|By Kaveh L Afrasiabi |
For all the talk of the United States long-standing hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, its military superiority is not without shortfalls that, in turn, show significant flaws in its ability to maintain a "credible military threat" against Iran, the stand that nowadays complements its coercive diplomacy vis-a-vis Irans nuclear program.
With the next round of talks between Iran and the "P5+1" (also known as the "Iran Six", the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia - plus Germany) nations scheduled in Iraq on May 23, Washington has skillfully combined the carrot of softening its "red line" by reportedly considering the option of tolerating Irans low-enriched uranium program, with the "long stick" of adding new layers of military threats aimed at convincing Tehran to be beware that, should the Baghdad talks fail, the wrath of Uncle Sam is likely to fall.
This is in light of the widely-disseminated news over the weekend that the US has deployed its latest generation of stealth bombers at "Irans doorway", possibly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is in dispute with Tehran over the three islands of Abu Musa, Little Tub and Big Tunb, strategically situated near the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States has deployed a number of stealth jets, its most modern, fifth-generation fighter bomber, to an air base in Southwest Asia, according to the US Air Force, the Washington Post reported. The service would not say where the F-22 Raptors would be based, but the US military has recently moved other assets into the Persian Gulf amid concerns about a confrontation with Iran, the paper added.
The tacit message sent to Tehran is that the US is now poised to attack Irans nuclear facilities, especially the bunkered one known as Fordo, if Iran refuses the USs demands. Also, it indicates a new tilt in the UAEs favor, in light of pro-UAE statements by the US and a number of European officials with regards to the three islands, often referred to Iranian media as "Irans aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf", in reference to Irans occasional forays into the idea of militarizing those islands by placing missiles and other military hardware that would improve Irans counter-strike capability.
"Those islands were legally ceded to Iran in 1971 by the British government before the independence of the UAE and it took the UAE 20 years to complain about them to United Nations, which refused to take action in 1992. This was part of a double deal between Tehran and London, the other one concerning Bahrain that was historically owned by Iran and yet Tehran agreed to forfeit its claim," said a Tehran political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity.
Since President Mahmud Ahmadinejads visit to Abu Musa three weeks ago, the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have embarked on a virulent international campaign to renew the UAEs sovereignty claim over the islands as well as calls on Iran to consent to arbitration by the International Court of Justice, rejected by Iran that insists its agreement with Great Britain is valid as a matter of international law and there is no need for the ICJs intervention.
A UAE military official has threatened to rain military hell on those islands, a threat that Tehran cannot ignore in light of the USs growing proclivity to side with the UAE against Iran.
Hypothetically, if the UAE somehow managed to wrest those islands from Irans hands, then the US could conceivably overcome its present military deficit in the Strait of Hormuz by joining the UAE forces in protecting those islands and offsetting any Iranian move to scuttle oil flows in the event of a military flare-up.
This is reason enough for Iran to openly contemplate beefing up its military presence in the Persian Gulf and fortifying the three islands considered as "integral parts of Iran". The consensus in Iran is that as long as Iran has the choking capability in the Strait of Hormuz the US would not dare to attack Iran since the results for the world economy would be disastrous.
Inevitably, the three islands play a key role in the current geostrategic calculations that, no matter how the compliant US media pundits cut it, favors Iran in some respects.
Add to this the economic factor - ie, the several hundred billion dollars of Iranian capital in the UAE, the burgeoning trade and sizable presence of an Iranian merchant class there - that on the whole weighs heavily on the UAEs calculations vis-a-vis Iran and, bottom line, pose a significant bar to the military option.
In a word, the ties of economic interdependence may well suffer a long-term setback in a military scenario, to the detriment of a UAE that is still grappling with the recent economic meltdown.
Meanwhile, a number of Irans parliamentary deputies have renewed Irans discourse on collective security in Persian Gulf, thus complementing Irans hard power strategy with the soft power approach that focuses on "shared security concerns" and the like.
The idea first emerged during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the early 1990s (Iran unveils a Persian Gulf security plan Asia Times Online, April 14, 2007) and now has the added benefit of potentially counting on Iraq, which under Saddam Hussein zeroed in on the three islands to rally Arab support, as a junior partner.
The mere prospect of an Iran-Iraq concert in the Persian Gulf has rattled the GCC states to the point that they are now trying to influence Washingtons Iraq policy to shift in favor of the rebellious Kurds, but only to the point of weakening the central government in Baghdad yet short of a break-up of an Arab state.
This is playing with fire since Iraqi Kurds have their own plan of action that reflects a growing concert with non-Arab Turkey, in light of the recent Ankara visit by Kurdish leader Masoud Barazani, coinciding with the Tehran visit by Iraqs Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
All this involves a complex interaction between nuclear, security and economic issues and other considerations that has introduced policy headaches for Washington - that suffers from noticeable military deficits in its traditional turf - the Persian Gulf, informally coined an "American lake".
A huge influx of ground forces incurring major expenses for Pentagons shrinking budget would be required to compensate for those deficits, simply because air and naval power alone does not suffice.
Fully cognizant of those limitations, Tehran remains unconvinced of the "credible" in the USs military postures cited above, seen simply as maneuvers bordering on bluff more than anything else.
In essence, this means that Iran remains the custodian and gatekeeper of the Strait of Hormuz for the indefinite future, thanks in part to its vital possession of the three islands.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Irans 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).