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While U.S. focuses on politics, Iran plays geopolitical chess

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Amidst the swirl of the presidential primary season in the United States and thus the blurring of the international news focus, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been on a political campaign swing of his own throughout Latin America.

But while the Islamic Republic relentlessly pursues the nuclear genie, and the West has met the challenge through incremental economic sanctions, now it appears Tehran may be willing to up the geopolitical stakes.

Ahmadinejad’s friendship tour to Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba to visit Chavez, Ortega and the Castro Brothers hardly builds a powerful diplomatic coalition. Still, having the Iranian leader on America’s southern doorstep sends a political warning that Teheran is capable of meddling in hemispheric affairs.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves as he exits a plane upon arrival at an air force base in Quito, Ecuador on Jan. 12. /Martin Jaramillo/AP

Clearly Iran is on the cusp of becoming a nuclear weapons state. Given the apocalyptic pronouncements that the Islamic Republic would willfully use atomic weapons to obliterate Israel, observers are warned that the mullah regime views a nuclear first strike not only as an option, but as a messianic duty. The ramifications are chillingly obvious and the counter-response must be calculated.

Thus far the West’s debate over Iran has been focused on stopping nuclear proliferation through tightening sanctions. In response to widening concerns over the nuclear program, European Union countries will impose an embargo on Iranian oil. And in a show solidarity with Washington, Japan has stated that it will reduce its crude oil imports from Iran.

Thus the mullahs may wish to change the template. Facing the threat of tighter economic sanctions, the Teheran regime’s characteristic bluster has gone ballistic by threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, the petroleum jugular vein for the USA, Western Europe and Japan, not to mention the Arab oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates who rely on the maritime route for their own oil exports. In other words even if there are fewer buyers for Iranian oil, the demand for Arab oil will increase.

Nearly forty percent of the world’s tanker-borne petroleum transits this maritime chokepoint.

By recklessly threatening to block international waters and thus close vital oil shipping lanes Iran is giving the West, especially the United States and Europe, a classic casus belli, for military action. Such a move by Teheran may actually score its own goal in a number of ways, least of all inviting a strong counter punch by the U.S. Navy.

Nonetheless Iran must also export its own oil through the Straits. Why would Teheran shut off its own lucrative exports? Moreover while it’s easy to threaten the European and Japanese petroleum lifeline, closing this maritime artery will also block petroleum shipments to a key customer and diplomatic ally, the People’s Republic of China. Somehow I doubt if Beijing will take such rhetoric or action as a joke.

As mentioned earlier, Iran’s action would also block vital petroleum exports from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and a host of other producers who would then look to the U.S. Navy as the protector of their commerce.

Teheran’s mullahs are playing a high stakes game of geopolitical chess. During the American presidential election year, and despite the military draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan, it would appear that Washington is politically immobilized from any decisive action. Yet, the Obama Administration’s indecisive policies towards Islamic Iran thus far, would be reprieved and given the near-golden political opportunity to confront this military challenge and score major domestic political points as well.

Iran probably would be wiser to pursue the diplomatic path in the United Nations where desultory diplomacy in the Security Council will pose a threat but hardly a crippling counter move to Iran’s ambitions. In the diplomatic arena, Teheran can still count on Moscow and probably Beijing to use their veto to stop any serious draft resolutions.

Still in this game of geopolitical chess, Iran may be willing to lose some valuable pieces on the board as to ensure the time necessary to create a nuclear weapon as to checkmate its regional foes and intimidate the world.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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