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We all pay for Middle-East posturing

Update: January, 13/2012 - 09:22

by Vu Thu Ha

A series of showdowns between the West and Iran over its nuclear programme is darkening the already-gloomy picture in the Middle East. Pessimists predict a more stormy time ahead, with the worst scenario being war. If this happens, make no mistake, it will be a disaster not only for the countries involved, but also for the region and the whole world.

The latest trouble began with decisions to impose tougher sanctions on Iran by the United States and European countries which have targeted Iran's petrochemical industry, its oil exporting business and the activities of its central bank. As tension flared, the US concluded billion-dollar weapon deals to Iran's regional rival, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran responded with a 10-day naval drill in the Strait of Hormuz, from where most of its oil is shipped, and is planning more. In the latest escalation, Iran annouced that it was expanding uranium-enrichment activities to an underground site. Then, it sentenced an American to death for spying and then accused Israel and Western powers of killing one of its nuclear scientists.

In the war of words, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the West imposed sanctions on its oil exports. The strait is only 50km wide but its waters carry the vessels transporting 40 per cent of world oil trade.

This tit-for-tat game between the two sides is nothing new. Analysts believe the major players are following their own clear-cut scenarios behind the words and tension they seem to enjoy fanning.

The whole world, including Viet Nam, is caught up in one way or another in the endless pushing and shoving in the Middle East. Colonel Le The Mau, a senior official with the Ministry of Defence's Military Strategy Institute and foreign affairs commentator, said that once again, the US had tried to spark public panic based on unsubstantiated claims of nuclear weapons.

He said this was done to "generate a large-scale propaganda campaign to create preconditions for tougher actions against Iran". Colonel Mau said all options were on the table, including military intervention. According to Mau, one of the US's ultimate goals is to overthrow the current Iran administration for an explicit reason: the US simply cannot tolerate a nation that aspires to become the predominant regional power while being very hostile to America.

As the US has completed troop withdrawals from Iraq – and plan to do the same in Afghanistan by 2014 – the threat of an emerging Iran has become much more pressing. "Opposition to Iran's nuclear weapon ambition is, after all, a US-directed drama," Mau said.

One cannot help recalling 2002, when the George W Bush administration prepared to wage the war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Then there was the Greater Middle East project unveiled a year later – a plan said to serve the US's ambition of strengthening its grip on oil and seek regime change in anti-American governments in the region.

Look at what has been happening during the so-called Arab Spring. After Libya, the US and its allies seem to be applying the same Libyan scenario to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Iran's key regional ally. But, Mau said, this tactic is facing difficulties because of the close alliance between the two countries. "So raising the tension in Iran at this time is like killing two birds with one stone," he added.

Meanwhile Iran's leaders also have strong reasons to continue the escalation. The fact that Iran superseded the West's strong rhetoric with even tougher rhetoric may lie in a belief that at the time of widespread economic turbulence, the US and its EU allies cannot afford another military conflict.

Stricter economic sanctions against Iran, the second-largest oil producer in OPEC, also means increasing the burden not only to debt-ridden EU economies but also many other key US allies around the world.

As the tension increases, oil has risen to above $113 a barrel (as of Tuesday, January 10) which is good news for Iran, whose economic health depends much on the price of oil and gas. Indeed, the US and Iran may actually share the same philosophy for nurturing the current tension. The leaders of both nations face a troublesome economy, a discontented public and, more importantly, upcoming elections.

In an interview with Russia Today on television, Pierre Guerlain, professor of political science at Paris West University Nanterre La Defense, said he believed the current stand-off was driven by "leaders who are facing elections". He said acting tough was good for Obama, who has been accused by the Republicans of being soft on Iran. Similarly, being opposed to the US is good for Iranian leaders who themselves are fighting difficulties at home. It is "a game where everyone is trying to benefit from the opposition of the other", Guerlain said.

Some experts say a war is not very likely at this politically sensitive time for both sides. But there is always a chance for miscalculations in the heated confrontation, for example, if Iran closes the Strait of Homuz because it cannot bear the economic agony of new sanctions.

And if the worst scenario really happens, the world would be faced with a lose-lose situation, long before an imagined threat by Iran's nuclear weapons. A military clash between Iran and the US in the Persian Gulf, whether big or small, would rapidly engulf the already-divided Middle East and spread to the further world, where Iran has both foes and allies.

And, any attack on Iran would be seen as an attack on Islam, especially by extremists. This could arouse forces close to Iran, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to attack Israel, which has always been viewed as having a strong hand behind the current mess.

Oil prices would certainly skyrocket. Some experts predict they would climb to more than $200 a barrel. This would be a catastrophe for crisis-ridden economies around the world.

One can only hope that the war talk be given a rest to allow for continued dialogue and flexible policies - for the sake of the world. — VNS

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