2012: The year of grave danger

2012: The year of grave danger

The US is wrapping up two decades of war in the region, and the outcome is hardly positive.

Will 2012 be the year the world ends? That is the prediction of a Mayan legend that gives 12/12/12 (December12, 2012) as the date of the apocalypse.

In any case, in the context of recession in Europe and its grave financial and social problems, there will be no shortage of risks this year, which will also feature decisive elections in the US, Russia, France, Mexico, and Venezuela.

The main geopolitical threat remains the situation in the Persian Gulf. Will Israel and the US launch the announced attack on Iran's nuclear installations? Teheran is asserting its right to produce its own civilian nuclear energy. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly and adamantly stated that the goal of Iranian research is not military but simply to provide a source of electricity. He also points out that Iran signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whereas Israel never did.

For their part, the Israeli authorities think they should wait no longer. They believe that the moment the mullahs have the nuclear bomb is fast approaching and that from that point on, it will be too late to do anything: the balance of power in the Middle East will be irreversibly broken and Israel will no longer have uncontestable military supremacy in the region. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu argues that in this situation, the very existence of the Jewish state will be in jeopardy.

Special forces

For these reasons, Israel wants to attack as soon as possible. In preparation for the bombing, it already has special forces in place in Iran, and it is very possible that they were responsible for the killing of five important Iranian scientists over the last two years. Although Washington continues to argue that Teheran is still operating a clandestine nuclear programme to produce an atomic bomb, its verdict on attacking the country is different.

The US is wrapping up two decades of war in the region, and the outcome is hardly positive. The Iraq War was a disaster and left the country in the hands of the Shi'ite majority sympathetic to Iran. As for the Afghan quagmire, the US forces have demonstrated that they are incapable of defeating the Taliban, with whom American diplomats have resigned themselves to negotiating before they abandon the country to its fate.

While it would be impossible to rule out the possibility that Iran's ballistic missiles might reach Israel or US military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, or Oman, an attack on Iran would also have non-military consequences, economic in particular. The minimum response that could be expected from Iran after an attack on its nuclear sites is a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world's oil (17 million barrels) passes each day. This is what Iranian military personnel continue to predict. Such a disruption in the global oil supply would cause oil prices to spike and so choke off a revival of the world economy and recovery from the recession.

The Iranian head of state argues that "nothing is simpler than closing the strait" and he has ramped up naval exercises in the area to demonstrate that he has the capacity to carry out this threat. Washington has responded that blocking the strait would be seen as a casus belli and has reinforced its Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Gulf.

It is very unlikely that Iran will actually take the initiative to block the strait -though it might do so in retaliation for an attack. To begin with, it would be shooting itself in the foot as the oil it exports passes through the strait as well and provides the country with a large proportion of its revenue. Moreover, such a move would hurt Iran's principle allies, who are backing it in its face-off against the United States -especially China, which imports 15 percent of its oil from Iran. Interruption of supplies would be a significant blow to Chinese industrial production.

Tensions have built to an alarming level. Foreign ministries around the world are watching a dangerous escalation that builds minute by minute and could set off a major regional conflict. This could involve not only Israel, the US, and Iran but also the other regional powers: Turkey, which has serious ambitions in the area; Saudi Arabia, which has dreamed for decades of destroying its major Shi'ite rival; and Iraq, which could break into two parts, one Shi'ite and pro-Iranian and one pro-western and Sunni.

In addition, the bombardment of Iran's nuclear sites would create a vast and poisonous radioactive cloud that would threaten the health of all populations in the area, including thousands of US military personnel and the inhabitants of Israel. All of the above leads to the conclusion that with the hawks ratcheting up their cry for war, the need for diplomacy is all the more urgent.