Tag Archives: Strait of Hormuz

Welcome to the Next Middle East War

Well, it’s already started. The many wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran are beginning to come together into one single, bigger conflict. We are on the road to another war.

The shadow war, which has been going on between Iran and its sworn enemies, Israel and America, ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution now looks like escalating. In the last few weeks there have been ominous military, naval, diplomatic and psychological-warfare developments on all fronts. The omens are not good; we seem to be heading for a major bust-up not very far from here.

Intelligence officers use a system called an ‘Indicators and Warnings board’ to monitor events and assess where they are heading. Essentially it is a list of key questions, listing the critical information requirements. Examples might be:

• Are the potential enemy’s warplanes bombed-up and armed?
• Are the pilots on weekend leave?
• Is radio traffic normal?
• Have reservists been called up?

The answers are traffic-light coded – green for normal, amber for abnormal activity and red spelling danger.

Today, the I&W board for the Middle East is not looking encouraging. From Tehran to Tobruk the war drums are beating. Iran, as ever, is at the heart of the problem.

Should another red star be added to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf?

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of the large volumes of oil that pass through the strait. In 2018, its daily oil flow comprises 21 per cent of global petroleum liquids consumption. China’s gluttonous need for fuel makes the Gulf indispensable to Beijing.

This puts Iran in a strong position geographically; and for decades Tehran has been threatening to block the Straits. In July 2018, Tehran hinted that Iran could disrupt oil flows through the Strait in response to US sanctions and Trump’s calls to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. A Revolutionary Guards commander warned that Iran would block all oil through the Strait if Iranian exports were stopped.

The USA has been willing to use its firepower in the past. It escorted ships here during the 1980s ‘Tanker War’. America fought its last naval battle in these waters against Iran in 1988. In July that year, the warship USS Vincennes even shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 aboard, in what Washington said was an accident. Tehran said it was a deliberate attack.

This summer has seen Iranian attacks on tankers with the result that now the US Navy is putting together a coalition of nations to counter a renewed maritime threat from Iran.

This US move to build a maritime multinational force to patrol the key sea route across the Strait of Hormuz prompted outrage in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed the US, insisting that ‘any extra-regional presence is by definition a source of insecurity’ and that Iran ‘won’t hesitate to safeguard its own security.’ The result is that tankers are now being convoyed down the Straits. All it needs now to spark fighting is some out of control Revolutionary Guard commander chancing his luck – and the Iranian RGC is a law unto itself.

This is demonstrated daily in Syria, where the long arm of Tehran now reaches as far as the Israeli border. For months now an undeclared low intensity war has been waged by the Israelis, systematically targeting Iranian weapon dumps, training camps and missile sites across Syria. Unfortunately Netanyahu’s professed strategic goal – ‘the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria’ – is fantasy. The result is a dangerous instability, because Israel is confronting a nasty dilemma. An enemy sworn ‘to drive Israel into the sea’ is camped on his borders; and every day that Tel Aviv does nothing to pre-empt Iran’s expansion makes the potential enemy stronger.

Netanyahu has been steadily raising the stakes, ostensibly with the aim of forcing Iran back to its own turf. But what does Israel seek to achieve? Removing Iran’s forces from the entire Middle East? Changing the Iranian regime?

What kind of American backing can Israel expect? Israel is now upping the ante. It was undoubtedly responsible for recent explosions at Iran-linked sites in Iraq. Sabotage or air strikes were involved and Israel stands at the top of the list of potential culprits. Israel is on the verge of expanding its anti-Iran campaign from Syria deep into Iraq to check the threat from the Islamic republic. But any Israeli action in Iraq comes with high risk that it could ignite a major regional war.

So the danger of crossing the line between limited and full-scale warfare between Israel and Iran grows daily more likely, especially now that Hezbollah – Tehran’s Shi’a proxy, currently running Lebanon – appears to be gearing up for a missile strike on Israel’s cities.

To make this devil’s brew more dangerous still, Iran – smarting from increased US sanctions – is now openly accelerating its drive to get a nuclear weapon. The Mad Mullahs, hell bent on war, can just about be contained; but the Ayatollahs with a bomb? For Israelis that is a chilling step too far. It threatens the country’s existence. Israel has made it very clear: it will not allow an Iranian bomb – by force if necessary.

Others in the region are equally nervous of any Atomic Ayatollahs. Sunni Saudi Arabia has the money and technology to build a bomb quickly to deter the Shi’a of Iran; and only last week President Erdogan openly hinted that of Turkey has an interest in obtaining a bomb, adding to worries about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

If this were not bad enough, everywhere you look in the Middle East there are many other dangerous flashpoints, many of them already the scene of fierce fighting. In Yemen, Sunni fights Shi’a (Saudi versus Iran), as the Houthis become part of Iran’s regional proxy warriors. On the Syrian border, Turkey is already busy fighting the Kurds. Gaza and the West Bank still simmer with anti-Israeli anger. Israel has already mobilised some reservists as a cornered Netanyahu looks for a grand gesture – probably a demonstration of Israel’s military might – to help him form a government after the recent elections.

Even sleepy little Cyprus, sitting secure in the eye of the hurricane, is now feeling the heat. Drawn by the lure of black liquid gold, powerful allies are now jockeying for position. Ankara suddenly finds itself having to confront a Greek-Cypriot defensive alliance of Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks and Italians – plus France and the USA – all hungry to get their hands on the spoils of the huge natural gas reserves off the coast. Gunboats now protect the Turkish prospecting ships as a symbol, a warning and a deterrent.

The truth is we are sitting in the middle of a region set to explode at any moment, thanks to an aggressive Iran-sponsored build-up. The plan appears to be to force Israel to concentrate on dealing with threats to its civilian population – from rocket barrages and commando raids – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Consequently, Israel would not be able to focus on blocking the principal surge when it comes.

Now even China is involved. Beijing considers Iran to be its strategic partner in the greater Middle East and vital to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ across Asia. The PRC knows that the Iranian network of roads, railroads and pipelines all the way to the Mediterranean is a major contribution to the ‘New Silk Road.’ But now, Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned by the sudden possible slide to war caused by Iran’s regional ambitions.

It may not come next week, it may not come next year, but be in no doubt, the Middle East is gearing up for a major war. And it’s important to remember that for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, according to their scriptures, a final battle between good and evil will usher in God’s brave new world, free from sin.

The place for this battle? The ancient city of Megiddo, better known by its Greek name – Armageddon – a real, geological location in Israel….

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The Guns of August

The trouble with August is that the historical record shows that whilst everyone is on holiday it’s a great month to start a war.

From the guns of August in 1914, via the start of the Wehrmacht’s ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ in 1939, the Gulf of Tonkin Vietnam war inciting incident of 1964, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, down to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, August has meant ‘war’.

This August doesn’t look much better. There is global trouble brewing, big time. It may be the heat: perhaps the madness of ‘le Cafard,’ (the Foreign Legion’s description of the delirium caused by a Saharan summer), but the war drums are beating once again.

The problem is Iran. The US and Iran have been at odds increasingly over Tehran’s growing political and military influence in the Middle East. Things are not looking good for the ‘Mad Mullahs’ of Tehran this August. Trump has deliberately put the clerical regime in Tehran and the Iranian people between a rock and a hard place. The Ayatollah and President Trump are on a collision course.

Many thought that Trump would go back on his threat to quit Obama’s 2015 wishy-washy nuclear ‘deal.’ They were wrong. The economic war started on Tuesday, 7 August 2018, with new US sanctions on cars, aircraft, currency and gold. Any company with an office in the US caught ‘trading with the enemy’ will be prosecuted. Sanctions will cut off the money tap. Europeans are stunned by their loss of potential profits, but the Yanks mean business.

The current American President has simply followed through on his campaign promise. If anyone was in doubt about his willingness to use US power, Trump has shown that when he sets his mind to something it’s going to happen, despite the anguished wails of dismay from EU corporations who thought that their juicy new Iranian contracts would bring them an early Christmas.

Trump is deliberately placing the Iranian economy under intolerable pressure. Global companies are now fleeing the country and the Iranian rial has collapsed, losing half its value since April. Behnam Ben Taleblu, Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, says: ‘Re-imposing these sanctions is the first step towards tightening the noose on Tehran, putting the regime to a choice between continuing its malign activities or improving its economy.’ Washington’s new penalties are just the first warning shot for even more savage sanctions planned for early November that will target Iran’s valuable oil exports.

The threat is mortal. Tehran needs to sell its oil to survive. The lack of oil revenue could bankrupt Iran. The reaction to American threats from the regime was therefore predictable: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly threatened to disrupt international oil shipments through the Persian Gulf if renewed US sanctions strangle Iran’s oil sales. ‘No one who really understands politics would say they will block Iran’s oil exports, and we have many straits, the Strait of Hormuz is just one of those …. We are the honest men who have throughout history guaranteed the safety of this region’s waterways. Do not play with the lion’s tail, it will bring regret.’

Trump promptly Tweeted in kind, mostly in capital letters: ‘To Iranian President Rouhani: Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!’

Whether that will change the change the minds of Iran’s Shi’ite clerical leadership is another matter. Already Tehran is preparing for a fight. The US military’s Central Command reported on Wednesday, 8 August 2018, an increase in naval activity in the Strait of Hormuz, the critical waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf for the international shipment of oil from the Middle East. Iran is threatening to block it off with ships and mines if the USA’s renewed sanctions begin to bite.

The spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed the deployment of more than 100 vessels to the Gulf: ‘This exercise was conducted with the aim of controlling and safeguarding the safety of the international waterway in the Persian Gulf and within the framework of the programme of the Guards’ annual military exercises.’ He added: ‘They are to enhance defence readiness and to confront threats and potential adventurous acts of enemies.’

In turn, the Americans have warned Iran off. According to Washington, ‘Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They’ve done that in the past. They saw the international community put dozens of nations of the international community naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits. Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world’s economy depends on those energy supplies flowing out of there.’

This is fighting talk by both sides, but America has serious muscle on the water to back its rhetoric. The US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, is the ‘combined 5th Fleet’, which means it does not just comprise the US Navy. As well as a powerful US Carrier Strike Force, it has got Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Saudi, and Emirati vessels under command, as well as the occasional Royal Navy warship (when Britain’s MoD can afford to spare one as a token gesture).

From the Iranian side this war of words is not just sabre rattling. This is a battle Iran dare not lose, for domestic reasons. The Government of President Hassan Rouhani is already facing serious trouble at home, where the opposition has demanded action on corruption and for renewed efforts to rescue the economy. A combination of scarcity and inflation has caused prices to soar. Everything from real estate, groceries, and electronic goods have almost doubled in price. Iran is facing the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen.

Worse is to come. Iran has major internal socio-political problems, with serious water shortages and street protests breaking out in the country since the beginning of 2018 over high prices, disconnected water supplies, power cuts and widespread corruption. Since the start of August 2018, thousands of people have rioted in Iranian cities – including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz – in protest against high inflation caused in part by the collapsing rial.

Already there are signs of a widespread clampdown by the clergy and the Revolutionary Guards. What started off as protests, spurred on by the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran and the inflation in prices of basic necessities, could now escalate into a rebellion against the Islamic Republic itself. As domestic economic conditions get worse there is growing anger at Iran’s foreign policy – which includes spending billions of dollars to supply weapons and fighters to take over Syria, funding the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, as well as lending financial support to Lebanese Shi’ite group, Hezbollah – whilst Iranian citizens back home go short. The Mullahs can no longer rely on a docile population.

The questions to pose are, ‘To what extent are these protests threatening the theocratic regime?’ and ‘Could such an upheaval foreshadow a second Iranian revolution?’ This is a real possibility and it explains Washington’s adamantine stance. Despite US denials, Trump and his team really want nothing less than to bring the Mullahs down.

This would explain the sudden receptiveness of the regime to the pleas of the protesters. In January 2018, Iran’s Parliament rejected a then-recent budget plan that increased the price of petrol by 50% and proposed increases in the price of water, electricity, and gas (‘Protests, 2018 budget and public discourse in Iran’, Al Jazeera News, 30 January 2018).

This apparent responsiveness from the current Islamic Consultative Assembly government is a desperate attempt to defuse the sense of grievance felt by many Iranians in the hope of reducing the risk of more violence on the streets or, in the worst-case scenario, protests escalating into a fully fledged revolution. On every front, trouble looms.

Will it end in tears and war? If so, when? Who can predict the outcome?

Once again, the guns of August are loaded and ready to fire – on both sides of the crisis.