Responding to sanctions imposed in recent weeks by the U.S. and other global powers, Iran remains defiant over its nuclear program and has reacted to its vilification with hostility by threatening to close off the Middle East’s primary oil export route, the Strait of Hormuz. The shipping channel, only six miles wide at its narrowest point, is considered the world’s most important of six major “oil chokepoints.” It connects Iran to the Arabian Peninsula from where more than 15 million barrels of oil come through the Strait on a daily basis. Needless to say, disrupting this route poses major consequences for the rest of the world.
In response, the U.S. has refused to back down, standing firmly behind the sanctions and insisting it will maintain its naval presence in the Gulf despite Iranian threats of action. In support of the U.S. position, the U.K. this week announced plans to deploy its newest naval warship to the Gulf in order to secure open access to the trade channel. The presence of Iranian ships in the same area will produce a tense standoff with no obvious solution.
While onlookers have long assumed any conflict would be a direct attempt to cease Iran’s nuclear program, such may instead come over the world’s other dominating force: oil.
This would not be the first major conflict the world has seen over resources. The current situation bears a concerning resemblance to the Suez Crisis in 1956, whereby Egypt nationalized the strategically important Suez Canal, prompting Britain, France and Israel to attack in protection of their domestic economic interests. As economies struggle to find stability and become increasingly reliant on foreign goods, any interference with economic interests is potentially devastating to a country, and such conflicts only look more likely in the years to come as crucial resources such as oil and fresh water begin to deplete.
Aside from potential conflict, the sanctions on Iran have a more immediate global effect. Approximately one-fifth of world oil exports come through the Strait of Hormuz, and should Iran completely seal off that route, the trade of oil would be severely obstructed, causing financial volatility and rising barrel prices. At a time when leaders are seeking to stabilize the global economy, and especially in an election year for President Obama, such outcomes are less than ideal.
The sensitivity of the current situation lies in the fact that Iran is being backed further and further into a corner. The sanctions placed on Iran’s financial system by the U.S., as well as promises by Europe and others to cease importing Iranian crude oil, promise to cripple its economy. Blocking the Strait of Hormuz will hurt Iran as much as anyone else, and as its economy takes a downward spiral, its leaders will be increasingly likely to lash out.
Such was the case with Japan in 1941 when America’s cessation of oil exports to Japan led to what it considered its only option: a declaration of war, expressed through the Pearl Harbor attack.
Unless Iran strikes first, conflict with Iran would be a complicated scenario. As was the case with Iraq in 2003, the U.S. would most likely engage without a resolution from the United Nations Security Council. China and Russia, both of which have the power to veto such a resolution, have substantial trade relations with Iran, and only reluctantly accepted the recent U.N. sanctions. Short of an imminent Iranian nuclear threat, neither of the two would be likely to support the use of force against Iran.
The resulting unilateral intervention by the U.S. would be a stark reminder of the conflict in Iraq, and one which the international community, as well as American citizens, would be unlikely to look upon kindly.
That said, a solution to this situation must come soon, lest increasing mutual fears and misperceptions lead to regrettable actions. Further complicating the issue is the threat by Israel to perform airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Such a measure would almost inevitably draw the U.S. into an unwelcome conflict. Iran has long been considered the world’s next major threat, but it appears that sentiment will ring more true than ever in 2012.