It would certainly be an irony if the US “withdrawal” from Iraq (which really isn’t, with hundreds of military advisors and thousands of private contractors staying behind, and the Pentagon set to augment its troop presence in the Gulf region) only wound up sparking a US military confrontation with Iran. There are growing signs of fear of Iranian power over Iraq, and of a backlash from Sunnis and secularists. On Dec. 27, three leading members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition had an op-ed in the New York Times, “How to Save Iraq From Civil War.” The writers are Iraqiya leader and ex-prime minister Ayad Allawi (actually a Shi’ite but an ex-Baathist); parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi; and finance minister Rafe al-Essawi. They appeal to Washington to pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stop hoarding power in violation of power-sharing agreements, and are quick to play the Iran card. They charge: “Maliki is welcoming into the political process the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, whose leaders kidnapped and killed five American soldiers and murdered four British hostages in 2007.”
Iraq’s sectarian war predictably appears to be heating up amid this power struggle. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for last week’s coordinated terror blasts in Baghdad. The communiqué displayed greater ire for Iran than the US, the attackers warning that they “know where and when to strike and the mujahedeen will never stand with their hands tied while the pernicious Iranian project shows its ugly face.” (AP, Dec. 27)
The growing tensions in Iraq come as Tehran is warning that the Islamic Republic could blockade the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed on its exports of crude oil, as proposed by Western powers as punishment for lack of cooperation on its nuclear program. This would, of course, block exports from the Iraqi port of Basra as well as from the Gulf mini-states, and put a pinch on Saudi exports. To demonstrate its intent, Iran is holding a 10-day military exercise at the mouth of the strait and into the Arabian Sea, with some elements playing the role of enemy forces. “Western diplomats describe the maneuvers as further evidence of Iran’s volatile behavior, following the occupation of the British Embassy in Tehran,” writes CNN, Dec. 28.
Simultaneously, the trial of a US national of Iranian decent accused of working for the CIA opened at a Tehran court. Amir Mirzai Hekmati is charged with cooperating “with the hostile US government and the US espionage services of the CIA.” Tehran’s Intelligence Ministry announced his arrest on Dec. 17. In a confession aired by Iranian state TV the following day, Hekmati admitted to trying to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence services for the CIA. His parents in Michigan say he was in Iran visiting relatives, and the confession was coerced. (RTT News, Dec. 27; Detroit Free Press, Dec. 20)
Not surprisingly, the New York Times reports Dec. 28:
The Obama administration is moving ahead with the sale of nearly $11 billion worth of arms and training for the Iraqi military despite concerns that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is seeking to consolidate authority, create a one-party Shiite-dominated state and abandon the American-backed power-sharing government.The military aid, including advanced fighter jets and battle tanks, is meant to help the Iraqi government protect its borders and rebuild a military that before the 1991 Persian Gulf war was one of the largest in the world…
The NY Times reported the very next day that the Obama administration has announced a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, “saying it had agreed to sell F-15 fighter jets valued at nearly $30 billion to the Royal Saudi Air Force.” While the US poses as the defender of pro-democracy forces in Libya and Syria, it rewards the despotic Saudi monarchy for its aggression against the protest movement in neighboring Bahrain (where, incidentally, the protesters are mostly Shi’ites, portrayed by the regime as tools of Iranian subversion).
In a more long-term but likely related development, the US seems to be striving to position itself as a “petroleum power”—presumably, to counter-balance Iran and its patron Russia. Writes OilPrice.com Dec. 29:
On average in 2008, we had been importing about 1.8 million barrels per day more [of petroleum products] than we exported. So far in the second half of 2011, the difference has swung to an average positive net export balance of 0.4 million barrels per day. The exports are coming in the form of diesel and gasoline that is being sold all over the world, with the top 10 buyers in terms of growth of demand for U.S. products being Mexico, Netherlands, Chile, Canada, Spain, Brazil, Guatemala, Turkey, Argentina, and France.
Rather than secure new sources of oil, the US is capitalizing on its ability to control markets in refined petroleum products. We pointed out in October that the global oil price neared $100 on fears of US or Israeli aggression against Iran. AP informs us Dec. 29 that crude now stands at $99.65 per barrel.
Our skepticism about claims that Israel would attack Iran by year’s end are now vindicated. But the global struggle for control of oil—which has motivated Washington’s Iraq adventure from the start—may yet propel the empire itself into a military conflict with Iran. As illusory as the Iraq “withdrawal” is, fear is palpable of Iran filling the even partial vacuum, and gaining sway over the world’s most strategic oil reserves.