By Vijay Prashad
Threats from the Atlantic powers against Iran intensified over the past six months. Washington and Brussels further tightened the United Nations sanctions regime against Iran (made up of six UN resolutions from July 2006 to June 2010). They menaced Iran with a virtual embargo of its economy.
In late January 2012, the deputy head of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs and national security committee said, "If any disruption happens regarding the sale of Iranian oil, the Strait of Hormuz will definitely be closed."
The United States intimated that a closure of the strait would be a casus belli, sufficient to result in some kind of military show of force. On February 14, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier based in Bahrain triumphantly sailed through the narrow strait in defiance of the Iranian threat.
Closing the strait is not as easy as it sounds. Strong ocean currents combined with an asymmetry of military power make the strait difficult to mine (as the Iranians found in the 1980s) and even harder to blockade.
Studies by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies and by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC) point out that at most the oil lanes would be disrupted for a week. This would be grievous for oil prices, but not catastrophic.
A naval and air assault by the United States to open the strait would be harmful to Iran's people, with almost certain destruction to coastal cities such as Bandar-Abbas. Furthermore, Iran is economically reliant on the export of its oil and because of anemic refining capacity, Iran has to import about a third of its gasoline needs.
Fortunately, the Iranians seem to have set aside the option of blocking the Strait of Hormuz. Instead, on Sunday February 19, the Iranian Oil Ministry decided to suspend delivery of oil to Britain and France, the two countries that have taken the most belligerent stand in the European Union for the embargo that is to begin in June.
Britain and France barely import any Iranian oil. The message is not to London and Paris but to Athens, Madrid and Rome. The ministry warned other European countries to either order fuel immediately or to risk being cut off from Iran's oil fields.
The European countries that are most reliant on Iranian oil are those in the Club Med, the southern European states that are in the throes of economic crisis and austerity. A third of Greece's oil needs come from Iran. Would Athens be able to survive being threatened by the German finance minister, the European Central Bank, the commercial financial sector and now the Iranian Oil Ministry?
But Iran is reliant on oil exports, with the bulk of its foreign exchange bill garnered through crude. If Europe has little access to Iranian oil, and if India is unable to come up with a proper mechanism to buy Iranian oil (India's dilemma: How to pay for Iranian oil Asia Times Online, February 15), who will buy Iranian oil?
Seyed Mohammed Marandi of the University of Tehran tells Asia Times Online, "Two Chinese colleagues have told me over the past few days that the Chinese government feels that China and Iran are in the same boat." News reports from Iran suggest that Tehran and Beijing have agreed to double Iranian oil exports to China to 500,000 barrels per day. Little wonder that Oil Ministry spokesman Ali Reza Nikzad-Rahbar said, "We have our own customers and have no problem to sell and export our crude oil to new customers."
United States Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's Asian journey in mid-January failed to convince the Chinese to join in the isolation of Iran. A Pentagon study ("Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense") released in late January identifies China as the singular threat to US power. 
At one point in the eight-page document, the Pentagon planners put Iran and China into the "same boat": "States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities." A new US military presence in Australia continues the long-term policy of encircling China.
China's Vice President and putative next premier Xi Jinping reacted cautiously, "The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States. We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interests and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries."
Uncharacteristically, China has begun to assert itself onto the world stage as an independent actor. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun traveled to Damascus on February 17 to push for a ceasefire and a political dialogue. The next day, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Liu Weimin told the press, "China hopes that the World Bank will select the next president of the World Bank based on the merit principle of open and fair competition."
In other words, China wanted an alternative to the custom of having an American lead the bank. These gestures of assertion have begun to add up, with the pledge to buy Iranian oil as part of this context.
Left to the side is India (India pivots, and pivots again Asia Times Online, February 9). Prakash Shah, a veteran diplomat and the Indian government's former petroleum advisor to the Gulf, offered a pointed history on the "oil weapon".
When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed countries that supported Israel in 1973, the West responded with moral outrage. How dare the Arab states use oil as a weapon? Shah points out that the West is now using oil as a weapon against Iran.
It is sad, he notes, "that India has been sucked into thinking along similar lines and is worrying about how to pay for the crude it buys from Iran - some 10 percent of our import requirement - without falling foul of Western sanctions, instead of opposing the West's use of oil as a political weapon."
Shah recommends that India, China and Russia must put forward a joint diplomatic initiative to "lower the temperature, persuade the EU and the US to freeze and then slowly withdraw the use of oil sanctions while getting Iran and Israel to back off on all their threats".
Pressure from Athens, Madrid and Rome on Brussels might help the cause of a drawdown from the brinkmanship. But who will bring Washington and Tel Aviv to their senses?
1. See here.
Vijay Prashad is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, United States.
By Pepe Escobar
Imagine the classic United States neo-conservative wet dream; staring at Iran on a map and salivating about the crossroads between Europe and Asia, between the Arab world and the Indian subcontinent, between the Arabian Sea and Central Asia, with 10% of the world's proven oil reserves (over 150 billion barrels) and 15% of proven gas reserves - an energy complex bigger than Saudi Arabia and arbiter of the energy routes from the Persian Gulf to the West and Asia via the Strait of Hormuz.
It's like a pudgy armchair action man mesmerized by a nimble lap dancer. I'm gonna make you mine, honey. It's regime change time, gotta snuff out the owner of this joint. Otherwise, people will start talking; what kind of chicken global hegemon is this?
So the neo-cons got their New Year's Eve Barack Obama administration's Iran sanctions/embargo package, duly replicated by the European poodle parade. But it was not supposed to be like this. The lap dancer leapt from the stage and applied a neck scissors on the armchair action man; he's suffocating, not her. The whole thing is ... misfiring! Just like the latest neo-con Big Idea - the invasion, occupation and inevitable defeat in Iraq, to the tune of more than US$1 trillion.
Baby, sanction me one more time
Let's review some of the latest evidence. Tehran has just sent two of its warships through the Suez Canal towards the Mediterranean; they docked at the Syrian port of Tartus - no less. Not so long ago, disgraced dictator and close House of Saud pal Hosni Mubarak would have probably bombed them.
Tehran cut off oil exports to the top European war poodles, Britain and France. That's only 1% of British imports and 4% of France's imports - but the message was clear; if the depressed Club Med countries insist on following Anglo-French warmongering, they're next.
Brent crude is hitting $121 a barrel - an eight-month high. West Texas Intermediate, traded in New York, is hovering around $105. Brent is crucial, because it sets the consumer price for gasoline in most of the US and Western Europe. The neo-cons swore on their Bibles and Torahs there would be no oil spike. It happened - like clockwork, proving once again their knowledge of market speculation is of a two-year-old (no offense to lovely two-year-olds).
The funds Tehran is losing because of the sanctions - in terms of less exports to Europe - are being largely compensated by the oil-price spike caused by the neo-con-driven warmongering. On top of it, Tehran is bound to sell more oil to its top Asian clients - China, India, Japan and South Korea, and even Turkey, all of whom, with varying degrees of diplomacy, have told Washington to mind its own business.
As Asia Times Online had advanced, it took some time but Iran and China have just closed a new oil pricing deal. And the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is a definitive go. And Afghanistan and Pakistan - as well as Iran - badly want to be admitted at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), accelerating regional economic integration.
The fact that the Israel lobby drafters of the sanctions package couldn't foresee any of this proves once again they live the vegetative life of armchair "action" men.
Neo-con parrots are left to the "sanctions are biting" blah blah blah. Or to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, married to neo-con Robert Kagan, assuring pressure is being put on all these countries so they may do "what they can to increase sanctions, particularly to wean themselves from Iranian crude". Nobody is "weaning" from anything - apart from the self-defeating European poodles.
Also exposed is the myth of Saudi spare capacity. There is none. Saudi reserves are falling at a rate of 3% a year (it's exporting 11.8 million barrels a day, and falling). Moreover, the House of Saud does not want to pump more oil; it needs high oil prices to bribe its own population out of noxious Arab Spring ideas.
Then there's the strawberry on the cheesecake, too delicious to pass up. Goldman Sachs has just placed Iran as one of the "Next 11" in the developing world after the BRICS, only one among five developing nations with above average "productivity and sustainability of growth". Perhaps a Persian Britney Spears should be singing "Baby, sanction me one more time."
Baby, I'm coming to get ya
From the point of view of Washington, the only thing that really counts in the interminable nuclear charade is whether Iran may reach the ability to build a nuclear weapon in record time in case the leadership in Tehran is absolutely sure the US/Israel axis will attack.
That's exactly what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the US Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday; Iran is "more than capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon if its political leaders - specifically the Supreme Leader himself - chooses to do so."
What Clapper didn't specify is that Tehran is enriching uranium to a paltry 3.5%; a nuclear bomb needs 95% - and that would be immediately detected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
If that happens - and that's a major if - there's no way regime change from the outside may be imposed. Thus bye bye to the Big Prize in oil and gas coveted by anyone from realist Dr Zbig Brzezinski to former Darth Vader, Dick Cheney.
So it's Ouroboros all over again - the serpent biting its own tail. We need to bomb to get regime change, so that oily dancer will dance on our wealthy lap.
The problem is neither the Obama administration nor key Pentagon generals are convinced this is a good deal.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E Dempsey, thinks, "It would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us."
And Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress last Thursday, "Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict." No wonder; Dempsey himself admitted that the leadership in Tehran - contrary to relentless neo-con media spin - "is a rational actor".
Does this all matter for the neo-cons and their legion of media shills? Not really. Until they find a sucker to fight a war for them - as in a Republican US president - real cowards will keep going to Tehran, all day and all of the night, in their wettest of wet dreams....