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Against the tide: Iran – A threatening backdrop

Eurozone moves to resolve the euro crisis are propitious for global markets. But an Israeli attack on Iran this autumn would undermine economic recovery.

The European Central Bank and European Financial Stability Facility’s promise to buy the debt of Spain and Italy is a step towards resolving part of the euro crisis and should be bullish for global markets if it happens during September. But there is also a threatening backdrop to this more positive prospect: the high likelihood this autumn of conflict with Iran.

At first glance, military action against Iran looks unlikely. Israel seems isolated in the Middle East and the US military is overstretched, at least until the end of next year, when the bulk of US troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. Even if the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has made progress in its nuclear programme are accepted, the country is still some way off becoming a nuclear power. So there are plenty of measures short of war that can still be applied against Tehran.

No time to lose

But the Israelis, who unleashed the latest rumours about an impending military strike, see matters differently. For them, there is no time to lose because Iran might have already mastered all the required nuclear technology.

Iran appears to have overcome the most difficult technical obstacle: the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade purity. There are indications that the Iranians are readying their Shahab-3 missiles to carry nuclear payloads. And they are busy moving their key nuclear installations to Fordow, an impregnable mountain complex near the city of Qom.

The Israelis argue that, far from hindering a military attack, the current turmoil in the Middle East offers the best opportunity for one. For the Arab Spring has weakened not only the region’s pro-western rulers, but also Iran’s proxies. Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally, is in turmoil. Hizbollah, the Shi’ite militia in Lebanon, can no longer rely on regular supplies of cash and weapons. And Hamas, the Palestinian movement in Gaza, has just begun to deal with Israel directly. The Israelis believe that the Iranians would not be able to use their allies to lash back should a strike on Iran take place soon.

Brent crude oil price
Dollars per barrel
Source: Datastream

Nor is Israel persuaded that, in response to an attack, Iran would carry out its other main threat: to close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, a passageway for about 40% of the world’s oil-tanker traffic. Mining the Strait would not be easy; the US Fifth Fleet, based in nearby Bahrain, would be certain to respond to such an Iranian move. Besides, the real victim from an oil shutdown would not be the west, but China, now the Middle East’s single-biggest oil customer and one of Iran’s chief UN Security Council protectors.

Israel accepts that a military strike cannot terminate Iran’s nuclear quest, but believes it can delay it. What Israel does not possess is the ability to escalate any attack with conventional weapons. Should the Iranians retaliate by firing missiles at Israeli cities, Israel would quickly be faced with the need to threaten Iran with its own nuclear weapons.

Uncomfortable friend

For this reason alone, Israel is still hoping that the US will be persuaded to undertake its own strike against Iranian nuclear installations. But the Israelis are also uncomfortable with their dependency on the US. Although they trust this ally, it has been an article of faith of the Jewish state since its creation that it will always have the ability to look after its own security and will never sub-contract this to others.

And there is the suspicion that once president Barack Obama is re-elected (as seems likely), he will no longer have any reason to listen to the pro-Israeli lobby since he cannot seek office beyond a second term and Israel’s ability to influence events will be diminished, at least for a number of crucial years.

No final decision on an attack has been taken in Israel. But I reckon that the chances are still that it will take place before the US presidential elections, perhaps in October. Even Israeli president Shimon Peres, a noted moderate, gently told media correspondents recently that "the possibility of a military strike on Iran is more likely to be realized than the diplomatic option".

If an attack takes place, a spike in crude oil prices towards $150 a barrel is likely. If that spike persists, it will add greatly to the difficulty of sustaining economic recovery in the world’s biggest economies.

David Roche is president of Independent Strategy Ltd, a London-based research firm.

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