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Iranian War Drums

Posted on 19 Jan, 2012 by "the witness"

Posted by Stephen Brown Bio ↓ on Jan 4th, 2012

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After threatening only days ago to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which twenty percent of the world’s oil supplies moves, the Iranian government has once again engaged in ominous sabre-rattling.

The mullah regime’s latest threat involves a warning to the United States on Tuesday not to send its naval task force group, headed by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, back to the Persian Gulf. The Stennis had already left Gulf waters last week en route to the Afghan war theater and is now “somewhere between Oman and Pakistan.”

“I advise, recommend and warn them [the Americans] over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once,” Iranian Army Chief Ataollah Salehi reportedly stated.

The reason for Iran’s latest bellicose outburst is that the Obama administration is implementing a strict set of sanctions that could seriously damage, even topple, the Iranian government. The latest punitive measures are being imposed because Iran is still refusing, despite worldwide condemnation, to give up its nuclear weapons program. The fact Iran may be as little as a year away from developing its first nuclear weapon accounts for the sanctions’ severity. The International Atomic Energy Commission also reported recently that Iranian scientists are “working to design a nuclear warhead.”

Iran’s rulers have survived previous sanction attempts to halt their nuclear program because Iran is the fourth-largest energy exporter in the world. Its sales of oil and gas, which comprise the country’s largest exports, have allowed the Iranian government to maintain the enormous state subsidy system that has, more or less, maintained social peace in the country. There have been anti-government demonstrations in Iran, but they have failed to develop into “Arab Spring”-like movements that have brought about regime change in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

But the latest restrictions were constructed to target those all-important oil revenues, the mullah regime’s life blood. In the future, countries that buy Iranian oil will not be allowed to “conduct financial transactions in the United States.” Governments who continue to do so would thus be excluded from a major part of the world’s financial system. In essence, what these new sanctions amount to is an embargo on Iranian oil.

It is obviously believed a US-induced boycott of Iranian oil will cause such economic havoc in Iran that the mullahs will give up their nuclear ambitions and “come back into compliance with its international obligations.” What is left unspoken, however, is that it is most likely hoped the ensuing economic disruption after the sanctions begin to bite will lead to the mullahs’ undoing. It was in response to this embargoing of its oil that the Iranian government issued its first threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s vice president stated “even one drop of oil” will not pass through the strait if Iran’s oil exports were affected.

But as with all plans, there are also setbacks. A major concern regarding the latest sanctions is that it is “unclear” whether there will be enough alternative sources of oil to make up for the expected reduction in Iranian exports. A second problem is that oil prices would also certainly rise at a time when many countries are in recession. And while Western nations are expected to co-operate with the boycott, China, which imports a lot of its oil from Iran, will definitely be more problematic.

“The only strategy that is going to work here is one where you get the cooperation of oil buyers,” said one analyst in the New York Times. “You could imagine the Europeans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans cooperating, and then China would suck up all of the oil that was initially going to everyone else.”

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Iran Threatens to Block Oil Shipments, as U.S. Prepares Sanctions

By DAVID E. SANGER and ANNIE LOWREY

Published: December 27, 2011

WASHINGTON — A senior Iranian official on Tuesday delivered a sharp threat in response to economic sanctions being readied by the United States, saying his country would retaliate against any crackdown by blocking all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery for transporting about one-fifth of the world’s oil supply.

The New York Times

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/12/28/world/middleeast/28hormuz-map/28hormuz-map-articleInline.jpgThe declaration by Iran ’s first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, came as President Obama prepares to sign legislation that, if fully implemented, could substantially reduce Iran’s oil revenue in a bid to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Prior to the latest move, the administration had been laying the groundwork to attempt to cut off Iran from global energy markets without raising the price of gasoline or alienating some of Washington’s closest allies.

Apparently fearful of the expanded sanctions’ possible impact on the already-stressed economy of Iran, the world’s third-largest energy exporter, Mr. Rahimi said, “If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz,” according to Iran’s official news agency. Iran just began a 10-day naval exercise in the area.

In recent interviews, Obama administration officials have said that the United States has developed a plan to keep the strait open in the event of a crisis. In Hawaii, where President Obama is vacationing, a White House spokesman said there would be no comment on the Iranian threat to close the strait. That seemed in keeping with what administration officials say has been an effort to lower the level of angry exchanges, partly to avoid giving the Iranian government the satisfaction of a response and partly to avoid spooking financial markets.

But the energy sanctions carry the risk of confrontation, as well as economic disruption, given the unpredictability of the Iranian response. Some administration officials believe that a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States — which Washington alleges received funding from the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps — was in response to American and other international sanctions.

Merely uttering the threat appeared to be part of an Iranian effort to demonstrate its ability to cause a spike in oil prices, thus slowing the United States economy, and to warn American trading partners that joining the new sanctions, which the Senate passed by a rare 100-0 vote, would come at a high cost.

Oil prices rose above $100 a barrel in trading after the threat was issued, though it was unclear how much that could be attributed to investors’ concern that confrontation in the Persian Gulf could disrupt oil flows.

The new punitive measures, part of a bill financing the military, would significantly escalate American sanctions against Iran. They come just a month and a half after the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report that for the first time laid out its evidence that Iran may be secretly working to design a nuclear warhead, despite the country’s repeated denials.

In the wake of the I.A.E.A. report and a November attack on the British Embassy in Tehran, the European Union is also contemplating strict new sanctions, such as an embargo on Iranian oil.

For five years, the United States has implemented increasingly severe sanctions in an attempt to force Iran’s leaders to reconsider the suspected nuclear weapons program, and answer a growing list of questions from the I.A.E.A. But it has deliberately stopped short of targeting oil exports, which finance as much as half of Iran’s budget.

Now, with its hand forced by Congress, the administration is preparing to take that final step, penalizing foreign corporations that do business with Iran’s central bank, which collects payment for most of the country’s energy exports.

The sanction would effectively make it difficult for those who do business with Iran’s central bank to also conduct financial transactions with the United States. The step was so severe that one of President Obama’s top national security aides said two months ago that it was “a last resort.” The administration raced to put some loopholes in the final legislation so that it could reduce the impact on close allies who have signed on to pressuring Iran.

The legislation allows President Obama to waive sanctions if they cause the price of oil to rise or threaten national security.

Still, the new sanctions raise crucial economic, diplomatic, and security questions. Mr. Obama, his aides acknowledge, has no interest in seeing energy prices rise significantly at a moment of national economic weakness or as he intensifies his bid for re-election — a vulnerability the Iranians fully understand. So the administration has to defy, or at least carefully calibrate, the laws of supply and demand, bringing to market new sources of oil to ensure that global prices do not rise sharply.

“I don’t think anybody thinks we can contravene the laws of supply and demand any more than we can contravene the laws of gravity,” said David S. Cohen, who, as treasury under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, oversees the administration of the sanctions. But, he said, “We have flexibility here, and I think we have a pretty good opportunity to dial this in just the right way that it does end up putting significant pressure on Iran.”

The American effort, as described by Mr. Cohen and others, is more subtle than simply cutting off Iran’s ability to export oil, a step that would immediately send the price of gasoline, heating fuel, and other petroleum products skyward. That would “mean that Iran would, in fact, have more money to fuel its nuclear ambitions, not less,” Wendy R. Sherman, the newly installed under secretary of state for political affairs, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.

Instead, the administration’s aim is to reduce Iran’s oil revenue by diminishing the volume of sales and forcing Iran to give its customers a discount on the price of crude.

Some economists question whether reducing Iran’s oil exports without moving the price of oil is feasible, even if the market is given signals about alternative supplies. Already, analysts at investment banks are warning of the possibility of rising gasoline prices in 2012, due to the new sanctions by the United States as well as complementary sanctions under consideration by the European Union.

Since President Obama’s first months in office, his aides have been talking to Saudi Arabia and other oil suppliers about increasing their production, and about guaranteeing sales to countries like China, which is among Iran’s biggest customers. But it is unclear that the Saudis can fill in the gap left by Iran, even with the help of Libyan oil that is coming back on the market. The United States is also looking to countries like Iraq and Angola to increase production.

Daniel Yergin, whose new book, “The Quest,” describes the oil politics of dealing with states like Iran, noted in an interview that “given the relative tightness of the market, it will require careful construction of the sanctions combined with vigorous efforts to bring alternative supplies into the market.” He said that it would “add a whole new dimension to the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline,” the oil pipeline from Canada to the United States that the administration has sought to delay.

“The only strategy that is going to work here is one where you get the cooperation of oil buyers,” said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “You could imagine the Europeans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans cooperating, and then China would suck up all of the oil that was initially going to everyone else.”

A broader question is whether the sanctions — even if successful at lowering Iran’s oil revenue — would force the government to give up its nuclear ambitions.

One measure of the effects, however, is that the Iranian leadership is clearly concerned. Already the Iranian currency is plummeting in value against the dollar, and there are rumours of bank runs.

“Iran’s economic problems seem to be mounting and the whole economy is in a state of suspended expectation,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “The regime keeps repeating that they’re not going to be impacted by the sanctions. That they have more money than they know what to do with. The lady doth protest too much.”

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Iran, Facing New Sanctions, Warns of Oil at $250 a Barrel

By RICK GLADSTONE

Published: December 5, 2011

Alarmed by the possibility of new Western penalties that could abruptly reduce or even halt its oil exports, Iran issued a warning on Monday that crude oil prices could more than double to $250 a barrel if such sanctions were given serious consideration.

The warning, issued by the Foreign Ministry, appeared to be part of an attempt by Iran to intimidate its adversaries as tensions grow. Western nations stepped up their efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically after mobs stormed and vandalized Britain’s diplomatic facilities in Tehran less than a week ago, evoking stark images of the United States Embassy takeover after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The assault was widely criticized, even by some of Iran’s friends.

Despite the Iranian warning, oil prices were little changed by the end of the day Monday.

Iranian leaders are increasingly concerned that oil sales, Iran’s main source of income, are now at risk in ways that they were able to avoid in earlier rounds of Western sanctions. Those sanctions were imposed to press Iran, so far unsuccessfully, to halt its suspect nuclear program.

Iran is the third-largest exporter of oil, after Saudi Arabia and Russia. Its biggest customers —China, the European Union, India, Japan, and South Korea — together account for more than three-quarters of total Iranian oil exports, according to an analysis published by the Energy Information Administration in the United States. Reduced orders from just one of those customers could be disruptive for Iran, where the economy is already suffering from the accumulated effects of other sanctions.

After the assault on the British Embassy, European Union ministers said they would give serious consideration to an oil embargo at a meeting in January, and the United States Senate voted 100 to 0 for legislation that would penalize any foreign bank that does business with Iran’s central bank.

The Senate measure, meant to use access to the United States market as leverage in isolating Iran, is not yet law and could be modified. But analysts said that such a measure, if enforced, could wreak havoc on Iran’s oil industry, because the central bank is the main conduit for receipts from oil sales.

“At some point, sanctions become an act of war,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and an expert on Iranian affairs. “If you cut Iran out of the oil market, this is no longer economic pressure.”

The situation has been heating up since the International Atomic Energy Agency, the monitoring arm of the United Nations, issued a report on Nov. 8 that said Iran may be actively developing a nuclear weapon and a missile delivery system. Iran, which has always asserted that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, denounced the report as a fabrication created under pressure from its Western enemies.

The United States, Canada and their European allies imposed new sanctions on Iran a few weeks after the United Nations report. But those measures were meant to limit Iran’s access to the international financial system and to penalize its petrochemical and oil products industries, not to affect exports of crude oil.

Iran’s warning about blocking its oil exports was issued by Ramin Mehmanparast, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, in an interview with Sharq, a Persian-language daily, and was transmitted by the semiofficial Fars News Agency.

“As soon as such an issue is raised seriously, the oil price would soar to above $250 a barrel,” Mr. Mehmanparast was quoted as saying. “I do not think the situation in the world and especially in the West today is adequately prepared to raise such discussions.”

Oil prices rose on the news but ended the day barely changed. The price of the benchmark grade of American crude oil closed at $100.99 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up from $100.96 on Friday.

In a separate dispatch from the World Petroleum Congress meeting under way in Doha, Qatar, Fars News quoted the oil minister of India, S. Jaipal Reddy, as reassuring Iran that India would remain a faithful buyer of Iranian oil. The dispatch apparently was intended to give the impression that India, at least, would not be dissuaded by new Western sanctions. Other news reports from Doha, however, quoted Mr. Reddy as saying India was also looking for new sources of supply.

Another prospective threat to Iran’s customers came from Seoul, South Korea, where a senior American diplomat, Robert J. Einhorn, urged the government to suspend imports of Iranian petrochemicals. The Foreign Ministry said it was reviewing the request.

Mr. Einhorn, who is the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, said at a news conference that “the situation in Iran has become more and more worrisome over recent months.”

Without a diplomatic solution in the standoff, Mr. Einhorn said, “pressures will grow for a much stronger kind of action.”

Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, said he thought Iran’s Islamic hierarchy may have miscalculated the strong global reaction to the British Embassy assault, which most Iran experts have said was done with the explicit approval of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Now, Mr. Milani said, the momentum for sanctions aimed at oil, Iran’s critical export, presents a new threat.

“They thought they could get away with it, by firing a shot across the bow,” he said. “It turned out to be much more costly.”

Artin Afkhami contributed reporting from Boston, and Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 7, 2011

An article on Tuesday about Iran’s warning that sanctions on its oil sales could lead to $250-per-barrel prices misstated, in some copies, the portion of Iranian oil exports that go to the country’s five biggest customers — China, the European Union, India, Japan and South Korea. It is more than three-quarters of the total, not two-thirds, according to an analysis published by the Energy Information Administration in the United States.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 6, 2011, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Penalties May Send Oil Prices Soaring, Iran Warns.

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