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What's at Stake in the Persian Gulf

The US's oil supply is at risk, but so is our status as a global superpower.

| Tue Jan. 31, 2012 2:54 PM EST
An F-14D Tomcat conducts a mission over the Persian Gulf region.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Ever since December 27th, war clouds have been gathering over the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water connecting the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean and the seas beyond. On that day, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned that Tehran would block the strait and create havoc in international oil markets if the West placed new economic sanctions on his country.

"If they impose sanctions on Iran's oil exports," Rahimi declared, "then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz." Claiming that such a move would constitute an assault on America's vital interests, President Obama reportedly informed Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that Washington would use force to keep the strait open. To back up their threats, both sides have been bolstering their forces in the area and each has conducted a series of provocative military exercises.

All of a sudden, the Strait of Hormuz has become the most combustible spot on the planet, the most likely place to witness a major conflict between well-armed adversaries. Why, of all locales, has it become so explosive?

Oil, of course, is a major part of the answer, but—and this may surprise you—only a part.

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Petroleum remains the world's most crucial source of energy, and about one-fifth of the planet's oil supply travels by tanker through the strait. "Hormuz is the world's most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of almost 17 million barrels in 2011," the US Department of Energy noted as last year ended. Because no other area is capable of replacing these 17 million barrels, any extended closure would produce a global shortage of oil, a price spike, and undoubtedly attendant economic panic and disorder.

No one knows just how high oil prices would go under such circumstances, but many energy analysts believe that the price of a barrel might immediately leap by $50 or more. "You would get an international reaction that would not only be high, but irrationally high," says Lawrence J. Goldstein, a director of the Energy Policy Research Foundation. Even though military experts assume the US will use its overwhelming might to clear the strait of Iranian mines and obstructions in a few days or weeks, the chaos to follow in the region might not end quickly, keeping oil prices elevated for a long time. Indeed, some analysts fear that oil prices, already hovering around $100 per barrel, would quickly double to more than $200, erasing any prospect of economic recovery in the United States and Western Europe, and possibly plunging the planet into a renewed Great Recession.

The Iranians are well aware of all this, and it is with such a nightmare scenario that they seek to deter Western leaders from further economic sanctions and other more covert acts when they threaten to close the strait. To calm such fears, US officials have been equally adamant in stressing their determination to keep the strait open. In such circumstances of heightened tension, one misstep by either side might prove calamitous and turn mutual rhetorical belligerence into actual conflict.

 

Military Overlord of the Persian Gulf

In other words, oil, which makes the global economy hum, is the most obvious factor in the eruption of war talk, if not war. Of at least equal significance are allied political factors, which may have their roots in the geopolitics of oil but have acquired a life of their own.

Because so much of the world's most accessible oil is concentrated in the Persian Gulf region, and because a steady stream of oil is absolutely essential to the well-being of the US and the global economy, it has long been American policy to prevent potentially hostile powers from acquiring the capacity to dominate the Gulf or block the Strait of Hormuz. President Jimmy Carter first articulated this position in January 1980, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America," he told a joint session of Congress, "and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

In accordance with this precept, Washington designated itself the military overlord of the Persian Gulf, equipped with the military might to overpower any potential challenger. At the time, however, the US military was not well organized to implement the president's initiative, known ever since as the Carter Doctrine. In response, the Pentagon created a new organization, the US Central Command (CENTCOM), and quickly endowed it with the wherewithal to crush any rival power or powers in the region and keep the sea lanes under American control.

CENTCOM first went into action in 1987-1988, when Iranian forces attacked Kuwaiti and Saudi oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, threatening the flow of oil supplies through the strait. To protect the tankers, President Reagan ordered that they be "reflagged" as American vessels and escorted by US warships, putting the Navy into potential conflict with the Iranians for the first time. Out of this action came the disaster of Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian airliner carrying 290 passengers and crew members, all of whom died when the plane was hit by a missile from the USS Vincennes, which mistook it for a hostile fighter plane—a tragedy long forgotten in the United States, but still deeply resented in Iran.

Iraq was America's de facto ally in the Iran-Iraq war, but when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990—posing a direct threat to Washington's dominance of the Gulf—the first President Bush ordered CENTCOM to protect Saudi Arabia and drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. And when Saddam rebuilt his forces, and his very existence again came to pose a latent threat to America's dominance in the region, the second President Bush ordered CENTCOM to invade Iraq and eliminate his regime altogether (which, as no one is likely to forget, resulted in a string of disasters).

If oil lay at the root of Washington's domineering role in the Gulf, over time that role evolved into something else: a powerful expression of America's status as a global superpower. By becoming the military overlord of the Gulf and the self-appointed guardian of oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, Washington said to the world: "We, and we alone, are the ones who can ensure the safety of your daily oil supply and thereby prevent global economic collapse." Indeed, when the Cold War ended—and with it an American sense of pride and identity as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in Europe and Asia—protection of the flow of Persian Gulf oil became America's greatest claim to superpowerdom, and it remains so today.

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