By Olli Kivinen
The military exercises that have been held near the Strait of Hormuz, between the Persian gulf and the Gulf of Oman show clearly how dangerous an option the use of violence against Iran’s nuclear programme would be. For that reason, Western powers are pushing for increasingly severe sanctions against Iran.
Flowing through the Strait of Hormuz every day are 17 million barrels of oil. Protecting the traffic is extremely difficult, if an armed conflict were to break out between Iran and the outsiders.
The situation is underscored further by the fact that there are numerous big oil producers on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Countries joining them include Iraq, whose oil resources are among the biggest in the world. In the present global economic situation, the rapid rise in the price of oil that would follow any military action would be a serious setback for a world economy that is back on track for cautious growth.
The United States and other western powers want to prevent Iran from getting the capability of developing nuclear weapons, because it is feared that they would fall into the hands of terrorists. Another goal is to wean Iran from other types of support for terrorists.
The current radical Iranian leadership, which is under the supervision of clerics, has been giving blood-curdling statements, particularly concerning the destruction of Israel, and has helped various groups opposed to Israel. Experts differ as to how great a danger an Iranian nuclear weapon would ultimately be, if the country actually develops one. The differences are even reflected in statements by the Israeli government.
Iran’s nuclear bomb is a political weapon, and using it against other countries would not be possible. Iran’s leaders are men who implement tough policy, but they are not insane. They know quite well that the use of a nuclear weapon would lead to massive retaliation.
In reality, the possibilities of the west to resort to the use of force are slight. In addition to the rise in the price of oil, Iran is capable of causing regional chaos that would immediately turn against the Western powers. The war in Afghanistan would become more hopeless than before, as the border between Iran and Afghanistan is more than 900 kilometres long.
Iran is no ordinary country. It is a nation of 70 million inhabitants who are proud of their history. In addition, the country demonstrated a very strong willingness to defend itself in the 1980s in a nine-year-long war against Iraq.
A new clash would be a heavy blow against the reputation of the Western countries. Two increasingly unpopular wars are underway in the area, and starting a third would be truly stupid. This is certainly recognised in Iran, and in those countries that have taken a negative view of the sanctions against Iran.
The military commanders of several large Western countries also question the advisability of using force. In addition, the feasibility of using air strikes to destroy the nuclear facilities, which have been dispersed in many different locations, is questionable.
Sanctions are the best way to get Iran to follow international inspection mechanisms in its nuclear programme, and thus to prove the claim that the programme is a peaceful one. The goal of the United States and its allies is now to win the approval of tougher sanctions in the UN Security Council. The European Union and through it, Finland, are powerfully involved in the project.
Work has long been taking place under high pressure, especially to persuade Russia and China to join a common front. China especially has been unwilling to take a firmer grip both in Iran and elsewhere, because its policies aim at securing raw materials with little regard to human rights violations and other similar impediments.
The Americans believe that the resolutions of the Security Council will be implemented in a somewhat watered-down form in the coming weeks. After that, the Western powers will seek to implement an even tougher economic isolation of Iran. Especially on the firing line is the fist of the Iranian government, the Revolutionary Guard, which has also become a big cluster of enterprises.
New sanctions also mean quite simply that Iranian companies would have to decide if they are to work together with Iran or the United States and its allies. The method has been tried on a few Iranian banks, and many American companies have cut their ties to Iran. A new idea is to place sanctions on Iran’s state bank.
A key question with respect to the future is whether or not economic sanctions will have any impact. There is no guarantee that they would, even though sanctions would inevitably cause problems for Iran’s government and its people. In Western countries, which are accustomed to stable conditions, there have often been miscalculations about the degree to which sanctions would shake the governments of undemocratic countries. In addition to China and Russia, the effectiveness of sanctions are questioned by Turkey and Brazil, both of which are members of the Security Council this year. In addition, it is easy to use money to encourage the evasion of sanctions.
Suffering most from sanctions are ordinary people. Heavy-handed despotic regimes are able to keep their citizens under control for decades, and to turn adversity to their advantage by strengthening the home front. In Iran religion strengthens the resistance.
Iran also has moderate forces struggling against those who are currently in power, but nobody has a clear picture of their real strength. Western countries need to be careful not to destroy the possibilities of the opposition to operate, because the best hope for resolving the whole problem would be a peaceful transition of power.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.4.2010