Respected Middle East expert Walid Phares tells Newsmax.TV that Iran is playing a “very dangerous game” by threatening to close the vital Strait of Hormuz oil route – a move that the Obama administration is unprepared to stop.
“The Iranian regime does saber rattling, thinking this is a good strategy. But at the same time this is a very dangerous business because they may choose to stop shipments coming to the [Persian] Gulf or through the Gulf as a result of our sanctions and that of course is going to draw United States, Eurpoean, NATO and international response,” Phares warns in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
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“The Iranians are playing a very dangerous game here even by issuing those statements and by deploying some of their ships in the Gulf.”
And, Phares said, the Obama administration has clearly failed to contain the Iranian regime thus far. The situation in the Middle East is looking increasingly bleak just as the nation is pulling out of Iraq.
“The Obama administration tried. It had done some sanctions. It made statements, but the results are in what we see on the ground,” according to Phares. “The Iranian regime today is stronger than it was ever before.”
While the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq has been accomplished, Phares says that the country is now much more vulnerable to Iranian influence and is being used to help bolster Bashar Assad's besieged government in Syria.
“Let’s put it very simply. Iran today has a great influence over politics and national security in Iraq and that is a strategic failure for us,” he said. “The reason why the Assad regime is not crumbling is because the Iranians are capable of supporting it. They have been sending logistics and money and revolutionary guards to assist the Syrian regime in the suppression of its own people.”
In addition to its alliances with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria, Iran also has reportedly been supportive of an uprising in northern Yemen and has been active in Africa.
“And as we all know, they now have a strategic alliance with [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez’ regime in this hemisphere,” adds Phares.
The latest crisis shows all too clearly that Iran is an expansionist power, Phares says. Iran's navy chief, Vice President Mohamed Reza Rahimi, issued his country's first threat to close the strait on Tuesday if the West imposes new sanctions targeting oil exports over the country's suspect nuclear program. That led to a counter-warning from the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet that any disruption “will not be tolerated.”
Phares believes the stakes are even higher in the present standoff between Tehran and Washington than they were during the 1980s based on Iran’s growing reach in other parts of the world.
“They have influence in Iraq, in the Gulf,” said Phares, who briefs Congress, the European Parliament, and the U.N. Security Council on matters related to international security and Middle East conflict. “They have been threatening Arabian and also American interests and they have allies — including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria — so this could spiral into a regional conflict if the Iranian regime decides to do anything in the Hormuz Strait.”
Despite reservations, President Barack Obama has said he plans to sign a bill approved by Congress to ban dealings with the Iran Central Bank, which handles transactions by European and Asian nations that import oil from the world's fourth-largest oil producer.
The bill would impose penalties on foreign firms that do business with the central bank though critics have warned that the measure might also impose hardships on U.S. allies and drive up oil prices.
With an output of about 4 million barrels a day, Iran derives about 80 percent of its public revenue from oil exports.
The dispute stems from accusations by the United States and its allies that Iran has been using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons — charges that Iran has denied. Iranian officials insist that the country’s nuclear program is intended to generate electricity and produce medical radioisotopes for cancer patients.
“Why would you have missiles if you don’t have the intention to deploy nukes with those missiles?” asks Phares, who also advises several national security and defense agencies as well as counterterrorism advisory boards in North America and Europe. “At the same time at the United Nations Security Council we have not been able to get a strong Chapter 7-based resolution [dealing with force] that would stop the Iranian project. So unfortunately the Iranians are moving forward — sometimes back burner, sometimes front burner — but they are moving forward, unfortunately.”
Of the GOP presidential candidates, Phares said he is most concerned with the campaign rhetoric of Rep. Ron Paul, which he calls “disastrous” for the United States.
He said that the other candidates, and particularly former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, appear to have a “clear idea about the Iranian threat” and plan to confront it in some fashion if elected president.
While the United States appears to have sufficient oil reserves to meet its immediate needs, Phares warned that the continued flow of foreign oil will be critical to sustain the American economy over time.
“It is very important on the one hand to make sure we have a national reserve of oil open for business in America. That has to be done,” he insists. “On the other hand, making sure to contain Iran: These are the two pillars of our oil policy in the future, I hope.”
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