
But the Strait of Hormuz tells a far more compelling story. Along with the Strait of Malacca and to a far lesser extent, the Bosporus, it represents the world’s most vital geopolitical energy chokepoint. Hormuz is in a class by itself. Of the total world oil consumption, about half 43 million barrels per day is moved transnationally by tanker. Of this, 40 percent 17 million barrels per day pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States imports about 10 percent of its oil needs from the area China gets about 15 percent. Neither comes close to Japan, which gets 77 percent of its oil from the Middle East. Russian oil moving east through pipelines under construction is both uncertain and years away, thanks to many Russian problems. Japan must be shaking in its boots for fear of any Israeli military action in the Middle East.
Even a temporary closure of Hormuz will make the current oil price runup look like a picnic.
Recent prices include components that are not normal in any discernible economic analysis. Of the $135 oil, about $50 can be understood by conventional lifecycle economics. Our modeling suggests that at least $30 of the additional price is because of environmental regulations, taxes, speculated taxes, and permits. The remaining $55 is due to geopolitical tensions, fear, and resulting speculation. The Middle East, headed by Iran, is already contributing the lion’s share of this extra component of the price of oil, and Iran has served as a barometer for recent oil price fluctuations.
Of course, Iran will not sit still should Israel attack, and will lash out in the only way it believes can hurt Israel’s patrons. According to Reuters AlertNet Fact Box, “Iran has already admitted deploying antiaircraft and antiship missiles on Abus Musa, an island strategically located near the Strait’s shipping lanes.” A second series of retaliation will involve an escalation of attacks against U.S. military forces in Iraq.
Closing the Strait of Hormuz will cause the price of oil to soar to more than $200, perhaps even higher. Almost immediately thereafter, the Strategic Petroleum Reserves of the United States, the European countries, and China will release large quantities of oil.
Reopening the Strait will become an international priority, and the U.S. Navy, with the overt support of Europe and China, will be marshaled in a massive show of force to police the waterways. Iranian defenses will be obliterated. What many fail to grasp is that guerrilla warfare in Iraq, annoying as it may be, is not conventional warfare. The Iraqi forces folded in days. Iran’s military cannot fare much better in a headon confrontation, and guerrilla warfare does not work offshore. The Strait will reopen within a short time, but without exports from Iran, still reeling from the humiliation of the Israeli attack and the inability to retaliate properly.
There is a precedent for the reopening action, and it occurred the last time Hormuz was closed. Twice, in 1984 and 1987 during the “Tanker War” between Iraq and Iran, oil shipments through the Strait dropped by a quarter, forcing the U.S. to secure the shipping lanes.
So if the U.S. and Europe as the only ones with such capacity move quickly following an Israeli attack, Armageddon will not occur, and with Iran’s nuclear ambitions neutralized, there may be a number of ancillary effects.
Iran’s defiance over the last several years, manifested by its nuclear ambitions, has had a catalytic effect. It needed to be relevant in the region. With a sense of frustration and loss of face, lacking support from its Islamic brethren, the Ahmadinejad government will most likely collapse following an Israeli strike. And a youthful, far more secularly minded Iranian society may force the theocratic mullahs to retreat.