Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Provoking an Oil War Is a Bad Bet for the U.S.

Perhaps Washington has a secret plan for defeating Tehran in a contest over oil, but Tehran has enormous tactical advantages, while the relevance of Washington's vast military superiority appears questionable. Has anyone in Washington actually thought this out?

Departing Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitriy Rogozin cautioned that:
Iran is our close neighbor, just south of the Caucasus. Should anything happen to Iran, should Iran get drawn into any political or military hardships, this will be a direct threat to our national security.
These are words Washington should weigh carefully. Rogozin did not retire; he was promoted...to deputy prime minister. It seems reasonable to read his words as a clear warning from Moscow that anything remotely like an invasion of Iraq-style adventure by Washington against Iran would be seen as endangering Russian national security. Instead of wondering if Iran can close the Straits of Hormuz, we should be wondering if Russia could do so.

Russia obviously has a wide range of reasons for avoiding a conflict with the U.S., so the question reduces to:

What is the minimum amount of Russian assistance to Iran that would enable Iran to reduce oil shipments through Hormuz sufficiently to cause a severe impact on U.S. policy?

To lay out some scenarios takes little more than common sense and imagination. It is hard to think of anything easier to hit than a monstrous oil tanker, though the difficulty of actually sinking one is debatable. The Exxon Valdez disaster implies that they sink all too easily, but they do have certain passive strengths. Nevertheless, any contest between an oil tanker and a modern military is obviously heavily weighted in favor of the attacking military. That said, reality is even worse for those dazzled by the idea of a quick, easy victory over Iran.

The reason is not all that complicated: the real issue may well be more a combination of finance and psychology than technical or military considerations. How many oil tankers would have to sink or even catch fire before shippers would refuse to continue be sitting targets? Iran has a huge tactical advantage in this game. Someone should list all the anti-ship missiles and mines on the world market today capable of stopping an oil tanker. How long would it take for the U.S. to clear a burning oil tanker from the strait? How much interference to oil shipping (reportedly 14 tankers per day through the strait) would one burning oil tanker cause?

Iran has had more than a decade to prepare for this situation since the last time the U.S. fought a naval war against it to aid Saddam and protect oil tankers. This time Moscow may be less cooperative with Washington. Beyond that lies Beijing's strong interest in keeping Iranian oil flowing. Then there's the little issue of domestic support.

If direct conflict erupts between Washington and Tehran, Tehran hardliners will gain an immediate boost in popularity as defenders of the country. Meanwhile, interruptions in the oil flow will be placing one more economic burden on the shoulders of Westerners. As war brings Iranians together, it will be ripping Western societies apart. What are the chances that pampered Westerners will prove willing to accept economic sacrifice as long as Iranians who are fighting for their independence--with the "full encouragement" of a harsh, semi-autocratic regime?

And all the above concerns just direct military conflict.

One more possible Iranian tactic that all those American weapons could not deal with: 
introduce so much hysteria into the oil market that price spikes will allow it to earn the same revenue from a reduced volume of exports [Mark Heller, New York Times, thanks to Friday Lunch Club ]

The assumption that a war over the international oil supply will be military is in many ways a comforting one for Americans, since military superiority is Washington's one strong card. But why would Tehran choose to play the game this way? The easiest way for Iran to fight back is simply to stop exporting hydrocarbons. If the resulting rise in Western gas and heating fuel prices does not hand victory to Iran, the next most obvious target would perhaps be the roughly 2 million barrels per day exported by Iraq, where many oil workers might be expected to feel some sympathy for a fellow Shi'i society under attack by the U.S. Exactly how does Washington imagine it might respond to the combination of Iran halting exports combined with a quiet sabotage campaign by its friends in Iraq?

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