This week, as the European Union inches closer to imposing a total oil embargo on Iran, thus escalating tensions to dangerous new levels, it is important to scrutinize the causes of what is rapidly turning into a major international crisis with unforeseen consequences, and to ponder the potential option of alternative Western policies that would prevent yet another crisis of choice, rather than necessity.
Representatives from 27 countries of the EU began talks on Thursday for an agreement on banning the purchase of Iranian oil. EU foreign ministers had agreed late last year to work toward such a ban with the aim of blocking funding for Iran’s nuclear
program that some suspect is designed to develop nuclear weapons – a charge Tehran strongly denies.
An EU official was quoted on Thursday as saying that „significant issues remain and no agreement is expected before the end of January”. In 2010, crude oil from Iran accounted for about 5.8% of total European imports.
The official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted a member of parliament as saying that pressure from „bullying nations” made the country „more resilient”, while Economic Minister called the EU’s move „an economic war”.
The EU move follows US President Barack Obama last week signing off on a law that slaps sanctions on Iran’s central bank, also aimed at curtailing the country’s oil sales.
To many Iranians as well as outside observers, any European ban on Iranian oil would be as unjustified as a similar ban that was imposed on the country after the nationalization of its oil industry in 1951. Then, the British government, which had long-term neo-colonial agreements with Iran giving it possession of 85% of oil proceeds without financial scrutiny, managed to rally the US and other European governments, culminating in a joint US-British covert action that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosadegh. It was replaced with a compliant puppet regime for the next quarter of century, until that was overthrown by a populist revolt led by the nationalistic clergy in 1979.
Since then, neither the US nor Europe has formally apologized to the nation, seeking instead to restore their hegemony over the geostrategically important country one way or another, eg, initially by supporting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s illegal invasion of Iran in September 1980 then turning a blind eye to his use of chemical weapons.
With the Western missions against several Middle Eastern nations in the past decade alone, the last being Libya, where under a lame United Nations authorization the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gave itself the license to wage an almost full-out war and humanitarian disaster in the name of saving the country, the stage is now set for regime change in both Syria and Iran, two „rogue” regimes that defy Western (and Israeli) scripts for regional order.
Geopolitically, any substantial weakening of Iran would be a definite minus for both Russia and China, two favorite targets of US power, and it is therefore up to those two nations to resist the latest Western efforts seeking (a) to weaken Russia’s eastern flank and thus to sow discord in Central Asia, and (b) to undermine China’s energy security.
A prudent counter move by Russia and China would be to upgrade Iran’s status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) from observer to full member, and to enhance the organization’s cooperative security measures to protect their members from Western machinations. The SCO is an inter-governmental mutual-security organization founded in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
However, whereas Moscow has detected evidence of a major Western disinformation campaign on Iran’s nuclear program, Beijing has been comparatively more reticent, perhaps miscalculating the short- and long-term implications of oil sanctions affecting its energy security. A narrow focus on Iran energy sanctions that neglects to contextualize it within the broader parameters of global, ie, great power rivalry, is self-defeating to both Russia and China.
Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Hans Blix, recently confirmed there is no evidence that Iran is manufacturing nuclear weapons.
Iran’s enrichment activities are fully monitored by the IAEA’s surveillance cameras, there have been regular inspection of Iran’s facilities, some on short notice, and to date the United Nations’ atomic watchdog has not detected any diversion of nuclear material.
Nor has Iran breached its international obligations by seeking to possess a nuclear fuel cycle under the articles of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as confirmed by six former Western ambassadors to Tehran in their opinion column last year.
Western sanctions on Iran would be justifiable only when there was a smoking gun and/or solid evidence of nuclear proliferation on Iran’s part, not the present case, with Iran continuing to implement the terms of its safeguard agreement with the IAEA.
Clearly, the Iran nuclear crisis is good news for the Western military-industrial complex, which profits from the huge sales of Western military hardware to Saudi Arabia and other oil sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf, the latest being the sale of US$30 billion worth of used US fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, much as this translates into an intensified arms race in the oil-rich region.
„If the European Union foolishly follows the American lead against Iran, it will inflict a major wound on its own unity since several European countries including Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain are heavily dependent on Iran’s oil,” says a Tehran University political science professor on the condition of anonymity.
He adds that he expected the oil sanctions to be „watered down” due to the wave of exemptions. „If the West wants to play hard ball with Iran, then they should expect collateral damage to their other ‘safe’ oil supplies, because Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz – even dozens of boats full of Iranian students could do this, as they shut down the British Embassy.” (He was referring to the storming of the British Embassy in Tehran last November, to which Britain responded by expelling Iranian diplomats and ordering the Iranian Embassy in London to close.)
An Iranian flotilla blocking oil tankers at Hormuz might instigate a harsh American military reaction, not unlike Israel’s deadly assault on the Free Gaza flotilla in international waters last year, but with more dire consequences.
Iran’s options to scuttle the free flow of oil to the Western world are not limited to sinking ships at the strait or flexing naval muscles.
Akin to acts of civil disobedience reminiscent of anti-whaling activists, masses of Iranian protesters on boats could play a role in temporary shutting down the waterway so vital to the Western economy.
Before following the US and appeasing Israel (which is nuclear armed), Europeans would be advised to take a healthy pause and think about the dire implications of their planned economic war on Iran.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).