New Year Brings Heightened Tensions for Iran and the West

By: Jason Wiseman

The beginning of 2012 has seen a dramatic heightening of tensions between Iran and the international community. With pressure mounting on the Islamic Republic, the upcoming few months will see a dangerous unfolding of events in the Middle East.

Trouble in the Gulf

Ending a 10 day naval exercise dubbed Velayat 90 on 3 January, Iran upped the stakes in Gulf security with a show of force and boastful rhetoric. Stating that closing off the Persian Gulf to oil tankers would be “easier than drinking a glass of water,” Iranian Naval Chief Habibollah Sayyari authorized the testing of shore-to-sea long range missiles while conducting a variety of military offensive drills to add credibility to their repeated threats that they will close the Strait of Hormuz if provoked.

Iran’s statements elicited a harsh response from US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta who stated that “the U.S. will not tolerate the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz,” calling the Iranian threat a “red line … that we will need to respond to.”

The vital chokepoint which facilitates the passage of roughly 90% of the Persian Gulf’s oil exports (40% of the global seaborne oil trade) and all of its liquefied natural gas exports was the target of Iran’s naval war games. Iranian threats of closing the Strait have been abundant for years, each time affecting the stability of energy markets and the global price of oil. With the price of Brent crude rising by 4% to $112.13 on 2 January, increased tensions in the Gulf will continue to disrupt energy markets and heighten pressure on energy dependent nations.

The continued saber-rattling has many of America’s Arab allies worried that a military confrontation may be on the horizon. Heightened concerns have prompted the Saudi’s to lead the initiative of pressuring the Obama Administration to take a more forceful approach against Iranian provocations in the Gulf. As the US continues to watch Iranian activity closely, they have reportedly sent the USS Bataan and the USS Makin Island to assist the 5thFleet’s super-carrier USS John C. Stennis while putting their Pacific aircraft carrier on standby.

Despite increased tensions, the Iranian navy has already announced that a new naval exercise will be held sometime in February.

International Standing

With new US sanctions signed into law on New Year’s Eve, Iran is feeling the increasing burden of economic constraint. The new round of unilateral sanctions puts pressure on Iran’s central bank and curbs Iran’s badly needed oil imports while also making it extremely difficult for most countries to pay for Iranian oil.

With European countries raising concern over Iran’s raiding of the British Embassy in November and their continued nuclear proliferation, the EU, which buys a fifth of Iran’s 2.6 million barrels per day of exports, is expected to announce an embargo this month.

Even some of Iran’s Asian partners have begun distancing themselves from the Islamic Republic. With roughly 62% of Iran’s exports going to the Asia-Pacific market, Iran’s top three buyers: China, Japan and India, which account for approximately 40% of Iran’s crude oil exports, have been entertaining US proposals to cut back their energy ties with Tehran. Resulting from US Treasury Secretary Geithner’s Asia tour; Japan, which receives 13% of Iran’s crude, pledged to cut its Iranian oil imports. Geithner hopes to make similar headway with South Korea when he visits next week.

Even countries where the US did not visit, such as Thailand or Indonesia, or failed to make headway with such as China and India, will feel the effect of US sanctions on Iran. Since Washington has begun targeting Asian based energy companies in the Middle East such as Singapore’s Kuo Oil Pte and FAL Oil Company which are based in the UAE, Asian countries will likely begin looking more vigorously to diversify their growing energy needs.

In an effort to counter the effects of these sanctions, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a Latin America tour that furthered highlighted Iran’s decreased international standing before the tour even began.

His sixth official trip to Latin America since 2005, Ahmadinejad was snubbed by regional heavyweight Brazil and did not get the chance to appear in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay or Nicaragua, all of which have a history of cooperating with Tehran. Although Ahmadinejad did receive a red carpet welcome in Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, he was unable to secure an economic counter balance against US sanctions. Moreover, having only visited four countries, his lack of welcome across the region highlights the distance that many Latin American states want to place between themselves and a hostile American enemy.

Nuclear Woes

At the heart of the campaign to mount pressure on the Islamic Republic is its suspected program to develop nuclear weapons. Since the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report in November, the international community has become increasingly alarmed with Iran’s proliferation activities. The controversy has led the IAEA to schedule another delegation visit to Iran towards the end of January in the hopes of clearing up claims that Tehran is in fact developing nuclear weapons.

In addition to the international campaign to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment is a covert one. On 11 January, the director of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was killed in an explosion when two men on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to his car, killing him and his bodyguard. Admadi-Roshan was the fifth Iranian scientist with ties to Tehran’s nuclear program to be killed in the last five years. The killing comes just a day after Iran announced plans to start up a second, heavily fortified, underground uranium-enrichment plant near Qom.

Safarali Baratlou, Tehran’s deputy governor, immediately blamed the attack on “Zionists” while the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated that the attack was conducted “with the planning or support of the intelligence services of the CIA and Mossad.” Both the United States and Israel have denied the accusation.

Additional setbacks to Iran’s nuclear program have included: assassinations, kidnappings, defections, sabotaged equipment, computer viruses and mysterious explosions at nuclear sites, missile-testing grounds, refineries and pipelines. Iran has allegedly responded by increasing its attacks on US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan using its proxy forces armed with Iranian developed EFP’s (Explosively Formed Projectiles).

As the Iranians have repeatedly stated that they will continue with their enrichment program unabated, recent reports indicate that they are having difficulties with their enrichment capacity and are beginning to pursue gas diffusion more aggressively, indicating some of the technological challenges they are facing.

Moving Forward

The next few months will likely see greater international pressures put on Iran as they continue their naval war games and uranium enrichment in defiance of the international community.

As the sanctions continue to pick up speed, countries will increasingly go to Iran’s Gulf competitors to offset their energy needs, a void the Saudi’s and other Gulf monarchs will be happy to fill. With saberrattling between Iran and the US on an escalating path, countries around the world will calibrate their relations with the Islamic Republic against US foreign policy, something likely to end up in the further isolation of Iran.

With a major stake in the evolving nature of the Arab Spring, Iranian influence and appeal abroad is far from secure. With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad increasing his dependency on Iran to sustain the upper-hand in a civil war, the Islamic Republic will lose its key ally in the Arab world if the Assad regime falls. This would cut off Iran’s gateway to their most critical proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a strategic blow the Iranians can ill afford. Moreover, as the Muslim Brotherhood begins to take power across the Arab world, the appeal of a Persian Shiite Islamic country leading the Sunni Arab world will decrease substantially.

As the covert war continues it is also likely that Iran will suffer further setbacks given that the recent death of Admadi-Roshan was the fourth of its kind in the last two years. Iran will certainly respond accordingly through use of its proxies, but with elections scheduled for early March they will have less room to maneuver as their population struggles to cope with the deteriorating economic situation and military crackdown. It is also likely that the regime will face increased domestic pressure given that their last election prompted widespread protests due to pervasive electoral fraud.

As tensions continue to increase between Iran and the international community, 2012 will be a decisive year for the entire Middle East.

Further Reading: Iranian Naval Exercises in the Strait of Hormuz: Threat or Rhetoric?, Iran’s warning Iran to hold new naval exercises, Iranian leader ends lackluster Latin America tour, ‘62% of Iran exports go to Asia-Pacific’, U.S., Japan unite on toughening oil sanctions in Iran over atomic bomb fears, Iran pressing on with nuclear plans despite growing support for oil embargo, UN nuclear watchdog to visit Iran


About Jason Wiseman

Jason Wiseman is the Program Manager for the Atlantic Treaty Association and a National Security Analyst with the Atlantic Council of Canada. He holds an MA in Government with a Specialization in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security and a BAH in Political Science. In addition to research and analysis, Jason works as a conference coordinator and development officer for the ATA. His areas of expertise include Counter-Terrorism, Middle Eastern Politics, State Failure, and Transnational Organized Crime.