Behind the US-Iran Gulf Confrontation

Iran naval incident Strait of Hormuz

The USS Port Royal, one of three Navy ships that were harassed by five Iranian fast boats.
Zack Baddorf / US Navy/ Reuters

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The only good thing about the recent mess in Pakistan is that it kept a worse mess out of the news: Iran. But that was never going to last, and indeed it didn’t. On Sunday, five armed naval units from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards aggressively challenged three U.S. Navy ships passing into the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. There were no shots fired or damage caused, but no doubt this was an Iranian reminder to the United States that the Gulf is called the Persian Gulf for a reason. And the Iranians chose Hormuz, the only real egress for Gulf oil, to remind us that they have their hand on the world’s oil spigot.

Sunday’s incident didn’t come out of nowhere. These days in Tehran there is real euphoria that Iran is about to turn back the clock to 1763, the year the first British warship passed into the Gulf and established an uninterrupted Western dominance over one of the most strategic bodies of water in the world. Iranian thinking is that the U.S. will get tired of Iraq, leave, and let fall the first domino in a new Persian empire. When Iranian President Ahmadinejad crowed about the National Intelligence Estimate — the one absolving Iran of building a nuclear bomb — being a “declaration of surrender,” he had the Gulf in mind.

Iran isn’t even bothering to hide its imperial grasp. Or that oil is the key to the Gulf’s heart. A contact in a major U.S. oil company told me that Iraq’s Shi’a-led oil ministry has been soliciting the company’s interest in a couple of Iraqi fields. When the company finally took the bait, the Iraqis coyly suggested that the company might want to first pass through Tehran to get an Iranian green light. It was the only way for the U.S. major to secure an Iraqi property. The company of course declined the invitation, but got the not-so-subtle message that Iran is a major player in Iraq.

In fact, many Iraqis are also convinced Iran is the key player in Iraqi oil. In December, Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organization sent a letter to a South Korean firm threatening to halt its crude oil allocation unless South Korean companies halt oil investment in the Kurdish regions of Iraq. The Kurds claim that Iran was behind the letter — just as they maintain that Iran is holding up an Iraqi oil law that would allow the Kurds to open their region to foreign investment. As far as the Kurds are concerned, Iran intends to monopolize every drop of oil exported from Iraq. And maybe one day from the Gulf.

Let’s face it, given the opportunity, Iran would take the Gulf and its oil, the only reason we care about that miserable body of water. Sixty per cent of the world’s reserves sit underneath its shores, and 17 million barrels of crude oil exports pass daily through the Strait of Hormuz. Should the Iranians ever find themselves in a position to close it, Americans would pay for a gallon of gas — what, $10? It’s no wonder that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards decided on Hormuz to draw a line in the sand.

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