Last time, I talked about the gambit being run by the US (holding out international gasoline sanctions against Tehran’s continued unsupervised nuclear activity) and Iran’s response (kidnapping of three Americans and the occupation of a southern Iraqi oil well). Now, let’s look at the game itself.
Iran has assumed that as long as the arena chosen by the West consists of “sanctions” or “negotiations”, time was on Tehran’s side, since as long as multinational companies were willing to deal with Iran, sanctions by their home countries are meaningless; and they have never negotiated in good faith (only using the endless talks to occupy the West while Iran continues to work).
We have assumed that the West has until some “line in the sand” of developmental progress has been crossed before precipitous action had to be taken. Although that “line” has never been articulated, it is presumed to be some milestone such as the confirmed presence of highly enriched uranium (HEU), or overhead imagery of an underground testing facility under construction, something like that.
Both of those assumptions are flawed.
We have revealed that the West is willing to go beyond meaningless government-based sanctions, and deal directly with the companies involved, foreclosing vast market opportunities to them for non-compliance. While Russia, PRC and Venezuela could make up most of the slack, it would require an extremely painful ramp-up, during which an already volatile Iranian population could ignite. This changes the game by morphing the threat to Iran from rhetorical to existential.
If we employ such a policy, we will have raised Iran’s call – we will have “ignored” their taking of Americans and occupation of an oil well, and moved beyond the proxy stage to applying pressure directly on the Iranian economy (and possibly given succor to Iranian dissidents). I don’t know anyone in or out of government that expects this would lead Tehran to cave and open their full nuclear program to international inspection and future supervision of their enrichment activities. Therefore we should expect Iran to re-raise.
Typically, when the international situation displeases Iran (e.g., progress on Arab/Israeli peace talks), Tehran has worked to raise the price of oil. This was partly why they chose to occupy a disputed Iraqi oil site (oil did blip upward), and they could simply detonate the well-head and leave – that would spike (if temporarily) spot-price on Light Arabian Crude, which is the index for world oil prices. More likely, the ayatollahs would choose to do something more dramatic and foreboding. They could cast far more doubt in Western capitals by harassing shipping in the Gulf. This would directly threaten 70% of the West’s oil supply. Aside from oil price spikes, insurance for tankers and freighters navigating the Gulf would also spike. They could use proxies (Hizbollah, pirates, etc) to disable/sink a tanker exiting the Gulf. Same effect. These spikes would be more permanent than any caused by an isolated incident in Basra (which wouldn’t affect Lloyd’s rates at all).
While the above punishes the West (sans Israel), they may try to localize their response to America, and that they could do by diddling in Iraq or Afghanistan. With Wednesday’s announcement by the Taliban that they are surging into Afghanistan to meet the new American troops, Iran would be better served by concentrating on Iraq. They could fire up the suburbs of Baghdad again, or use al Qaeda’s trick of sparking sectarian violence by striking at Sunni symbols in the cities. They could simply flood their operatives with RPGs, Symtex, and such, and send in controllers to run Tehran-developed operations against specific targets. The idea would be to rub the White House’s face in the fact that Tehran can destabilize Iraq anytime it wishes.
Iran’s third tool – Hizbollah – wouldn’t be that useful at this point in the game. Renewed activity in the Levant would occupy Israel, but Israel isn’t the problem with the gasoline threat. Tehran would probably hold this option for a time when the ayatollahs believe that an Israeli strike is eminent, tying up Israeli forces (particularly their air assets) in a domestic or near-domestic crisis.
Whatever Iran decides to do, it will be after they have initiated their hedge gasoline operation, so if anyone in the White House is watching Chinese and Venezuelan shipping or monitoring Russian pipeline activity through Azerbaijan, we should know the approximate timing of an Iranian response. We should insert two additional hunter-killer submarines into the Gulf to face and monitor the Iranian coastline, watching for small boat operations. They could be moved around and positioned with the help of overhead imaging. These subs should be equipped to launch land-attack cruise missiles to answer anti-ship missile launches from Iranian soil. Iran also operates half a dozen mini-subs, which should be located and tracked.
Until Iran’s intentions are disclosed, we should vastly improve border surveillance (Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, etc, in addition to satellites) watching for staging and transport of weapons and personnel, and unusual traffic toward the Iraqi border. Under present circumstances, the taking of prisoners should not be encouraged. If and when the White House decides to engage in a gasoline embargo, withdrawals from Iraq should cease, as troops might be needed to rush to the border, or fill-in for those who do. The hiatus should last as long as Iraq is part of an Iranian response.
Whatever course we take, it should be remembered that Hizbollah and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry (VEVAK, Persian: وزارت اطلاعات جمهوری اسلامی Vezarat-e Ettela’at Jomhuri-e Eslami) have agents in the US, and will be aware if we are doing anything prophylactically or just ignoring possible Iranian ratcheting-up of the situation. We might do well to take a page out of Norman Schwarzkopf’s book and “leak” preparations for some rapid reaction response in, say, the Mediterranean theater (or some such ruse).
All of this, of course, assumes that Mr Obama is serious about Iran.
 We could increase this perception by President Obama publicly stating that we stand behind “all peoples being repressed by their governments.” And follow up with Persian radio and TV broadcasts into Iran from bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and via satellite.
 Tehran will have plenty of time to make arrangements and draw contracts before we actually get around doing anything about the threat of gasoline sanctions.