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Persian Gulf Storm Clouds

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
January 4, 2012

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U.S. defense officials say they will continue to deploy warships in the Persian Gulf, despite Iranian threats to act if the U.S. Navy moved an aircraft carrier to the area. Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday that authorities would not permit the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial passageway for global oil shipments. Iranian comments followed Western moves to ratchet up sanctions on Iran's central bank and oil exports (Reuters). The sanctions are tied to concerns over Iran's nuclear program, which Western states fear is cover for a weapons program. Officials in Tehran have repeatedly denied this. On Tuesday, Iran's foreign ministry said it is waiting to return to talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

What's at Stake

There has been rising concern in some capitals that Iran's ongoing uranium enrichment program and growing ballistic missile capabilities will prompt a preventive strike by Israel or the United States. A number of analysts say prospects for immediate military action are low but the latest round of sanctions and rhetoric over the Persian Gulf highlight that "Iran and the U.S. are already fighting a low-level economic war that seems likely to escalate in the months ahead," writes Yochi Dreazan in the National Journal. National security expert Graham Allison says Iran's warnings are not only directed at the United States but at the shaky global economy and should be seen as a test of Western interests (MSNBC) in the area. The rise in tensions contributed to a jump in oil prices (WashPost) of more than 4 percent on Tuesday.

The Debate

There is no consensus among analysts on either Iran's capability to close the Strait of Hormuz (CNBC) or whether expanding sanctions is wise. Following new U.S. sanctions and pending European Union decisions on tougher financial measures, Iran is showing fresh concern about the impact, write CFR's Capt. Bradley Russell (USN) and Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal. "All the more reason for the Europeans to proceed with those sanctions," they write.

But Tony Karon writes in The National that continuing to escalate sanctions is likely only to lead to more tensions and hostilities, not gain the concessions from Iran sought by the West. He recommends a revival of diplomacy that outlines a path for Iran to continue to have uranium enrichment capabilities combined with stronger safeguards against weaponization.

Policy Options

The Obama administration, pressed by an increasingly alarmed Congress, appears intent on tightening the sanctions noose on Iran. But the option of military action continues to generate intense discussion. CFR's Matt Kroenig argues in Foreign Affairs that a carefully managed military strike on Iran's nuclear program "could spare the region and the world a very real threat."

Harvard's Stephen Walt says this inflates the threat posed by Iran and adds that the U.S. military presence in the region "provide the necessary ingredients for a successful containment regime for the foreseeable future."

Michael Singh writes for Foreign Policy online: "The most prudent course is neither belligerence nor passivity, but a robust posture which makes Tehran think twice."

Background Materials

CFR's Micah Zenko offers eight questions that must be answered ahead of any preventive attack on Iran.

Iran has been trying furtively for years to acquire a chemical essential for work on uranium enrichment and for its heavy water reactor, writes Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment.

CFR's latest interactive crisis guide on Iran surveys the country's domestic tensions, regional ambitions, and the scope of its nuclear program.

Republican presidential candidates have expressed a high level of alarm about the prospects of an Iranian nuclear program and call for tougher U.S. action, as this CFR Issue Tracker notes.

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