Having lost the initiative on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Khomeinist leadership in Tehran is trying to hide behind a number of threats.
The talk in Tehran these days hinges around the assertion that “if you do this, we shall do that”, which means leaving the initiative to the adversary.
A number of specific threats may be deduced from the contradictory statements made by leading figures in Tehran, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The first threat, made through the media, is that, the Islamic Republic would damage the global economy by manipulating oil supplies. President Ahmadinejad has threatened to push crude oil prices to $200 per barrel.
This, we are told, could be done in two ways.
The first and most obvious is to stop Iran’s oil exports.
Although Iran accounts for less than two per cent of the global oil trade, there is no doubt that a sudden halt to its supplies would affect Europe and the Far East. The effect, however, is certain to be temporary, as other producers rush to cover the shortfall. The question, therefore, is what might the Khomeinist leaders do after they have played that card?
The second way in which oil supplies could be tampered with is by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water through which passes nearly 40 per cent of the world’s oil exports each day. The latest version of that threat has come from Muhammad-Javad Larijani, Tehran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear dossier.
Closing the strait, however, is easier said than done.
To start with, the route for tankers passes through the channel south of the Iranian island of Qishm. The northern channel, which is entirely owned and controlled by Iran, known as the Clarence Strait, is too shallow for tankers and big ships.
The southern channel, however, is under the joint sovereignty of Iran and the Sultanate of Oman. It is unlikely that the sultanate, which has close ties with the United States and Britain, would agree to close the channel to please Tehran. That would oblige the Khomeinists to shut the channel by force, in effect declaring war on Oman. That, in turn, could amount to a declaration of war against all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
To close the strait, the Khomeinists would have two options. The first is to mine the southern channel and hope for the best. But the US and the UK already have minesweepers in the Gulf that could dredge the strait in weeks. The Khomeinists’ second option is to fire on tankers passing through the strait, as they did in 1987 when they tried to interrupt Kuwait’s oil exports by firing on Kuwaiti tankers.
Today, however, that option may not be as easily available. One must assume that the US or whoever else decides to take military action against the Khomeinist regime would start by knocking out its firing positions along the coast.
Even if the Khomeinists are allowed to close the strait without being punished, there is one more reason why they will not be able to implement that threat. The reason is that the Khomeinist regime imports more than 40 per cent of the refined petroleum products it consumes at home. Close the strait and the Khomeinist regime would find it hard to put petrol in its military vehicles, tanks and airplanes.
Even without closing the strait, the threat of war could produce a decline in navigation in the Gulf, because insurance companies would raise premiums to levels that many traders might not be able to afford. Even then, the biggest loser would be the Khomeinist regime that depends on the waterway for 85 per cent of its imports and exports.
The second threat made by Khomeinist leaders is that they will respond to any attack by counter-attacking elsewhere.
This can be done in on two fronts- near and far.
The most vulnerable portions of the near front run through Afghanistan and Iraq where the Khomeinist regime has a number of clients.
In Afghanistan, it controls an armed faction of the Hazara Shi’ites, probably 10,000 men, who could presumably seize control of the two provinces of Bamiyan and Maydan, near Kabul, or even march on the capital to cause mayhem.
Tehran’s other client in Afghanistan is the veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who runs a trucking business in Iran while launching periodical attacks on government forces in Afghanistan. Tehran played the Hekmatyar card last year in an attack on NATO positions near Qala Mussa.
Also in Afghanistan, Tehran may ask its allies within the Taliban, including the group led by Mullah Jalaleddin, to hot things up, thus encouraging Muallah Omar and, perhaps, even the remnants of Al Qaeda to leave caves to do more mischief.
Such a strategy, however, would require Tehran’s clients to come into the open rather than pursuing hit-and-run tactics. And that could mean their destruction by NATO and the new Afghan army. It is also not at all certain that Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, not to mention the opportunist Hekmatyar, would want to risk suicide in support of the Khomeinist regime that, if triumphant, would waste no time in turning against them.
The Khomeinist regime also has agents in Iraq. Of these the largest today is the so-called Jaish al-Mahdi ( Army of the Promised One) led by Muqtada Sadr, a junior mullah whose family came to Mesopotamia from the Iranian city of Mahallat in the 18th century. (One of Muqtada’s great uncles, Muhsin Sadr, became Prime Minister of Iran in the 1940s.)
The Khomeinist regime also has many moles in the Badr Brigade, the Shiite militia controlled by another mullah, Abdul-Aziz Hakim, whose family hails from Shiraz, in southern Iran. Unlike Sadr, however, Hakim has distanced himself from Tehran in recent months, and might not want to fight the Americans on behalf of the Khomeinists.
In any case, if Iraqi Shiite militias are deployed in support of Tehran that would expose them as Iranian agents, shutting them from the mainstream of national politics.
The Khomeinist regime also has allies in Damascus. The two even signed a defence pact last June and keep saying that any attack on either would be an attack on both. That said, it is unlikely that the Syrian regime will enter a regional war in support of the Islamic Republic against the wishes of all other Arab states. But even if Syria decided to risk all, what could it do? It could cause more mayhem in Iraq or even attack Lebanon. But that would amount to an invitation for an attack on itself.
Tehran could also play its Hezbollah card in Lebanon. Of all of Iran’s clients in the region, the Lebanese Hezbollah is the most likely to react to an attack on the Khomeinist regime. It could cause mayhem in Lebanon, organise some aircraft hijacking and other spectacular operations and, fire a few missiles at Israel, this time from Beirut . But that would expose Hezbollah’s claim that it is a purely Lebanese party, isolate it politically, and leave it exposed as never before. In recent weeks, some Hezbollah figures have tried to distance the group from Tehran and sought new patrons in the region and beyond. Hezbollah’s entery in a war on the side of Tehran could split in its ranks.
Iran has also recruited clients among Palestinians. The Islamic Jihad has been in Tehran’s pay since the 1970s. Recently, Hamas also received samsonites full of crisp dollars from Tehran. For all that, Hamas has not sold out to the Khomeinists. In his recent visit to Tehran, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas premier, refused to kiss Khomeini’s shrine and was not prepared to pray alongside the mullahs during a Friday prayer gathering at Tehran University.
On the far front, Tehran could order its clients and agents to organise terror attacks, possibly using dangerous substances, in many parts of the world, including Europe and the US. Such a move, however, would make regime change the only option left in dealing with the Khomeinists. The Samson option would be as counter productive as the samsonite option is sure to be.