US a step closer to Iran blockade
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
The United States government has imposed new
sanctions on Iran, this time
targeting its shipping industry, by blacklisting the main shipping line and 18
subsidiaries, accusing the maritime carrier of being engaged in contraband
nuclear material, a charge vehemently denied by Iran.
While the economic impact of
the measures against Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) will be
minimal in light of the near absence of any connection between the shipping
company and US businesses,
this latest US initiative
against Iran sends a strong
signal about the US's
intention to escalate pressure on Iran, even unilaterally if need be.
And, perhaps, it is a prelude for more serious and dangerous actions in the
near future, above all a naval blockade of Iran to choke off its access to,
among other things, imported fuel.
The outgoing George W Bush
administration is slowly but surely taking strident actions that will
effectively tie the hands of the next US president, particularly if that
happens to be Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama, who in the past has expressed an interest in direct
dialogue with Tehran.
Should the new sanctions
prove as catalysts for more aggressive US actions against Iran in international
waters or the Persian Gulf, as called for by some members of US Congress
seeking the interdiction of Iranian cargo ships, then by the time Bush's
successor takes over at the Oval Office next January, the climate in US-Iran
hostility may have degenerated to such depths that it would take a monumental
effort to undo what appears to be Bush's last hurrah.
On the other hand, on the
eve of US presidential elections in November, more tensions between the US and
Iran are tantamount to greater prioritization of national security issues by
the average American voter, something that benefits Obama's
Republican rival, "bomb, bomb Iran" John McCain.
Indeed, the coupling of
crisis in Georgia and the Iran crisis represents a major bonus for McCain
and his "get tough" approach toward the US's external foes.
According to American
investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who has done
several reports on US covert actions against Iran,
Bush has on more than one occasion vowed not to leave the White House with Iran's nuclear
program still intact.
With the new tensions with Russia over Georgia
lessening the prospects for fresh "multilateral" Iran diplomacy at the United Nations this
autumn, the White House has now begun a new chapter in coercive, unilateral
action against Iran
that may well be part of a comprehensive "package approach". This
could include the interdiction of Iranian ships on the high seas and even
incremental steps toward imposing a regime of "smart blockade" aimed
at denying Iran
access to badly needed imported fuel.
The purpose of the latter
would be to in effect target the Iranian population by applying tangible pain
that could dissipate the popular support for the government's nuclear policy,
that is, its insistence that it has the right under the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. Doubtless, this is playing with
fire and things could get nasty and rather quickly, spiralling
out of control in the event of a stern Iranian reaction.
As far as Washington and Tel
Aviv are concerned, their efforts to create a wedge between Iran and Syria is
paying off, thanks in part to the tireless efforts of France, and Israeli
politicians have made no secret of their hope that their negotiations with
Damascus will create a timely dividend in the form of breathing cold air into
the hitherto hot furnace of the Iran-Syria alliance.
In Iran murmurings
of "weak and reactive diplomacy" can already be heard, thus putting
the President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
administration on the defensive.
Consequently, Washington hawks increasingly smell a late opportunity to
They will surely have made their own threat analysis and estimates of risks.
Should their calculations prove incorrect, it could prove disastrous with
incalculable, monstrous new headaches for the US government for years to come.
For Iran's part, a spokesperson for IRISL has
denounced the US's
measure as "illegal" and based on "false accusations",
promising to complain to international tribunals. IRISL is, in fact, a
stock-owned private company and not government owned, and the US's action may be in violation of the terms and
ambit of UN sanctions imposed by the Security Council on Iran over its
nuclear program. For instance, these sanctions exempt the Bushehr
power plant in Iran,
thus allowing the shipment of nuclear material for the Russian-made plant
This means that the US might seek to seize Russian nuclear goods
bound for Iran, thus raising
the ire of Moscow and using this as a payback
for Russia's offensive in
Alternatively, the US could use
the threat of such action as leverage with regard to both Tehran
and Moscow. Russia, from Washington's
point of view, needs to be brought into line on Iran.
Again, any such action by
the US is bound to have both
intended and unintended consequences, and it would be
foolhardy for Washington hawks to pretend to
know the full scope of the ramifications, which could be dramatic in terms of
heating up a new cold war and outright militarizing the Iran nuclear
Tehran does not appear to welcome
any new escalation with the US.
A deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Safari, announced Iran's preparedness to
engage in good-faith negotiations with the "Iran Six" nations (the UN
Security Council's permanent five - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China -
Ahmadinejad is due in New York in less
than two weeks to attend the annual UN General Assembly gathering, and by all
indications the US and Israel are deliberately picking up serious momentum in
their anti-Ahmadinejad campaign, thus warranting a
letter by Iran's ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee,
complaining of blatant threats against Iran's president by Israeli politicians
- they even said they would kidnap him.
In conclusion, as tough new
decisions on Iran are being
plotted in Washington and Tel Aviv, the fate of peace and stability in the
volatile oil region of the Persian Gulf seems once again on the verge of being
compromised in the drive towards open confrontation with Iran.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi,
PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign
Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of
"Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World
Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with
Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's
nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear
Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.