from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Escalating U.S.-Iranian Tensions in the Gulf

December 30, 2011, 4:37 pm (EST)

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Iranian military personnel participate in the Velayat-90 war game in an unknown location near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran on December 30, 2011 (Hamed Jafarnejad/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Iran. Tensions escalated amid verbal sparring between Iran and the United States this week. Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned on Tuesday that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz if the West moved forward with sanctions on its crude imports. Such a move by Iran could significantly affect world oil markets, as some 40 percent of all sea-borne petroleum is shipped through the strait. In response to the Iranian threat, the United States announced on Wednesday that the Fifth Fleet would not allow any disruption to shipping in the strait. Iran promptly pushed back, claiming that the United States was not in a position to tell Tehran "what to do in the Strait of Hormuz." Today, Iran announced that on Saturday morning “the Iranian navy will test several of its long-range missiles in the Persian Gulf.”

Syria. Sixty Arab League monitors arrived in Syria on Monday after weeks of squabbling between Damascus and the Cairo-based organization. The monitors’ arrival did not stop President Assad from intensifying the bloody nine-month crackdown on protesters. At least twenty-three people were killed in the hours before the monitors arrived alone, bringing the estimated total of Syrians killed to more than five thousand. Assad’s crackdown, however, has done little to extinguish the popular uprising: more than 250,000 people rallied across Idlib province today, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports more than 70,000 protesters in the restive Damascus suburb of Douma. Numerous reports suggest that the Syrian security forces are employing nail bombs to quell crowds. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army has reportedly ordered its fighters to stop offensive operations, pending a meeting with the Arab League delegates sent to monitor Assad’s compliance with their peace plan. The oppositionist military commander, Colonel Riad al-Assad, said he has thus far been unsuccessful in contacting the monitors: “We have tried to communicate with them and we requested a meeting with the team. So far there hasn’t been any success. We haven’t been given any of the (phone) numbers for the monitors, which we have requested. No one has contacted us either.”

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

The Obama administration formally announced a $24.9 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said the “agreement reinforces the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security." Earnest also claimed that the deal would support more than fifty thousand American jobs.

The Cable’s Josh Rogin reported this week that the Obama administration is quietly working to prepare options for aiding the Syrian opposition. The National Security Council has reportedly initiated a secret interagency process to formulate options for supporting the opposition, with a select group of officials from State, Defense and Treasury. One option under consideration, Rogin reports, is the creation of a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for fleeing Syrian citizens along the Turkish border.

Quotes of the Week

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Egypt. Egyptian police raided seventeen offices belonging to local and foreign NGOs and rights group on Thursday. The raids were reportedly part of an investigation into allegations that groups may have received illegal foreign funding and have been operating without licenses. Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute were among those targeted. Leaders of the organizations and the State Department condemned the raids and called on Egyptian authorities to allow the organizations to continue their work. David Kramer, president of Freedom House, called the raids "an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime."

Hamas. A senior Hamas spokesman announced "most of Hamas has left Damascus. We have a plan B for leaving if things deteriorate." Hamas confirmed that dozens of lower level members have already relocated from Damascus. The group is reportedly exploring other Middle East countries for possible new locations to set up a base. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh also met with Sudan president Bashir earlier this week.

Iraq. The United States is going forward with an arms deal with Iraq worth some $11 billion. The deal includes fighter jets and tanks, and comes during a time of increased tumult in the fledgling Iraqi coalition government.

Gaza. An Israeli aircraft this morning struck Palestinian militants preparing to launch rockets at Israel from Gaza. One militant, twenty-one year-old Muaman Abu-Daf, was killed and another Palestinian was wounded. Israel carried out other air strikes in Gaza earlier this week against militants it claims were involved in the attempted attack on the Israel-Egypt border.

This Week in History

This week marks the third anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead during which 1,400 Palestinians were killed. On December 27, 2008, Israel launched a surprise air strike on Gaza and continued the offensive with a ground invasion on January 3, 2009. Israeli forces attacked police stations, military targets, and Hamas government buildings. Israel claimed that its military objectives were the halt of rocket fire into Israel and the importation of arms into the Gaza strip. On January 18, 2009, on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire. Israel claimed that it had won a tactical military victory and reestablished its deterrent posture vis-à-vis Hamas. Indeed, Israel has subsequently enjoyed a significant reduction in rocket fire emanating from Gaza. Less clear is how effective the operation was in halting the importation of weaponry into Gaza. Moreover, while Israelis proclaimed Operation Cast Lead a definitive success, IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s remarks on Tuesday that "sooner or later, there will be no escape from conducting a significant operation" suggests that the operation’s successes were temporal.

Statistic of the Week

Egyptian parliamentary election results released on Saturday indicate that Islamist parties solidified their lead, winning 70 percent of the available seats in the second round of voting. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed 47 percent of the 180 seats under contention, and the Salafist al-Nour party took an additional 20 percent. Egypt’s third round of parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 3-4, with a runoff vote slated to be held a week later.

Wishing everybody a peaceful and healthy 2012!