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The United States of America and Iran are currently involved in a high stakes game of chicken in the Strait of Hormuz. America maintains that the narrow waterway passage between Oman and Iran is critical to shipping of millions of barrels of crude oil every day to feed the insatiable appetite of western countries for energy. Iran has long maintained its sovereignty over the strait. Whatever enjoyment each side is deriving from the stare down, there will be many losers when conflict breaks out, and it will. Here is why.
The current tension over the Strait of Hormuz masks the real issue which is that Iran is an up and coming nation eager to challenge the military superiority that Israel has enjoyed in the region for well over five decades now. With growing alarm from Israel, Iran has steadily modernized its nuclear technology as well as the missiles to deliver warheads over long range. Third generation Sejil and Shahab missiles are capable of travelling beyond 2,000 km (1,243 miles), which would bring warheads well inside Israel in the event of war. But Iran has maintained for years that its nuclear ambition is for peaceful purposes only.
Both the US and Israel, meanwhile, have argued that Iran is aiming to arm itself with nuclear capability that poses real threat to the very existence of Israel. The thickening tension has merely increased in the last several weeks. The US has pushed for tougher trade sanctions against Iran. President Barack Obama signed into law a new set of US sanctions on Iran last month that target Iran's oil export as well as foreign firms doing business with Tehran. These sanctions also limit importation of technology that could be used to support Iranian nuclear projects.
In the dying days of 2011, Iran threatened the closure of the Strait of Hormuz to all international shipping traffic including oil shipment. America immediately countered the Iranian threat by sending its warships and aircraft carriers to the Strait of Hormuz, putting them on standby for any eventuality. The tension was ratcheted up last week when Iranian patrol speed boats shadowed US navy ship the New Orleans to within 500 yards before breaking up the chase. The assassination in a bomb blast of Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan by unknown assailants added to the anger. If the Israeli secret agents from the Mossad did not carry out the hit themselves, they likely cheered whoever did so.
The interesting thing here is that both Iran and the US are not spoiling for a war right now. With an ongoing conflict in Afghanistan that has sapped its reserve, and over which the American people are already weary, President Barack Obama has no belly for starting a war in the Middle East. Furthermore, Obama has entered into reelection campaign to retain the presidency from a raucous Republican bunch eager to take it away from him. Simply, America is flat broke with no money left in the kitty to finance another war.
That said, the real wild-card in this game is Israel which is rightly concerned with the growing threat from Iran. The problem is that Israel will act unilaterally to start a military action against its arch enemy, hitting Tehran's suspected nuclear sites, key military installations and even the military intelligence nerve center of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. From an Israeli military point of view, the calculation is very simple. If Iran retaliates militarily by targeting Israel, presumably using its long range missiles, the full weight of America will be pulled into the
vortex of conflict. President Obama will have little option but to support Israel especially since his Republican opponents in the contest for White House will chorus pro-Israel pronouncement.
In the end, the harder Iran attempts to look tough in the face of growing tension, the better it suits Israel’s strategic military plan to go after Iran now rather than later. The alternative is for Tehran to ignore all provocations from America, make a complete U-turn to embrace a detente with the America and the world. Should that occur, it may very well avert the looming crisis with the potential for a very destructive war.
But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has built his entire persona and political fortune thumbing his nose at America and the world. Even he knows that when missiles start flying, Iran will be a big loser, and he will go down with it. But he cannot be seen to be reaching out to the Americans, a gesture that could be interpreted by Iranian hard liners as a sign of weakness. That will signal the end of Ahmadinejad's career.
In any event, like a hunter and the hunted, the parties in this conflict need each other in order to maintain their identities. Iran needs to be seen to hate America and Israel in order to maintain its sway over a restive domestic audience. Israel needs to level Iran into a pile of rubble in order to show that it is still the top dog in the Middle East, the only one with nuclear weapons no less. America, meanwhile, is the leviathan trolling the high seas to maintain its global military might. And so it will come to pass that Iran will lie in ruins from days of aerial bombing.
Unfortunately, the world will be no better off because billions of barrels of oil will cease moving, sending the price of oil sky-high, and the fragile global economy into a tailspin. Israel will only be further isolated in all of this.