I read an interesting article online today. It is simply the latest in a long set of articles on related topics that have sparked some discussion with people over the last year or so.
I want to give this a little spin that I haven’t seen in the news or commentary, simply to provoke some thought. That, and I’m getting tired of all the Chik-fil-a discussions and yet more evidence of politicians being less concerned with the people than with (re)election. Here’s a chance to get some discussion on something else. (Yes, I suppose that makes this a long-winded troll.)
First, it is clear that Iran’s leadership is trying to push things as far as they can. In some senses, they do indeed have a right to enrich uranium so long as they allow international inspections and don’t head towards weaponizing it. After all, they have signed the non-proliferation treaty. However, statements and actions by the government there do not lead to any sense of calm and confidence that they would abide by the treaty, and to date they have violated it in several ways. They’ve repeatedly rejected attempts to resolve some of the issues.
So, the international community has pushed sanctions. The U.S. just ratcheted up the issue by setting indirect sanction in place on banks and firms in countries doing business with Iran.
Some critics of the current U.S. administration have been claiming that the sanctions aren’t working, and we need a military option. In fact, reports out of Iran are that the sanctions are increasingly degrading the quality of life for common Iranians, and that is increasing their dissatisfaction with the government. That is precisely the plan. The more unrest and discontent in the populace, the more the government has to beat the drums about being under siege by the rest of the world because of their “righteous cause.”
OK, this isn’t news to anyone who has given it some thought, or thought about prior instances of countries under sanctions. However, given the sanctions, one wonders if they are likely to achieve the desired goals. The question is one of “what goals are those?
Here’s where some interesting events could come about, and may be the actual intent.
There have been repeated public claims by the Iranian government that it views the sanctions as hostile acts. There have also been statements about how they aren’t afraid to go to war and close the Straights of Hormuz, and will do so if provoked. There has been a fair amount of sword-rattling. This is one of the few ways they can really do anything militarily, because they really don’t have a strong navy or a lot of resources to employ.
Closing the Straights — or even trying to — would raise some panic among shipping companies that transit oil tankers through there. Loss of a big tanker would be very expensive, and insurance doesn’t normally cover acts of war. It would likely stop some of the tanker traffic, which in turn would raise the market price (and some availability) of oil, thus leading to strain on Western economies. The Iranians — and everyone else — knows this. That is why the threat has some impact.
However, quietly over the last year, various western powers appear to have been building up bases and anti-mine capabilities in the region, and are well-equipped to counter any Iranian moves to interdict naval traffic. There have also been some moves to change oil usage and flow, including a new Saudi pipeline that bypasses the Straights.
So, here’s how the scenario might well play out:
- the new sanctions really hurt and the Iranian people are even more unhappy with the government
- the Iranian government feels forced to make a public move to consolidate its position
- the Iranian government makes some move in the Straights of Hormuz, and/or the Revolutionary Guards, under pressure, make some error that results in apparent hostilities in the Straights
- given the excuse of threats to shipping in International waterways, NATO and/or other powers intervene
- there is escalation until there is an actual shooting conflict involved
Again, that isn’t overly surprising. What I want to suggest, however, is that when this happens, it will also be perfect cover for launching an offensive against the nuke plants. Iran will have proven itself an aggressor, and will be in a pitched fight at sea — that will be perfect political and tactical cover for airstrikes, and maybe even deployment of some special ops teams to get things that airpower can’t.
The question is whether or not the Iranian leadership is crazy enough, defiant enough, and/or desperate enough to create the incident. The problem is, they don’t have many options. If they don’t do something, it threatens long-term support from within. And ideologically, it seems unlikely they will back off on enrichment because that would show the world they submitted to demands from both the Little Satan (Israel) and the Big Satan (USA).
My prediction: conflict by early October.
As with anything else, however, there are secondary effects to consider. If the above scenario plays out in any way similar to the above, there are at least three probable secondary effects:
1) North Korea occupies a roughly similar political position as Iran in the world: nuclear capabilities, pariah state, erratic political behavior, population under stress from sanctions. There has been some apparent thawing beginning with Kim Jong Un’s consolidation in power. If shooting breaks out with Iran, expect North Korea’s military to gain ascendency. This is not likely to trigger a crisis, per se, but it will wipe out the chance of some reconciliation that appears to be appearing.
2) Any threat of conflict in the oil production zone or the shipping lanes will impact oil prices. If that happens for more than a few weeks, it will have a negative impact on many economies — especially within the EU. It will hasten defaults by several governments and the probable breakup of the Euro zone. (If there is no conflict, I expect the same to happen by the end of the year anyhow. Spain and Greece are going to go into default, and France and Italy may join them. The debt loads are unsustainable and default is inevitable. It is simply a matter of time, and an oil crisis would move it forward.)
Fallout of European defaults will not be pretty. It will cause significant hiccups in both the Chinese and US economies. It might be enough to trigger a slide into a global depression.
3) Depending on timing, this will have an effect on the US elections. Late in the fall, it will likely aid in Obama’s re-election as the decisive commander-in-chief will be the image voters will have going to the polls. Between now and late September will give time for the economy to slide, and that might well be in Romney’s favor.
Black swan events could change a lot of this, of course. My personal “favorites” involve major earthquakes (California, New Madrid fault, Istanbul, China); major eruption of Katla in Iceland, shutting down air travel across Europe; conflict involving Pakistan (accidental war with India or internal rebellion); major solar storm that damages electrical transmission systems in North America or Europe. There are undoubtedly others (that is part of the definition of Black Swan!), but any one of those would be sufficient to make the world situation much more complicated.
There are also the troubling issues of what happens if the al Assad regime uses its chemical weapons, or allows them to fall into the hands of jihadists. Or any scenario with Iran where they start lobbing ballistic missiles into Israel, even if only armed with conventional warheads. The results of either would be very ugly: Israel does allegedly have nuclear weapons, and the hardliners in charge will strike back, hard, at any perceived existential threat. The follow-on to something like that would be very bad.
Overall, I expect the rest of this year to be interesting.
My sincere hope is that I’m totally wrong. After all, my day job is computing. But if not, you read it here.
You may now return to your lolcats, Pinterest, and competing rants about the economy.