COMMENTARY | As ludicrous as it sounds, the next war may occur between two countries that have no formal dispute with each other. But Iran's leaders may be so desperate that they could be forced into seizing several islands owned by Oman to shut down the Straits of Hormuz. Such a desperate bid is a response to crippling world sanctions targeting Iran's nascent nuclear program.
Most Americans have never heard of Beit al-Ghanam and Ras Mussandam, but they may within a few months. Those are two small islands owned by Oman that foreign oil tankers head past in a passage through the Straits of Hormuz, according to Amir Taheri with the New York Post in his article "Iran's Self-Defeating Saber Rattling."
Why would Iran attack Oman, inviting certain international condemnation and a likely military response? The country feels that it may have no option, thanks to crippling economic sanctions passed to force Iran to abandon its quest for a nuclear bomb. As stated by the Central Bank Governor of Iran, such sanctions are already a "declaration of war," as reported by Taheri.
Why is Iran desperately trying to shut down the Straits of Hormuz now? The United States and Western European countries already had sanctioned Iran for years. But now President Barack Obama signed a law on New Year's Eve "cut[ing] financial institutions that work with Iran's central bank off from the U.S. financial system, blocking the main path for Iran to receive payments for its crude. The EU is expected to impose new sanctions by the end of this month, possibly including a ban on oil imports and a freeze of central bank assets," according to Reuters.
Taheri points out that more than half of all Iranian government income and foreign earnings comes from oil. To borrow an old phrase, the world has Iran "over a barrel."
Iran once hoped that China would provide an escape hatch, making up for the huge loss of market share. But China's economy may be slowing a bit, certainly not expanding enough to make up for the sanctions elsewhere. Taheri also notes how China is demanding cheaper prices to offset the higher cost of "doing business" with a sanctioned country. And that means less profit for that offset market share in a country already facing a crippled economy due to Ahmadinejad's mismanagement and rampant inflation.
Iran may hope that their policy of "if they don't get it, nobody gets it" in a fragile economic recovery for the world will change policies on sanctions against Iran's nuclear ambitions. But will shutting off the Straits of Hormuz turn off the oil spigot for the world? Russia, Norway, African and Arabic countries are planning to make up the difference, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran's enemy, according to Taheri. The N.Y. Post columnist also notes how alternative pipelines will bypass the Straits of Hormuz.
Backed into a corner, Iran is picking the strategy which is the best of a bad lot. They can't embarrass themselves to their people by abandoning their quest for a nuclear weapon. They can't allow sanctions to destroy the economy. They fear dissent, as witnessed by the recent sentencing of former President Rafsanjani's daughter to prison for speaking with the opposition, as described in a Yahoo News article. And Iran seems to be preparing for war. They demanded a U.S. Carrier Task Force not return to the Persian Gulf, according to Hafezi. They have test fired missiles, according to an Associated Press story in Yahoo News.
Attacking Oman's islands will bring international opposition. It could lead to a military response. But that would play into Iran's hands. It would rally a divided people, currently split about the government's mismanagement of its economy, and allow the regime to circle the wagons. It may upset world stock markets, forcing leaders to seek a peaceful solution through the UN where the islands may be traded for an end to sanctions.
It doesn't make sense to think about an Iran vs. Oman war, unless you realize how precarious a position Iran's regime has put itself in by pursuing a nuclear weapon.