Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent
5 Jan 2012
The latest war of words with Iran over its nuclear and wider military ambitions is far from business as usual.
Today Defence Secretary Philip Hammond will warn in a speech in Washington that Britain will play its part in keeping the Straits of Hormuz open whatever Tehran may threaten or do.
This week Iranian commanders have warned that if the West ratchets up sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme it will close the Straits. It has just completed a major naval exercise, which shows it has the maritime muscle to do so – at least for a few days.
It has also warned the US that it will not allow the aircraft carrier John C Stennis to return to Bahrain, home of the US 5th Fleet, through the Straits. Thiswould be illegal as the waters flowing through the 30-mile wide narrows are international.
A sixth of the world’s total crude oil output and up to one third of world liquid petroleum gas flows daily through the Hormuz waterway. Much of it is from Iran’s 2.4million barrel daily production of crude, so a closure would damage Iran as much as anybody. But things are coming to a crunch over the bid to stop the Iranian military producing and test-firing a viable nuclear weapon – and it is now feared this might be less than 12 months away.
This month the EU countries will agree a total ban on buying Iranian oil. America, Canada and Britain brought in new sanctions late last year, and the signs are these are really hurting.
Meanwhile Iran says it has enriched more uranium and test-fired two new missiles during the naval exercise. The ever-unpredictable President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows every signs of indulging in his peculiar brand of brinkmanship – which could slip into wild and unprovoked action at any minute. Part of the problem is that is never quite clear who exactly is in charge of each strand of Tehran’s military and foreign policy.
However, the approach of new parliamentary elections this March seems to be unifying the clerical, political, military and Revolutionary Guard leaderships into ramping up the anti-western rhetoric.
Those with a stake in the regime will aim to rally support by keeping Iran in the world headlines as provocatively as possible. It should be the job of western leaders to keep it out of the headlines – not least for the sake of the majority of Iranians, who themselves have been provoked and suffered long enough.