The Persian currency (Riyal) has lost 60 per cent of its value over recent months. Unemployment, inflation and local dissent are on the rise. Things might get worse in 2012. The newly approved Western sanctions, which target Tehran’s Central Bank and oil industries, will take effect in July. The sanctions are aimed at stopping Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons capability.
Iran suffers from the effects of international sanctions and faces domestic dissent. As these pressures mount, the regime responds by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and restricts the upcoming elections (2 March 2012) to limit the opposition. The March elections will be held in the shadow of the Arab Spring.
Iranians do not support a regime that flirts with danger, isolates the country and restricts freedoms. But they also resent the US and European sanctions targeting their country.
The people of Iran respect democracy. If conducted freely, the approaching elections would pass a stinging verdict on Iran’s unpopular rulers. But the current government has developed a strategy of dealing with dissent. The list of running candidates must be vetted to disqualify those who lack 'loyalty' to the Islamic Republic. 'Dangerous' newspapers are closed. The two leading reform politicians, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kharroubi, are under house arrest. Outspoken, questioning journalists are jailed. The internet is monitored closely and might be replaced by a 'national' network. To protest government manipulation, the opposition has boycotted the elections. For the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenie, electoral boycott is a “crime”.
The regime is dealing simultaneously with local dissidence and international threats. The US considers closing the Hormuz Strait a “red line,” an act of war. Iran is aware of the serious consequences of its president’s threat to the world. If the Strait is closed, it would not be difficult for the US to mobilise a military coalition to reopen the Gulf waterways for international oil trade. A fifth of the world’s oil consumption passes through the Hormuz.
Israel has been lobbying the US to attack Iran. If Iran executes the Hormuz threat, it would be unintentionally offering Israel a 'gift': eliminating the need for its enemy to justify starting a regional conflict. Israel would welcome the Islamic Republic self induced defeat. Netanyahu would realise gains in a cost-free war. No wonder, the Prime Minister admitted that: “For the first time, I see Iran wobble” (NY times, Ethan Bronner, Israel Says Sanctions Hurt Iran, 13 January 2012).
As the March elections near, is the regime creating a war scenario to drum up support of the people? A Paris-based former Iranian MP, Ahmad Salamatian, explains that: "By threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is trying to benefit from a military and security atmosphere in the region to suppress any discontent at home before the elections. In no other time in its history, the Islamic regime has relied this much on its military and security forces for its survival." (Saeed Kamali Dehghan, The Guardian, Iran on Edge Over Upcoming Elections, 8 January 2012)
Does Iran have a latent objective in raising the Strait closure now? Should Israel, or the US, launch an air strike on Iran preemptively, Iran may want the world to think about the consequences of such a closure on the world economy.
Along with local and international pressures, changing Arab politics are worrisome for Iran. Facing a growing uprising, the Syrian regime, Iran’s closest ally, may be unraveling. If Assad’s rule collapses, Iran’s position in the region will take a serious blow, and its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict will decline. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states feel less intimidated than before by a firmly sanctioned Iran. Moreover, Hezbollah and Hamas, two of Iran’s proxy “resistance” forces, are currently subdued as a result of the Iranian-Syrian predicament.
To many, Iran seems to be the sole villain in the Hormuz crisis. But the Islamic Republic feels isolated and vulnerable. The record partially justifies Iran’s sentiments of the need for defence of deterence. Netanyahu and his supporters, in Israel and the US, have carried a global public opinion campaign inflating the risk of Iran’s nuclear developments and ignored the provocative reality of Israel’s atomic weapons. Adding to a clear external aggression against Iran, [is] Mossad’s serial assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. For its part, the US was responsible for toppling the democratically elected Mossadaq government, installing the pro-Western Shah regime in 1953 and helping Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. It has so far used a tough and condescending policy with Tehran. Sounding tough on Iran is Obama’s way of displaying presidential toughness to his critics in an election year.
In summary, Iran, Israel and the US are equally responsible for bringing the Middle East to the brink of war, a decade after the disastrous assault on Iraq’s presumed “weapons of mass destruction.”
© Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, currently resident in Florida, USA, has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Progressive and the Arab-American News Services, among others. He is a former Middle East Secretary of the World Council of Churches.