Hormuz alarm bells

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 14 Jul 2012

Iran's supreme guide believes that making a nuclear bomb is a simulation of the North Korean model, and a safety measure for his regime in the coming quarter of a century

Iranian ships participate in a naval parade on the last day of the Velayat-90 war game on the Sea of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran January 3, 2012. REUTERS

Although talks in Istanbul last week failed between experts and technicians of the P5+1 -- the third such meeting in the past two months after talks in Baghdad and Moscow -- a significant development occurred on the eve of talks, a source close to the talks told the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Iran proposed a plan to build a nuclear-fuelled submarine, in an attempt to legitimise its uranium enrichment project, and argued that using nuclear material as vessel fuel is a peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The Iranian project to manufacture a nuclear submarine would not be a problem for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (RG) that owns production capabilities, whether or not they need it. But the reasons why the Islamic Republic is pursuing this project have puzzled Western states.

For Iranian expert Ali Nourzadah, director of the Arab-Iranian Studies Centre, the answer is obvious. Iran's Supreme Guide Sayed Ali Khamenei has a flawed vision about his country's ability to reproduce the North Korean nuclear model in Iran, he told Al-Ahram Online in a telephone interview from London. Tehran was able to acquire nine nuclear bombs that have deterred the US for attacking it.

"Khamenei told several advisers that if Iran had possessed one nuclear bomb, the revolution and rule of the clerics would be protected for at least another 25 years during confrontations with the US and Israel," Nourzadah said, even though Washington views this as a red line and Tel Aviv sees it as a much more serious infraction.

It is true that Tehran has the capability to manufacture such vessels and submarines, but within limits. The RG sometimes holds war games and sees US aircraft carriers cruising in the Gulf guarded by six to seven vessels and a nuclear submarine below the surface. This is a temptation for them, according to Brigadier Safwat El-Zayat who has spoken to several Iranians in close to military strategies. Iran's normal submarines that run on diesel fuel require refuelling from time to time, and every few years need to be changed. On the other hand, nuclear energy can operate for 15-20 years.

"I asked Iranians whether there are commercial ships that can reach the Indian Ocean and beyond without escort protection of this kind of submarine," stated El-Zayat. He viewed them as exaggerations in the media by Tehran, which has high aspirations about what he termed as the negotiations battle in several directions. These include assassinations of its nuclear scientists, stifling sanctions including the latest by the EU on Iranian oil imports. The difficulties are not in oil exports to Europe, but 90 per cent of insurance companies in the Eurozone that protect the passage of Iranian oil to North Korea are outside this zone.

Iran is also jockeying with other international players. While it attends talks in Moscow, Iran's Shura Council threatens it will pass a law to close the Straits of Hormuz as Great Prophet 7 war games were taking place. Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that his country will bear the unbearable, sending a message to the world that Iran will survive these sanctions.

"It seems that the Iranian regime is dismissive of social conditions in the country under sanctions," opined Nourzadah, "especially after the value of its currency was slashed by half when sanctions were imposed on the Central Bank, followed by a ban on oil exports to EU countries." He added: "The Iranian regime is parading in front of its people the Syrian model and is waiting to see what will happen there, although it is unlikely that the Iranian street will wait much longer."

The Straits of Hormuz are a lifeline for Gulf oil supplies to the outside world, and an international treaty on international corridors signed in 1958 under the Shah stipulates that the straits are an international corridor that is not subject to local sovereignty, according to what is known as law of the sea convention. However, the regime of the supreme guide did not sign the treaty on transit passage, which gives parliament the right to condone the closing of the straits if the issue is referred to the Guardian Council.

"If Tehran closes the Straits of Hormuz it will be equivalent to a declaration of war," argued Fathi El-Maraghi, an expert on Iranian affairs at Ain Shams University. "It will also give Arab countries reason for more aggressive responses to Iran that might go beyond sanctions, because Iran will be rattling its sabre," El-Maraghi said.

Suddenly, Iran reversed its combative tone and several statements were made that the Straits of Hormuz will not be closed, although El-Zayat believes it could shut down the waterway for 11-15 weeks but that would be political folly. Now the US is also flaunting its powers by unprecedented mobilisation in the Gulf, using F-22 jets for the first time -- which Washington may not have even used before the war in Libya. He added that the RG may not shut down the Straits of Hormuz but it could hamper navigation in the waterway through suicide missions or mines or firing Cruise missiles across the Zagros Mountains.

Experts anticipate a war scenario and Nourzadah stated that Washington obtained a pledge from Tel Aviv not to go to war against Tehran before the upcoming presidential elections. The question now is whether Israel will keep its word. Nourzadah believes Israel will probably continue its policy of attrition of Iran's nuclear programme. If there are reports, however, that Iran is close to manufacturing a nuclear bomb, it will breach its promise to the Obama administration and the US will be forced to go to war the next day without a choice.

"Israel is closely watching the dramatic changes taking place in Arab Spring countries and the Islamist rise there," Jackie Khoury, a political analyst and 1948 Arab who is an expert on Arab affairs, wrote in Haaretz newspaper. "The most it can do right now is a sweeping operation to cripple progress in the nuclear programme, like it did with the Iraqi reactor Osirak. It will keep in mind, however, Arab reactions because it knows this would destablise the region and open several fronts that it will not be able to repel at once.

El-Zayat agrees with this analysis, but noted that a strike similar to Israel's attack against Syria's Deir Al-Zur reactor three years ago is more likely, since the operation was backed by the US to avoid confrontation on several fronts at once. Thus, it will be very cautious about initiating an attack irrespective of how far the Iranian nuclear programme progresses, because Tel Aviv's plan would be fraught with danger. Meanwhile, Iran is unlikely to take another step beyond "advanced nuclear capabilities", meaning that it will stop just before the manufacturing phase because circumstances are not conducive for that either. This phase will end once Tehran leaves the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

For now, more talks are expected that will deepen the chasm between Iran and the world, according to Nourzadah. "Israel has infiltrated Iran and its nuclear programme, and knows well how far Tehran has gone in manufacturing the bomb. Therefore, if we are surprised by an attack on Iran, we will know that Tehran was very close to this capability -- perhaps only one month away from production. At such a time, the possible scenarios are endless."

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