If Iran has always been geographically part of the regional context of Central Asia and the Caucasus, Tehran's geopolitical orientation has historically been focused southward, on the Persian Gulf. For more than a century, Iranian interests in the area were limited to dealing with Russia's -- and later the Soviet Union's -- expansionism. The end of the Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union opened new opportunities on Iran's northern borders, even if Iran remained more preoccupied with the need for domestic reconstruction following the war with Iraq.
In the past 15 years, however, Tehran has been particularly active in trying to create a deep net of institutional and economic links in the region, in part to counter the increasing reach of Turkey, perceived as an American proxy, and of Pakistan, historically an enemy of Iran. Such an approach has been characterized by the "pragmatism" typical of Iran's post-revolutionary leadership. Eschewing the idea of exporting revolution, Iran has instead tried to improve ties with all the countries of the region, focusing on those with which it shares cultural and historical links. This explains the strong attention paid by Tehran to Tajikistan and Afghanistan, which represent cornerstones of the Iranian strategy in the region. At the same time, a clear example of Iran's pragmatism is the close relationship it has forged with Armenia, cemented by the common interest of containing Azerbaijan.
Iran's ultimate goal is to become a technological and economic power in the region, and to this end, Tehran is supplementing its cultural and historical links with a more resolute economic presence, including investments in massive infrastructure projects.
WASHINGTON - United States President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are engaged in intense maneuvering over Netanyahu's aim of entangling the United States in an Israeli war against Iran.
Netanyahu is exploiting the extraordinary influence his right-wing Likud Party exercises over the Republican Party and the US Congress on matters related to Israel in order to maximize the likelihood that the US would participate in an attack on Iran.
Obama, meanwhile, appears to be hoping that he can avoid being caught up in a regional war started by Israel if he distances the United States from any Israeli attack.
New evidence surfaced in 2011 that Netanyahu had been serious about dealing a military blow to the Iranian nuclear program, which is suspected in some circles of being designed to produce nuclear weapons - something Tehran denies.
Former Mossad (Israeli intelligence) chief Meir Dagan, who left his job in September 2010, revealed in his first public appearance after Mossad on June 2 that he, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin had been able to "block any dangerous adventure" by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The Hebrew language daily Maariv reported that those three, along with President Shimon Peres and IDF senior commander Gadi Eisenkrot, had vetoed a 2010 proposal by Netanyahu to attack Iran.
Dagan said he was going public because he was "afraid there is no one to stop Bibi and Barak". Dagan also said an Israeli attack on Iran could trigger a war that would "endanger the [Israeli] state's existence", indicating that his revelation was not part of a psy-war campaign.
It is generally agreed that an Israeli attack could only temporarily set back the Iranian nuclear program, at significant risk to Israel. But Netanyahu and Barak hope to draw the US into the war to create much greater destruction and perhaps the overthrow of the Islamic regime.
In a sign that the Obama administration is worried that Netanyahu is contemplating an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried and failed in early October to get a commitment from Netanyahu and Barak that Israel would not launch an attack on Iran without consulting Washington first, according to both Israeli and US sources cited by The Telegraph and by veteran intelligence reporter Richard Sale.
At a meeting with Obama a few weeks later, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and the new head of CENTCOM, General James N Mattis, expressed their disappointment that he had not been firm enough in opposing an Israeli attack, according to Sale.
Obama responded that he "had no say over Israel" because "it is a sovereign country".
Obama's remark seemed to indicate a desire to distance his administration from an Israeli attack on Iran. But it also made it clear that he was not going to tell Netanyahu that he would not countenance such an attack.
Trita Parsi, executive director of the National Iranian American Council, who has analyzed the history of the triangular relationship involving the United States, Israel and Iran in his book Treacherous Alliance, says knowledgeable sources tell him Obama believes he can credibly distance himself from an Israeli attack.
In a December 2 talk at the Brookings Institution, while discussing the dangers of the regional conflict that would result from such an attack, Panetta said the US "would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, sinking our ships, striking our military bases".
Panetta's statement could be interpreted as an effort to convince Iran that the Obama administration is opposed to an Israeli strike and should not be targeted by Iran in retaliation if Israel does launch an attack.
Parsi believes Obama's calculation that he can convince Iran that the US has no leverage on Israel without being much tougher with Israel is not realistic.
"Iran most likely would decide not to target US forces in the region in retaliation for an Israeli strike only if the damage from the strike were relatively limited," Parsi told Inter Press Service (IPS) in an e-mail.
The Obama administration considers the newest phase of sanctions against Iran, aimed at reducing global imports of Iranian crude oil, as an alternative to an unprovoked attack by Israel. But what Netanyahu had in mind in proposing such an initiative was much more radical than the Obama administration or the European Union (EU) could accept.
When Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is closely aligned with Netanyahu's Likud Party, pushed the idea of sanctions against any financial institution that did business with Iran's central bank, the aim was to make it impossible for countries that import Iranian crude to continue to be able to make payments for the oil.
Dubowitz wanted virtually every country importing Iranian crude except China and India to cut off their imports. He argued that reducing the number of buyers to mainly China and India would not result in a rise in the price of oil, because Iran would have to offer discounted prices to the remaining buyers.
Global oil analysts warned, however, that such a sanctions regime could not avoid creating a spike in oil prices.
United States officials told Reuters on November 8 that sanctions on Iran's central bank were "not on the table". The Obama administration was warning that such sanctions would risk a steep rise in oil prices worldwide and a worsening global recession, while actually increasing Iranian oil revenues.
But Netanyahu used the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee over congressional action related to Israel to override Obama's opposition. The senate unanimously passed an amendment representing Netanyahu's position on sanctions focused on Iran's oil sector and the central bank, despite a letter from Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner opposing it. A similar amendment was passed by the House on December 15.
The Obama administration acquiesced and entered into negotiations with its European allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on reducing imports of Iranian crude oil while trying to fill the gaps with other sources. But a number of countries, including Japan and Korea, are begging off, and the EU is insisting on protecting Greece and other vulnerable economies.
The result is likely to be a sanctions regime that reduces Iranian exports only marginally - not the "crippling sanctions" demanded by Netanyahu and Barak. Any hike in oil prices generated by sanctions against Iran's oil sector, moreover, would only hurt Obama's re- election chances.
In an interview with CNN in November, Barak warned the international community that Israel might have to make a decision on war within as little as six months, because Iran's efforts to "disperse and fortify" its nuclear facilities would soon render a strike against facilities ineffective.
Barak said he "couldn't predict" whether that point would be reached in "two quarters or three quarters or a year". The new Israeli "red line" would place the timing of an Israeli decision on whether to strike Iran right in the middle of the US presidential election campaign.
Netanyahu, who makes no secret of his dislike and distrust of Obama, may hope to put Obama under maximum pressure to support Israel militarily in a war with Iran by striking during a campaign in which the Republican candidate would be accusing him of being soft on the Iranian nuclear threat.
If the Republican candidate is in a strong position to win the election, on the other hand, Netanyahu would want to wait for a new administration aligned with his belligerent posture toward Iran.
Meanwhile, the end of US Air Force control over Iraqi airspace with the final US military withdrawal from Iraq has eliminated what had long been regarded as a significant deterrent to an Israeli attack on Iran using the shortest route.....lol lol LOL
The possibility of a confrontation between the United States and Iran appeared to grow Tuesday after the Obama administration dismissed an Iranian warning against moving a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, saying the deployment was crucial to "the security and stability of the region."
Fears that a crisis could disrupt Gulf tanker traffic carrying some 40 percent of the world's sea-borne oil drove international petroleum prices up by more than $4 a barrel, a potential threat to U.S. and global economies struggling to emerge from recession.
The rising tensions come as the U.S. and Europe target Iran's crucial oil revenues for the first time in an intensification of sanctions against Tehran for rejecting repeated U.N. demands to halt its nuclear program. The program is widely thought to be secretly developing nuclear arms, which Iran denies.
The Iranian currency, the rial, plunged to a record low against the U.S. dollar, reportedly triggering a run on banks by Iranians anxious to convert their savings into the American currency before the exchange rate worsens.
Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the Iranian army chief, warned that Iran would take unspecified action if a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Stennis — which leads a strike group of five warships — re-enters the Gulf. The carrier departed the waterway last week as Iran conducted naval exercises.
"We recommend and warn the aircraft carrier not to return to its previous position in the Persian Gulf," Press TV, a state-run English-language satellite news channel, quoted Salehi as saying. "We are not in the habit of repeating a warning and we warn only once."
The United States rejected the warning, declaring that "the deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf will continue as it has for decades."
"These are regularly scheduled movements in accordance with our long-standing commitments to the security and stability of the region and in supporting ongoing operations," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney sought to minimize the threat, portraying it as a bid by Tehran to divert its people's attention from their worsening economic plight and growing international isolation.
Salehi's comments are "confirmation that Tehran is under increasing pressure," Carney said.
Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, which advises corporations on foreign policy risks, said he thought the Iranian threat amounted to bluster because of the harm that a confrontation with the United States would do to Iran's struggling economy.
"It would be economic suicide for them, but they are absolutely willing to push the needle here because the stakes are high and they are being squeezed," he said.
But Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who's with Tufts University's Fletcher School for international affairs, said Salehi's comment appeared to push tensions to a new level.
"You now have a situation where you could have a cycle of events that could basically escalate into a conflict that neither side may necessarily be planning for," Nasr said.
Salehi's threat is the most aggressive of a series of saber-rattling statements that Iran has issued since November, when the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Tehran could be working secretly on a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile.
Moreover, by saying that Iran wouldn't issue the United States another warning, Salehi's statement appeared to box in Tehran, limiting its diplomatic options and opening the regime to ridicule at home if it fails to make good on its pledge to act if the Stennis returns.
The latest frictions follow threats by Tehran to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passageway at the Gulf's southern end, if the West imposes an oil embargo on Iran, a move that the European Union is expected to take later this month. But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, speaking Tuesday in a television interview, said the 27-nation EU should impose even harsher sanctions.
An EU diplomat, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Juppe wanted the bloc to follow the lead of the United States, which imposed new sanctions last week that deny access to the U.S. financial system to foreign entities that do business with Iran's central bank, which handles most payments for Iranian oil and gas exports. The exports account for some 60 percent of Iran's economy.
The legislation represented a major expansion of unilateral U.S. sanctions against Tehran, which also is under EU measures and four rounds of U.N. sanctions.
However, the EU, which imports roughly one-quarter of its oil from Iran but has been shifting to other suppliers, is split over targeting the Iranian central bank, the diplomat said.
Nasr said that targeting Iran's main source of revenue was pushing "the stakes higher than they've ever been. Never before have they actually been cut out of the oil market."
"Things have changed," Bremmer said. "The countries that actually get oil from Iran in Europe have new governments that are prepared to take a harder line."
Even China, which has been one of Iran's few major defenders by pushing for watered-down U.N. sanctions, has reduced its purchases of Iranian oil and is relying on Saudi Arabia to make up the difference.
Saudi Arabia, no friend of Iran, is producing 9.5 million to 10 million barrels per day of oil, according to Saudi and OPEC data. The kingdom has production capacity in the range of 11.5 million to 12 million barrels per day, and it's widely considered the oil producer of last resort.
"The Saudis should be able to just about make it up," said John Kilduff, a veteran oil analyst for Again Capital in New York. "The good news is that the Iranian oil and Saudi oil are pretty much the same composition."
U.S. military officials expressed little worry that Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz for long given the American naval presence in the region and the economic costs to Iran. However, Iran could disrupt shipping traffic — and keep global oil prices high — by releasing mines into the strait or simply announcing that it had done so.
Either act could compel the United States to deploy a task force of minesweeping helicopters and ships now stationed in Manama, Bahrain. Those vessels and aircraft could be vulnerable to Iranian attacks, however, forcing the deployment of a protective screen of additional American ships. Such a step would cost the U.S. military much more than the cost to Iran of dispensing mines.
The Stennis strike group steamed out of the Gulf on Dec. 27 into the Arabian Sea, where its aircraft have been supporting U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. It departed as Iran conducted a 10-day naval exercise in the southern portion of the waterway during which it test-fired missiles.
Little, the Pentagon spokesman, made it clear that the flotilla wouldn't be deterred from returning, saying that U.S. Navy vessels would be operating "under international maritime conventions . . . to ensure the continued, safe flow of maritime traffic in waterways critical to global commerce."
Nancy A. Youssef