Tightening the noose around Iran's neck

Washington is relying on sanctions to punish Tehran for carrying on with its nuclear programme.

Rising tensions between Washington and Tehran caused by the US drive to tighten economic sanctions on Iran has prompted postponement of the largest ever joint defence exercise between the US and Israel.

The Obama administration followed up this postponement by dispatching its armed forces chief-of-staff General Martin Dempsey to Tel Aviv, presumably to make certain that Israel will not mount attacks on Iranian nuclear sites without consultation with the US. So far, Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu has refused to give such assurances.

Both Washington and Tel Aviv are being coy about the reasons for postponement. Analysts argue that the US sought delay because President Barack Obama does not want to provoke a conflict with an already angry Iran. Israeli sources contend that Defence Minister Ehud Barak requested delay due to budgetary constraints. But, commentators suggest, darkly, that Israel does not want 5,000 US troops on the ground in April and May in case Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The exercise, dubbed “Austere Challenge 12,” was supposed to to gauge the effectiveness of air defence systems against incoming missiles. The drill’s undeclared aim was to send a message to Tehran that the US has laid down two red lines Iran must not cross: disrupting oil tanker traffic out of the Gulf and manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Unfriendly gesture

Tehran has warned that a boost of oil exports by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make up for a reduction in sales by Iran would be regarded as an “unfriendly gesture” and could have “consequences.”

This warning was issued as a senior US diplomat urged South Korea to reduce its oil imports from Iran and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was on a state visit to Saudi Arabia, which has already offered to make up any shortfall in supply.

Washington is, so far, relying on sanctions to punish Tehran for carrying on with its nuclear programme, which Iran says is to provide fuel for power generation but the US claims is meant for weaponry although US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta admits that Iran does not currently intend to make bombs.

Tension began to mount on December 31, when Obama signed a law penalising global financial and other institutions doing business with the Central Bank of Iran. When implemented, this measure would make it almost impossible for Iran’s customers, including India, to pay for Iranian crude.  As follow up, the European Union is to decide whether to terminate its oil deals with Iran.

Tehran responded to the US move by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz that links the Gulf to the Arabian Sea, through which 20 per cent of the world’s oil is shipped. A conservative pundit in Tehran, observed, “...if Iran can’t sell its oil, then no country in the Persian Gulf should be able to either.”

While Saudi Arabia has dismissed the Iranian threat, Washington has vowed to keep open the Strait and dispatched a second aircraft carrier to the area and additional troops to Kuwait, raising the total to 15,000. Tension over internationalisation of the US sanctions regime and Iran’s threat to shipping has been ratcheted up by the latest assassination of an Iranian scientist connected with the nuclear programme.

Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, procurement director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, was murdered on January 11 by hitmen on a motorbike. He was the fifth Iranian scientist to be attacked over the past 24 months. A sixth figure, Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddamm who headed the country’s ballistic missile project, was slain in an explosion at a rocket testing site.

Iran blames the US, which has denied involvement, and Israel, which has not. Israel is alleged to have recruited dissidents from Iran’s Arab, Baluchi or Kurdish minorities or from the Mujahedin-e Khalq movement a long-standing opponent of the cleric-dominated regime in Tehran.

It may be significant that on the day Ahmadi-Roshan was killed Iran proposed renewing talks on its nuclear programme with the five permanent Security Council members and Germany. Serious talks offer the only way out of this extremely dangerous stand-off between Iran and the US/Israel.

The objective should be reaffirmation of Iran’s legitimate right to develop its civil nuclear programme in line with its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which provides for invasive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Tehran has agreed to these conditions and IAEA inspectors are due in Iran shortly to visit its facilities. On the nuclear issue, Iran seeks to be granted equal treatment with 31 other countries that possess nuclear material, eight of them with nuclear arsenal.

The US/Israeli campaign to end to Iran’s programme could provoke war by design or miscalculation so India and other nuclear states should insist on dialogue, a deal and an end to brinkmanship.

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