Is the United States heading into a deadly confrontation with Iran?
Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, the unsuccessful maverick Republican presidential candidate, warned millions of radio listeners this is now inevitable. He cited House Congressional Resolution 362, lobbied hard by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as a "virtual Iran war resolution."
Since its introduction three weeks ago, and before the weeklong July 4 break, the resolution garnered 150 cosponsors. In the Senate, sister Resolution 580, introduced by Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, was also gathering momentum.
After 11 "whereas" to build a casus belli against Iran, House 362 would require a naval blockade to "prohibit the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products, impose stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or departing Iran." It also would ban "the international travel of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran's nuclear program."
If passed by both houses, the United States would be at war with Iran — alone, without allies, and oil would double in price immediately to $300 a barrel. The Bush administration has pledged it will keep the Strait of Hormuz open and protect tankers transporting 25 percent of the world's daily ocean-borne oil traffic through the 32-mile-wide strait. Tanker traffic between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea uses two lanes, each two miles wide, for inbound and outbound ships.
Iran's largest naval base, at Bandar Abbas, commands the northern side of the Strait of Hormuz. Three islands near the middle of the strait are under Iranian control with naval gun emplacements and concealed missiles. U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters is in Bahrain, farther up the Gulf. Sinking or crippling a couple of the 50 supertankers as they pass each other every day in the strait would not be much of a challenge for Iranian gunners. U.S. retaliation by air would follow minutes later from a carrier in the Gulf of Oman, but meanwhile ship-owners the world over would ban any attempt to navigate around the shipwrecks. A barrel of oil would quickly jump to $500 and gas would reach $12 a gallon, a dollar less than what the Dutch already pay for their heavily taxed gas in the Netherlands. Iran's military chiefs warned last Saturday the Islamic republic would shut down the Strait of Hormuz and use "blitzkrieg" tactics in the Gulf if it came under attack.
A blockade of Iran would be an act of war. Last January small Iranian speedboats darted in and out between three U.S. warships sailing through the strait. Had they been suicide boats, at least one of the U.S. vessels would have been hit, as the USS Cole was in Aden in October 2000. U.S. Navy denials notwithstanding, Iran's capability to close the Persian Gulf is very real.
As the fighting in Lebanon demonstrated two years ago, Hezbollah militias deployed mobile missile launchers in large numbers against land-based and naval targets. Iran has purchased two types of anti-ship cruise missiles from China, the Silkworm and the C-802, whose capabilities are similar to the Exocet and Harpoon family of sea-skimming missiles.
NATO estimates the C-802's single shot capability at 98 percent. It was this type of missile, also known as Yingji-82, Chinese for Eagle Strike, that scored two direct hits on the Israeli corvette INS Hanit in 2006, killing four and knocking it out of action. Some 60 Chinese-made missiles are camouflaged in Iranian coastal batteries, along with hundreds of less sophisticated but just as lethal homemade missiles along the Iranian coast from the Gulf of Oman through the strait and up its Persian Gulf coastline.
While the new commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Vice Adm. William Gortney, reiterated his predecessor's guarantee to keep 17 million barrels a day passing through the strategic waterway, a congressional resolution to blockade Iran's ports would change the correlation of forces. Iran would see such a decision as an act of war, as any other country would.
Cooler heads now appear to have gained the upper hand in Tehran. Talk about talking is Iran's way of muzzling talk about war. At the United Nations in New York, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters in subdued tones he had received a proposal from world powers (5 plus 1, shorthand for the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) that could prompt a "new process." The 5 plus 1 were hoping Iran would agree to freeze uranium enrichment at 3,000 centrifuges for the duration of the next round of talks, which Mottaki didn't exclude either. "The first word diplomats are taught is compromise," he told reporters over lunch.
Mottaki also said he is "optimistic talks on his country's nuclear program may begin based on a package of incentives offered by the United States and other countries" and that Iran's official reply would be forthcoming in a couple of weeks. The softening of rhetoric was in sharp contrast to firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats of death and destruction against Israel. But Mottaki explained his president's views on Israel by saying a grave injustice had been done to the Palestinians to repair the damage Europeans had done to themselves in World War II.
Mottaki didn't believe the Israelis or the Bush administration would bomb Iran through January 2009. Neither Israel nor the United States could afford to incur the wrath of the world while talks are ongoing. With three former U.S. CENTCOM commanders on record against the military option, it was hard to see how Israel could strike on its own without shutting the Persian Gulf down.
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