Pressure builds on Iran as EU targets Tehran’s economic jugular

The EU’s proposed embargo on Iranian oil exports represents a significant development in the effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear intentions. This is a high-risk strategy, but the right one

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects centrifuges at a uranium enrichment plant
George Grant
On 6 January 2012 09:55

Although this is not a scenario to be written-off lightly the reality is that these developments should be taken for what they really are: posturing. Although sizeable, Iran’s dilapidated armed forces do not constitute any match for the US navy, which maintains two fleets in the region, the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean and the 5th fleet off Bahrain, and the White House has been very clear in its assertions that it will not allow any such blockade to happen.

For its part, the UK has at least eight vessels in the Gulf, including a nuclear powered submarine, a frigate and minesweepers. Our own Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, himself warned yesterday that “Any attempt by Iran to [blockade the Strait] would be illegal and unsuccessful”, and he’s almost certainly right. As Bradley Russell and Max Boot reminded us in Wednesday’s  Wall Street Journal, the Iranians have attempted such a blockade before, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and it failed miserably.

If and when the EU does impose the agreed sanctions, the regime has responded by insisting that it will simply find new buyers to replace the Europeans: “We could very easily replace these customers,” S. M. Qamsari, International Director of the National Iranian Oil Co, was reported as saying yesterday. But that too will be easier said than done. The EU is currently Iran’s second biggest export partner, after China, and EU members make up four of the world’s 10 biggest oil importing states. Although alternative buyers may eventually be found, this will not be without severe disruptions to Iranian exports in the interim.

With Iran’s economy already faltering, its currency has fallen to record lows against the US dollar, there are signs that the regime is starting to get nervous. In addition to the bluster, Iran’s leaders have been sending out more conciliatory signals in the past few weeks, inviting senior UN nuclear inspectors back into the country, and suggesting a resumption of long-stalled talks with the G5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the US and Germany).

Whether such talks, if they were to resume, would yield genuine progress remains highly dubious. Hitherto Iran has merely used negotiations as a stalling tactic to fend off further sanctions whilst pressing ahead with their nuclear ambitions regardless.

As Barack Obama discovered to his cost early on in his presidency, this is not a regime that responds productively to olive branches. Tehran will not desist in its nuclear ambitions so long as it retains the resources and capabilities necessary to bring the programme to its conclusion.

There should be absolutely no doubting that efforts to deny the regime this capability represent a very high-risk strategy. Given the fundamental importance of this programme to Tehran’s strategic objectives, the possibility of a further deterioration of relations and the dangers that may bring is real.

The EU and the US recognise, however, that a nuclear-armed Iran represents a still-greater threat to regional and international security. On that basis these proposed sanctions represent a significant step. What happens in the next few weeks may be telling indeed.

George Grant is the Director for Global Security at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank in London, UK

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