President Obama has announced US sanctions against those countries that continue to buy Iranian oil. This is not really a new move so much as the next move in applying pressure, already planned 3 months ago. It follows EU measures against Iranian oil, despite Greece and Italy’s reliance on it. Talks between the US and Israel last month were even more bellicose than usual and accompanied by much speculation on whether Israel would launch a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran’s foreign policy, including its efforts to obtain a nuclear arsenal, is shaped by its claim to be a regional power in the Middle East. This brings it into opposition to Israel, as the undoubted leading power in the region, and its US backer. All talk about the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and international law only serve as diplomatic weapons when they are not simply propaganda to obscure the reality of the sordid imperialist interests at stake. Particularly given that Israel’s nuclear capabilities are an open secret. Nevertheless, Iran’s attempt to develop a nuclear arsenal under cover of wanting to develop civilian nuclear power is indeed a threat to Israel’s status as top dog in the Middle East.
For the moment Obama and Netanyahu have agreed to use diplomacy against Iran. This has important advantages in putting pressure on Iran’s big power allies. Russia is closest, with a strategic partnership based on arms and nuclear energy sales, but it has to distance itself from any intention to build nuclear weapons. China has strong economic ties, buying 20% of Iranian oil, with a 20 year energy agreement at prices below those on the world market, very significant for its economy based on cheap production costs. Both these allies have naturally opposed the oil embargo. Oil is, at least in theory, a good weapon to use against Iran, with 10% of the world’s petrol and 17% of natural gas reserves. However, not only are its largest trading partners not going to cooperate, not only do the EU and Japan already have a dispensation to continue trading, but Iran’s economy also relies on agricultural exports and, based on its natural advantages, has a fast growing economy. As always, at the economic level an embargo will hit only the poorest in the country. As an element in the build up of diplomatic pressure it may be very useful in neutralising Russian and Chinese support for Iran, particularly if there is a future military option.
This is perhaps a very opportune time to pressurise Iran, when its most significant regional ally, the Syrian Assad regime, is looking at best distinctly shaky as the country descends into civil war. But Iran still has the capacity to influence events in the region via its clients in Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as by using the ideology of Shiite unity to gain influence, particularly in Iraq which now has a Shiite prime minister, Malaki.
The US has not taken the military option off the table. It never does, and numerous military adventures show it is never backward in launching attacks. There are strategic and diplomatic considerations to take account of first. Many of those willing to support the oil embargo – at least up to a point, provided it doesn’t impair their supply – may oppose a military attack, much as France and Germany opposed the invasion of Iraq. It is also still bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The military option discussed at the time of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting last month was an Israeli strike against nuclear installations. While this would be more difficult than the attack on Iraq in 1981 (further, need for bunker busting bombs to reach underground facilities) Israel has clearly calculated that any Iranian retaliation would be weak, or as Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says “an Iranian missile strike would be only a symbolic gesture” since it would be unable to hit military targets in Israel (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17261265). For our rulers civilian casualties are of no real significance! But Iran’s response would not be limited to direct strikes against Israel. It has the capacity to close the Straits of Hormuz, which control 40% of the world’s oil supplies, and blocking this would block Iran and Russia’s main competitors in the petrol trade. Oil trade is a two-edged sword. Iran also has the capacity to use its clients, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to send missiles into Israel, stirring up more destruction and chaos.
There is one other disadvantage, from the US point of view, to an Israeli strike against Iran – it would tend to unite the country behind the policy of nuclear weapons. Iran has major divisions in its ruling class that were shown up in response to the fraudulent elections in 2009.
The policies of the US and Israel, on the one hand, or Iran and its allies on the other, whether hawkish, or seemingly reluctant to go to war, are not determined by the whims of the regimes involved but are compelled by a material situation that forces every imperialism into conflict with its rivals.