Politics & Policy

High-Stakes Poker in the Persian Gulf

There may be more to Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors than meets the eye.

Earlier this week, Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei began preparing public opinion for Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear-nonproliferation regime. Today we have reports that the Iranians detained 15 British seamen. These and other incidents appear to be unconnected — but they may not be. The moment of truth in the Iranian nuclear standoff is drawing near. And the Security Council route nearly exhausted, so a big part of the standoff is about to go largely off-camera. Already, things are not what they seem.

First of all: Don’t necessarily believe what the British say about what those sailors were up to when they were detained. There’s probably a 90-percent chance they will tell the truth, but there is often a lot more to these international “incidents” than meets the eye. The British will say that their sailors were in Iraqi waters and the Iranians had no business being where they were. But the Iranians are unlikely to have provoked an international incident under circumstances as clear-cut as that. And in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Iranians were actually responding, in this case, to a carefully planned provocation of our own. As Churchill said, sometimes the truth is so precious that she must be attended by a bodyguard of lies.

Recall the context: The Security Council route for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program has clearly failed. The U.S. and its partners now have few options for responding to Iran’s continued belligerence besides the current, fairly massive, naval and airpower buildup in the Gulf. Iran now has a Western armada cruising just miles from its coasts, in waters well within its Economic Exploitation Zone — which means that U.S. Navy destroyers are probably waltzing around within Frisbee range of Iranian offshore-drilling platforms. The gloves are coming off. And the risk-calculation here is: If someone gets nervous and starts shooting, the timing would be more auspicious now for us than for the Iranians. Therefore, it only makes sense that American and British naval units operating in the Gulf would be in a more forward-leaning and aggressive posture than the Iranians.

In this climate, it is important to understand the threat delivered this week by Ali Khamenei. The regime’s basic position is that Iran has kept its nuclear program entirely legal, but now the “illegitimate” Security Council is taking actions against Iran that are “illegal” and therefore Iran would be justified in taking illegal actions of its own.

This is what is really going on. Under the U.N. Charter, Iran is treaty-bound to obey the commandments of the Security Council. The Security Council has commanded it to halt enrichment of uranium pending the verification of the peaceful nature of its program. Iran has rejected this decision, and indeed has arguably abrogated the U.N. Charter entirely. So it is simply untrue that Iran’s program has been legal to date. Up until 2002, the main elements of the program were secret — a fact that in and of itself was a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And now, by refusing to obey the Security Council, Iran is once again in breach of the Treaty — and the U.N. Charter.

Now here’s the rub: Iran has permitted inspections of its known nuclear facilities during the “development” phase of the full nuclear-fuel cycle. It is enriching uranium at pilot plants in miniscule quantities that are insignificant from a bomb-making point of view. Until now it hasn’t been able to enrich large quantities of uranium to any level, so it has no reason to hide anything. But in a matter of months Iran will be ready to launch its commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natantz. It will then be in a position to enrich enough uranium all the way to weapons-grade to start manufacturing warheads. The one thing it will need to do at that point is expel the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who will otherwise know immediately if Iran starts enriching to weapons-grade. Therefore, if the program is to continue proceeding along the most rapid route to weapons production — as it has done for years — Iran will need to pull a veil over its big enrichment facilities as soon as they are ready to launch. Khamenei’s statements earlier this week where a thinly-veiled threat to do precisely that.

The threat has military significance, and it would be both prudent and appropriate for the Americans and their allies to have responded militarily — if only by “leaning forward” a bit more. The Persian Gulf is now one big game of chicken. When the Iranians get belligerent, we have to respond in kind. Iran is getting ready to expel the IAEA inspectors. The United States needs to make it clear that the expulsion of the inspectors will be considered an act of aggression, and that we will respond appropriately.  

So, long story short: It wouldn’t surprise me if the British sailors were detained because the British did something to make the Iranians really angry. Khamanei dramatically upped the ante this week. We probably raised. And they probably raised back. The stakes in this nuclear-poker game just got a little higher. 

Mario Loyola is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program of Florida International University, and a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute of George Mason University. The opinions expressed in this column are his alone.


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