The standoff between Iran and the United States at the Strait of Hormuz took threatening forms at times during the past 10 days but has since blown off, and the denouement shows once again that the saber-rattling between the two parties can be misleading. While the Russians are an excitable lot and see the inevitability of a US-Iran war, the Chinese are keen observers and could make out the lay of the land better.
The temperature shot up when on Dec 14 the US House of Representatives passed Pentagon’s defence bill, which inter alia targetted foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank. (The fine print is, of course, that it is Barack Obama’s discretion to do the actual ‘targetting’ and he is intelligent enough to know he can’t ‘target’ Moscow and Beijing — or Berlin and Tokyo.) Iran threatened that it would allow “not a drop of oil” to pass through the Strait of Hormuz if its oil exports were targetted for sanction.
The Iranian military added that closing the strait was “as easy as drinking water.” (No other military man can use such a metaphor but an Iranian.) Iran duly began a 10-day naval exercise in the Persian Gulf and the US dispatched a battle group to the region “always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation.” War seemed imminent — that is, to those who are new to the ways of Iran and the US.
Both parties played a game of brinkmanship, which they have mastered through past 3 decades. Iran confronted the west with its capacity to shut down the strait of Hormuz, while US displayed its formidable naval might. Now they have ‘disengaged’ with Iran seeking a resumption of the talks within the framework of 5+1 and Europe desisting from applying sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and sensible voices in the US strategic community openly counselling good sense to Obama loud enough for Tehran to read every word of it. If I were in Obama’s shoes, I would nominate Ambassador Thomas Pickering to do a spot of back channel diplomacy with Tehran. (Who knows, Obama may still do that.)
The point is, both Iran and US are heading for crucial elections. And they are going to be keenly fought, highly contentious elections. The shadow boxing has begun over the Majlis elections in Iran in March, the outcome of which will set the tone of the presidential election early 2013. Obama also faces a tough election. The focus of the election campaign, especially for Obama, is going to be on the ‘state of the nation’ rather than their acrimony with each other.
But in the hurlyburly of an election year, the “sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action” is difficult to entirely dispense with. That’s so for Obama when he hears Newt Gingrich pledging to appoint the neocon superstar John Bolton as his secretary of state. And it is no less for Tehran, as warring camps lock their horns for gaining control of the soul of the Iranian revolution at a juncture when epic storms are raging all around in the region.
The helpful plus in all this is that the Iranians have a fairly good grasp of the US political scene and the shenanigans of American politicians, while the dangerous minus is that what actually goes on within the Iranian cauldron remains the ‘unknown unknown’ for the Americans. Pickering puts it aptly: “The US must set out on a relentless search for a better way to get at this seemingly unknowable regional power.” His opinion piece in WaPo is here.
Posted in Diplomacy.
– January 2, 2012