News about Iran is so sensitive these days that any incremental step reverberates all the way to our local gas pumps.
On Friday, oil prices eased after Iran delivered its formal response to an international offer of economic incentives for that nation to suspend major portions of its nuclear program.
The content of the response hadn’t even been disclosed. Still oil prices dropped more than $1 a barrel.
So all of us have a stake in the developments this week as markets digest the substance of Iran’s response (agreeing to talks but not concessions, according to several reports published today) and G8 leaders meeting in Japan discuss Iran as well as soaring oil prices, global warming and other issues.
Any talks that emerge from this latest give-and-take with OPEC’s second-largest oil producer will come against an ominous backdrop, painted by recent events.
What will Israel do?
Iran insists that its uranium-enrichment program is for civilian purposes and is legal under the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But Israel sees it as a looming threat. And military maneuvers Israel conducted over the Mediterranean last month were widely viewed as a rehearsal for attacking Iran.
America’s top military officer took the unusual step last week of warning that an Israeli airstrike against Iran would make the Middle East even less stable than it is now and add to the stress on overworked American forces in the region, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The comments by Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came days after he visited Israel amid growing international concern that Jerusalem is actively considering such an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful for us,” he said, referring to the prospect of a direct clash with Iran while fighting continues in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t need it to be more unstable.”
Mullen has expressed concerns for several months about the risks posed to U.S. troops in Iraq by any strike on Iran, Defense Department officials told the Times. Until now, though, those warnings had been made privately.
It isn’t clear how the White House views Mullen’s public airing of his worries. President Bush has said he favors diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis. But he also has said that military options remain open and that he will not stand in Israel’s way if it responds to what it sees as a threat.
What is the U.S. doing?
Meanwhile, veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said in the latest issue of the New Yorker that the United States has effectively launched a secret war against Iran with $400 million in funding approved by Congress’ Democratic leaders.
Quoting mostly unnamed sources, Hersh said that late last year congressional leaders agreed in secret to funding “a major escalation of covert operations against Iran.” They were responding to a classified “Presidential Finding” from the White House outlining a strategy for destabilizing the country’s religious leadership, Hersh said. The covert activities involve supporting certain dissident groups as well as gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.
Hersh acknowledged that covert operations in Iran are nothing new. Indeed, the CIA supported the regime that Iranians overthrew in 1979. Ever since, Iran’s ruling mullahs have gained political favor by stressing that “the Great Satan” was a constant threat.
And, of course, Iran has its own stealth operations in the region.
“The Iranians make little effort to hide their own covert-action campaigns — including extensive financial and military support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza,” The Washington Post’s David Ignatius said in analysis published by Real Clear Politics.
“The Iranians have used Syria effectively as a platform for these intelligence operations, from political action to paramilitary operations to clandestine terrorism,” Ignatius said.
What’s new now, Hersh said, is that the scale and scope of American secret operations have “been significantly expanded.”
What can Congress do?
Further, Congress has lost control of its oversight of the operations, Hersh reported, quoting Rep. David Obey. The Wisconsin Democrat chairs the Appropriations Committee, which has the power to influence policy by controlling funding for the CIA and other key agencies.
“Obey declined to comment on the specifics of the operations in Iran, but he did tell me that the White House reneged on its promise to consult more fully with Congress,” Hersh reported.
According to the New Yorker report, Obey said, “I suspect there’s something going on, but I don’t know what to believe. (Vice President Dick) Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran, and if he had more time he’d find a way to do it.”
What will Iran do?
Without speaking to the substance of the Hersh article, Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, Bloomberg reported on Sunday.
Up to 40 percent of the world’s daily supply of oil is shipped through the strait between Iran and Oman at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
A top Iranian military commander told the Fars news agency, “All countries should know that if Iran’s interests in the region are ignored, it is natural that we will not allow others to use the waterway,” Bloomberg reported. The statement was attributed to Iran’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabadi.
In response, a U.S. military official said that any closure of the Strait would be treated as an act of war, the Associated Press reported.
Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the 5th Fleet, made the warning during talks with naval commanders of Gulf countries in the United Arab Emirates, the AP said. The 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, across the Gulf from Iran.
“We will not allow Iran to close it,” Cosgriff told reporters.
The narrow Strait has been the scene of recent close encounters in the mounting tension. On Jan. 6, five small Iranian speedboats charged U.S. warships and threatened to blow up the convoy. In mid-December, a U.S. ship fired a warning shot at an Iranian boat that came too close, causing the Iranians to pull back.
The British have also tangled with the Iranians in the Gulf, the AP noted. Last year, Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines while they were searching a merchant ship off the coast of Iraq. Iran released the Britons after almost two weeks.
There is only one clear point in all of this intrigue: Satisfying the world’s thirst for oil is increasingly complicated and dangerous.
Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.