Tensions Continue to Escalate in Straits of Hormuz

Bob Beauprez
Posted: Jan 11, 2012 12:01 AM

The ultra-high stakes game of chicken continues in the Straits of Hormuz – as well as in Tehran and Washington.  Iran continues to escalate rhetoric and the saber rattling.  The British have deployed their most advanced naval destroyer to the Gulf.   Additionally, the Iranian press and the AP are reporting that uranium enrichment has begun at the new underground Fordo facility near Qom.   

After issuing a bombastic threat last week to the U.S. Fifth Fleet “not to come back” to the Persian Gulf, the Iranian regime announced plans to conduct a second round of military exercises in February for the closure of the critical waterway through which about 17 million barrels of oil flows every day. 

The head of Iran’s Navy, Ali Fadavi, made the announcement of the planned February operations in the Straits of Hormuz and added, “Today the Islamic Republic of Iran has full domination over the region and controls all movements within it.” 

The British are obviously taking Iran’s bluster seriously.  Defence Secretary Philip Hammond warned Iran that a blockade of the Straits of Hormuz would be “illegal and unsuccessful.”   The Royal Navy is sending their “mightiest ship,” the HMS Daring, a technologically highly advanced destroyer to the gulf to back up Secretary Hammond’s statement.

On Sunday the Kayhan daily, an Iranian paper said to be “close to Iran’s ruling clerics” and managed by a representative of Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reported uranium enrichment had begun at the Fordo plant near Qom.   The Associated Press is citing diplomatic sources confirming the report.   Fordo is reported “more efficient” and advanced than Natanz where enrichment began in 2006, as well as heavily fortified to withstand potential “enemy attacks.”  

Uranium enrichment by Iran defies numerous United Nations resolutions.  Thus far, Obama and the U.N. have proven completely impotent at stalling the Mullahs quest for nuclear capabilities.

The escalation of tension in the Gulf is clearly a reaction to the recently signed legislation by Barack Obama that requires the President to impose strict sanctions on Iran’s central bank hoping the economic pain will convince the regime to abandon their nuclear program.  Obama claims the sanction provisions of the legislation are “non-binding” and there has been speculation that he may invoke waiver options in the bill to delay implementation.   

While the mullahs in Iran may be far more arrogant than smart, even they probably don’t want to pick a military fight with both the U.S. and the British.  But, what they do want is to cause Obama to dither long enough to buy them a few more months to further develop their nuclear weapon technology which would dramatically increase Tehran’s leverage on the west and alter the power structure in the Middle East and beyond.   

Time is a friend of Iran, but not for her foes like Israel and the U.S.  As the AP reports, the news of the Fordo facility coming into production is “particularly worrying because the site is being used to make material that can be upgraded more quickly for use in a nuclear weapon than the nation's main enriched stockpile” from Natanz.

During a CBS Face the Nation interview on Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he wasn't sure if Iran really wants a nuclear weapon.  Oh, really?  For three years the Administration has been doing a lot of hand wringing and talking about stopping Iran's nuclear program, but in reality Obama has seemed resigned to Iran eventually getting a nuke, and then worrying about a "containment strategy" to deal with it after the fact.  

The regime in Tehran undoubtedly sees a weak, indecisive U.S. Administration.  They just witnessed the U.S. pull out of Iraq, and Iran was quick to fill the void.  The Mullahs must also be smiling at the announced massive cuts to the Pentagon budget and Obama's plan to reduce strategic capabilities.  In a radical theocracy in which martyrdom is encouraged and celebrated, what American rationale views as “unthinkable” just might make perfect sense in Tehran.  While the U.S. and British could eventually overwhelm the Iranian military, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed during the same Face the Nation interview that Iran has "invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Straits of Hormuz."  

Another Iranian newspaper quoted the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Ali Ashraf Nouri as saying, “The supreme authorities…have insisted that if enemies block the export of our oil, we won’t allow a drop of the oil to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.  This is the strategy of the Islamic Republic in countering such threats.”  Is he bluffing, or are the Mullahs just crazy enough to do it?  However, irrational war in the Persian Gulf seems, it may fit right in with the madness of the Mullahs.  With much of the globe already suffering economically, the last thing that is needed is even a temporary disruption of the waterway through which one-sixth of all the world’s oil passes, or worse an all-out war. That’s the game of chicken that’s being played out, and it is anyone guess who will blink first and how this eventually gets resolved.